The Reformation

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The Reformation — more properly called the Protestant Reformation or the European Reformation — was a 16th-century religious and political uprising against the authority of the Pope that led to was a schism in Western Christianity. It was initiated by Martin Luther with the publication of the “Ninety-five Theses” in 1517 and continued by Huldrych Zwingli, John Calvin and other Protestant Reformers. The Reformation triggered the bloody the Counter-Reformation, which sucked in much of Europe, and lasted until the end of the Thirty Years' War in 1648. The Reformation led to the division of Western Christianity into different denominations such Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, Anabaptist and Unitarian. The Eastern Orthodox Christian church had split off in 1054.

The Reformation began as theological debate over real and perceived Church corruption. Early dissenters included John Wycliffe (1320-84) in England, and john Huss (burned as a heretic in 1415) in Bohemia. Martin Luther was from Germany. Other major players in the Reformation were Huldrych Zwingli of Zurich, John Calvin of Geneva and King Henry VIII of England

The Reformation was aided by the invigorated intellectual freedom of the Renaissance and spirit of nationalism in England, France, Germany and Bohemia. In the 16th century the church was corrupt and blemished by greedy clergy and decadent monks, extracting financial burdens from the laity to pay for their indulgences and ambitions. The General Councils of 15th century failed to reform he church.

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Before the Reformation

Europe at the time of the Reformation was racked by chaos and uncertainty. Many people, including Luther, believed that the end of the world was imminent. Numerous extreme, and often violent, religious cults had sprung up across Europe. The Catholic church took the excessive measure that it did as much out of fear as greed.

peasant girl buying an indulgence

The Reformation took place at a time when feudalism was being replaced by strong national monarchies. "The development of trade, markets, and banking forced the owners of land and capital into enterprises aimed at maximizing profits," wrote Columbia anthropologist Marvin Harris. "This could be done only by breaking up the small-scale paternalistic relationships characteristic of the feudal manorial estates and castle towns.”

Land holdings were divided, serfs and retainers were replaced by peasant renters and sharecroppers, and self-contained manors were converted into cash crop agribusinesses. Country folk lost their subsistence plots and family homesteads, and great numbers of dispossessed peasants drifted to the towns, where they sought employment as wage laborers. From the eleventh century on, life became more competitive, impersonal, and commercialized—ruled by profit rather than tradition."

Before the Reformation, there were numerous religious cults active in Europe. Centuries before the Reformation numerous cults opposed to the Catholic Church had sprung up. One of the groups that emerged in the 13th century were the "flagellants," groups of men that stripped down to the waists and beat themselves on the back with iron-tipped thongs until the blood ran of their back and dripped on the ground. The 15th century Taboritites were encouraged by their fanatical leaders to "wash their hands in blood" in effort to track down and kill every sinner.

The mixture of religion and politics in Europe produced some strange results. The emperor of the Holy Roman Empire once kidnaped The pope and held him ransom. A Catholic king from France allied himself with Muslim Turks and European Protestants in a fight against the emperor. The Muslims even had a base in southern France where they marketed Christian slaves. The chivalric system that began to break down in the Crusades was in shambles by the Reformation, when the enemy was no longer infidels that did not deserve equal treatment but as Christian equals.

Early Protestants and the Early Reformation

By the 1520s many of the a German princes accepted the evangelical teachings of Luther. Masses were held in German rather than Latin and Luther composed new hymns in German. Monks and nuns married, Luther himself married an ex-Cistercian nun. A formal protest by princes supporting Luther against Archduke Ferdinand gave the reformers the name "Protestants"

Luther burning the papal bull

The term Protestant was coined in 1529 when a groups of "protestors" rejected a decision by a secular government body pushed through by the Catholic majority to prohibit the practice of the reformed faith introduced by Luther.

Luther himself consecrated the first Protestant church in Germany — in Torgau Saxony — in 1544. Luther pushed for the abolition of monasteries, priests grew their hair long and got rid of their formal vestments. Luther ran a kind of Underground railroad to help nuns and monks escape from monasteries and convents. Though this network he met his wife.

