Reformation, Catholic

views updated May 14 2018


REFORMATION, CATHOLIC. In their attempts to characterize the nature of early modern Catholicism, historians have utilized the terms "Counter-Reformation" and "Catholic Reformation," which convey different understandings of the church's attempts at reform in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The former term views religious renewal within Catholicism as a reaction against the challenges posed by the Protestant reformers. Consequently, the Counter-Reformation is understood as repressive, seeking to reemphasize Catholic dogma, to reassert Catholic liturgical life, and to win back those who accepted the Protestant faith. "Catholic Reformation" highlights the existence of a spontaneous reform within the church itself that sought to revitalize religious life through the improvement and application of Gospel teachings to the life of both the individual and the institution. This movement predates Martin Luther and represents the culmination of medieval reform efforts. The goal of the Catholic Reformation was to reform the existing institutional church by fostering a renewal of its spiritual life and mission.


Within Protestant scholarship, the term "Reformation" had, by the seventeenth century, become part of the vocabulary of historians. Consequently, Protestant historians began to look at sixteenth-century Catholicism from this perspective. The term "Counter-Reformation" was used for the first time by a Lutheran legal historian, Johann Stephan Pütter (17251807) in 1776 in his edition of the Augsburg Confession. By this phrase, Pütter meant the forced return of Lutherans to Catholicism in those regions that had accepted the Lutheran confession. As a result, the Counter-Reformation was associated with military and political measures utilized by Catholic princes against the German Lutherans. The term came into general historical use in the nineteenth century with Leopold von Ranke (17951886), whose use of the term suggested a unity within Catholicism that he saw emerging after 1555 from the Council of Trent, the Jesuits, and the papacy.

The term "Catholic Reformation" also originated within Protestantism. In 1880 the Lutheran Wilhelm Maurenbrecher (18381892) spoke of a Catholic Reformation when describing the various efforts at reform within the late medieval church. This understanding of Catholicism was given currency by Ludwig von Pastor (18541928), who demonstrated that Catholic reform was a spontaneous and independent movement, accelerated but not caused by Protestantism, because it arose and consolidated itself in areas where there was no religious dissent to react against.

Thus, the terms "Counter-Reformation" and "Catholic Reformation" derive from contrasting interpretations of the same historical process, and were often used to the exclusion of the other. This changed with the historian Hubert Jedin (19001980) who, in 1946, sought to bring some order to the debate over terminology. For Jedin, Catholicism in the sixteenth century could only be properly understood by utilizing both "Counter-Reformation" and "Catholic Reformation." Catholic Reformation not only predated the Counter-Reformation but also for Jedin was its animating and motivating force. Jedin holds that the Catholic revival of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries sprang from two sourcesthe Council of Trent (which gave legislative form to reform) and the struggle against Protestantism (embodied in the work of the Jesuits). He calls the former "Catholic Reform" and the latter "Counter Reform." However, they ought not to be seen as two separate realities, since Jedin sees them as closely interwoven in their historical evolution. Jedin considers the Council of Trent (15451563) and the Jesuits as much a part of the Catholic Reformation as they are of the Counter-Reformation. While the Catholic Reformation arose independently of Protestantism, Jedin also contends that it only won over the papacy and prevailed after Luther's challenge, which awakened the leaders of the church to the urgency of reform. Consequently, the Catholic Reformation was able to extend itself throughout the church because it became in part a Counter-Reformation.

While Jedin's understanding of these terms remains standard, the debate continues, giving rise to new terminology such as "Tridentine Reformation," "Confessional Catholicism," and most recently, "Early Modern Catholicism" advanced by John O'Malley.


At the end of the Middle Ages, the church was, institutionally and spiritually, in a state of decline. Corruption and abuse had set in on all levelsunworthy men held office in the church; politics came to dominate the papacy; bishops did not reside in their dioceses; priests were uneducated; monastic discipline was lax. It was clear that the church was in urgent need of reform, yet the cry for a "reformation in head and members" went unanswered "from above." There was, however, a movement for reform "from below" led by individuals who sought not rebellion but restoration. These reformers, scattered throughout Europe, did not desire to inaugurate a new way but rather to return to the origins of the Christian religion. Regardless of the form that these individual efforts took, the aim was the spiritual renewal of the individual and the purification of the church. Thus, the Catholic Reformation would be marked by reformed congregations of the leading monastic and mendicant orders; reform-minded bishops who resided in their dioceses personally looking after the religious lives of their flock; and groups of clergy and laity devoted to personal sanctification and the works of mercy.

Noteworthy among the reformers of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century was Cardinal Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros (14361517) of Spain. His reform efforts impacted the entire Iberian Peninsula. A member of the Franciscan order, Cisneros, from 1495 until his death in late 1517, restored discipline and enhanced the quality of the Spanish church. He enjoined his priests to high standards in their own lives, in caring for the souls entrusted to them, and in performing their duties to preach the gospel. The pastoral mission of the church was at the heart of his reform efforts. Cisneros, however, was not simply concerned with the immediate needs of the church, but rather recognized the importance of ensuring the future of the church by preparing its future leaders. Consequently, Cisneros founded the University of Alcalà de Hénares in 1499 for the purpose of educating the clergy.

Italy also provides numerous examples of individuals who became leaders in the reform of the church. Foremost among these was the Venetian senator Gasparo Contarini (14831542), one of the most impressive personalities of the Catholic Reformation. He wrote several treatises calling for meaningful reforms and moral rejuvenation. His most significant treatise was On the Office of Bishop (1516). Based on patristic ideals, the first section of the treatise explained the virtues that a good bishop must possess, while the second illustrated how a bishop should conduct himself and carry out his duties. Contarini stressed the importance of residency for bishops and chastised bishops for neglecting their duty to preach.

Gian Matteo Giberti, bishop of Verona (reigned 15241543) embodied the ideas expressed in Contarini's treatise. His diocesan reforms and his role as a conscientious bishop were his chief contributions to the reform movement. Giberti revived the pastoral mission of the bishop who personally dedicated himself to the care of souls. Giberti's efforts led to a thorough renewal and reform of his diocese that proved to be a model and inspiration for later bishops. In addition, his diocesan regulations regarding clerical life served as a model for many of the reform decrees of the Council of Trent.

Religious orders also experienced a renewal that restored them to their original pristine state. The Benedictine abbot Gregorio Cortese (14831548) initiated a program of renewal that rested on the principles and ideals of humanism. The Franciscans, under the inspiration of Matteo da Bascio (14951552), saw the emergence of the Capuchins, who sought to return to the primitive simplicity and poverty of St. Francis of Assisi, while also devoting themselves to the work of preaching the gospel and caring for the poor and the sick.

Several brotherhoods devoted to regulating and spiritualizing the lives of the laity and the clergy alike emerged in the early sixteenth century. The earliest and most important was the Oratory of Divine Love, founded in Genoa in 1497 by Ettore Vernazza (14701524), who had been influenced by the charitable work of St. Catherine of Genoa (14471510). The fundamental aim of the members of the Oratory was the inner renewal of the self through the practice of good works on behalf of others, such as the care of the sick and orphans. The example of a life rooted in charity would pave the way for the reform of the church, since such reform emerged from personal sanctification. The most significant offshoot of the Genoese Oratory was the Roman Oratory, founded sometime between 1514 and 1517, which has often been seen as the initiation of effective Catholic reform within the church. This group dedicated itself to combating the abuses which had developed in Rome. The Roman Oratory gave birth in 1524 to the Theatine Order, priests who lived in community under a rule but also undertook an active apostolate.

The most significant of the new religious orders to emerge at this time was the Society of Jesus, founded by Ignatius Loyola (14911556). It was never the intention of Ignatius, nor the aim of the society itself, to defend the Catholic cause against Protestantism, although they did become involved in combating its spread. Rather, it was Ignatius's aim to provide a spiritual ideal and method capable of changing lives that would bring about the personal reform of the individual. Based on his own experience of conversion, Ignatius hoped to effect a similar change of heart in others. The Jesuits sought to work for the advancement of souls in Christian life and doctrine wherever the need arose. Upon their approval in 1540 by Paul III (reigned 15341559), the Jesuits became involved in numerous religious and scholarly activities, all of which reflected a highly active spirituality. Some were missionaries, others theologians, still others schoolteachers, yet all sought to live a religious life based on an interior conversion to Christ and active service in his name.

Of equal importance was the founding of the Company of St. Ursula in 1535 by Angela Merici (14741540). Concerned primarily with the education of young girls, the Ursulines were the first teaching order of women to be established. While the nuns observed the canonical hours and took vows of chastity and obedience, they were not cloistered and often taught in the homes of their pupils. After Angela's death, the papacy introduced changes within the Ursulines, first requiring the nuns to wear a habit and second imposing enclosure. Nevertheless, Angela Merici set the pattern for the future education of young girls within the church.


While the spontaneous reform "from below" was fruitful, its impact was limited. The scattered efforts of individual bishops, clerics, and laity were unable to effect a general reform of the church, which would only occur with coordination "from above." In order for any reform effort "from above" to be truly effective, the head had to play a dynamic role. A pope was needed who would lead the reform movement himself. Many believed that Leo X (reigned 15131521), whose election was greeted with a renewed sense of hope by those desirous of reform, would be such a pope. He reconvened the Fifth Lateran Council (15121517), begun by his predecessor, which represented the last major effort at reform within the church prior to the Reformation. However, the decrees of the council failed to initiate any effective reform because of Leo X's lack of enthusiasm in their implementation.

In 1522 hope for a reform movement led by the papacy was rekindled with the election of Adrian VI. Adrian saw his task of initiating reform as a pastoral obligation intimately connected with his apostolic office. Unfortunately, Adrian died in 1523, before any effective reform could be initiated. His successor, Clement VII (reigned 15231534), spent most of his pontificate trying to avoid summoning a General Council, which was increasingly being called for by many within the church, including Emperor Charles V (ruled 15191556).

It was not until the election of Paul III in 1534 that strong leadership directed toward reform was restored to the papacy. Catholic reform came to pervade Rome during Paul's pontificate. The first papal-sponsored reform plans and projects were formulated and debated. Commissions dealing with specific abuses in the church were appointed. Outstanding men known for their support of reform were elevated to the college of cardinals and summoned to Rome to initiate and carry out reform. Recognizing the need for a General Council, Paul III created a nine-man commission in 1536 under the presidency of Gasparo Contarini to draw up a reform program that would serve as a foundation for conciliar discussions. The formation of this commission was a significant step toward Catholic reform as it sought to elevate the spiritual and moral life of the church and its clergy. In 1537, the commission issued its report, the Consilium de Emendanda Ecclesia (Advice on reform of the church), one of the great documents of Catholic reform. The document outlined in vivid frankness the problems and abuses in the church and clearly set forth recommendations to alter the existing conditions. The Consilium began by boldly affirming an exaggerated use of papal authority as the underlying problem in the church. Having stated this, the reformers highlighted specific abuses that they felt needed immediate attention, among them the state of religious orders and episcopal residency.

These first years of Paul III's pontificate witnessed the most earnest effort that was made to carry out a reform under papal initiative. With men such as Contarini in Rome efforts were made to reform the Curia, to renew theology and the life of the church, and to reconcile with the Protestants. These efforts failed, however, and in 1542 Paul III established the Roman Inquisition to check the spread of Protestantism, almost exclusively in Italy. It also became clear to Paul III that the only means of reforming the church and answering the Protestant challenge was that of a council.


