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Martin Luther excommunicated

On January 3, 1521, Pope Leo X issues the papal bull Decet Romanum Pontificem, which excommunicates Martin Luther from the Catholic Church. Martin Luther, the chief catalyst of Protestantism, was a professor of biblical interpretation at the University of Wittenberg in Germany ...read more


The Renaissance was a fervent period of European cultural, artistic, political and economic “rebirth” following the Middle Ages. Generally described as taking place from the 14th century to the 17th century, the Renaissance promoted the rediscovery of classical philosophy, ...read more

5 Things You May Not Know About the Pilgrims

1. Not all of the Mayflower’s passengers were motivated by religion.The Mayflower actually carried three distinct groups of passengers within the walls of its curving hull. About half were in fact Separatists, the people we now know as the Pilgrims. Another handful of those on ...read more

Thirty Years' War ends

The Treaty of Westphalia is signed, ending the Thirty Years' War and radically shifting the balance of power in Europe. The Thirty Years' War, a series of wars fought by European nations for various reasons, ignited in 1618 over an attempt by the king of Bohemia (the future Holy ...read more

Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre

King Charles IX of France, under the sway of his mother, Catherine de Medici, orders the assassination of Huguenot Protestant leaders in Paris, setting off an orgy of killing that results in the massacre of tens of thousands of Huguenots all across France. Two days earlier, ...read more

Siege of Derry begins

James II, the former British king, begins a siege of Derry, a Protestant stronghold in Northern Ireland. In 1688, James II, a Catholic, was deposed by his Protestant daughter, Mary, and her husband, William of Orange, in a bloodless coup known as the Glorious Revolution. James ...read more

Martin Luther defiant at Diet of Worms

Martin Luther, the chief catalyst of Protestantism, defies the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V by refusing to recant his writings. He had been called to Worms, Germany, to appear before the Diet (assembly) of the Holy Roman Empire and answer charges of heresy. Martin Luther was a ...read more

Plymouth Colony

In September 1620, during the reign of King James I, a group of around 100 English men and women—many of them members of the English Separatist Church later known to history as the Pilgrims—set sail for the New World aboard the Mayflower. Two months later, the three-masted ...read more

The Pilgrims

Some 100 people, many of them seeking religious freedom in the New World, set sail from England on the Mayflower in September 1620. That November, the ship landed on the shores of Cape Cod, in present-day Massachusetts. A scouting party was sent out, and in late December the ...read more

Martin Luther posts 95 theses

On October 31, 1517, legend has it that the priest and scholar Martin Luther approaches the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, and nails a piece of paper to it containing the 95 revolutionary opinions that would begin the Protestant Reformation. In his theses, ...read more

Thirty Years’ War

The Thirty Years’ War was a 17th-century religious conflict fought primarily in central Europe. It remains one of the longest and most brutal wars in human history, with more than 8 million casualties resulting from military battles as well as from the famine and disease caused ...read more

Mary I

England’s first female monarch, Mary I (1516-1558) ruled for just five years. The only surviving child of Henry VIII and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, Mary took the throne after the brief reign of her half-brother, Edward VI. She sought to return England to the Catholic ...read more

Henry VIII

King Henry VIII (1491-1547) ruled England for 36 years, presiding over sweeping changes that brought his nation into the Protestant Reformation. He famously married a series of six wives in his search for political alliance, marital bliss and a healthy male heir. His desire to ...read more

Gunpowder Plot

The Gunpowder Plot was a failed attempt to blow up England’s King James I (1566-1625) and the Parliament on November 5, 1605. The plot was organized by Robert Catesby (c.1572-1605) in an effort to end the persecution of Roman Catholics by the English government. Catesby and ...read more

Anne Hutchinson

Anne Hutchinson (1591-1643) was an influential Puritan spiritual leader in colonial Massachusetts who challenged the male-dominated religious authorities of the time. Through the popularity of her preaching, Hutchinson defied the gender roles in positions of power and gathered ...read more

The Puritans

The Puritans were members of a religious reform movement known as Puritanism that arose within the Church of England in the late 16th century. They believed the Church of England was too similar to the Roman Catholic Church and should eliminate ceremonies and practices not rooted ...read more

Martin Luther and the 95 Theses

Born in Eisleben, Germany, in 1483, Martin Luther went on to become one of Western history’s most significant figures. Luther spent his early years in relative anonymity as a monk and scholar. But in 1517 Luther penned a document attacking the Catholic Church’s corrupt practice ...read more

from Robert Rothwell Oct 29, 2018 Category: Articles

On October 31, much of the culture will be focused on candy and things that go bump in the night. Protestants, however, have something far more significant to celebrate on October 31. It’s Reformation day, which commemorates what was perhaps the greatest move of God’s Spirit since the days of the Apostles. But what is the significance of Reformation Day, and how should we consider the events it commemorates?

