Protestant reformation

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protestant reformation




The Reformation of the Roman Catholic Church was a major 16th-century religious
revolution. A revolution, which ended the ecclesiastical supremacy of the pope in Western
Christendom and resulted in the establishment of the Protestant, churches. With the
Renaissance that preceded and the French Revolution that followed, the Reformation
completely altered the medieval way of life in Western Europe and initiated the era of
modern history. Although the movement dates from the early 16th century, when Martin
Luther first defied the authority of the church, the conditions that led to his
revolutionary stand had existed for hundreds of years and had complex doctrinal,
political, economic, and cultural elements. Conditions Preceding Reformation From the
Revival of the Holy Roman Empire by Otto I in 962, popes and emperors had been engaged in
a continuous contest for supremacy. This conflict had generally resulted in victory for
the papal side, but created bitter antagonism between Rome and the German Empire; this
antagonism was augmented in the 14th and 15th centuries by the further development of
German nationalist sentiment. Resentment against papal taxation and against submission to
ecclesiastical officials of the distant and foreign papacy was manifested in other
countries of Europe. In England, the beginning of the movement toward ultimate
independence from papal jurisdiction was the enactment of the statutes of Mortmain in
1279, Provisors in 1351, and Praemunire in 1393. These statutes greatly reduced the power
of the church to withdraw land from the control of the civil government, to make
appointments to ecclesiastical offices, and to exercise judicial authority. The
14th-century English reformer John Wycliffe boldly attacked the papacy itself, striking at
the sale of indulgences, pilgrimages, the excessive veneration of saints, and the moral
and intellectual standards of ordained priests. To reach the common people, he translated
the Bible into English and delivered sermons in English, rather than Latin. His teachings
spread to Bohemia, where they found a powerful advocate in the religious reformer John
Huss. The execution of Huss as a heretic in 1415 led directly to the Hussite Wars, a
violent expression of Bohemian nationalism, suppressed with difficulty by the combined
forces of the Holy Roman emperor and the pope. The wars were a precursor of religious
civil war in Germany in Luther's time. In France in 1516, a concordat between the king and
the pope placed the French church substantially under royal authority. Earlier concordats
with other national monarchies also prepared the way for the rise of autonomous national
churches. As early as the 13th century the papacy had become vulnerable to attack because
of the greed, immorality, and ignorance of many of its officials in all ranks of the
hierarchy. Vast tax-free church possessions, constituting, according to varying estimates,
as much as one-fifth to one-third of the lands of Europe, incited the envy and resentment
of the land-poor peasantry. The so-called Babylonian Captivity of popes at Avignon in the
14th century and the ensuing Western Schism gravely impaired the authority of the church
and divided its adherents into partisans of one or another pope. Church officials
recognized the need for reform; ambitious programs for the reorganization of the entire
hierarchy were debated at the Council of Constance from 1414 to 1418, but no program
gained the support of a majority, and no radical changes were instituted at that time.
Humanism, the revival of classical learning and speculative inquiry beginning in the 15th
century in Italy during the early Renaissance, displaced Scholasticism as the principal
philosophy of Western Europe and deprived church leaders of the monopoly on learning that
they had previously held. Laypersons studied ancient literature, and scholars such as the
Italian humanist Lorenzo Valla critically appraised translations of the Bible and other
documents that formed the basis for much of church dogma and tradition. The invention of
printing with movable metal type greatly increased the circulation of books and spread new
ideas throughout Europe. Humanists outside Italy, such as Desiderius Erasmus in the
Netherlands, John Colet and Sir Thomas More in England, Johann Reuchlin in Germany, and
Jacques Lefèvre d'Étaples in France, applied the new learning to the evaluation of church
practices and the development of a more accurate knowledge of the Scriptures. Their
scholarly studies laid the basis on which Luther, the French theologian and religious
reformer John Calvin, and other reformers subsequently claimed the Bible rather than the
church as the source of all religious authority. National Movements The Protestant
revolution was initiated in Germany by Luther in 1517, when he published his 95 theses
challenging the theory and practice of indulgences. Papal authorities ordered Luther to
retract and submit to church authority, but he became more intransigent, appealing for
reform, attacking the sacramental system, and urging that religion rest on individual
faith based on the guidance contained in the Bible. Threatened with excommunication by the
pope, Luther publicly burned the papal decree of excommunication and with it a volume of
canon law. This act of defiance symbolized a definitive break with the entire system of
the Western church. In an attempt to stem the tide of revolt, Charles V, Holy Roman
emperor, and the German princes and ecclesiastics assembled in 1521 at the Diet of Worms,
and ordered Luther to recant. He refused and was declared an outlaw. For almost a year, he
remained in hiding, writing pamphlets expounding his principles and translating the New
Testament into German. Although his writings were prohibited by imperial edict, they were
openly sold and were powerful instruments in turning the great German cities into centers
of Lutheranism. The reform movement made tremendous strides among the people, and when
Luther left retirement he returned to his home at Wittenberg as a revolutionary leader.
