The Reformation reformed

The chronology of the Reformation no longer opens with Luther’s 95 Theses. The seeds of revolt were planted long before 1517.

Left to right: Henry VIII, Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Calvin . (Images via Wikipedia)

Our grandfathers would not recognize the Reformation depicted in contemporary history books. No longer do scholars launch verbal barrages at each other in defense of particular religious positions as if history were the handmaiden of apologetics. Reformation history now focuses on a wide range of human experience rather than dogmatic debate. Since the latter 20th century, fresh voices have been asking new questions and offering new answers. Though theses are still posed and opposed, some points of consensus have emerged. Carlos M.N. Eire’s new survey, Reformations: The Early Modern World 1450-1650 (Yale, 2016), is an excellent place to sample current opinions. This essay is intended as a compact historical overview.

Many Reformations

First of all, there is no single cataclysm called The Reformation. Contemporary historians prefer to speak of Reformations, a cluster of unsynchronized religious movements shaped by local conditions. Old generalizations have broken down: the past looks more like an expanding pattern of fractals than a smoothly flowing stream. The course of reforming initiatives varied across regions and political structures. Urban and rural folk, elites and commoners, the learned and the simple responded—or resisted—religious change differently. The theological landscape now looks broader than the teachings of the “Magisterial Reformers” Martin Luther and John Calvin. Anabaptists and other “Radical Reformers” are deservedly attracting more attention from scholars. They are also taking new interest in the Reformations’ impact on women and family life.

The Age of Reform, at least in its specific and disruptive character, was not inevitable. It was the product of countless individual choices and contingencies. For example, in Tudor England every single turn of events at court—births, marriages, deaths—went against the Catholic cause. The whole era lends itself to “what-if” questions. What if Luther had not rashly vowed to become a monk? What if France had burnt young Calvin as a heretic? What if Pope Pius V had not antagonized Queen Elizabeth?

The chronology of the Reformations no longer opens with Luther’s 95 Theses. The seeds of revolt were planted long before 1517. Looking at the Age of Reform from a medieval perspective has shifted historical opinion to a more balanced view of the Late Middle Ages. Despite grave problems, there was more to the era than gloom and decay. Holiness continued to be sought and beauty created.

Europeans living in 1500 thought of their time as “modern” times, just as we do of ours. In many ways, life in the Late Middle Ages resembled conditions in contemporary Third World countries. People suffered the stresses of population pressure, inflation, rapid urbanization, and unemployment. As an industrial-commercial economy diminished the agricultural sector, the cultural gap between the educated few and the ignorant many grew wider. Political frustrations rose, especially in cities.

Luther’s Germany—a cluster of territories, not a single nation—was especially miserable at the turn of the 16th century. Almost every sector of society, from peasants to princes, found itself becoming poorer and weaker. Each class resented the others. Nobly born bishops and abbots wielded secular power. Local clergy were often ignorant and immoral. People anxiously watched for signs and portents that the world was about to end.

Luther was scarcely the only man scandalized by Church corruption. The abuses seen from Vatican to village were the fruit of policies imposed by strong popes in the High Middle Ages. Centralizing papal authority was intended to guarantee the Church’s freedom but it also accumulated great wealth. Renaissance popes who lived like potentates from the sale of Church offices did not look like heirs of the Apostles. Calls for reform grew ever louder during the 14th and 15th centuries. Some individual bishops and religious communities listened, but not even Church councils made enough difference. Hierarchs who owed their positions to abuse had a vested interest in abuse continuing.

Ironically, the laity had also helped create the outrages they deplored. Since the days of Constantine, they had showered the Church with donations of land and money. Such concentrated wealth tempted nobles to control and eventually seize it. For example, they placed their surplus children in ecclesiastical offices, regardless of age or qualifications. Income from Church benefices even paid for Calvin’s education. Selling indulgences, the specific issue that roused Luther’s wrath, was profitable because the laity wanted to buy them. Church properties were expanded and embellished so lavishly in the Late Middle Ages to enhance rich donors’ prestige.

Extremism, skepticism, and rationalist philosophy

During the 15th century, demands for change had provoked the Lollard heresy in England and the Hussite rebellion in Bohemia. Civil authorities repressed both movements bloodily, and left festering memories. But by the end of the century, the pen had become a deadlier weapon than the sword.

