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16th century: Reformation

The world was changing and there was an increasing awareness that the way the Christian church needed to lead people in their faith needed to change with it. 

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16th century: Reformation

The world was changing and there was an increasing awareness that the way the Christian church led people in their faith needed to change with it.  ‘The Renaissance’ was changing the way people thought.  Exploration had revealed entire nations of which Europeans had been previously unaware.  Education and culture were changing as historians rediscovered the values of civilisations from before the time of Jesus.

At the start of the 16th century it was hard to recognise the simplicity and goodness of Jesus in the way his church was organised.  Its senior leaders were powerful politicians.  In contrast its local leaders were living in poverty.  Some of them did not model Christian morality in an honourable way.  It is true, however, that there were also many devout and inspirational Christians such as Thomas a Kempis, whose book The Imitation of Christ is still a bestseller many centuries late.

Individuals had been seeing the need for reform for many years.  For instance, at the end of the 12th century Thomas a Becket, who was the Archbishop of Canterbury, preached that the church should be independent from the monarchy.  It cost him his life.  In the present-day Czech Republic three hundred years later Jan Hus believed that the Bible has a greater authority than any church leader.  He was executed.  Peter Waldo, in southern France, founded a Christian community which rejected luxury and ritual, and finally rejected the need for church altogether.

In 14th century England the Lollards, under their leader John Wycliffe, despaired that the Bible was only available in Latin, which meant that only the educated could understand it.  They urged that Christians should be educated properly and that the Bible should be available in English.  This meant they would understand their faith and not have to rely on priests to explain it in any way that suited them.

In Germany a young priest called Martin Luther found in the Bible a life-changing assurance that God would forgive people their sins and unite them with himself.  Because of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus this was God’s free gift and there was nothing humans needed to do to earn it except believe it.  Luther believed that the Roman Catholic Church was obscuring this by the practice of the time of selling people forgiveness through a system called ‘indulgences’.  He wrote a furious 95-point sermon and sent it to the Pope.  He was commanded not to share his views with anyone.  He responded by having thousands of copies printed and nailing one of them to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral. 

Congregations longing for God to give meaning and peace to their lives responded positively.  The Roman Catholic Church authorities were taken by surprise and excommunicated him at a council in Worms.  He was put on trial for heresy, but he escaped before he was sentenced.  Luther translated the Bible into German and wrote heartfelt essays about the church’s need to reform itself from within.  His movement for reformation grew, but church leaders resisted it.  Lutheran churches multiplied, especially in Germany and Scandinavia.  They wanted the church to be an institution which put people in touch with God, rather than controlling the way people were able to access God.  They hoped to sweep away things they considered to be later additions to the Bible, such as the selling of forgiveness, worship of saints' relics and belief in Purgatory.  There was a split among churches in the West.  New ‘Protestant’ churches broke away from Roman Catholic churches, and this division has persisted for five hundred years.

Reformation of the church was also taking place in other European countries.  In Switzerland more radical reform was taking place under the leadership of Ulrich Zwingli.  In his churches’ bare, whitewashed chapels there was preaching about how faith in Jesus allowed people to be reconciled to God (justified).  He taught that when Christians ate bread and drank wine Jesus was spiritually present (not actually and miraculously present, which was the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church).  He died violently, attacking Catholic troops near Zurich, but his influence continues in Reformed Churches today.

The Frenchman John Calvin established a school in Geneva where the beliefs of the reformers were thought through in a systematic way.  Leaders from this academy spread Protestant theology throughout Europe in the middle of the 16th century.  Calvin’s interpretation of the Bible was that God had ordained before time began who would put their faith in him and who would reject him.  His strict (some would say narrow) understanding of how God saves Christian men and women still forms the foundation of the beliefs of those Protestant churches which have a conservative outlook.

Elsewhere groups of Christians attempted to recreate the life of the church in Jerusalem in the early days of Christianity.  They set up self-sufficient communities and looked to the Holy Spirit of God to communicate with them directly rather than seeking God with their intellect.  They believed in the baptism of those who were old enough to take responsibility for their faith, rather than infants.  They were violently opposed by both Protestants and Roman Catholics.  Anabaptist Christian groups which flourish today, such as the Amish and Mennonites, are part of their legacy.

The transformation in the practices of churches was bound up in turbulent political change taking place at the same time.  This was particularly true in England.  King Henry VIII had expected that his rousing support of the Pope would be reciprocated by permission to annul his marriage.  He wanted to take a younger wife who was more likely to give him an heir.  When the Pope refused Henry overturned his previous opposition to reform and had a Church of England established in 1534, with himself as head.  The Pope excommunicated him. 

Henry funded the Protestant church in England by ransacking and disbanding the Roman Catholic monasteries.  Bibles in English, which were previously being smuggled in from Germany, were legalised.  During the reign of Henry’s son Edward VI the Protestant Reformation took hold, shaped by the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer.  The years which followed were brutal.  Edward was succeeded by the devout but intolerant Catholic Mary.  Then the Protestant Elizabeth I came to the throne.  During each reign many Christian leaders, both Protestant and Catholic, lost their lives because their religious convictions did not fit the state religion of the day.

The Church of Scotland (‘the Kirk’) was founded in 1559 by John Knox.  He had been a Catholic priest, but converted to being a Protestant and studied with John Calvin.  Unlike the Church of England, it did not have the monarch as its Governor.  In Ireland the Reformation was imposed by the English.  This created a political link between Protestantism and foreign rule which had tragic consequences.  For four subsequent centuries opposing sides in bloody conflicts over who should govern the island defined themselves by whether they were Catholic or Protestant.

The new church which emerged from the turmoil was a bit of a compromise.  It had Protestant beliefs, such as God’s free gift of eternal life through Jesus.  But it retained some Catholic practices, such as robes for clergy and set words for worship services.  For some it was not sufficiently pure Protestantism.  A Puritan movement arose - 'dissenters' or 'nonconformists'.  Their need to maintain their integrity led a group of them to leave England altogether.  The Pilgrim Fathers set sail for North America in 1620 to seek a place where they could practice their Christian faith free from the influence of the state.

Continue the story of the Christian faith in the next century here.

What the Bible says about it

An extract from the Bible:

The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Where to find it:

Romans 6:23

About these words:

Paul writes to the Church in Rome explaining that the grace of God is given to humans freely, a concept that was crucial for the Reformers.

And they said...

Hugh Latimer, bishop of Winchester, written from prison before his execution for heresy, 1484 - 1555:

Pardon me and pray for me; pray for me I say.  For I am sometimes so fearful, that I would creep into a mousehole.  Sometimes God doth visit me again with his comfort.  So he cometh and goeth.

Martin Luther, German theologian, 1485 – 1546:

I felt myself absolutely born again.  The gates of Paradise had been flung open and I had entered.  There and then the whole of Scripture took on another look to me.

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