Germany had become sharply divided along religious and economic lines. Those most
interested in preserving the traditional order, including the emperor, most of the
princes, and the higher clergy, supported the Roman Catholic Church. Lutheranism was
supported by the North German princes, the lower clergy, the commercial classes, and large
sections of the peasantry, who welcomed change as offering an opportunity for greater
independence in both the religious and economic spheres. Open warfare between the two
factions broke out in 1524 with the beginning of the Peasants' War. The war was an attempt
on the part of the peasants to better their economic lot. Their program, inspired by the
teachings of Luther and couched in religious terms, called for emancipation from several
of the services traditionally claimed by their clerical and lay proprietors. Luther
disapproved of the use of his demands for reform to justify a radical disruption of the
existing economy, but in the interests of a peaceful settlement of the conflict, he urged
the proprietors to satisfy the claims of the peasants. He soon turned against the
peasants, however, and, in a pamphlet entitled Against the Murdering, Thieving Hordes of
Peasants (1525) violently condemned them for resorting to violence. The peasants were
defeated in 1525, but the fissure between Roman Catholics and Lutherans increased. A
degree of compromise was reached at the Diet of Speyer in 1526, when it was agreed that
German princes wishing to practice Lutheranism should be free to do so. At a second Diet
of Speyer, convened three years later, the Roman Catholic majority abrogated the
agreement. The Lutheran minority protested against this action and became known as
Protestants; thus, the first Protestants were Lutherans, the term being extended
subsequently to include all the Christian sects that developed from the revolt against
Rome. In 1530 the German scholar and religious reformer Melanchthon drew up a conciliatory
statement of the Lutheran tenets, known as the Augsburg Confession, which was submitted to
Emperor Charles V and to the Roman Catholic faction. Although it failed to reconcile the
differences between Roman Catholics and Lutherans, it remained the basis of the new
Lutheran church and creed. Subsequently, a series of wars with France and the Turks
prevented Charles V from turning his military forces against the Lutherans, but in 1546
the emperor was finally free of international commitments; and in alliance with the pope
and with the aid of Duke Maurice of Saxony, he made war against the Schmalkaldic League, a
defensive association of Protestant princes. The Roman Catholic forces were successful at
first. Later, however, Duke Maurice went over to the Protestant side, and Charles V was
obliged to make peace. The religious civil war ended with the religious Peace of Augsburg
in 1555. Its terms provided that each of the rulers of the German states, which numbered
about 300, choose between Roman Catholicism and Lutheranism and enforce the chosen faith
upon the ruler's subjects. Lutheranism, by then the religion of about half the population
of Germany, thus finally gained official recognition, and the ancient concept of the
religious unity of a single Christian community in Western Europe under the supreme
authority of the pope was destroyed. Scandinavia In the Scandinavian countries, the
Reformation was accomplished peacefully as Lutheranism spread northward from Germany. The
monarchical governments of Denmark and Sweden themselves sponsored the reform movement and
broke completely with the papacy. In 1536 a national assembly held in Copenhagen abolished
the authority of the Roman Catholic bishops throughout Denmark and the then subject lands
of Norway and Iceland; and Christian III, king of Denmark and Norway, invited Luther's
friend, the German religious reformer Johann Bugenhagen, to organize in Denmark a national
Lutheran church on the basis of the Augsburg Confession. In Sweden the brothers Olaus
Petri and Laurentius Petriled the movement for the adoption of Lutheranism as the state
religion. The adoption was effected in 1529 with the support of Gustav I Vasa, king of
Sweden, and by the decision of the Swedish diet. Switzerland The early reform movement in
Switzerland, contemporaneous with the Reformation in Germany, was led by the Swiss pastor
Huldreich Zwingli, who became known in 1518 through his vigorous denunciation of the sale
