By the 1500's the church, headquartered in Rome, had become a major power, spending huge sums of money on art, buildings, and luxuries for leaders. This money came from taxes people paid on crops or land and from the sale of indulgences (payments believed to release people from punishment for their sins).
As the church's demands for money increased, professional indulgence sellers wandered throughout Europe. This was widely resented. A growing spirit of nationalism (interest in one's own country) was present throughout much of Europe, and many people were less willing to support the church in Rome.
The Reformation was the movement in which some countries began to break away from Rome. If one could date its beginning to a specific time and place, it would be October 31, 1517. That was when Martin Luther (1483–1546), a German monk and theology professor, posted 95 propositions in Wittenberg, Germany, inviting theological debate on the sale of indulgences.
Luther believed that the whole system of indulgences was wrong and was contrary to the Bible, especially the writings of Saint Paul. According to Saint Paul, salvation is assured simply by faith in God's love and mercy. Luther soon won numerous German princes to his side, who saw the movement as an opportunity to weaken Rome's power over their country. Luther's translation of the Bible into German also helped spread his teachings, as more people could read scripture for the first time.
In 1521, after much debate with papal authorities, Luther was excommunicated (deprived of the sacraments and the rights of church membership) from the Catholic Church.
Other leaders of the Reformation, or Protestant, movement included Huldreich Zwingli (1484–1531), a pastor in Zurich, Switzerland; John Knox (1513?–72), a Scottish minister who lived in Geneva; and John Calvin (1509–64), a native of Picardy, France. Calvin, who had escaped to Geneva after being charged with heresy in his home country, developed a form of Protestantism (Calvinism) that had a great impact on the United States and Europe. (In France, Calvin's followers were called Huguenots.) A major doctrine of Calvinism was that God alone determined the destiny—salvation or damnation—of human souls. Humans could do nothing to save themselves.
In England, the factors leading to the Reformation were more political than religious. King Henry VIII (1491–1547) wished to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon. Not only had they failed to produce a male heir, but Henry also wanted to marry Anne Boleyn, a lady of the court. When Pope Clement VII refused to grant a divorce, Henry decided to reject papal authority and make himself head of the English church. Conflict over reform in the English church continued after his death.
Under the boy-king Edward VI (1537–53), greater reforms were adopted, only to be undone when Mary I (1516–58) turned back to Catholicism. During the long reign of her successor, Elizabeth I (1533–1603), the Church of England reached a compromise, resulting in a church (called Anglican or Episcopal) that combined elements of Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. This was possible because no single theologian such as Luther or Calvin ever dominated the English church. In 1611 it also issued the most famous English translation of the Bible, the King James Version, which is still widely used today.
Although successful only in northern Europe, the Reformation made inroads throughout much of the continent at various times. In southern and eastern Europe, however, Catholicism retained its strength. This was largely because the Reformation had led to the Counter, or Catholic, Reformation.
The Counter Reformation was an attempt by individuals within the Catholic Church to reform it and correct abuses. Leading this movement was the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) founded by the Spanish priest and former soldier Saint Ignatius of Loyola (1491–1556). Many of these reforms were formalized by the Council of Trent (1545–63). The Council did much to strengthen Catholicism and to create modern Roman Catholicism.
The Reformation and Counter Reformation sparked years of war, persecution, and violence. During the Thirty Years'War (1618–48), nearly half the population of the German states died from the conflict or from the accompanying famine and disease. When the war ended with the Peace of Westphalia, Europe found itself religiously divided between Catholics and Protestants. Southern Europe—Italy, France, Spain, and Portugal—remained Catholic, as did Austria, southern Germany, Poland, Slovenia and Croatia, and the Low Countries (present-day Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands). Protestantism dominated in England, Scotland, northern Germany, northern Holland, the Scandinavian countries, and Bohemia (part of the present-day Czech Republic) and Hungary. In eastern Europe and Greece, the Orthodox Church continued on its course, relatively untroubled by events on the rest of the continent.
