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The Reformation truly ends the Middle Ages and begins a new era in the history of Western Civilization. The Reformation ended the religious unity of Europe and ushered in 150 years of religious warfare. By the time the conflicts had ended, the political and social geography in the west had fundamentally changed.
The Reformation would have been revolutionary enough of itself, but it coincided in time with the opening of the Western Hemisphere to the Europeans and the development of firearms as effective field weapons. It coincided, too, with the spread of Renaissance ideals from Italy and the first stirrings of the Scientific Revolution. Taken together, these developments transformed Europe.
The narrative here concerns only one man: Martin Luther. It shows how and why the Reformation began and what formed the core of the movement's ideas. The Reformation became something far greater than Luther had ever envisioned or intended, but its origins and early development were greatly affected by the character of the man himself.
Other Causes and Factors
Crisis in the Church: The Church, and especially the papacy, had suffered greatly under the successive crises of the Babylonian Captivity and the Great Schism. The popes of the Renaissance had restored the splendor of the papacy but had not restored its spiritual leadership. The popes of the later 15th century behaved like temporal princes, notoriously political and infamously corrupt. Church offices were bought and sold at every level. The lower clergy was uneducated and poverty-stricken. Greater emphasis was laid on penance and good works, on tangible acts of faith, with decreased emphasis on spirituality and mysticism, which were regarded with suspicion. Critics of the Church were legion.
Nationalism: By the later 15th century we can begin to speak of a genuine movement of nationalism in Europe. In particular, the princes of Germany regarded the papacy as an alien power that was inimical to their own interests. They posed as protectors of their local churches against the predations of the Italians; as self-serving as this pose was, the German priests and common people were supportive of it.
Humanism: The scholars of the Renaissance had acquired sophisticated skills in language and textual analysis, and those skills were now spreading geographically, north of the Alps, and socially, to the laity. No longer did the Church have a monopoly on the texts that formed the foundation of Christianity. The Church--the papacy in particular--had always had its critics, but by the early 16th century there were literally thousands who could read the documents for themselves, in the original languages.
Printing: Perhaps the key factor in the rapid spread of Lutheran ideas was the printing press. Calls for reform and criticisms of papal claims, imbued with a nationalist spirit and bolstered with solid scholarly research, were spread to the masses with a speed unmatched in earlier centuries. Technology had entered politics.
Reading the Bible: Why should the leaders of the Catholic Church be worried whether average Christians read the Bible? It seems odd to us that Christians should not read their own book, and so we conclude that the only reasons for forbidding such activity must necessarily have been malicious.
That would be a misleading conclusion.
The general opinion in the Middle Ages was that the Bible was a difficult and subtle text that required special training to read properly. Not only was the text itself difficult, but the Devil was ever ready to mislead and confuse the uneducated into false interpretations. And historical events seemed to prove out this fear, though not for quite a long time.
There was plenty of objective evidence to support this position. In many of the heresies of the Middle Ages, the leaders had read the Bible for themselves and come to "erroneous" conclusions. The issue of laymen reading the Bible arose in the twelfth century, when there were enough literate laymen for it to matter. When the issue did arise, it was linked closely to heretical movements.
There was, moreover, a specific method for studying the Bible, known as "exegesis". This required training beyond mere literacy, and this training was to be had only within the Church. Churchmen in the Middle Ages no more thought that an amateur could read the Bible and get it right than we today believe a person can engage in surgery without medical training. It was dangerous and presumptuous, and if the untrained persisted in doing it, then they were either fools or madmen. In any event, they could not be allowed to victimize the innocent.
Of Heresy and Translation
Translations: The Bible that the Catholic Church was defending was itself a translation. In the fifth century, St. Jerome had translated the Hebrew of the Old Testament and the Greek of the New Testament into Latin. This version is known as the Vulgate Bible and is the version that was used throughout the Middle Ages.
For many centuries, the only people who were literate were the monks and the priests. A pious laymen might have certain books read to him--the Gospels, for example, or Psalms--but rarely was the layman able to read the Latin for himself. The most common exposure was when priests read out passages in Church, though this was always in Latin and so was merely nonsense to the congregation. The closest laymen got to scripture was when the priest would explain and expound upon some Bible passage.
Still, the translation itself was held to have been divinely guided, and so further translations were not to be trusted. The clergy felt strongly that Jerome's Bible was the one true Bible and any further translation must necessarily incur error to some degree.
Cathars: By the twelfth century, though, there were increasing numbers of laymen who were literate--not in Latin, but in their own native tongues. We hear of a translation of the Bible into French in this century, a translation done by the Cathars, a group in southern France who were condemned as heretics and largely destroyed in the thirteenth century.
...and Other Heretics: Other translations cropped up in later centuries, but they were always associated with heretics (Wycliffe in England, Hus in Bohemia). Translating the Bible was not in itself heretical, but it was not difficult for Church authorities to make a connection. Reading the Bible was tricky and dangerous, and the example of the heretics seemed to confirm this opinion.
Not only were more commoners literate in the vernacular than in Latin, but French and German and English were not as rich as Latin; they lacked precision and depth, so that any translation into these tongues must necessarily be inferior. And, finally, the Vulgate was the product of a saint, one of the Church Fathers. His work was divinely inspired. Could a modern (medieval) translator dare to place himself on the same level as Jerome?
The example of the Cathars, the Lollards and the Hussites were the practical proof. The Bible ought not be placed into the hands of the common believers, lest they be led astray and lose their souls.
A New Interpretation
Brethren of the Common Life: Against this position there arose in the fifteenth century a radically different approach to the Bible. It was articulated best in groups like the Brethren of the Common Life--layment who came together to try to lead a more pure Christian life. Unable to find spiritual nourishment in their local churches, disillusioned by the moansteries (the traditional haven for the ardent lay Christian), some men and women simply began sharing a common life on their own. Bible study was an important element in this movement.
The Brothers read the Bible and discussed it in study groups, with no priest to guide them. The Brethren stayed orthodox, thereby demonstrating that Bible study was not only possible but was an important part of an active spiritual life.
In the same century, humanists began to discover errors in the Vulgate. Some had crept in over the centuries, and some had been made by Jerome himself. Some humanists began working on new editions, in pursuit of a purer version of the Word.
When the impetus for Bible study joined with humanistic training, the result could be radical. Both Luther and Calvin had received humanistic training, and both were believers in Bible study. And both produced vernacular translations of the Bible.
The printing press gave their work a revolutionary social impact, not so much because the press could turn out thousands of copies, as because the press made each copy affordable. Not only could a German artisan read the Bible for himself, he could own that Bible, and he could be guided in his reading by the many essays and tracts of Luther and others.
So, even as some Christians were becoming persuaded that they did not need the Roman Catholic Church to ensure their salvation, they were discovering that they did not need the priests to teach them their religion. They could read it for themselves and they could teach one another.
Nor did they worry about misinterpretations; for, they argued, God would not allow the true Church to perish or go astray. The truth of the Bible, they said, was simple and open; that it was difficult and hidden was a popish lie.
This was heady stuff, especially for that first generation or two, when people really felt they were liberating their religion from the grip of the Devil, and were seeing their faith for the first time. Much of that feeling stemmed from the fact that they were reading the Bible itself for the first time.
Founders: Martin Luther
The Protestant Reformation can be dated to a specific event sparked by a single individual. This is rare in great historical events and partially explains why Martin Luther has received so much attention.
Luther is doubly important because his own writings and work are the source of the major religion that bears his name. Not all Protestants are Lutheran, but Lutherans were the first of the Protestant churches and remain one of the largest.
Luther occupies most of this narrative. The progress of his break with the Roman Catholic Church, what developed as a result of the break, will serve not only to tell the story but also to illustrate the issues involved.
Martin Luther was born in Saxony in 1483. His father decided young Martin would become a lawyer and had him educated for the law, but Martin did not want to become a lawyer. The two argued over this with neither side yielding much.
Then, in his early 20s, Martin Luther experienced a religious conversion. While crossing an open field during a storm, he was nearly struck by lightning. He vowed to his patron saint, Anne, that if his life should be spared he would become a monk.
True to his word, Luther quit school and entered a monastery. His father was furious, but Luther would not budge. He quickly discovered that the religious life suited him best and he threw himself into it with all his energies.
