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Protestant Reformation Essay, Research Paper

The Reformation of the Roman Catholic Church was a major 16th-century religious revolution. A revolution, which ended the ecclesiastical supremacy of the pope in Western Christendom and resulted in the establishment of the Protestant, churches. With the Renaissance that preceded and the French Revolution that followed, the Reformation completely altered the medieval way of life in Western Europe and initiated the era of modern history. Although the movement dates from the early 16th century, when Martin Luther first defied the authority of the church, the conditions that led to his revolutionary stand had existed for hundreds of years and had complex doctrinal, political, economic, and cultural elements.

Conditions Preceding Reformation

From the Revival of the Holy Roman Empire by Otto I in 962, popes and emperors had been engaged in a continuous contest for supremacy. This conflict had generally resulted in victory for the papal side, but created bitter antagonism between Rome and the German Empire; this antagonism was augmented in the 14th and 15th centuries by the further development of German nationalist sentiment. Resentment against papal taxation and against submission to ecclesiastical officials of the distant and foreign papacy was manifested in other countries of Europe. In England, the beginning of the movement toward ultimate independence from papal jurisdiction was the enactment of the statutes of Mortmain in 1279, Provisors in 1351, and Praemunire in 1393. These statutes greatly reduced the power of the church to withdraw land from the control of the civil government, to make appointments to ecclesiastical offices, and to exercise judicial authority.

The 14th-century English reformer John Wycliffe boldly attacked the papacy itself, striking at the sale of indulgences, pilgrimages, the excessive veneration of saints, and the moral and intellectual standards of ordained priests. To reach the common people, he translated the Bible into English and delivered sermons in English, rather than Latin. His teachings spread to Bohemia, where they found a powerful advocate in the religious reformer John Huss. The execution of Huss as a heretic in 1415 led directly to the Hussite Wars, a violent expression of Bohemian nationalism, suppressed with difficulty by the combined forces of the Holy Roman emperor and the pope. The wars were a precursor of religious civil war in Germany in Luther’s time. In France in 1516, a concordat between the king and the pope placed the French church substantially under royal authority. Earlier concordats with other national monarchies also prepared the way for the rise of autonomous national churches.

As early as the 13th century the papacy had become vulnerable to attack because of the greed, immorality, and ignorance of many of its officials in all ranks of the hierarchy. Vast tax-free church possessions, constituting, according to varying estimates, as much as one-fifth to one-third of the lands of Europe, incited the envy and resentment of the land-poor peasantry. The so-called Babylonian Captivity of popes at Avignon in the 14th century and the ensuing Western Schism gravely impaired the authority of the church and divided its adherents into partisans of one or another pope. Church officials recognized the need for reform; ambitious programs for the reorganization of the entire hierarchy were debated at the Council of Constance from 1414 to 1418, but no program gained the support of a majority, and no radical changes were instituted at that time.

Humanism, the revival of classical learning and speculative inquiry beginning in the 15th century in Italy during the early Renaissance, displaced Scholasticism as the principal philosophy of Western Europe and deprived church leaders of the monopoly on learning that they had previously held. Laypersons studied ancient literature, and scholars such as the Italian humanist Lorenzo Valla critically appraised translations of the Bible and other documents that formed the basis for much of church dogma and tradition. The invention of printing with movable metal type greatly increased the circulation of books and spread new ideas throughout Europe. Humanists outside Italy, such as Desiderius Erasmus in the Netherlands, John Colet and Sir Thomas More in England, Johann Reuchlin in Germany, and Jacques Lefevre d’Etaples in France, applied the new learning to the evaluation of church practices and the development of a more accurate knowledge of the Scriptures. Their scholarly studies laid the basis on which Luther, the French theologian and religious reformer John Calvin, and other reformers subsequently claimed the Bible rather than the church as the source of all religious authority.

