Throughout the last two thousand years Christianity has been one of, if not the most powerful influence in shaping the world. From its foundations in Roman occupied Israel, to its migration into Europe and Asia, to eventually touching most of the globe, Christianity has steadily seen an increase in influence on the larger landscape of the world. This hasn’t been without division amongst Christianity.
In fact, one of the largest divisions in the Church helped shape the modern world. I believe the Protestant Reformation is one of the most influential events to happen in the last two thousand years.The Protestant Reformation caused a great divide in Europe between Protestants and Catholics. A divide that is still very relevant in countries and areas. A divide that ultimately helped shape what we know as modern Europe and also as a result the United States.
The causes of this division are vast and well-studied. The Church of Rome was behaving in a way that many people saw as corrupt and immoral. Even now the Roman Catholic Church admits to some of its failures during this time period. There were few, at the time however, that were willing to stand up to the Papacy.
Some had done it in the past, most notably Jan Hus and John Wycliffe in the 15th century, but they were both met with death at the hands of the Roman Catholic Church. What changed in the 16th century was the traction that the movement would receive, due to several factors. In order to fully understand the impact of the Reformation, we must begin at the beginning with a monk named Martin Luther.
Martin Luther began as a pious Roman Catholic who could never quite fit in. He grew up in a Roman Catholic family, was baptized into the Roman Catholic Church, and aspired to be a lawyer. After a series of odd circumstances Luther decided to pursue life in a monastery as a monk instead. (3) There he became familiar with Roman Catholic doctrine and worked towards what he would later see as a salvation of works. This would begin a long period of time in which Luther began to have doubts about Roman Catholic Doctrine, specifically relating to the theological doctrine of Justification, or how one may be seen as righteous in the sight of God. This would continue to permeate in Luther’s head until he finally had a breaking point.It was in the year of 1517, when Luther would witness a Priest selling indulgences to the public. The idea was that people could buy these indulgences to alleviate time for their relatives, or themselves in purgatory.
Luther was upset by this, and decided to go public with what would later become known as the 95 Theses. This list of formal disagreements, which ranged from attacking Papal authority to his problems of Justification, would quickly develop into a movement that he did not anticipate. The initial goal of Luther was to inspire change in the Roman Catholic Church (3), however as the Reformation became more and more volatile it became clear that staying within the church would not be possible. The Pope at the time, Pope Leo X did not take Luther seriously. He also did not anticipate the public support that Luther’s movement create. Luther was given multiple chances to recant, but never chose to do so, and thus a bounty was placed on his head for charges of Heresy. This only exacerbated the situation. The public seen the Roman Catholic Church as unable to handle criticism.
The Church was extremely influential at this time. Much of Europe was governed directly or indirectly by the Roman Catholic Church, and this caused suspicion amongst many. This all aided Luther’s influence and as the years went by, Luther became more and more influential. The Roman Catholic Church had a situation on its hands.
A situation that was out of control. One of the reasons for the Reformation catching on in this instance was the popularity of the printing press. The printing press allowed for material to be mass produced and distributed widely.
Without the printing press there is a very good chance that Luther’s writings would not have been widely read and heard of outside a small pocket in Germany.(5) However, with the printing press, Luther’s material was read by hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, of people and this aided in the idea of the corruption of the Catholic Church.(6)Realizing that the situation was out of control, and that any compromise would be seen as weak for the Church, Rome had no choice but to double down. The Council of Trent in 1547, affirmed that those who believed in Luther’s ideas were anaethema, a form of excommunication to outside the Church.
This created tension in Europe. For Luther’s ideas had spread throughout Europe, and many were clamoring for reform. Small skirmishes and battles littered much of Europe in the early 15th century.
What began as a small revolt of German peasants, gradually turned into much more. The motivation of freedom from the Roman Catholic Church fueled much of the fight. Whether many of the peasants agreed with what the reformers were teaching or not could be argued, but what is clear is that these peasants, and eventually people of all social classes, seen this dispute as an opportunity to break away from Rome. Small battles filled the streets of Germany in early 1525, and although nothing of real value was gained, the spirit of dispute swam across Europe. It eventually fell upon another reformer who is known as Ulrich Zwingli.Zwingli in many ways was more radical than Luther. He was a reformer that not only rejected Papal Authority, but also took up the sword. Unlike Luther, Zwingli fought in battles against Catholic forces.
He rallied forces, which included peasants, nobleman, and pastors against the soldiers of Rome. He can be clearly associated with the spread of the reformation. Zwingli did not agree with some of what Luther had to say. However, they both did agree that Papal authority was anti-biblical and that Rome was in, and promoting idolatry. Zwingli’s followers raided Catholic churches and tore down Icon’s and depictions of religious imagery.
(5) They also contributed to the growing atmosphere of hostility towards Rome. Zwingli would end up dying in battle fighting against Catholic forces, but his influence would reverberate across Europe.In the year of 1553, Mary Tudor became the Queen of England and Ireland. She would later become known as bloody Mary for her executions of Protestants.
