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Reformation and anti-Reformation in Luther's time

1483 Luther born, Eisleben, Germany.
1505 Luther makes his first entry to the monastery of the Augustinian Eremites in Erfurt.
1511 Luther made Doctor of Sacred Scriptures.
1515-16 Luther lectures at the University of Wittenberg on St Paul's Epistle to the Romans, discovering there the doctrine of justification by faith alone which was to set him at loggerheads with the Catholic Church.
1517 Luther's 95 Theses challenge the papal indulgence preached by Tetzel.
1518 Luther, summoned by Cajetan, refuses to retract his dissident views.
1519 Luther debates with the Catholic disputant Eck at Leipzig.
1520 Luther excommunicated by Leo X.
1521 Luther, outlawed by the Diet of Worms, takes up residence in the Wartburg Castle and begins to translate the Bible into German.
1519 Huldrych Zwingli begins preaching in Zurich, leading to Reformation in Switzerland from the 1520s.
1522 Luther publishes the New Testament in German.
1525 Zwingli suppresses the Catholic Mass in Zurich.
Luther marries the ex-nun Katharina von Bora.
1526 Luther publishes a new German prayer service.
1527 Lutheran Reformation advances in Denmark and Sweden.
1530 The Lutheran Confession of Augsburg signed by German Protestant rulers.
1536 Calvin publishes his Protestant doctrinal compendium, the Institutes of Christian Religion.
1540 Pope Paul III licenses the new Catholic religious order, the Society of Jesus (Jesuits).
1541 Calvin established in the religious leadership of Geneva.
1545 (-1563) The Catholic Church's reforming Council of Trent assembles.
1546 Death of Luther in Eisleben.

Luther's Reformation

by Michael Mullett

Dr Michael Mullett is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Lancaster. The most recent of his several books on religious history are Catholics in Britain and Ireland, 1559-1829 (Macmillan, 1998) and The Catholic Reformation (Routledge, 1999). He is currently preparing a new study of Martin Luther, again for Routledge.

Luther as an Augustinian Friar, from an egraving by Lukas Cranach the Elder, 1520The roots of the Protestant Reformation as a great theological revolution can be seen in Luther's failure in the years following 1506 to achieve his religious purpose in entering the monastery — saving his soul from everlasting and horrifying damnation and achieving eternal bliss through the strict observance of his vows as a monk. The route chosen pre-supposed that people were made acceptable in God's sight through their own "good works". After intense anguish and despair over trying and, he believed, failing, to win God's favour through his own earnest endeavours as a monk, Luther was to find, instead, through patient study of the Scriptures (above all St Paul's Epistle to the Romans), that sinners such as he were exonerated by God in recognition of His Son Christ's sacrifice on Calvary. Their faith was sufficient so that people were "justified" or made righteous in God's eyes by faith alone, without good works. It was a discovery that blasted the traditional Catholic way of winning God's grace by one's own good works aided by the Church, and thereby provoked a division in western Christianity that has endured to this day.

The Peasant's Revolt (Staatsbibliothek, Berlin)In Luther's own time a simmering social discontent in Germany fostered the take-up of his religious message. The great majority of Germans belonged to the peasant class, into which Luther's own father Hans was born. It is difficult to generalise about the actual living conditions of this vast category of people. Some were undoubtedly prospering, and Hans Luther did well as a mining entrepreneur. However, population increase from the second half of the fifteenth century onwards was putting pressure on many peasant farmers, and noble and princely landlords were quick to exploit the peasants' land-hunger by raising rents, dues and taxes. The result, especially from the beginning of the sixteenth century onwards, was the emergence of underground peasant militant organisations, in particular the Bundschuh, which organised regional peasant risings. Then in the mid-1520s the German peasants rose in a great revolt, the Peasants' War.

That rising was part of a social ferment in Luther's Germany that also took in classes such as the imperial knights. These were minor nobles, including the scholar knight Ulrich von Hutten (1488-1523) and his associate, the Luther supporter Franz von Sickingen (1481-1523). The knights, frequently impoverished, full of wide-ranging resentment and angrily anticlerical, mounted a serious rising against the German Catholic Church in 1522. The colourful maverick knight Götz von Berlichingen (1480-1562) even led a force of the rebel peasants in the revolt of 1525. Meanwhile Germany's great towns and cities, such as Nuremberg and Augsburg, were prey to class conflict, especially between working artisans and the upper middle class patrician elements who often controlled city governments. The actual situation in Germany's large number of self-governed cities varied enormously. While in cities such as Strasburg, the initiative in taking up Luther's emergent movement was seized by working people, it has been claimed that in Nuremberg, for example, the ruling patrician group maintained and enhanced their social and political control of the city through securing in the 1520s the adoption of Luther's cause as the city's official faith.