In 1544 Paul III issued a bull that convoked a General Council to meet in Trent. The Council of Trent was in session, with two lengthy adjournments, between 1545 and 1563. The council had three main objectivesto effect needed reform within the church, to clarify and define disputed doctrine and condemn heresy, and to restore the peace and unity of the church. The council was unable to accomplish this final goal since the split between Protestantism and Catholicism was now too deeply rooted. Thus, the council was confined to the Catholic world and functioned not as an instrument of reconciliation or reunion, but as a body legislating and defining for those who continued to profess the Catholic faith. It undertook this task from the outset, treating questions of doctrine and reform simultaneously.

In the area of doctrine, the council reaffirmed the authority of apostolic tradition as well as that of the Bible. It also declared the authenticity of the Vulgate but did not forbid critical editions in the original languages or vernacular translations. The most important of the doctrinal decrees was that on justification. It declared that humans are justified and saved only through God's grace freely bestowed on those who are baptized and have faith, but it insisted that humans participated in the process through a disposition for grace and a voluntary reception of it. The decree stressed the need for good works and observance of God's commandments. The council also issued dogmatic decrees on the seven sacraments, the Mass, purgatory, and the invocation of the saints. The decree on the Mass, affirming its sacrificial character, is second in importance only to the decree on justification among the council's declarations.

In the area of reform, the council focused on four basic problems that touched upon the pastoral mission of the churchthe training of priests, the duty of preaching the gospel, the jurisdiction of bishops, and the obligation of residency for bishops and pastors. These decrees were the chief contribution of the Council of Trent to Catholic reform. Focusing especially on the role and responsibility of the bishop, the council affirmed the obligation of bishops to reside in their dioceses and gave bishops greater authority and powers over the clergy and religious orders in their diocese. The administrative responsibility of the bishop was substantially restored at the same time that his primary role as pastor and teacher of his flock was strongly emphasized. Bishops were also obliged to establish seminaries for the training of future priests.

The Council of Trent clarified and defined many disputed doctrines, legislated reforms, and strengthened the church. The implementation of the decrees was left to the papacy. Pius IV (15591565) in 1564 approved and published the Tridentine decrees and created a committee to oversee their implementation and interpretation. At the same time that he proclaimed the Tridentine Profession of Faith, he issued a revised Index of Forbidden Books, which modified the more severe and rigid index issued by Paul IV (15551559) in 1559. Pius V (reigned 15661572) completed the work of the council by issuing a standard catechism in 1566, a uniform Breviary in 1568, and a uniform Roman Missal in 1570. The strong leadership of Pius V, Gregory XIII (reigned 15721585), and Sixtus V (reigned 15851590), which spanned the years 1566 to 1590, firmly established the papacy as the agent of Catholic reform.

Implementing the Tridentine decrees on the local level was not always easy and met with frustration. While theologians and church leaders anticipated that the implementation of the council would be met with great enthusiasm, the reality was far different. This situation arose as a result of an erroneous assumption that Catholic Reformation Catholicism would supersede the distinct flavor and traditions of local Catholicism that had developed over centuries. While the church did achieve some success in implementing reform along Tridentine lines, Catholicism would retain an element of local flavor both in Europe and the New World.


Certain basic characteristics stand out in the Catholic Reform movement from the time of Cisneros to the end of the Council of Trent: awareness of the need for reform and the serious efforts made to achieve it; preoccupation with individual and personal reform; and concern for the restoration and renewal of the Church's pastoral mission. Thus, Catholic reform was marked by a personal and pastoral orientation.

See also Ignatius of Loyola ; Jesuits ; Leo X (pope) ; Paul III (pope) ; Pius IV (pope) ; Pius V (pope) ; Trent, Council of .


Primary Sources

The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent. Translated by H. J. Schroeder. Rockford, Ill., 1978.

Olin, John C. Catholic Reform: From Cardinal Ximenes to the Council of Trent, 14951563. An Essay with Illustrative Documents and a Brief Study of St. Ignatius Loyola. New York, 1990.

Olin, John C., comp. The Catholic Reformation: Savonarola to Ignatius Loyola: Reform in the Church, 14951540. New York, 1992. A collection of documents dealing with aspects of the Catholic reform movement.

Secondary Sources

Bireley, Robert. The Refashioning of Catholicism, 14501700: A Reassessment of the Counter-Reformation. Washington, D.C., 1999. Looks at the forces that shaped early modern Catholicism.

Black, Christopher F. Italian Confraternities in the Sixteenth Century. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1989.

Cesareo, Francesco C. Humanism and Catholic Reform: The Life and Work of Gregorio Cortese, 14831548. Bern and New York, 1990.

. A Shepherd in Their Midst: The Episcopacy of Girolamo Seripando, 15541563. Villanova, Pa., 1999.

Comerford, Kathleen M., and Hilmar M. Pabel, eds. Early Modern Catholicism. Toronto, 2001. A collection of essays on various aspects of Catholicism in the early modern period.

DeMolen, Richard L., ed. Religious Orders of the Catholic Reformation. New York, 1994. A collection of essays on nine religious orders.

Evennett, H. Outram. The Spirit of the Counter-Reformation. Cambridge, U.K., 1968.

Gleason, Elisabeth G. Gasparo Contarini: Venice, Rome, and Reform. Berkeley, 1993.

Hsia, R. Po-chia. The World of Catholic Renewal, 15401770. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1998. Presents a synthesis of the scholarship on Catholic renewal in Europe and on Catholic missions in the non-European world.

Hudon, William V. Marcello Cervini and Ecclesiastical Government in Tridentine Italy. DeKalb, Ill., 1992.

Jedin, Hubert. A History of the Council of Trent. 2 vols. Translated by Ernest Graf. London, 19571961. A translation of two of the four volumes published in German.

Mullett, Michael A. The Catholic Reformation. London and New York. 1999.

O'Malley, John W. The First Jesuits. Cambridge, Mass., 1993. A comprehensive survey of the early Society of Jesus, spanning 15401565.

. Trent and All That: Renaming Catholicism in the Early Modern Era. Cambridge, Mass., 2000. Historiographical survey of the way in which early modern Catholicism has been understood by historians.

Prosperi, Adriano. Tra evangelismo e controriforma: G. M. Giberti (14951543). Rome, 1969. A study of the reform efforts of Gian Matteo Giberti as bishop of Verona.

Rummel, Erika. Jiménez de Cisneros: On the Threshold of Spain's Golden Age. Tempe, Ariz., 1999.

Tedeschi, John. The Prosecution of Heresy: Collected Studies on the Inquisition in Early Modern Italy. Binghamton, N.Y., 1991.

Francesco C. Cesareo

Reformation, Protestant

views updated May 11 2018


REFORMATION, PROTESTANT. The term Reformation refers in general to the major religious changes that swept across Europe during the 1500s, transforming worship, politics, society, and basic cultural patterns. One key dimension was the Protestant Reformation, the movement that began in 1517 with Martin Luther's critique of doctrinal principles and church actions in Germany and that led to the establishment of new official churchesthe Lutheran, the Reformed or Calvinist, and the Anglican. These were separate from the Latin Catholic Church in organization and different from it in theology. Many other dissident groups and individuals, collectively known as the Radical Reformation, also emerged during the turmoil of the 1520s and 1530s, building communities despite frequent persecution. Ongoing efforts to reform the old church took on new urgency in response to these challenges, leading to a distinct Catholic Reformation. The Protestant Reformation affected patterns of change in Europe through Protestant theology's shifting theological emphases, through Protestant piety's emphasis on reading and knowledge, and through new alignments between organized churches and politics.

Because of the complex course and multiple outcomes of the Reformation movements, historians today speak of multiple Reformations during the first two-thirds of the 1500sthe Protestant, the Radical, and the Catholic; the urban, the peasants', and the princely; or the German, French, and British. The Protestant Reformation was embedded in larger processes that included the emergence of national states, new encounters with the outside world, and deep socioeconomic shifts. The breakdown of religious unity and the establishment of multiple churches in this era highlights the central role that religion played in early modern European self-understanding. Doctrinal and ceremonial changes had consequences for every aspect of society, from family life and gender roles to art and philosophy. As we learn more about different historical actors and their varying goals, we can no longer view the Reformation as a single conflict between Luther and the popes or as a single movement, positive or negative. Rather, we must approach the Reformation by looking carefully at the spiritual aspirations, the cultural frameworks, and the material circumstances of the people whose lives it transformed.

The idea of reformation had a long history in Western thought before 1500, with two main meanings: to modify in general (to reform) and to improve something by returning it to its original state (to re-form, or restore). St. Augustine's statement that "man is not able to reform himself as he is able to deform himself" durably connected reformation with individual conversion and divine grace, although during the Middle Ages the word could refer to any systematic change. Because the term implied renewal or even rebirth, it could also be associated with the renaissance of classical learning. By the late 1300s, the "reformation" of monasteries became a central goal of the Observant movements that sought to restore the principles of their orders' founders, and by the 1400s, calls for a "reformation in head and members" of the entire church had become loud.

When evangelical thinkers in the early 1500s called for radical changes in the church, they too described their project as a "reformation," as did those who sought to improve the church from within. Most sixteenth-century reformers hoped that a single purified church would be the outcome, while others saw religious division as a sign of the imminent Apocalypse. Only after 1600, when it became clear that the division among western European Christians was permanent, did the term "Reformation" become the name for the movements that created the division as well as for the period during which the division took place.


Scholars have pointed to several developments during the 1400s as possible forerunners of the Protestant Reformation. Developments in formal theology, in broader cultural life, and in different European regions all confirm the continuity between the Reformation and earlier historical processes. For example, disputes among academic theologians raised issues similar to those later addressed by Luther and other Reformation thinkers. Late medieval followers of St. Thomas Aquinas's via antiqua ('old path') argued against adherents of the via moderna ('new path') developed by William of Ockham (12801349), while mystical thinkers sought to bypass the confining procedures of Scholastic theology entirely. Particularly in the 1400s, learned churchmen disagreed about such fundamental issues as God's sovereignty, the place of human effort in gaining salvation, and the effects of sin and grace on the human soul. With the growth of universities and the spread of printed books around 1500, many more thinkers became aware of these debates about the fundamentals of Christian faith, setting the stage for Reformation controversies.

Other scholars point to the Renaissance and particularly to humanist philology as preparing the ground for religious turmoil. Although few historians today see the Renaissance as the birth of modern individualism, the recovery of Greek and Latin texts on philosophy and philology during the 1400s did spur intellectuals to look at the writings of the church fathers and the Bible in new ways. Even when motivated by orthodox zeal, careful printed editions and new translations of sacred texts raised new questions about the way the church interpreted its mission. Italian humanists such as Lorenzo Valla led the way in applying the new philology to sacred texts, but the humanist with the greatest impact in northern Europe was Erasmus of Rotterdam. In addition to editing both classical literature and the church fathers, Erasmus in 1516 issued the first printed edition of the New Testament in Greek, together with a new Latin translation that changed the meaning of several key passages. Erasmus was also a best-selling author of Latin textbookssuch as Encomium Moriae (1511; English translation, In Praise of Folly, published 1549)that savagely mocked popular superstitions and greedy clergymen.