Thanks to the invention of printing, intellectuals who found fault with the Church could communicate more easily with the educated elite. The best known of these critics was Erasmus, renowned for his witty and learned attacks on the follies of the age. Although he remained a Catholic, Erasmus ruefully took blame for the Reformation: he had “laid the egg that Luther hatched.”

The thoughts of such men reflected prevailing trends in scholarship—humanism, Biblicism, and primitivism. Humanism, which encouraged deep study of ancient languages, bred dissatisfaction with the Vulgate Latin Bible and the allegorical approach to scriptural interpretation dominant since Patristic times. The new breed of humanist scholars not only demanded that the Bible be translated directly from Hebrew and Greek into vernacular tongues and interpreted literally, they insisted that Scripture was the final authority on faith and practice. They gave the teaching of Church Fathers, councils, and popes a distinctly secondary role. Finally, they urged a return to the simplicity and perfection that they imagined to have existed in the Apostolic Age. Subsequent doctrinal developments were to be discarded.

Moderate criticism need not have harmed the Church. Accurate texts and a sound knowledge of Scripture are essential for sound teaching. The Church in 1500 was in sore need of cleansing and simplification. But extreme views, fortified with skepticism and rationalist philosophy, would prove fatal to the unity of Christendom.

Meanwhile, how did ordinary men and women—the so-called “simple folk”—practice their faith before the Age of Reform? Despite their resentment of clerical power and greed, lay people hungrily craved the Divine. Their piety was drenched with emotion. They were deeply devoted to the Crucified Savior and the Blessed Sacrament. They prayed the Rosary and the Stations of the Cross with great fervor. Multitudes flocked to honor images, relics, and pilgrim shrines. The cults of Mary and the saints rose to peak popularity. More and more chantries were being founded to pray for the dead; the living celebrated more and more feast days.

Moreover, significant numbers of people, chiefly gentry and prosperous city-dwellers, had benefitted from past evangelization efforts. Teachings spread through the confessional; sermons, tracts, and prayer books had taken hold. The laity yearned to sanctify their lives in the world. Pious people organized confraternities, joined Third Orders, and endowed posts for learned preachers in their parishes. Rising literacy fed demand for religious publications.

Catholic restlessness and dissatisfaction

But the very intensity and ubiquity of religion in everyday life had drawbacks. Things of the spirit had been given material, often alluringly sensuous, forms. Reverence for the Eucharist and holy images sometimes turned superstitious. The sensory aspect of worship had reached the saturation point. Frantic multiplication of Masses, patron saints, sacramentals, and pious deeds betrayed an underlying uneasiness about salvation. Grace and merit were counted, measured, and—in effect—commodified. Expanding numbers of heavenly intercessors made God seem far away. More and more effort and resources were being lavished on religion for less and less subjective return. At its worst, medieval Catholicism disturbed thoughtful believers, but even at its best, it left some spiritual expectations unsatisfied.

Luther epitomized such restlessness and dissatisfaction even though he belonged to an unusually strict religious order in a land of notably orthodox and “churchy” piety. Conventional remedies failed to overcome his scrupulous anxieties about salvation. His key doctrine, “justification by faith alone,” was his way of healing himself. He threw his incorrigibly sinful self on God’s mercy and let Christ’s merits hide his offenses. Although freely bestowed, Divine grace did not actually regenerate fallen humanity. Good works did not gain spiritual merit. The Bible was the sole authority for Christians. Satisfied with his solutions to spiritual anguish, he wanted to share them with others.

When Luther issued his first call to debate in October of 1517, his questions found a receptive audience. That audience, Continent-wide thanks to printing, turned his individual protest into a lasting movement. But listeners heard what they wanted to hear in Luther’s message, not always what he intended to preach. The finer points of his new theology did not instantly convert multitudes to the Evangelical way. Its attraction was the promise of freedom: freedom from sin and damnation, freedom from burdensome pious practices, freedom from the power and financial exactions of Rome, and even freedom from earthly rulers. God’s truth found in the literal meaning of Scripture would make them free. Humble folk spoke from their hearts when they begged for preaching of the “pure Holy Gospel” so that they might remake their lives in its image. Members of the ruling classes were not necessarily as sincere when expropriating Church property “for the common good.”