National Movements

The Protestant revolution was initiated in Germany by Luther in 1517, when he published his 95 theses challenging the theory and practice of indulgences. Papal authorities ordered Luther to retract and submit to church authority, but he became more intransigent, appealing for reform, attacking the sacramental system, and urging that religion rest on individual faith based on the guidance contained in the Bible. Threatened with excommunication by the pope, Luther publicly burned the papal decree of excommunication and with it a volume of canon law. This act of defiance symbolized a definitive break with the entire system of the Western church. In an attempt to stem the tide of revolt, Charles V, Holy Roman emperor, and the German princes and ecclesiastics assembled in 1521 at the Diet of Worms, and ordered Luther to recant. He refused and was declared an outlaw. For almost a year, he remained in hiding, writing pamphlets expounding his principles and translating the New Testament into German. Although his writings were prohibited by imperial edict, they were openly sold and were powerful instruments in turning the great German cities into centers of Lutheranism.

The reform movement made tremendous strides among the people, and when Luther left retirement he returned to his home at Wittenberg as a revolutionary leader. Germany had become sharply divided along religious and economic lines. Those most interested in preserving the traditional order, including the emperor, most of the princes, and the higher clergy, supported the Roman Catholic Church. Lutheranism was supported by the North German princes, the lower clergy, the commercial classes, and large sections of the peasantry, who welcomed change as offering an opportunity for greater independence in both the religious and economic spheres. Open warfare between the two factions broke out in 1524 with the beginning of the Peasants’ War. The war was an attempt on the part of the peasants to better their economic lot. Their program, inspired by the teachings of Luther and couched in religious terms, called for emancipation from several of the services traditionally claimed by their clerical and lay proprietors. Luther disapproved of the use of his demands for reform to justify a radical disruption of the existing economy, but in the interests of a peaceful settlement of the conflict, he urged the proprietors to satisfy the claims of the peasants. He soon turned against the peasants, however, and, in a pamphlet entitled Against the Murdering, Thieving Hordes of Peasants (1525) violently condemned them for resorting to violence.

The peasants were defeated in 1525, but the fissure between Roman Catholics and Lutherans increased. A degree of compromise was reached at the Diet of Speyer in 1526, when it was agreed that German princes wishing to practice Lutheranism should be free to do so. At a second Diet of Speyer, convened three years later, the Roman Catholic majority abrogated the agreement. The Lutheran minority protested against this action and became known as Protestants; thus, the first Protestants were Lutherans, the term being extended subsequently to include all the Christian sects that developed from the revolt against Rome.

In 1530 the German scholar and religious reformer Melanchthon drew up a conciliatory statement of the Lutheran tenets, known as the Augsburg Confession, which was submitted to Emperor Charles V and to the Roman Catholic faction. Although it failed to reconcile the differences between Roman Catholics and Lutherans, it remained the basis of the new Lutheran church and creed. Subsequently, a series of wars with France and the Turks prevented Charles V from turning his military forces against the Lutherans, but in 1546 the emperor was finally free of international commitments; and in alliance with the pope and with the aid of Duke Maurice of Saxony, he made war against the Schmalkaldic League, a defensive association of Protestant princes. The Roman Catholic forces were successful at first. Later, however, Duke Maurice went over to the Protestant side, and Charles V was obliged to make peace. The religious civil war ended with the religious Peace of Augsburg in 1555. Its terms provided that each of the rulers of the German states, which numbered about 300, choose between Roman Catholicism and Lutheranism and enforce the chosen faith upon the ruler’s subjects. Lutheranism, by then the religion of about half the population of Germany, thus finally gained official recognition, and the ancient concept of the religious unity of a single Christian community in Western Europe under the supreme authority of the pope was destroyed.


In the Scandinavian countries, the Reformation was accomplished peacefully as Lutheranism spread northward from Germany. The monarchical governments of Denmark and Sweden themselves sponsored the reform movement and broke completely with the papacy. In 1536 a national assembly held in Copenhagen abolished the authority of the Roman Catholic bishops throughout Denmark and the then subject lands of Norway and Iceland; and Christian III, king of Denmark and Norway, invited Luther’s friend, the German religious reformer Johann Bugenhagen, to organize in Denmark a national Lutheran church on the basis of the Augsburg Confession. In Sweden the brothers Olaus Petri and Laurentius Petriled the movement for the adoption of Lutheranism as the state religion. The adoption was effected in 1529 with the support of Gustav I Vasa, king of Sweden, and by the decision of the Swedish diet.


