The Long-Term Impact of the Reformation

By Peterson, Daniel; Hamblin, Bill | Deseret News (Salt Lake City), December 7, 2017 | Go to article overview

The Long-Term Impact of the Reformation


Peterson, Daniel, Hamblin, Bill, Deseret News (Salt Lake City)


Editor's note: This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, and this is one in a series of columns to describe the origins, nature and impact of the events and personalities of the Reformation. Previous articles are online at deseretnews.com/faith.

The Reformation transformed Europe and Christianity in both obvious and subtle ways. Christianity had been divided into different denominations long before the Reformation. But the Reformation developed into a revolt, rather than merely a theological dispute.

In medieval Christianity, attempts were made, with varying success, to resolve theological disputes by church councils. Protestantism institutionalized sectarianism; theological disputes now frequently created different denominations rather than theological synthesis or compromise.

Protestant sectarianism has continued to the present day, with denominations arising and morphing throughout the years at a dizzying rate. While the goal of the original Reformers was to purge Christianity of false doctrines and practices, the practical effect was to irreparably splinter Christianity.

Christianity was not alone in being fragmented by the Reformation. The bonds between church and state were likewise strained and ultimately severed. Initially, kings and princes determined which was to be the official religion in their state.

This close connection of church and state during the Reformation contributed to the emergence of the wars of religion, a period of a century and a half during which Europe was rocked by a cycle of ever more violent and intractable wars — often essentially civil wars — between Protestants and Catholics. These included the French Wars of Religion (1562–1598), the Eighty Years’ War in the Low Countries (1568-1648), the Thirty Years’ War in Germany (1618–1648) and the English Civil Wars (1642–1651).

The combination of war, famine and disease and the relentless duration of these conflicts made them the most deadly wars in history up to that point, with millions dying. Some estimates place the death toll of the Thirty Years’ War at 30 percent in Germany — making it the deadliest war in history. The intractability of these wars was a major contributing factor in the eventual separation of church and state in the West.

The divide between Catholic and Protestant was not simply religious and political. The Reformation also created an enduring cultural divide in Europe. At one level, this divide was between north (Protestant) and south (Catholic). This division was also, in part, linguistic. Protestantism was largely successful in Germanic-speaking countries. European countries speaking Romance languages remained Catholic.

But the Reformation also divided west from east. …

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