The religious wars of the 1500's and 1600's helped usher in the Enlightenment, a period characterized by fresh views of religion and society. During this time, thinkers such as Montesquieu (1689–1755), John Locke (1632–1704), Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716), and others argued that religion was a private matter and not a governmental concern. Others saw the damage that religious wars had inflicted on economies and argued that religious differences should not interfere with business. Still others asserted that the human mind was created free by God and that the individual conscience should not, and could not, be coerced. Many rejected the idea that the state should enforce religious conformity according to its ruler's religious views.
The Dutch were among the earliest to accept the notion of religious tolerance, but only informally. Legal measures favoring religious tolerance were first adopted in England. Although the Church of England would (and still does) remain the state church, toleration (a government policy of allowing unsanctioned forms of worship and belief) was granted to all Protestants in 1689. Catholics would not receive full religious and political freedom until 1829, a remnant of the Reformation-era conflicts.
Meanwhile, conflicts between Catholics and Protestants and between different sects of Protestantism dominated Europe into the 1700's. When Europeans arrived in the New World, Catholicism was the religion of Europe and the first European settlements were therefore Catholic. With the Reformation, the New World became a source of conflict between Protestant England and Catholic Spain and France. In British North America, different sects of Protestantism clashed. In New England, the Puritans attempted to create a religiously pure commonwealth, while the Church of England was established in many colonies. New York, which passed from Swedish to Dutch to British control, saw its religious establishment change from Lutheranism to Dutch Reformed to the Church of England.
Maryland, established as a haven for Catholics, adopted a policy of toleration for all Christians. This was short-lived, however, and the Church of England was established there in 1702. Of all the colonies, only Pennsylvania and Rhode Island practiced religious tolerance and were without established religions. This changed soon after the creation of the United States. Because the U.S. Constitution guaranteed freedom of religion, religious liberty expanded greatly.
At this time also, the European powers—primarily France, Spain, England, and Portugal—were colonizing other parts of the Western Hemisphere, as well as Africa and parts of Asia. They also introduced Christianity. While the Christianization of Asia was relatively unsuccessful, with the exception of the Philippines, Christianity would become a major religion in much of Africa.
During the 1900's, increased religious tolerance gave rise to the ecumenical movement, which sought to overcome the differences that had splintered Christianity. The movement became stronger after the World Council of Churches was established in 1948 to promote unity among churches. By the year 2000 the council had over 337 member denominations representing over 400 million members on six continents.
Although it did not join the World Council, the Roman Catholic Church responded to the spirit of ecumenism and tolerance at the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II, 1962–65). This council transformed the church's relationship to the modern world and acknowledged the need for interreligious discussion and collaboration. Two of its pronouncements, the "Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions" (Nostra Aetate) and the "Declaration on Religious Freedom" (Dignitatis Humanae), altered its opposition to other religious traditions and ended its hostility to religious liberty and church-state separation.
The separation of church and state has freed Christians to become more politically active, often in opposition to government policies. During the 1960's and 1970's, for example, churches played a major role in the civil rights movement (the struggle for equal rights for African Americans). Toward the end of the 1900's, Christians were at the forefront of the human rights movement, and in Poland the Catholic Church played a major role in the fight against Communism.
At the same time, the end of the 1900's saw the rise of a fundamentalist Protestantism. Committed to a literal reading of the Christian Bible, these Christians rejected the theory of evolution, ecumenism, and the scientific view of the universe's creation. In the United States they played a significant role in political affairs, forming the right wing of the Republican party. Fundamentalist Protestantism also found a niche in Central and South America, where its emphasis on personal morality and hard work found a growing audience among the region's poorest people.
Today, Christianity faces several realities and challenges. The collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe has opened up some countries to new forms of Christianity and has also revitalized their traditional Christian forms. In other countries, particularly Egypt and Sudan, Christianity is encountering a stronger and faster-growing Islam. Whether these religions can peacefully coexist remains an open question.
Contributor, The Encyclopedia of American Religious History