The Reformation was viewed by many peasant as an opportunity for people to protest the taxes and rule of the Catholic-supporting landowners and aristocrats. Frederick's successor, John the Steadfast, joined with other nobles to form a confederation whose purpose was mutual defense, political survival and advancement and support of the growing religion.

Hans Küng, a Swiss religious scholar at the University of Tübingen, claims that the Reformation would probably not have taken place if the Catholic Church had given in on three points: 1) the use of the vernacular language instead of Latin, 2) the sharing of the communion cup with the congregation, and 3) giving priests freedom to marry." The last point he says would have had a great influence on the spread of Catholicism. If priests were allowed to marry, more men would consider joining the clergy which would have made it possible to establish churches in more places.

Reformation Printing and Music

The Reformation was the first social and religious movement to utilize the printing press. Consequently it spread "as if the angels themselves were messengers" and reached a greater number of people than it would have if it had occurred 50 years earlier. Nine out of ten people during Luther's time still couldn't read but they could discern the messages from woodcut illustrations or else have someone read them the text. From 1516 to 1546 Luther wrote a treatise every two weeks, enough to fill 60,000 pages and 102 huge volumes. He was one of the most prolific religious writers of all time, and it is estimated that one million of his tracts were printed at a time when successful writers usually only printed 500 copies of their work at a time. Luther once called printing, "god's highest and extremist act of grace." He believed that if everyone could own their own Bible there would be no need for priests to act as intermediaries between God and his congregation.

Martin Luther loved music, calling it “the mistress and governess of the feelings of the human heart,” and composed numerous pieces, including some hymns that have survived to today. In 1546, he wrote: "When natural music is heightened and polished by art, there man first beholds and can with great wonder examine to a certain extent, (for it cannot be wholly seized or understood) the great and perfect wisdom of God in His marvelous work of music; in which this is most astonishing and singular."

Luther and John Calvin (1509-1564) didn't like organ music because of its association with the Catholic church. Calvin forbid instrumental music even for recreation. While Protestant reformers argued about the use of organs and other instruments in the church, they made choral and congregation singing an essential part of the church service. Hymns were a way in which a congregation could express their love of God with music in a language that they spoke everyday. The Gregorian chants of the Catholic church were sung exclusively by the clergy, while hymns were created to be sung by congregation of ordinary churchgoers

Reformation Art and Relics

During the time of the Reformation there were even more religious relics in the possession of churches and nobles than there were in the Middle Ages. A 1509 catalogue of reliquaries offered "five particles of the milk of the Virgin piece of diaper in which he was wrapped...once piece of the bread of which Christ ate with his disciples during the Last piece of the burning bush that Moses saw." An archivist calculated that if a person prayed before all the relics in the catalogue he or she would earn 2,112,151 years and 205 days off from purgatory.

The Reformation coincided with a movement away from iconic religious imagery towards naturalism at a time when "a picture is no longer to be understood in terms of its theme, but as a contribution to the development of art."

Peter Schjeldahl wrote in The New Yorker: “Luther did rein in followers who engaged in iconoclastic destruction of Catholic art. His own attitude toward art was pragmatic: it could be used for doctrinal instruction....There’s an astonishing polyptych—the “Gotha Altar” (1539-41), from the workshop of Heinrich Füllmaurer, an artist previously unknown to me—that arrays a hundred and fifty-seven painted panels, on fourteen hinged wings, which tell Bible stories with a Lutheran spin, emphasizing the Gospel teachings of Jesus over the Catholic litany of martyrs and miracles. Luther also countenanced a media onslaught of polemical prints that identified the Pope with the Devil or, in a woodcut from Cranach’s workshop, pictured him emerging from the womb (or perhaps the anus) of a female demon. Such grotesqueries, including those of Catholic counterattacks on Luther, vivify an era of sulfurous passions.” [Source: Peter Schjeldahl, The New Yorker, November 14, 2016]