Finally, the Protestant Reformation shared important features with the Hussite movement that swept through Bohemia in the early 1400s. The teachings of Jan Hus contained several ideas that Luther later engaged: an emphasis on God's grace over human works in salvation, a harsh critique of the papacy, and a call for lay Bible reading in local vernaculars. Moreover, Hus's ideas gained support in Bohemia from a coalition of burghers, nobles, and peasants who combined Czech resentment of German dominance with aspirations for a just Christian society. Anger about the special privileges that priests enjoyed and about the fiscal impact of an international church on local societies heightened anticlerical feelings across Europe at this time. Luther's recognition that he shared Hus's ideas accelerated his break with the papacy, and Protestant propaganda later named Hus among its martyrs. Although the Hussite movement was limited to Bohemia after Hus's execution for heresy in 1415, it revealed how potent the combination of anti-clericalism, lay enthusiasm for new ideas, and effective preaching could be.


All across Europe after 1500, reformist clerics sought to reform church organization, to purify religious practice, and to intensify individual piety. In Italy educated priests such as Gasparo Contarini combined prayer and study while organizing groups to improve church services for the laity. In France a group around Jacques Lefèvre d'Étaples also called for an evangelical renewal of the church. They, like John Colet in England, turned to the Epistles of St. Paul in their efforts to better understand God's will, as would Luther. Among all these groups, humanist ideas and connections played an important role. Evangelical ideas were therefore widespread in Europe, yet the course of reform differed enormously from place to place. To understand this variation, argues historian Euan Cameron, we must analyze the different coalitions that formed and sometimes dissolved around evangelical ideas.

The emergence of separate Protestant churches could not have taken place without the movement's early breakthrough in the Holy Roman Empire, where Martin Luther was the critical figure. Luther's doctrinal views took shape during the 1510s, but the Protestant Reformation as a movement began with the response that he evoked among German clergy, nobles, and common people in the 1520s. This response grew rapidly because of the force of Luther's writing and because evangelical texts were printed not just in Latin but also in pithy German summaries and in illustrated versions. Moreover, criticism of the Roman church was already widespread in Germany, as were lively popular piety and interest in correct religious practice. Many early adherents saw Luther as a German champion against a corrupt Roman hierarchy and its financial abuses, and approved of his attacks on the special status of the clergy; others found spiritual consolation in his understanding of salvation, thought that his calls for "spiritual freedom" would bring about a just world with lighter burdens, or shared his belief in an imminent Apocalypse. Luther's precise theological arguments about justification and grace, meanwhile, mostly influenced engaged clerics and other spiritually focused individuals.

After 1519 another evangelical center emerged in Zurich, where Huldrych Zwingli began preaching sermons that combined humanist critiques of the church and its ceremonies with theological ideas similar to Luther's. Zwingli's ideas quickly became popular in south German cities and in parts of the Swiss Confederation. Although the southern movement remained separate from Luther's, ultimately giving rise to the Reformed and Calvinist churches, both spread evangelical ideas throughout German society. The earliest representatives of the Radical Reformation also emerged during the early 1520s from the circles around Luther and Zwingli; while they joined Luther and Zwingli in attacking the existing church, they often called for radical reform of society and eventually diverged on key doctrinal issues as well.

Political and social tensions converged with new religious ideas to produce a mass movement in the empire, partly because many German and Swiss towns and even villages enjoyed considerable autonomy. During the decisive years between 1518 and 1521, moreover, political circumstances in Germany delayed action against Luther. Luther had powerful supporters among both churchmen and lay leaders, including his lord Frederick the Wise of Saxony, whereas the death of Emperor Maximilian and the struggle to elect his successor Charles V preoccupied the imperial authorities. By the time Luther was excommunicated in 1520 and banned by the empire in 1521, he had already become a national hero. The early Reformation coalitions in Germany thus included clergy, some nobles, and many townspeople and peasants.

After Luther refused to recant at the Diet of Worms in 1521, ordinary people in many German towns called for "preaching the pure Gospel." They enjoyed support from committed members of the local elitesoften younger men with humanist educations. Through the 1520s, many German cities edged cautiously toward open rejection of Rome, and by 1530, a substantial majority had joined the Lutheran or Zwinglian "Reformation in the cities." It is striking how radically new converts during these years rejected practices such as the veneration of images, in which they had often participated right up to the introduction of evangelical ideas. Adopting the Reformation brought about sharp changes in daily ritual that everyone could see.

The German peasants also hoped that "Godly law" would help liberate them from their burdens. In 1525 during the German Peasants' War, many of them refused to pay dues, sacked monasteries and castles, and gathered into huge armed bands. Hundreds of peasant communes formulated demands that were ultimately distilled into the Twelve Articles of the Swabian Peasantry. These demanded the "pure Gospel," local election of priests, an end to serfdom, and free access to commons and forests. Specific Bible verses justified each of the articles, thus linking spiritual renewal to social change. Although poorer townspeople joined the movement in some areas, the German nobility brutally suppressed the uprising. Luther too condemned the peasants, although he had initially recognized the justice of some of their demands. The defeat of the "common man" in 1525 shifted Reformation coalitions in Germany toward urban elites and the territorial nobility, decisively shaping later developments.

For defenders of the old church, the Peasants' War proved that the evangelical movement was subversive. Luther's supporters among Germany's princes and magistrates also sought to control popular turmoil. They faced the challenge of rebuilding territorial church organization in a way that reflected the new teachings while taking account of social and political pressures. This required both gaining legal recognition for their faith and establishing a clearer definition of what they believed. Luther and his key supporter Philipp Melanchthon drew up a comprehensive statement of Lutheran principles, the Augsburg Confession of 1530, and published new catechisms to instruct the laity. The process of consolidation led to heightened repression against dissenters of all kinds. Fearing that Satan sought to destroy the Gospel by encouraging fanaticism, Luther supported the organization of new hierarchical churches under princely control.

After it became clear that neither church would gain a clear majority among the princes, prelates, and towns in the empire, both sides built up alliances, such as the Schmalkaldic League, which linked princely territorial ambitions with the defense of Lutheran doctrine. In 1546 the emperor sought a military solution in the Schmalkaldic War. The effects of his initial victory quickly evaporated amid political maneuvering, however, creating a deadlock that led to the Religious Peace of Augsburg in 1555. The peace decreed that political rulers within Germany could choose between the Catholic and Lutheran faiths for their entire territories: dissidents had to depart or face official persecution. The dynamic evolution of Reformation coalitions thus left the German-speaking world mixed in religious confession, with decisive power over religion in the hands of territorial rulers. Confessional division had a deep and lasting effect on German identity, churches, and politics.


The Protestant Reformation followed diverse paths outside the Holy Roman Empire, generally as a minority movement. The first adherents were often intellectuals who read Luther's Latin writings. With few exceptions, those in charge of both churches and governments remained hostile to the Reformation for at least a generation, rigorously persecuting those who sought to introduce it from Germany. Even where Roman authority was rejected early, as in England, Reformation coalitions appeared later, grew more slowly, and attracted fewer influential patrons than in Germany. Partly because of this delay, the form of Protestantism that had the greatest impact outside Germany was based on John Calvin's views rather than on Luther's.

The historian Heiko Oberman suggests that we view the Reformation outside Germany as a "reformation of the refugees," since so many leading figures had to flee from persecution. Calvin himself was a refugee who left France in 1534 during an early crackdown against French evangelicals. During stays first in Strasbourg and then in Geneva, he developed views that differed in important ways from the Lutheran tradition. Calvin shared Luther's belief in justification by faith but adopted a different interpretation of Communion. Calvin and his followers also wanted churches that were more independent from secular control than the Lutheran territorial churches. After Zwingli died in battle against the Catholic Swiss in 1531, his successor Heinrich Bullinger also sought to clarify the doctrine that separated the Zurich church from Catholics and Lutherans. Discussions among Bullinger, Calvin, and other Reformed theologians produced the Second Helvetic Confession of 1566 and the Heidelberg Catechism of 1562, important models for later Calvinist confessions of faith. In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin produced a systematic Reformed guide to doctrine. Calvinism expanded into France after the 1550s and spread through parts of Germany, the Netherlands, and eastern Europe. It also predominated in the theology (but not the organization) of the Anglican Church in England after 1558.

The emergence of new churches and the consolidation of a reformed Catholic Church confronted Europeans after the 1530s with a complex spiritual landscape. To understand how different Reformation coalitions formed, evolved, and sometimes collapsed, we need to consider the social position of early adherents, the political system, the nature of earlier heretical or anti-Roman ideas, and the international pressures each region faced. The Reformation outside Germany generally lacked peasant participation. It was an urban and professional movement whose most important early activists came from the younger clergy. In France the decision of some nobles to protect Reformation thinkers allowed the movement to grow despite harsh persecution. However, noble support also entangled evangelical religion with factional political disputes that led to vicious religious wars after 1560. In northern Europe the attitudes of monarchs were critical: Henry VIII's decision to break with Rome opened the way for the later spread of Protestantism in England, as did Gustav I Vasa's combination of Swedish independence with Lutheran conversion. Elsewhere, kings suppressed the Reformation using mechanisms such as the Inquisition in Spain or special courts in France. The previous history of religious dissent and the vitality of local humanist movements also affected local Reformation coalitions. In Bohemia, for example, the surviving Hussite church made common cause with the Reformers. The strength of humanism in Italy ensured that serious consideration of evangelical reform within the church continued into the 1550s under the protection of humanist-influenced bishops. Finally, external circumstances shaped the different Reformation coalitions. In the Netherlands, Calvinism became part of a national war against Spanish rule, while the Reformation in Scotland depended on relations between England and France. In eastern Europe political opponents of the Habsburg dynasty often turned to the Lutheran or Calvinist faiths.


Scholarly views of the Reformation have often reflected religious and ideological perspectives. Protestant historians portrayed it as a moment of heroic recovery from medieval "corruption," while some Catholic historians attacked it as a catastrophic out-break of undisciplined individualism. Nineteenth-century liberal descendants of Protestantism argued that Martin Luther's appeal to conscience represented the "birth of individual liberty," and saw the origins of the modern secular state in conflicts over the free practice of religion. Marxist historians argued that the popular appeal of Luther made him part of an "early bourgeois revolution," while the rebellious peasants were proletarians before their time.

Recent studies of the Reformation more often emphasize its social dimension, going beyond the doctrinal issues that divided Europeans. Because religion helped shape every aspect of European life, the practices of the new churches caused major changes. Sacramental ceremonies from baptism to last rites had long marked key moments in the lives and families and communities. By abolishing or changing the sacraments, Protestantism challenged the social meaning of these rituals. The Protestant attack on clerical celibacy emptied monasteries and nunneries and led to a married clergy. This shattered older understandings about sexuality and personal holiness and led to intensified debate about the role of women in society. New ideas about piety caused the abolition of many public festivals in Protestant regions, often against popular resistance. Poor relief and charity meant something different when they no longer served as rich people's way to perform penance.