Luther the Monka pervasive sense of religious guilt; he felt the weight of his own sins painfully and sincerely wished to find some way to be cleansed. The rigors of monasticism seemed to offer what he sought.
He out-did all the other monks in devotion and study. He put himself through every rigor and test, including frequent fasting, long prayer vigils, and self-flagellation. He went to confession constantly, to the point where his confessor warned him that excessive confession was itself a sin of pride.
But for all the vigils and fasts and penances, he never really believes that he is holy, even after he is ordained. All the outward rituals of the Church assured him that he was a good Christian, yet when he looked within his heart he saw nothing that was worthy of God's mercy. And the terrors of Hell were quite real to Luther.
Partly as a result of his scholarship, and partly to put his great energies to work, his abbot assigned Luther in 1508 to the faculty of Wittenberg University. This was a new university, founded by the Elector of Saxony, and it was in need of teachers.
Luther entered ever deeper into his study of Scriptures. His erudition won him respect from his peers, and his occasional sermons were well received, but still in his heart he was troubled. How could he know that he was saved? The question tormented him, despite all the reassurances of the Church. And the Bible was if anything even more troubling, with its many details of what it meant not to be saved.
Luther himself tells us about the dramatic turning-point in his life. He was sitting alone in his study at Wittenberg, thinking as he did so often of God's terrible justice. His Bible lay open before him and his eyes fell on a passage from the first chapter of Paul's letter to the Romans.
Verse 17 says, in part, that "the just shall live by his faith." He must have read this passage many times before, but at this moment a light kindled in Luther. As he read the passage, he saw that all of his fasting and penance counted for nothing, and that the only thing that would save him was simple faith.
This became one of the foundation-stones of Protestantism, and often goes by the catch-phrase of "justification by faith." That is, individuals are justified, are made able to meet God's justice, by faith alone.
This simple doctrine Luther soon elaborated and explicated. Closely related, but separate, was his advocacy of the "priesthood of all believers" -- that is, that any Christian may perform the offices of priest.
These two doctrines created a powerful revolution. Luther removed the power of a priestly class and so much of the coercive power of the Catholic Church; and at the same time, he made Christianity a deeply personal religion that emphasized the faith of the individual over formal rituals and social practices.
Luther began preaching his ideas, which were not really all that original. Wycliff and Hus, in particular, but many others besides, had said much the same. But larger events now caught Luther up, and his own temperment ensured that he would not shrink from them. The first of these was the visit of Johann Tetzel to a nearby town.
The year was 1517, and Tetzel, a Dominican monk, was selling papal indulgences near Wittenberg. Tetzel was offering total remission of all sins forever - whoever bought his indulgence would go to Heaven immediately upon death.
This practice was not uncommon. In theory, the person purchasing the indulgence was to repent his or her sins prior to the purchase, so that it was clear that God was doing the forgiving of the sin while the Church was merely remitting the punishment that went with it. But Tetzel did not demand repentance. You paid your money and you got your indulgence and good day to you.
Tetzel was a born publicist. He set up his table in the town square, had lovely banners all around, and even distributed announcements complete with a little jingle to make it memorable: "Another penny in the coffer rings, another soul to Heaven springs."
This sort of behavior was repellant to Luther, as indeed it was to many pious Christians. Most merely wrinkled their noses in disgusted and turned away. Luther, being a university professor, immediately wrote a paper.
The 95 Theses
Luther wrote a list of 95 theses, or propositions, challenging the sale of indulgences in theory and practice. He nailed the document to the door of the Wittenberg Church, which was the usual place for posting public notices, and offered to debate the theses with any churchman.
This was a common practice. University professors, who were all clerics, would debate various propositions in a public forum. Such events were a form of entertainment in a college town, attended by the public with factions favoring this or that side. The issues debated, and which side came out the better, would be then argued among the attendees at taverns and on the streets for days or even weeks after.
This debate shaped up to be a doozy. In the first place, Luther was an Augustinian monk and Tetzel was a Dominican. There was a natural rivalry between the two orders that caused defenders to spring to both sides.
But, and this was characteristic of the man, Luther had raised the stakes considerably; some would say unnecessarily. Not only did he challenge the practice of indulgences, he challenged the right of popes to issue them, the entire theory of the Treasury of the Saints, and for good measure challenged the authority of the pope in several other areas as well.
The Dominicans came, the Augustinians came, and the debate was held. By all accounts it was both lively and inconclusive, with both sides going away claiming victory.
Luther continued his attacks of indulgences and papal privileges and powers of all sorts. His public sermons became immensely popular. When the business was brought to the attention of the pope, Leo X, he is famous for dismissing the whole affair as nothing more than a monks' quarrel. Leo is not the most admirable of popes, but he can perhaps be forgiven for this, for various monastic orders did quarrel, often and violently, and sometimes grew extreme in their arguments. It rarely signified much.
Luther and the Pope
But rivalry between orders was one thing, and it soon became clear that Martin Luther was another matter all together. As his arguments were attacked by the Dominicans, Luther defended himself in a flurry of pamphlets. Over the next few years (1517- 1520) we can see him elaborating his ideas and growing increasingly radical in them.
By 1520 he was arguing that the pope held no special powers whatsoever, and that the entire doctrine of apostolic succession was false. He claimed that only a Council could decide matters of faith, and that the Church consisted of all Christians, including laymen. This, in turn, led him to the position that the nobility of Europe were as much leaders of the church as clergymen. He said the Emperor had an obligation to call a General Council. He was even attacking the system of the seven sacraments (baptism, confirmation, matrimony, eucharist, ordination, penance, extreme unction); he would eventually argue that there were only two true sacraments (baptism and marriage).
But it was his attack on papal authority that finally drew official attention to Luther. The things he was saying would render virtually the entire structure of the Church meaningless, and this monk was not being at all circumspect. He proclaimed his ideas from the pulpit and in pamphlets that the printing press made available far and wide.
Leo and others wrote to Luther, urging him to go slowly. Some of his ideas had merit, they said, but they were subtle ideas and liable to be misinterpreted by the untrained. It was dangerous to say these things to the common people. He should be quiet. He should come to Rome.
Luther ignored the advice. The truth was plain enough and God's truth could never be dangerous or withheld. He went on preaching and thousands came to hear him. He went on writing and thousands more read him.
Luther crossed the line when his attacks became personal and vitriolic. He called the pope terrible names and claimed he had no authority to tell anyone what to do. He took to referring to Rome as the Whore of Babylon. Luther could be quite colorful when impassioned.
Leo warned Luther that if he did not desist, excommunication was the next step. Luther was to come to Rome to explain himself. Instead, Luther feigned illness and refused to budge.
So, in 1520, Pope Leo X excommunicated Martin Luther. An excommunication arrives like a summons: an official document delivered personally into the hands of the recipient. From that moment on, the one excommunicated is outside the Church. No Christian is to share bread with him. He may not attend Mass and may not confess his sins. Should he die, he may not be buried in consecrated ground.
Luther received the document, invited his friends over, and publicly burned it. He wrote of the event, calling Leo X the anti-Christ. This again is pure Martin Luther. Others had been excommunicated and had ignored it. Some had even done so successfully. But few had flung the order back in the face of the pope, taking public action that would allow neither side any room to back down gracefully. Luther's friends called it courage and admired him; his enemies called it madness or worse, and feared him.
Having excommunicated him, the Church was now done with Luther. All that remained was for the civil authorities to arrest him and deal with him appropriately. For the Emperor, too, had demanded Luther desist, and had been equally defied.
The emperor was a young Charles V. Charles was not keen on the idea of an Italian pope meddling in the affairs of the German church, and he was not about to have Luther condemned out of hand, merely because Leo was demanding it. So he summoned Luther to an imperial Diet at Worms in 1521 to defend himself. Charles would hear this monk speak with his own words.
Luther's friends urged him not to go. The whole business was too reminiscent of events just over a century old: Jan Hus condemned by the Church as a heretic, called by the Emperor and promised safe conduct, but in fact immediately arrested and eventually burned at the stake. Surely the same would happen again. Charles was not even a German!
But strong as Luther was on disobeying the pope, he was equally strong on obeying his sovereign. He went to Worms from Wittenberg openly, and his trip soon turned into a triumphal progress. As he went, he was invited to preach at one church after another, for everyone was eager to hear him, even if they did not agree with all he said. He was viewed as a German being persecuted by foreigners, worth defending no matter how radical his ideas.
