Overview of Religion

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Renaissance Europe was an overwhelmingly Christian society where the teachings of the Roman Church exercised an influence on all areas of life. The hold of this Catholic or universal religion was profound, but at the same time, it frequently bred intolerance. Over the centuries Europe had become a persecuting society, and intolerance of religious minorities mounted during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. In Spain, the last Islamic communities were banished in the final stages of the Spanish Reconquest of the peninsula. And at the same time Christian treatment of Jews, which had never been good, grew harsher. In the wake of the Black Death (1347–1352) Jewish pogroms occurred throughout Southern France and Germany, as locals accused Jews of poisoning wells to bring on the disease. Jewish persecution persisted in the fifteenth century, with Austria expelling its Jews in 1421, Spain and Sardinia in 1492, and Portugal in 1497. Europeans may have directed considerable violence at religious outsiders, but they were no less accepting of those Christians who taught unorthodox ideas. In Renaissance Europe, the deadly persecution of heresy continued. In the fourteenth century the church struggled to contain the teachings of the Spiritual Franciscans and of John Wycliffe. The Spiritual Franciscans held to a literal interpretation of St. Francis's notions about religious poverty—teachings that were a challenge to the wealth and worldly prestige of the church. A similar note echoed in the writings of the Oxford theologian John Wycliffe, who attacked the secular authority of the pope and the church's doctrines concerning the sacraments. In England, both church and state tried to root out Wycliffe's followers, but a small, underground group, known as the Lollards, persisted. Wycliffe's teachings, moreover, escaped from England, and in the early fifteenth century, they inspired the theologian John Huss in Bohemia (a part of the modern Czech Republic). Following his execution at the Council of Constance in 1415, Huss's ideas inspired a rebellion that produced a new Utraquist Church. The Utraquists violated orthodox teaching by giving both bread and wine to lay people during communion. Since the high Middle Ages the church had withheld the Chalice or consecrated wine from the laity and reserved this portion of the Eucharist only to priests. By the 1430s, the Hussite movement had grown in Bohemia and now threatened to spill over into other areas of Central Europe. Rome mounted five largely unsuccessful crusades to wipe out Hussitism. The movement splintered into factions and civil war broke out. In 1434, the Utraquists were successful in subduing the more radical Taborites, and they entered into negotiations with Rome. Rome eventually recognized their liturgy, allowing the Utraquist Church to survive in Bohemia, where it would eventually provide an example to sixteenth-century Protestants of a successful secession movement from Rome.

Crisis in the Church.

In the fourteenth century long-standing rivalries between church and state over the election of bishops and archbishops and other details of church administration heated up. In 1303, King Philip IV of France inspired a Roman mob to attack Pope Boniface VIII, who died a broken man several months later. Philip succeeded in obtaining the election of a friendlier pope, and by 1309, the administrative capital of the church had been moved from Rome to Avignon, within southern France. The papacy remained there for slightly more than 70 years, a period that became known in the later Middle Ages as the "Babylonian Captivity," a reference to the seventy years of Jewish captivity in ancient Babylon recorded in the Old Testament. The return to Rome in 1378, however, brought new problems. Rival factions from within the College of Cardinals elected their own popes: Urban VI, who remained at Rome, and Clement VII, who continued to administer the church from Avignon. This era of dual papacies became known as the Great Schism and it grew more complicated in 1409, when the Council of Pisa elected Alexander V to replace the rival Roman and Avignese popes. In both of the church's capitals, factions refused to accept the election, and for a time, three popes ruled in Western Christendom. By 1417, the Council of Constance had successfully resolved the crisis by eliminating all three popes and electing Martin V in their place. As a result of the council's success, however, a new conciliar movement had grown up in the church. The conciliarists argued that a permanent council within the church—in effect a kind of parliament—should supervise the papacy. Although conciliarists grew progressively weaker throughout the fifteenth century, they did call for reform in the church. But re-established in the city of Rome, the traditional seat of its power, the papacy was generally successful in re-exerting its authority over the church. By 1500, the prestige of the popes was high, despite widespread corruption and abuse within the church.

