Reformation History

Updated December 2, 2004

The Reformation took place in the 16th century. It was a reform of the church. Studying the Reformation offers explanations for the existence of different Christian denominations and their theologies, and tells part of the story of the evolution of Europe.

At the beginning of the 16th century, the Renaissance was giving new vitality to European culture. Greek and Roman literature was brought back from the crusades and translated into Latin, and Europeans were absorbing these ideas and building on them.

Modern nations had not developed, countries were ruled by kings and queens, and upon their death they were willed to the next of their line. France was a strong country. The Hapsburgs ruled the Spanish empire, Austria, Burgundy (now in France), Spanish Netherlands (present day Belgium and Netherlands), Spain, Corsica, southern half of modern day Italy and Sicily. The Holy Roman Empire consisted of a number of small countries, which elected the Holy Roman Emperor. England was developing as a maritime nation. The new world was being discovered. Vasco de Gama discovered India for Portugal; Christopher Columbus discovered America; and John Cabot discovered Newfoundland.

The Church was supreme, collecting its tithes and offerings from all countries, and being involved in the politics of each country. The power of the state was used to enforce the laws of the church. As countries developed, church lands were desired and the transfer of tithes and offerings to Rome was viewed as a loss of revenue for the country.

The printing press was invented around 1450, up to this point books were copied by hand. It made it possible for Bibles and other literature to be produced in large numbers in the language of the people. As people read the Bible and considered what it said, they began to challenge the teaching of the Church.

Issues of the Reformation

Principle Protestant Churches

Each region had it’s own protest church, from which we get Protestant Church.

Martin Luther (Lutheran Church)
1483 - 1546


John Calvin (Reformed Church)
1509 - 1564

Outcomes of the Reformation

The Roman Catholic Church mounted a counter-reformation. Protestant churches were condemned as heretical. It moved to use other rulers to suppress Protestants. Protestants sought the protection of the local ruler and war resulted. While the war was religious, it was also a desire to assert local rights and freedoms on one hand, and to conquer and acquire more land on the other hand.


Protestant ideas spread to England. Henry VIII wrote a treatise to refute them and was awarded the title, ‘Defender of the Faith’. He separated the English Church from the Roman, giving the temporal authority and the revenues to the king. When he died Protestant ideas were implemented, which is another story.



A civil war broke out, 1562 – 1594. It was settled by the edict of Nantes 1594 that allowed for toleration of the Huguenots (Reformed Church).


In the Spanish Netherlands, the Protestants revolted in 1566 with the aid of the English. 1588 the Spanish armada sailed against England and was defeated. The Protestants were able to obtain control of seven provinces, which became the Netherlands in 1609 and the Reformed Church became the state religion. The Spanish Netherlands became Belgium.

Thirty Years War

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