Why did the Reformation begin in Germany? What political and social factors contributed to its success?

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We can credit Martin Luther for the practical start of the Reformation. Being German, it was only natural that Luther began his condemnation against the practices of the Catholic Church in Germany. He nailed his famous 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenburg and was issued an ultimatum and...

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We can credit Martin Luther for the practical start of the Reformation. Being German, it was only natural that Luther began his condemnation against the practices of the Catholic Church in Germany. He nailed his famous 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenburg and was issued an ultimatum and condemned at Worms. If it were not for Martin Luther, it is possible that the Reformation would have begun elsewhere.

Once the Reformation got underway, it grew popular in the German states for a number of reasons. First of all, it is important to remember that there was no single German nation at the time. Most of the numerous German principalities were part of the dominion of the Holy Roman Empire. Many of the local rulers of these small German states were dissatisfied with being subordinate to the power of the Holy Roman Emperor and the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. They saw Luther's new church, and the other protestant denominations that followed, as an avenue towards greater autonomy.

At first, Luther was also supported by many of the peasants of Germany. His preachings against the corruption of the Catholic Church, which was growing increasingly wealthy from taxing peasants, was seen as a better alternative by many. Luther wanted to bring the general public closer to a personal sense of worship. This is why he had the Bible translated into German and did away with the complex monastic hierarchy of Catholicism. However, during the peasant revolt of 1524, Luther supported the princes. The peasants had hoped that Luther would back them and their demands for economic and social change. However, Luther still felt that he needed the support of local rulers to protect his new church. Feeling betrayed, many German peasants supported other protestant denominations when they formed.

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Previous religious reform movements had existed in almost every region of Europe, but the Reformation begun by Martin Luther had much greater staying power and influence. One reason this was the case was related to technology. The development of the printing press in the mid-fifteenth century was crucial to the popularization of Luther's critiques of the Church and his articulation of a reformed version of Christianity. Luther's most important works, including his famous 95 Theses, were mass-produced and consumed by an increasingly literate German public, which enabled this reform movement to spread rapidly throughout Germany and beyond.

Another reason the Reformation spread rapidly in Germany was related to politics. Most of the hundreds of German states were under the control of the Holy Roman Emperor, and many local rulers saw embracing Luther's reforms as a means of limiting the power of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who derived much of his legitimacy from the Catholic Church. The most famous and important example of this was Frederick of Saxony, the ruler of the Saxony, where Martin Luther lived and taught at Wittenberg. When Luther was condemned by the Church, Frederick offered him his protection, housing him at his castle at Wartburg. The extent to which Frederick's hospitality was motivated by political concerns is an open one, but it is highly likely that Luther would have been imprisoned and likely executed without it. Many other princes embraced Protestant reforms both from religious convictions and out of more secular political motives.

Socially, Luther's reforms also appealed to a rising German middle class that was based in urban centers. Merchants in particular liked the Lutheran concept of "callings," in which the pursuit of wealth through work was honored as divinely inspired. Ordinary Germans, many of whom found the corruption and excesses of the Catholic Church (like the famous sale of indulgences) distasteful also embraced Luther's message of justification by faith alone.

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There were two primary factors that led to the Reformation occurring in Germany. These were the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg in 1440 and the political organization of the German States as members of the Holy Roman Empire when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in 1517.

Prior to the invention of the printing press in 1440, access to books by all but the richest Europeans was extremely limited. Most books at the time were also printed in Latin or Greek, languages that the learned clergy and nobles could read and write, but not the commoners. Therefore, even though the Bible was the most frequently copied book in the world, most Christians had never read it. With the ability to now mass produce books, the German vernacular Bible would begin to spread across the Holy Roman Empire at about the same time as Luther's nailing of the 95 theses. The ability for commoners to read the Bible for themselves also supported Luther's assertion in the Reformation that salvation was achieved through faith alone and not works or penance as translated by a priest.

The political climate was also very advantageous for the Reformation. The Holy Roman Empire, mostly what we now call Germany, was a loose collection of German speaking states each with their own prince, duke, or other royal ruling over them. All states were then subservient to the Holy Roman Emperor who derived much of his power from the support of the pope in Rome. The individual rulers of the various states saw support for Luther's Reformation as a method of reducing the power of the Holy Roman Emperor by challenging the pope and the Catholic Church thus increasing their own control over their individual territories.

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