The early reform movement in Switzerland, contemporaneous with the Reformation in Germany, was led by the Swiss pastor Huldreich Zwingli, who became known in 1518 through his vigorous denunciation of the sale of indulgences. Zwingli expressed his opposition to abuses of ecclesiastical authority by sermons, conversations in the marketplace, and public disputations before the town council. As did Luther and other reformers, he considered the Bible the sole source of moral authority and strove to eliminate everything in the Roman Catholic system not specifically enjoined in the Scriptures. In Zurich from 1523 to 1525, under Zwingli’s leadership, religious relics were burned, ceremonial processions and the adoration of the saints were abolished, priests and monks were released from their vows of celibacy, and the Mass was replaced by a simpler communion service. These changes by which the city revolted from the Roman Catholic Church were accomplished legally and quietly through votes of the Zurich town council. The chief supporters of the innovations, the commercial classes, expressed through them their independence from the Roman church and from the German Empire. Other Swiss towns, such as Basel and Bern, adopted similar reforms, but the conservative peasantry of the forest cantons adhered to Roman Catholicism. As in Germany, the authority of the central government was too weak to enforce religious conformity and prevent civil war. Two short-lived conflicts broke out between Protestant and Roman Catholic cantons in 1529 and 1531. In the second of these, which took place at Kappel, Zwingli was slain. Peace was made and each canton was allowed to choose its religion. Roman Catholicism prevailed in the provincial mountainous parts of the country, and Protestantism in the great cities and fertile valleys. Substantially the same division has continued to the present time in Switzerland.

In the generation after Luther and Zwingli the dominating figure of the Reformation was Calvin, the French Protestant theologian who fled religious persecution in his native country and in 1536 settled in the newly independent republic of Geneva. Calvin led in the strict enforcement of reform measures previously instituted by the town council of Geneva and insisted on further reforms, including the congregational singing of the Psalms as part of church worship, the teaching of a catechism and confession of faith to children, the enforcement of a strict moral discipline in the community by the pastors and members of the church, and the excommunication of notorious sinners. Calvin’s church organization was democratic and incorporated ideas of representative government. Members of the congregation elected pastors, teachers, presbyters, and deacons to their official positions.

Although church and state were officially separate, they cooperated so closely that Geneva was virtually a theocracy. To enforce discipline of morals, Calvin instituted a rigid inspection of household conduct and organized a consistory, composed of pastors and laypersons, with wide powers of compulsion over the community. The dress and personal behavior of citizens were prescribed to the minutest detail; dancing, card playing, dicing, and other recreations were forbidden; blasphemy and ribaldry were severely punished. Under this severe regime, nonconformists were persecuted and even put to death. To encourage the reading and understanding of the Bible, all citizens were provided with at least an elementary education. In 1559, Calvin founded a university in Geneva that became famous for training pastors and teachers. More than any other reformer, Calvin organized the contemporary diversities of Protestant thought into a clear and logical system. The circulation of his writings, his influence as an educator, and his great ability in organizing church and state in terms of reform created an international following and gave the Reformed churches, as Protestantism was called in Switzerland, France, and Scotland, a thoroughly Calvinistic stamp, both in theology and organization.


The Reformation in France was initiated early in the 16th century by a group of mystics and humanists that gathered at Meaux near Paris under the leadership of Lefevre d’Etaples. Like Luther, Lefevre d’Etaples studied the Epistles of St. Paul and derived from them a belief in justification by individual faith alone; he also denied the doctrine of transubstantiation. In 1523, he translated the entire New Testament into French. At first his writings were well received by church and state officials, but as Luther’s radical doctrines began to spread into France, Lefevre d’Etaples’s work was seen to be similar, and he and his followers were persecuted. Many leading Protestants fled from France and settled in the republic of Geneva or Switzerland until strengthened in numbers and philosophy by the Calvinistic reformation in Geneva. More than 120 pastors trained in Geneva by Calvin returned to France before 1567 to proselytize for Protestantism. In 1559, delegates from 66 Protestant churches in France met at a national synod in Paris to draw up a confession of faith and rule of discipline based on those practiced at Geneva.