In politics the fact that the church had been a political as well as spiritual power led to realignments at every level from villages to international diplomacy. Religious adherence became an important factor in political alliances until the end of the Thirty Years' War in 1648. The emerging Protestant states of northern Europe were strengthened by the windfalls of property they seized from their churches, and gained new authority over daily life through their tight control over the Protestant clergy. Current research concentrates especially on confessionalization, that is, the organizational consolidation of churches and identities along confessional lines. Of particular interest is the question of whether the ReformationsCatholic and Protestantopened the way for European states to impose new standards of ethical and sexual behavior on their populations. Among intellectuals, debates among the emerging faiths challenged fundamental understandings about the relation of the individual conscience to God, about how sinful humans should live together in ordered societies, and ultimately about the sources of truth and authority. The confidence of the early reformers gave way later in the 1500s to bitter debates among theologians about ever smaller matters on the one hand, and to calls for the forcible reimposition of unity on the other. In contrast, arguments for greater toleration of dissent and skepticism about whether humans could really know God's will were met with repression throughout the 1500s.

Some thinkers have looked to the Reformation to explain the profound transformation of Europe between 1500 and the present. Notably, the sociologist Max Weber proposed that the religious culture of Protestantism, with its emphasis on Bible reading and ethical self-scrutiny, had produced habits that favored the emergence of modern capitalism, especially among Calvinists. Many other thinkers have probed the contrast between a Protestant "religion of the Word" and a Catholic religion focused on action and emotion, often suggesting that Protestant or radical views "disenchanted" the world to produce a more modern worldview. Today, most historians who study the cultures of Protestant and Catholic Europe are more cautious. Major cultural changes did not correlate in a simple way with religious difference. Moreover, recent research has demonstrated that the larger population only slowly absorbed the formal agendas of Protestantism and renewed Catholicism. It therefore seems unlikely that differences in religious doctrine can entirely explain later developments. Instead, current research seeks to include both the spiritual meaning and the social consequences of Europe's Reformations in efforts to explain Europe's early modern history.

See also Augsburg, Religious Peace of (1555) ; Bullinger, Heinrich ; Calvin, John ; Calvinism ; Charity and Poor Relief ; Church of England ; Clergy: Protestant Clergy ; Huguenots ; Inquisition ; Luther, Martin ; Lutheranism ; Melanchthon, Philipp ; Peasants' War, German ; Reformation, Catholic ; Reformations in Eastern Europe: Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox ;Schmalkaldic War (15461547) ; Theology ; Thirty Years' War (16181648) ; Wars of Religion, French ; Zwingli, Huldrych .


Benedict, Philip. Christ's Churches Purely Reformed: A Social History of Calvinism. New Haven, 2002. Definitive study of the Reformed and Calvinist developments from the perspective of social history.

Brady, Thomas A., Jr., Heiko A. Oberman, and James D. Tracy, eds. Handbook of European History, 14001600: Late Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Reformation. Leiden and New York, 1994. Scholarly assessments of major issues in European history during this period.

Cameron, Euan. The European Reformation. Oxford and New York, 1991. Comprehensive survey suitable for advanced readers, emphasizing the importance of varying coalitions.

Dickens, A. G., and John Tonkin. The Reformation in Historical Thought. Cambridge, Mass., 1985. Reprint 1999. Explores changing perceptions of the Reformation's course and significance.

Gordon, Bruce. The Swiss Reformation. Manchester, U.K., and New York, 2002. Best survey of the Protestant movements in German-speaking Switzerland.

Karant-Nunn, Susan C. The Reformation of Ritual: An Interpretation of Early Modern Germany. London and New York, 1997. Explores how changes in ritual transformed religious life in Germany after 1520.

McGrath, Alister. Reformation Thought: An Introduction, 3rd ed. Oxford, 1999. An accessible introduction to Protestant theology with emphasis on key doctrinal issues.

Oberman, Heiko A. Luther: Man between God and the Devil. Translated by Eileen Walliser-Schwarzbart. New Haven, 1989. Sets Luther's career in context of late medieval developments and later interpretations.

O'Malley, John W. Trent and All That: Renaming Catholicism in the Early Modern Era. Cambridge, Mass., and London, 2000. Explores changing understandings of reform and Reformation in a Catholic context.

Scribner, Robert W. For the Sake of Simple Folk: Popular Propaganda for the German Reformation. 2nd ed. Oxford, 1994. Pathbreaking study of visual propaganda.

Scribner, Robert W., Roy Porter, and Mikulás Teich, eds. The Reformation in National Context. Cambridge, U.K., 1994. Concise introductions to the course of the Reformation in Western and Eastern European contexts.

Tracy, James. Europe's Reformations, 14501650. Lanham, Md., 1999. Comprehensive survey, suitable for all readers, reflecting latest research and perspectives.

Randolph C. Head


views updated May 18 2018


The Reformation was a movement in Europe of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that broke the monopoly over religion held by the Roman Catholic Church since the later years of the Roman Empire and that created a new set of alternative Protestant churches that have henceforth helped supply the needs of Christians in Western Europe and in countries influenced by Europe. Each of these churches developed a set of ideas drawn from the common Christian tradition to justify its separate existence, and the Catholic Church restricted itself to yet another set of received ideas. Some of these new churches called themselves Evangelical. They looked to Martin Luther (14831546) for their primary inspiration. Others called themselves Reformed. Beginning in a second generation, they looked to John Calvin (15091564) for their primary inspiration. An independent Church of England created its own middle way. A variety of radical churches, many of them called by their opponents Anabaptist, had trouble gaining toleration. Meanwhile, the Roman Catholic Church responded to the challenge by reforming itself.


The Reformation began in 1517 when Martin Luther, an Augustinian friar and professor of biblical studies at the relatively new university of Wittenberg in Electoral Saxony, posted a set of ninety-five theses inviting anyone to debate a number of propositions about the promulgation of indulgences by the Roman Catholic Church. Indulgences were documents that promised to give a remission of temporal punishments for anyone who genuinely regretted a sin he or she had committed. They were for sale and were vigorously promoted by a number of peddlers, of whom the most notorious was a Dominican friar named Johann Tetzel. Luther argued that the sale of these indulgences made people think they could buy eternal salvation. The publication of his theses provoked a tremendous uproar. That argument quickly developed into a broader one about the ways in which Christians could gain salvation. Luther argued that salvation had to be by faith alone, without any reliance on good works, like indulgences. The Catholic Church insisted that faith had to be supported by works before one could gain salvation. Luther further argued that the only authority that could resolve this dispute was the Bible, while the Catholic Church insisted that the Bible had to be supplemented by tradition, of which the church held custody. Luther also insisted on the priesthood of all believers, arguing that believers could gain salvation by themselves, rather than relying on priests as intermediaries. Luther was excommunicated by the Catholic Church, and new churches were quickly established that followed his leadership and refused to recognize the traditional authority of the pope and his appointees. Luther continued teaching in Wittenberg. He prepared a fresh translation into German of the Bible and wrote an enormous number of works, ranging from learned biblical commentaries to inflammatory polemical pamphlets, developing further his theology. He became one of the most popular published scholars of all time.

The churches Luther had inspired were supported by local governments within the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, the political entity controlling most of what we would call Germany and more. Some of these governments were run by princes, including the government of Electoral Saxony, where Luther lived, and the government of Hesse in western Germany. Many of them were run by city councils, within imperial free cities that had received charters from the imperial government to run their own affairs. Luther also gained support in neighboring kingdoms, particularly in Scandinavia.

The Reformed

A few cities in southern Germany and Switzerland followed the somewhat different leadership of Huldrych Zwingli (14841531), the principal preacher in the most important church in Zurich, within the Swiss Confederation. So did some of the principalities in that area, as well as people in other countries. One particularly zealous group of religious reformers developed within France. They followed Zwingli especially in his sacramental theology, in his insistence that in the central Christian sacrament of communion, Christ was present only in spirit. He rejected the notion that the body and blood of Jesus could be transubstantiated into the elements of bread and wine served in this sacrament, as Catholic theologians claimed, or could even exist "in, with, and under" the elements as Luther and his followers claimed. Either interpretation of what happened was to Zwingli a form of idolatry, an invitation to people to adore man-made objects like bread and wine as if they were gods. And idolatry, the Bible makes clear, is condemned by God himself. In 1534, posters attacking the Catholic Mass as a form of idolatry were posted throughout France, even on the door of the king's own bedroom. That posting led to savage persecution, with substantial numbers of the Protestants who had supported this argument put to death as heretics or forced to leave the country.

One of those who left France was John Calvin, a highly educated French lawyer and humanist who had become a Protestant. He fled to Basel in Switzerland, where he taught himself theology and wrote a book summarizing the Protestant position, called the Christianae religionis institutio (1536; Institutes of the Christian Religion ). That book won him a new job, after one false start, directing the Reformed Church of Geneva. Geneva had revolted from the government of a prince-bishop and had become an independent republic in alliance with the Swiss cantons. Calvin persuaded the Genevans to create a new form of church government and a new liturgy, and before long a new institution of higher education, an Academy, in which he became a leading teacher. Like Luther, he also became a best-selling author, writing learned biblical commentaries and inflammatory pamphlets, as well as expanding and revising his Institutes. Meanwhile Zwingli had died at a relatively young age, as a chaplain to troops belonging to Zurich engaged in a war with Swiss Catholics. Calvin became the most prominent spokesman for the Reformed branch of Protestantism.

Calvin is probably best known as a theologian for his commitment to predestination, the doctrine that God deserves the sole credit for choosing eternal salvation for every individual who gains it. He added to that relatively orthodox doctrine the idea that God also deserves the sole credit for choosing eternal damnation for every individual who receives it. In other words, he taught double predestination, predestination of the saved and of the damned. He also taught that God had made his decision on whether or not to save or damn each individual before the beginning of time, before these individuals were even created.

Calvin is also known as a church leader for his insistence on discipline, his belief that every individual Christian must not only adopt true belief but also behave in a truly Christian manner. To that end he insisted that Geneva create a new institution charged with maintaining discipline, called the Consistory. And he insisted that this new institution must have real powers, the power to excommunicate any sinner who misbehaved, without any provision for appeal, and to recommend expulsion from the city of sinners who refused to repent and reconcile themselves with the Consistory. This insistence on discipline became a mark of the true church to many of Calvin's followers. Lutherans and Zwinglians said that the only marks of a true church are the teaching of true doctrine and the correct observation of the sacraments. Many Calvinists insisted that there had to be a third mark, the mark of discipline. Calvinism became the most influential form of Protestant Christianity in much of Switzerland, parts of Germany, the Netherlands, Scotland, Hungary, and selected parts of France.

Other Confessions

The Church of England broke with Rome over an entirely different issue. King Henry VIII (r. 15091547) wanted Pope Clement VII to annul his marriage with Catherine of Aragon and leave him free to marry another woman, Anne Boleyn. Catherine had been his brother's wife, and Henry felt that his marriage to her, which was against church law but permitted by an earlier pope, was the reason she had produced no male heirs. Clement refused to act on this request, so Henry's government broke all connections with the papacy, and, with the 1534 Act of Supremacy, made the king head of the Church of England, which remained Catholic in other respects. The government of Henry's son, Edward VI (r. 15471553), went a step further and made the Anglican Church truly Protestant, basically Zwinglian in theology. Edward was succeeded by his sister Mary (r. 15531558), whose government tried to return England to Roman Catholicism. Mary was succeeded by yet another sister, Elizabeth I (r. 15581603), whose government returned England to Protestantism, now basically Calvinist in theology, but retaining much of Catholic liturgy and also retaining ecclesiastical government by bishops, rather than creating government by representative church councils called presbyteries, or classes, or synods, which most of the Reformed preferred.