Moreover, he preached well, and won doubters to his side. By the time he reached Worms, he was something of a national hero. At Worms, however, his reception was rather different.
There he encountered the Emperor himself, attending by two cardinals and a cloud of ecclesiastics. Scholars abounded, and Luther admitted that he was overwhelmed and dismayed by the prestige of those arrayed against him.
Time and again the Emperor urged Luther to reconsider, to moderate, to retract. Time and again, Luther stated what he believed to be true and would not back down. In the end, Charles made it plain: recant on certain key points or be arrested and condemned for heresy. Luther asked time to consider; Charles gave him the evening.
The next day, Luther again appeared before the emperor and gave a short speech. At the end of it he uttered his famous statement: "I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is unsafe and wrong to go against my conscience. Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen."
Charles condemned him the next day and issued an edict calling for his arrest.
But Luther was already gone. His friends had spirited him out of Worms in disguise. Imperial agents combed the countryside, but no one knew anything. Luther had vanished.
Soon, though, those pamphlets and letters began appearing, attacking the papacy and signed by Martin Luther. Charles could not track them down, but he had his suspicions. He wrote several times to the Elector of Saxony, Frederick the Wise. The Elector politely wrote back that he had no knowledge of the whereabouts of one Martin Luther.
Nor did he. Frederick had given careful instructions that his people were to hide Luther and were not to tell him where he was. Thus he was able to reply to his emperor with perfect honesty.
Frederick was a curious but crucial player in this drama. He himself remained Catholic and unconverted to Luther's position. Yet he protected Luther consistently, running a very real risk of war. We have no documents that let us look into Frederick's innermost thoughts, but it appears that in this instance political considerations took precedence over religious. Frederick would not allow an emperor and a pope to come in and arrest one of his own citizens when the elector believed the man had done no wrong. He was not strong enough to defy Charles openly, so he did the next best thing.
Luther had been hidden at one of Frederick's castles called Wartburg. Although Frederick remained a loyal Catholic throughout his life, he regarded Luther as one of his own citizens and sought to protect him not so much on religious as on political grounds. This gave Martin Luther a refuge that earlier reformers like John Hus lacked.
From Wartburg, freed from the demands of teaching, Luther launched a blizzard of pamphlets and letters. He was working at a time when the printing industry had boomed, so presses all over Germany and beyond spread Luther's ideas widely with a speed that authorities found impossible to control. In addition to his treatises and letters, Luther now undertook to translate the Bible into German, a task he finished in 1534.
He was aided in his efforts by his close friend Philip Melanchthon, a profound thinker in his own right. Between the two they developed the core of what would become a separate religion that relied on two core principles: that faith alone was necessary and sufficient for salvation, and that the Bible was the sole source of religious authority.
Luther's Later Years
Although Luther had launched a revolution, he lost control of it almost from the beginning. From early on he found himself in conflict with other reformers with whom he disagreed. He witnessed events, such as the Peasants Revolt, and the bloodshed at Mánster, that distressed him deeply. But he worked diligently to explain his beliefs, to offer guidance and counsel to the many who sought his advice, and to set an example of the Christian life.
He wrote books on pastoral care, on the proper conduct and mode of life for a Christian, on the Lutheran liturgy, and countless other topics. He wrote music and prayers ("Silent Night" is his work). As Lutheran churches grew in number, there were naturally some preachers who were slack and even cynically exploitative, and Luther wrote guidelines for evaluating ministers and their conduct. These were later turned into formal visitations that helped ensure a measure of quality among the Lutheran ministry.
Luther followed his own advice in his peronal life. He married, and raised a family, and wrote about the business of family life. He preached at churches, serving as the exemplar of a Lutheran minister. He and his wife, Katharine, entertained many guests and visitors, and their dinner table became famous as a center of lively conversation.
Martin Luther died in 1546. By that time, although his prestige among reformers was great, his actual influence had much declined. His greater influence, however, can hardly be underestimated. His translation of the Bible was so influential that Luther's particular dialect of German (Hochdeutsche) became the official version of German. Lutheranism became and remains to this day the dominant religion not only of Germany, but of the Scandinavian countries as well. And he set the spark to the tinderbox of Europe that led to a century of religious reform and religious warfare that profoundly shaped every aspect of European history.
Founders: John Calvin, 1508-1564
John Calvin is at least on a par with Martin Luther as the creator of the Reformation. Luther's followers created a formal church, but Calvin's followers created many churches; among them, the French Huguenots, the English Puritans, the Scottish Presbyterians, and the Dutch Reformed Church. Calvin had great influence in German lands, and Luther had great influence in Western Europe, but you will not go too far wrong to see Calvin's hand in the churches west of the Rhine River, and Luther's hand in the churches east of the Rhine.
Calvin's theology differed from Luther's in a number of ways. Calvin held to no sacraments at all. Everything was through God's grace, and not through any particular ritual. Calvin placed more emphasis on predestination.
John Calvin was born at Noyon, France, on 10 July 1509, the son of a notary. He went to the University of Paris in 1523 (it was not unusual to attend university at so young an age), where he learned Latin from the humanist Mathurin Cordier. He developed a strong love of languages and earned his Master of Arts in 1528 in theology.
He then went to the University of Orl│ans where he studied for the law. All this was quite normalthe son of a notary following in his father's footsteps. He took his law degree in 1531, concentrating on sacred languages, after which he returned to Paris. At Orl│ans he studied Greek with Melchior Wolmar, a Lutheran, so we know that he had at least some exposure to reformist ideas.
Then, in 1532, Calvin experienced a spiritual conversion. It was typical of Calvin that he gives us virtually no details of this crucial moment in his life. In contrast with Luther, who is extensively autobiographical, Calvin wrote merely that he had experienced a "sudden conversion," and we must be satisfied with that.
Calvin in Flight
In Paris he now began to associate with the more radical religious elements. As the government began to bring some pressure to bear, he found it expedient to flee France in 1534, much to his father's distress.
Calvin made for Italy, but along the way he stopped at Basle where he delivered a manuscript for printing. It was entitled Institutes of the Christian Religion, a dry and careful book, the work of a law-trained scholar. It made little impression at the time, but Calvin re-worked the book for years, and the Institutes became the definitive statement of Calvinism.
He went on to Italy, returned to Paris briefly, then headed back to Italy again. On his way, he passed through Geneva and became embroiled in the local political and religious scene there (1536). He never made it to Italy.
The city council of Geneva was interested in reform, but wanted to maintain control of it (a pattern followed in a number of cities). It called a general council of the city in May to approve "the new reformation of the faith." Calvin was in the city to witness these heady events, but was still determined to go on to Italy. But in August, one of the chief reformers, Guillaume Farel, persuaded Calvin to stay. While initially retained to serve as a writer and theologian, Calvin quickly proved that he had skills as a preacher as well. This brought him increasingly into the public eye. By November he was appointed as a pastor.
It was Calvin who drew up a draft of principles by which Christians in Geneva ought to live. He spent all of 1537 in the city, writing, fulfilling his pastoral duties, and trying to get the City Council to adopt his "Articles on the Government of the Church."
The more conservative faction had allies in the nearby city of Bern. In 1538, this faction was able to force Calvin and Farel to leave Geneva, and Calvin went to Strassbourg.
At Strassbourg, that universal home of dissidents and refugees, Calvin became pastor of the French congregation there and enjoyed much success as a preacher.
He associated closely with the leading figures of Strassbourg. He learned a great deal from Martin Bucer.
He extensively re-worked the Institutes of the Christian Religion, his detailed statement of the principles of Christianity, expanding it and translating it into French. Its publication in 1541 was a landmark in the history of the French language, much as Luther's German Bible was for that language.
In 1541, too, Calvin was invited back to Geneva by the city council (the Bern faction had been voted out). His reputation had grown to such stature that the city regarded him as a prize.
Founders: The Anabaptists
Catholics against Lutherans, Calvinists against Catholics, even Lutherans against Calvinists, but one group was consistently and universally opposed and persecuted by all the major divisions within Christianity: the Anabaptists. The term "anabaptist" is applied to a variety of groups and individuals, only a few of which ever formed formal churches. Anabaptism is worth a closer look because it generally represents the "extreme" elements within the Reformation movement.