At the time, few would have suspected that the sound of a hammer striking the castle church door in Wittenberg, Germany, would soon be heard around the world and lead ultimately to the greatest transformation of Western society since the apostles first preached the Gospel throughout the Roman empire. Martin Luther’s nailing of his ninety-five theses to the church door on October 31, 1517, provoked a debate that culminated finally in what we now call the Protestant Reformation.

An heir of Bishop Augustine of Hippo, Martin Luther is one of the most significant figures God has raised up since that time. This law student turned Augustinian monk became the center of a great controversy after his theses were copied and distributed throughout Europe. Initially protesting the pope’s attempt to sell salvation, Luther’s study of Scripture soon led him to oppose the church of Rome on issues including the primacy of the Bible over church tradition and the means by which we are found righteous in the sight of God.

This last issue is probably Luther’s most significant contribution to Christian theology. Though preached clearly in the New Testament and found in the writings of many of the church fathers, the medieval bishops and priests had largely forgotten the truth that our own good works can by no means merit God’s favor. Salvation is by grace alone through faith alone, and good works result from our faith, they are not added to it as the grounds for our right standing in the Lord’s eyes (Eph. 2:8-10). Justification, God’s declaration that we are not guilty, forgiven of sin, and righteous in His sight comes because through our faith alone the Father imputes, or reckons to our account, the perfect righteousness of Christ (2 Cor. 5:21).

Martin Luther’s rediscovery of this truth led to a whole host of other church and societal reforms and much of what we take for granted in the West would have likely been impossible had he never graced the scene. Luther’s translation of the Bible into German put the Word of God in the hands of the people, and today Scripture is available in the vernacular language of many countries, enabling lay people to study it with profit. He reformed the Latin mass by putting the liturgy in the common tongue so that non-scholars could hear and understand the preached word of God and worship the Lord with clarity. Luther lifted the unbiblical ban on marriage for the clergy and by his own teaching and example radically transformed the institution itself. He recaptured the biblical view of the priesthood of all believers, showing all people that their work had purpose and dignity because in it they can serve their Creator.

Today, Luther’s legacy lives on in the creeds and confessions of Protestant bodies worldwide. As we consider his importance this Reformation Day, let us equip ourselves to be knowledgeable proclaimers and defenders of biblical truth. May we be eager to preach the Gospel of God to the world and thereby spark a new reformation of church and culture.

The Reformation: An Interactive Timeline

An interactive timeline of before, during, and after the Reformation that was, is, and always will be All About Jesus.

Amid turmoil and uncertainty, discovery and enlightenment began to flourish … then along came Martin Luther, who turned enlightenment to a Reformation … that was all about Jesus, and is still all about Jesus.

Part I: Life Before Luther: Darkness & Daybreak (-1483)

View Part I

Part II: Luther’s Life: Born to Reform (1483-1546)

View Part II

Part III: Life After Luther: Reformation Relevance (1546-)

View Part III

Effects of the Reformation

The Protestant Reformation divided the Christians mainly into the Catholics and the Protestants. However, the consequences of the Protestant Reformation were more political than religious.

The Religious Wars

The aftermath of the Reformation brought about deep, lasting political and religious changes. Northern Europe’s new religious and political freedoms came at a great price, with wars, persecutions, and rebellions playing a major role

When the Reformation spread through Germany, which was part of the Holy Roman Empire, the Emperor considered it his duty to protect the dominion of the Roman Catholic Church however, the German princes saw the reformation as an opportunity to break away from the Emperor’s control by associating themselves with it.

This triggered a number of wars in Europe―the Wars of Religion and the Thirty-Year War―which were both political and religious in nature. The Wars of Religion ended with the Peace of Augsburg Treaty. The Thirty-Year War began as a religious conflict but, by 1630, the political motive overtook the religious one. The war ended in 1648, in turn ending the age of the Reformation.

Counter Reformation

Along with dividing the church, the Reformation also gave rise to reforms within the Catholic Church, thus affirming the doctrine and structure of the Catholic Church. In 1545, the leaders of the Catholic Church congregated in the Italian city of Trent for an emergency conference, their aim was to reclaim the superiority of the church.

After 20 years of debate, the Council of Trent laid the groundwork for reforms in the Catholic Church, by laying down decrees governing the celibacy of priests, establishing of a seminary for their theological studies, duties and quality of the clergy among the other things.

It would not be possible to understand modern history without the Reformation. It had a profound influence on the politics, law, and science of that era. However, most importantly, it was instrumental in laying down the most important right of an individual― freedom of mind and conscience.

Because of our concern for family and our belief that our faith is important in all areas of our lives, we support Christian schools and offer many programs to help families grow spiritually. We want all members to be informed Christians.

Historically, we came from the Netherlands. But today, although a majority of our members are still from Dutch backgrounds, we can't honestly be called a Dutch church - unless we're also called a Korean church, a Navajo church, a Southeast Asian church, a French-Canadian church, a Hispanic-American church, an African-American church, a mosaic church.