Another group of early Protestants called themselves names like "Brethren," but were often called by their enemies "Anabaptists" and are generally called by modern scholars "radicals." They insisted on using the Bible as the only guide to religious observance, and among the biblical customs they insisted on was the practice of baptizing people into the church as adults, as believers who understood what they were accepting, rather than as infants who were presented by their parents and godparents. Infant baptism had become customary through the Middle Ages, in part because of a growing belief that everyone is born with the taint of original sin, and that this taint must be washed away by baptism before there is any hope for salvation. Any person who remained unbaptized on death, therefore, ran the risk of damnation without any hope of salvation, or perhaps, in the minds of some theologians, to relegation to a place called Limbo that was neither heaven nor hell. Infant baptism also had the advantage of making all individuals immediate members of the community, without any period of probation. By insisting on believers' baptism, Anabaptists changed both the theological and the social meaning of baptism, and that upset a good many people. Anabaptists were often savagely persecuted for their beliefs, beginning in Zwingli's Zurich where an early group of them emerged. They seldom gained the protection of any government. Numbers of them also known as Mennonites, who became ardent pacifists, managed to survive in the Netherlands and neighboring parts of Germany, tolerated but not permitted to participate actively in society.

Meanwhile, Roman Catholics reacted to all these changes by digging themselves in and drawing the lines of permissible belief more strictly than ever before. That work was accomplished primarily in the Council of Trent, which met between 1545 and 1563, under close direction from a series of popes, and prepared a set of theological decrees and disciplinary canons. Most of the decrees adopted ways of defining Catholic beliefs originally developed by Thomas Aquinas, in preference to alternative views originally developed by William of Ockham, Duns Scotus, and other medieval theologians that been widely accepted before the Reformation. The canons required organizational reforms.

One doctrine of particularly wide practical consequence that Catholics refused to abandon was celibacy. They believed that it was a higher way of life for those who could manage it. They insisted that all secular priests remain celibate, and they also wished to continue communities of contemplative monks and nuns, as well as active friars and sisters, that devoted themselves entirely to the work of the church and did not establish families. Almost all Protestants found the lifestyle of celibacy both unnatural and unnecessary. They wanted their ministers to marry and lead normal family lives, to join society and no longer live in a legally separate caste. And Protestant governments confiscated monasteries and convents, turning them into schools or hospitals, or simply selling the properties. This reduced the range of lifestyle options open to the general population in Protestant lands, particularly for women, who now had little choice but to marry and become housewives. Protestants also changed the institution of marriage in several ways. It was no longer permanent, and could be dissolved in divorce, either for adultery or desertion, at the request of either the husband or wife. In practice, however, divorce remained relatively rare.


By the end of the sixteenth century each of the surviving religious groups identified itself with a succinct statement of belief called a confession. For Lutherans it was the Augsburg Confession, first advanced in 1530 at a meeting of the Diet, the representative body governing the Holy Roman Empire. It was further expanded and refined late in the century in a statement promulgated in 1577, called the Formula of Concord. For the Calvinists there were a variety of national formulations, including the Heidelberg catechism of 1563 in Germany, and Confessions for the Swiss (1566), the French (1559), the Dutch (1561), and the Scottish (1560). For Anglicans it was the Thirty-Nine Articles adopted in 1563. For Anabaptists there were a variety of local doctrinal statements, for example the Schleitheim Articles of 1527. For Catholics there were the decrees and canons of the Council of Trent, as promulgated by popes after 1563. The promulgation of confessions and the insistence on their use to control the belief of government employees, clergymen, and teachers, became one of the distinguishing features of the religious landscape in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. It helped states to consolidate their power, both against their neighbors and against supranational institutions like the Holy Roman Empire and the papacy. It made of this period an era of confessionalism and confessionalization. The resulting tensions led to a number of religious wars, in France between 1562 and 1598, in the Netherlands between 1568 and 1648, and within the Holy Roman Empire between 1618 and 1648. Only when governments stopped making decisions on religious grounds and moved to making them on more secular grounds, by 1648 in most areas, did this age of confessionalism end. Pockets of confessionalism remained in parts of Europe, however, and some of them survive into the present. It can be argued that the Reformation has not as yet completely ended.

See also Christianity ; Religion ; Religion and the State .


Benedict, Philip. Christ's Churches Purely Reformed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2002.

Brady, Thomas A., Jr., Heiko A. Oberman, and James D. Tracy, eds. Handbook of European History, 14001600: Late Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Reformation, 2 vols. Leiden and New York: Brill, 19941995.

Brecht, Martin. Martin Luther, translated by James L. Shaaf, 3 vols. Minneapolis and Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 19851993.

Cameron, Euan. The European Reformation. Oxford: Clarendon, 1991.

Dickens, A. G. The English Reformation. New York: Schocken Books, 1964.

Duffy, Eamon. The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, c. 1400c. 1580. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992.

Jedin, Hubert. Geschichte des Konzils von Trient, 4 vols. Freiburg: Herder, 19491975. The first two volumes have been translated into English as A History of the Council of Trent, translated by Ernest Graf. London: T. Nelson, 19571961.

Kingdon, Robert M. Adultery and Divorce in Calvin's Geneva. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995.

Oberman, Heiko A. The Harvest of Medieval Theology: Gabriel Biel and the Late Medieval Nominalism. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1963.

Potter, G. R. Zwingli. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1976.

Schilling, Heinz. Civic Calvinism in Northwestern Germany and the Netherlands: Sixteenth to Nineteenth Centuries. Kirksville, Mo.: Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers, 1991.

. Religion, Political Culture and the Emergence of Early Modern Society: Essays in German and Dutch History. Leiden and New York: E. J. Brill, 1992.

Wiesner, Merry E. Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press.

Williams, George Huntston. The Radical Reformation, 3rd ed. Kirksville, Mo.: Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers, 1992.

Robert M. Kingdon

Protestant Reformation

views updated May 29 2018

Protestant Reformation

The Protestant Reformation began in Germany in 1517, following Martin Luther's attempt to provoke discussion about reforming the Catholic Church. It rapidly blossomed into an international struggle, resulting in the permanent destruction of Catholic unity in Europe and the creation of many new Christian denominations and sects. By the early 1520s, once it was clear that the break with the Catholic Church was permanent, the reformers faced the challenge of creating stable new churches that could endure the religious conflict of the sixteenth century.

Children were a critical component in the response to this challenge. The reformers were anxious to ensure that the children of their churches would be properly and completely nurtured and educated in the newly defined Christian faith. Protestant reformers saw the family as the fundamental unit for fostering both religious belief and social stability; therefore, they directed more attention to children and families than had the late-medieval Catholic Church. As envisioned by the reformers, the ideal family was a patriarchy in which fathers held ultimate responsibility and authority, but within which mothers were also held accountable for the nurture and education of their offspring. The reformers viewed children as tainted with original sin, like all human beings, yet educable and in need of careful oversight to protect them from the temptations and vices of the world. They insisted on the duty of both fathers and mothers to teach their children Christian beliefs and practices and to discipline them with love and restraint, always with the support of the church community. Another significant contribution was the insistence on the importance of basic education and the attempt to spread literacy so that reformed Christians would be able to read the Bible for themselves.

Protestant Children and Church Ritual

Most reformers, including Martin Luther (1483-1546) in Germany and John Calvin (1509-1564) in Geneva, kept the rite of infant baptism as a sacrament in their churches. The more "radical" or Anabaptist reformers, such as Menno Simons (1496-1561) in the Netherlands and northern Germany, rejected infant baptism and asserted that a person had to proclaim his or her faith and choose to be baptized as an adolescent or adult. While Luther and Calvin maintained the practice of infant baptism, they each altered the Catholic interpretation of what occurred during the sacrament, indicating a changed understanding of the nature of children. Medieval Catholics believed that the sacrament of baptism washed away the original sin that weighed upon the soul of a newborn child. In contrast, the Protestant reformers emphasized the burden that original sin placed on all human beings, including baptized children. There was no exact Protestant consensus on the effects of baptism, but generally they held that it was not an act of purification that automatically protected the child from future harm, but rather a sign of God's grace and covenant with the child, the parents, and the wider church community. The baptismal ceremony also marked the commitment of parents and community to raise the child in the Christian faith. Children were considered to be particularly susceptible to the distractions and vices of the world, and adolescents even more so. For this reason they required careful supervision and loving discipline to help them learn piety and Christian responsibility.

Another change that occurred with the Protestant Reformation was the delay of confirmation until adolescence. While confirmation was no longer understood to be a sacrament, Protestant churches still marked a child's profession of faith and official entrance into the church with some ceremony. In medieval Catholicism, children received confirmation sometime between the moment of baptism and age seven. The reformers held that such an act required that the child have achieved some level of spiritual maturity, which they generally believed coincided approximately with physical maturity. In delaying confirmation until adolescence (in the most extreme cases until the age of eighteen), the reformers were pushing back the age of discretion, thereby extending the time during which children were not held fully responsible for their actions.


Both the delay of confirmation, in the case of Luther and Calvin, and the delay of baptism, in the case of the Anabaptists, made the proper education of children imperative. A main premise of the Protestant Reformation was that individual Christians could communicate directly with God through prayer and study of the Scripture. The reformers sought to foster this relationship by providing catechisms and establishing schools to teach both boys and girls to read. Luther and Calvin each, in their efforts to aid in the training of children, produced catechisms that could be used by parents and ministers to teach children and adults in need of religious instruction. Such catechisms were written in the form of questions and responses about the basic tenets of the Christian faith. They were printed in the vernacular (for example, German or English, rather than Latin), in simple language, and could be expeditiously published and distributed across a region with the aid of the printing press, which had been in use in Europe since the 1450s.

Both boys and girls were expected to learn such catechisms at home, at church, and even at school. Girls' schools and coeducational schools were both established during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but schools for boys appeared more rapidly. Girls were more often expected to receive their education at home, focusing on the catechism in order to learn pious behavior. Scholars continue to debate the effectiveness of these efforts at education and indoctrination in different parts of Europe. It is generally agreed that, while the reformers' efforts at education did not succeed as perfectly or completely as they hoped, literacy rates across sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe improved more quickly in Protestant areas than in Catholic areas. Ultimately, the schools created during the Reformation became a part of the standard European educational systems.

Discipline and Obligation

Luther, Calvin, and Simons all insisted upon the obligation of children to respect, obey, and assist their parents. Parents had a corresponding duty to love, nurture, and discipline their children, both for the protection of the children and in the interest of creating a stable community. It is noteworthy that this obligation extended to illegitimate children as well. While Catholic authorities were more willing to expend resources on caring for abandoned children in the interest of protecting the honor of unwed mothers, Protestant officials went to great lengths to ensure that parents took responsibility for raising their children born out of wedlock.