Anabaptism is a general term, but there is a core of beliefs that were common to all. The most of important of these beliefs was that of "believer baptism," which is what gave the movement its name. Other characteristic beliefs include a strict separation of true Christians from the State, insistence on freedom of conscience and of worship, pacifism, a belief in a voluntary church, emphasis on the precepts of the Sermon on the Mount, rejection of oaths and of law suits, mutual help, and an emphasis on discipleship.
Many of these ideas no doubt seem abstract or even opaque to our modern eyes, so I will try to explain them before narrating the development of the movement itself.
Anabaptist Beliefs ä Believer Baptism
This was the the most characteristic belief held by Anabaptists, the one from which their name was derived, though not really the belief that earned them the opprobrium of all other sects. Without this belief, though, an individual or group cannot be called anabaptist.
Baptism: Catholics, Lutherans and Calvinists alike held similar views regarding baptism. Only Lutherans and Catholics considered it a sacrament, but all three were agreed that a person was not a Christian until baptism and, most importantly, that baptism should be performed as early as possible in a Christian's life. Thus, a child born to Christian parents was baptized as soon as it was physically safe to do sothe usual term is "infant baptism."
The Criticism: Another
chararcteristic of the Anabaptists was that they tended to a literal interpretation of the
Bible. Because they found no evidence of infant baptism there, but only of adult baptism,
they argued that there was no justification for infant baptism. Moreover, they said,
baptism celebrated and confirmed the believer's true conversion to the faith, which could
obviously only be done by a mature person (the customary minimum age was around thirteen).
Anabaptist Beliefs ä the Christian and the State
This is the one that got them in the most trouble and earned them the loathing of governments everywhere. Anabaptists believed that the true Christian was separate from the State and lived in the Kingdom of God. At a time when every Christian prince was preoccupied with the burning question of what religion to nurture and which to root out, this implied declaration of independence was pernicious and dangerous.
Anabaptists found explicit prohibitions in the Bible against oath-taking (Matthew 5:34, and James 5:12). This alone made them poor citizens, for they could not participate in most juries and could not swear oaths of allegiance. It also meant that they could not serve in public office.
Use of force was ordained by God for use by the magistracy and was denied to Christians, even in self-defense. This removed them from military service.
Their ideal was almost monastic: to withdraw from the world in true Christian fellowship to await the Judgement Day, which they expected at any time. This is a dangerous position in any religious society, but it was doubly so in 16th century Europe because of the high religious and political passion engendered by the Reformation.
There was more, though. The Anabaptists held to other beliefs and practices that made them the objects of suspicion and fear even among the common people.
Anabaptist Beliefs ä Social Ideals
The ideal Christian community for the Anabaptists was that of the apostles. In those early days after the death of Jesus, they believed, the Church was in its purest form, and they sought to imitate as best they could.
The true Christian community, according to the Anabaptists, had no priesthoodall believers witnessed and preached. All Christians helped one another with material goods as needed; the most radical of the Anabaptists may have even held to common ownership of property.
They also tended to belittle or ignore the existing social hierarchy. Seeing no evidence of a natural aristocracy in Apostolic times, and looking forward to the Second Coming when all were equal before the eyes of God, the Anabaptist message could sound dangerously subversive. Whereas the Lutherans gave to the nobility a specific and important role in Christian society, the Anabaptists did not. This helps explain why they found comparatively few noble protectors.
Pariahs and Heroes
All of these factors made the Anabaptists the most universally-feared and persecuted of all the Protestant sects. Princes feared the consequences of their political radicalism. To the Catholics, they represented all their worst predictions of what happens when uneducated people try to interpret the Word of God without the guidance of priests. For Lutherans and Calvinists alike, the Anabaptists were the worst sort of reformers: the kind that had gone astray, had gone too far, and who endangered everything good the reformers were hoping to accomplish. Even those who were not religious or political activists feared the Anabaptists as corrupters of social order.
This accounts for the persecutions, but what accounts for the movement itself? There were tens, even hundreds of thousands of Anabaptists in various parts of Europe, and more who sympathized without joining them.
The attraction, of course, were those very beliefs that so repelled most of Europe. Many were attracted to the strict and vigorous idealism of anabaptism, and their message of true Christian fellowship in the last days. Sympathizers might not accept the tenets, and yet be impressed with the piety of the Anabaptists, their knowledge of the Bible, and their simple style of life.
It's to the believers we turn now. There are scores of threads in the narrative of this movement, for every little enclave had its particular beliefs and its particular history. Out of these many threads, I shall extract only a few here.
Beginnings in Switzerland
There are a few other places where one might begin, but Switzerland is perhaps the best choice. By 1524, the reformers in Z┘rich, followers of Ulrich Zwingli, were much concerned with the question of baptism. As Bible scholars, they could find no reference to infant baptism, and all they read pointed toward adult baptism after a spiritual conversion. For some, this accorded closely with their own experiences, but they had all grown up with the Catholic view and had been themselves baptized as infants, and there were a number of strong arguments in favor of infant baptism.
Some in 1524 began to refuse to have their children baptized. When the city council ordered it, they openly refused. In January 1525, the question was debated with Zwingli and others. The Anabaptists were led by Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz, and Wilhelm Reublin. Zwingli would not budge, adn the dissidents were again ordered to baptize their children or face banishment from the city.
A few days later, on 21 January 1525, Conrad Grebel baptized George Blaurock (an ex-priest), who in turn baptized fifteen others who were assembled in a private home. They then celebrated the Lord's Supper as a memorial service (the mass was still being celebrated in Z┘rich), and a new community of believers was formed.
This little break-away group began evangelizing in the surrounding villages after they had fled Z┘rich. The city tried to clamp down, but met with resistance in some of the villages. This was at a time that the Peasants Revolt was in full bloom in Germany, immediately to the north. Various leaders were imprisoned at times, some suffering torture and some staging daring escapes.
The city council in March 1526 ordered captured Anabaptists be drowned. In November of that year, the city went further, threatening with death those who even listened to Anabaptist preachers.
In January 1527, a number of Anabaptist leaders were captured. With Zwingli's full knowledge and approval, Manz was tied to a hurdle and thrown into the Limmat River. Blaurock was beaten through the streets and driven into exile. Many others fled or went into hiding. We hear little of Anabaptists after this date.
Blaurock went to the Tyrol, where he met with some success. He was captured and burned in 1529, but the Tyrol became an Anabaptist stronghold. Jakob Huter was Blaurock's successor. He fled to Moravia later, where he founded the Hutterites.
The early leader of the Anabaptists in Moravia was Georg H┘bmaier. This area still remembered and revered John Hus and Jerome of Prague, and were receptive to anti-Catholic ideas.
H┘bmaier, fresh from the Tyrol, founded a center at Nikolaberg, where he was joined by Hans Hut. H┘bmaier was more conservative, but Hut was a millenarian fanatic and an enthusiastic preacher. The barons of Lichtenstein, sympathetic to H┘bmaier, arrested Hut in 1527, but H┘bmaier was himself captured by imperial authorities not long after. On 10 March 1528, H┘bmaier was burned at Vienna. Three days later, his wife was cast into the Danube River, a stone around her neck.
The center of anabaptism now shifted to Austerlitz and the leadership of Jakob Huter, also fleeing from the Tyrol. Huter enjoyed great success, founding as many as eighty-six Br┘derhofe (villages of brethren) that ranged in population from 200 to 2000. Huter was captured in 1536, taken to Innsbruck, and there burned.
The great persecution in Moravia was 1547 to 1564. Many were killed and nearly all were exiled from one place to another, multiple times. A whole generation was spent being harassed from Moravia to Hungary and back again. The Hutterites stayed in touch with brothers and sympathizers in Poland, northern Italy, and southeast Europe.
The persecutions gradually came to an end in the middle 1560s. The Hutterites survived and continued to live in Moravia. Some even emigrated to the New World in later centuries.
The other great branch of Anabaptism ran down the Rhine River. Strassbourg was a refuge to religious radicals of all stripes, and Anabaptists gathered here along with others. By 1533, Capito and Bucer (leaders of the reform in Strassbourg) were agreed in opposing the Anabaptists, but by that time there were about 2,000 Anabaptists in a city of perhaps 20,000.
Melchior Hoffman was one of the principals responsible for spreading Anabaptists along the lower Rhine. Like so many others, he was hounded by the civil authorities everywhere, yet everywhere was able to spread the faith. He created thousands of followers in Holland and the other Low Countries before he was imprisoned at Strassbourg in 1533.
