The Protestant Reformation

As promised in the last post, I’ll provide a short overview of the Protestant Reformation. This was a series of events that changed European Christianity forever, and nearly 100 years after its beginnings, culminated in the 30 Years War. In fact, some scholars would argue that the Reformation wasn’t truly over until the end of the war in 1648.

In 1517, a German monk named Martin Luther posted his infamous “95 Theses” on the door of Wittenberg cathedral. Written in Latin, the theses were actually a scholarly protest against some of the abuses of the Roman Catholic church. Some of the worst of these were widespread corruption, nepotism, and the sale of indulgences, a way to have your sins forgiven in writing, for a price, of course.

95 Theses

The common folk were also encouraged to spend money on things like viewing relics, supposed bones of saints, pieces of the Cross, and even the Virgin Mary’s milk. I guess if questioning got you burned at the stake, no one would ask why a virgin was producing breast milk and how it had been preserved for over 1000 years.  There is also a conspiracy theory about how beer brewing methods before 1521 led to beer that made people dumb. Dumber than it makes them now, apparently.

Luther meant to start a debate, not a revolution, but the theses were quickly translated into German and copied by the thousands via the aid of early printing presses. He continued to publish criticism of the church, until in 1521 he was called to the Diet of Worms- not in fact, a  horrible medieval meal plan,  but rather a kind of trial in which he was asked to explain himself in front of various church officials in the cathedral in Worms, Germany.

He refused to back down and was quickly excommunicated, which in those days was often followed by an equally quick execution. Fortunately, Frederick, the Elector of Saxony- the prince who ruled Luther’s home territory (we’ll get into the elector part in another post) decided to shelter him, and stashed him in a remote, Wagnerian castle to keep him safe. To stave off boredom and potential insanity, Luther got to work, producing prodigious numbers of pamphlets and tracts, as well as translating the Bible into German, while he was at it.

This was actually a super-subversive activity. Until then, the Bible could really only be read in Latin, which excluded everyone, including a fair number of illiterate priests. In other words, almost no one knew what it really said. Luther and his supporters felt that everyone should be able to read scripture for themselves, and have a personal relationship with God that wouldn’t require the intervention of a priest or monetary offerings.

Luther knew he was on the right track when the devil appeared to him one night.  He disappeared again after Luther threw an inkpot at him. Temper, temper! The black splotch on the wall can be seen to this day by visitors to Wartburg Castle. That was some seriously color-fast ink! Or just crummy castle housekeeping. Or both.

Luther’s ideas and writings spread like wildfire. The time was very right for many of the German princes who had been unhappy about being dominated by Rome in all things religious and the Holy Roman Empire in all things political. Before long, many had broken completely with the Catholic Church, and eventually Lutheranism became the state religion in most parts of Northern Europe.

There were other influential reformers working at this time- most notably Ulrich Zwingli in Switzerland, and a few years later, Jean Calvin in France. Calvin eventually came to Switzerland, setting up a completely humor-free theocracy in Geneva. His teachings also became very popular and spread to France (Hugenot), Scotland (Presbyterian) and the Netherlands (Dutch Reformed). There were also a fair number of Calvinists in Western Germany, which led to some of the complications that helped start and continue the 30 Years War.

England broke from the Catholic Church as well, but for different reasons. Mostly, Henry VIII wanted to divorce his barren (and let’s face it-rather plain) wife Catherine of Aragon and marry the hopefully fertile and much hotter Anne Boleyn. Since the Pope wouldn’t grant him a divorce, Henry just went out on his own, starting his own religion with himself as the head.

After Henry’s death, things were wobbly for a while as Edward VI embraced Calvinism, then Mary I went back to Catholicism, and Elizabeth I finally worked out a compromise between the two.

At first the Catholic Church was in shock and didn’t react. It was that unthinkable that anyone question the Pope and his pronouncements. Eventually, it got its act together and launched the Counter-Reformation, which sought to “re-catholicize” areas that had fallen prey to free-wheeling Protestant thought. This led to the founding of the Jesuits who brought a more intellectual approach along with some missionary fervor, as well as some no doubt pleasant inquisitions to root out heretics.

All of this activity led to a  lot of hard feelings, and inevitable fighting.  Finally, in 1555 an alliance of German Lutheran princes made peace with the Catholic Habsburg emperor Charles V at Augsburg, Bavaria. Yes, it seems I will have to write another post about this separately.

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2 comments on “The Protestant Reformation
  1. Mike M says:

    You give really short shrift to Henry VIII’s role. In fact, his response to Luther was prior to his seeking divorce from Catherine of Aragon. Henry was not originally to be king, and as the second son, he studied religion. Then Arthur died, and put Henry onto a different track. Seeing himself as a religious scholar, Henry felt prompted to respond to Luther. This may have been fueled by Henry’s relationship with devout men such as Thomas More. Henry’s divorce was several years later. The failure of Wolsey to secure that dispensation was probably 1529. So the two events — Luther and Henry’s divorce — were loosely related at best.

    • Christina says:

      Yes, I know very little about the English side of the Reformation, just that the Big Divorce came after Luther had set things off. Thanks for the additional info. Can you recommend any good books about Henry’s religious education and/or ideas? There are so many books about the Tudors-it’s hard to know where to start.

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