In this way, the first national Protestant church in France was organized; its members were known as Huguenots. Despite all efforts to suppress them, the Huguenots grew into a formidable body, and the division of France into Protestant and Roman Catholic factions led to a generation of civil wars (1652-98). One of the notorious incidents of this struggle was the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, in which a large number of Protestants perished. Under the Protestant Henry IV, king of France, the Huguenots triumphed for a short time, but as Paris and more than nine-tenths of the French people remained Roman Catholic, the king deemed it expedient to become a convert to Roman Catholicism. He protected his Huguenot adherents, however, by issuing in 1598 the Edict of Nantes, which granted Protestants a measure of freedom. The edict was revoked in 1685, and Protestantism was stamped out of the country.

The Netherlands

Protestantism was welcomed in the Netherlands by the powerful literate bourgeoisie that had developed during the Middle Ages. Militarily more powerful in this territory than in the German states, Emperor Charles V attempted to halt the spread of Protestant doctrines by public burnings of Luther’s books and by the establishment in 1522 of the Inquisition. These measures were unsuccessful, however, and by the middle of the 16th century, Protestantism had a firm hold on the northern provinces, known as Holland; the southern provinces (now Belgium) remained predominantly Roman Catholic. Most of the Dutch embraced Calvinism, which served as a potent bond in their nationalistic struggle against their Spanish Roman Catholic overlords. They revolted in 1568 and warfare continued until 1648, when Spain relinquished all claims to the country by the terms of the Peace of Westphalia. The former Spanish Netherlands then became an independent Protestant nation.


In Scotland as in other countries, the Reformation originated among elements of the population already hostile to the Roman Catholic Church. The Roman Catholic clergy was held in general disrepute by the people, and remnants of Lollardy, or the doctrines of John Wycliffe, were still prevalent. The merchants and the minor nobility were especially active in furthering the Scottish Reformation as a vehicle for national self-determination and independence from England and France as well as for religious reform. Consequently, Protestantism spread rapidly despite repressive measures by the pro-Roman Catholic Scottish government. The early religious reform movement, initiated by such leaders as the martyr Patrick Hamilton, was under Lutheran influence. The actual revolution, accomplished under the leadership of the religious reformer John Knox, an ardent disciple of Calvin, established Calvinism as the national religion of Scotland. In 1560, Knox persuaded the Scottish Parliament to adopt a confession of faith and book of discipline modeled on those in use at Geneva. The Parliament subsequently created the Scottish Presbyterian Church and provided for the government of the church by local kirk (a Scottish church) sessions and by a general assembly representing the local churches of the entire country. The Roman Catholic Mary, queen of Scots, attempted to overthrow the new Protestant church, but after a 7-year struggle, she herself was forced to leave the country. Calvinism was triumphant in Scotland except for a few districts in the north, in which Roman Catholicism remained strong, particularly among the noble families.


The English revolt from Rome differed from the revolts in Germany, Switzerland, and France in two respects. First, England was a compact nation with a strong central government; therefore, instead of splitting the country into regional factions or parties and ending in civil war, the revolt was national-the king and Parliament acted together in transferring to the king the ecclesiastical jurisdiction previously exercised by the pope. Second, in the continental countries agitation for religious reform among the people preceded and caused the political break with the papacy; in England, on the other hand, the political break came first, as a result of a decision by King Henry VIII to divorce his first wife, and the change in religious doctrine came afterward in the reigns of King Edward VI and Queen Elizabeth I. Henry VIII wished to divorce his Roman Catholic wife, Catherine of Aragon, because she had not produced a male heir and he feared disruption of his dynasty. His marriage to Catherine, which normally would have been illegal under ecclesiastical law because she was the widow of his brother, had been allowed only by special dispensation from the pope. Henry claimed that the papal dispensation contravened ecclesiastical law and that the marriage was therefore invalid. The pope upheld the validity of the dispensation and refused to annul the marriage. Henry then requested the opinion of noted reformers and the faculties of the great European universities.