The Low Countries became a stronghold of Anabaptist faithful, but they suffered severe persecutions. In the early 1530s, some began to look for safe havens. One of the points of attraction was the city of M┘nster in Germany. Some were caught and killed before they made their escape, but others joined the Anabaptists of the city, and M┘nster became the most notorious of all the centers of Anabaptism.
The local leaders of the Anabaptists were Bernhard Knipperdolling and Bernhard Rothmann. Early in 1533 they were joined by Jan Matthys and other Dutch refugees, and Matthys (a follower of Hoffman) soon emerged as the leading figure.
M┘nster was in Catholic territory, and a Catholic army was soon formed to be sent against the city. Matthys ordered that no un-baptized adults should remain in the city, and many were baptized rather than leave the city and risk falling into Catholic hands. There began a movement toward a community of goods that later, in both Catholic and Lutheran propaganda, was presented as complete communalism.
In April 1533, Matthys and others were killed in an attack on the Catholic army. His place was taken by another Dutch leader, Jan Bockelson of Leyden, who abolished the city council completely, appointed twelve elders, and proclaimed himself king. The city was under continuous siege, and only a few thousand of the most radical Anabaptists remained.
In July 1534, the city allowed polygamy, mainly because there were by this time four times as many women as men, and many thousands of children. Bockelson himself took sixteen wives. This was as much a work of social legislation as it was a statement of religious ideology. Nevertheless, actions like these served to make the city, and Anabaptists, notorious throughout Europe.
In the summer of 1535, the city was betrayed by a deserter. The Catholics stormed the city and pillaged it. The leaders were executed.
M┘nster sealed the fate of the Anabaptists. Catholics, Calvinists and Lutherans alike sought to eradicate them from their territories, as accounts of what was practiced and proclaimed at M┘nster grew more and more lurid.
In Holland and Friesland alone, between 1535 and 1545, over thirty thousand Anabaptists were put to death. Luther and Calvin both wrote virulent tracts against them, as did scores of lesser writers.
Of all the many Anabaptist communities, two notable groups survived: the Hutterites in Moravia, and the Mennonites (named after Menno Simons) in Germany and Holland. But the persecutions in the wake of the massacre at M┘nster ensured that Anabaptism would exist only on the margins of European Christianity.
The Reformation Movement in Germany
The initial spread of Luther's ideas produced chaos, dissent, and rebellion, which naturally only confirmed in the minds of staunch Catholics their belief that religious dissent brought civil war as well as spritiual peril. Luther himself called for German resistance to the papacy in nationalist terms, and the call was quickly answered.
In 1522, knights in the Rhineland rebelled. They claimed to be loyal to the emperor, to be defending his rights in Germany, but in truth they were trying to defend their own, for the lower orders of knights in Germany had long been suffering both economically and socially. Many of these also had been persuaded to Lutheranism, and so almost from the beginning religious dissent and political rebellion became entangled.
The revolt of the knights was quickly suppressed, but soon after a peasant revolt broke out in southern German (1524). This revolt spread rapidly in breadth and severity. Here, too, many of the rebels cited Luther's ideas or professed Lutheran sympathies. This rebellion was finally crushed in 1525.
By the later 1520s, Lutheranism spread more peacefully, usually when a prince or a city council formally adopted Luther's ideas and formally suppressed the Catholic Church within their jurisdiction. Although this progress was not marked by violence, it still constituted a flagrant disregard and defiance of established authority (the Emperor and the Church). Becoming Lutheran was not a step taken lightly or without cost.
The Reformation Spreads
It is worth recounting the way in which a town or principality "went Lutheran". While the details varied, and the variations are interesting and illustrative, I shall here reduce them to a standard account.
At the courts, the prince might decide that this Luther fellow had some interesting ideas; or, it might be the prince's wife or other relative who expressed a serious interest. The prince would bring in a preacher with Lutheran sympathies; he might keep his Catholic confessor as well, allowing the minister only to preach sermons, or he might openly dismiss the priests. The most convinced went further, confiscating Church property, dissolving the monasteries and nunneries, and bringing in Lutheran ministers.
Much the same happened in the cities. The city council was the key player here, and most city councils were dominated by a handful of families. If sufficient number of these families were of Lutheran sympathy, then the city might invite Lutheran preachers in. These would actually preach in the local cathedral; the Catholic church had a long tradition of guest speakers that could go further than the local priest or bishop dared.
If the preachers met with a favorable reception, then the city might go further. They might allow Lutheran congregations to worship openly, usually in private homes. The city might sponsor public debates between Catholic and Protestant authorities. And, as with the princes, a city might go further and decide to put an end to Catholic practices altogether.
The city council would declare all Church property forfeit. The monks and nuns were ordered out, to find jobs or else to leave the city. Often provision would be made for elderly nuns and monks, who might be allowed to live out their lives in the cloister even though the monastery itself was converted to other purposes. At the same time, the city founded schools, to replace the cathedral school; this marked the true beginnings of public education in Europe. The council also put Lutheran ministers on the public payroll, there being no Church fiscal system with which to fund them.
In the countryside, the Reformation spread more erratically. Lutheran ideas came often from itinerant preachers. Sometimes these co-existed with the existing Catholic structure, but other times the priests were driven away by the peasants or by the local landlord. As in the cities, the peasants wanted the right to choose their own ministers.
As the Reformation spread piecemeal throughout Germany, a larger issue loomed; namely, the conflict between Lutheran princes and the Catholic emperor. Luther himself did not want a separate religion, but a thorough-going reform of the one true church. The German princes who were sympathetic (and there were many who were not), likewise wanted a reform of the Church, but they looked to their emperor to provide it.
The emperor, however, wanted none of it. He was a faithful Catholic who believed that kings had no place in matters of theology. When he called an imperial diet at Speyer in 1529, he specifically forbade any mention of religion or of Luther.
Some objected strongly to this position. They knew the emperor needed money and men, and they saw this diet as their best chance to bring their demands for relgious reform out into the open. This was precisely what Charles did not want, and he rejected every plea along those lines.
Fourteen of the German lords refused to attend the Diet of Speyer. They sent a letter to the emperor protesting his decision and detailing their concerns. These lords became stamped by their signing this letter of protest. It is ironic that the term Protestant derives from some political maneuvering in the German Empire, and that it is applied to all the many offshoots of Lutheranism, however far removed.
In 1531, Charles V decided that he would have to use force to crush Lutheranism in the Empire. By this time, there were Lutheran princes throughout Germany and Charles was concerned about his ability to rule. Reason had been tried; it was time for force.
Charles' decision led the Lutheran princes to form a defensive alliance of their own, known as the League of Schmalkalden. It looked like war would break out any time, but in 1532 Charles agreed at the Diet of Regensburg to suspend actions against the Protestants in exchange for military support against the Turks.
All during the 1530s, both Catholics and Lutherans continued to hope for a general church council might settle the controversies once and for all. When the pope finally set a council for 1537 at Mantua, it precipitated a crisis among the Protestants. Could they attend a council called by the pope? Wouldn't that legitimize the pope? On the other hand, did they dare refuse?
The Protestant princes ended by refusing to attend, not on religious but on political grounds. To attend would be to bind themselves to the decisions of the Council and this they would not do. The Council of Mantua did meet, but it was lightly attended, accomplished nothing, and was adjourned in 1539.
These maneuverings and hopes did at least keep war at bay for some years. The Catholic League was formed in 1537, but in 1539 there was a further interim peace between the emperor and the Protestants.
In 1541, at the Diet of Regensburg, Charles made a serious effort at compromise. Martin Bucer was there, as were John Calvin and Philip Melanchthon. Cardinal Contarini was there to represent the pope. Despite best efforts, neither side could yield on crucial points, and the effort failed. With the Catholic League now ranged against the League of Schmalkalden, open war seemed inevitable.
Charles had other matters to attend to, first, however. Two years elapsed while he was in Italy, Algeria, Spain, and the Netherlands. The pope called another general council in 1545, this time at Trent. Again the Protestants refused to attend, and the Council of Trent went on to be the defining moment in the so-called Catholic Reformation.
With the other areas of his empire finally secure, Charles could finally concentrate on the Protestant powers. In February 1546, just before war broke out, Martin Luther died. But the forces he had unleashed had long passed beyond his control, and his death did not ease tensions.
