Click here for the home page 

The Xenophile Historian

A History of Christianity


1500 to 1648

This chapter covers the following topics:
Christendom at the Dawn of the Modern Era
The Challenge of the Renaissance
How an Overindulgence Led to the Reformation
Martin Luther
The Battle Lines are Drawn
The Cautious Zurich Experiment
The Anabaptists
John Calvin
John Knox
The Anglican Church
The Road to Augsburg
Religious Wars in France
The Revolt of the Netherlands
Go to Page Navigator


Good evening. This is the text from eight classes I taught for the Bethel Bible Institute (in Orlando, FL) on the history of the Christian Church, in June 1996 and March 1997. The first four classes looked at Christianity from the time of Jesus until 1500 A.D. In them we covered the rise and spread of Christianity from a handful of Jewish believers to the dominant faith of Europe, and the challenges it faced from outside, like paganism and Islam. We also covered several important movements which arose in the Church during this period, like monasticism. Finally we chronicled the division of the original Church into Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox factions, and looked at the problems and errors that the Church fell into, which made reform necessary. Now that we are on the threshold of the Reformation, we will begin with a look at the condition of Europe and the Church as the sixteenth century began, and cover the career of the man credited with starting the Reformation, Martin Luther. Then we will finish with the origin of three alternatives to Lutheranism: Calvinism, the Anabaptists, and the Anglicans.

Christendom at the Dawn of the Modern Era

Three major world religions claim there is only one god: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Deprived of their homeland, the Jews stopped involving themselves in politics in the second century A.D., and have been an oppressed minority since (until the founding of modern Israel in 1948, anyway). That left Christianity and Islam, and since the Church split in 1054, the Middle Ages saw three creeds compete for domination of the known world: Islam, Catholicism and Orthodoxy.

Of those three, Orthodoxy was the least successful. The Roman Empire, renamed the Byzantine Empire, survived in the east for nearly a thousand years after it fell in the West. In fact, while the fall of the Western Roman Empire to the barbarians (476) is often used to mark the beginning of the Middle Ages, the date when the Eastern empire fell to the Turks (1453) is just as frequently used to mark the end of the Middle Ages. Meanwhile the Orthodox Church became so closely identified with the Byzantine government that thinking of one without the other is now difficult. This hindered Orthodox missionaries, who were seen as agents of an imperial power. During the period when the Catholic and Orthodox Churches raced to convert northern and eastern Europe, the only major victory for the Orthodox was Russia, while the Catholics won Scandinavia, Poland and Hungary. Then Islam, first under the Arabs, then under the Turks, took away the lands of the Eastern Church; by the fifteenth century nearly every place which had once been Orthodox was under Turkish rule, leaving only Russia, Georgia, and Abyssinia independent.(1)

By contrast, the Catholic Church prospered more often than not. Because it was the only institution of the Roman Empire to survive its collapse in the west, people looked to it as an international organization almost from the start. It also survived the Islamic onslaught with far fewer losses; Spain and Sicily were regained for Christendom after centuries of on-and-off fighting, and only North Africa was lost for good. This meant that only the Catholic Church had a chance of stopping the terrible Turk. The question was whether Catholicism was up to meeting this challenge.

At this stage an impartial observer would have put his money on Islam rather than Christianity. Once somebody became Moslem, he stayed that way; the penalty for renouncing Islam is death. In 800 years of conquests, nothing but Spain and the Mediterranean islands had been lost to the infidel again. Stretching from Morocco to the Ural mts., a solid wall of Moslem states stood between Christendom and the rest of the known world. The Christian communities in the Middle East were too weak to recover, and those in Georgia and Ethiopia were dwindling, while Islam expanded steadily east and south. The black tribes and kingdoms of sub-Saharan Africa, the oasis dwellers on the Silk Road in Central Asia and the Indonesian islanders were all adopting Islam in increasing numbers. Finally, when it came to military efficiency, nobody could match the Ottoman Turks. In the opening years of the 16th century two new major Islamic powers arose to join the Ottomans: the Safavids in Iran and the Moguls in India.

The Ottoman Empire's advance was slowed as the 15th century ended, partly because the Turks were outnumbered by their Christian opponents. For the first time in history Europe had more people than the Middle East--73 million vs. 20-30 million. Moreover, the European population was growing steadily, while the Middle East was hardly growing at all. The ravages of war and disease, coupled with 4,000 years of misuse and abuse of the land, turned the Middle East into a cultural backwater. But Islam had shown--in India for example--its ability to fight its way uphill against a more numerous foe. The size of the communities in Central Europe gave it time, not absolute security.

What the Europeans had in their favor was that they were richer, better educated, and more flexible than anybody else. From where we stand our fifteenth-century ancestors look unbelievably poor, ignorant, and rigid, but that is unfair; when one compares them to non-European societies of the fifteenth century, many of which were sinking into stagnation (the Arabs and Chinese, for example), they look far better.

Of those three factors wealth came first. Before the industrial revolution, farming was the primary source of income and the focus of most human activity. It now seems that the "secret weapon" of the European farmer was the heavy plow. This lowly tool was first developed during late Roman times to till and drain the soils in the cold and wet climate of northern Europe. A series of small improvements during the early Middle Ages, plus the introduction of other laborsaving devices, like the waterwheel and the windmill, kept productivity rising. It was a slow rise, but the Black Death made sure that population growth never outstripped food production. Each century after 600 A.D. saw Europe a bit wealthier and a bit more efficient at using its wealth. In ancient times, northern Europe must have looked like a poor, remote corner of the world, but it had not been ravaged and misused the way older places like Greece and the Middle East had been; by the end of the Middle Ages it had become one of the richest places.

Economic efficiency made it possible for people to work somewhere besides the farm, allowing for a higher literacy rate. By the early fifteenth century city-dwelling Europeans were at least as literate as anybody else; the invention of movable type printing by Johann Gutenberg (1455) put Europeans way out in front. Up to this point all books had to be copied by hand and were hideously expensive; a noble might boast a library of twenty volumes, and only the Church could afford more than that. Now that changed suddenly; in the second half of the fifteenth century the number of books in Europe went from less than 100,000 to about nine million. Because the printing press made books more affordable, more could learn to read them, which boosted the demand for information and further improved the supply. From then until the twentieth century the knowledge gap between the West and the rest of the world would grow at an ever-increasing rate.

Greater flexibility is a product of wealth and learning. One is not willing to change until he believes that different answers to his questions exist, that more than one can be correct, and that the best answers of all might yet be undiscovered. This attitude is not found in primitive societies, who see their tools and customs as gifts from the gods at the beginning of time. Once it appears, scientific research becomes possible. By combining their wealth, knowledge and intellectual flexibility, the fifteenth-century European could produce a technology that progressed more rapidly than any other. Now a smarter, bolder West began to pull ahead of the East.

The first visible sign that things had changed was in the Indian Ocean. Here trade had been under the control of Moslems for centuries. Then in 1498 a Portuguese captain, Vasco da Gama, found out how to get from Europe to Asia by sailing around Africa, cutting out the Moslem middlemen completely. Islam tried to fight this threat, but its navies were made up of thin-skinned, oar-propelled galleys, designed to do battle on the relatively calm waters of the Indian Ocean or the Mediterranean Sea. The Portuguese, by contrast, had to deal with a stormy Atlantic Ocean, and built more sturdy ships. These vessels were strong enough to carry cannon, whereas the recoil from such heavy weapons would have shaken a lighter vessel apart. The complete superiority of the new navy became clear at the battle of Diu (1509), where the Portuguese blew apart a much larger fleet of Egyptian and Indian ships. Then the Portuguese secured their command of the sea by setting up bases in strategic locations, like Hormuz, Socotra, Goa and Malacca. Meanwhile the Spanish were discovering and conquering a fabulous fortune in the New World. Later the French, Dutch and the English would follow Portugal and Spain into the oceans and seize great riches for themselves.

