The Reformation

Martin Luther | Calvinism | English Reformation | Counter-Reformation

Martin Luther

The Reformation was a movement begun by Martin Luther (1483-1546) that ended up fragmenting the Christian church. Originally, Luther did not have in mind a move to create his own church. He was a devout priest who wanted to reform the church from within. His famous Ninety-Five Theses, which he nailed upon the door of the Cathedral at Wittenburg in 1517, were actually a single argument against the sale of indulgences or pardons (the absolution of sins in return for good works or money).

Drawing of Martin Luther

Luther's arguments against indulgences were only a small part of the complaints that were being levied against the church. Its efforts to maintain papal lands and the propensity to get mixed up in politics on the Italian peninsula had turned the Papacy into a political rather than religious organization. This worldliness was a problem not only in Italy but all over Europe where so many devout people had given large estates to the church. As much as one-third of all cultivated lands was in the hands of the church. The church in many ways was becoming a business, administering its properties rather than pursuing its stated purpose, which was to be the shepherd of souls. Unfortunately, a certain amount of corruption and cynicism had found its way into the church hierarchy.

One of the problems with all of the lands owned by the church was that it brought it in direct conflict with the state. Posts within the church were coveted because they were lucrative positions. Kings wished to make the appointment of bishops in order to reward their followers and have some control of the revenues of the attached lands. Kings also wished to tax the holdings of the church. The Papacy, naturally, was loathe to give up its rights and revenues.

Meanwhile there were religious currents swirling among the people. Erudite and fiery preachers who had problems with the doctrines put forth by the church wanted to go back to a more literal interpretation of the Bible. Esoteric arguments arose over such issues as trans-substantiation and whether priests could marry. People wished to have control of their own destiny, separating their salvation from dependence on what was seen by many as a corrupt church. Martin Luther's posting of the 95 Theses was only the fuse to a powder keg just waiting for a match.

Luther had challenged the income the church received through the sale of indulgences. The doctrine he preached of humans being saved by "faith alone" challenged the role of the clergy as the means of communication between the people and God. The Papacy went after Luther. Many of the German princes, whether from conviction or the desire to get their hands on the accumulated wealth of the church within their regions, decided to support him. When Luther was attacked by the church, certain German nobles insisted that their states had the right to choose a religion. When the Pope denied this right, the German nobles wrote up a formal letter of protest. This was how the movement got the name "Protestant". The sheltering of Luther allowed his movement to incubate and grow, and so the Lutheran church was founded, closely allied with particular German states.

Calvinism in Switzerland

After this, Huldreich Zwingli converted much of Switzerland to his Reformed Church. The Calvinists, under a dynamic preacher named John Calvin, later arose in Geneva (which for a time became a theocratic state run largely by Calvin himself). It is interesting to note that the places where the new churches succeeded they also had powerful state support. At the time, state and church were intimately tied together. It was felt that for a state to be powerful the people had to be homogenous. To allow different belief systems within the state would be divisive and create internal problems. The Calvinist state served as a teaching ground for preachers who would create religions all across northern Europe including John Knox who founded Presbyterianism in Scotland.

The Reformation that was rooted in Calvinism had a rigid righteousness, but it also shed much of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. Bishops and Popes were dispensed with and preachers were chosen by individual congregations from a pool of qualified individuals. Churches were largely run by the congregations themselves through governing boards or sessions. Churches putting control in the hands of parishioners is thought to have helped spawn republican style governments by acclimating individual people to the notion that he or she had a say or a vote and could aspire to governance at least a seat on the local board.

Henry VIII and the English Reformation

The English Reformation forms a special case. There was definitely religious fermentation in England, but Henry VIII did not seem to be particularly enamored with Protestantism. In 1521 he even wrote a tract defending Catholicism and attacking Lutheranism. A majority of the country still adhered to the old faith. What sparked the English Reformation was mainly dynastic considerations coupled with a desire by Henry to confiscate the wealth of the monasteries in England.

Henry VIII was married to Catherine of Aragon, a Spanish princess and aunt of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. After 18 years of marriage to Catherine in 1527 Henry had only had a daughter by her (Mary - Later to be given the sobriquet "Bloody Mary"). The sons born by Catherine all died in infancy. Catherine had also been married to Henry's now deceased older brother Arthur. Henry VIII, to find a new wife who would bear him a son, decided he wanted a divorce and he requested it be granted by the Pope. Henry VIII's grounds for divorce were that he should not have married his brothers wife. Clement VII (threatened by Catherine's nephew Charles V) dithered and delayed as long as he could so as not to offend either Henry or Charles. Henry grew impatient and got the English Parliament to pass the Act of Supremacy, which made the king head of the church. He got the Archbishop of Canterbury to annul his marriage.

After several years of profligate spending and adventures over seas, Henry VIII was short on cash. As head of the church he decided to liquidate the holdings of the monasteries, selling them off at discount prices, the proceeds going into his coffers. This helped to gain the adherence of many of the nobility who did not want to face the prospect of giving up the cheap estates they had acquired should the Catholic faith be restored to England. The established church of England at first followed the precepts of the Catholic Church. However, it opened the door for the advancement of other Protestant sects, in spite of the fact that they were variably persecuted by the government.

In general, the Reformation in Europe was driven by strong leaders who were determined to purify the church. Although Henry VIII was not so concerned about theology, he too was a determined man, and it was his steadfast belief in his own destiny that created the effective break with Rome even in the face of the opposition of such a famed theologian as Thomas More. Today the Church of England remains one of the churches most closely aligned to Catholic theology and polity.

The Counter-Reformation

While all of this "protesting" against the Catholic faith was going on, Rome did not set idly by. The Counter-Reformation began in Spain. Spain was a country that, partly because of the Reconquista (the reconquest of Moslem territories), closely identified the Catholic faith with patriotism. But like the new state protected Protestant churches in the north of Europe, the Spanish Kings had a vested interest in supporting the Catholic faith, because the King controlled the appointment of bishops. It began with a move by Cardinal Ximenes to improve the education and morals of the Spanish clergy. However, the Spanish movement also had a repressive side and helped to establish the famed Inquisition. Deviation from the faith was discouraged and torture was used in some cases.

The Capuchin monks began to preach a return to piety in Italy. This proved popular among the masses in Catholic countries. The Papacy of Paul III in 1534 began the move in the church away from worldliness and back toward the stated purposes of the church. One of the most effective agents of the Catholic Church was Ignatius Loyola. After being wounded in battle in Spain, he became devoutly religious. He wrote a book about his experiences and laid down a course of study and contemplation called Spiritual Exercises that would become influential and help him to create a new order of monks called The Society of Jesus. This organization would become influential in international affairs and worked assiduously for the return of Protestant areas to the Catholic faith. They were successful in Poland and parts of Germany. The Jesuits were severely persecuted in England, but kept going an underground Catholic movement there.

As a means of safeguarding the church Paul III convened the Council of Trent. This council unified church policy and doctrine. It aided in cleaning up the corruption and helped give direction to the new orders within the church. This created unity in the church. Even as the Protestant churches were dividing and subdividing, the Catholic Church, where it had not been supplanted by the Protestants, regained strength.

By about 1650 the Reformation and Counter-Reformation were more or less at an end. Religions became closely aligned with associated nations and states. Although today the bulk of European countries have freedom of worship, most religions not subsumed by secularism still have influence within the national boundaries established by the end of the Thirty Years War.

Martin Luther | Calvinism | English Reformation | Counter-Reformation


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