Zwingli, Calvin and Knox

Huldrych Zwingli (1484-1531) was a Swiss contemporary of Martin Luther. Zwingli striped church or ornaments and proclaimed the doctrine of predestination. He outlawed mass and criticized fasting and , clerical celibacy. Organs, relics and images were thrown out his churches and replaced them with services in German. His movement spread from Zurich to Berne and Basel and eventually civil war broke out between the catholic factions and Protestant factions and Zwingli himself was killed in the battle of Cappel (1531) carrying a banner.


Zwingli differed with Luther on the meaning of communion. Luther maintain that Christ was really present in the wine and bread and Zwingli said it was purely symbolic. In Marburg Luther debated Zwingli over the meaning of the last Supper. Zwingli argued that communion bread and wine symbolized the body and blood of Christ. Luther claimed that his body and blood are really present.

John Calvin (1509-64) was a French reformer and humanist scholar. He arrived in Geneva, a city whose citizens he described as "perverse and ill-natured people," and established theocratic states. Calvin preached a stern and demanding God and was back to basics. He stressed the concept of predestination (that god's people were predestined for salvation), good conduct and success were signs of selection. He restored the New Testament four-fold ministry: pastors, teacher, elder and deacons. Calvinists differed with the Lutherans over sacraments and church government.

John Knox (1513-1572) is the father of the Presbyterian Church. He brought Calvin's reformed church to Scotland and founded the Scotch Presbyterian church about 1560.

Anabatism, Baptists, Mennonites and Bohemians

The Anabaptists were the most radical members of the Reformation movement. They objected to infant baptism and demanded church and state separation. During the sixteenth and early seventeenth, the Anabaptists were behind dozens of violent uprising. In the 16th century a group of Anabaptists fearing the end of the world was imminent took over the town of Leiden, Netherlands and their leader John was declared a messiah. They abolished money and all books except the Bible and instituted polygamy.

Anabaptism began in Zurich under the stewardship of Conrad Grebel (1498-1526), who preached personal religion, a separation of church and state, and adult baptism and rejected the formal organization of the church. Grebel was persecuted for his beliefs. Anabapits beliefs were embraced John Smyth in England, who founded the Baptist church in 1609, and Menno Simons, the founder of the Mennonites, in the Netherlands in the 1600s.

Early Baptists were split into twp groups: the General Baptist who believed that Christ died for people, and the Particular Baptist who agreed with the Calvinist doctrine that Christ died only for the select. The Puritans who settled in New England were early Baptists who escaped from religious persecution in Britain and sought refuge in Holland before coming to the New World.

The use of the term Bohemian dates back to the early 15th century, when thousands of Bohemian "free spirits" established a commune near the town of Usti on the Luzhinica River and were so into their belief that God blessed what ever they did they supported themselves through robbery and looting.

Spread of the Reformation

The early stages of the Reformation took place in what is now Germany and nearby states and principalities. Luther's Bible helped unify the principalities of northern Germany by linking the people together with a common language. He also helped unify Germany by breaking down the control of the Catholic church over German-speaking people. By the 1520s many German princes accepted the evangelical teachings of Luther. Masses were held in German rather than Latin, congregations sung new hymns composed by Luther in German and monks and nuns married (Luther himself married an ex-Cisterian nun).

Beeldenstorm (Dutch reformation iconoclasm

Lutheranism spread from Germany to Scandinavia, France and England. Other Protestant movements such as the Anabaptists, Calvinists and Zwinglians arose and established their own beachheads.

The Reformation took place at a time when feudalism was replaced by strong national monarchies. "The development of trade, markets, and banking forced the owners of land and capital into enterprises aimed at maximizing profits," wrote Columbia anthropologist Marvin Harris. "This could be done only by breaking up the small-scale paternalistic relationships characteristic of the feudal manorial estates and castle towns.

