Reformation, religious revolution that took place in Western Europe in the 16th cent. It arose from objections to doctrines and practices in the medieval church (see Roman Catholic Church) and ultimately led to the freedom of dissent (see Protestantism).


The preparation for the movement was long. Opponents of orthodox views had asserted themselves over centuries, and in the 14th cent. John Wyclif had led a dissident movement. His ideas were amplified later by John Huss in Bohemia, who was burned (1415) at the stake by order of the Council of Constance. After his death his followers in Bohemia upheld his cause in the long and bitterly fought Hussite Wars. These dwindled into compromise, but Huss's challenge to the orthodox view of the Eucharist and the revolutionary effect of the wars did not disappear.

New forces fanned discontent with the church and the medieval order of society. There had long been outcries against abuses in the church, especially the blatant worldliness of some of the clergy, the emphasis on money, and the oppressiveness, not only intellectual but economic, of members of the church hierarchy. In the 15th cent. the conciliar movement (i.e., the attempt to establish the superiority of the ecumenical council over the pope) heralded the growing internal church dissent. Although the movement failed, the number of those wishing reform nevertheless grew steadily.

The desire for change was increased by the appearance of humanism and the spirit of the Renaissance. Study of the ancient Greek and Hebrew texts concentrated attention on the Bible and evoked a new critical spirit, exemplified in such men as Lorenzo Valla and Johann Reuchlin. The Renaissance also tended to develop an emphasis on the individual. The later humanists were outspoken in their attacks on the abuses in the church; Desiderius Erasmus was, perhaps, the most prominent, but there were many others, including the humanists at Oxford. The intimate connection between the new learning and the Reformation itself is shown in the pursuits of men who were to be prominent in the Reformation in central Europe; Ulrich von Hutten and Philip Melanchthon were outstanding figures in humanism, and Huldreich Zwingli arrived at opposition to the church mainly through the study of Greek and Hebrew. The very founding of the Univ. of Wittenberg, which was to be the center of revolt, was part of the urge to humanism.

The introduction of printing in Western Europe allowed more widespread dissemination of criticism. Printing was to hasten the Reformation, and the Reformation in turn was to spread printing further. In secular matters the opposition between church and state was centuries old, but it had begun to take a new turn with the building of strong nations. In Germany this opposition to the power of the church was coupled in the minds of many princes with opposition to that other supranational body, the Holy Roman Empire, and the princes were to play a decisive part in the ecclesiastical rebellion.

The rise of the cities and of the power of merchants and the middle class generally not only upset the old medieval order of things but created much discontent with the scholastic views on finance and economic affairs that fettered the enterprise of the men in search of wealth. The economy of Europe was expanding and forcing cracks in the more or less rigid walls of the system. Scholars of the 20th cent. have put a great deal of emphasis on the connection between the new modes of religious thought and economic change (i.e., the connection between Protestantism and capitalism) as a major force in the Reformation. There were, however, many influences at work, and the field was well prepared by 1517. Nevertheless, it was with suddenness and surprise that the Reformation began.

The Influence of Martin Luther

Martin Luther, a professor of theology at the Univ. of Wittenberg, had been stirred to action by the campaign for dispensing indulgences being launched under Johann Tetzel in Germany. He protested. On Oct. 31, 1517, he posted on the door of the castle church at Wittenberg his 95 theses, inviting debate on matters of practice and doctrine. Luther's action was not as yet a revolt against the church but a movement for reform within. It was, however, much more than an objection to the money-grabbing and secular policies of the clergy. Luther had already become convinced that in certain matters of doctrine the purity of the ancient church had been perverted by self-seeking popes and clergy.

His disagreement with the church on matters of doctrine soon became apparent. In 1519 Luther in a dispute with Johann Eck openly espoused doctrines that were implicit in his theses, and he denied the authority of the church in religious matters. In 1520 the pope issued a bull of excommunication against Luther, and the Holy Roman emperor, Charles V, thundered against the rebel. Luther defied them, publicly burned the bull of excommunication, and issued vigorous pamphlets assailing the papacy and the doctrine of the sacraments. The breach was thus made in 1521, and the meeting of the Diet of Worms (see Worms, Diet of) not only failed to produce a compromise but forced many doubters into the camp of the rebels. Luther was declared an outlaw, but the threat was empty; under the protection of the powerful Frederick III, elector of Saxony, he was spirited off to the safety of the Wartburg.

