Reformation History

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

  • Sale of Papal indulgences as a pardon for sin; a Papal Indulgence was a paper that was purchased to forgive sins and the money raised was used to rebuild St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome; forgiveness was seen to be through faith in Jesus;
  • Very little use of scripture, tradition of church more authoritative and people wanted scripture to be autoreactive;
  • The Bible and the liturgy was in Latin and it was desired to have them translated and used in the language of the people, not Latin;
  • The right for people to read scripture and interpret it for themselves was desired;
  • Some could not read and said the mass from memory, they did not preach sermons; education of the clergy needed improvement;
  • Celibacy of clergy an issue and marriage of clergy was desired, in part because celibacy was not being followed and in part because some of the apostles were married;
  • Mass was re-sacrificing Jesus, instead a remembrance of his death was thought to be more correct as Jesus could only be sacrificed once;
  • Lay people received communion in bread only; the right to receive communion in both kinds (bread and wine) was desired and seen as the Biblical practise;
  • Arguments over the theology of the presence of Christ in the bread and wine (transubstantiation, real presence, and receptionism [present when believer has faith]); and
  • People debated, What constitutes the true church? Having the correct doctrine? Being in succession to the Apostles?

Principle Protestant Churches

Each region had its own protest church, from which we get Protestant Church.

Martin Luther (Lutheran Church)
1483 – 1546

  • German;
  • Augustine monk, priest, became a Doctor of Theology and professor of scripture;
  • 1517, published 95 theses critical of church, nailed to the door of the church in Wittenberg;
  • Justification by faith: faith in Jesus is what justifies (makes right before God) a person;
  • Lutheran Church spread in Germany, Norway, Sweden, and Finland; and
  • Lutheran Church allowed that which was not prohibited by scripture.


  • Anabaptist: believer’s baptism, did not believe in infant baptism;
  • Supported separation of church and state; and
  • John Menno formed an Anabaptist sect that was named after him, Mennonites; and it had strong pacifist beliefs.

John Calvin (Reformed Church)
1509 – 1564

  • French theologian, settled in Geneva, Switzerland 1536;
  • Wrote ‘Institutes’ became the textbook of Reformed theology;
  • Reformed Church: (Huguenots in France, Reformed in Holland, Presbyterians in Scotland, Puritans in England);
  • Presbyterian form of church government: clergy and elders from congregations in a region formed a council called a Presbytery; and
  • Scriptural authority allows only that which the Bible allows: whitewashing of churches removing decoration and stained-glass windows and organs destroyed because they were not found in scripture.

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.


  • Peace of Augsburg German peace in 1555;
  • Recognized the existence of both Roman Catholic and Lutheran Churches, but not Reformed; and
  • Confirmed the property settlement, people were to follow the religion of their ruler, if they wanted to switch, they had to sell their property and move.


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

  • 1618 to 1648;
  • fought in Central Europe;
  • resulted in the Peace of Westphalia, which gave Lutherans, Catholics, and Calvinists equal political rights, and ended religion being a cause of war in Europe; and
  • France ended up as stronger, the Hapsburg empire weaker (Germany and Spain).

The Peace of Westphalia in many ways marks the end of the medieval period and the start of the modern period of history. As individuals were given the right to choose their own religion, they ceased to follow the religion of the monarch. This coincided with the rise of rationalism and the age of reason.