The result of the Battle of Battle of the White Mountain in 1520 was the union of the surviving Protestant states—Denmark, Sweden, and the Dutch Republic—all former parts of Habsburg hegemony — the Holy Roman Empire. They were joined by the anti-Imperial Catholic powers, like France, creating a balance of aggression and counter-aggression that produced the first pan-European war” nasty brutish."

The Reformation divided Europe and triggered numerous bloody wars. In England and France it also increased "a new sense of national independence." Rival sects—Anabaptists, Calvinists, Zwinglians—fought one another and forces of Counter-Reformation. Holland accepted pilgrims and showed religious tolerance.

The Catholic Church was hit hard by the mutinies of Germany's Martin Luther and England's Henry XVIII as well as the sacking of Rome in 1527-28 by rebellious troops and German Protestants.

Henry VIII and the English Reformation

The Catholic Church and the Anglican Church of England split in 1534 when King Henry VIII issued an act denying papal jurisdiction and broke with Rome over the refusal of Pope Clement VII to grant him a marriage annulment so he could marry Anne Boleyn.

Henry VIII

Henry VIII created the Anglican church by naming Thomas Cranmer as the archbishop of Canterbury and himself as head of the newly-formed church. Henry used parliament to pass laws abolishing the "bishop of Rome." Edward VI, Henry VIII’s successor, ordered parliament to outlaw Latin mass and instituted Book of Common Prayer. Catholicism came back with Bloody Mary 1553. Elizabeth I (1558-1603) presided over the final break with Rome.

Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's Lord Privy Sea, was the mastermind and the driving force behind the English Reformation. “In 1532 Cromwell used his skill to turn Parliament against the Papacy," Neville Williams wrote in "Henry VIII and his Court", “and to force the English clergy to accept the King's control of all legislation...Henry was supreme in his own domain and Cromwell assured him that plunder of the Church would make him as rich as any king in Christendom."

In a progress report on the English Reformation, one of Cromwell's agents wrote, "I have pulled down the image of Our Lady at Caversham, whereunto was great pilgrimage. The image is plated over with silver, and have put it in a chest fast locked and nailed up, and by the next barge that commeth from Reading to London it shall be brought to your lordship."

"There was a poor woman of Wells...that imagined a false tale of a miracle...I caused her to set in stocks in the morning, and about 9:00 of the clock when the market was fullest of people, with a paper set about her head, written with these words upon the same A REPORTER OF FALSE TALES, was set in a cart and so carried about the market stead and other streets in town, staying in divers places where most people assembled, young people and boys of the town, casting snowballs at her."

Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn: Source of the English Reformation

Henry VIII (ruled 1509-1547) ruled England for 38 years. He was a powerful leader who presided over one of the most cataclysmic period in English history. Although known mainly for his problems his wives, Henry VIII transformed England into a powerful nation, helped give Protestantism credibility and had a good time while he was doing it. In some ways it is amazing that Henry VIII has managed to so thoroughly capture's people imagination. He had no great military successes, Shakespeare play about him is hardly ever staged, and few of his palaces remain.

Anne Boleyn

Anne Boleyn (1507-1536) was Henry VIII’s truest love. He began courting her in 1526 after he had a long affair with her older sister Mary. The affair between Henry and Anne lasted for six years. Anne aroused the "King's great appetite" but she refused to be Henry's mistress, instead playing an all-or-nothing gamble to be the queen. Henry became "bewitched" be her and went about trying to get his marriage with his first wife Catherine of Aragon annulled on the grounds that she was his sister-in-law. Catherine was 40, hadn't born a son and was considered beyond childbearing age when Henry and Anne began their affair. Not only did Henry VIII have an affair with Anne Boleyn's sister, he may had sex with her mother and later married her cousin.

Finally in 1532, when Anne was pregnant and Francis I advised Henry to marry her even though his marriage with Catherine had not been annulled by the Pope, Henry wedded Anne in clandestine ceremony, Catherine was told a few days later that her status would be reduced to Princess of Wales.