Economic, Spiritual, and Political Motives

The revolt was spreading with incredible speed over central and N Germany and almost immediately extended beyond the German borders. All the elements of discontent and rebellion coalesced. The learned, such as Luther himself, Melanchthon, and Martin Bucer, saw the opportunity to express and expand their own views. The nobles were enabled to cast off allegiance to the Holy Roman emperor and to enrich themselves by seizing the immense landed estates of the church. Too much can be—and has been—made out of this economic motive, however, for many of the princes belonged to the intellectual group that had been stirred to critical rejection of church doctrines, and they were perhaps better aware than the common people of the venality and money-mindedness of many of the clergy. Many of the pious, increased in number by a spontaneous religious revival in the late 15th cent., drank the doctrine of a new spirituality with pleasure, for Luther's doctrine of justification (i.e., salvation) by faith alone and not by sacraments, good works, and the mediation of the church placed humans in open and direct communication with God. The new insistence on reading the word of God in the Bible placed a greater responsibility on the individual.

Those who were feeling the first and welcome experience of nationalism were anxious to shake off the hand of Rome. Absolutist rulers, particularly in Scandinavia, welcomed the opportunity to end the interference of the church in state affairs; by creating national churches they were able to escape outside influence. Merchants and capitalists found the air of individual freedom exhilarating. The peasants, chafing under the old restrictions of feudalism, lifted up their heads in hope that the new dispensation would take away their burdens.

Ferment, Division, and Warfare

In Zürich, Switzerland, Huldreich Zwingli had developed his own brand of dissent. In 1529 in the Colloquy of Marburg, Luther and Melanchthon on the one side and Zwingli and Johannes Oecolampadius on the other discussed the nature of the sacrament of the Lord's Supper (the Protestant form of the Catholic Eucharist) but failed to come to an agreement. The fundamental principle that every man could arrive at truth by study of the Bible also led many to more radical conclusions than those that Luther adopted. The preacher known as Carlstadt (from the place of his birth) argued for a more thoroughgoing dismissal of old practices and doctrines in Wittenberg itself and caused Luther to emerge from his retirement to halt the progress of radicalism. The Peasants' War (1524–25) showed plainly the rifts within the ranks of the rebels, and Luther, forced to choose between the revolutionary peasants and their opponents, the princes, chose the princes and orderly governance. The lower classes then in large measure followed more revolutionary social leaders, such as the communistic Thomas Münzer and John of Leiden. After their revolution had been brutally put down and the leaders tortured and executed, many of the revolutionary peasants returned to Roman Catholicism, but many continued to foster more radical sects, such as the Anabaptists.

In general the princes were able to dictate what religion should prevail in their territories, and they opposed vigorously the attempt of the Holy Roman emperor to force them back into the old church. The Knights' War (1522–23), led by Franz von Sickingen against the ecclesiastical princes, ended in failure, but the determination of Charles V to extirpate Lutheranism ultimately ended in even more abject failure. The imperial Diet of Speyer in 1526 found no answer to the division of the empire, and when a new Diet of Speyer in 1529 ordered that the emperor's ruling against the heretics should be enforced, the Lutheran princes issued a defiant protest (from which the term Protestant is derived). The Diet of Augsburg in 1530 was equally fruitless in producing a compromise between Catholic and Lutheran princes, but it did produce the Confession of Augsburg (see creed), which was drafted by Melanchthon and became the official statement of Lutheran faith.

The conflict in the empire led the Protestant princes to form a defensive union against the emperor in the Schmalkaldic League, in which the chief figures were Philip of Hesse and John Frederick I of Saxony. The league was put down in the Schmalkaldic War (1546–47), which did not, however, in the least solve the problem. Emperor Charles V, in an effort to prolong the uneasy peace, proposed to the Protestants that there be an interim agreement against change until a general church council could legislate on the dispute. This was the so-called Augsburg Interim (1548), which did not take effect because it was rejected by the Protestant princes. The confusion that political considerations brought to the religious issue is perhaps best seen in the career of Maurice, duke of Saxony, who fought first on one side, then on the other.

A sort of peace of exhaustion and compromise was reached in the Peace of Augsburg (1555; see Augsburg, Peace of). The settlement was at best uneasy and was not to endure except in principle. The conflict was merged with many other issues in the later Thirty Years War (1618–48).

Calvin and the Spread of Protestantism

The message of the Reformation spread quickly throughout Europe (except Russia). The Scandinavian countries became firmly Protestant under Gustavus I of Sweden and Frederick I of Denmark and Norway; later attempts to win them back to Catholicism failed. Geneva had become in 1536 the headquarters of John Calvin, who is considered by many the greatest theologian of Protestantism. His Institutes of the Christian Religion, published at Basel in 1536, marked a new era in thought. He differed from Luther principally in the doctrine of predestination (the foregone choosing by God of the elect to be saved), in the austerity of the life of the godly, and in the emphasis on theocratic government (see Calvinism). His influence was immediate and enormous. France, which had hardly been touched by Lutheranism, was fired by Calvinist doctrine, and the Protestant minority, called the Huguenots, waged fierce battle against the Catholic majority in the Wars of Religion until toleration was won when the Huguenot leader Henry of Navarre turned Catholic, became King Henry IV, and issued (1598) the Edict of Nantes.

