The Reformation

The Reformation in Europe

The Reformation

The Reformation was the movement in the religious life of western Europe in the 16th century which resulted in the formation of the Protestant Church. At earlier periods there had been a feeling that conditions in the leadership of Christendom needed improvement and attempts at betterment were made along two distinct lines. The first was through the efforts of individual men, monastic orders and general councils to bring about changes for the better within the Church. Such a movement was undertaken by the Reforming Councils of Pisa, Constance and Basel in the 15th century where an unsuccessful attempt was made to reform the Church in head and members. The second way in which efforts had been made to improve the condition of Christendom was to form separate organizations outside of the Roman Catholic Church such as the Albigenses and Waldenses. These early separatist movements were not of any great importance because they affected only a comparatively small number of the Christians of Europe. These efforts to reform the Church from within and to establish other churches outside of Roman Catholicism had not met with success as the 15th century came to its close. The papal chair had been occupied for half a century by men who were more interested in the revival of learning and Italian politics than they were in giving Christendom the kind of leadership which it needed. Some of the popes contributed largely to the success of the Renaissance. Some were indifferent to religion and of immoral lives. The Reformation of the 16th century started as an effort to bring about reforms within the Roman Catholic Church, and it was only after this seemed impossible that the leaders withdrew from organized Roman Catholicism.

There are a number of reasons why the separation from the Church and the formation of a new organization met with success in the 16th century when the earlier efforts had failed. Most important of all was the revival of learning. Men were thinking for themselves as they had not before for centuries. The invention of printing brought about wide diffusion of knowledge. There was an opportunity through the study of the writings of the Early Church fathers to compare the Church of the first centuries in its belief and organization with the Church of the 16th century. It was evident to students that there was a wide difference between the two. The circulation of the New Testament also tended to bring about a diversity of opinion on religious matters. There was a growth of the national feeling in some of the nations of Europe, and an increasing desire that ecclesiastical affairs be handled within the nation rather than by the distant papacy, especially as the popes were involved in European politics. There was also a group of men who were fitted for leadership in the establishment of a separate Church. These men were able to accomplish what they did because of the growing consciousness that the Church as then organized and governed was not meeting the needs of the times, nor was it furnishing the moral and spiritual leadership which it had given in earlier centuries.

The Reformation began in Germany through the work of Martin Luther. A peasant by birth and a university graduate, he desired to make sure of his own salvation. He became an Augustinian monk and practised all the austerities of the order but did not find assurance of salvation. Through the help of friends in the order, by his study of the German mystics, and especially through the study of the New Testament he came to the belief that a man is not justified by works but by faith alone in Jesus Christ. Justification by faith came to be the foundation of his theology. He became professor in the University of Wittenberg and preached in that city. While he was here, the indulgence seller, Tetzel, began his work near Wittenberg and Luther preached against the sale of indulgences because it was contrary to his conception of salvation by faith in Jesus Christ. On 31 Oct. 1517 he posted his 95 theses, in this way stating his own position on the subject and challenging to a debate. This brought him into conflict with the papal authorities and it was found that there were great numbers in Germany who accepted his views. Efforts were made to bring him back to the Church but in vain. His further study of the New Testament and the Church Fathers led him to take views directly antagonistic to the papacy. He taught that a general council could make mistakes, that all Christians were priests before God and that in matters of doctrine the papacy had departed from the teachings of the Bible. He was excommunicated and at the will of Emperor Charles V, placed under the ban of the empire but continued to be the leading spirit in the German Reformation. His most important assistant was his fellow-teacher at Wittenberg, Phillip Melancthon, the thinker and scholar of the Reformation as Luther was the aggressive leader. The Reformation spread rapidly after 1517 but was somewhat checked in 1524-25 by the Peasant Revolt because, in the minds of many, Luther’s preaching led directly to such outbreaks. Luther’s marriage also alienated some of his followers who did not believe that monastic vows ought to be broken. Efforts were made repeatedly at the German diets to come to some agreement but in vain. Feeling between Catholics and Lutherans became more bitter till war broke out between them, which was settled by the Peace of Augsburg in 1555 by which it was agreed that each prince should have it in his power to decide the religion of his people. The principle was expressed in the words cujus regio ejus religo. Another part of the agreement was the Ecclesiastical Reservation, according to which if an ecclesiastical prince changed his religion he must resign his benefices. This settled the ecclesiastical question in Germany for nearly a hundred years, but was unsatisfactory because it gave no room for the growing numbers of Christians outside of the Catholic and Lutheran bodies.

