One of the greatest of all revolutions was the 16th-century religious revolt known as the Reformation. This stormy, often brutal, conflict separated the Christians of Western Europe into Protestants and Catholics. So far-reaching were the results of the separation that the Reformation has been called a turning point in history. It ushered in the Modern Age because, once the people's religious unity was destroyed, they began to think in terms of their own regional interests. From the diversity of those interests arose new political, social, and economic problems and beliefs.
Background of the Revolt
At the start of the 16th century Western Europe had only one religion, Roman Catholicism. The Catholic Church was rich and powerful and had preserved Europe's classical culture. However, despite General Councils called to impose reforms, disputes and lax practices had grown up within the church. People criticized the administration of the church and began to doubt some of its teachings. For example, the church insisted that it alone had the authority to interpret the meaning of the Bible for the people. As early as the 14th century, however, John Wycliffe, an English priest and teacher at Oxford University, declared that people had the right to read the Bible and interpret it for themselves. Despite protests by the church, followers of Wycliffe translated the Bible from Latin into English in 1382 and carried copies throughout the countryside. Wycliffe's ideas spread into Bohemia, where Jan Hus widely preached them in powerful sermons. The work of Wycliffe and Hus greatly influenced a Saxon monk named Martin Luther.
Luther Sparks Revolt in Germany
Luther became the leader of the Reformation in Germany. For some years he had protested that some of the clergy were selling indulgences (pardons of sins) without making clear that people must also be sincerely repentant for those sins. He especially attacked the monk Johann Tetzel for deceiving the people. In 1517 the angry Luther wrote a list of 95 theses against indulgences and nailed them to the door of the church in Wittenberg. Luther developed new ideas opposed to the church. He rejected the authority of the pope and--like Wycliffe and Hus before him--set up the Bible as the sole source of Christian truth. He denied that priests had any power that laymen did not have. He declared that the vows taken by monks and nuns were not binding and that monasteries should be abolished. He rejected the celibacy of the clergy. Of the seven sacraments Luther kept only two--baptism and the Lord's Supper (Eucharist).
The Reformation was partly an outgrowth of the Renaissance. The uneasy political situation in Europe also helped to extend the religious revolt because many local rulers wanted their independence from the emperor Charles V. Finally, many tradesmen and peasants were seeking more rights from rulers and landlords and resented the church because they believed that it favored their oppressors. Throughout Western Europe there was unrest. Luther's challenge of old religious doctrines and traditions became a rallying point for these forces of discontent and provided a motive for breaking established ties. Widely different groups--from princes to peasants--hailed him as their own special leader. Gradually, however, they all saw that he was not working for any special group, and so by 1530 many of his followers had drifted away from him. By that time, however, the Reformation had spread beyond the control even of Luther.
A great event in the Reformation occurred in 1529, when the word Protestant was first used formally. In Germany the Diet of Speyer decreed that changes of religion must stop and that the authority of the Catholic Church be restored. The Lutheran minority in the Diet signed a protest against that decree, however. From this protest comes the modern term for the religious denominations of Protestantism
The fury and suffering of war added to the turmoil of the Reformation through the end of the Thirty Years' War in 1648. Time and again Charles V fought to uphold the Holy Roman Empire and the Catholic Church against the claims of France and the German princes. But he needed their aid as he battled the Muslims who had advanced to the doors of Germany. Then he fought the Schmalkaldic War (1546-47). Although he defeated the Protestants, he could not turn back the movement of the Reformation.
The Lutheran faith spread chiefly in northern Germany and in Scandinavia. The Swiss were influenced early by Huldrych Zwingli, but like the French and Dutch they drew their Protestantism from a movement led by John Calvin a generation later. From this grew the zealous work of John Knox, who brought Presbyterianism to Scotland. The English Reformation began in 1533 when Henry VIII broke with the pope, who had refused to annul Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon. The introduction of Protestant doctrine in the Church of England, however, did not take place until 1549, during the reign of Edward VI.
Catholic Church authorities underestimated the extent of the Reformation at first, considering it just another dissension or schism. Soon, however, they saw the movement spreading from one country to another. The church took action. From 1545 to 1563 the Council of Trent issued decrees to correct abuses and to reaffirm ancient doctrines and traditions. The most vigorous program was set up by the Society of Jesus, commonly called the Jesuits. This order was started in 1534 by Ignatius of Loyola, a Spanish nobleman and soldier who had become a monk. The Jesuit order was sanctioned by the pope in 1540. By the close of the 16th century the Roman Catholic Church had regained the faith of the people in half of the lands it had lost to Protestantism. Europe was then divided between the two forms of Christianity along almost the same lines that exist today.
Why has it been referred to as a turning point in history?
Background of the Revolt
At the start of the 16th century, what was the only form of Christianity in Europe?
Who was one of the first people to revolt against the church (as early as the 14th century) and what did he do?
Who was influenced by the work of Wycliffe and Hus?
Luther Sparks Revolt in Germany
Why is Martin Luther remembered?
What is your best interpretation of what “indulgences” were?
What specific things was Luther against?
Other Reasons for the Reformation
What other major movement helped cause the Reformation and why?
Why did Luther lose some of his followers by 1530?
Memorable Events in the Reformation
What does “Protestant” mean and when was it first used?
How did the English Reformation begin?
The Catholic Counter-Reformation
Why did the Catholic Church finally decide to reform itself?
What specific things did the Church do?
The last line of the essay reads “Europe was then divided between the two forms of Christianity” What were the two forms of Christianity that divided Europe (and the Western world) and still does today?