The League of Schmalkalden raised 50,000 men and 7,000 cavalry. They had a common commander, but they were not united either physically or in spirit. Charles swept the forces of the League before him. He captured Memmingen, Biberach, Esslingen, Reutlingen, and Frankfurt in the first year. Augsburg and Strassburg, two key centers of reform, fell in 1547. On 24 April 1547, Charles won the Battle of M┘hlberg, capturing Duke John Frederick of Saxony. Philip of Hesse surrendered on 20 June.
Charles' victory was so decisive that it looked as if the Protestants might be crushed. The prospect of a united Germany so alarmed the French that they entered the war, and in 1552 a French army invaded Germany. By 1554, the Protestants had regained much of the lost ground.
The Peace of Augsburg in 1555 settled the matter. It was an arrangement between Catholics and Lutherans only -- Calvinists, Anabaptists and others were anathema to both sides. By the terms of the Peace, every principality in Germany would adhere to whatever faith was held by its prince -- the phrase in Latin was cuius regio, cuius religio.
The Peace of Augsburg did not settle the religious conflict in Germany; rather, it was a declared truce. Both sides were exhausted and no one could see a way out, so everyone accepted matters as they stood.
The result was that religious conflict in Germany did not break out into general war for another sixty years. When it did, though, the resulting war was devastating.
The Reformation Movement in France
The Reformation in France was a bloodier business than in either England or Germany, for the question of reform became entangled with the political fortunes of the crown and of certain noble families. While reform proceeded relatively peacefully in the first part of the 16th century, the second half was dominated by the so-called Wars of Religion.
French Protestants were called Huguenots, named after a French reformer in Geneva. They were persecuted sporadically by the French crown up to 1559, but they also enjoyed periods of toleration and their numbers grew, especially in the south and southwest. During the Wars of Religion, the Huguenots came close to controlling the crown, then were nearly crushed. Tens of thousands died for their faith before the Huguenots at last won an edict of toleration that granted them peace for a time.
The Wars of Religion created a deep division within French society. They also so weakened the kingdom that France's international position was seriously threatened in the later 1500s; she did not really recover until the 1630s. The wars also gave rise to a literature of political resistance, as the Protestants tried to justify their defiance of legal authority, a literature that would become important for later rebels and political philosophers.
Early Years of French Protestantism
The French, like everyone else, were first influenced by the writings of Martin Luther, and the movement proceeded with Lutheran overtones in the 1520s and 1530s. After that, the reformers were distinctly Calvinist.
The Huguenots were persecuted by the state almost from the start. In 1534, for example, after Huguenots covered Paris and other cities with placards denouncing the Catholic Church, the government ordered widespread arrests of Protestants. It was in the wake of the "Affair of the Placards" that John Calvin fled France and ended up in Geneva. The crown went further in 1540, subjecting the Huguenots to the Inquisition. The government occasionally relented somewhat, but the French crown steadfastly opposed Protestantism.
Despite the persecution, Protestantism flourished, especially in southern and western France. By 1561, there were more than 2,000 Huguenot congregations in France. More significantly, about two-fifths of the aristocracy were Calvinist. Of particular importance were the Bourbons, led by the prince of Cond│, and the family of Montmorency-Chatillon, led by Admiral Gaspard de Coligny. These families were staunch enemies of the Guise clan, who were Catholic and who enjoyed much influence at court.
Beginnings of the Wars of Religion
In 1559, two events of great significance occurred. One was the Treaty of Cateau-Cambr│sis, which ended the long war between the Habsburgs (the Empire) and the Valois (France). The Treaty seemed to promise peace for France. Her king, Henry II, was a solid king who was a determined enemy of the Huguenots. With the Treaty in hand, he could turn his attention to arranging matters at home.
The same year, Henry held a tournament to celebrate the marriage of his daughter to Philip II, king of Spain, a marriage that had been arranged (she was only thirteen) in part to help seal the new peace. Henry was an old-fashioned sort of king, and he insisted on participating in the tournament himself. Despite blunted lances and other precautions, Henry was mortally wounded in a joust when a lance pierced his visor. As a result, Francis II became king, and in an instant everything changed.
Francis II was only fifteen years old, chronically sick and destined to die young. He never for a moment really ruled France. Instead, he was dominated by Henry's formidable wife, Catherine de Medici. As so often happens with a regency, however, various powerful families saw in these events an opportunity to gain influence at court and advance their own interests.
Catherine had a difficult time trying to steer a safe course for her son between the powerful and ruthless families (Cond│ and Coligny, for example, in 1560 collaborated in an abortive plot to kidnap Francis in order to free him from the influence of the Duke of Guise). Her son France died in 1560, but she continued to reign as regent for her son, Charles IX (1560-1574). The queen mother was herself a staunch Catholic and desired the monarchy to remain true to Rome. But she likewise did not want a monarchy dominated by one faction of the nobility (Guise).
Catherine tried first to settle matters between Catholics and Protestants at a public debate, but the time for debates had long past. She so feared the influence of Guise that she turned to Coligny in 1562 and issued an edict of partial toleration for the Huguenots. Then, in that same year, the Duke of Guise came upon a Huguenot congregation in Champagne (he was marching with a private army) and massacred about a hundred people. This event, in March 1562 at Vassy in Champagne, markes the beginning of the French wars of religion.
The First Phase
Cond│ was in the field at the time as well. He was widely faulted at the time, and by historians today, because at this critical juncture he failed to go to Paris and protect the queen. Instead, he delayed and the Duke of Guise went there instead. The result was that Catherine was now under the influence of the Catholic Guises.
The Guise family continued to hold power at court, even though Guise himself was assassinated in 1563. The wars themselves proceeded by fits and starts, mainly as one side or the other was able to call in armies from elsewhere. The first campaigns were 1562-63, the second were 1567-68, and a third in 1568-70. In this latter campaign, Cond│ was killed and Coligny became the Huguenot leader.
The last phase ended with the Peace of Saint-Germain-en-Laye (1570), which granted the Huguenots religious freedom within their own territories, conceded the power of the Huguenot nobility, and granted the Huguenots the right to fortify their cities, which numbered two hundred. At this point it looked very much as if France would take the path taken in Germany--cuius regio, cuius religio.
Just when Protestant fortunes seemed to be on the rise, however, there fell a most serious blow that changed circumstances and again plunged France into religious civil war.
St. Bartholomew's Day
By the 1570s, the young king Charles IX was asserting himself independtly of his mother. Charles leaned toward the Protestants and was friendly with Coligny. Coligny, in turn, was conspiring with the Dutch to lead an invasion of the Netherlands to drive out the Spanish there. This greatly worried Catherine, who knew that it would be a mistake for France to risk war with Spain.
On 18 August 1572, Henry of Navarre married Marguerite of Valois. Henry was a leading Protestant prince, Marguerite was Charles IX's sister. The Protestants were moving ever closer to the throne. Four day's later, Coligny was shot by an assassin, though the bullet failed to kill him. Catherine was evidently a party to this plot, as was the Guise family, and she now feared for her life and for the crown.
Desperate, Catherine convinced her son that a Protestant plot to overthrow the monarchy was imminent, and that only swift action could save France. On 24 August (St. Bartholomew's Day), Guise led troops into the city. Coligny was arrested and executed on the spot. On that same day, about three thousand Huguenots in Paris were massacred. Within three days, around twenty thousand Huguenots were executed across France. The scale of the slaughter, and its timing, clearly shows that the Guises had planned such an attack for some time.
Catholics around Europe rejoiced, while Protestants mourned and cried out in anger. The massacre in an instant transformed the nature of the religious struggle in France; henceforward it became a battle to the death, and a battle in which Catholics and Protestants around Europe felt directly involved.
One of many effects of the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre was that French Protestants began producing a literature of political resistance. Works poured out during the 1570s. We begin to see arguments in favor of resistance for reasons of conscience, and that the people themselves are the ultimate source of political authority. These arguments were not entirely novel, but they appeared with a new intensity and clarity as a result of religious wars.
Charles died in 1574 and was succeeded by his brother Henry III (1574-1589). Henry, like Catherine, tried to steer his way between the powerful Guises and the now-vengeful Huguenots, led by Henry of Navarre. And, like the queen mother, Henry resented the influence of the newly-formed Catholic League, which was led by the Guises and financed by the Spanish.