Getting to the thrown was no small task for Mary. Although she had a blood line connection to the throne, she was initially challenged by her Protestant cousin Lady Jane Grey. After an initial struggle for the throne, Mary had Lady Jane Grey executed. This more or less is a good example of the power struggle in Europe between the Protestants and the Catholics. The Protestants wanted Lady Jane Grey to be Queen in order to declare England an official Protestant state. However Mary Tudor was a devout Catholic and once she took the throne she certainly earned the nickname of bloody Mary.
During her five year reign, over 300 Protestants were burned for their beliefs. Before Mary, by about 30 years, was King Henry VIII.King Henry VIII was initially skeptical of Luther’s reformation, and because of this he officially supported the Church of Rome.
However, he broke away from the Catholic Church for reasons of divorce. Henry VIII struggled to have children and so sought out new wives.(4) The Catholic Church would not condone his divorces so he broke away. He would go on to form what would eventually be called the Church of England.
This would later morph into Anglicanism. King Henry VIII did not break away from the Catholic Church for any doctrinal reason, but sided with the Protestants in an opportunistic way. In forming the Church of England, King Henry VIII needed an advisor for doctrine,(5) and in doing so he chose a Frenchman who worked out of Switzerland named John Calvin.John Calvin is quite possibly the most important protestant reformer for a variety of reasons. For one, his theology has been highly influential throughout the world.(1) Doctrines such as Predestination and Total Depravity were fully drawn out in Calvin’s literary work, although expounded by Luther to some extent.(2) Although Calvin’s work was heavily influenced by Augustine, and the reformers around him it is the level of detail that is most interesting.
Another component that is perhaps more relevant, is that Calvin was the chief theologian of the City of Geneva.Geneva was in many ways a call back to the older styles of city. Governed almost exclusively by Calvin and his board of Elders, Geneva was set up as a semi theocratic government with the goal of becoming a holy city free of sin. Laws were created that banned heresy, skipping church, adultery, and many other acts that were seen as morally deficient. People were executed for failing to abide by the laws of the city, not unlike what Rome was doing at the time. All citizens were required to study and agree with Calvin’s theological requirements as well.(5) Many other cities in Europe would follow suit in the 16th and 17th centuries, but Geneva is perhaps the most influential and would help shape the Reformation.After the initial burst of Protestant Reformers in the early to mid-16th century, the call to take up arms and begin war began to dissipate.
The Protestants had taken over some territory, specifically in Germany, France and Switzerland, and Rome had still maintained a lot of influence over Europe. By the year 1570 most of the early reformers were dead and their followers although zealous, were more interested in fighting in the field of theological discourse and less concerned with literally fighting. In many ways it was as if there was a stale mate in this overall narrative. Rome did not back down, but neither did the Protestants.
Each had territory associated with their teachings and in many ways this still rings true today.As previously stated the conflict of the Protestant Reformation calmed down in intensity after a period of time. Borders were drawn and sects were formed amongst the Protestants. There also was a fairly new development that presented new possibilities. The colonization of what was called the New World would prove pivotal in Protestant expansion.In the 17th century many people would move to the New World. They would sail across the ocean in order to start a new life in the Americas. Quakers and pilgrims moved in many cases to avoid the religious persecution that they were facing in much of Europe.
This cultivated an environment that allowed Protestantism to grow. As new colonies were set up, many were centered on religious leaders. Puritanism was founded.
Many cities were set up that were somewhat comparable to the semi-theocratic government that was set up by John Calvin in Geneva. Just as Protestantism creeped into the New World, Catholicism quickly followed.One of the initial goals of Protestants and Catholics alike in this new world was the conversion of the Native Americans who were indigenous in this new world. Neither found an extreme amount of success, but like Europe this allowed both Protestants and Catholics to implant a foothold in the new world.One of the most influential preachers in the age of the Puritans was a man named Jonathan Edwards.
He sparked what is commonly called the Great Revival in the 18th century. He was born in the Northeast and raised in the Puritan environment. Much of his teaching was derived from the theological work of Calvin. He preached across the Northeast and sparked conversions and rededications into the Christian church. His famous sermon “Sinners in the hands of an angry God” would go on to be one of the more well-known and deeply studied sermon of all time. In many ways it exemplifies the times of puritanism guilt (6) and the need for greater piety. His revival continues to influence Christianity in the United States to this day.Overall I believe the Protestant Reformation is one of the more impactful historical events on the modern day.
It really did help shape the world as we know it today. The teachings of Calvin, Luther, Zwingli, and the other reformers are still widely held as helpful and beneficial today. Obviously the Roman Catholic Church is just as prevalent as it was in the 16th Century, and in many ways probably more so considering its high level of influence in Latin, and South America. We still see the effects and the ramifications of the Protestant Reformation today. Catholics and Protestants are still divided, perhaps even more so now. They both have strongholds and weak points, and both are highly influential in political discussion as well.
I believe that both Catholics and Protestants will continue to have a large impact on culture for the foreseeable future.