Meanwhile a similar movement was going on in Switzerland under the leadership of Ulrich Zwingli. He was a humanist and a great admirer of Erasmus. His study of the Bible led him to question some of the teachings of the Church and while preaching at the cathedral at Zürich he presented his new views. To settle the kind of preaching which should be allowed at Zürich a public disputation was held and the city government decided in favor of the Reformation. Similar action was taken by other cities of German Switzerland. The Lutheran and Swiss reformatory views were much alike, but with some striking differences. In order that there might be united and harmonious action by the two, a conference was arranged between the leaders of the two divisions at Marburg in 1529. They could agree on all points except on the Lord’s Supper, the followers of Zwingli looking upon it as a memorial, while the Lutherans insisted upon the literal sense of the words, “This is my body,” holding to the actual presence of the body and blood of Christ in the bread and wine but not to the change of the elements into the body and blood. All later attempts to bring about an agreement between the Swiss or Reformed branch and the Lutherans failed. The Swiss forest cantons remained Catholic while the city cantons accepted the Reformation. There were other disagreements of a political nature so that war broke out and Zwingli was killed at the battle of Cappel in 1531. Zürich continued to be important as a centre for the propagation of the Reformation, but the leadership of the Reformed Church passed to Geneva.

There were many who believed that the Lutherans and Reformed did not go far enough in their rejection of error, and dependence upon the New Testament. These radical reformers were known as Anabaptists, because most of them rejected infant baptism and held that believers only should be baptized. They varied in life and belief from the learned and saintly humanist, Hubmaier, to the fanatic, John of Leyden. They were persecuted by Protestants and Catholics and many of them died as martyrs. The worst side of the movement appeared in the city of Münster, where an Anabapist kingdom was established and polygamy was introduced. The large majority of the Anabaptists were sincere Christians, intent upon following the simple teaching of the Bible. They are the spiritual ancestors of millions of our present-day Christians.

In France there was no leading figure in the early days of the Reformation corresponding to Luther and Zwingli. The nearest approach to this was Jean Jacques Lefèvre, better known perhaps by his Latinized name, Faber Stapulensis, who was the leading humanist of his day in France. He came to a belief in justification by faith rather than by works before Luther did, and his translation of the New Testament into French greatly aided the Reformation. One of his pupils was Brigonnet, bishop of Meaux, who undertook reformatory work in his own diocese and invited preachers of Reformed views to assist. He never went so far as to break with Roman Catholicism and when protests were made against the preachers he had brought in he ordered them to withdraw. But the work which had been begun went on in secret in Meaux and in other parts of France. Faber never withdrew from the Roman Catholic Church.

The attitude of the French king, Francis I, varied from time to time according to political exigencies, but became more hostile to Protestantism as time went on. He was greatly disturbed by the Peasant Revolt in Germany, fearing that the spread of the new faith might bring anarchy into his own country. In his closing years the laws against heresy were rigidly enforced but Protestantism continued to spread. The great growth of Protestantism in France came after the Frenchman, John Calvin, became master of Geneva and made that city the centre of the Reformed branch of Protestantism. Frenchmen went to Geneva and returned to their homeland to distribute copies of the New Testament and to preach, when they knew that they risked their lives by so doing. The persecuted Christians were organized into churches under the direction of Calvin. The Presbyterian system was established and even in the days of persecution a national organization was effected. The French Protestants were called Huguenots and became a political as well as religious party. As in so many other nations of Europe, war broke out between the followers of the two faiths. These wars succeeded each other rapidly for a period of half a century with varying results. Finally Henry of Navarre became king. He was a Protestant, but to put an end to the civil wars he became a Roman Catholic. In 1598 he published the Edict of Nantes which gave a limited toleration to the Huguenots and under which they increased in numbers for nearly a century.

A second and more important branch of the French Reformation was that which had Geneva as its centre. Geneva had accepted the Reformation principally through the efforts of French evangelists of whom William Farel was the leader. He attempted to make the people of Geneva live up to their professions but was unable to do so. The work which he began was carried on by John Calvin in such a way that Geneva became the model city of Protestant Christendom. John Calvin was famous before his coming to Geneva as the author of the ‘Institutes,’ a book which more than any other became the textbook of the Reformed Church. Calvin fled from France because of the persecution and hoped to find some city where he could spend his life in scholarly work for the Reformation. On his journey he chanced to come to Geneva to pass the night. Farel was trying to organize the Church and he persuaded Calvin to assist him. After a prolonged conflict Calvin gained control of the city. He reorganized the Church under the eldership system by which ministers and lay elders had control of the spiritual affairs of the city. He established theological lectureships, thus making possible an educated ministry. Geneva became the educational centre of the Reformed Church and large numbers of men, fleeing from persecution in England, the Netherlands, France and other parts of Europe, came to Geneva, studied under Calvin and carried his theology and form of Church organization back to their home lands.