In the previous chapter we discussed the errors made by the Church in the Middle Ages, especially the sins and attempts by the popes to become kings of the world. This led to some unsuccessful movements to reform the Church, like the Waldensian, Albigensian, and Hussite sects, which the Inquisition and armies of the pope attacked savagely. All this time people began to question whether the pope was really God's agent on earth, and whether he was the only one who held the keys to Heaven. From a papal standpoint, the Great Schism (1378-1417) was an unbelievably bad episode, because it had two popes ruling at the same time; each pope denounced his rivals--and those who supported them--as followers of the devil. Thus everybody in the Church was damned by somebody, and no absolute monarchy could to expect to survive such an affair without injury. By the end of the fifteenth century there were three groups of people who wanted to overhaul the Church: (1.) kings, princes and dukes, who were tired of seeing their revenue drained off to Rome, and wanted a church they could control; (2.) the common folk, who wanted the Church to stay in control of their lives, so long as it was a righteous organization run by truly righteous men; and (3.) those clergymen who saw that the Church really needed reform if it was going to survive. When #1 and #2 got together, the result was the Reformation; the product of #3 was the Counter-Reformation.

Top of the page

The Challenge of the Renaissance

During the Middle Ages, those with an education were appalled at how ignorant the world had become. They looked back to a time when knowledge was held in high esteem, and when superstition did not bind the minds of men and promote the distorted Christianity of the Papacy. Two responses were possible: one could either return to Bible-based Christianity, or reject Jesus completely. In northern Europe, most of which was uncivilized before the Church arrived, men chose the former. In southern Europe, on the other hand, the ruins of a civilization that was both pre-Christian and more literate were all over the place, so residents of those lands chose the anti-God approach. We call this movement the Renaissance, meaning "rebirth," because those involved in it saw it as a rebirth of classical art, literature, politics, and an altogether different mind set.

Throughout the Middle Ages most of the literature from Greek and Roman times had been lost or forgotten in monastic libraries; the main exception was the work of Aristotle, which Thomas Aquinas had worked into Catholic doctrine. Gradually Christendom's scholars discovered the works of other classical authors, either from dust-covered volumes in the libraries, or from Arabic translations produced by the Moors in Spain. This trickle of knowledge became a flood in the mid-fifteenth century, when the Turks captured Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire's last scholars fled to Italy, bringing their Greek manuscripts with them. The Italian scholars of this time couldn't get enough of this material, and most of the writers from this time, like Petrarch (1304-74) and Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-75), did little besides imitate the style used by the Greek and Roman authors they read. For example, Petrarch pretended that Homer, Plato, and others were still alive and wrote letters to them, in his work Letters to Ancient Authors. In fact, the only Italian author of the Renaissance who really had anything new to say was Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527), who wrote The Prince, the most famous manual for running an amoral government.

With the revival of classical learning came a revival in classical art. The Greeks had led the ancient world in making realistic sculptures and paintings, and the Romans copied them successfully. With the fall of Rome, though, architecture and sculpture all but disappeared, and painting had gone from a three-dimensional style to a flat form of scenery like that portrayed in the icons of the Orthodox Church. Artists like Giotto (1266-1337), Masaccio (1401-28), and Botticelli (1444-1510) figured out how to put perspective in their paintings, while Ghiberti (1378-1455), Donatello (1386-1466), and Verocchio (1435-88) perfected the same techniques in sculpture. Then improvement continued, so by 1500 the Renaissance artists had surpassed their Greek and Roman tutors. Few periods in history have produced as many talented artists as this one did.

The acceptance of all this classical culture also invited the introduction of classical attitudes toward life, and that is where the danger to Christianity came in. The Greeks were the first to teach that man left on his own is generally good; during their history they first portrayed the gods as oversized people, then decreased their importance until mortals like Hercules and Odysseus could challenge or trick them. Finally they lost interest in the gods, and tried to build a way of life based on reason and virtue alone; Socrates, for example, said: "Of the gods we know nothing." Greek ideas also appeared in Renaissance works of art that supposedly expressed Christian messages. Because of that, Michaelangelo's David looks more like the god Apollo than a simple shepherd boy, and his statue of Moses resembles Zeus. And because the nude figure was the favorite art subject of the Greeks, nudes appeared in Christian paintings and statues, too. The leaders of Italy, who patronized the artists, accepted all this in the guise of beauty and enlightened learning. Soon they were more interested in seeking pleasure than in finding out the truth. For example, Pope Leo X, who ran the Catholic Church at the beginning of the Reformation, came from the powerful Medici family, which ruled the city of Florence for three hundred years. Leo was so unspiritual that he made cynical remarks like, "All the world knows how profitable this fable of Christ has been to us and ours," and "Now that we have attained the Papacy, let us enjoy it!"

The ancient Greek attitude that man is more important than the gods is called humanism, and the intellectuals of the Renaissance endorsed it wholeheartedly. From this they got the idea that someday man will do anything, and tried to excel in as many ways as possible. Because of that, we still call a multi-talented person a "Renaissance man." With all this focus on oneself and self-improvement, everyone began to do what was right in his own eyes. The authors who promoted all this called themselves humanists. At first the humanists saw themselves as simply promoting knowledge, what we call the "humanities"; only gradually did the term humanism come to mean an anti-Christian philosophy, the way it does now.

Medieval society may have been ugly and brutal, but in its limited way it tried to be Christian. The kings, knights and clergymen of the Middle Ages generally claimed to be Christians, and tried to live within boundaries set by the Church, and use Church teachings to justify their actions. With the Renaissance it became possible for one to live an un-Christian life and still be respectable; for example, Machiavelli had almost nothing to say about God and Christianity. The faith of the Italian was no longer one of conviction; he went to Church because it was "the European thing to do." No part of Europe was so full of irreligion as Italy. It amounted to philosophical infidelity among the educated upper class; to lack of belief among the middle class; to utter carelessness, not even giving itself the trouble of disbelief, among the peasants. Ordinary citizens of Rome made jokes about the practices of the Church, and were amused by the solemn piety of the pilgrims who came to their holy city. The universities and learned academies were hotbeds of heresy; the University of Padua was accused of being a focus of atheism, and learned academies, like those of Modena and Venice, were often suppressed for heresy. Nor was this alarming condition restricted to Italy; France had long participated in it. From the University of Paris, that watchtower of the Church, the alarm had often been sounded; now it was against men, now against books. Once, under its suggestions, the reading of the physics and metaphysics of Aristotle was prohibited, and works of philosophy interdicted, until the theologians of the Church could correct them. We think of our modern era as enlightened and a better time to live in, but in a spiritual way, we may have lost as much as we gained.

The Italians had long looked upon the nations beyond the Alps with contempt. On the principle that the intellectually strong may lawfully prey on the intellectually weak, they had systematically drained them of their wealth. As we might exchange "glass beads & trinkets" with savages for gold or land, the descendants of the Romans drove a profitable trade with the valiant but illiterate barbarians, exchanging possessions in heaven for the wealth of the earth, and selling for money forgiveness from sin. But they also looked upon the northerners with dread--they had felt the edge of the French and German sword. This may explain why the popes did not take the Reformation seriously until the knights and princes of the north joined it.

The most important Renaissance author outside Italy was Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1539), who lived in the Dutch city of Rotterdam. First he was an Augustinian monk, then a priest, but by 1495 he found the theology and scholarship of the clergy distasteful, preferring the classics and the company of humanists. After visits to France and England, he began to write a series of satires that made fun of monasticism, contrasted the "Old Ignorance" with the "New Learning," and used enlightened common sense to point out the failings of Christianity in his day. His most popular work, the Colloquies, has been printed in more than six hundred editions since. Three years in Rome left him so disgusted with the corruption of the Papacy that he wrote his most devastating attack, In Praise of Folly, in just seven days, while staying in London with another famous writer, Sir Thomas More of Utopia fame. Finally he declared that the Vulgate Bible was faulty, and went to the original Greek to produce a more accurate Latin translation.

