Chapter 13 Section 3
In the 1500s, the Renaissance in northern Europe sparked a religious upheaval that affected Christians at all levels of society. Northern European calls for church reform eventually unleashed forces that would shatter Christian unity. This movement is known as the Protestant Reformation.
Background to the Reformation
Many northern Europeans faced a great deal of uncertainty in their lives. As in Renaissance Italy, most people were poor and life could be violent. Fixed medieval economies were giving way to more uncertain urban, market-based economies, and wealth was distributed unequally. Renaissance humanist ideas found fertile ground in this uncertain society. Spread by the printing press, humanist ideas such as a return to classical education and an emphasis on social reform quickly took root. Many people looked for ways to shape a society that made more sense to them. Increasingly, they used humanist ideas to question a central force in their lives—the Church.
Beginning in the late Middle Ages, the Church had become increasingly caught up in worldly affairs. Popes competed with Italian princes for political power. They fought long wars to protect the Papal States against invasions by secular rulers. They plotted against powerful monarchs who tried to seize control of the Church within their lands. The Church also fought to expand its own interests.
Like other Renaissance rulers, popes led lavish lives, supported the arts, and hired artists to beautify churches. To finance such projects, the Church increased fees for services such as marriages and baptisms. Some clergy also sold indulgences. According to Church teaching, an indulgence was a lessening of the time a soul would have to spend in purgatory, a place where souls too impure to enter heaven atoned for sins committed during their lifetimes. In the Middle Ages, the Church had granted indulgences only for good deeds. By the late 1400s, however, indulgences could be bought with money.
Many Christians protested such practices, especially in northern Europe. Christian humanists such as Erasmus urged a return to the simple ways of the early Christian church. They stressed Bible study and rejected what they saw as the worldliness of the Church.
Martin Luther: Catalyst of Change
In 1517, protests against Church abuses erupted into a full-scale revolt. The man who triggered the revolt was a German monk and professor of theology named Martin Luther.
As a young man, Luther prayed and fasted and tried to lead a holy life. He once remarked that “. . . if ever a monk got into heaven by monkery, so should I also have gotten there.” Still, he found himself growing disillusioned with what he saw as Church corruption and worldliness. At last, an incident in the town of Wittenberg prompted him to take action.
Writing the 95 Theses
In 1517, a priest named Johann Tetzel set up a pulpit on the outskirts of Wittenberg, in Germany. He offered indulgences to any Christian who contributed money for the rebuilding of the Cathedral of St. Peter in Rome. Tetzel claimed that purchase of these indulgences would assure entry into heaven not only for the purchasers but for their dead relatives as well.
To Luther, Tetzel’s actions were the final outrage, because they meant that poor peasants could not get into heaven. He drew up 95 Theses, or arguments, against indulgences. Among other things, he argued that indulgences had no basis in the Bible, that the pope had no authority to release souls from purgatory, and that Christians could be saved only through faith. In accordance with the custom of the time, he may have posted his list on the door of Wittenberg’s All Saints Church.
Igniting a Firestorm
Almost overnight, copies of Luther’s 95 Theses were printed and distributed across Europe, where they stirred furious debate. The Church called on Luther to recant, or give up his views. Luther refused. Instead, he developed even more radical new doctrines. Before long, he was urging Christians to reject the authority of Rome. He wrote that the Church could only be reformed by secular, or non-Church, authorities.
In 1521, Pope Leo X excommunicated Luther. Later that year, the new Holy Roman emperor, Charles V, summoned Luther to the diet at the city of Worms. The word diet, or assembly of German princes, comes from a Middle English word meaning “a day for a meeting.” Luther went, expecting to defend his writings. Instead, the emperor simply ordered him to give them up. Luther again refused to recant.
Charles declared Luther an outlaw, making it a crime for anyone in the empire to give him food or shelter. Still, Luther had many powerful supporters and thousands hailed him as a hero. They accepted his teachings and, following his lead, renounced the authority of the pope.
At the heart of Luther’s teachings were several beliefs, shown in the chart at left. All Christians, he said, have equal access to God through faith and the Bible. Like Erasmus and other humanist scholars, Luther wanted ordinary people to be able to read and study the Bible, so he translated parts of it into German. He also wanted every town to have aschool so that all children could learn to read the Bible. Luther wanted to change other church practices. He banned indulgences, confession, pilgrimages, and prayers to saints. He simplified the elaborate ritual of the mass and instead emphasized the sermon. And he permitted the clergy to marry.
Luther’s Ideas Spread
The new printing presses spread Luther’s writings throughout Germany and Scandinavia, prompting him to declare that “Printing was God’s highest act of grace.” Fiery preachers denounced Church abuses. By 1530, the Lutherans were using a new name, Protestant, for those who “protested” papal authority.
Many clergy saw Luther’s reforms as the answer to Church corruption. A number of German princes, however, embraced Lutheran beliefs for more selfish reasons. Some saw Lutheranism as a way to throw off the rule of both the Church and the Holy Roman emperor. Others welcomed a chance to seize Church property in their territories, and use it for their own purposes. Still other Germans supported Luther because of feelings of national loyalty. They were tired of German money going to support churches and clergy in Italy.
