The Protestant Reformation was a movement which began in the 16th century as a series of attempts to reform the Roman Catholic Church, but ended in division and the establishment of new institutions, most importantly Lutheranism, Reformed churches, and Anabaptists.
Roots of the Reformation
Underlying Demographic and Economic Factors
Historical upheaval usually yields new thinking as to how society should be organized. This was the case leading up to the Protestant Reformation. Following the breakdown of monastic institutions and scholasticism in late medieval Europe, accentuated by the “Babylonian Captivity” of the Avignon Papacy, the Great Schism, and the failure of conciliar reform, the sixteenth century saw the fermenting of a great cultural debate about religious reforms and later fundamental religious values. Historians would generally assume that the failure to reform (too many vested interests, lack of coordination in the reforming coalition) would eventually lead to a greater upheaval or even revolution, since the system must eventually be adjusted or disintegrate, and the failure of the Conciliar movement led to the Protestant Reformation in the European West. These frustrated reformist movements ranged from nominalism, modern devotion, to humanism occurring in conjunction with economic, political and demographic forces that contributed to a growing disaffection with the wealth and power of the elite clergy, sensitizing the population to the financial and moral corruption of the secular Renaissance church.
The outcome of the Black Death encouraged a radical reorganization of the economy and eventually European society. In the emerging urban centers, however, the calamities of the fourteenth and early fifteenth century, and the resultant labor shortages, provided a strong impetus for economic diversification and technological innovations. Following the Black Death, the initial loss of life due to famine, plague, and pestilence, contributed to an intensification of capital accumulation in the urban areas, and thus a stimulus to trade, industry, and burgeoning urban growth in fields as diverse as banking (the Fugger banking family in Augsburg being the most prominent), textiles, armaments, especially stimulated by the Hundred Years War, and mining of iron ore due, in large part, to the booming armaments industry. Accumulation of surplus, competitive overproduction, and heightened competition to maximize economic advantage, contributed to civil war, aggressive militarism, and thus centralization. As a direct result of the move toward centralization, leaders like Louis XI of France (1461-1483), the “spider king” sought to remove all constitutional restrictions on the exercise of their authority. In England, France, and Spain the move toward centralization begun in the thirteenth century was carried to a successful conclusion.
But as recovery and prosperity progressed, enabling the population to reach its former levels in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the combination of both a newly abundant labor supply as well as improved productivity, were mixed blessings for many segments of Western European society. Despite tradition, landlords started the move to exclude peasants from common lands. With trade stimulated, landowners increasingly moved away from the manorial economy. Woolen manufacturing greatly expanded in France, Germany, and the Netherlands and new textile industries began to develop.
Humanism to Protestantism
The frustrated reformism of the humanists, ushered in by the Renaissance, contributed to a growing impatience among reformers. Erasmus and later figures like Luther and Zwingli would emerge from this debate and eventually contribute to the second major schism of Christendom. Unfortunately for the church, the crisis of theology beginning with William of Ockham in the fourteenth century was occurring in conjunction with the new burgher discontent. Since the breakdown of the philosophical foundations of scholasticism, the new nominalism did not bode well for an institutional church legitimized as an intermediary between man and God. New thinking favored the notion that no religious doctrine can be supported by philosophical arguments, eroding the old alliance between reason and faith of the medieval period laid out by Thomas Aquinas.
The major individualistic reform movements that revolted against medieval scholasticism and the institutions that underpinned it were: humanism, devotionalism, and the observatine tradition. In Germany, “the modern way” or devotionalism caught on in the universities, requiring a redefinition of God, who was no longer a rational governing principle but an arbitrary, unknowable will that cannot be limited. God was now an unknowable absolute ruler, and religion would be more fervent and emotional. Thus, the ensuing revival of Augustinian theology, stating that man cannot not be saved by his own efforts but only by the grace of God, would erode the legitimacy of the rigid institutions of the church meant to provide a channel for man to do good works and get into heaven. Humanism, however, was more of an educational reform movement with origins in the Renaissance's revival of classical learning and thought. A revolt against Aristotelian logic, it placed great emphasis on reforming individuals through eloquence as opposed to reason. The European Renaissance laid the foundation for the Northern humanists in its reinforcement of the traditional use of Latin as the great unifying cultural language.