The developing Evangelical message was spread by vigorous communicators. Luther’s remarkable gifts as a preacher, writer, and Bible translator made him the most dynamic exponent of his own teachings. His printed works inundated German lands and flowed across Europe.

Protestant “reforms,” Catholic responses

Once raised, the standard of Reform drew a host of followers. Within a few decades, the Evangelical cause had grown into a wide spectrum of religious beliefs: Lutheran, Calvinist, Anglican, Anabaptist, and others yet more radical. These groups quarreled with each other as well as with Catholics, even to the extent of war and bloody persecution.

The full range of Reformers’ doctrines cannot be examined here. (Calvin’s theories of Double Predestination and Limited Atonement or Anabaptists’ pacifism and communalism deserve separate treatment.) But there were some recurring themes. Speech outweighed action and imagery. Worship centered on reading and preaching Holy Writ. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper were the only two sacraments. A commemorative meal in which bread and wine were consumed at a table replaced the Sacrifice of the Mass celebrated on an altar. Religious art was banished or at best reduced to Bible illustration. Rites, vestments, and church furnishings were ruthlessly pruned. Relics, sacramentals, and pilgrimages were forbidden. There was no Purgatory, indulgences were worthless, and no one should invoke the saints. The new Church was an invisible community of believers gathered in voluntary congregations presided over by married clergy who were pastors, not priests. The realms of spirit and matter were cast asunder.

People who accepted such new doctrines felt that they had been cheated by their old faith. They turned on its symbols and artifacts with righteous fury. As Carlos Eire says, “The idol-worshipers had become the idol smashers.” Iconoclasm swept away centuries of art and architecture. Ancient institutions were dissolved. Civil authorities rushed to confiscate the old Church’s wealth and control the new one’s privileges.

Catholic response to these events was shockingly slow and feeble. Luther could not be silenced merely by issuing a papal decree. Church spokesmen were overmatched in debates with Evangelicals. Significant numbers of clergy and religious changed sides. (Most of the early Reformers had been Catholic priests.) Above all, Catholics lost the propaganda war. Art, songs, broadsheets, pamphlets, plays, and planned public blasphemies cleverly attacked the Church as the Great Whore of Babylon and the Pope as Anti-Christ.

Rome let more than 30 years elapse between Luther’s initial challenge and the first meeting of the Council of Trent. It took three sessions spread out over 18 years (1545-63) to complete its work, which defined Catholicism until Vatican II (1962-65). The decrees of Trent did clarify doctrine and curb abuses. It upheld Scripture and Tradition as the twin sources of Revelation, as interpreted by the Church, not individuals. Its decrees on Original Sin, justification, and merit from good works condemned Reformers’ teachings. It also defined the seven sacraments, defended the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, confirmed devotional practices, and tightened clerical discipline.

By the time the Council of Trent closed in 1563, no return to the old order of Christendom was possible. Rulers in England, Scandinavia, and swaths of the Holy Roman Empire had broken with Rome and taken all their people with them—willingly or otherwise. Although Evangelicals, now called “Protestants,” were established throughout northern and western Europe, their churches were vulnerable to dissent over rival readings of Scripture.

Religion had become dangerously entangled with politics, nationalism, and class rivalries. From the German Peasants’ revolt in 1525 to the end of the Thirty Years’ War in 1648, Europe by ravaged by local and international conflicts that claimed millions of lives. (Green against Orange in Northern Ireland is the last fading ember of that conflagration.) Generations of religious violence yielded grudging tolerance and spiritual apathy.

500 years later

Was it worth it? The Reformers failed to create Spirit-filled communities of saints building the New Jerusalem: plowboys and milkmaids did not sing Psalms at work as Luther had dreamed. Imposing “godly discipline” repressed public vice but bred resentment. Compulsory catechesis did not instill fervor. Seizing Church wealth did not enrich the poor. Reducing matrimony from a sacrament to a civil contract and permitting divorce inserted government into family affairs. With convents closed, women had no respectable vocation except to be silent, chaste, and obedient in marriage. The hand of patriarchy fell heavier on women and children than it had in the Middle Ages. Everywhere, secular power expanded at the expense of the sacred. The Age of Reform forever changed how Western Civilization views relationships between matter and spirit, natural and supernatural, the living and the dead.