The Peasants’ Revolt
Many peasants also took up Luther’s banner. They hoped to gain his support for social and economic change. In 1524, a Peasants’ Revolt erupted across Germany. The rebels called for an end to serfdom and demanded other changes in their harsh lives. However, Luther strongly favored social order and respect for political authority. As the Peasants’ Revolt grew more violent, Luther denounced it. With his support, nobles suppressed the rebellion, killing tens of thousands of people and leaving thousands more homeless.
The Peace of Augsburg
During the 1530s and 1540s, Charles V tried to force Lutheran princes back into the Catholic Church, but with little success. Finally, after a number of brief wars, Charles and the princes reached a settlement. The Peace of Augsburg, signed in 1555, allowed each prince to decide which religion—Catholic or Lutheran—would be followed in his lands. Most northern German states chose Lutheranism. The southern German states remained largely Catholic.
Swiss reformers also challenged the Catholic Church. Ulrich Zwingli, a priest and an admirer of Erasmus, lived in the Swiss city of Zurich. Like Luther, he stressed the importance of the Bible and rejected elaborate church rituals. Many of his ideas were adopted by Zurich’s city council. The other reformer was John Calvin, who would profoundly affect the direction of the Reformation.
Calvin was born in France and trained as a priest and lawyer. In 1536, he published a widely-read book that set forth his religious beliefs and explained how to organize and run a Protestant church. Calvin shared many of Luther’s beliefs. But he put forth a number of ideas of his own. He preached predestination, the idea that God had long ago determined who would gain salvation. To Calvinists, the world was divided into two kinds of people—saints and sinners. Calvinists tried to live like saints, believing that only those who were saved could live truly Christian lives.
In 1541, Protestants in the Swiss city-state of Geneva asked Calvin to lead their community. Calvin set up a theocracy, or government run by church leaders. Calvin’s followers in Geneva came to see themselves as a new “chosen people” entrusted by God to build a truly Christian society. Calvinists stressed hard work, discipline, thrift, honesty, and morality. Citizens faced fines or other harsher punishments for offenses such as fighting, swearing, laughing in church, or dancing. To many Protestants, Calvinist Geneva seemed like a model community.
Reformers from all over Europe visited Geneva and then returned home to spread Calvin’s ideas. By the late 1500s, Calvinism had taken root in Germany, France, the Netherlands, England, and Scotland. This new challenge to the Roman Catholic Church set off bloody wars of religion across Europe. In Germany, Catholics and Lutherans opposed Calvinists. In France, wars raged between French Calvinists and Catholics. Calvinists in the Netherlands avoided persecution by preaching in the remote countryside. In England, some Calvinists sailed to the Americas in the early 1600s to escape persecution at home. In Scotland, a Calvinist preacher named John Knox led a religious rebellion, overthrowing the Catholic queen.
Throughout Europe, Catholic monarchs and the Catholic Church fought back against the Protestant challenge by taking steps to reform the Church and to restore its spiritual leadership of the Christian world. Still, Protestant ideas continued to spread.
The Catholic Reformation
As the Protestant Reformation swept across northern Europe, a vigorous reform movement took hold within the Catholic Church. Led by Pope Paul III, it is known as the Catholic Reformation, or the Counter-Reformation. During the 1530s and 1540s, the pope set out to revive the moral authority of the Church and roll back the Protestant tide. He also appointed reformers to end corruption within the papacy itself. They and their successors led the Catholic Reformation for the rest of the century.
Council of Trent
To establish the direction that reform should take, the pope called the Council of Trent in 1545. Led by Italian cardinal Carlo Borromeo, the council met off and on for almost 20 years. The council reaffirmed the traditional Catholic views that Protestants had challenged. It declared that salvation comes through faith and good works. According to the council, the Bible, while a major source of religious truth, is not the only source. The council also took steps to end abuses in the Church. It provided stiff penalties for worldliness and corruption among the clergy. It also established schools to create a better-educated clergy who could challenge Protestant teachings.
Empowering the Inquisition
Pope Paul strengthened the Inquisition to fight Protestantism. As you have read, the Inquisition was a Church court set up during the Middle Ages. The Inquisition used secret testimony, torture, and execution to root out heresy. It also prepared the Index of Forbidden Books, a list of works considered too immoral or irreligious for Catholics to read. The list included books by Luther and Calvin, as well as earlier works by Petrarch and other humanists.
Legacy of the Catholic Reformation
By 1600, the majority of Europeans remained Catholic. Tireless Catholic reformers, like Francis de Sales in France, had succeeded in bringing back Protestant converts. Moreover, renewed piety found expression in literature and art. Across Catholic Europe, charity flourished and church abuses were reduced.
Still, Protestantism had gained a major foothold on the continent. The Reformation and the Catholic Reformation stirred up intense feeling and debate. Religious conflict played into heated disagreements about government, which would erupt into war throughout much of Europe. At the end, Europe would remain—and still remains today—divided by differing interpretations of Christianity.