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A movement during the 1500's in Western Europe opposing and breaking from the excesses and absolute spiritual control of the Catholic Church.


An English reformer, John Wyclif (c1328-1384) held the Christ is a man's only overlord and that power should depend on a state of grace. The good offices of the church are not requisite to grace and the scriptures are the supreme authority. He wrote the Wyclif Bible.

A Czech religious reformer, John Huss (c1369-1415), of peasant origins, born in Husinec, Bohemia was ordained a priest in c1400. He translated Wyclif's Triologus into Czech. He was burned at the stake. He inspired a series of conflicts in the 15th century called the Hussite Wars. The Hussites rose up in Bohemia and Moravia. It was not only a struggle between the Hussites and the Roman Catholic Church, but a national struggle between Czechs and Germans and landed and peasant classes.

The Humanism of the renaissance.

The advent of printing hastened the Reformation

The rise of cities.

Protestantism linked to capitalism.

    Martin Luther

1483—1546. The German leader of the Protestant Reformation born Eisleben, Saxony, of a family of small, but free, landholders. He was ordained a priest in 1507 and became a professor at Wittenberg. Intimate with John von Staupitz. Luther believed the gift of salvation was to be received through faith, against which all good works were as nothing. This was born of turmoil with his own salvation which led previously to asceticism. From 1516 on, as a consequence of his new convictions, Luther felt compelled to protest the dispensation of indulgences. The arrival of Johann Tetzel in Saxony in 1517 to proclaim the indulgence granted by Leo X prompted Luther to post his historic 95 theses on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg. His Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation (1520) supported the new nationalism by advocating German control of German ecclesiastical matters and appealed to the German princes to help effect the reformation in Germany. The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, in which Luther, in an uncompromising attack on the papacy, denied the authority of the priesthood to mediate between the individual and God and rejected the sacraments except as aids to faith. The Freedom of a Christian Man. in which he reiterated his doctrine of justification by faith alone and presented a new ideal of piety–that of the Christian man, free in conscience by virtue of faith and charged with the duty of conducting himself properly in a Christian brotherhood. In 1521 he translated the New Testament into German and began the translation of the entire Bible, which was completed 10 years later.

Luther in a dispute with Johann Eck openly espoused doctrines that were implicit in his theses, and he denied the authority of the church in religious matters. The pope issued a bull of excommunication against Luther, and the Holy Roman emperor, Charles V, thundered against the rebel. Luther defied them, publicly burned the bull of excommunication, and issued vigorous pamphlets assailing the papacy and the doctrine of the sacraments. He received formal excommunication in 1521. The meeting of the Diet of Worms not only failed to produce a compromise but forced many doubters into the camp of the rebels. Luther was declared an outlaw, but Frederick III, elector of Saxony, protected him.

Luther's popularity waxed and waned. Carlstadt had instituted more radical dismissals of old practices and doctrines which Luther greatly deplored. Luther was stoutly opposed to the Peasants' War, (1524—25), a revolt that his own spirit of independence had helped to foster. He supported the governing princes whom put down the revolution. Many peasants returned to Catholicism, but others turned to still more radical sects such as the Anabaptists. Luther's  position was further weakened by a break with the humanists brought about by Erasmus's work, Freedom of the Will (1524), in which Erasmus attacked Luther's doctrine of the enslaved will.

Luther worked actively to build a competent educational system; his extensive writing on church matters included the composition of hymns, a liturgy, and two catechisms that are basic statements of the Lutheran faith

    Momentum and Division

The revolt quickly spread beyond Germany as nobles took this opportunity to cast off allegiance to the Holy Roman emperor. Intellectual rejection of Church doctrines and material excess, as well as the appeal of personal and direct spiritual communion with God convinced princes as much as economic motivations. Insistence on reading the Bible laid a new responsibility on the individual.

Luther's uncompromising attitude in doctrinal matters helped break up the unity of the Reformation that he was anxious to preserve. In 1529 in the Colloquy of Marburg, Luther and Melanchthon on the one side and Zwingli and Johannes Oecolampadius on the other discussed the nature of the sacrament of the Lord's Supper, the Prostestant version of the Eucharist. This controversy with Huldreich Zwingli and later with Calvin over the Lord's Supper divided Protestants into the Lutheran Church and the Reformed Churches.