Although Erasmus later took credit for starting the Reformation, he never approved much of Martin Luther's activities, and steadfastly remained Catholic, believing that nonviolent reform was possible without leaving the mother Church. Late in his career he wrote: "I laid a hen's egg; Luther hatched a bird of quite a different species."

Top of the page

How an Overindulgence Led to the Reformation

Man is a guilty creature, who has sinned and come short of the glory of God; Christianity's chief appeal comes from its message that God has provided a way out of the mess that man has gotten himself into. In the Middle Ages the Church not only accepted the ex-sinner but encouraged him to show his repentance by doing the following:

  1. Penance, which was symbolized by various means, such as prayer, fasting, and the wearing of humble garments.
  2. Pilgrimages.
  3. Military service (during the Crusades).
  4. Donations of money in place of #1, #2 or #3.
  5. Other donations of money.
All this was reasonable so long as the action was not required to prove the emotion, but the more the Church got involved in the world, the more it needed cash, especially after construction on St. Peter's Cathedral began in 1506. This led to a brisk attitude toward any means of making money. Now no devout Catholic expected to go to Hell for his sins, but he was terribly afraid of purgatory, a sort of torture chamber which medieval believers expected to stay in after death until their souls were fit to go on to Heaven. Whenever they did an action listed above, it was supposed to take days or years off their sentence in purgatory. To help pay for the Crusades, the Church encouraged these beliefs, and sold relics to the devout, like bones of the saints and pieces of the True Cross. Of course, like with other antiques, there are a limited number of authentic relics to go around, so the clergy resorted to fraud when the supply ran low. Reports exist of pigs' knuckles being sold as "saints' relics," and they claimed that the wood in the original "True Cross" was alive, so that when they removed a splinter of wood it would grow back, meaning there was enough for everyone.(2)

As the Middle Ages ended and the gullibility of ordinary people decreased, interest in relics faded. In their place came the sale of "indulgences." An indulgence was a spiritual pardon on a piece of paper that, when bought, gave forgiveness for all sins committed by the person whose name was written on it, whether he was living or dead; supposedly he would then skip purgatory and go straight to Paradise. Sales were entrusted to agents of the pope specifically chosen for their persuasiveness. To secure their cooperation, the kings of England, France, and Spain were promised a percentage of the profits.

From an economic standpoint belief is like any other demand and the bottom falls out of the market when one reaches the saturation point. This means that if the Church wants believers to think that an indulgence is a valuable thing to have, there has to be a sober hand on the printing press. None of this seemed important to officials of the papal treasury, who understandably enough wanted more and more sales. The ecclesiastical credit finally collapsed in Germany when the Dominican friar Johann Tetzel made a record-breaking tour in 1517, to sell indulgences so the Archbishop of Mainz could pay his debts. Tetzel followed a pattern that seems to have been copied by the "snake oil" salesmen of the nineteenth century; he traveled in a wagon that carried two chests, one containing the indulgences and one holding the money, with a banker from the prestigious House of Fugger to keep track of the whole business. Wherever he stopped, Tetzel put his credentials, a document of authorization from the pope, on a gold-embroidered cushion, and made his sales pitch while standing in the wagon: "As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs!" Then came a "hellfire & damnation" sermon to convince listeners that indulgences are the easiest way to avoid purgatory. He broke all records when he raked in 2,000 florins from the thrifty town of Freiberg in only two days.(3) Among the visitors who came to hear him was Martin Luther (1483-1546), an Augustinian monk from Wittenberg. Disillusioned Germans would turn from Tetzel to Luther in droves before long.

Top of the page

Martin Luther

On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther went to Wittenberg's castle church and nailed a lengthy document on its door. This was a list of ninety-five theses, or issues that he wanted to discuss and debate, concerning teachings of the Church, particularly the sale of indulgences. By doing this he was following the accepted method for starting an academic discussion; the doors of public buildings were often used as a bulletin board in those days. Most of the theses were statements he wanted to discuss or debate, while others were questions.(4) He wrote them in Latin, since modern languages like German, French and English were not yet considered suitable for philosophy, theology, or science. Because of that most of the townspeople who saw Luther's theses probably could not read them. Nevertheless, so many Germans were disillusioned with indulgences that news of his act spread like wildfire. The next day was All Saints Day, so the church was open for visitors to come and see its collection of relics; thousands saw Luther's manuscript during the next few days. It got so much attention that the Archbishop of Mainz quickly forwarded a copy to the pope, and soon all of western Europe knew about Luther's challenge to papal authority.

Who was this monk who had been so suddenly catapulted into the limelight? He was a native of Eisleben, a small town about forty miles west of Leipzig in eastern Germany. His father, Hans, had started as a peasant, but rose to the middle class when he switched to mining. He expected his gifted son to do even better and sent him to college to study law. Therefore he was furious when Luther decided to become a monk instead. According to one account, only two months after entering college (1505), a lightning bolt knocked Luther to the ground. In terror he cried to his father's saint (the patron saint of miners): "Saint Anne, help me and I will become a monk!"

He entered the monastery and became the perfect novice. "I was a good monk," he later wrote, "and I kept to the rule of my order so strictly that I may truly say that if ever a monk got to heaven by his monkery it was I . . . If I had kept on any longer I should have killed myself with vigils, prayers, reading, and other work." Nevertheless, he continued to feel he was unworthy to be called a man of God. During the next few years, both in Germany and on a business trip to Rome, he wondered if he was doing the right things to win the Lord's favor. Finally in 1512 he figured it out, when he recalled what the Apostle Paul wrote in Romans 1:17-- "The just shall live by faith." From then on he no longer saw God as an accountant or judge who has to be paid off with good works; Christ had come to save sinners and all they had to do was believe in Him. This made many doctrines and practices of the Catholic Church look irrelevant. Among these were the idea that Christians would be rewarded in heaven according to how many prayers they said, how many pilgrimages they made, and how much money they contributed; the cult of saints and relics, which resembled pagan superstition; and the sale of indulgences, which now looked to him like permits to commit sin.

Top of the page

The Battle Lines are Drawn

Luther's action hit the Church where it hurt the most--in the wallet. Pope Leo X did not have the intellect to make a successful comeback to the 95 theses, but he thought brute force would do the job, since it always had before. Rather than get involved in what he called a "monkish quarrel," he tried to have Luther disciplined by his own order, the Augustinians. Luther was summoned to a convention of the order, where he won over many to his point of view. Then he was ordered to appear in Rome, and Luther wisely refused, since a death sentence probably would have followed. However, he did agree to meet a representative of the pope, Cardinal Cajetan, at Augsburg. He and the cardinal had three furious discussions, on which neither gave ground. Afterwards Luther left secretly by night (to avoid arrest), now questioning whether of the pope was really God's agent on earth. Leo awoke to his blunder when it was too late; he had sneered at what he should have combated with all his might.

By the time Luther returned to Wittenberg, the Church had branded him a dangerous heretic. Fortunately he found a powerful protector in Frederick, the Elector of Saxony. Frederick was a pious man, as his collection of relics will show, and probably did not go along with everything Luther taught, but he had political and financial concerns motivating him as well. For a start, he detested the money going to Rome, and refused to allow Tetzel to sell indulgences in Saxony. Secondly, he was proud of his new university in Wittenberg, of which Luther was the brightest professor. Another important factor was that Frederick was one of the seven German princes who elected the Holy Roman Emperor, and the current emperor, Maximilian I, clearly did not have long to live. This more than anything else caused the Church to act very carefully, so as not to antagonize Frederick.

Even after Maximilian died and Charles V was elected to succeed him, Frederick could still help Luther. In 1519 he promoted Luther's ideas by staging a public debate in Leipzig between Luther and a professional debater, Johann Eck. During the eighteen days of the debate, Eck maneuvered Luther into a corner, and got him to admit that he agreed with some of Jan Huss's teachings. You may remember from Chapter 4 that Huss was a Czech pastor who was burned as a heretic in 1415 for attacking the Church's corruption. Up to this point Luther had not seen himself as a heretic. All he wanted to do was reform the Church he had been born and raised in, and bring it back to the one truth faith from which the Papacy--and not he--had deviated. The debate also made him realize the most important difference between himself and the rest of the Church: he considered the Bible more important than tradition, while others thought the reverse. From now on he would accept the word of a pope or theologian only when it agreed with the Scriptures. This has been the foremost characteristic of all Protestant movements since.