The power of the Catholic League was demonstrated when Henry tried to re-introduce a measure of toleration for the Huguenots in 1576. It lasted barely a year before Henry was forced to revoke it. By the 1580s, Henry so feared the Catholic League that he was determined to break its power. His attempt is known as the Day of the Barricades, but the effort was a failure, and Henry actually had to flee Paris, which now was completely in the hands of the Catholic League.
This happened in 1588, a portentious year for Spain. Not only was it interfering in France, it was preparing a double blow against both England and the Netherlands. Most people know that the famous Spanish Armada was defeated by the English, but the effects of that defeat were felt well beyond Spain and England. In France, Henry was encouraged to take the offensive again, since Spain was now in poor shape to help the Guises.
So Henry hatched a plot that succeeded in assassinating both the Duke of Guise and his brother the cardinal. The Guises instantly took to the field, whereupon Henry III struck an alliance with Henry of Navarre to win back Paris. Early in 1589, though Henry III was himself assassinated by a friar. This now made Henry of Navarre king of France, for Henry III had no children.
Henry IV and the Edict of Nantes
Again the situation in France had turned upside-down. Now France was ruled by a Huguenot king and the Catholic princes of Europe dreaded the prospect of a France turned Protestant. Spain instantly invaded, but the invasion failed and instead had the effect of strengthening Henry's position in France.
Henry was no fanatic. Instead, like many of his countrymen, he was sick of religious wars and their terrible cost, and had come to believe that any sort of compromise was preferrable to endless bloodshed. On 25 July 1593, Henry publicly converted to Catholicism. His comment that "Paris is worth a mass" reflects the weary pragmatism felt by so many.
The finishing touches were applied by the Edict of Nantes (13 April 1598), a proclamation that averred that France was Catholic but granted freedom of public worship to the Huguenots. They were allowed to hold public office, to attend universities, and to maintain their fortified towns.
The Edict brought France's religious wars to a close. As in England and Germany, though, it did not bring a permanent peace but only a truce. The Huguenots numbered about a million in 1600, perhaps one-fifteenth of the total population. They remained a state within the state for decades. The Edict of Nantes was essentially a declaration of exhaustion by both sides.
Later Developments in France
Henry IV himself was assassinated in May 1610, but no new wars broke out over it. France was quiet for a time. Over the next few decades, the Huguenots were subjected to a slowly increasing pressure from the crown, especially under the cardinals Mazarin and Richelieu. But the crown was unable to take decisive action because it was too weak and too distracted.
Louis XIII (1610-1643) was only nine years old when he became king. Once he was old enough to rule, he was soon embroiled in the Thirty Years' War. There was little room in which to pursue the Huguenots, though Richelieu did his best. Louis XIII was followed by Louis XIV (1643-1715) was even younger--five years old upon his accession. More years would pass before he felt secure enough to re-open the religious question.
The time finally came in the 1680s. Louis began hounding the Huguenots out of public offices and even excluding them from certain professions, such as medicine. He put special taxes on them. In 1685, he revoked the Edict of Nantes, sparking a final series of religious wars in France. This time, however, the Huguenots were thoroughly defeated. While French Protestantism did survive, it did so only as a renegade and illegal religion, enduring secretly until the French Revolution made Protestantism again possible. In a real sense, France never settled its religious divisions.
The Reformation Movement in England
The Reformation proceeded in England in two distinct stages. The first was limited and focused and was driven by King Henry VIII's desire to dump his wife Catherine in order to marry Anne Boleyn. This very secular desire is what led to a break with Rome and the creation of the Church of England. Church practices themselves, however, were not reformed much.
The second phase was quite long, arguably lasting until 1688 and the Glorious Revolution. This second phase was driven by the vexing question of how far reform should really proceed in England. At one extreme were English Catholics who wanted at least toleration for their faith and at best a return of England to the obedience of Rome. At the other extreme were Puritans and other radicals who not only would have nothing to do with the popes, but wanted complete religious freedom for themselves (not, however, for Catholics).
So, while England formally broke with Rome in the 1530s, the issue of reform was still burning a century later, and was one factor in the outbreak of the English Civil War.
People in England heard about Martin Luther, of course, and there was a good deal of sympathy for his arguments. The humanist movement was well received under the young Henry VIII, who himself had classical training. Henry did not, however, support Luthe ran criticism of the mass or the sacraments, and he certainly held no truck with the notion of the priesthood of all believers. In fact, Henry gained a certain modest celebrity by writing a little work on the seven sacraments that was a reply to Luther. I ronically, for this work, the pope awarded the English king the title of Defender of the Faith, a title which Henry kept even after his break with Rome.
So, the reformers had to watch their step as carefully as any place else. One of the early reformers was William Tyndale, who translated the Bible into English. He had to leave England in order to get the work published (1524). The 1520s were a heady time for reformers everywhere, and Lutheran ideas spread through illicit printing presses and secret meetings.
Still, the ingredient that seemed to be a prerequisite for reform on the Continent -- the support of a prince -- was missing in England. Until 1527. In that year, Henry decided at last that he would divorce Catherine of Aragon so that he could marry Anne Boleyn.
The King's Great Matter
It must have seemed simple to Henry at the beginning. Catherine had been married to Henry's big brother, Arthur. When the young prince died, Henry VII immediately arranged for Catherine to marry Prince Henry. Since marrying a brother's widow was considere d a violation of canon law, King Henry applied for and received a papal dispensation for the marriage.
All this was quite routine among noble and especially among royal houses. Equally routine was for a prince later to decide that the marriage was distasteful and to plead consanguinity (marriage to someone within the prohibited degrees of relationship) as an excuse to dissolve the marriage. The whole business was regarded as a matter of paper work for canon lawyers to see to.
Unfortunately for Henry, he made his request in the proper form but at the wrong historical moment. Almost immediately after he asked Pope Clement VII to dissolve his marriage to Catherine, Emperor Charles V's armies entered Rome.
Charles was Catherine's nephew, and he regarded this a matter of family business that was his responsibility. In these circumstances, Clement found it most difficult to grant Henry's request. He also found it difficult to deny the request, as he was tryin g to wriggle free of the Imperial grip on Rome. So he delayed and he delayed.
Both parties gathered their arguments and their lawyers, and the months dragged by. The business came to turn on the crucial question of where the case should be heard: in England or in Rome. In this manner, the King's Great Matter as it came to be called , became increasingly a question of papal authority and jurisdiction. But always conditioned by events in the stormy political atmosphere of the 1520s.
In July 1529, pressed by the emperor, Clement finally revoked the case to Rome. This now brought the business to a crisis, for if the case were heard at Rome, Henry's petition would surely be denied and then he would be stuck with Catherine. He was more a nd more smitten with Anne, so this alternative Henry refused to accept.
The question, then, was how and on what legal basis to defy the pope. He could do so openly and simply suffer excommunication, as other English kings had done, but this was a desperate course made doubly risky in that it would leave the door open for the religious radicals. Cardinal Wolsey, Henry's chief advisor, died in November 1530. Wolsey had skillfully strung the matter along while avoiding an open break with Rome.
Some time in 1531, the idea was floated (probably first by Thomas Cromwell) that Henry might turn to Parliament for a solution. This was not Henry's first choice, for Parliament wanted to talk about religious reform and Henry did not -- he only wanted th e divorce, and he still really wanted papal permission. But by 1532 he was persuaded to Cromwell's argument that England was an empire unto itself and that Henry as its king was utterly independent of Rome.
The divorce itself was granted by Parliament in May 1533. This was fortuitous, for Henry had secretly married Anne in January of that year, and she was already pregnant. The culmination of the process came in the Act of Supremacy in 1534, which declared that Henry as King of England was the sole head of the English church. Henry, who merely wanted a new wife, had had to create a new church in order to accomplish that.
There was talk for a long time of reconciliation with Rome, but it went nowhere. Reconciliation seemed at least possible for a time because there was as yet no real reform in England; Henry had merely supplanted the pope, leaving Church practices intact. There were, however, reformers within in England and within the court, and some limited reforms were implemented.