The Reformation came early into the Netherlands because of its close commericcial and political connection with Germany. Charles V attempted to put a stop to the spread of the movement but the laws against heresy were not executed with strictness in his reign. His son Philip II entered upon a more vigorous policy of persecution and through the Duke of Alva and his successors tried in vain to suppress the political and religious liberties of the Netherlands. The great leader in the struggle for independence was William of Orange, at first a Catholic and in his later years a member of the Reformed Church. The inquisition of the Spanish type was introduced and the laws of the country were suspended. Persons accused of heresy were executed by the hundreds. Philip resolved to root out heresy even if it meant the ruin of the country. In vain the best generals in Spain were sent to overcome the resistance of the people. Under the guidance of William of Orange the northern provinces which were almost wholly Protestant declared their independence of Spain, which was finally established at the close of the Thirty Years’ War.

England had been influenced by the Humanistic movement through the work of More, Colet, Erasmus and other leaders of the Renaissance but their effort was rather to purify the Old Church than to form a separate organization. The immediate cause of the separation was the act of the king who desired a divorce from his queen, Catherine. The Pope was not willing to grant this and so Henry took the matter into his own hands and declared himself the supreme head of the Church of England, obtaining his divorce through Cranmer, archbishop of Canterbury. Parliament, under the control of Henry VIII, passed a law which took all authority in England away from the Pope and the king became supreme in all matters relating to the temporal affairs of the Church in England. No appeal could be taken on any ecclesiastical matter to any power outside the realm. It was the plan at first to make no changes in doctrine but there was a strong Protestant tendency under the leadership of Archbishop Cranmer. This was made evident by the publication of the Ten Articles which formed the first statement of belief of the separated English Church. Henry encouraged the reading of the Bible because he thought this would strengthen the movement away from Rome, not realizing that the study of the Bible would bring independence and diversity of belief amongst his people. There was a strict understanding that all the people should walk in the ecclesiastical path which Henry had marked for them. Those who refused to do so were subjected to the king’s displeasure and in a few instances were executed for refusing to acknowledge him as supreme head of the Church in England or for declining to follow him in his doctrinal changes. One of his most drastic changes was the dissolution of the monasteries. A royal commission was appointed to investigate their condition and this commission brought in an adverse report so that they were dissolved, the smaller ones at first and the larger ones later in his reign. The property of the monasteries was used in part for educational and religious purposes but the larger part was used to enrich the king and the landed gentry. Henry’s reign closed in 1547, and he was succeeded by his 10 year-old son, Edward VI, who because of his youth was under control of regents. The movement toward a Reformation of the Continental type was rapid in his reign under the leadership of Cranmer. Theologians from the Continent were brought in to assist in the movement. The first Prayer Book of Edward VI was published largely through the influence of Cranmer. This is the basis of the present Book of Common Prayer. Forty-two articles of Faith, afterward reduced to Thirty-nine, formed the doctrinal basis of the Church.

In 1553 Mary the daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine became queen and attempted to undo all that had been done in the direction of Protestantism in the preceding reigns. She tried to have the men who had been enriched by the abbey lands give back these lands to their former owners, but in this she did not succeed. The nation returned to allegiance to the Pope with an ease that made it clear that England was not yet ready for the change to Protestantism. Mary enforced the heresy laws, especially against those who had been prominent in the overthrow of Roman Catholicism, some of the leading Churchmen of England being included in the list of her victims. The fortitude of these unfortunate ones as they were burned at the stake did much to turn the minds of England to a study of the Reformation. More and more in the reign of Mary, England was becoming Protestant and the queen had the consciousness in her closing years that her efforts to turn the nation to the Old Church had been a failure. When Elizabeth succeeded to the throne in 1558 she found conditions which required the exercise of great wisdom to keep the nation from civil war. She was herself a Protestant by taste if not by conviction. The changes introduced by Mary were quickly abolished. A new Act of Supremacy was passed which made her Supreme Governor on Earth of the Church in England. With her accession the Protestant leaders who had fled to the Continent when Mary began her prosecutions came back and brought with them ideas which were in conflict with the thoughts of Elizabeth in regard to the royal supremacy. These Puritans as they came to be called were not opposed to the idea of Episcopacy but they did object to what they considered the remnants of popery in the system which still retained forms and customs suggestive of Roman Catholicism. They desired a State Church purified from all that had suggestion of popery and one in which there was a large degree of freedom in the way of forms and ceremonies. In the later years of Elizabeth there was a party believing in Presbyterianism as the only proper form of Church government and they desired to have one established State Church but of the Presbyterian type. There also appeared the various independent movements out of which the Congregationalists and Baptists later arose.