Calvinism superseded Lutheranism in the Netherlands, where the religious revolt was coupled with revulsion at the policies of Charles V and his successor, Philip II of Spain. Through bloody wars independence and Calvinism gained the upper hand in the N Low Countries. Calvinism conquered Scotland, too, through the victory of John Knox in his long duel with Mary Queen of Scots. It spread also to Hungary and Poland and took root in parts of Germany.

It proved quite impossible to reconcile the finely wrought theology of Calvinism with Lutheran doctrines, for Lutheranism rejected predestination and clung to part of the sacramental system (see Lord's Supper). Calvinist thought did greatly influence the course of the Reformation in the British Isles and the present United States. There was also a conflict of Lutheranism and Calvinism with the more radical and emotional groups, and the enthusiasm of preachers who interpreted Scripture in their own way met with a cool reception among the Calvinists.

The divisions within Protestantism were from the beginning sharp, and attempts to reconcile Calvinist, Lutheran, and other doctrine had only partial success. Moreover, in England the Reformation went its own course. It was there much more closely connected with the conflict of church and state than was the Reformation on the Continent. The conflict of King Henry VIII with Rome led to the Act of Supremacy (1534), which firmly rejected papal control and created a national church (see England, Church of). Currents of Calvinistic thought were, however, strong in England. The Reformation was begun with the creation of a state church and the dissolution of the monasteries. It was given Calvinist touches under Edward VI, suffered a complete reversal under Mary I, and reached a sort of balance under Elizabeth I with some persecution of both Catholics and Calvinists. The process was to work itself out slowly later in the English civil war, just as the fierce hatreds between Protestant and Protestant as well as between Catholic and Protestant were to be worked out later on the Continent.

The burning of Servetus was a sample of the internal strife within Protestantism itself. The divisions within the churches of the Reformation also served to forward the Counter Reformation within the Roman Catholic Church, which rewon Poland, Hungary, most of Bohemia, and part of Germany. The end of the Thirty Years War in the Peace of Westphalia (see Westphalia, Peace of) in 1648 brought some stabilization, but the force of the Reformation did not end then. It has continued to exert influence to the present day, with its emphasis on personal responsibility and individual freedom, its refusal to take authority for granted, and its ultimate influence in breaking the hold of the church on life and consequent secularization of life and attitudes.


See T. M. Lindsay, History of the Reformation (2 vol., 1906–7; repr. 1971); E. M. Hulme, The Renaissance, the Protestant Revolution, and the Catholic Reformation in Modern Europe (rev. ed. 1917); P. Smith, The Age of the Reformation (1920, repr. 1962); A. Hyma, The Christian Renaissance (1924); R. H. Murray, The Political Consequences of the Reformation (1926, repr. 1960); R. H. Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1926); M. Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (tr. 1930); C. Hopf, Martin Bucer and the English Reformation (1946); R. H. Bainton, The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century (1952, repr. 1965) and Studies on the Reformation (1963); G. G. Coulton, Art and the Reformation (rev. ed. 1958); H. S. Lucas, The Renaissance and the Reformation (2d ed. 1960); O. Chadwick, The Reformation (1964); D. Weinstein, The Renaissance and the Reformation, 1300–1600 (1965); H. J. Grimm, The Reformation Era, 1500–1650 (rev. ed. 1965); G. R. Elton, Reformation Europe, 1517–1559 (1966); A. G. Dickens, Reformation and Society in 16th-Century Europe (1966), The English Reformation (1967), and The Reformation in Historical Thought (1985); N. Sykes, The Crisis of the Reformation (1967); H. J. Hillerbrand, The World of the Reformation (1973); L. W. Spitz, The Protestant Reformation, 1517–1559 (1984); P. Collinson, The Reformation (2004); D. MacCulloch, The Reformation (2004).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Reformation: Selected full-text books and articles

The Oxford Illustrated History of the Reformation By Peter Marshall Oxford University Press, 2015
The Reformation: A Brief History By Kenneth G. Appold Wiley-Blackwell, 2011
The Reformation World By Andrew Pettegree Routledge, 2000
Reformation Thought: An Introduction By Alister E. McGrath Wiley-Blackwell, 2012 (4th edition)
The European Reformation By Euan Cameron Clarendon Press, 1991
The Early Reformation on the Continent By Owen Chadwick Oxford University Press, 2001
The Protestant Reformation By H. Daniel-Rops; Audrey Butler J. M. Dent & Sons, 1961
Reformation in Britain and Ireland By Felicity Heal Oxford University Press, 2005
Popular Politics and the English Reformation By Ethan H. Shagan Cambridge University Press, 2003
FREE! The Reformation in Germany By Henry C. Vedder Macmillan, 1914
Scotland Re-Formed, 1488-1587 By Jane E. A. Dawson Edinburgh University Press, 2007
Librarian's tip: Chap. 9 "Reformation by the Sword (1555–61)," Chap. 10 "Reformation by the Word (1560–88)"
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