More important to us than such ethnic badges is our place as one branch of the tree that started growing on Pentecost, almost twenty centuries ago.

The early Christian church was like the single trunk of that tree. After about 1,000 years of growth, the trunk divided into two major branches - the Eastern and the Western churches. In 1517 the Protestant Reformation divided the Western (or Roman) church into several new branches. One of these Reformation branches, formed under Martin Luther's influence, was called the Lutheran church. Another branch developed under the influence of Ulrich Zwingli and later John Calvin. These churches were called "Presbyterian" in Scotland and "Reformed" in continental Europe. The Reformed churches flourished in the Netherlands. In the middle 1800s, some of these Dutch Reformed people moved to the United States, and in 1857 they started the Christian Reformed Church in North America.

John Calvin

What sets the Christian Reformed Church off from many other denominations is its embrace of key teachings of John Calvin. In a nutshell, these all center on the sovereignty of God. The biblical teachings of predestination and election give us comfort because they assure us that no one and nothing, not even our own bad choices, can snatch us out of God's hand. And the realization that God owns all of creation and continues to assert his rule over it gives us a sure hope for the future.

John Calvin's teachings blossomed in many countries, including the Netherlands. While much of the Netherlands remained Roman Catholic, the Reformed faith established itself as the state church. As is often the case, politics and church make a bad mix. The Reformed Church in the Netherlands began to show its share of moral decay and of theological liberalism - the latter largely spurred on by the Enlightenment, an intellectual movement that idolized human reason at the expense of Bible-based faith.

In response to this trend, a grassroots movement developed among the less-educated lower-income folk, who clung to a simple, practical faith based on traditional Calvinist doctrines. Because the churches did not nurture such faith, those who joined this movement worshiped in small groups called "conventicles."

When the Reformed Church began to actively persecute the leaders of this movement, a number of groups, under the leadership of Rev. Hendrik de Cock and others, seceded from the church. This branch of Dutch Calvinism ultimately gave rise to the Christian Reformed Church.

Coming to North America

The next key event that led to the formation of the CRC was the decision of secessionist pastor Albertus Van Raalte to flee from the specter of religious persecution and famine in the Netherlands. Together with his wife, his family, and some forty others, Van Raalte immigrated to the United States. In 1848, they settled in and around what is now Holland, Michigan, establishing a "colony" on American soil that fervently held onto Calvinist doctrine, practical piety, and a strong commitment to living all of life to the glory of God.

It wasn't easy. Inexperienced and crippled by disease, the settlers faltered under the grueling task of extracting a living from the untamed ground. Only the steady trickle of new immigrants kept their ranks replenished and even allowed for some modest growth in their numbers. Through these first terribly difficult and painful years, the settlers tenaciously clung to their most prized possessions: their faith and the freedom to live out that faith in their daily life.

Separation from the Dutch Reformed Church

The harsh conditions in the fledgling "colony" convinced Van Raalte to seek help from the Dutch Reformed Church. That church had been introduced to American soil over a century before, when Dutch Reformed merchants accompanying Peter Stuyvesant settled in New York, then called New Amsterdam. That line of communication between Van Raalte's Michigan churches and the Dutch Reformed congregations of New Jersey soon blossomed into a full-fledged merger.

In 1857 a small fragment of four churches, about 130 families, seceded from the new union. Among the reasons they cited were:

  • a perceived lack of sound doctrinal preaching by American pastors
  • a perceived lack of piety and too much accommodation to American culture by these same pastors
  • the use of hymns in worship by the Americans - the seceders insisted on psalm-singing only
  • the practice by the American churches of "open communion," extending an open invitation to all believers to participate in the Lord's Supper
  • the perceived lack of solidarity on the part of the Americans with the secessionist cause in the Netherlands.

In 1857, the Christian Reformed Church was born.

Abraham Kuyper

The stream of Dutch immigrants into the CRC increased dramatically in the latter part of the nineteenth century. These new arrivals shared a commitment to the Reformed creeds and confessions, but they introduced a very different vision. Their views were shaped largely by the great Dutch theologian and statesman, Dr. Abraham Kuyper.

Won over to the simple, biblically based faith of those who had seceded from the Reformed Church of the Netherlands some fifty years earlier, Kuyper led a movement out of the Reformed Church that joined the seceders. Kuyper's great contribution to the seceder movement, and, through the immigrants, to the Christian Reformed Church, was a more outward-looking faith.

While still solidly grounded in Scripture and the confessions, Kuyper's vision was to claim Christ's lordship over all of life. Believers were not only called to maintain holy lives in relation to God and each other, they were also called to extend God's kingdom into the society in which they lived. Believers were to look beyond the hard, wooden pews and their family altars to take on the world for Christ - using Christian schools, institutions, and organizations to make God's redemptive and recreating work a reality in the marketplace, city hall, and factory.

The new vision that began to live among CRC members did not displace the down-home piety, but it did spur the infant CRC to peer over the walls of its cradle to begin to engage a wider world.