The polarization of the scholarly community in Germany over the Reuchlin (1455-1522) affair, attacked by the elite clergy for his study of Hebrew and Jewish texts, brought Luther fully in line with the humanist educational reforms who favored academic freedom. At the same time, the impact of the Renaissance would soon backfire against Southern Europe, also ushering in an age of reform and a repudiation of much of medieval Latin tradition. Led by Erasmus, the humanists condemned various forms of corruption within the Church, forms of corruption that might not have been any more prevalent than during the medieval zenith of the church. Erasmus held that true religion was a matter of inward devotion rather than an outward symbol of ceremony and ritual. Going back to ancient texts, scriptures, from this viewpoint the greatest culmination of the ancient tradition, are the guides to life. Favoring moral reforms and de-emphasizing didactic ritual, Erasmus laid the groundwork for Luther.
Humanism's intellectual anticlericalism would profoundly influence Luther. The increasingly well-educated middle sectors of Northern Germany, namely the educated community and city dwellers, would turn to Luther's rethinking of religion to conceptualize their discontent according to the cultural medium of the era. The great rise of the burghers, the desire to run their new businesses free of institutional barriers or outmoded cultural practices, contributed to the appeal of humanist individualism. To many, papal institutions were rigid, especially regarding their views on just price and usury. In the North burghers and monarchs were united in their frustration for not paying any taxes to the nation, but collecting taxes from subjects and sending the revenues disproportionately to the Pope in Italy.
These trends heightened demands for significant reform and revitalization along with anticlericalism. New thinkers began noticing the divide between the priests and the flock. The clergy, for instance, were not always well-educated. Parish priests often did not know Latin and rural parishes often did not have great opportunities for theological education for many at the time. Due to its large landholdings and institutional rigidity, a rigidity to which the excessively large ranks of the clergy contributed, many bishops studied law, not theology, being relegated to the role of property managers trained in administration. While priests emphasized works of religiosity, the respectability of the church began diminishing, especially among well educated urbanites, and especially considering the recent strings of political humiliation, such as the apprehension of Pope Boniface VIII by Philip IV of France, the “Babylonian Captivity,” the Great Schism, and the failure of Conciliar reformism. In a sense, the campaign by Pope Leo X to raise funds to rebuild the St. Peter's Basilica was too much of an excess by the secular Renaissance church, prompting the high-pressure sale of indulgences that rendered the clerical establishments even more disliked in the cities.
Luther, taking the revival of the Augustinian notion of salvation by faith alone to new levels, borrowed from the humanists the sense of individualism, that each man can be his own priest (an attitude likely to find popular support considering the rapid rise of an educated urban middle class in the North), and that the only true authority is the Bible, echoing the reformist zeal of the Conciliar movement and opening up the debate once again on limiting the authority of the Pope. While his ideas called for the sharp redefinition of the dividing lines between the laity and the clergy, his ideas were still, by this point, reformist in nature. Luther's contention that the human will was incapable of following good, however, resulted in his rift with Erasmus finally distinguishing Lutheran reformism from humanism.
Religious Influences for the Reformation
While there were some parallels between certain movements within humanism and teachings later common among the Reformers, the main influence was the Bible itself. The Roman Catholic church had itself been the main purveyor in Europe of humanism for centuries: the neo-Platonism of the scholastics and the neo-Aristotelianism of Thomas Aquinas and his followers, had made humanism part of church dogma. Thus, when Luther and the other reformers adopted the standard of “sola scriptura”, making the Bible the sole measure of theology, that made the Reformation a reaction against the humanism of that time. It substituted even the Biblical thought patterns for those used by humanist thinkers.
Luther himself had been trained as a professor of the Bible and was teaching Bible at the University of Wittenberg when the Bible changed him. He later lamented that he wished he had learned the Bible earlier instead of spending so much time studying classical humanistic authors as Plato and Aristotle. It appears that he was not familiar with the writings of earlier people who called for reformation, for example, he did not know what Jan Hus taught until he was introduced to them by a taunt from Johann Eck that he was teaching the same doctrines.
