The leaders of the reformation had one thing in common: they were all sincerely interested in religion. Most of them were adamant that the Catholic Church was in dire need of reform.
The first catalyst for change was Desiderius Erasmus. He was a humanist scholar. His works which date from the late 1490s were aimed at the upper classes and churchmen. He felt that change from within must come from the top. He complained about the worldliness of the church (which had acquired as much as 1/3 of the land in western Europe). Erasmus also emphasized a return to the Bible as a source of authority. He felt that scholasticism, which had gotten away from the fundamentals of Christianity, was corrupting the church.
The works of Erasmus, which included the biting satire, In Praise of Folly were highly influential with the reformers who would lead the fragmentation of the Christian Church. Martin Luther is now considered the first Protestant. He had originally wished to work within the church to reform it. He was a very determined and strong-willed individual. In 1517 when a seller of indulgences had come to Germany to sell dispensations for sins. Luther opposed him by writing his 95 Theses and famously posting them on the door of Wittenburg Cathedral.
Though told to back down by the Pope, Luther refused, feeling he was in the right. The Holy Roman Emperor held a diet at a place called Worms where Luther was required to recant. He refused. Luther embodied what nearly all of the great reformers had in common, such a strong faith in their convictions that they refused to back down even in the face of powerful authorities and even the possibility of death. Because Luther's life was endangered, he was sheltered by the Elector of Saxony. In the course of the next few years he organized his own church. It retained much of the structure of the Catholic hierarchy. His theology was based on the idea that people achieve salvation by faith alone.
At the same time that Luther was developing his church, Huldreich Zwingli was hard at work in Switzerland trying to reform the church there. He too was influenced by the works of Erasmus. Huldreich was a priest, but he was also an army chaplain. He had come to the conclusion that the worldliness of the church was wrong, especially because the church had been using Swiss mercenaries to fight wars in the Italian peninsula. He led a breakaway faction in Zurich along the lines of Luther in theology, but more loosely organized with regard to hierarchy. Like other Protestant reformers he opposed the idea that churchmen should not marry. He took a wife in 1724 even though technically he was still a priest. Zwingli had refused higher office in the church because of his convictions. The religious strife in Switzerland came to a head. In 1731 there was a civil war of sorts, with Catholic and Protestant cantons squaring off against each other. Zwingli marched as the standard bearer for the Zurich contingent. At the battle of Kapel he was struck down and cut to pieces.
John Calvin was born a Frenchman. He had wanted to be a priest, but his father insisted that he go to the university to become a lawyer. Calvin followed his father's orders until the man's death in 1531. Then he studied theology, reading the tracts of Luther, Zwingli, and Erasmus. He began to preach the reformed theology, but persecution in France led him to go Geneva where he quickly came to prominence as a preacher. At Geneva he was leader of a faction that turned the city into a theocratic state. At the time government and religion were tightly wound together. In order to change the religion of a region the government had to espouse the same religion. All of the leading figures of the Reformation understood this fact. Luther was sheltered by Saxony. Zwingli fought in civil wars over religion, and Calvin made his own state. John Knox and Henry VIII would also see religion and politics as being intertwined. Calvin's Geneva was significant as a training center for congregational reformed faiths that would spread throughout northern Europe.
John Knox was one of the preachers who benefited from the sheltered theocracy of Geneva. Although he had known and preached the reformed faith before he had gone to Geneva, it was the few years (1556-1559) he spent there that informed his later years bringing Presbyterianism to Scotland. Knox had been a priest, but he had come under the sway of George Wisheart who was a vigorous reform minded preacher. In the course of his career he was in constant conflict with the authorities of the Catholic Queen of Scotland or her mother who had ruled as regent for several years. He seemed to draw strength from controversy. Interestingly, none of the great reformers shied away from public disputes. Often they wrote pamphlets excoriating their foes, which were sometimes one another. Zwingli and Luther fought over the issue of transubstantiation. Knox wrote a tract against the rule of women directed against Mary Queen of Scots, but would also draw the ire of Elizabeth of England - a lady it was not wise to cross swords with.
Elizabeth's father was Henry VIII. Of all the reformation figures he is the most incongruous. He was neither a preacher nor a priest, and though as a young man he took some interest in the religious controversies of the day, Henry had sided with the Catholic cause. His reasons for separating the Church of England from the Catholic Church were also more wound up in worldly concerns than theological ones. On a personal level, he was seeking a divorce that the church was loathe to give. At the same time, he saw the accumulated wealth of the church as a plumb to be picked to pay off his own mounting debts. Though the English reformation began as a rather cynical move by Henry, it did have its conscientious adherents.
At this time it is difficult to say whether England would have remained a Catholic country had Henry not taken over the church by an Act of Supremacy. As the English Church continued in many of the forms of the Catholic Church it is likely that Catholicism could have continued there as it did in France despite a strong Huguenot movement.
Ultimately, the leaders of the reformation had two overarching effects that may have been unintended. First, in response, the Catholic Church launched its own Counter Reformation, which would eventually make many of the reforms that Erasmus had at first called for. Second, the Protestant churches, partly because of the their congregational structure and partly because of the precedent that had been set, continued splintering - church from church. Eventually, there would be hundreds, if not thousands of different denominations. Protestant churches continue to fragment to this day.
Biography of Martin Luther >>