of indulgences. Zwingli expressed his opposition to abuses of ecclesiastical authority by
sermons, conversations in the marketplace, and public disputations before the town
council. As did Luther and other reformers, he considered the Bible the sole source of
moral authority and strove to eliminate everything in the Roman Catholic system not
specifically enjoined in the Scriptures. In Zürich from 1523 to 1525, under Zwingli's
leadership, religious relics were burned, ceremonial processions and the adoration of the
saints were abolished, priests and monks were released from their vows of celibacy, and
the Mass was replaced by a simpler communion service. These changes by which the city
revolted from the Roman Catholic Church were accomplished legally and quietly through
votes of the Zürich town council. The chief supporters of the innovations, the commercial
classes, expressed through them their independence from the Roman church and from the
German Empire. Other Swiss towns, such as Basel and Bern, adopted similar reforms, but the
conservative peasantry of the forest cantons adhered to Roman Catholicism. As in Germany,
the authority of the central government was too weak to enforce religious conformity and
prevent civil war. Two short-lived conflicts broke out between Protestant and Roman
Catholic cantons in 1529 and 1531. In the second of these, which took place at Kappel,
Zwingli was slain. Peace was made and each canton was allowed to choose its religion.
Roman Catholicism prevailed in the provincial mountainous parts of the country, and
Protestantism in the great cities and fertile valleys. Substantially the same division has
continued to the present time in Switzerland. In the generation after Luther and Zwingli
the dominating figure of the Reformation was Calvin, the French Protestant theologian who
fled religious persecution in his native country and in 1536 settled in the newly
independent republic of Geneva. Calvin led in the strict enforcement of reform measures
previously instituted by the town council of Geneva and insisted on further reforms,
including the congregational singing of the Psalms as part of church worship, the teaching
of a catechism and confession of faith to children, the enforcement of a strict moral
discipline in the community by the pastors and members of the church, and the
excommunication of notorious sinners. Calvin's church organization was democratic and
incorporated ideas of representative government. Members of the congregation elected
pastors, teachers, presbyters, and deacons to their official positions. Although church
and state were officially separate, they cooperated so closely that Geneva was virtually a
theocracy. To enforce discipline of morals, Calvin instituted a rigid inspection of
household conduct and organized a consistory, composed of pastors and laypersons, with
wide powers of compulsion over the community. The dress and personal behavior of citizens
were prescribed to the minutest detail; dancing, card playing, dicing, and other
recreations were forbidden; blasphemy and ribaldry were severely punished. Under this
severe regime, nonconformists were persecuted and even put to death. To encourage the
reading and understanding of the Bible, all citizens were provided with at least an
elementary education. In 1559, Calvin founded a university in Geneva that became famous
for training pastors and teachers. More than any other reformer, Calvin organized the
contemporary diversities of Protestant thought into a clear and logical system. The
circulation of his writings, his influence as an educator, and his great ability in
organizing church and state in terms of reform created an international following and gave
the Reformed churches, as Protestantism was called in Switzerland, France, and Scotland, a
thoroughly Calvinistic stamp, both in theology and organization. France The Reformation in
France was initiated early in the 16th century by a group of mystics and humanists that
gathered at Meaux near Paris under the leadership of Lefèvre d'Étaples. Like Luther,
Lefèvre d'Étaples studied the Epistles of St. Paul and derived from them a belief in
justification by individual faith alone; he also denied the doctrine of
transubstantiation. In 1523, he translated the entire New Testament into French. At first
his writings were well received by church and state officials, but as Luther's radical
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