Cracks in the West's Christian Culture
Though often studied as separate phenomena, many historians consider the Protestant Reformation an extension of the Renaissance spirit into religion. The most common date for the beginning of the Reformation is October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther posted a challenge to debate on the door of All Saints' Church in Wittenberg, Germany, in the form of ninety-five theses or propositions.
Martin Luther (1483–1546) was a pious Augustinian monk who became dissatisfied with corruption in the Catholic Church, especially the sale of indulgences to raise funds for the building of St. Peter's Basilica. His father wanted him to study law, but a brush with death turned him to the monastery, where his superior sent him back to academic life to prepare for the priesthood. He was such a quick study that four years later, with a doctorate of theology, he joined the faculty of the University of Wittenberg as a professor of theology.
Becoming immersed in study of the Bible, Luther quickly came to question Catholic interpretations of certain biblical teachings, including repentance/penance, righteousness, justification by faith, and grace. His challenge to debate the sale of indulgences (“The Ninety-five Theses”) was quickly printed using the newly introduced printing press, and circulated throughout Germany within two weeks of their posting.
Invitation to Rome
Counter-challenged by the pope to come to Rome, Luther, fearing treachery, resisted and, further examining his claims, replied by challenging the pope's authority and the papal office as it existed at the time. As the gap between his views and the pope's demands widened, his writings were being disseminated throughout Europe, and throngs of students were traveling to Wittenberg to hear him directly.
On June 15, 1520, the pope warned Luther that he risked excommunication if he didn't recant 41 points in his writings. The following year, the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire banned Luther's writings and declared him an outlaw and a heretic before the Diet (legislature) of (the city of) Worms.
On his return trip from Worms, Luther was abducted and taken to Wartburg Castle in Eisenach, but it was a friendly kidnapping carried out by his protector, Frederick the Wise. He was kept in the castle in voluntary exile for a year, and during that time received and responded to correspondence from people stirred by his reform doctrines.
Demands for Reforms Spread
Meanwhile, the Reformation had begun, with throngs of people demanding church reforms, including an end to masses conducted for private individuals, an end to the magisterial role of church hier-archs, and the removal of images from churches. The rest, as they say, is history, as about half of the population of Germany followed Luther into the newly organized Evangelical Church.
John Calvin (in French, Jean Chauvin, 1509–1564), eight years old when Luther posted his ninety-five theses, studied law and humanities at the University of Paris. He was summoned to Geneva by Swiss reformer William Farel and there, except for a three-year preaching stint in Strasburg, he lived for the rest of his life. Not as outgoing as Luther, Calvin's main influence was through his writings, especially his
Calvinism spread widely and became the dominant variety of Christian theology in Scotland (as the Presbyterian Church), the Netherlands (the Reformed Church), parts of Germany (Reformed), France (Huguenots), Hungary (Reformed), and Poland. The early settlers (in other words, the Puritans and Pilgrims) of the American colonies that eventually became the United States were mostly Calvinists. The Puritans and Pilgrims later became known as Congregationalists, Dutch Reformed emigrants settled in New York and New Jersey, and Scots-Irish Presbyterians came to New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and south through Appalachia. Additional seminal figures in the Reformation were:
Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of the English Catholic Church when it transformed itself into the Church of England under Henry VIII. He consulted with both Luther and Calvin and leaned more strongly toward Calvin's theology.
John Knox, the fiery reformer of Scotland who visited Calvin in Switzerland and adapted Calvin's theology to the Scottish temperament. The Reformation took Scotland like a firestorm, with Presbyterianism adopted by the Parliament as the established church of Scotland.
Ulrich Zwingli, reformer of the church in Switzerland, beginning in Zurich. Half of Switzerland's ten cantons followed him and Luther into the Reformation; the other half remained Catholic. The cantons went to battle over their disagreement, and Zwingli was killed in battle.
Menno Simons, a Dutch Catholic priest who became a critic of the church, and eventually led a group of dissenters, known as Anabaptists, to leave. Having become convinced infant baptism was unacceptable, they became rebaptized as adults, which is the source of the name. Simons also advocated pacifism and withdrawal from the world, including politics. Mennonites, Amish, and German Brethren see him as one of their source teachers.