Lay Piety.

If the administrative problems of the church were profound in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, this same period saw a vital and deepening surge of piety among the laity. This surge can be seen in the popularity of confraternities, which were brotherhoods and sisterhoods of lay people who met regularly for prayer, to perform Christian rituals, and to do good works. The religious devotion of the laity also found expression in the many bequests made to churches and religious institutions as well as the endowing of posts for preachers and priests. Much of late-medieval piety focused on the preparation for death, as in the popular Art of Dying books that began to appear in the fifteenth century. It also found expression in a devotion to the Eucharist, as the devout came to favor frequent participation in communion. In both the countryside and the cities pilgrimages to venerate the relics of the saints were popular, and a number of new shrines appeared in the period. Indulgences were another important dimension of popular piety. The church granted indulgences as formal pardons for the time one would have to spend in purgatory atoning for sins after death. The popularity of pilgrimages and indulgences points up the continuing vitality of traditional medieval religious life in the Renaissance. At the same time, the increase of new, individual religious practices demonstrated the growing importance of an internalized religion. The spread of Books of Hours, collections of prayers for private meditation, points to the appearance of a more internalized and subjective kind of devotional life, as do works like St. Thomas à Kempis's Imitation of Christ. Bible reading, a practice supported by heretical groups like the Lollards and Waldensians, began as well to find its way into the mainstream, although it could only be practiced by the small minority of people who were literate. Both the sixteenth-century Protestant and Catholic Reformations would continue to deepen this strain of individual and internalized religious devotion.

The Luther Affair.

By the early sixteenth century the church had weathered significant controversies and emerged resilient. Most Europeans still believed that there was no salvation outside the church, beliefs that were soon to be challenged by the sixteenth-century Reformation. Martin Luther, a German monk and theologian, dominated the early history of this movement. Luther's own life had been marked by an intensely personal quest for assurance of his salvation. He had dedicated himself to the study of the scriptures, and by 1516, he had begun to teach radical doctrines about salvation in his post as professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg. Luther's lectures stressed that a person's salvation was a consequence of the gift of faith that one received through God's grace, not one's good works. This radical idea challenged traditional orthodoxy, which stressed that both good works and faith were necessary for salvation. These teachings did not attract much attention until late 1517, when Luther attacked the church's unscrupulous sales of indulgences. Through the circulation of his 95 Theses, Luther hoped to spur debate among theologians about the teachings of the church. In the years that followed the controversy he unleashed dominated public life in Germany. The new invention of the printing press helped to disseminate Luther's ideas to an audience beyond the confines of the universities. Rome did not stand by quietly while Luther's position attracted admirers. After several quiet attempts to encourage Luther to recant, Pope Leo X condemned his ideas as heresy in June 1520, and the following spring, summoned him to appear before the imperial Diet meeting in the city of Worms. Luther steadfastly refused to deny his teachings, for which the Diet sentenced him to death. At the conclusion of the trial Luther's protector, the elector Frederick the Wise, managed to have him spirited away. In hiding Luther began translating the Bible into German, something that had already been advocated by Renaissance humanists like Desiderius Erasmus. Embraced by Luther and other reformers, lay Bible reading eventually became one of the defining features of Protestantism.

Radical Reformers.