The Knights' War (1522—23), led by Franz von Sickingen against the ecclesiastical princes, ended in failure, but the determination of Charles V to extirpate Lutheranism ultimately ended in even more abject failure. The imperial Diet of Speyer in 1526 found no answer to the division of the empire, and when a new Diet of Speyer in 1529 ordered that the emperor's ruling against the heretics should be enforced, the Lutheran princes issued a defiant protest (from which the term Protestant is derived

Failing to make any compromise with the Catholic princes at the Diet of Ausburg in 1530, Lutheran princes drew up their own articles of faith in the Augsburg Confession, which was written by Melanchthon, with the sanction of Luther, who was not permitted to attend. About this time the control of the Lutheran Church had passed further into the hands of the Protestant princes.

The conflict in the empire led the Protestant princes to form a defensive union against the emperor in the Schmalkaldic League which was put down in the Schmalkaldic War (1546—47). However this solved nothing. Emperor Charles V, in an effort to prolong the uneasy peace, proposed to the Protestants that there be an interim agreement against change until a general church council could legislate on the dispute. This was the so-called Augsburg Interim (1548), which did not take effect because it was rejected by the Protestant princes.

The message of the Reformation spread quickly throughout Europe (except Russia). The Scandinavian countries became firmly Protestant under Gustavus I of Sweden and Frederick I of Denmark and Norway; later attempts to win them back to Catholicism failed. Geneva had become in 1536 the headquarters of John Calvin, who is considered by many the greatest theologian of Protestantism. His Institutes of the Christian Religion, published at Basel in 1536, marked a new era in thought. He differed from Luther principally in the doctrine of predestination (the foregone choosing by God of the elect to be saved), in the austerity of the life of the godly, and in the emphasis on theocratic government

    John Calvin

1509—64. French Protestant theologian of the Reformation, born Noyon, Picardy, Calvin studied in Paris from 1523 to 1528. in 1528, at his father's instance, he left to study law at Orléans and Bourges. Following his father's death in 1531 he returned to Paris study of the classics and Hebrew. He came under the humanist influence and became interested in the growing rebellion against conservative theology. In c1533 he experienced what he later described as a "sudden conversion," and he turned all his attention to the cause of the Reformation.

His influence was immediate and enormous. France, which had hardly been touched by Lutheranism, was fired by Calvinist doctrine, and the Protestant minority, called the Huguenots, waged fierce battle against the Catholic majority in the Wars of Religion until toleration was won when the Huguenot leader Henry of Navarre turned Catholic, became King Henry IV, and issued (1598) the Edict of Nantes.

Calvinism superseded Lutheranism in the Netherlands, where the religious revolt was coupled with revulsion at the policies of Charles V and his successor, Philip II of Spain. Through bloody wars independence and Calvinism gained the upper hand in the N Low Countries. Calvinism conquered Scotland, too, through the victory of John Knox in his long duel with Mary Queen of Scots. It spread also to Hungary and Poland and took root in parts of Germany.

It proved quite impossible to reconcile the finely wrought theology of Calvinism with Lutheran doctrines, for Lutheranism rejected predestination and clung to part of the sacramental system. Calvinist thought did greatly influence the course of the Reformation in the British Isles and the present United States. There was also a conflict of Lutheranism and Calvinism with the more radical and emotional groups, and the enthusiasm of preachers who interpreted Scripture in their own way met with a cool reception among the Calvinists.

The divisions within Protestantism were from the beginning sharp, and attempts to reconcile Calvinist, Lutheran, and other doctrine had only partial success. Moreover, in England the Reformation went its own course. It was there much more closely connected with the conflict of church and state than was the Reformation on the Continent. The conflict of King Henry VIII with Rome led to the Act of Supremacy (1534), which firmly rejected papal control and created a national church, The Church of England. Currents of Calvinistic thought were, however, strong in England. The Reformation was begun with the creation of a state church and the dissolution of the monasteries. It was given Calvinist touches under Edward VI, suffered a complete reversal under Mary I, and reached a sort of balance under Elizabeth I with some persecution of both Catholics and Calvinists. The process was to work itself out slowly later in the English civil war, just as the fierce hatreds between Protestant and Protestant as well as between Catholic and Protestant were to be worked out later on the Continent.

The burning of Servetus was a sample of the internal strife within Protestantism itself. The divisions within the churches of the Reformation also served to forward the Counter Reformation within the Roman Catholic Church, which rewon Poland, Hungary, most of Bohemia, and part of Germany. The end of the Thirty Years War in the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 brought some stabilization, but the force of the Reformation did not end then. It has continued to exert influence to the present day, with its emphasis on personal responsibility and individual freedom, its refusal to take authority for granted, and its ultimate influence in breaking the hold of the church on life and consequent secularization of life and attitudes.

See also Martin Bucer.