Luther published twenty-four books and pamphlets in 1520. He used these to promote Bible authority, and other ideas that would become fundamental to Protestantism. One of these he promoted by writing in German, instead of Latin; he now believed in conducting all religious discussion in modern languages, so that everyone could participate. His most revolutionary concept was "the priesthood of all believers," meaning that any Christian could be a priest. "If a little company of pious Christian laymen were taken prisoners and carried away to a desert," he wrote, "and had not among them a priest consecrated by a bishop, and were there to agree to elect one of them, born in wedlock or not, and were to order him to baptize, to celebrate the Mass, to absolve, and to preach, this man would as truly be a priest as if all the bishops and all the popes had consecrated him. This would not be possible if we were not all priests." He also attacked the Papacy, calling it "the greatest thief and robber that has appeared or can appear on earth." He proposed that clergymen be allowed to marry, because the loose behavior of many priests and monks showed that not all men can live without a woman.(5) Finally, he called for an end to religious holidays and saint's days, because the drinking, gambling, and other excessive behavior done on those days embarrassed true believers and left workers unfit for the next day's labor.

The pope responded by excommunicating Luther in June 1520; the bull of excommunication listed Luther's heresies and gave him sixty days to recant. The Papal agents in Germany were surprised to find that popular support was on Luther's side. At Mainz, Luther's books were gathered in the main square to be burned by the public executioner, and before this official applied the torch, he turned to the crowd and asked if the books had been justly condemned. With one voice they roared back, "No!," so he refused to act. In Wittenberg, Luther showed that he could also be dramatic by taking the Papal bull to a garbage dump, and burning it with various books on Church law.

Luther probably had enough followers at this point to withstand whatever else the pope might say or write, but now the Holy Roman Emperor got involved. As we saw in the last course, the Holy Roman Empire had been the main nation of Europe in the Middle Ages, but in the late thirteenth century it dissolved into a collection of 300 German city-states that could hardly be called holy, Roman, or an empire! The emperor's title had become a symbolic one, which looked impressive on paper only. The princes and archbishops who ruled the individual states were positively antisocial where their rights were concerned, and supported the emperor only when it was convenient to do so. No revenue went directly to the imperial throne, and it was only because having it was a source of weakness, rather than strength, that made the electors give it to the Hapsburg family every time; the Hapsburg territory (modern Austria and Slovenia) was the largest block of real estate in the Empire.

That threatened to change, however, with Charles V. During the previous two generations the Hapsburgs had married their sons to heiresses with huge tracts of land, and that gave them some impressive land holdings: half of Italy, all of the Low Countries, Burgundy and Spain. And because of the discoveries of Columbus and the conquistadors, a lot of America belonged to them as well. Because of that Charles V owned more land than any European monarch in centuries, so many saw him as another Charlemagne. The truth, however, was quite different. Charles was not a master soldier or politician, but a moody fellow who liked to attend funerals and eat eel pies; some have called him the best example of how a mediocre person can rise to the top. In the Middle Ages there had been many disputes between popes and emperors over who had the ultimate authority over Christendom; now the nationalism of Germany, frustrated politically, surged up in favor of a reformed and German church. Charles could have united Germany under his rule by joining Luther and the German princes. Instead, he put piety before politics, and stayed loyal to the pope.

Anyway, Charles V announced that he would judge the dispute at a diet (meaning a meeting of nobles from every part of the Empire), in the city of Worms on the Rhine River. Although the Church probably wanted to condemn Luther without a hearing, Charles insisted on a fair trial. He granted Luther safe passage to and from Worms, so in April 1521 Luther appeared before an assembly of 150 princes, councilors, and delegates, presided over by the emperor. Charles may have expected all this pomp to intimidate Luther, but instead Luther came with supreme confidence, because he now realized that a miner's son and the world's most important king are equally sinful in God's eyes. The townspeople of Worms were also overwhelmingly on Luther's side; poems about him, pictures of him and stacks of his books appeared in the shops. A Papal agent wrote back to the pope, "Nine tenths of the people are shouting 'Luther!' and the other tenth shouts 'Down with Rome!'"

At that assembly Luther was shown twenty books piled on a bench and asked two questions: Did he write these books, and if so, would he now abandon the beliefs expressed in them? He asked permission to consider his answer overnight. The next morning, he answered yes to the first question, and answered the second with his most famous speech:

"Since your serene majesty and your lordships request a simple answer, I shall give it, with no strings and no catches. Unless I am convicted by the testimony of Scripture or plain reason (for I believe neither in pope nor councils alone, since it is agreed they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the scriptures I have quoted, and my conscience is captive to the word of God. I neither can nor will revoke anything, for it is neither safe nor honest to act against one's conscience. Here I take my stand, I can do no other."

The emperor could not understand how more than 1,000 years of Church tradition could be wrong, so he declared Luther an outlaw, depriving him of all civil and legal rights. Before he could pass the Edict of Worms, however, Luther went into hiding. Frederick of Saxony feared for Luther's safety, but didn't want to be seen supporting him openly, so he arranged an ambush. In the middle of a forest, a band of armed men intercepted Luther and his companions and took them to a remote castle named Wartburg. There Luther lay low for nearly a year; he grew his beard and hair, gained weight, wore the clothes of a knight, and adopted an alias. Since leaving wasn't safe, he kept busy by writing prolifically; he produced many pamphlets, and most important, translated the New Testament into German.(6) This in itself was very dangerous; the Church considered its own Bible--the Latin Vulgate--to be the only authorized one, and executed heretics who made modern translations, or even owned copies of them. (Remember that the bones of John Wycliffe were dug up and burned a hundred years earlier, because he dared to produce the first English Bible.) In 1522 he returned to Wittenberg, since there were now enough people on his side to keep him safe, and he remained the dominating influence in that town for the rest of his life.

Top of the page

The Cautious Zurich Experiment

The 1520s and 1530s saw the Lutheran Church grow rapidly. Princes were attracted to Lutheranism not only because of its teachings, but also because it liquidated an uncontrollable organization that owned large amounts of tax-exempt property and sent money abroad, replacing it with a church that was smaller and more compliant. Moreover, the princes who converted got to confiscate the Church's property and add it to their own. By 1540 Lutheranism had converted a third of Germany and all of Scandinavia; the Teutonic Knights on the eastern Baltic shore extinguished their order when they joined, leaving a vacuum that Poland and Sweden would eventually fill. There were also sizeable Lutheran communities in Poland, Bohemia & Moravia (today's Czech Republic), Hungary, and Transylvania.

In Switzerland the reformers also did well. Here the leader was Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531), a Zurich preacher who began making reforms of his own in 1519. Never challenging the authority of the pope, he simply called for a raising of the moral standards in his congregation. Like Luther he preached against the sale of indulgences and the veneration of saints, encouraged study of the Scriptures and called for simple worship services. He endorsed Luther's writings when they arrived in Switzerland, but steadfastly refused to be called a Lutheran, insisting that he came up with his ideas independently. The pope probably learned a lesson from Germany; to avoid losing Switzerland to the Lutherans, he chose to leave Zwingli alone.

In one way Zwingli was more radical than Luther. Taking literally the second commandment ("Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image"), he did away with all crucifixes, statues, chalices, censers and clerical vestments. He was a lover of music, who learned to play six instruments before the age of ten, but because he could find no Scripture that authorized music in services, he removed the church organ and even banned the singing of hymns.

Soon Luther and Zwingli began disagreeing on various issues, and a war of pamphlets went on between them. An attempt to patch up their differences was made with a meeting in 1529, but both men were intransigent about the meaning of the Lord's Supper. Luther believed in the traditional doctrine of transubstantiation, which teaches that the bread and wine of communion become the body and blood of Christ in some mysterious way; to Zwingli, the bread and wine were merely a symbolic commemoration of the Lord's last supper. They were never on speaking terms after that.