"Godly" parents were expected to nurture their children physically and spiritually; this included a strict but compassioante discipline. Corporal punishment, including beating, was acceptable in moderation in order to help children learn to resist the many vices that the world pressed upon them. But extreme abuse, neglect, and overindulgence were all seen as threats to children. To combat these various extremes, the reformers emphasized the notion that nurturing their children according to Protestant teachings was one way that Christian parents served God. Calvin wrote, "Unless men regard their children as the gift of God, they are careless and reluctant in providing for their support" (quoted in Pitkin, p. 171). In the case of Anabaptists, children depended upon their parents not for Christian instruction that built upon their baptism, but rather for the education in the Christian faith that would one day enable them to choose to be baptized. While the issue of infant baptism was a significant division between Anabaptists and other Protestants, in practice they took similar steps to raise their children as both faithful Christians and responsible citizens. Simons advised Anabaptist parents regarding their children, "If they transgress, reprove them sharply. If they are childish, bear them patiently. If they are of teachable age, instruct them in a Christian fashion. Dedicate them to the Lord from youth" (quoted in Miller, p. 208).

The Protestant Influence

Reformers' thoughts on child care were made popular by numerous books on child rearing. Church and state authorities attempted to reinforce these ideas through such instruments as the consistories, or morals courts, established in Reformed ("Calvinist") communities. But despite these efforts, it is important to remember that the reformers' views were not consistently put into practice by all Protestant parents. Indeed, it is likely that few parentsfathers or motherslived up to the reformers' mandate to instruct their children fully in Protestant theology and beliefs. While reformers sometimes criticized parents for disciplining their children too harshly, a more frequent complaint was that parents were indulging their children, and thus neglecting their spiritual and moral welfare. Another area of dispute involved selecting godparents for a newborn child. Calvin and the Genevan reformers insisted that parents should choose godparents only from among the Reformed community, so that they might serve as spiritual mentors for children. But, maintaining earlier traditions, some parents insisted upon inviting relatives from Catholic towns to be godparents. Finally, the belief that baptism cleansed a child of original sin and was a prerequisite for salvation persisted among some Protestants, despite the reformers' teachings to the contrary. Practices such as "reviving" dead infants in order to baptize them continued throughout the early modern period.

Nonetheless, the Protestant Reformation had significant and lasting effects on the treatment of and attitudes toward children in early modern Europe. Where the reformers clashed with parents regarding their children, it was because both parents and church officials had strong opinions about the best way to raise a child to become a responsible citizen, a faithful Christian, and a dutiful son or daughter. The Protestant reformers began efforts at widespread education that would come to the forefront once again during the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. They emphasized the notion that childhood was a period of nurture, discipline, and learning. And they reiterated frequently the mutual obligation that parents and children had toward one another.

See also: Catholicism; Islam; Judaism.


Ben-Amos, Ilana Krausman. 1994. Adolescence and Youth in Early Modern England. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

DeMolen, Richard L. 1975. "Childhood and the Sacraments in the Sixteenth Century." Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte/Archive for Reformation History 66: 49-70.

Fletcher, Anthony. 1994. "Prescription and Practice: Protestantism and the Upbringing of Children, 1560-1700." In The Church and Childhood, ed. Diana Wood. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

Harrington, Joel. 1998. "Bad Parents, the State, and the Early Modern Civilizing Process." German History 16:16-28.

Luke, Carmen. 1989. Pedagogy, Printing, and Protestantism: The Discourse on Childhood. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Marshall, Sherrin. 1991. "Childhood in Early Modern Europe." In Children in Historical and Comparative Perspective: An International Handbook and Research Guide, ed. Joseph M. Hawes and N. Ray Hiner. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Miller, Keith Graber. 2001. "Complex Innocence, Obligatory Nurturance, and Parental Vigilance: 'The Child' in the Work of Menno Simons." In The Child in Christian Thought, ed. Marcia J. Bunge. Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmans.

Ozment, Steven. 1983. When Fathers Ruled: Family Life in Reformation Europe. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Pitkin, Barbara. 2001. "'The Heritage of the Lord': Children in the Theology of John Calvin." In The Child in Christian Thought, ed. Marcia J. Bunge. Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmans.

Pollock, Linda. 2001. "Parent-Child Relations." In Family Life in Early Modern Times, 1500-1789, ed. Marzio Barbagli and David I. Kertzer. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Strauss, Gerald. 1978. Luther's House of Learning: Indoctrination of the Young in Reformation Germany. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Tudor, Philippa. 1984. "Religious Instruction for Children and Adolescents in the Early English Reformation." Journal of Ecclesiastical History 35: 391-413.

Watt, Jeffrey R. 2001. "The Impact of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation." In Family Life in Early Modern Times, 1500-1789, ed. Marzio Barbagli and David I. Kertzer. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Wiesner, Merry E. 1993. Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe, 2nd ed. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Karen E. Spierling

Reformation, the

views updated May 18 2018

Reformation, the. Movements for reform in the Christian Church in the West, in the early 16th cent. This was arguably the greatest crisis in Christendom before the challenges of the present time. Modern scholarship no longer seeks to spell out the causes of a reformation movement in simplistic terms, and it is very important to think of reformations in the plural. In some quarters critiques of Roman papal orthodoxy and the Catholic status quo were referred to as the search for ‘a new divinity’; and when the original protestors gained a following, they were known eventually as ‘protestants’. Orthodoxy in the late medieval parish was dominated by what has aptly been described as ‘the mechanics of ritualised religion’, which put faith into non-verbal language. This was deeply affected and called in question by the invention of the printing press.

Prominent in the critical appraisal of the debate, with its distance from pastoral involvement, was Desiderius Erasmus (c.1466–1536). He sought a textual basis for faith. His Colloquies popularized the need for Church reform ‘in head and members’. In his aim to secure religious, moral, and social reform, he anticipated much of the programme later adopted by Luther (1483–1546), and by the Swiss and other ‘protestant’ theologians. His influence was also felt throughout the Catholic Church, not least in his work on the New Testament, writing a critical exposition of the received text. He wanted lay people to read the Bible. In this he was helped by the invention of printing. But it was for others to work out what the pastoral and theological consequences would be of accurate, widely available Bibles, especially when translated into the vernacular.

The lead from university to parish was made by Luther. He is usually remembered for his outburst against the selling of indulgences, and for his challenge to Johann Tetzel (c.1465–1519), Luther's understanding of justification by faith alone (justificatio sola fide) he held out as a ‘re-discovery’ of the gospel. Moving away from Augustine, he understood justification as the instantaneous realization that sinners are forgiven and made righteous by the work of the crucified Christ. By imputation, fallen humanity had been reconciled in Christ to God the Creator. The unmerited grace of the Almighty is conveyed to sinners because of the atoning work of Christ on the Cross (Sermon of the Threefold Righteousness, 1518). Luther's stand as a reformer is far clearer in the Christocentric emphasis of the Heidelberg Disputation (Apr. 1518), with its theology of the Cross, its contrast of ‘law’ and ‘gospel’, and its departure from scholasticism, than in the notoriety he gained by circulating Ninety-Five Theses (Oct. 1517) in order to debate the indulgence controversy.

Nothing in W. Christendom was quite the same again. Already threatened with excommunication (Exsurge Domine gave Luther sixty days to recant), the Edict of Worms (May 1521) outlawed him and placed him under ban for seeking to ‘disseminate errors and depart from the Christian way’. He was saved by another of the key factors in the reformations: the lay ruler of his country, Friedrich, Elector of Ernestine Saxony (from 1486 to 1525), smuggled him into exile. Kidnapped, he was taken to Wartburg, and there, in a seclusion which he called ‘my Patmos’, he worked out the full implications of his stand, with profound consequences. In two tracts of 1520, he had already sought to recruit both secular authority and sympathetic clergy. A third, the celebrated Treatise of the Liberty of a Christian Man (1520), commended the new faith to those who would know Christ. With the aid of Melanchthon (1497–1560), he masterminded a visitation of Saxon churches, and by his Catechisms (1529) he sought to instruct ‘common people’. Embattled in controversy with both radicals and ‘holy Rome’, he proved a natural leader and pastor.

Luther was protected in his ‘reformation’ by a prince. Another reformer, Ulrich Zwingli (1484–1531), addressed himself to a very different task in his Swiss City State, with different results: Zwingli in Zurich illustrates the way a people's priest (Leutpriester) might work with the civic authorities and, by public disputation, defeat the bishop and his representative in debate. The argument that popular demand could legitimately accomplish the will of God (vox populi being accounted vox Dei) enabled Zwingli to abolish the Mass in Zurich (1525) and to secularize convents and monasteries to fund the common chest.

Again distinct but of huge consequence for the W. Church was the work and ministry of John Calvin (1509–64), who promoted John Knox (the reformer in Scotland, c.1505–72) to proclaim Geneva ‘the most perfect school of Christ that ever was in earth since the days of the apostles’. Calvin, just after he had published The Institutes (Christianae Religionis Institutae, 1536), was diverted to Geneva because of troop movements in the Italian Wars. Recognized by the fiery Farel (1489–1565), he was prevailed on to help those who had only ‘a little while before expelled the papacy’ from their midst. By 1538, when the authorities reacted again and repudiated the reform party, he reached Strasburg, enjoying an influential three-year stay with Martin Bucer (1491–1551). The pause was not to last. In 1541 the Magistracy of Geneva invited him to fill a preaching role at the Cathedral of St Pierre. For the next twenty-five years he became a prophet of Christian order, denouncing the religion of Rome as a legal tyranny and as entirely false by the standards of The Acts of the Apostles and of the organization of the primitive Church. His Ecclesiastical Ordinances (1514) repudiated the role of bishops and priests, arguing instead for the oversight of ordained ‘pastors’ and ‘doctors’ (teachers), and the new lay offices of ‘elder’ and ‘deacon’. The influence of Calvin was direct through his College of Geneva, founded in 1559 to prepare pastors to promote biblical theology throughout Europe (and later, via England, Scotland, and Holland, to evangelize the New World). The definitive edition of The Institutes was published in that year and adopted as a training text. Calvin succeeded in reaching a measure of agreement with Zwingli in 1549 (Consensus Tigurinus) and thus did something to correct the divisive effects of the number of different Protestant reformations.

Unlike the Protestant reformation in Europe, the reformation in England focused first on the needs of the ruler and only secondly on a desire to change theological formulae and lay piety. The earlier protests of John Wycliffe and of the Lollards, and the movement toward vernacular Scripture, tended to be confined to an area and to be successfully persecuted as ‘heresy’. The desire of Henry VIII (1491–1547, r. 1509–47) to annul his marriage with Catherine of Aragon obliged him to repudiate the restrictions of Roman canon law and ultimately the papacy itself. He used the Parliament of England to help him, and he put in positions of strategic importance Thomas Cromwell (c.1485–1540) and Thomas Cranmer, the former as Secretary and Vicegerent, the latter as Archbishop of Canterbury. They steered a largely reluctant king toward the dissolution of the monasteries, a number of restatements of doctrine, and (most importantly) the order that a Bible in English should be put in every church (1539).

By the time Henry died a Litany in English had been produced, but under his son, Edward VI, liturgical reform began in earnest, with the Book of Common Prayer of 1549, revised in 1552. Had the boy-king lived, reformation in England would have been different: his death in 1553 illustrates the crucial importance of supportive secular authority.

