Catholicism. There was only one church in western Europe from the death of Jesus until the Reformation; in fact, the term catholic means universal. After the fall of the Roman Empire the institution of the church was the one unifying force in a Europe fragmented into local fief-doms. After the eastern branch separated in 1054, the western branch of the church became known as Roman Catholic because the bishop of Rome, or Pope, was considered to be Jesus’ representative on earth and a successor to Peter, whom Jesus chose as the rock upon which the church was to be built. The Pope appointed bishops as the successors of the other apostles to oversee large dioceses, and they, in turn, appointed clergymen or priests to officiate in local parishes. Some clergymen were chosen by the Pope to serve as cardinals and advise him. Specialized orders arose to advance particular missions of the church, whether within the walls of monasteries and nunneries or in the outside world. All of these church officials were to remain celibate, dedicated to the life of the spirit rather than to the concerns of a secular world. The church, under divine inspiration, interpreted the will of God and explained to laymen what they could do to be saved and enter heaven. Any who questioned this interpretation of doctrine and practice were called heretics and were persecuted. The church was an integral
part of the world, for secular and spiritual aspects of life were thoroughly meshed, and worldly practices crept in, sparking periodic reform movements. The Protestant Reformation of the early 1500s was, perhaps, the most important of these movements, for it ignited a Counter-Reformation among the Catholics that cleansed the church of many abuses, inspired the creation of many more orders devoted to Christian service, and led to a reformulation of doctrine and a reform of practices.
Lutheranism. Martin Luther sparked the Reformation by publicizing his objections to the practices of the Catholic Church in 1517 and defending them at the Imperial Diet held at Worms in 1521. In the process he set down many of the basic affirmations of the Reformed tradition in the Augsburg Confession of 1530. According to Luther salvation came only to those who had the faith, love, and hope in God’s unbounded mercy that leads to a new birth in Christ. It could not come by one’s own moral efforts and good works, church laws, or intercession by priests. The Bible was the only source for learning about God, so Christians had to be able to read and interpret the Holy Scriptures for themselves. The writings of Luther and news of his deeds spread throughout northern Europe and the Baltic states, opening the floodgates of reform and spawning evangelical movements which proliferated into sects that carried the movement far beyond what Luther had intended or desired. However, Lutheranism retained vestiges of Catholicism, such as the belief that all human institutions, including government, were divinely ordained and that during the sacrament of the Eucharist (communion), Christ was actually present in the bread and wine.
Calvinism. John Calvin erased much of Luther’s conservative tone and exercised the main influence over the second generation of reformers in the 1530s. It was his interpretation of the Reformed tradition that formed the core of the major colonial Protestant denominations. The confessions, or statements of faith, that these denominations adopted shared similar themes. All emphasized the vast chasm that separated God from humans, who could enter heaven only by his grace. According to the Reformers, the trap that the Catholic Church fell into was the arrogant assumption that humans understood God and influenced him by their manmade rituals. According to Calvinism, God created Adam and Eve in his image so they might understand and follow his will, promising them an everlasting and joyful existence in return. When they disobeyed, God justly withdrew his spirit, leaving them and their descendants to sin, suffer, and die. The consequences of Original Sin could only be reversed by God, who did so by sending Jesus to take upon himself the guilt of the sin of humans so that they would escape punishment and attain that salvation promised to Adam and Eve. The Holy Spirit infused the souls of the “elected” with the saving grace that allowed them to regain some of their original faith in and obedience to God. One found his directives on how humans were to live by following Christ’s example and teachings in the Bible. Thus each individual had to read the Scriptures constantly, for they progressively revealed more of God and how He operated in the world and their lives. There was no intermediary between an individual and God, as the Catholic Church had maintained.
Sydney E. Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People, 2 volumes (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1975);
Harold J. Grimm, The Reformation Era, 1500–1650 (New York: Macmillan, 1965);