Becoming North American

At the turn of the century the CRC began to make the difficult transition of moving from the Dutch language to English. That did not happen overnight. On the positive side, it meant the CRC could emerge from its isolation, engaging culture and society and forging relationships with other Christians. On the negative side, a major element of the CRC's cohesion began to dissolve. And CRC members, especially the youth, became increasingly vulnerable to the dangers and pitfalls of Americanism.

The First World War accelerated that process. Young CRC soldiers fought for the United States and came back more determined than ever to be Americans. The CRC as a whole supported the war effort, and its members became increasingly loyal to what they began to see as their land.

After the war the CRC had a difficult time defining itself. It wanted to become American but it also wanted to cling tenaciously to its Reformed beliefs and practices, which many felt could only find full expression in Dutch. This led to disagreements, and, in typical Reformed style, to secession. Calvin Seminary Professor Ralph Janssen left the CRC because of sustained investigations into his views on science as a legitimate source of knowledge that could contribute positively to Christians' understanding of the world. Herman Hoeksema's rejection of "common grace" sparked the secession of the Protestant Reformed Church from the CRC.

The Depression years were difficult for CRC members. The church had spread in pockets throughout the United States. The rigors of survival caused them to look more inward than outward. As a result they were losing touch with each other and with their roots. Banner editor H.J. Kuiper sounded the alarm, encouraging members to dedicate themselves afresh to the Reformed faith. Kuiper identified three factions in the CRC that we can still identify to some extent today: those who cling tenaciously to historical Calvinism, those who espouse a sort of fundamental evangelicalism, and those who follow behind the liberal, socializing, modernistic churches of North America.

The Canadians

The Second World War served to Americanize the CRC even further. But it also had the effect of spurring a new immigration of Dutch Calvinists - this time mostly to Canada. While CRC churches had been planted decades earlier in places like Nobleford and Edmonton, Alberta, new churches sprang up overnight in Alberta, Ontario, Manitoba, and British Columbia.

The large immigration of Dutch Calvinists to Canada in the early 1950s brought some significant culture clash into the CRC. While the Dutch Canadians shared a commitment to the Reformed confessions, they differed from their American cousins in life experience, mindset, and moral and religious values. Dutch Canadians tended to focus their spiritual energies on working out the social ramifications of the gospel, not on personal piety. Yet both groups shared a genuine desire and commitment to remain obedient to God's Word - a solid foundation on which to build a bi-national church.

The Sixties

The flood of changes in values, lifestyles, and social interactions precipitated in the 1960s profoundly affected the CRC. Tidier patterns of church life gave way to a rising disenchantment and disagreement over how believers should respond to the social chaos around them. While the CRC never overtly held racist teachings, members debated long and hard over the ways the church should combat racism - if at all. Even among Kuyperians there was strong disagreement over the extent to which the institutional church should become involved in significant social issues.

The role of women in church leadership also became a hotly contested conflict during the sixties. Changing roles for women in the larger society forced the CRC to ask whether women should be allowed to serve in ecclesiastical office. While both sides in this struggle sincerely sought to be biblically obedient and Reformed in their interpretation of the Scriptures, neither side was able to convince the other. The impasse has led to a compromise decision that allows individual churches to ordain women as elders and classes (if they so choose) to allow their constituent congregations to ordain women as ministers of the Word as well. That decision spurred the departure of more than forty thousand members from the CRC.

Called to Serve

Despite the deeply divisive spirit that has caused such pain in the CRC, there have been many evidences of God's grace as well. People on both sides have reached out in forgiveness and love. While some have left the CRC over their disagreements, many others have stayed. And they continue to be committed to living together and working together in this part of the Body of Christ. Despite the variety of different positions and viewpoints held by members of the CRC, the denomination is still bound together by a deep commitment to respond to the good news that our world belongs to - and is being redeemed by - our faithful God. In the unity and empowerment of that conviction, CRC members join together in an amazing variety and scope of ministries.

What ministries do we have?

By combining efforts and ministering jointly as a denomination, we can do much more than we could if we were only working in a local capacity. These efforts are carried out through our denominational agencies and ministries.

Other Historical Information

(This information is distilled from The CRC and You, Belonging, and from the leader's guide accompanying the Our Family Album video.)

The Development of Indulgences

The medieval western Christian church—the Eastern Orthodox church followed a different path—included two key concepts which allowed indulgences to occur. Firstly, parishioners knew that after they died they were going to be punished for the sins they accumulated in life, and this punishment was only partly erased by good works (like pilgrimage, prayers or donations to charity), divine forgiveness, and absolution. The more an individual had sinned, the greater the punishment awaited them.

Secondly, by the medieval era, the concept of purgatory had been developed. Rather than being damned to hell after death, a person would go to purgatory, where they would suffer whatever punishment was required to wash off the stain of their sins until they were freed. This system invited the creation of a method by which sinners could reduce their punishments, and as the idea of purgatory emerged, the pope gave bishops the power to reduce sinners' penance while they were still alive, based on the performance of good deeds. It proved a highly useful tool to motivate a worldview where the church, God, and sin were central.