The Bible itself teaches concepts like “the priesthood of all believers” and that the clergy have no special status beyond that conferred by their office. It teaches the concept that all people are individually responsible for their status before God. In this regard, the Reformation encouraged universal education, for how can people avail themselves of the knowledge of their salvation without the ability to read the Bible?
The Reformation did not happen in a vacuum, as there were movements for centuries calling for a return to Biblical teachings, the most famous being from Wyclife and Jan Hus. It is no surprise that their teachings were later found in the Reformation, as they imbibed from the same source.
While it is true that there were calls for religious and doctrinal and moral reformation within and without the institutional church for centuries, apparently it was the invention of the printing press which allowed quick broadcasting of ideas, the rise in nationalistic fervor and popular discontent at the moral corruption in the church to coalesce in support for a reformation as never before. But the spark that started the Reformation and keeps it going even today is the doctrinal issues brought up by the Bible.
The Radical Reformation
Unskilled laborers, the recently squeezed peasants migrating to the cities from the countryside, embraced the most radical of the theological options opened up by the religious revolution, and a good deal of the Anabaptist preachers, condemned by Lutheranism and its alliance with nationalistic German forces, hailed from this class.
With little understanding of economic processes of markets, peasants and new migrants to the cities just inferred that higher prices were a manifestation of unjust, parasitic, and immoral behavior. The old concept of “just price” was antiquated, given the economic developments of the era. Discontented and morally righteous, the lower classes were ready to follow concerned leaders, who urged them to band together against immorality and decadence and against the usurpation by diversifying landowners and centralizing kings and princes looking for increased tax revenues to fund their growing states. The disadvantaged peasantry, in this sense, did not turn to a figure like Hung-wu, a Chinese peasant revolutionary who fought for economic and political control in establishing the Ming Dynasty, but to someone like the Drummer of Niklashausen and later the Anabaptist preachers.
As a result, nearly every country in Europe saw a flare up of failed peasant revolts motivated by religious concerns and executed according to religious doctrine. The Peasants' War in Hungary (1514), the revolt against Charles V in Spain (1520), the discontent of the lower classes in France with the excessive taxes levied by Louis XI, and the secret associations which prepared the way for the great uprising of the lower classes in Germany (1524), show that discontent was not confined to any one country in Europe.
Lutheranism adopted by the German Territorial Princes
Luther, like Erasmus, in the beginning favored maintaining the bishops as an elite class for administrative purposes. And while Luther rejected many of the Catholic sacraments, as well as salvation by good works and indulgences, he firmly upheld the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist. Luther favored a reformed theology of the Eucharist called consubstantiation, a doctrine of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Traditionally, the consecrated bread and wine were held to become, substantially, the blood of Christ (transubstantiation). Transubstantiation was most fully spelled out by the medieval scholastics. According to the doctrine of consubstantiation, the substances of the body and the blood of Christ and of the bread and the wine were held to coexist together in the consecrated Host.
In fact, Luther, along with his colleague Philipp Melanchthon, emphasized this point in diplomatic plea for the Reformation at the Reichstag in 1529 amid charges of heresy. Once again, though, the church and the emperor squandered their last chance to reform and salvage the old order; the edict by the Diet of Worms (1521) prohibited all innovations. Meanwhile, in these efforts to remain a Catholic reformer as opposed to a heretical revolutionary, and to appeal to German princes with his religious condemnation of the peasant revolts backed up by the Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms, Luther's growing conservatism would usher in the more radical reformers.
At a religious conference with the Zwinglians in 1529, Melanchthon joined with Luther in opposing a union with Zwingli. There would finally be a schism in the reform movement due to Luther's belief in consubstantiation. His original intention was not schism, but with the Reichstag of Augsburg (1530) a separate Protestant church finally emerged. In a sense, Luther would take theology further in its deviation from established Catholic dogma, forcing a rift between the humanist Erasmus and Luther. Similarly, Zwingli would further repudiate ritualism, and break with the increasingly conservative Luther.