Next Zwingli joined the city council of Zurich, and became the virtual governor of that city. His rule was stern and he tolerated no opposition, but he had received a humanist education, so he never went as far as other Protestant and Catholic leaders did. For example, he allowed the persecution of Anabaptists, because they disrupted civil order, but also suggested that there would be righteous Jews and pagans in heaven; once he wrote that "there has not been any good man . . . from the beginning of the world even to its end, whom you will not see [in paradise] with God." This was a rare attitude among Christians in those times, and it convinced Luther that Zwingli was a heathen. Later Luther compared Zwingli to Judas, declaring, "I will not let the devil teach me anything in my church."

Zwingli came to grief because the cities of Switzerland entertained his ideas, while the more conservative forest cantons remained steadfastly Catholic. In 1531 five Swiss cantons formed a Catholic League, and sent an army of 8,000 men against Zurich. Zwingli mustered 1,500 soldiers, but the odds were too great; he was slain in battle, and the Reformation lost its most humane leader.

Top of the page

The Anabaptists

The acceptance of Lutheranism as an alternative to the Catholic monopoly soon allowed the emergence of other heterodoxies. Often in the Middle Ages the downtrodden masses had gone through millennial outbursts in which they viewed their miserable condition as a sign that the Second Coming was around the corner. Whenever this happened they either lost interest in personal property, or came to believe that all property should be held in common. There was a bad outbreak of this in the 1520s. It started with Conrad Grebel, one of Zwingli's followers, who decided that baptism of infants and forced baptism of adults were both invalid; everyone who joined his church thus had to be re-baptised to make sure it was done right. This practice gave them the name of Anabaptists, meaning "re-baptisers." Soon they were also teaching that no Christian should be in the government, since the state by nature is sinful. This made them look like subversives, causing everyone else to dislike them, and persecution quickly drove them out of Zurich and scattered them across Germany.(7) When Luther returned to Wittenberg from his refuge at Wartburg Castle, he found a bearded Anabaptist prophet named Thomas Münzer preaching fiery messages to the peasants of his hometown.

In the summer of 1524, bands of peasants in the Black Forest of southwest Germany took up arms against the lords who exploited them. Within a year they plundered many castles and monasteries and Münzer took command of a peasant army in Thuringia. Fearing that this anarchy would undo everything he had achieved so far, Luther quickly dissociated himself from the rebels and from the Anabaptist sect which motivated them. Dissociated is too weak a word; the venom of his pamphlet entitled Against the Murdering, Thieving Hordes of Peasants does more credit to his realism than his humanity. Luther never wanted to get involved in politics; life is too short and eternity is too long, he felt, for any issues concerning social engineering or justice to be very important. God had placed some people in authority, as Paul wrote in Romans 13, and to oppose them was to do the devil's work. He called for the princes to massacre any rebels they got their hands on, while he continued to build a church that was both progressive and practical.

The princes of the ravaged territory needed no encouragement; in 1525 their disciplined armies killed more than 100,000 peasants, including Münzer. Individual Anabaptists ran around loose for some time to come, though, and in 1533 one of them, Jan Matthys, proclaimed himself the prophet Enoch, seized the town of Münster, and declared this would be the New Jerusalem, where Christ would return and redeem the earth. Both Catholic and Lutheran armies attacked Münster, and when they killed Matthys, his successor, John of Leyden, crowned himself king and restored the Old Testament practice of polygamy (this was done because of a severe shortage of men in the besieged city). In 1535 Münzer was taken and a horrible massacre of the last defenders concluded the war.

A few Anabaptists survived, but they now had such a bad name that they moved to change it. A group of them gathered in the Netherlands under a leader named Menno Simons (1496-1561), who preached in favor of a pure church, adult baptism, Bible authority, separation from politics and people of other faiths, and a total commitment to peace. Today we know their descendants as "the Brethren" in Switzerland and south Germany, Mennonites in the Netherlands and north Germany, and Hutterites (after another leader, Jacob Hutter) in the Czech Republic; all three groups also have members in the United States and Canada. In 1693 a Swiss member, Jacob Ammann, broke with the Brethren because he felt they were not disciplined enough; he founded the unique Amish communities that now exist in Pennsylvania, Ohio and surrounding areas.

Top of the page

John Calvin

When a successful radical movement appeared within the Reformation, instead of being anarchist, it emphasized personal responsibility. Where Luther had attacked the corruption and excessive dogma of Catholicism, a Frenchman named John Calvin (1509-64) attacked the corruption and loose thinking of the individual. The son of a notary for a diocese in northern France, even as a child he showed a remarkable precision of mind and a constant urge for perfection. When he grew up, he expected to become a priest, and went to Paris to study theology, but before he finished his father yanked him out and sent him to Orléans to study law. Like Luther's father, the elder Calvin saw a law degree as the key to a career in government; John never practiced law, but he came to view law as man's greatest achievement. While at Orléans he also studied humanist philosophies, though he only seems to have been impressed by Stoicism, and discovered evangelical literature.

Sixteenth-century France was a dangerous place for those who did not follow the same creed as the king. King Francis I frequently shifted between toleration and persecution of heretics, according to the political mood. By 1534 Calvin had converted to Lutheranism, and when the authorities got suspicious he decided to move to Basel, Switzerland.

In Basel he wrote his most important work, The Institutes of the Christian Religion. Revised by him several times in the next few years, Institutes explained more clearly than any other book what the Reformation was all about. When he was done it left no detail of doctrine or conduct without rules governing it. It was both more logical and more somber than the writings of Luther. Whereas Luther mainly wrote about God's mercy and attacked those church practices which got between man and God, Calvin paid more attention to the Jehovah of the Old Testament, the absolute master of the universe. He also differed with both the Lutherans and the Catholics on how to achieve salvation. Instead of salvation through good works or faith, Calvin introduced the idea of predestination. According to him, when God created man He picked who would be saved, and man cannot change that. There is no way of knowing who will be saved, but a good sign that someone is among "the elect" is a righteous lifestyle.

In 1536 Calvin decided to do more writing in Strasbourg. His stop in Geneva was only supposed to be an overnight stay, but a dramatic incident took place that made him stay there. Geneva's main preacher was a fiery Frenchman, Guillaume Farel. Farel had been there since 1532, and had won many souls for the Reformation, but most of Geneva's people were still a rowdy, undisciplined lot. Farel felt he needed help to complete what he started, and when he heard the author of Institutes was in town, he paid him a visit. Calvin was reluctant to stay, so Farel threatened him with the wrath of God if he refused. Calvin stayed.

Together they worked to turn Geneva into a holy city. They restricted gambling, drinking, dancing and singing, and exiled transgressors. This was too much for the Genevese, so an angry town council exiled both men. By 1541, however, the council had second thoughts, and recalled Calvin; not only were public morals getting worse, but there was still considerable lawlessness, and the reformed Christians were losing grounds to Catholicism. This time Calvin was allowed to draw up a new law code, which was based almost totally on the Bible. It was enforced by a committee called the Consistory, or Presbytery, consisting of five pastors and twelve elders.

Calvin was never a member of the Consistory, but dominated it nonetheless. It oversaw the worship and moral conduct of every citizen in Geneva. It sent an elder to inspect each house at least once a year, and could at any time summon someone to account for his actions. Criminal offenses included missing church, laughing during services, wearing bright colors, dancing, playing cards, and swearing. Offenders were excommunicated, meaning they could not partake of the Lord's Supper and were not allowed to associate with citizens, though they were expected to listen to sermons all the same. Religious dissent brought much heavier penalties. The consistory frequently exiled offenders for blasphemy, mild heresies, adultery, or suspected witchcraft. Magistrates sometimes used torture to obtain confessions and sometimes even burned heretics, averaging more than a dozen annually in the 1540s. Michael Servetus (1511-1553), a Spanish theologian-scientist and refugee from the Catholic Inquisition, was burned for heresy because he denied the doctrine of the Trinity. The Consistory showed little sexual discrimination, punishing men and women with equal severity.