The indulgence system was formalized by Pope Urban II (1035–1099) during the Council of Clermont in 1095. If an individual performed enough good deeds to earn a full or ‘Plenary’ indulgence from the Pope or lesser ranks of churchmen, all their sins (and punishment) would be erased. Partial indulgences would cover a lesser amount, and complex systems developed in which the church claimed they could calculate to the day how much sin a person had canceled. In time, much of the church's work was done in this way: During the Crusades (instigated by Pope Urban II), many people participated on this premise, believing they could go and fight (often) abroad in return for their sins being canceled.

The Catholic Reformation

The Catholic Reformation was the intellectual counter-force to Protestantism. The desire for reform within the Catholic Church had started before the spread of Luther. Many educated Catholics had wanted change – for example, Erasmus and Luther himself, and they were willing to recognise faults within the Papacy.

During the Cl5, society was changing. The Renaissance taught people to question and to challenge the norm. The Catholic Church hierarchy failed to change with it and the organisation of the Church appeared dated. Others had tried to bring forward Catholic doctrine.

In the Cl3, St. Thomas Aquinas published “Summa Theologica” — a fusion of Christian belief and Aristotlean philosophy. He saw Man as essentially rational and able to see right from wrong. Man could steer a course to salvation but needed guidance from the Church and state. St. Thomas was optimistic about Man. His beliefs were known as Thomism. In the C16, Thomism was still a strong philosophy. Cardinal Cajetan, Luther’s opponent at Augsburg in 1518, claimed that Thomism was still relevant to society and Thomism made a strong contribution to the Catholic Reformation.

But Augustinian beliefs were still strong and alive in Catholic centres of learning. St. Augustine believed the opposite to St. Thomas he claimed that Man was corrupt and fallible. Augustine’s beliefs had a great impact on Luther.

Francisco de Suarez and Luis de Molin (both Jesuits) both tried to bridge the gap between Thomism and Augustinianism by claiming that Man had freedom of choice but ultimately God was omnipotent.

Some Catholic reformers were also influenced by late Medieval mysticism such as Master Eckhardt and Thomas a Kempis. In France, Lefèvre d’Etaples published translations of the mystic writers. The Dutch Jesuit Peter Canisius was greatly influenced by mystics. He founded Jesuit colleges all over Germany.

Many old monastic orders had sunk to levels of unacceptable standards. However, some had made the effort (such as the Carthusians) to maintain very high standards of discipline and learning. The Observants observed the original strictness and poverty of the Dominicans and Franciscans. The Observants struggled with the Conventuals who wished to see things left as they were.

The Catholic Reformation relied on individuals. Cardinal Ximenes from Spain tightened clerical discipline and encouraged scholarship at schools and universities.

Matteo Giberti was an early member of the Oratory of Divine Love founded in Rome in 1517 to foster good works in everyday life. He was also the secretary to Clement VII.

Gian Pietro Caraffa (later Paul IV) helped to find the Theatines in 1524 – an order of priests working within the community but living in monastic austerity.

These were men of great intellect and thought who never wavered in adherence to the Catholic Church. All the above men wanted a more spiritual and less worldly religion.

Between 1520 and 1530, there was a lot of common ground between the Protestants and the Catholics. But the emphasis was put on the differences not the similarities. By 1550, the gap was unbridgeable and as it widened the policy of the Catholic Church was to become more aggressive.

In 1545, the Council of Trent went out of its way to highlight the differences and Augustinianism became rejected out of hand because it was too near the “Protestant belief”.

The Catholic Reformation had a lot of widespread appeal to intellects. The Counter-Reformation did not.

Reformation - HISTORY

The Protestant Reformation was a 16th century movement that altered the course of European and world history in a number of different ways. This movement led to the eventual influence and demise of the previously powerful Catholic Church. People were now able to worship God as they believed and they no longer relied on the Catholic Church for guidance with religious matters. Most importantly, people began to leave the religious strife that was taking place in their European homelands and they headed west to America to worship God as they pleased.

Martin Luther’s Ideas

Martin Luther was a former Catholic monk who wrote the 95 Theses document and nailed it on the door of the Catholic Church of Wittenberg. Once this happened many people all throughout Germany began to react to his convictions. Though Martin Luther was not the only voice of the Reformation, he was certainly one of the top figures that influenced the vast changes which resulted.

Martin Luther’s new ideas were extremely revolutionary and they threatened the power of the Pope and the ruling monarchs who depended upon the Catholic Church to maintain their power. Luther expressed the ideas that people could not buy themselves into heaven by purchasing forgiveness for their sins from the Catholic Church. He exposed the church for what he believed to be corrupt. Many Catholic rulers and priests had grown rich off of these purchases, so they they became alarmed by Luther’s Thesis. This document threatened their finances and their lives. Many different groups of people began to disregard the Catholic Church and decided to worship as they pleased. Many Catholic priests and rulers became alarmed.