The process of urban Reformation would be recognised by some historians as a class victory of elite merchants and industrialists over the lower orders, and the further entrenchment of the Princes.

Charles V, from a picture from Jan van Orley (Budapest Museum of Fine Arts)Luther's Germany was thus in many ways a divided society. Its political institutions were decentralised and the country was split between princely states that were in effect independent of the country's official leader, the Holy Roman Emperor, who was, for most of Luther's lifetime, Charles V (reigned 1519-1555).

Pope Leo X with his nephew Cardinal Medici, from a painting by Raphael (Pitti Palace, Florence)Such political divisions were intensified by Luther's religious Reformation. Luther initially hoped to maintain the unity of a reformed Catholic Church. He was, however, excommunicated from the Church by Pope Leo X in 1520 and made an outlaw of the Holy Roman Empire at the national assembly known as the Diet, meeting in the Rhineland city of Worms in 1521. His message brought discord and conflict because it did not carry with it the whole of his country, even though key autonomous German states, such as the territory where Luther lived, electoral Saxony, adopted his Reformation. Eventually, fear of a Catholic backlash led by the unswervingly Catholic Charles V, persuaded these states, as well as independent city-states that adopted Luther's religious message, to found a defensive league in 1531. In 1546 Europe's first war of religion consequent on Luther's Protestant Reformation broke out in Germany, lasting until a treaty in 1555 recognised stalemate and division.

The Reformation's legacy

War and division were not the only consequences of the Protestant Reformation that Luther launched. Some writers take the view that Protestant Reformation ideals, in the hands of religious reformers including the Frenchman John Calvin (1509-1564), created a puritan ethic of work and thrift which have helped generate economic progress and, specifically, stimulate capitalism. At the same time, the Protestant Reformation fathered by Luther stimulated a deep religious spirituality in Protestant countries including Germany, the Scandinavian lands, England, Scotland and the Netherlands, and produced great Protestant-inspired literature in the hands of poets such as the Englishman John Milton (1608-1674). Indeed, it may have been the case that Protestantism, which was concerned with texts, and above all with the Bible, placed a new emphasis on the written (and printed) word, while at the same time, it dis-valued the pictorial image. Certainly the Reformation in England and Scotland saw a terrible iconoclastic destruction of a rich artistic legacy or religious iconography.

When the Church became corrupt, men ought to have drawn a distinction, and kept their religion in spite of all. But this is more easily said than done. It is not every people which is calm enough, or dull enough, to tolerate a lasting contradiction between a principle and its outward expression. But history does not record a heavier responsibility than that which rests upon the decaying church. She sets up an absolute truth, and by the most violent means, a doctrine which she has distorted to serve her own aggrandisement. Safe in the sense of her inviolability, she abandoned herself to the most scandalous profligacy, and, in order to maintain herself in this state, she levelled mortal blows against the conscience and the intellect of nations, and drove multitudes of the noblest spirits, whom she had inwardly estranged, into the arms of unbelief and despair.
Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, 1860
God is decreeing to begin some new and great period in his Church, even to the reforming of reformation itself. What does he then but reveal himself to his servants, and as his manner is, first to his Englishmen?
John Milton (1608-74), Areopagitica: a speech for the liberty of unlicensed printing
Rarely is any effort made to state in the broadest outline the plain truth which Catholics have forgotten almost as much as anti-Catholics, to wit, that Catholicism is the culture of Europe, and that by the effect of the reformation Europe was wounded, and not only wounded, but dismembered, and set along that path which has led to its present peril of dissolution... The Catholic Church made Europe. The reformation was, in its final effects, an effort to extinguish that vital principle, and, in so far as it succeeded, a destruction of our unity, and therefore of our common European culture; for a thing is because it is one.
Hilaire Belloc, How the Reformation Happened, 1928

Milton's lifetime saw much of the legacy of conflict that Luther had sown. The Reformation that Calvin adopted from Luther, when confronting an obstinate Catholic tradition, provoked four decades of bitter civil war of religion in France between 1562 and 1598. A European war of religion between the forces of Catholicism and Protestantism filled thirty years of John Milton's lifetime, between 1618 and 1648. Milton himself was an eager participant in the British civil wars and revolution of the 1640s and 1650s, a further crusade to defend the Reformation, leading to the ascendancy of the Protestant religious zealot Oliver Cromwell in the 1650s.

If the Reformation polarised much of Britain and Europe, it was really only with the beginning of the third millennium, in 2000, that German Catholics and Lutherans agreed on an ecumenical statement of appreciation of the Christian theology of Martin Luther. Even so, ecumenical progress is still too slow for many Christians anxious to re-bridge the gulf that Luther helped open and to heal the rifts that, in Ireland especially, perpetuate sectarian violence amidst social, economic and political discords.

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