While we associate John Knox more than anyone else with the Reformation in Scotland, there were several men who prepared the way for him. One of these was Patrick Hamilton, a young nobleman who studied at different universities on the Continent and came to the Protestant position. He returned to Scotland and preached the new views. Cardinal Beaton was primate of Scotland and resolved to suppress heresy. Hamilton refused to change his views and was burned at the stake. George Wishart was another enthusiastic preacher of the Protestant views. He was protected by the nobles who were friendly to his teachings and he made evangelistic journeys in different parts of Scotland. One of his followers was John Knox. Wishart was captured and executed for heresy and Knox became the leader of the Scotch Reformation. He had obtained a priestly education and soon showed marked ability as a Protestant leader. He worked in England in the reign of Edward VI and went to the Continent when the persecution broke out in the reign of Mary. He studied at Geneva and adopted Calvin’s views in regard to Church organization and theology. On his return to Scotland in 1559 he became virtually the head of the Protestant movement in that country. He gave his support to the Lords of the Congregation in their attempt to maintain Protestantism against the wishes of Mary Stuart, who desired to hold the nation to Catholicism. The conflict resulted in a victory for Protestantism and Presbyterianism was established by law. After Knox’s death in 1572 his work was ably carried on by Andrew Melville.

The Reformation was also introduced into Denmark, Sweden and Norway. The leaders were men who had been pupils of Luther and the Reforamitmation was under state control. It was in some cases forced upon the people before they had been thoroughly informed of the meaning of the change. Educational work was carried on later so that the Scandinavian countries became thoroughly Protestant.

The Lutheran Reformation also extended into Bohemia, Hungary and Poland. In Bohemia the way had been prepared by Huss and his followers. It spread rapidly here but was almost entirely overthrown by the work of the Jesuits and the Thirty Years’ War. In Hungary and Poland the progress of the Reformation was greatly hindered by the rivalries of Lutherans, Calvinists and Unitarians.

Attempts were made by the Roman Catholic Church to recover the ground lost and to gain new territory in the non-Christian world. The principal agency in this effort was the Society of Jesus, an organization founded by the Spanish monk, Ignatius Loyola. The new religious order placed itself under the power of the Pope to be used unreservedly by him in the service of the Church. It worked along two lines — educational and missionary — and was so successful that in some parts of Europe the Reformation was held in check, in other places large numbers who had been Protestants were won back to Catholicism. In non-Christian lands the members of the Society worked as missionaries and thousands were won to Catholicism.

Further Reading

  • Bainton, Roland (1952). The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century. Boston: The Beacon Press.
  • Elton, G.R., ed. New Cambridge Modern History Volume II The Reformation 1520-59 (1958), 684pp
  • Pelikan, Jaroslav (1984). Reformation of Church and Dogma (1300–1700). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Gonzales, Justo. The Story of Christianity, Vol. 2: The Reformation to the Present Day. San Francisco: Harper, 1985.
  • Spitz, Lewis W. The Renaissance and Reformation Movements: Volume I, The Renaissance. Revised Edition. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1987.
  • Braaten, Carl E. and Robert W. Jenson. The Catholicity of the Reformation. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996.
  • Hillerbrand, Hans J., et al. eds. The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation (1996) vol. 1:296 pp., vol. 2:506 pp., vol. 3: 491 pp., vol. 4:484 pp.,
  • Elton, Geoffrey R. and Andrew Pettegree, eds. Reformation Europe: 1517-1559 (1999)
  • MacCulloch, Diarmaid. The Reformation: A History. New York: Penguin 2003; 864pp.
  • Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (2011), pp 604–714,
  • Hendrix, Scott H. Recultivating the Vineyard: The Reformation Agendas of Christianization (Westminster John Knox Press, 2004).
  • Bagchi, David, and David C. Steinmetz, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Reformation Theology (2004) 289 pp.
  • Hsia, R. Po-chia, ed. A Companion to the Reformation World (2006)
  • Collinson, Patrick. The Reformation: A History (2006)
  • Naphy, William G. (2007). The Protestant Revolution: From Martin Luther to Martin Luther King Jr. BBC Books.
  • Hillerbrand, Hans J. The Protestant Reformation (2nd ed. 2009)
  • Lindberg, Carter. The European Reformations (2nd ed. 2009) 472pp,
  • Marshall, Peter. The Reformation: A Very Short Introduction (2009)
  • Payton Jr. James R. Getting the Reformation Wrong: Correcting Some Misunderstandings (IVP Academic, 2010)
  • Fisher, ‘History of the Reformation’ (1893);
  • Newman, ‘Manual of Church History’ (1903);
  • Walker, ‘The Reformation’ (1900);
  • Lindsay, ‘History of the Reformation’ (1907);
  • ‘The Reformation’ in the ‘Cambridge Modern History’ (1907).