Religious Differences

Even though people were worshiping as they believed, the Protestant Reformation brought about a new set of problems. Catholicism refused to let go of its power and they fought hard to keep their dominance over the people. Different protestant denominations began to spring up and they were in conflict with other Christian sects about the matter of how best to worship God. People all throughout Europe began to engage in bloody conflicts over their religious disagreements. Catholics fought against the Protestants and rulers fought against various Christian sects that did not affiliate with their particular beliefs.

Religion in the New World?

In the midst of all of this religious strife, the kingdoms of Spain and Portugal were sending explorers out into the world to establish trade routes to India. Eventually, Spanish explorers discovered the Americas and some people began to migrate to the new world to find fame and fortune. When other European nations learned about these new discoveries they began to colonize various areas of the world as well. Exploration expeditions began to spring up in England and other European countries and the age of exploration was established. This development was important because it allowed many early settlers to leave Europe and travel to the Americas.

Many religious groups had then become targets for the ruling powers. An example of one such group was the Puritans. This particular denomination wanted secular rulers to only govern things secular matters only, and not the church. Many rulers of the day did not agree with this belief because they had a lot of power over the church or through the church. Ultimately, this particular stance caused many Puritans to flee their homes. Many Puritans and other persecuted groups such as the Anabaptists and the Ranters went to a region called the Dutch Netherlands. They believed that this particular kingdom was a place where religious tolerance was accepted but they were wrong. Many Puritans realized that religious persecution was occurring everywhere and that their unique beliefs were not compatible with the monarchies and empires of Europe. They decided to travel to the New World to avoid this problem.

Once the pilgrims traveled to America, they established a colony in Plymouth, Massachusetts. After the colony was established the Puritans initially became a dominant group in the region. As more settlers arrived in America they had to adjust to the ruling religious group in the area. Despite the fact that they had left their homelands because of persecution stronger religious groups imposed their way of life and views on other dissenters once they arrived. Many dissenters began to slowly spread out across America to establish their own colonies.

Religion and the Constitution

The Reformation not only drove people to found America, but it also helped to establish the Constitution which is the living document that governs the United States. After the religious dissenters from Europe arrived in America, society was dominated by a clash of various religious beliefs. Those beliefs continued to dominate America for hundreds of years, up until the latter half of the 20th century. Religion was so strong in America that it dictated the lives of millions of settlers that lived in the colonies.

By the 18th century many people began to realize that religion is an important part of their lives, but it cannot be used to govern people. Founding fathers who created the Constitution did not want the document to endorse one particular religion over another. They did not want religious conflict to become a part of the new American society. For this reason, they created a distinction between church and state in the constitution.

People in America can now worship as they believe but no state religion is to be endorsed. Many different Christian denominations are being worshipped in America today. American citizens also worship other religions, such as Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism. Even though Protestant Christianity is the dominant religion in the country, many citizens do not necessarily live their lives according to these religious ideas and truths.

Freedom of Religion in America

The Protestant Reformation helped to increase colonization in America and to develop religious tolerance and freedom in the new colonies. It also helped establish America as the economic powerhouse in the world. The early colonists eventually figured out how to utilize their land in order to earn huge profits by trading. Eventually, they were able to generate enough economic activity that caused trade to flourish and businesses to grow. This development happened over time, and by the middle part of the 20th century, the U.S. had become one of the major superpowers in the world.

7 responses to “Protestant Reformation”

I read the article.I see with that much power how a Church could become corrupt.I had been in a cult and the brainwashing is quite extreme.I can see how when a Church (such as the Pope)has that kind of power over the people that things could get out of hand.For example,I asked a elder in the cult I was in,if the organization told you to murder someone would you do it.The elder asked a friend what they would do.The person answered, I would do it and worry about the consequences later.
I found that answer shocking, so I got out of there.
I am not out to criticize any Church.I only see that to be a problem when someone has that kind of power over people.
I can see that kind of power also in the Catholic church and I am Catholic.I reason that idea is not a good thing.I brought that idea up in my catechism class.Most of the class laughed but I knew what the possibility was.Is it alright for the Pope to have that much power over the Church.I still wrestle with that question.
I would like some feedback.Constuctive feedback not hatred just some honest felt thought. With or wiyhout scripture.

For Catholics, the Pope is different from just a leader. The position (not the person, so if he leaves, this doesn’t apply. Or he can be at fault) is considered infallible, and thus cannot be wrong or corrupt. Now this doesn’t mean that there haven’t been corrupt cardinals or such (there certainly has been. Also, the Pope wasn’t chosen correctly for quite a few years) but when it comes to the Church’s doctrine he is supposed to always be right and the Holy Spirit is speaking through him.
With your example, if a Priest asked to have someone killed most Catholics wouldn’t do it, for one of God’s fundamental messages, as well as the teachings of Jesus, is that thou shalt not kill. God prevented Abraham from doing it, it is in the 10 Commandants that Moses brought down from the mountain, and Jesus prevented it (Bringing people back from illness, preventing the stoning of a woman, etc.) Furthermore, His death was to be the last, with all of us receiving mercy and life.

