The Protestant Reformation ushered in by Martin Luther and his followers chipped away at the Catholic Church's dominance over spiritual life and gave ordinary worshippers much greater access to and control over their worship and study of Christianity. By advocating for Catholic Mass to be spoken in the native tongues of parishioners, instead of in Latin, and by pushing for translations of the Bible into German, English and other commonly spoken languages, the Reformation movement allowed laymen and ordinary parishioners to study first hand the words of the Bible, instead of relying on often-corrupt clergy to tell them what it said. This move away from a top-down religious hierarchy to a more personal relationship with God, as Luther and his followers advocated, led to the decline of the clergy's formerly unchallenged power and abuse of power. Instead of allowing corrupt clergy from selling indulgences (get out of jail cards for sinning), or essentially selling entrance to heaven to the highest bidder (a practice that had made the clergy in Europe fabulously rich) the clergy now had to contend with angry and betrayed worshippers who could finally read the words of the scripture in the comfort of their homes, and who realized that they had been duped for over a thousand years.
While the impact of the Reformation was first felt in religious life, the effects reverberated throughout society and throughout the various nation states and principalities of Europe. Countries like England and the Netherlands, which embraced Protestant reforms (for disparate reasons) became fierce enemies of countries like France and Spain, which remained fiercely loyal to the Pope and reliant on the Vatican to legitimate their monarchies. The clash between Protestant and Catholic came to dominate domestic and foreign policy on the continent, and this cleavage led to numerous civil wars and internal strife, most notably in England, where Henry VIII named himself head of state and of the Church (The Anglican Church). His daughter Queen Elizabeth, spent much of her tenure quelling rebellions by Catholics determined to put a Catholic Monarch back on the English throne. This unrest motivated the overthrow and execution of Charles I, Cromwell's Interregnum, and the Restoration of Charles II from exile in France.
Finally, the Reformation's democratizing effect influenced the great Enlightenment philosophers to reimagine the role of the state, leading to Locke's theory of the Social Compact and Rousseau's declaration that, "man is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains." Many historians have argued that without the Reformation, modern democracy based upon the notion of "the consent of the governed" would not have come to exist, or at least not as soon as it did. Ultimately, the Reformation had far reaching effects, which shaped the course of the next five hundred years, and are still felt today all across the world.
The essential things to know about the Protestant Reformation would include the following:
- It began in Germany in the early sixteenth century with a public critique of the Catholic Church by Martin Luther.
- Luther's movement spread largely with the assistance and support of powerful German princes.
- The Reformation essentially involved an emphasis on receiving grace by faith alone, rather than through the sacraments and other Church rituals.
- Other major movements occurred in Zurich (Huldrych Zwingli) and, more importantly, in Geneva (John Calvin.) Calvinism would be very influential in Britain, Holland, France (for a short time) and eventually New England.
- The Reformation led to religious and political conflict that included civil war in France, separation of the Church of England from Rome, and the Thirty Years' War.