The following month at the ecclesiastical court of Dunstable, England Archbishop Thomas Cranmer declared the Catherine-Henry union null and void and then validated the marriage with Boleyn. To make up for the secret wedding a grand coronation ceremony was held for Anne and she was greeted by tumultuous applause by the people of London when she was carried through the city streets on a litter, wearing a string of pearls "bigger than chickpeas." . But many people in the crowd were not happy about the union and refused to tip their hats to her.

Anne Boleyn, Divorce, the Pope, Catholicism and the Church of England

King Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church in 1534 over his desire to get a divorce or annulment from Catherine of Aragon so he could marry Anne Boleyn. Henry declared he wanted to divorce Catherine on the grounds that she was briefly married to his brother. The Pope denied the request more on political than moral grounds.

The granting of annulments by the Catholic church was not unusual but there were extenuating circumstances at the time, namely that Pope Clement VII was a prisoner of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles, who was Catherine's nephew. Pressured by Charles, Pope Clement insisted that an annulment would be granted only if the marriage with Catherine could be proved invalid.

Henry enlisted the services, minds and wisdom of Cardinal Woolsey, Thomas More and Archbishop Cranmer in his effort to get an annulment. A lengthy battle of the scriptures ensued, with Henry claiming that his marriage was invalid based on two texts in Leviticus which forbade a marriage between a man and his brother's wife. Catherine in turn asserted that her marriage to Henry's brother Arthur was invalid because she said it was not consummated.

Henry battled the Pope for ten years. Finally, Henry divorced Catherine and married Anne, setting in motion the English reformation. To do this he sacked his longtime friend Cardinal Wolsey and replaced him Archbishop Cranmer, who declared the marriage with Catherine to be invalid in at what was then a Catholic court in England — an act of defiance against papal authority.

English Reformation

During the English reformation, Henry VIII broke with Rome by using Parliament to pass laws abolishing the "bishop of Rome." The English monarchy became head of the Protestant Church of England. Monasteries were dissolved, and the wealth, land and property of the Catholic church was confiscated between 1536 and 1539. Monks either went along or were imprisoned, fled or were executed.

Henry was not a big fan of Protestantism. In 1517, when the belief began attracting followers on the continent, he wrote a bitter attack against a treatise written by Martin Luther who he called "a great limb of the devil" (Luther responded by calling him a "lubberly ass"). Part of the reason Henry VIII he confiscated Catholic church property was to pay off debts from his wars and foreign adventures.

Between 1536 and 1540, Henry's agents seized several hundred monasteries and convents and desecrated and plundered the property in the name of the king. The property was added to the national treasury. Many of the churches never recovered and are ruin today. The agents reported on the promiscuous sexual activity of the monks and nuns and alleged their relic were fakes to swindle pilgrims out of money. Based on contrived claims Parliament passed the Suppression Act of 1536. An uprising in 1537 was brutally put down: 130 people were executed and their severed heads in some cased were displayed on religious buildings.

revolts in Cornwall and Devonshire in 1549

In 1530, during the English Reformation, Henry VIII "purified" the church by becoming its leader. Followers were encouraged to pillage local Catholic churches. The shrine for Thomas Becket and a host of other treasures were carted off to London in 26 wagons. The greatest gem, the Régal de France, was mounted on a ring that Henry wore around his thumb.

Henry then insisted the members of his court and parliament take an "oath of succession." Those who refused to take the oath, like Sir Thomas Moore — who saw the oath as a preliminary move for succession from the Catholic church — were beheaded at the Tower of London. The head of the Anglican church that later would evolve into the replacement of the Catholic church was Archbishop Crammer.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Sourcebook ; “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible,; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible,; Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) , Frontline, PBS, Wikipedia, BBC, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time,, Reuters, Associated Press, Business Insider, AFP, Library of Congress, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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