1534 (November)

Henry VIII becomes supreme head of the Church in England, which separates from the Roman Catholic Church.

Thomas More (1478-1535) is executed on the orders of Henry VIII for refusing to support the English Reformation.

William Tyndale burnt at the stake for heresy. His final words were: Lord! Open the King of England's eyes.

John Calvin (1509-1564) publishes (in Latin) his work of Systematic Theology: Institutes of the Christian Religion.

Historical Context for The Protestant Reformation

A bishop granting indulgences in a fresco by Lorenzo Lotto, c. 1524 (Wikimedia Commons) Martin Luther

To understand the rapid spread of Luther’s ideas, a brief account of the role that the Church played in Medieval society is necessary. In the wake of the fall of the Roman empire, the Catholic Church filled the power vacuum it had left behind and went on to enjoy nearly a millennium of institutional dominion throughout Europe. While its authority was at times imperiled, as in the Western schism of the fourteenth century), its teachings and rituals gradually embedded themselves in the daily lives of the faithful. Much like the Roman empire before it, however, the Church’s overextension of both territorial domain and bureaucratic machinery ultimately proved a corrupting force. One such instance of corruption—and the principal target of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses—was the doctrine of indulgences, a practice predicated upon the belief that one’s journey to eternal salvation could be expedited by means of worldly works. In the hands of Church functionaries eager to pad their own coffers, these “works” all too often assumed the form of monetary payouts rather than pious acts.

Enter Luther. Indginant at such abuses, he modestly aimed to reform the Church from within. Little did he know, however, that his criticism would ignite a conflagration of religious animus that was to engulf all of Europe. In retrospect it is not difficult to see why this happened, since ultimately at stake in this dispute was nothing less than the authority to determine legitimate interpretations of scripture and rituals of worship. Hence the crux of Luther’s thought is frequently summed up in two Latin phrases—sola fide (“by faith alone”) and sola scriptura (“by scripture alone”). In short, Luther argued that the relationship between man and God is a fundamentally personal one, nurtured by individual faith and subject to no greater authority than the Bible itself. Thus Luther’s critique led logically to the rejection of any intermediary authority that might stand between man and God. Moreover, no longer would mere affirmation of dogma or participation in ritual suffice to vouchsafe one’s spiritual health—rather, the individual took center stage, called upon to actively and directly participate in his faith.

And yet, to circumscribe the Reformation solely within the sphere of theological disputation is to mask the complexity of both its birth and afterlife. A confluence of social, cultural and economic factors contributed to Luther’s ideas taking root in European society, not least of which were the numerous political factions who had their own (often material) reasons for abetting the overthrow of papal authority. The rapidity with which these ideas were disseminated across the continent is unthinkable without the countless tracts, pamphlets and leaflets issued by Protestant proselytizers from the recently-invented printing press. This deluge of propaganda was communicated in the vernacular German rather than ecclesiastical Latin—a material effect of Luther’s insistence that scripture alone holds spiritual authority over the Christian fellowship. This considerable body of literature spurred in turn a newfound valorization of public education. Such ramifications could easily be multiplied—suffice it to say that, much like the French Revolution of 1789 or the World Wars of the twentieth century, the Reformation was a truly continental movement that touched every aspect of its society to the quick. Europe would never be the same.

Erasmus by Hans Holbein, early 16th Century (Wikimedia Commons). A moderating voice in the Reformation era, Erasmus’ humanism emphasized moral behavior over theological correctness. John Calvin

Calvin’s first work was a humanist work of classical scholarship, a self-published edition and commentary on the Roman philosopher Seneca’s “De Clementia” in 1532. The rest of his publications were dedicated to religious matters. Calvin’s numerous written works include theological treatises, biblical commentaries, sermons and letters, as well as regulations, liturgy, and catechisms for the Reformed Church. His most famous work, the Institutes of the Christian Religion, was first published in Latin in 1536 as a short statement of the beliefs of the reformers being persecuted in France it included a preface urging King François I to take up the cause of reform himself. Calvin continued to expand the work throughout his life, so that the final Latin/French versions of 1559/60, five times longer than the first edition, offered a systematic exposition of Reformed Protestant doctrines.