Geneva became known as the Protestant Rome, the focus of an authority even less compromising than that of the Papacy it opposed. Calvin's near-theocracy only lasted while he was alive, but the rigor of his views and the social discipline he called for appealed to those who had to fight for what they believed. Calvinism made only limited headway in those areas where Lutheranism was already established, but to the persecuted Huguenots, the embattled Dutch and the rebel Scots, God spoke with Calvin's voice. Many Protestants today still consider Calvin, rather than Luther, to be the real leader of the Reformation.

Top of the page

John Knox

Because it was not associated with any king or prince, Calvinism spread across political boundaries easily. One man converted to it, John Knox (1514?-72), used it to singlehandedly raise up an undeveloped nation. Sixteenth-century Scotland lagged behind the rest of western Europe, both politically and economically. A French Catholic ruled it, Mary of Lorraine, widow of the late King James V and mother to the future Mary Queen of Scots. Power was largely in the hands of feudal barons, and bishops, who exacted heavy dues from the common people. The few existing cities were too small to support much industry. Even the soil was poor; that and a cold climate meant the Scottish peasant had a rougher life than those elsewhere.

John Knox was a peasant from the county of East Lothian; we know almost nothing of his life before 1547. In that year a local peasant uprising seized a cardinal's house in the town of St. Andrews, where Knox was preaching. Queen Mary called in a French fleet to put down the rebellion, and Knox was among those captured; he spent the next nineteen months as a galley slave on a ship in the Loire River. After his release he went to England, where he won so much fame that he was appointed preacher to the royal court of King Edward VI. With the accession to the throne of the violently Catholic Mary Tudor, Knox was compelled to leave, so first he went to Switzerland to study under Calvin, then returned to Scotland in 1559.

Once back he was invited to become head of a religious council set up by the nobility, called "The Lords of the Congregation of Jesus Christ," and he used this platform to launch the Reformation in his home country. People fired up by his messages smashed images, attacked priests, and destroyed churches and monasteries. Mary of Lorraine and Mary Queen of Scots tried to stop the rioting by bringing in French soldiers, and the Lords of the Congregation responded by asking England's new Queen, Elizabeth I, to send troops to fight for their side. The reformers won, and the largest Parliament in Scotland's history convened to replace Catholicism with a new state religion. It called upon Knox to put everything down on paper, and he established a Calvinist creed for the country by translating Calvin's works and by writing a Confession of Faith (1560), a Book of Discipline (1561), and a liturgy called the Book of Common Order (1564). Thus the Reformed (soon to be called Presbyterian) Church was established on solid ground.

There was one more tragic chapter, though, before the Reformation was finished in Scotland. In 1560 Mary of Lorraine died and her daughter arrived in Edinburgh to take the throne. Mary Queen of Scots had been brought up in France, making her thoroughly French in manners, temperament and outlook. She was tall, beautiful, high-spirited and ambitious; she was already a widow, though only eighteen years old. She came from the fanciest court in Europe to a bleak land where her religion was outlawed, her Gallic style distasteful to a serious people, and where commoners she looked down on shared power with nobles. She had five meetings with Knox, in an unsuccessful attempt to win over the rabble-rouser.

Meanwhile, Mary's personal life was just as unlucky. Her second marriage at the age of 23 to her cousin Henry Stuart was a disaster--he was vicious, power-hungry, and insisted that Mary give him the title of king and promise that the crown would be his for life, two things he wasn't really entitled to have, since the crown came from Mary's side of the family. In 1566 Henry Stuart murdered David Rizzio, Mary's secretary and favorite advisor, before her eyes; a year later Henry was killed (possibly on Mary's orders). Then Mary was abducted and raped by the Earl of Bothwell, who married her shortly after; we don't know if Mary had any say in this matter. Within three months the marriage was dissolved, and these scandals led Parliament to depose her. She fled to England, where she was accused of trying to assassinate her cousin, Queen Elizabeth, imprisoned for eighteen years, and beheaded in 1587. The son Mary left behind, James VI, was brought up a Protestant, ensuring that Scotland would remain Protestant forever.

The Scots under Knox and King James had no freedom of worship--the penalties for conducting Catholic services included confiscation of property, exile and death--but there was so little resistance to the Presbyterian Church that they did not have to be enforced. Altogether, the Reformation in Scotland was the least bloody of any in Europe.

Top of the page

The Anglican Church

The Reformation spread to England before it reached Scotland. Just months after Luther started his work in Germany, his writings were introduced to England. Before long, many wished for a Bible in modern English, so they could search for themselves the Scriptures Luther referred to. There was the translation of John Wycliffe, of course, but it was now more than a hundred years old, and the English language had changed so much that understanding it was difficult (compare Chaucer's writings to those of Shakespeare); moreover, Wycliffe had used the Vulgate Bible as his source, which had been proven unreliable. Using the same texts as Erasmus, William Tyndale introduced a more accurate translation in 1524. Many more English Bibles were produced in the upcoming century.

The real mover & shaker of the English Reformation, however, was not a preacher, but King Henry VIII. Those who know about Henry might think he was an unlikely fellow to put in charge of a Reformation. He was a vain autocrat, the last English king who could do just about anything he wanted and get away with it, and was pleasure-loving to boot. You may also have heard that Henry had six wives, and beheaded two of them. Finally, Henry was at first a champion of the Catholic Church. As early as 1518 he wrote a book attacking heretics called The Seven Sacraments, and the pope rewarded him with the title "Defender of the Faith."

It was his personal life that prompted him to change. Henry had married a Spanish Princess, Catherine of Aragon, for political reasons: to cement an alliance between England and Spain against France.(8) More than a decade went by, though, and Catherine failed in the most important duty of a queen: she did not give Henry a son. The only child she had which survived was an introspective girl named Mary, and it was not yet clear that a woman could legally inherit the throne of England. Because of that Henry got interested in Anne Boleyn, a lady-in-waiting to the queen, and Anne wanted something in return for her favors--to be queen herself. Henry asked the pope for a divorce from Catherine, but Rome refused, so in 1534 Henry formed a church which said he could have one.

First Henry married Anne Boleyn in secret.(9) Then he appointed a new Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, and had him declare the marriage to Catherine void because it was illegal (Catherine had been the widow of the king's brother Arthur before she married Henry). Then he persuaded Parliament to pass a law called the "Act in Restraint of Appeals," which prohibited any foreign power--especially Rome--from meddling in the affairs of England, and had himself declared ultimate head of the Church of England (also known as the Anglican or Episcopal Church). Finally he closed most of the monasteries, burned the fraudulent relics they contained (they found enough pieces of the True Cross to fill three wagons!), and confiscated their land and wealth, which now went to Henry's eager followers among the nobility. The pope struck back by excommunicating Henry, but a surge of national pride made the people support the king.

Despite his actions, Henry thought he was still a good Catholic, and made as few changes to Church doctrine and practice as possible. That is why some evangelicals today define an Episcopalian as a Catholic who flunked Latin, and the Church of England still has enough in common with Catholicism that today Catholic and Anglican clergymen are talking about reunification. While Henry was alive, Thomas Cranmer wrote the Book of Common Prayer and the Forty-Two Articles; these became the official books of the new church under the next king, Edward VI.

In 1553 Edward died, after only being king for six years. By this time the English had learned to love their royal family, and if they had to dump their old prejudice and crown a woman to keep the Tudors in charge, so be it. They crowned Henry's eldest daughter, Mary, but her appeal did not last long. Disregarding national sentiment against Spain, she married her Spanish cousin, King Philip II; then she decided that the people liked her because they wanted the faith of her disgraced mother. Because of that, Mary devoted herself to undoing all the accomplishments made by the reformers. She voided all the church-related laws passed by the last two kings, passed a series of new ones to combat heresy, and burned 300 reformers at the stake, including Archbishop Cranmer. Fortunately for Protestantism, Mary Tudor (also called "Bloody Mary") was queen for only five years (1553-58), and when her sister Elizabeth became queen afterwards, a lot of people were relieved to learn she was thoroughly Protestant. Elizabeth not only brought peace, she was the most successful of the Tudor monarchs. The prosperity England saw under Elizabeth, and the famous defeat of the Spanish Armada, insured that Protestantism was in England to stay. Finally, because she was childless, she made Scotland's James VI her heir, so in 1603 England and Scotland were united under a king who was now called James I, the same king who authorized the King James Bible later.