During Luther's enforced confinement, other reformers began to teach even more radical ideas. In Zürich, Ulrich Zwingli convinced the town council to abolish the traditional laws of the church. He established a pattern of reform that was even more extreme than Luther's, advocating the abolishment of all religious practices that did not have direct support in the scriptures. Both Zwingli and Luther desired that the reform of the church proceed along orderly lines and be controlled by state and city authorities. Elsewhere, though, radical reformers like Andreas Karlstadt and Thomas Müntzer began to argue for a complete clearing away of medieval Christianity, and they showed little deference to state authorities. Many radicals preached an apocalyptic message that the world was nearing an end, and they encouraged their followers to take the law into their own hands. Some championed the cause of the poor and downtrodden and became involved in the great Peasants' War of 1524–1525. Their presence in that movement prompted Luther's condemnation, and helped to produce a bloody repression of the rebellion. Religious radicalism survived, though, and came to be dominated by the Anabaptists, a group that practiced a second adult baptism and advocated a Christian life lived in isolation from "worldly abomination." In 1527, supporters of this movement met at Schleitheim in Switzerland and formulated a simple confession of their faith. Many who followed in this radical path practiced a simple, communal life. But in 1534, one group of Anabaptists seized control of the Northern German town of Münster, where they founded a social revolution that abolished private property and established polygamy. Though suppressed a year after it began, this Revolution of the Münster Prophets inspired widespread fears about the Radical Reformers, prompting their persecution in both Protestant and Catholic states.

Reformed Christianity.

In most of Germany and Scandinavia Luther's pattern of reform dominated, and state authorities adopted and controlled the Reformation. In Switzerland, a different pattern of Reformed Protestantism had already begun to develop in Zwingli's Zürich and in the German border town of Strasbourg. Reformed Christianity placed greater emphasis on the remolding of society through the teachings of the Bible and the offices of the church than had Luther's reforms, which were more concerned with establishing the teaching of justification by faith. In the figure of John Calvin, a French Protestant who fled to the city of Geneva in Switzerland, Reformed Christianity found its most coherent exponent, and as a result, the movement came to be known as Calvinism. Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion, first published in 1536, became the intellectual manifesto of Reformed Christianity, and through the missionaries that Calvin and his associates trained at Geneva, Calvinism spread to the British Isles, the Netherlands, France, and Central and Eastern Europe. Eventually, its teachings dominated much of North America through the settlement of Calvin's English followers, the Puritans. By 1550, the growing popularity of Calvinism made it increasingly difficult for Rome to combat Protestant teachings. At the same time the increasing divergence between Lutheranism and Calvinism helped to breed bitter divisions within Protestantism.

The Catholic Reformation.

From the 1520s many loyal to the Roman Church had called for a council to resolve the differences between the reformers and the traditional church. Despite many efforts to heal these differences in the 1530s and 1540s, intractable divisions increasingly separated Catholicism and Protestantism. In 1545, though, the papacy finally convened the long-hoped-for council at Trent, in modern northern Italy. During the next eighteen years, the members of the council met three different times to consider the criticisms that Protestantism had made of the church. They ultimately rejected Protestant teachings, and their definition of Catholic orthodoxy prevailed in the church until the Second Vatican Council of 1962. Trent also laid out a plan for the reform of the church that concentrated on raising the standards of the clergy. Its highly negative decrees condemning Protestantism gave rise to the term "Counter Reformation." At the same time a widespread revival of Catholicism was already underway, prompted not by Protestantism, but by the deepening surge of piety that had characterized the later Middle Ages. This Catholic Reformation gathered steam in the sixteenth century. Its effects can be seen in the birth of new religious orders, the development of early baroque art and architecture, and in renewed expressions of popular piety such as confraternities, processions, and pilgrimages.


The Renaissance was a period of momentous change in the history of Christianity in Europe. The period began with the calamities of the Avignon papacy and the Great Schism, events precipitated by long-standing competition between church and state. Heresy, too, was a problem in the late-medieval church, and the patterns that emerged to deal with it shaped the church's reaction to the Protestant Reformation. That movement—the most significant development within the period—produced new churches controlled by the secular state. The intolerant attitude that grew out of these new religions was not new, but the intensified effect these new exclusive creeds exercised on the arts and humanities would be profound.

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Overview of Religion

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Overview of Religion