Edward was succeeded by the daughter of Catherine of Aragon, Mary. She reinstated the power of the papacy and a medieval liturgy in Latin. Cranmer was burned, and the stage was set for the restoration of Catholicism. It was not to be. In 1558 Mary was succeeded in England by Elizabeth (1533–1603, r. 1558–1603). Elizabeth owed her birth to her father's repudiation of Rome, and she knew the pain that religious upheaval caused. Under her, with the help of Parliament and of Matthew Parker, her able Archbishop of Canterbury, a Protestant settlement of religion was established by law. The Book of Common Prayer of 1552 was adopted with emendations; the Church was to be episcopally governed under the Queen and Parliament. The theological enquiry and defence of the settlement resumed, notably at the hands of John Jewel (1522–71) and Richard Hooker (1553–1600). Gradually parishes in England came into step.

Throughout the 16th cent., the Catholic Church also underwent reformation. This spontaneous movement to reform the religious life, to re-evangelize Protestant countries, and to convert the newly discovered peoples of America and of the East, was associated with the emergence of the new religious Order of Jesuits, under Ignatius of Loyola. Other Orders were reformed, especially in Spain with St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross, with an influence still felt today. The attempts by the Council of Trent (1545–7, 1551–2, 1562) to heal the rifts in Christian unity were a failure, but the Council achieved new definitions of justification and a revised liturgy. Papal sovereignty became more firmly entrenched, with permanent status being given to Congregations (committees of cardinals) such as those which formed the Inquisition (1542) and Index (1566) to safeguard Catholic faith and practice.

The resulting transformation of Europe at the hands of different reformers was the rending of the seamless robe. This was the price paid for a Catholic Church no longer as corrupt in its head and members as it had been when Erasmus surveyed it. All the reformations, Protestant or Catholic, needed to use education to their own advantage: schools were founded and refounded, and the advance of literacy meant that reason ultimately replaced indoctrination. The Reformation also did much to awaken social conscience, although not with immediate effect. Philanthropy was on both sides of a great divide—no mean harvest yielded by those whose new-found commitment resulted in lives of thank-offering after the assurance of salvation.

Cultural achievement is more difficult to estimate. There were advances in portraiture and music, as with Cranach (1472–1533) and the Bach family. Above all else, the revolution in printing, a process updated with moveable type and new paper, promoted a quite different spirituality, to give heart and transforming faith that must ultimately symbolize the magnitude of this significant crisis in Christendom.


Protestant Reformation

views updated May 18 2018

Protestant Reformation

The Protestant Reformation was a religious movement that began in Germany in the 1500s and eventually spread throughout western and central Europe. Before the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church was the center of Christianity in Europe. By the end of the 1500s, however, various rival churches had formed to challenge its dominance. These changes in religion had profound effects on political, social, economic, and intellectual life. They also contributed to the outbreak of civil wars in Germany, France, the Netherlands, and Scotland.

Roots of the Movement. The Protestant Reformation grew out of the religious conditions of the late Middle Ages. Historians disagree about the state of the Catholic Church during this period. Some believe that the church was in a period of spiritual decline, while others claim that most Christians were satisfied with it. In any case, it is clear that there were problems in the Catholic Church at this time. For example, the popes of the period often focused on politics and neglected important religious matters.

Many Catholics sought reforms within the church. Some of the most powerful voices for reform belonged to the humanists* of the early Renaissance. In the early 1500s, Christian humanists such as Desiderius Erasmus of the Netherlands and Jacques Lefèvre d'Etaples of France hoped to renew religion by returning to the original sources of Christianity. Their interest in classical* thought led many humanists to produce new translations of ancient texts, including the Scriptures.

Lutheran Reforms. Martin Luther (1483–1546), a German monk, brought these tensions to a head in the early 1500s. A biblical scholar, Luther developed a new theology* that challenged many Catholic beliefs. In 1517 he issued a series of statements, known as the Ninety-five Theses, which questioned certain practices of the Roman Catholic Church. Humanist scholars soon adopted Luther's ideas and helped spread them. Publishers distributed his works throughout Germany, bringing him wide fame. The Catholic Church, however, accused Luther of heresy*. In 1521 the pope excommunicated* him and Holy Roman Emperor* Charles V declared him an outlaw. To avoid arrest, Luther went into hiding.

Meanwhile, Luther's followers were debating ways to put his ideas into practice. Eventually, they proposed a series of moderate changes in religious ritual and belief. Many German states and independent cities accepted these reforms. Close cultural and economic ties between Germany and the Scandinavian countries helped spread Lutheran ideas in northern Europe. At first, students and preachers played an influential role in the reform movement there. Later, the kings of Denmark and Sweden adopted the new faith as a way to weaken the power of Catholic bishops and to create state churches under their own control.

The Lutheran reforms caused a significant amount of social upheaval in Germany. Tension developed between supporters and opponents of the new movement. In 1524 the Peasants' War broke out, with farmers and townspeople protesting the policies of local lords and church leaders and demanding various rights. Troubled by these events and by the possibility of a permanent split in the church, a number of writers who had once supported Luther drew back. In 1524 Erasmus published an attack on one of Luther's major religious ideas. Many other humanists also turned against the Reformation, although some became preachers of the new faith.

Movements in Switzerland. Former humanists also took up the cause of reform in Switzerland. Between 1520 and 1525, Swiss preacher Huldrych Zwingli persuaded the city of Zurich to adopt drastic religious reforms. Other Swiss cities followed a few years later. However, Zwingli disagreed with Luther on certain central religious ideas, causing a split between the groups led by the two reformers. Protestantism remained divided from this point forward.

The pace of change in Zurich was not rapid enough to satisfy some of Zwingli's followers. One group, known as the Anabaptists, organized its own rival churches. In 1534, Anabaptist extremists seized control of the German city of Münster. They established an authoritarian* government, banned all books except the Bible, and expelled or massacred all people whom they considered "godless." Eventually, Catholics and Lutherans who had been exiled by the Anabaptists stormed the city and regained control. Thereafter, the Anabaptist movement all but disappeared.

Calvinism. Beginning in the 1520s, humanists known as evangelicals helped bring about a reformation movement in France. They drew their beliefs from the writings of French reformer John Calvin. In 1536 Calvin published Institutes of the Christian Religion, a powerful statement of religious ideas drawn from Luther, Zwingli, and other writers.

Calvin settled in the Swiss city of Geneva, where he developed a church organization that became a model for Protestants throughout Europe. His plan depended on cooperation between church and state. Calvin also emphasized the importance of education in reformed Christianity. At his urging, Geneva founded an academy that provided a humanist education and training in theology to future ministers. Many individuals who studied there went on to play leading roles in the Reformation.

As Calvinism spread into Catholic societies, it became a source of both political and religious conflict. In France, the Netherlands, and Scotland, independent Calvinist churches were linked together in a tightly woven structure. As a group, they tended to oppose royal policy and often found themselves in conflict with Catholic monarchs. In 1562, the first of a series of Wars of Religion between Catholics and Protestants broke out in France. The wars continued until 1598, when the Edict of Nantes legalized the French Reformed Church.

Meanwhile, the Netherlands was under Spanish rule. In 1572, the Dutch rebelled and began to fight for their independence. Although the war began as a political struggle, it soon became a religious one as well. The Calvinist northern provinces won their independence, but the southern provinces remained under the control of the Catholic king of Spain.

In Scotland, Protestants led by preacher John Knox opposed the Catholic queen, Mary Stuart. In the 1560s, they forced the queen into exile, rejected the authority of the pope and bishops, and established the Calvinist church as a major force in Scottish life. Calvinism also gained a following in eastern Europe, especially in Poland, Bohemia, and Hungary.

The Reformation in England. The Protestant movement triumphed in England partly as a result of problems with the royal succession*. In the late 1520s, Henry VIII sought an annulment* from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, who had failed to produce a male heir. When the pope denied his request, England dissolved its ties with the Catholic Church. The doctrine of the new English church remained officially Catholic for the rest of Henry's life. However, two of Henry's close advisers, Thomas Cranmer (the archbishop of Canterbury) and Thomas Cromwell (the chief minister), were influenced by Lutheran ideas.

Under Edward VI (ruled 1547–1553), England made further progress toward becoming a Protestant nation. Archbishop Cranmer oversaw the publication of an English-language prayer book that kept the outer forms of Catholic worship but was based on Protestant theology. When Mary I took the throne in 1553, she attempted to restore Catholicism. However, because she reigned only briefly and failed to produce an heir, the change did not last.

In 1558 Elizabeth I came to power and took a moderate position favoring Protestants. The following year, she approved the Act of Supremacy, which denied the authority of the pope and recognized the queen as head of the English church. Most people accepted Elizabeth's policies and began to use the new English prayer book. However, some Protestants, known as Puritans, objected to Elizabeth's control of the church. They formed an active minority and continued to seek additional reforms into the 1600s.

(See alsoBible; Catholic Reformation and Counter-Reformation; Christianity; Humanism; Preaching and Sermons; Puritanism; Religious Thought. )

* humanist

Renaissance expert in the humanities (the languages, literature, history, and speech and writing techniques of ancient Greece and Rome)

* classical

in the tradition of ancient Greece and Rome

* theology

study of the nature of God and of religion

* heresy

belief that is contrary to the doctrine of an established church

* excommunicate

to exclude from the church and its rituals

* Holy Roman Emperor

ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, a political body in central Europe composed of several states that existed until 1806

see color plate 12, vol. 4

* authoritarian

referring to strong leadership with unrestricted powers

see color plate 11, vol. 4

Reformation and the Arts

The Reformation had a significant impact on the arts. For example, Lutheran reformers altered the use of music in church, switching to songs with lyrics written in German rather than Latin. The followers of Zwingli and Calvin made even more drastic changes. They restricted the use of music, avoided colorful ceremony, and eliminated religious images they saw as idolatrous. The arts continued to flourish in countries that adopted the Reformed Church, but they moved from the church to the home and focused more on nonreligious subjects.

* succession

determination of person who will inherit the throne

* annulment

formal declaration that a marriage is legally invalid


views updated May 21 2018

Reformation. Although ‘reform’ means many things, ‘the Reformation’ always denotes the 16th-cent. division of Latin Christendom into protestant and catholic. protestantism rejected the catholic belief that salvation comes through grace received in the sacraments and other rites of the traditional church; it restricted the church's role to one of proclaiming the unmerited gift of divine forgiveness. The Church of England, established by statute in 1559, was unambiguously protestant. However, hindsight, and the diversity of later Anglicanism, has led many to argue that the Church of England stands somehow midway between catholic and reformed traditions.

1. Before the Reformation

The church in England c.1500 was devoutly catholic and loyally papalist. Many parish churches were extravagantly rebuilt, and lavished with vessels and ornaments which foreign visitors thought worthy of a cathedral. Kings and popes usually got on well: royal orators and cardinals-protector handled the nation's business at the curia, and royal nominees were accepted for major church posts. The ‘English heresy’, lollardy, always threatened the church more in theory than practice: while it called for disendowment of the hierarchy, it had little effect on church wealth, privileges, or even attendance.

2. The early English reformers

The fame of the German Reformation leader Martin Luther (1483–1546) caught the imagination of some English followers in the 1520s. Churchmen including Thomas Bilney (c.1495–1531), Robert Barnes (d. 1540), and the Bible translator and controversialist William Tyndale (c.1494–1536) reinterpreted the Reformation message. However, their support was confined to young university students and those with foreign connections. They posed no threat, though Thomas Wolsey burned heretic books publicly, and Thomas More wrote against Tyndale.