Top of the page

The Road to Augsburg

The last successes of the reformers came about violently. They were last because the wave had now reached the major powers of Austria, France and Spain, whose rulers had nothing to gain from embracing the cause of the Reformation. In fact, France and Spain had been strong enough in the past to force concessions from the Papacy. Their churches were already partially national, and they paid part of their revenue to the king's treasury.

After the Edict of Worms, Emperor Charles V looked unstoppable, and he probably figured that he could grind down all opposition. As noted previously, he had a tremendous advantage in land, men and money, but this also gave him so many problems that he could only devote part of his time to religious matters. To the west, he had to constantly defend his Spanish, Italian and German territories from the French king, Francis I. In the east, the Turks were on the warpath again; Suleiman the Magnificent overran Hungary in 1526, followed by two unsuccessful attacks on Vienna.(10) Consequently, most of the 1520s went by before Charles could concentrate his energy on stamping out heresies. By then it was too late, for the Lutherans had converted many princes who resented being told what to do.

In 1529 Charles sent word to a diet convening at Speyer that the Edict of Worms would be enforced and Catholic worship would be restored everywhere. Six princes and fourteen cities issued a protest against this demand; they became known as the "Protesting Estates," and from this came the word "Protestant" to describe any Western Christian who opposed the Roman Church.

This forced Charles to call a conference to deal with the religious question once and for all. In 1530 Catholics and Lutherans met in Augsburg, hoping to heal the rift between them. Luther could not come, because he had been declared an outlaw, so he sent a close associate, Philip Melanchthon, in his place. Melanchthon offered a conciliatory document, the Confession of Augsburg, which he hoped would prove that there was "nothing repugnant to Scripture or to the Roman Church." In fact, compared to what Luther taught, it was a statement of moderation; the only differences it insisted on were Bible authority and justification by faith. It was still not enough; the theologians could not reach an agreement, and the emperor dismissed the Diet with an order for all Lutherans to return to the Catholic Church by April 15, 1531. The one accomplishment of the whole meeting was the Confession of Augsburg, which became the official creed of the Lutheran Church.

The Lutherans responded to this ultimatum by sending princes and delegates to the small town of Schmalkalden, and formed the Schmalkaldic League, pledging that: "Whenever any one of us is attacked on account of the Word of God and the doctrine of the Gospel, the others will immediately come to his assistance." Other states and towns joined, until it included most of the Protestant states in the Empire. This put Catholics and Protestants on an equal footing in Germany, and gave the Protestants a force that could meet nearly anything the emperor could dish out against them.

The next quarter century saw on-and-off negotiations, and on-and-off fighting, between the two factions. Again outside events frequently distracted Charles V, giving the Protestants a much needed breathing spell whenever things turned against them. Finally Charles realized that time was running out for him, and that Germany was likely to become the grave of his reputation, if not the grave of his body. In 1555 he signed the Peace of Augsburg, a treaty guaranteeing for every prince the right to choose whether he and his subjects could be Catholic or Lutheran.

This was not a promise of religious tolerance as we would understand it. The surest way for one to enjoy religious freedom was to move to a state where the local ruler shared his faith. Anabaptists, Calvinists, and Jews were still out of luck, though, since no head of state followed their creeds. What this meant was that Catholics recognized the Lutherans' right to exist, and that Catholic and Lutheran would learn to live together. Nor was this a final settlement; there would be nearly a century more of trouble, culminating in the Thirty Years War, before the fighting ended at last.

Top of the page

Religious Wars in France

At the time of the Peace of Augsburg, Calvinism was growing but it had only gained acceptance in Geneva and Navarre, a tiny Basque-speaking kingdom between France and Spain. Among European governing elites, it was generally regarded with suspicion, if not contempt.

The most promising area for growth was France, Calvin's own homeland. His message attracted many members of the urban middle classes, who had begun to feel alienated from both church and state. French Calvinists, or Huguenots as they were called (the origin of the name is not clear), made up an aggressive minority of discontented nobles and middle-class urban citizens. The new movement also enlisted many women, drawn by opportunities for direct participation in the services. Many joined reading groups, where they discussed the Bible and theological issues. Early Calvinist women worked diligently for the cause, not only converting their husbands and families but also founding religious schools, nursing the sick, and aiding the poor.

French aristocratic women also promoted the growth of Calvinism. As the Renaissance moved north, many young French women received a humanist education and began to question the traditional Catholic dogma. Margaret of Angouleme, Queen of Navarre (1492-1549) and sister of French King Francis I, often petitioned her brother to go easy on Protestants accused of heresy and kept reformers at her court, where Calvin was sheltered once. Her daughter, Jeanne d'Albret (1528-72), who became queen in 1549, established Calvinism in Navarre, having converted her second husband, the French aristocrat, Antone de Bourbon. Because Calvinism attracted many French dissident nobles who resisted royal power, the Bourbon leader hoped to gain their support and use it to further his family's claim to the French throne. Jeanne, however, was dedicated to Calvinist principles, raising money and enlisting recruits among her contemporaries. Their son, Henry of Navarre, would be regarded as the Huguenot leader before long.

By 1559 there were enough Huguenots in France for seventy churches to send representatives to a national synod in Paris and organize themselves into a single body. However, the three kings of France who reigned from 1559 to 1589 were both sickly and intolerant, a combination which led to nine "wars of religion" in the late sixteenth century. A wise monarch would have either defeated the Huguenot minority, or reached an agreement with it; instead, Francis II, Charles IX and Henry III did neither. The queen mother, Catherine de Medici, tried to bring peace by marrying her daughter Margaret to Henry of Navarre. Instead it caused one of the bloodiest disasters in an age famous for them: the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre. When thousands of Huguenots gathered in Paris to celebrate the wedding, Catherine apparently had a change of heart; she dropped a hint to her son, Charles IX, that this would be a great opportunity to kill the Huguenot leaders, now that they were all in one place. Word of this got to the people of the city, and when church bells rang on the morning of August 24, 1572, the mobs of Paris rose up and slew every Protestant they could find. When the massacre ended, two thousand were dead in Paris, and at least ten thousand in all of France.

This awful episode did not destroy the Protestant party in France, and when the last of Catherine's sons died in 1589, Henry of Navarre had the best claim to the French throne. Catholics recognized Henry's legitimacy, but they did not want a Huguenot for their king. They threatened to continue the war and bring in the Spanish army if he tried to be both king and Protestant, so in 1593 Henry settled the matter by converting. "Paris is worth a Mass," is what he supposedly said before he rode to Paris as King Henry IV. This is not as cynical as it sounds; Henry's foremost concern was bringing peace to the country, and if that meant becoming a "Romanist," so be it. He didn't forget his Huguenot comrades, though, and in 1598 he passed the Edict of Nantes, which promised equality and complete freedom of religion for the Huguenots.

Top of the page

The Revolt of the Netherlands

Before the sixteenth century the area we call the Low Countries--the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg--had never been an independent nation. The territory was a mixture of Latin and Germanic cultural influences, with Germanic ones dominant in the north, Latin ones in the south. Since Charlemagne's time it was part of the Holy Roman Empire; in 1477 the Hapsburg family inherited it. Charles V himself was a Netherlander, and when he retired in 1556, the Low Countries passed to his son Philip II, the new king of Spain.

