6.1 Reformation: An Overview

During the first phase, reformers made proposals for how the Church could change. These reformers included people like Martin Luther and John Calvin. The reform movement started in Germany and from there spread to the rest of Europe. (Interestingly, although reformers agreed the Catholic Church had to change this did not mean all reformers agreed with one another about what changes to make.) In the beginning the reformers were on the offensive and the Catholic Church was on the defensive: the Church tried to stamp out the reform movement by appealing to its traditional authority, threatening believers with excommunication, and using its police power to destroy dissenters.

The second phase took place during the 1550s. The first wars over religion in Germany ended temporarily with the Lutheran Church consolidating its gains; however, armed conflict spread to other parts of Europe like France. In Switzerland a movement called Calvinism established a new state church. Also, by this late stage in the reform movement the princes of Europe were deciding what denomination their state would belong to. Finally, during this stage the Catholic Church started using a new method to counter the Protestant challenge: the Church launched the so-called "Counter Reformation."

The third, and final, phase was marked by an increase in violence. The Thirty Years' War broke out in 1620 AD (during this phase in Germany (in which a significant proportion of Germany's population died). The violence spread to other countries in Europe. By 1650 anywhere between 30-50% of Germany's population died during the Thirty Years' War. People were finally tired of killing one another over religion.

Following the Reformation's final phase there were still important developments: Protestants in France were completely defeated and removed (killed). By contrast religious toleration was firmly established in the Netherlands where Calvinists, Lutherans and Jews were allowed the freedom to worship. The Church of England, which was established by King Henry VIII so he could get his controversial divorce, finally gained some credibility; while in the Holy Roman Empire the internal divisions of Germany became firm, e.g. the north became dominated by the Lutherans while the south remained in the control of Catholic princes. Poland, which experimented with Protestantism, returned to Catholicism. After nearly two hundred years of religiously motivated war, Europe finally quit fighting wars over religious differences.


Historians usually date the start of the Protestant Reformation to the 1517 AD publication of Martin Luther's Ninety Five Theses. Locating the end of the period (or third phase) is more difficult: it's ending can be placed anywhere between the 1555 Peace of Augsburg (a treaty generally ending the wars of religion between Germany's Lutheran and Catholic princes) to the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia (which ended the Thirty Years' War). The key ideas of the Reformation—a call to purify the Catholic Church and a belief that the Bible and not the Church's traditions should be the sole source of scriptural authority—were not new ideas. However, Martin Luther and the other reformers became the first to skillfully use the power of the printing press to give their ideas a wider audience.

Martin Luther (1483-1546 AD) was an Augustinian monk and university lecturer in Wittenberg, Germany, when he composed his controversial Ninety-Five Theses. In the Theses Luther protested the Pope Leo X's sale of indulgences. Although he hoped to spur renewal from within the Church, in 1521 he was summoned before the Diet of Worms and excommunicated. Protected by Friedrich III, Elector of Saxony, Luther translated the Bible into German and continued writing reform-themed books and pamphlets. When German peasants, inspired in part by Luther's empowering idea of a "priesthood of all believers," revolted in 1524, Luther sided with Germany's princes. He needed their support if his new church was to survive. By the Reformation's end, Lutheranism was the state religion throughout much of Northern Germany, Scandinavia and the Baltics.


The Swiss Reformation began in 1519 with the sermons of Ulrich Zwingli, whose teachings largely paralleled Luther's. In 1541 John Calvin, a French Protestant theologian was invited to settle in Geneva and put his vision of a "reformed" Christian doctrine in to place—a vision stressing God's power and humanity's so-called predestined fate. The result was a theocratic regime of enforced, austere morality. Calvin's Geneva became an attractive location for Protestants seeking to escape persecution. His particular brand of Protestantism (Calvinism) spread throughout Europe.

In England, the Reformation began with Henry VIII's (at right) quest for a male heir. The short version of the story goes like this: Henry married Catherine of Aragon but she proved incapable of giving him a son. When Pope Clement VII refused to end Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon so he could remarry, the English king declared in 1534 that he alone should be the final authority in matters relating to the English church. Henry dissolved England's monasteries and confiscated their wealth. He also worked to ensure a copy of the Bible was translated in to English and that every parish had a copy.

After Henry's death, the Church of England (otherwise known as the Anglican Church) became heavily influenced by Calvinism. Catholicism returned briefly under the reign of Mary I; however, Protestantism returned when Elizabeth I took the throne in 1559. During Elizabeth's reign the Anglican tradition evolved in to a combination of Catholicism and Calvinism.