After such trauma, what healing? Ever so slowly, the Catholic Church rebounded. She corrected old abuses, bred new saints, converted new peoples, and found new paths to holiness. But Christendom still lies in fragments, leaving, as Eire concludes, “a mere archipelago of islands enveloped by a vast and ever-rising tide of secularism and unbelief.”

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About Sandra Miesel 27 Articles
Sandra Miesel is an American medievalist and writer. She is the author of hundreds of articles on history and art, among other subjects, and has written several books, including The Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code, which she co-authored with Carl E. Olson, and is co-editor with Paul E. Kerry of Light Beyond All Shadow: Religious Experience in Tolkien's Work (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2011).


  1. Thank you for a fantastic piece that seeks to understand vs eviscerate in a month when so many Catholics have had their big guns aimed at the terrible Protestants. Luther’s reform did indeed bring schism, and helped fuel aspects of modernism. Ironically, it also produced some amazing Bible teaching as well. Hard to explain, but also hard to deny, for those who have done some devotional reading in Reformed lit.

  2. Luther was not a Monk as stated in this and many other articles on the reformation. As an Augustinian, he was a Friar, as are Franciscans and Dominicans, for example. Benedictines and Carthusians, among others, are Monks (cenobites), vowed to a single particular monastery, or abbey under the superior of that house. Friars (mendicants) are gathered into a province of their order and can be moved around to various houses. There are other differences too. Monk and Friar are two distinct ways of living vowed religious life. The terms are not interchangeable.

  3. The essential difference in Catholic doctrine and Luther’s is the latter’s contention that we are saved by God’s redeeming act evidenced by faith not works. My essential sources are the Kingston Siggins compilation of Luther’s extant works, not to diminish good commentaries like Ms Miesel’s. In effect Luther was correct. It is primarily by the work of God effected initially by ingratiatory grace, a pure gift prior to Man’s choice. He Loved us while we were still sinners undeserving of salvation. It had to be God’s initiative. It was acknowledged by John Paul II. During his dialogue with Cajetan and other Pontifical reps Catholic insistence on good works and Luther’s conviction became irreconcilable polarities. It appears Luther turned to the notion of Man’s utter depravity incapable of redemption except for God’s Mercy [an appeal consistent with the current Papacy depravity substituted by weakness, human condition]. The effects of Grace we know is evidenced by recognition of sin, repentance, and intent to conform to Christ’s commandments. The impasse that developed eventually became a doctrine of predestination within the many facets [pointed out by Ms Miesel] of Lutheranism and the destructive conviction that whatever we do makes little difference. That conviction influenced Kant to reject rational evaluation of a moral act and instead rely on laws, the imperative. A perfect politico religious premise for casuistry and the Nazi German mentality that following orders justified atrocities. And for many being mislead today by a moral doctrine, a religious deception that we are justified by faith not necessarily behavior.

  4. The article is quite right. To extend it further, Protestantism is in a state of constant reform, probably because it realizes it still hasn’t gotten it right. Puritans morphed into Congregationalists who, in turn, spawned the Unitarians and Universalists. Low Church Anglicans birthed the Methodists and English Separatists and Pilgrims eventually became Baptists. Today we have the television preachers, mega-church ministers and the prosperity pastors. At present, the only common belief all have is that they are not “papists”.

  5. The article says only little about theology of these “reformations”. In fact these “reformations” can be traced well back before Hussites and Lollards: it goes back through renaissance occultism, Albigensians and so on. Even in Pauline letters there are some of these “reformations”. What was changed with Luther is availability of these attitudes. Before Luther they were isolated cases, after Luther it become virtually a flood. As of today, it is sufficient to just open newspaper: myths, occultism, nothingness, infinite evolution, materialism, human right to kill people, search for habitable planets, near deaths experiences, incarnation, polypsychism, mytho-ecology and mytho-feminism, geopolitical power blocks, … and so on.

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