The political issue was the most burning. In 1535 Parliament passed the Act of Succession, which in part demanded an oath to the new order. Some refused, Thomas More among them, and were executed. The following year saw the execution of Anne Boleyn, for whom Henry had started the English Reformation. It also saw the only serious revolt against Henry's reforms -- a rebellion that began in the north of England and which was contained there. Henry did not again face open resistance.
Henry quickly turned over all the spiritual powers he had usurped to the Archbishop of Canterbury (1536). In that same year, Henry moved against the monasteries. Dissolving the monasteries was a standard move of the reformers; Henry was motivated as much by a desire for reform as by a desire to get his hands on monastic wealth. In general, the crown got most of the movable wealth, while the English nobility were granted the lands and titles. The business was completed in 1540 with an act of Parliament making the crown the owner of all remaining monastic property.
The dissolution of the monasteries was an important step in the English reformation. Once monastic lands had been redistributed among the nobility, going back to Rome became a much more complicated affair. The nobles had a vested interest in maintaining at least the acts of Henry, even if they had no sympathy for the religious reformers.
Henrician Reform, Part 2
Once the divorce was final and the Church's assets had been seized, there was a bit of a pause, for Henry was not really interested in religious reform. Nevertheless, if England wasn't exactly Protestant, it was not Catholic either, and Protestant preachers spread the Lutheran message.
How little down the Lutheran road Henry was willing to travel can be seen in the act of Parliament in 1539. These were six statements of faith and practice that were soundly conservative in tone, and were not at all what the Lutheran preachers had hoped to see. It was enough for Henry, however. He was emperor within his own kingdom, and that was enough.
After Thomas Cromwell was executed in 1540, Henry took a more direct hand in Church matters, and reform came to a standstill until his death in 1547. Everyone understood that nothing further would happen under the old king, so activity shifted to the heir.
Henry had one son, Edward. The boy was being raised as a Protestant, so it was clear that reforms would follow upon his accession. Henry was no supporter of this, but he feared that if he turned Edward over to the conservatives, the ones who wanted a return to Rome, then the crown would lose supremacy in the name of papalism. So, he let the boy be.
King Edward VI, 1547-1553
At long last, the reformers had their chance. By the mid-1540s, the stakes had been raised considerably. John Calvin was at work in Geneva, though his influence was yet to be felt in England. The radicalism of the Anabaptists continued to affect everyone, and M┘nster was still a recent memory. Fewer and fewer people continued to hope that somehow the Catholics and the Protestants could be reconciled at a Church council and the schism within Christianity be healed. Increasingly, the stakes were all or nothing; triumph or annihilation within a given country. And England was very much up for grabs.
The Protestants on the Continent were reeling under the Imperial offensive, and a number of them came to England during these years. The reform movement surged ahead, and it was during Edward's reign that religious reform in England became politicized. The king was still a boy, and family and faction always became prominent in such circumstances. The reformers pressed for action, and the safest recourse was to Parliament, which itself was becoming more interested in the issue of reform.
The first really significant step came in 1549 with the issuance in 1549 of the first Prayer Book of the Church of England. The Prayer Book became a center of controversy in the English Reformation, for this is where the details of Church ritual were laid out. For example, should the ceremony of the Lord's Supper refer to the real presence of Christ in the wine and bread? Or, at the other extreme, should the ceremony be no more than a memorial service, with no significance to the wine and bread at all? Or any of a myriad of variations between? There were scores of such issues, and any position taken was bound to offend someone.
The movement toward a stronger and more explicitly Protestant position continued throughout Edward's reign, though Edward himself did little more than lend his name and support to the initiatives of others. It climaxed in the issuance of the Forty-Two Articles in 1553, a strongly Protestant statement of belief that many felt went too far. By this time, a number of Calvinists had come to England, including Martin Bucer. From the latter part of Edward's reign, Lutheran influence waned while Calvinist influence increased.
And then, in that very year, Edward VI died. The next eligible claimant to the crown was Mary, Henry's daughter by Catherine of Aragon, and raised to be steadfastly Catholic.
Queen Mary, 1553-1559
Mary was only in her 30s when she became the first queen ever to rule England, and there was every reason to expect that she would not only have a long life but would produce heirs as well. She was a devout Catholic and was married to Philip, the prince of Spain. Catholics everywhere rejoiced at their good fortune.
But nothing turned out right for the Catholics. Her marriage to Philip was loveless and he rarely visited England. There were no children. And Mary died unexpectedly young.
Moreover, the business of reverting to Catholicism was tricky. The Protestant prayer books were banned, and Catholic priests returned to the pulpit. Although there were no immediate persecutions, many of the Lutheran refugees found reasons to return to their homelands, in part because the religious Peace of Augsburg in 1555 made it propitious to do so.
But Henry had redistributed much of the land he had seized from the Church to great numbers of nobles and gentlemen, and these landowners had no intention of returning their properties to the Church. By 1554, Parliament had stated in law that all the confiscated lands were to remain in the hands of their new owners--Henry's real estate scheme had worked. This meant that the monasteries were not re-opened, and many of the returning bishops found themselves much impoverished.
The Protestants, of course, resisted, and some openly. Mary sought to enforce religious uniformity and ordered arrests. Some of these went to trial, and some of those trials ended in public executions, the victims being burned at the stake for heresy.
The most notorious of these took place at Smithfield, near Oxford. Over three hundred were burned in the Smithfield Fires between 1553 and 1558, giving England her first Protestant martyrs and giving the queen the harsh title "Bloody Mary". Mary herself was a gentle soul who found that the logic of her ardent faith, and the demands of politics, led her to endorse acts from which she personally quailed.
The general public had begun by loving Mary, for her attractive personal qualities, but they ended by hating her. The worst blunder, politically, was that most of those who died in the Smithfield Fires were ordinary people--tradesmen and peasants. The great lords who had fostered, protected, or even openly professed Protestantism, were able to use their influence to avoid arrest and execution. So Mary's attempt to enforce Catholicism was viewed as hypocritical and biased.
And then, with her death, the Reformation in England lurched yet again. For, the next in line, and indeed the only child of Henry who still lived, was the young Elizabeth, the daughter of Anne Boleyn. So, in 1559, the persecutions ended, and no one was quite sure which direction reform would take under the new queen.
Queen Elizabeth I, 1559-1601
One thing was certain: the new queen was solidly Protestant. She had been so raised and she so remained throughout her lifetime. By temperment she was moderate, and she steered a course between more radical factions on every hand. Because she was also politically adept, she was able to steer her course without major mishap.
The "Elizabethan Settlement" as it is known, came at the very beginning of her realm, as part of the general reaction against the excesses of Mary. The Act of Uniformity passed in 1559 essentially returned England to the reformation of Henry VII's later years. The Anglican Church was headed by the monarch, its priests were called ministers, and they celebrated the Lord's Supper, not Mass. The official Prayer Book set down the rituals to be used. And all the lands seized from the old Catholic Church were to remain in lay hands.
On the surface, religion faded away for a time as a divisive issue in England, but under the surface tensions remained. For one thing, there were still a great many Catholics in England who stubbornly resisted the domination of the Anglican Church. This was especially true in the rural areas. At the other end, there was a politically powerful group of ardent reformers who felt that the job was still only half done. Elizabeth did not so much deal with these factions as she neutralized them politically, without appeasing or satisfying them.
The result was that the issue of reform in England was postponed rather than resolved. And when the social peace of the nation was disturbed again in the 1630s, religion again came to the forefront, this time in the form of civil war.
The Reformation Movement in Other Areas of Europe
The Reformation in Denmark
Denmark is another place where the role of politics and the prince were key in the development of the Reformation.
Lutheran ideas were tolerated by King Frederick I and Lutheran preachers abounded. He would not, however, take the final step and break with Rome.
When Frederick died in 1533, a struggle over the succession ensued. Christian III won that struggle in 1536. Deeply in debt, he turned for help to the Catholic Church, but without result. Encouraged by his German advisers, he secularized the Church in Denmark and seized its lands. This solved his debt problem nicely.
Christian proceeded to establish the Danish Church. He had its provisions reviewed by Luther himself. The clergy were chosen by lay authorities, with the king as the head of the church. Divine services, sermons, rituals, schools, the status of priests, all were regulated. Denmark preserved the episcopal structure, but bishops held only spiritual authority.
Because the king of Denmark also ruled Norway, the same structure was imposed there. But Norway proved resistant to Lutheran ideas, and it took another two generations before Norway was genuinely Lutheran.
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