The people of this land were sturdy and self-reliant, toughened by an enemy less compromising than any human--the North Sea. For centuries they had been pushing back the sea with dikes and reclaiming new land. The Rhine, Scheldt and Meuse rivers cross the country, and canals run between them, making this area the natural port for commercial ships traveling to and from interior Europe. Antwerp in the sixteenth century had up to 2,500 ships anchored there at any given time (most of them from Spain, England, Portugal and Italy), and as many as 500 of these sailed each day.(11) All this commerce encouraged intellectual activity (remember Erasmus), with plenty of high-quality schools, scores of printing presses, and the highest literacy rate in Europe.

It didn't take long before the Dutch discovered Lutheran, Anabaptist, and Calvinist ideas. Of these, Calvinism won the most believers. Its emphasis on hard work, frugality, and self-reliance (the "Protestant work ethic") appealed to a people that had already learned these qualities from fighting the sea, and did more to promote capitalism than any other Christian sect. Its doctrine of the elect gave them moral support under persecution, and its disciplined organization allowed the country to run itself efficiently while the monarch was absent (which was most of the time).

The Dutch liked Charles V, who they regarded as one of their own, and when he passed edicts against heresy, they simply didn't enforce them. Philip II, however, was a different matter. A melancholy ruler who spent long hours reading dispatches and planning projects, he believed that both the monarchy and the Church had absolute authority. Although he had the blond complexion of a northerner, he was thoroughly Spanish in upbringing and temperament, and never understood what made the Dutch tick. The Spanish prized wealth, but wealth to them meant land, gold and silver; they didn't care for banking or trade, and preferred spending their money to investing it. So Philip taxed the commerce that he held in contempt, appointed Spanish officials to both secular and ecclesiastical posts normally held by the Dutch, and brought an army of Spanish troops to the Low Countries.

Philip II detested the Protestantism of the Dutch even more than their commerce; he said he would rather die a hundred deaths than be king of heretics. Remember that he was living in a country that had recently concluded a centuries-long struggle against the Moslem infidel. Putting the Spanish Inquisition to use against the new heresies seemed natural for him, now that it was running out of Jews and Moors to torture at home.

Motivated equally by matters of God and mammon, a group of Dutch nobles presented a petition to the king in 1566, which called for abolishing the Inquisition and setting up a council to discuss the religious question. Leading this group was a brave and charismatic figure named William, Prince of Orange. An educated man who spoke seven languages, he was also called William the Silent because he did not like to express his opinions much. He owned large estates in Germany and the Principality of Orange in southern France (hence his title), making him the richest man in the Netherlands; yet he left his children almost penniless, having sold most of his possessions to raise money for his country.

Philip ignored the petition, and shortly after that riots broke out in the town of Armentieres, which quickly grew into a conflict now sometimes called "the Eighty Years War." Like the American Revolution two hundred years later, this uprising had the same causes: a group of people started thinking of themselves as a nation, and they resented paying taxes to an absentee ruler. In the Dutch case there was also religious persecution, so mobs broke into churches to destroy statues, stained-glass windows and Catholic books. To deal with the rebels, Philip sent ten thousand soldiers, led by Fernando Alvarez de Toledo, the Duke of Alva, a terrible figure who was merciless to his enemies. Alva never doubted that whatever he did was the right thing in the eyes of God, as he rooted out heresy and destroyed the prosperity of the land. He established a Council of Troubles, to deal with rebels the way the Inquisition dealt with heretics, and it killed so many people that survivors called it the Council of Blood.

Against all odds, William of Orange brought together a large portion of the population to oppose the Spaniards. His support was strongest in the north, where there were more Calvinists, but he also won over Catholics who saw this as a fight against tyranny, rather than a war over religion. When it looked like Alva was going to get him, he fled to Germany and raised an army of 25,000 men. In 1579 seven northern provinces united under him, in an agreement called the Union of Utrecht; two years later they declared themselves independent from Spain, as the Dutch Republic.

The next few years were a stalemate, where neither side could make significant gains. Philip's ill-paid and ill-fed army was often in a state of mutiny, so it failed to crush the rebellion, though a Catholic fanatic shot and killed William in 1584. To stop further Spanish advances, the Dutch opened the dikes and let the sea flood the country, ruining much of their farmland in the process. The turning point came when England's Queen Elizabeth I got involved on the Dutch side, and destroyed the Spanish Armada. Spain never recovered from this blow, and by the time of Philip's death (1598), the Dutch took the last Spanish strongholds in the north. Philip's successor was forced to defend what he still had in the southern provinces, and in 1609 he agreed to a truce. This lasted for twelve years; when the Thirty Years War began, Spain and the Netherlands were drawn into it because of the Netherlands' association with the Holy Roman Empire. Finally that war ended in 1648, and the treaty of Westphalia recognized the complete independence of the Dutch Republic from both Spain and the Empire.(12) The seventeenth century would be the Dutch century, as this little nation the size of Maryland astonished the world by making lots of money (the Dutch invented the stock market during this time) and setting up new colonies in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, South Africa and the New World. During this time the Netherlands gave to the rest of the world its spirit of practicality, industry--and tolerance.

This is the End of Chapter 5.


1. The future of the Russian Christians may have also looked cloudy in the fifteenth century, because half the Russian Orthodox Church's members were under the rule of Catholic Poland and Lithuania. Moscow got them back when it expanded westward in the mid-seventeenth century, just in time to keep the Belarusians and Ukrainians from converting to Catholicism.

2. Because of that, there are enough "pieces of the True Cross" floating around today to make several crosses if somebody put them together. The ruler of Martin Luther's home state in Germany, the Elector of Saxony, bought 17,000 relics, and built a combination castle-church in Wittenberg (a town about halfway between modern Berlin and Leipzig) to house them. These included a piece of Moses' burning bush, 33 pieces of the Cross, 204 remains from the children killed by King Herod, straw from the holy manger, and even a vial of milk from the Virgin Mary's breast. It was estimated that they were worth 1,902,202 years and 270 days off purgatory time for those Christians who saw them!

3. One of Tetzel's customers was a knight who bought an indulgence because he confessed he had been thinking of committing a robbery. Right after he bought it, he ran into a nearby forest, waited for Tetzel to pass by, and looted the friar's money boxes. Tetzel didn't think this was funny and brought the knight to trial before the Elector of Saxony, but the Elector acquitted him when the knight showed the indulgence, proving that God had forgiven him already!

4. Here are two of the questions asked: If the pope has so much power to pardon sinners, why doesn't he just empty purgatory, as a great act of Christian charity, instead of charging for every soul he lets out? If the pope is really so rich, why can't he pay for the construction of St. Peter's out of his own pocket, rather than take money from the poor?

5. Later he put this into practice in his own life. When nine nuns escaped from a convent, Luther pledged to find them husbands. Finally one was left, Katherina von Bora, and she kept reminding him of his promise, so Luther married her in 1525. They had six children, and it was a great blessing for them that all lived to grow up, no small accomplishment in an age when many died of childhood illnesses.

6. A German Old Testament took many years, because of demands on Luther's time and because it is a much longer text. It was finally completed in 1534.

7. Because of their unpopularity, the Anabaptists were the only sect in an intolerant era whose creed called for freedom of worship for everyone.

8. Catherine was the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, and the aunt of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

9. Henry got tired of Anne only three years later, accused her of adultery and incest, and sent her to the Tower of London and the chopping block. Their marriage produced another daughter, the future Elizabeth I. Henry's third marriage, to Jane Seymour, finally gave him a male heir, a sickly boy named Edward. After that came three more marriages, which were all childless.

10. The Austrians celebrated their first successful defense of Vienna by inventing the croissant, a pastry that resembles in shape and color the captured golden Turkish crescent that was put on top of St. Stephen's Cathedral as a trophy. So next time you eat a Burger King "Croissandwich," remember that you are commemorating the defeat of Islam when it invaded central Europe!

11. This is approximately the same number of airliners that fly in and out of a major American airport today.

12. The southern provinces remained under Hapsburg rule until 1794, when they were conquered by revolutionary France, and finally achieved independence as the country of Belgium in 1839.

Support this site!

© Copyright 2021 Charles Kimball

Top of the page



A History of Christianity


Other History Papers

Beyond History