Worms Cathedral

St. Peter's Cathedral in Worms, Germany (Wormser Dom), dating to the 11th-12th centuries; it was at this location
that the diet of Diet of Worms, an assembly of the Holy Roman Empire, met in 1521 and condemned Martin Luther as a heretic.

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In the sixteenth century the Western church finally came under direct and sustained attack from its internal critics. The church had long dealt with criticism, but in earlier times most of the critics, such as Jan Hus (1372?-1415) or John Wycliffe (1324?-1380), had ended up being silenced, often permanently and in rather unpleasant circumstances (burning, beheading, burial, etc.). There had been repeated efforts to rejuvenate the church and refocus its work--away from power and wealth to spiritual regeneration--dating all the way back to the sixth century and the emergence of monasticism. But most reform movements had either failed or been absorbed by the church.

In the early sixteenth century, however, for a combination of reasons noted in the textbook, the reform movement led by Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk (1483-1546), finally succeeded; and it eventually succeeded outside of the church. New Christian "churches" (Lutheran, Calvinist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, etc.) arose that were independent of papal control. Thus, for the first time there appeared religious disunity in the Western Christian world.

As in the case of Jan Hus, early attempts at church reform had usually ended disastrously for those willing to put their lives on the line and engage the church in discussion. John Wycliffe had raised the controversial issues of the translation of the Holy Bible into the vernacular language (English) so that the people could actually read it. Gradually, Wycliffe's condemnation of the church escalated. He criticized the folly of the local clergy, and then during the Great Schism of the papacy--when there were two popes in existence--Wycliffe even dared to brand the pope, and all the pope's predecessors, as an antichrist. Though he managed to elude his enemies in his last years and though he died peaceably enough as the result of a stroke, the church did not forget about Wycliffe. In 1415, a church council ordered that his body be dug up and burned--the proper punishment for a heretic--and the deed was actually done thirteen years later in 1428.

Both Hus and Wycliffe remained a constant reminder to the church that dissent could happen at any time. The church also faced more pragmatic problems:

  • the constant struggle over who would be the next pope--this could often get very ugly, as when there were three simultaneous claimants to the office
  • the extravagant lifestyles of the pope and higher church officials
  • the extreme poverty of most lower-level parish clergy
  • the immorality of some Churchmen--yes, there were no women
  • the need for money to maintain the papal center in Rome

By the turn of the sixteenth century, something else had appeared in Europe that would be extremely dangerous to the church. Johannes Gutenberg (1400?-1468) invented the first movable-type printing press circa 1440. This allowed for mass production of leaflets, pamphlets, books, fliers. Whereas before it was somewhat easier for the church to control the spread of information, that was no longer the case. Prospective reformers now had a means of getting public support for their attacks on the church.

On 31 October 1517, Martin Luther proposed 95 Theses for a theological disputation in Wittenberg, a city in the Electorate of Saxony. Luther had led a quite remarkable life up to that point, having decided to become a monk after surviving a torrential thunderstorm. His life as a monk was often beset with doubts, and he was advised to study the Bible more closely. There he came across the phrase, "The just shall live by faith" (The first letter of Paul to the Romans). As Luther thought about this, he decided that the church had completely misinterpreted the importance of faith (as opposed to the idea of good works). Faith in God alone is what is important for a believer to attain salvation--Yes, this is pretty complicated theology.

Luther also began to criticize other church practices, and these were listed in the 95 Theses.

  • the infallibility of the pope
  • the selling of indulgences by the church (“as soon as coin in coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs”)
  • the wealth of the church
  • the Bible not accessible to believers in their vernacular languages

Luther used pamphlets to spread his ideas, and support for his ideas slowly grew, especially through Germany where the local princes supported the protest movement since it would give them control of their local churches.

Luther was excommunicated in 1521, but the church was never able to capture him, put him on trial and burn him.

Other reformers followed in his footsteps:

  • Ulrich Zwingli, 1484-1431
  • Jean Chauvin (aka Calvin), 1509-1564
  • Conrad Grebel, 1500-1526

Some recommended online lectures and websites:
  • Reformation (Wikipedia)
  • Wikibooks: World History/Ancient Civilizations (Religious Wars in Europe)
  • Protestantism (part of Boundless World History)
  • History of the Reformation
  • The Reformation by Charles Kimball
  • For extra credit please suggest to your instructor a relevant website for this unit of the course. Send the title of the site, the URL and a brief explanation why you find the information interesting and applicable to the material being studied in this unit.

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