Rise of Protestantism

The seeds of the Reformation (ca. 1500-1650) were sown in the later Middle Ages (ca. 1000-1500), as the Church grew increasingly wealthy and influential. Misgivings developed over zealous violence (namely the imprisonment, torture, and execution of "heretics"), political and economic interference (e.g. Church taxation, restrictions on banking and trade), the vast land holdings and opulent lifestyles of many clergy, and the sale of indulgences (pardons for sin). Additionally, the revival of humanism encouraged critical appraisal of Church claims (see Humanism).

Despite grave personal risk, some religious scholars began to argue that the Bible is the only true religious authority; believers therefore do not require the intermediary of the Church to find salvation, but can do so on their own (by following the teachings of the Bible).1 This position, which would eventually be termed Protestantism, was set forth by various scholars of the later medieval period. At first, Protestant movements remained small and localized; then came the Reformation, during which Protestantism was embraced across much of Western Europe.

Branches of Protestantism

The leading figure of the Reformation was Martin Luther, a priest of northern Germany. The specific form of Protestantism developed by Luther is known as Lutheranism. In 1517, Luther published his Ninety-five Theses, a collection of arguments against various perceived corruptions of the Church, and the most influential document of the Reformation.

Thanks to the recently-invented printing press, Luther's writings (including the Ninety-five Theses and his German translation of the Bible) spread across the West in a matter of weeks. Thanks to the expanding middle class (which possessed the time and wealth to become literate and peruse scholarly works), they reached an unprecedented number of people. They were warmly received by the northern German states, which spurred conflict as the Holy Roman Empire attempted to suppress the Protestant movement. Lutheranism also spread (peacefully) across Scandinavia.K196-97,1,5

Spread of the Three Major Branches of Protestantism
Lutheranism northern Germany, Scandinavia
Calvinism Netherlands, Britain, parts of Switzerland
Anglicanism England

Lutheranism was one of three major forms of Protestantism that emerged during the Reformation. The second was Calvinism (aka the "Reformed Church movement"), which emerged in Switzerland. John Calvin was a Protestant leader in Reformation France until violent opposition forced him to flee to Geneva, a Swiss state (which became home to many Protestant refugees). There, he became the leading figure of the Reformed Church movement, which he infused with a strict code of conduct (dancing and card-playing, for instance, were outlawed), transforming Geneva into a rigid Protestant theocracy. (After Calvin, these policies were relaxed, and Geneva became a more welcoming place.)1,3

Calvinism spread through parts of Switzerland, as well as the Netherlands and Britain. The adoption of Calvinism in the Netherlands brought about the division of the Low Countries into the Protestant north (now the Netherlands) and the Catholic south (now Belgium). In England, Calvinism developed into Puritanism; in Scotland, Presbyterianism. Calvinism in France (where Calvinists were known as Huguenots), however, was stamped out by the staunchly Catholic French monarchy.1

The third major form of Protestantism to emerge from the Reformation was Anglicanism (the Church of England), which can be traced to the infamous Henry VIII. When the pope refused to authorize the king's divorce from his first wife, Henry claimed personal authority over Christianity in England, thereby establishing the Church of England. But Henry did not intend to abandon the doctrine and practices of Roman Catholicism; he persecuted Protestants just as keenly as he did Catholics who continued to recognize the pope's authority.1

Subsequent to Henry's reign, however, the Anglican Church did ultimately become a branch of Protestantism. Puritans were nonetheless unhappy with the Church of England's retention of many Roman Catholic features (e.g. organizational structure, ceremony), and sought to "purify" the Church of England into a wholly Calvinist religion.1,4

The Counter Reformation

The Roman Catholic Church responded to the Reformation with the Counter Reformation, spanning roughly the same period. This movement, which sought to reverse the losses of the Reformation, included campaigns of varying success to combat excess and corruption among the clergy, as well as renewed efforts to relieve poverty.2 The Society of Jesus (aka the Jesuits), founded during this period, would further the Catholic cause around the world. The Jesuits built many schools and performed extensive mission work, notably in East Asia and Latin America.22

The dramatic Baroque style of visual art, with its potential to flood viewers with spiritual awe, was a key instrument of the Counter Reformation. Unfortunately, the movement also featured intensified use of inquisition, especially in Spain (which nobody expected).2

1 - "Reformation", Encarta 2004.
2 - "Counter-Reformation", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed February 2010.
3 - "Geneva", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed February 2010.
4 - "Puritanism", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed February 2010.
5 - "Hussites", Encarta 2004.