Eight university faculties supported his claim. Zwingli and the German-Swiss theologian Johannes Oecolampadius also considered his marriage null, but Luther and Melanchthon thought it binding. The king followed a course of expediency; he married Anne Boleyn in 1533, and two months later he had the archbishop of Canterbury pronounce his divorce from Catherine. Henry was then excommunicated by the pope, but retaliated in 1534 by having Parliament pass an act appointing the king and his successors supreme head of the Church of England, thus establishing an independent national Anglican Church. Further legislation cut off the pope’s English revenues and ended his political and religious authority in England. Between 1536 and 1539 the monasteries were suppressed and their property seized by the king. Henry had no interest in going beyond these changes, which were motivated principally by political rather than doctrinal considerations. Indeed, to prevent the spread of Lutheranism, he secured from Parliament in 1539 the severe body of edicts called the Act of Six Articles, which made it heretical to deny the main theological tenets of medieval Roman Catholicism. Obedience to the papacy remained a criminal offense. Consequently, many Lutherans were burned as heretics, and Roman Catholics who refused to recognize the ecclesiastical supremacy of the king were executed.

Under King Edward VI, the Protestant doctrines and practices abhorred by Henry VIII were introduced into the Anglican Church. The Act of Six Articles was repealed in 1547, and continental reformers, such as the German Martin Bucer, were invited to preach in England. In 1549, a complete vernacular Book of Common Prayer was issued to provide uniformity of service in the Anglican Church, and law enforced its use. A second Prayer Book was published in 1552, and a new creed in 42 articles was adopted. Mary I attempted, however, to restore Roman Catholicism as the state religion, and during her reign many Protestants were burned at the stake. Others fled to continental countries, where their religious opinions often became more radical by contact with Calvinism. A final settlement was reached under Queen Elizabeth I in 1563. Protestantism was restored, and Roman Catholics were often persecuted. The 42 articles of the Anglican creed adopted under Edward VI were reduced to the present Thirty-nine Articles. This creed is Protestant and closer to Lutheranism than to Calvinism, but the Episcopal organization and ritual of the Anglican church is substantially the same as that of the Roman Catholic church. Large numbers of people in Elizabeth’s time did not consider the Church of England sufficiently reformed and non-Roman. They were known as dissenters or nonconformists and eventually formed or became members of numerous Calvinist sects such as the Brownists, Presbyterians, Puritans, Separatists, and Quakers.

Minor Sects

Besides the three great churches-Lutheran, Reformed, and Anglican-formed during the Reformation, a large number of small sects also arose as a natural consequence of Protestant repudiation of traditional authority and exaltation of private judgment. One of the most prominent of the smaller sects, the Anabaptists, found many adherents throughout Europe, particularly in Germany, where they played an important part in the Peasants’ War. They were persecuted by Catholics as well as by Lutherans, Zwinglians, and other Protestants, and many of them were put to death. Another prominent denomination, the Unitarians, included a considerable number of followers in Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands, and Poland.

Results of the Reformation

Despite the diversity of revolutionary forces in the 16th century, the Reformation had largely consistent results throughout Western Europe. In general, the power and wealth lost by the feudal nobility and the Roman Catholic hierarchy passed to the middle classes and to monarchical rulers. Various regions of Europe gained political, religious, and cultural independence. Even in countries such as France and the region now known as Belgium, where Roman Catholicism continued to prevail, a new individualism and nationalism in culture and politics developed. The Protestant emphasis on personal judgment furthered the development of democratic governments based on the collective choice of individual voters. The destruction of the medieval system of authority removed traditional religious restrictions on trade and banking, and opened the way for the growth of modern capitalism. During the Reformation, national languages and literature were greatly advanced by the wide dissemination of religious literature written in the languages of the people, rather than in Latin. Popular education was also stimulated through the new schools founded by Colet in England, Calvin in Geneva, and the Protestant princes in Germany. Religion became less the province of a highly privileged clergy and more a direct expression of the beliefs of the people. Religious intolerance, however, raged unabated, and all the sects continued to persecute one another for at least a century.


1) Funk & Wagnall’s Encyclopedia.

2) Academic American Encyclopedia.

3) Collier’s Encyclopedia.

4) “The Rise and Fall of Roman Catholic Supremacy in Europe”(online reference).


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