3. The royal marriage and the ‘humanist’ phase

Henry VIII's failure to secure papal annulment of his first marriage led to the break with the papacy during 1532–6. This policy required theoretical justification if the king was to carry such a profoundly catholic nation into schism. Thomas Cromwell recruited a number of young humanist writers, whose propaganda pieces criticized both the papacy and some aspects of the old cults, such as papal indulgences. The Ten Articles of 1536 and the two sets of Injunctions of 1536 and 1538, together with the ‘Bishops’ Book' of 1537, sought to strip away many of the festivals, relic-cults, shrines, and even parts of the service for the dead. Nevertheless, these moves were not avowedly ‘protestant’: Henry VIII detested Luther and loathed the Swiss heresies against the presence of Christ in the sacrament. Though Thomas Cromwell's commissioners who toured the doomed monasteries in 1535–6 mocked spurious relics and hunted dissolute monks, the ensuing abolition of the monastic order had no declared religious rationale. During 1539–43 conservative tendencies stopped the embryonic protestantism of Henrician England in its tracks: certain catholic beliefs and practices were reaffirmed, ‘sacramentarian’ heretics burned, and Bible-reading restricted by statute. Nevertheless, Henry never ceased to trust his reform-minded archbishop Thomas Cranmer, and even suggested to a bemused ambassador in 1546 that he and the French king might together abolish the mass.

4. Public protestantism under Edward VI

All ambiguity was swept away in the next reign. Revision of the mass-book began almost at once, leading in 1549 to the publication of Cranmer's first, very cautious, Book of Common Prayer. Meanwhile royal commissioners ruthlessly stripped parish churches of most of the ornaments and furniture associated with the old cult. Distinguished continental reformers such as Martin Bucer and Pier Martire Vermigli settled in the universities and influenced further changes in worship. In 1552 a revision of the Prayer Book simplified the apparatus of worship to the barest protestant essentials, and its abusive anti-papal rhetoric left no room for doubt. The Forty-Two Articles of Doctrine in 1553 set out reformed beliefs.

5. Catholicism restored, 1553–1558

Mary I inherited religious legislation, in her eyes ultra vires and void, which took some eighteen months to reverse. Nevertheless, priests and laity restored the mass at the mere breath of royal suggestion. In 1554 most ‘scandalously’ married priests accepted their humiliation and went back to saying mass. Once owners of monastic lands were assured of their titles, papal authority was received back with some enthusiasm. Protestantism remained confined to cells mostly in southern and eastern England. The impact of the campaign which burned c.280 heretics between 1555 and 1558 was greater in hindsight (helped by Foxe's martyrology) than at the time. Many counties saw no burnings or only a few; latterly they took place in London at dawn, attended only by groups of demonstrators from the clandestine congregation.

6. A precarious settlement, 1558–1563

Elizabeth, daughter of Anne Boleyn and legatee of the schism, found the catholic hierarchy much more stubborn than in 1531–3. Re-establishment of the royal supremacy and abolition of the mass required an almost clean sweep of the episcopate, and careful management of Parliament, which wrecked the proposals several times. It is now generally accepted that catholic resistance was the chief reason for the delay, caution, and occasional ambiguity of the Elizabethan church settlement. The anti-papal abuse of the 1552 Prayer Book was excised from the 1559 version; ineffectual efforts were made to restore some vestments and restrain priestly marriage. Even the Thirty-Nine Articles approved by convocation in 1563 were altered by the queen herself, probably to placate conservatives.

7. The making of a protestant people

The new bishops chosen by Elizabeth from leading reformed clergy in 1559, and most protestant zealots, assumed that the concessions made to tradition were temporary sops, to be discarded once the regime was secure. To their increasing horror and bewilderment, they found that the queen obstinately refused to strip away the veneer of ritual, and tried to stick it back where it was removed illegally. She feared that combative, doctrinaire protestant preaching still risked alienating parts of the kingdom and sparking a religious war: the restoration of the mass during the northern earls' revolt of 1569, and her excommunication by the pope in 1570, lent these fears substance. In the ‘puritan’ controversies of the 1570s Elizabeth found and nurtured a faction of clerics led by John Whitgift (archbishop of Canterbury 1583–1604) which believed with equal zeal in protestant dogma, episcopal church government, and traditionalist ceremonial. So was the peculiar hybrid ‘Anglican’ church, founded both on Foxe's Martyrs and on Hooker's Ecclesiastical Polity, brought to birth by the end of the 16th cent.

Euan Cameron


Cameron, E. , The European Reformation (Oxford, 1991);
Cowan, I. B. , The Scottish Reformation: Church and Society in Sixteenth-Century Scotland (New York, 1982);
Dickens, A. G. , The English Reformation (1964);
Donaldson, G. , The Scottish Reformation (Cambridge, 1960);
Haigh, C. (ed.), The English Reformation Revised (Cambridge, 1987);
Sheils, W. J. , The English Reformation, 1530–1570 (1989).

Reformation, Protestant

views updated Jun 11 2018

Reformation, Protestant

A movement that set Christian religious leaders against the teachings and practices of the Catholic Church, and which reached the height of its influence during the late Renaissance. In essence, Protestants rejected the authority of the pope and transformed the meaning of religious faith, rejecting the traditional role of the priest and the sacraments.

The Protestant Reformation was prompted by the new scholarship that emerged in the early Renaissance. Traditional medieval philosophy attempted to perfect and explain religious doctrine, never to question it. The new humanism introduced debate and investigation into the subject of religious doctrine. Philosophers and writers disagreed on the nature of the soul, on the ideas of sin and salvation, the nature of Christ as a manifestation of God, and the relation of religious and secular authority. This questioning was further spurred by the invention of the printing press and the wider circulation of new books and ideas.

Protestantism also grew out of a drive for reform of Catholic institutions in the fifteenth century. The sale of indulgences (remissions of punishment for sins), the practice of simony (sale of church offices), and the growing wealth and political power of the church set off a reaction among many members of the church. Jan Hus, a reformer from Bohemia, dared to question papal authority and criticize the Catholic hierarchy, for which he was burned at the stake in 1415. The German monk Martin Luther a century later developed his doctrine of justification by faith alone, an idea that eliminated the need for priests, bishops, popes, and the entire Catholic hierarchy in the spiritual life of the individual. Luther's ideas were taken up by Huldrych Zwingli in southern Germany and Switzerland, leading to the establishment of the Reformed Church.

In the time of Martin Luther, a new humanist education was allowing young scholars to question accepted traditions. Luther became a hero in cities throughout Germany, where his followers destroyed Catholic images and refused to take part in Catholic ritual. Protestantism became the majority religion in the 1530s, as local rulers adopted Luther's doctrine to declare their independence from the Catholic emperor. After his petition for a divorce from Catherine of Aragon was denied by the pope, King Henry VIII of England established a Protestant church in his domainthe Church of Englandseizing Catholic properties, exiling or executing Catholic leaders, abolishing monastic orders, and rejecting outright the authority of the pope. At the same time, Luther's doctrines spread into the Low Countries and Switzerland, while in France, Protestants known as Huguenots were making up a growing minority in the Christian community.

Eventually the Protestant movement was met by an effort of reform by the Catholic Church and by new institutions designed to combat Protestantism, including the Inquisition, the Index of Prohibited Books, and the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits, a missionary and educational organization. Many territories returned to Catholicism, but the Christian church was left permanently divided, and the rivalry between Catholic and Protestant would play a central role in the devastating Thirty Years' War of the early seventeenth century.

See Also: Calvin, John; Luther, Martin; Reformation, Catholic; Zwingli, Huldrych


views updated May 23 2018

Reformation Sixteenth-century European movement that sought reform of the universal Catholic Church and resulted in the development of Protestantism. More than a revolt against the ecclesiastical and doctrinal authority of the Church, it also represented a protest by many theologians and scholars against the interference of the Church in secular matters and the questionable activities of the contemporary clergy, notably the sale of indulgences and holy relics. In the 14th and 15th centuries, the Catholic Church had been tested by the Lollards, the Hussites, and humanism. According to tradition, the Reformation started in 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the Schlosskirche in Wittenburg, Germany. Luther's attack on the corruption of the Church and the doctrines of papal supremacy, transubstantiation, and clerical celibacy won the support of several German princes. In Zurich, Switzerland, the Reformation was led first by Ulrich Zwingli, and then by John Calvin. Calvinism was adopted in France (see Huguenots), the Netherlands, and Scandinavia. In England, the Reformation was more politically than religiously inspired. In 1534, Thomas Cromwell drafted the Act of Supremacy that rejected papal authority, and made King Henry VIII the head of the English Church. Under Edward VI, Protestantism was established by the Book of Common Prayer (1552). In 1559, in the reign of Elizabeth I, the Church of England was formally established. In Scotland, the Reformation was led by John Knox, and Presbyterianism was established as the state religion in 1560. See also Counter-Reformation

Reformation, Catholic

views updated May 17 2018

Reformation, Catholic

The Catholic Reformation, or Counter-Reformation, was the effort by the Catholic Church to stem the tide of Protestantism that was sweeping across northern Europe by the middle of the sixteenth century. In response to charges of corruption and the greed for wealth and power, the church undertook reforms and established new institutions, including the Inquisition, to counter the Protestants. This campaign was begun by Pope Paul III, who convened the Council of Trent in 1545. Over the next eighteen years, the Council made important changes to the structure of the Catholic Church, reaffirmed church doctrine in questions of the Mass and the sacraments, and reformed the training of priests. The Council of Trent rejected Protestant Reformation leader Martin Luther's doctrine of justification by faith alone, leaving no room for compromise with Protestants on the central issue of the nature of faith. It was followed by the creation in 1559 of the Index of Prohibited Books, which controlled the exposure of Catholic believers to new ideas and unorthodox philosophies. In the meantime, new religious orders such as the Capuchins were founded in order to preach among the common people.

The Counter-Reformation was a military and political effort as well. Catholic monarchs, including Emperor Charles V, fought against Protestant princes in Germany and central Europe. King Philip II of Spain campaigned against Protestant rebels in the Low Countries and dispatched the Spanish Armada against England. Ignatius Loyola established the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits, to return Protestants to the Catholic fold and gather new converts among the people of newly discovered colonies in Asia and the Americas. Jesuit schools throughout Catholic Europe instructed students in the faith.

The Catholic Reformation was supported by many prominent scholars, including Sir Thomas More of England and Desiderius Erasmus, who opposed the Protestants' complete rejection of Catholic authority. The movement, however, also represented a reaction against the humanist ideas that had inspired Renaissance scholars, artists, and writers. The views of scientists such as Galileo Galilei and Nicolaus Copernicus were condemned, even as the church eliminated the practice of selling indulgences and put a stop to the accumulation of ostentatious luxuries in the papal court in Rome. The Catholic Reformation was successful in bringing many European territories back into the church, including Austria, Poland, Hungary, southern Germany, and Bohemia.

See Also: Catholicism; Papacy; Reformation, Protestant

About this article


All Sources -
Updated Aug 18 2018 About content Print Topic