Humanism and the Northern Renaissance

By the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, the Italian cultural movement known as the Renaissance had spread to the towns, universities, and princely courts of Northern Europe. In contrast to the ‘civic humanism’ of the Italian city states where the Renaissance began, the leading figures of the Northern Renaissance often thought in terms of royal government and emphasized a ‘Christian humanism’ concerned with religious texts and issues. Northern humanists such as John Colet (d. 1519), Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples (d. 1536), and "Prince of Humanists" Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536), highlighted the importance of living a moral life over understanding theological subtleties or carrying out complicated religious rituals. In keeping with the humanist appreciation for the classical past, they often emphasized the importance of a scripture and treated Early Christian communities as a classical model to be emulated and restored. Erasmus also applied humanist philological methods to religious texts in his critical edition and Latin translation of the Greek New Testament, the basis for many later translations of the Bible by Protestants. The concerns and ideas of these thinkers had a strong influence on the first Reformation activists, even though most of the Christian humanists alive at the beginning of the Reformation chose to stay within the Catholic Church.

Reformation, Counterreformation and Catholic Reformation

During the mid-sixteenth century, the fluidity and creative energy of the first wave of Reformation began to harden into new institutions, theological systems, and social identities. The sixty years leading up to the Thirty Years War (1618-49) are often described as the era of “confessionalization,” when religious affiliation became increasingly important in daily life and when both Catholic and Protestant leaders focused on building solidarity, obedience and uniformity within confessional boundaries. The Catholic Church’s measures to counteract the spread of Protestantism (the Counterreformation and Catholic Reformation) were embodied by the Council of Trent (1545-1563), which issued new statements of Catholic orthodoxy on issues such as salvation, scripture and the sacraments, and laid foundations for new institutions like the Office of the Inquisition, the Index of Prohibited Books, and religious orders such as the Jesuits and Ursalines. The divisions among Protestants became increasingly sharp in these decades as well. In the Zurich Consensus of 1549, for instance, Reformed followers of Calvin and Zwingli agreed upon a common position on the Eucharist distinct from Catholic and Lutheran doctrines. Both Reformed believers and radical Protestants such as the Anabaptists were excluded from the 1555 Peace of Augsburg which established that German principalities could be either Catholic or Lutheran following the confession of their rulers.

St. Bartholomew Day's Massacre by François Dubois, c. 1572-84 (Wikimedia Commons) A period of religious tolerance in France ended when King Francis I instituted new measures against the Huguenots in 1534.

French Wars of Religion

A period of relative religious tolerance in France came to an end in 1534 following the “Placards Incident,” when several major cities were plastered with anti-Eucharist posters in a single night. Recognizing this event as a political threat, King Francis I instituted new measures for the repression of Huguenots (French Reformed Protestants), including chambres ardentes, special courts for the prosecution of religious reformers. Despite these policies, the numbers of Huguenots continued to grow so that roughly 10 percent of the general population and 40 percent of the French aristocracy adhered to the reformed religion by 1561 (Dunn, XXX). Tensions between Huguenot and ultra-Catholic factions of the nobility grew during the regency of Catherine de Medici for her sons François II (r.1559-60) and Charles IX (r. 1560-1574), and finally erupted into outright war following a massacre of Huguenot worshippers at Vassy in 1562. For the next forty years, France experienced brutal warfare, assassinations, persecution, riots, and bloody massacres finally calmed by the accession of King Henry IV (r. 1589 - 1610). In 1598, Henry IV issued the Edict of Nantes, establishing a limited but still unprecedented toleration of Protestants within officially-Catholic France.

The citizens of Geneva became Protestant in the course of declaring independence from the town’s lords, the local bishop and the Catholic Dukes of Savoy. This assertion of civic independence was the context of Calvin’s invitation to Geneva, and many of Calvin’s reforms and his growing influence sparked resistance within Geneva’s governing elite. Much of Calvin’s early career in Geneva was shaped by his struggles with the opposition faction he derisively nicknamed “the libertines.” Around 1553, this political discord boiled over in an attempted coup on the town government that was ultimately put down through the exile or execution of its leaders. Nevertheless, by the time of his death, Calvin was able to successfully institute a program for reforming worship and morality in Geneva. Town and church government remained distinct, but closely interconnected in the Genevan system. For instance both church leaders and representatives from the town government were involved in the Consistory, a court that dealt with a range of issues including laughing in church, marital discord, ignorance of the Ten Commandments, and ‘Catholic’ ritual acts such as lighting candles for the dead. Geneva also established the Academy for the education of Reformed ministers, and a sophisticated system for distributing charity to refugees arriving in the city from France. Thanks to both Calvin’s writings and the number of influential religious exiles passing through the city, Geneva’s social organization became a model for other Reformed communities throughout Europe and the Americas.

Written by Jay Gundacker, Department of History, Columbia University Sean Hallowell, Department of Music, Columbia University

Works Consulted

Richard S. Dunn, The Age of Religious Wars 1559-1715, 2nd ed., (New York: Norton & Co., 1979)

Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation: A History, (New York: Viking, 2004)

Alistair E. McGrath, A Life of John Calvin: A Study in the Shaping of Western Culture, (Oxford, U.K.: Blackwell, 1990)

R. Po-Chia Hsia. The Cambridge History of Christianity VI: Reform and Expansion 1500–1660, (Cambridge University Press, 2007)


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