While it would be an understatement to state that the great cultural elites like Erasmus, Luther, Zwingli, and Melanchthon regarded these fundamental theological questions quite seriously, their followers tended to split along socio-economic lines. Luther found great support from the new bourgeoisie in Germany's urban centers to overthrow the power of the landowning aristocracy and the Latin clergy, rooted in their control of land and peasant labor, which were the central means of production of the time. And up-and-coming merchants, not yet part of the ruling elite, rallied to Luther's cause. Zwingli, however, appealed to poorer segments of society who lacked the stake in German proto-nationalism among the ambitious, consolidating princes and the new bourgeoisie.
Aside from the enclosing of the lower classes, the middle sectors of Northern Germany, namely the educated community and city dwellers, would turn to religion to conceptualize their discontent according to the cultural medium of the era. The great rise of the burgers, the desire to run their new businesses free of institutional barriers or outmoded cultural practices contributed to the appeal of individualism. To many, papal institutions were rigid, especially regarding their views on just price and usury. In the North burgers and monarchs were united in their frustration against for not paying any taxes to the nation, but collecting taxes from subjects and sending the revenues disproportionately to Italy. In Northern Europe Luther appealed to the growing national consciousness of the German states because he denounced the Pope for involvement in politics as well as religion. Moreover, he backed the nobility, which was now justified to crush the Great Peasant Revolt of 1520 and to confiscate church property by Luther's Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms. This explains the attraction of the territorial princes to Lutheranism, especially its Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms. With the church subordinate to and the agent of civil authority and peasant rebellions condemned on strict religious terms, Lutheranism and German nationalist sentiment were ideally suited to coincide.
Though Charles V fought the reformation, it is no coincidence either that the reign of his nationalistic predecessor Maximilian I saw the beginning of the Reformation. While the centralized states of western Europe had reached accords with the Vatican permitting them to draw on the rich property of the church for government expenditures, enabling them to form state churches that were greatly autonomous of Rome, similar moves on behalf of the Reich were unsuccessful so long as princes and prince bishops fought reforms to drop the pretension of secular universal empire.
England: Political Reformation
The course of the Reformation was different in England. There had long been a strong strain of anti-clericalism, and England had already given rise to the Lollard movement, which had inspired the Hussites in Bohemia. By the 1520s, however, the Lollards were not an active force, or, at least, certainly not a mass movement. The different character of the English Reformation came rather from the fact that it was driven initially by the political necessities of Henry VIII. Although Henry had once been a sincere Catholic, he found it expedient and profitable to break with the Papacy and to replace it with the English crown. The Act of Supremacy put Henry at the head of the church in 1534. Between 1535 and 1540, under Thomas Cromwell, the policy known as the Dissolution of the Monasteries was put into effect. The veneration of Saints, pilgrimages and pilgrim shrines were also attacked. Huge amounts of church land and property passed into the hands of the crown and ultimately into those of the nobility and gentry. The vested interest thus created made for a powerful force in support of the dissolutions.
There were many notable opponents to the Henrician Reformation, such as Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher, who were executed for their opposition. But there was also a growing party of genuine Protestants who were imbued with the doctrines now current on the Continent. When Henry was succeeded by his son Edward VI in 1547, they found their views in the ascendant in government. A more radical reformation was imposed, including the abolition of the mass, the destruction of images, and the closing of the chantries. Following a brief Catholic reaction during the reign of Mary 1553-1558, a consensus developed during the reign of Elizabeth I, from which we may date the origins of Anglicanism. The compromise was uneasy, and was capable of veering between extreme Calvinism on the one hand and Arminianism on the other, but compared to the bloody and chaotic state of affairs in contemporary France, it was relatively successful.
The success of the Counter-Reformation on the Continent and the growth of a Puritan party dedicated to further Protestant reform polarised the Elizabethan Age, although it was not until the 1640s that England underwent religious strife comparable to that which her neighbours had suffered some generations before.