How did the Protestant Reformation shape the course of European expansion in the Americas?

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The Protestant Reformation caused the British to separate themselves from the Catholic Church, which was the primary colonizing force in the Americas at the time, thanks to the Inter caetera, a papal decree which supposedly gave divine permission to Spain and Portugal to colonize and convert whatever peoples and lands...

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The Protestant Reformation caused the British to separate themselves from the Catholic Church, which was the primary colonizing force in the Americas at the time, thanks to the Inter caetera, a papal decree which supposedly gave divine permission to Spain and Portugal to colonize and convert whatever peoples and lands there that they could. Britain had long had a desire to grow their empire, but the papal decree had prevented them from expanding in most of the available directions. Separation from the Catholic Church meant also severing obligations to respect those rulings, and this, coupled with a strong popular opposition to Catholics, which had developed over the course of the Protestant Reformation in England, resulted in the British decision to enter into competition with the Spanish empire for its colonial holdings.

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You could say that the Protestant Reformation made European expansion to the Americas possible, if by that you mean expansion by English and Dutch adventurers in North America. Recall that the Catholic Spanish empire was established in what we now call Latin America by the time Martin Luther nailed his theses to the cathedral door in Wittenberg in 1517. The English and Dutch followed the Spanish into the Caribbean and then into the American continent a century later, and the French then followed as well.

Good historians aren't obsessed with counterfactuals ("what-ifs"), but you must recognize things might have been different without the Reformation. Would Henry VIII of England have abetted persecution of Catholics or dispossessed the monasteries there, which set off cycles of religious intolerance that drove the Puritans to North America in the seventeenth century? Perhaps not. Would there have been a struggle for control of the Low Countries and a War of Spanish Succession without pressure from the mostly Lutheran and Calvinist German principalities, which drove Dutch merchants to Manhattan at the same time? Maybe.

The most important effect of the Reformation on European expansion was probably the fact that it happened at all. In general, after the Reformation, European societies became better organized, wealthier, and more productive. That's true of almost all Protestant societies, and it's true of a few Catholic ones, so you can't really say Protestantism makes people richer or more efficient, but the general effect is clear. The Reformation was an episode in a political, social, and economic transformation centuries long, rather than a cause of anything itself.

The particular events and personalities involved in it produced specific effects, though, and one of these may have been to catalyze England and Holland, the two most radical Protestant societies in Europe at the time, to expand into the Americas.

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During the Protestant Reformation in Europe, long held religious beliefs were challenged.  The Catholic Church had been strong and influential for many centuries.  The strength of the Catholic Church was challenged in the 16th century.

The Church of England was officially established in Britain in 1534.  In other parts of Europe, men such as Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Calvin became leaders in the Protestant Reformation.  Their messages helped spread this new form of Christianity.

The timeframe of these changes in European Christianity coincided with European exploration and settlement in North America.  A group of separatists called the Pilgrims established a colony in Massachusetts.  Soon other Christian groups, such as Quakers, Huguenots, and Anabaptists came to the New World.  The New World became a symbol of religious freedom to some.  It was a wilderness waiting to be molded and shaped.

Puritans in England began to have conflicts with the Church of England leadership.  They wanted to conduct their congregations in their own ways, which were different than the way of the Church of England.  Many Puritans decided to relocate to New England, where they would have more religious freedom.  New England became a Puritan stronghold for many years.

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