The Reformation, a historic movement in the 16th century, radically upheaved the religious and cultural landscape of Europe and led to the establishment of Protestantism. While many of us are familiar with the key figures and events of the Reformation (Martin Luther nailing the 95 Thesis to the Castle doors of Wittenberg) there are several lesser-known aspects that often go unnoticed. Here are 10 things regarding this pivotal period in Christian history that you probably didn’t know.
1. The Reformation Was Not a Single Event:
Contrary to popular belief, the Reformation was not a single event but rather a series of movements that spanned several decades. It unfolded gradually and involved multiple reformers across different countries, such as Martin Luther in Germany, John Calvin in Switzerland, and Ulrich Zwingli in Switzerland.
2. The Role of Printing Press:
One of the most significant factors that contributed to the success of the Reformation was the invention of the printing press. The dissemination of written materials, including the Bible translated into the vernacular languages, became more accessible and widespread, allowing the ideas of the reformers to reach a broader audience. Most important (and the part you probably didn’t know), is how this invention increased the literary comprehension of the average person. For many years, it was neither feasible nor profitable to take the time for proper education. Before this time, most people did not know how to read and had little reason to do so. Only the wealthy and the clergy had books. With the dissemination of information that was brought about through the printing press, people had a reason to learn and material at their fingertips.
3. The Radical Reformation:
While Martin Luther’s protest against the Catholic Church is well-known, there was another group within the Reformation called the Radical Reformers. These individuals, including Anabaptists, sought to establish more radical changes, such as the separation of church and state and the practice of adult baptism. It is amazing how much many of us evangelicals owe our tradition to this band of misfits who were persecuted by both those we consider to be our heroes and those who are our villains.
4. The Influence of Humanism:
I know what you are thinking: “humanism” is an evil secular movement that has no regard for the will and purpose of God. Get that thought out of your head. This is not your mom and dad’s humanism. The Renaissance humanist movement, with its focus on the revival of classical learning, had a profound impact on the Reformation. Humanist ideas of individualism, critical thinking, and the study of original texts (ad fontes!) were embraced by many reformers, shaping their approach to Scripture interpretation and theology.
5. The Counter-Reformation:
In response to the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Church launched its own reform movement known as the Counter-Reformation. This effort aimed to address some of the criticisms raised by the reformers and to reassert the authority and unity of the Catholic Church. It is not as if the Roman Catholics did not see the need for change. But they saw this change as something that needed to reform their morals, and not doctrines. The Protestants saw the need to reform both.
6. Religious Wars and the Rise of the Nation-State:
The Reformation era was marked by religious conflicts and wars. The opposing religious factions, Catholics and Protestants, engaged in bloody conflicts across Europe. These wars led to widespread persecution and the suffering of countless individuals who held different religious beliefs. Most significantly, these wars brought about a new ideal of nationalism. States began to look through their leaders in the political realm for guidance, and loosen their grip on their acquiescence to the church.
7. Muslim Envasion of Constantinople on May 29, 1453:
For years, eastern Muslims were pushing their way West, slowly advancing their religious war. This is what the Crusades were all about: holding the Muslims back and retaking the promised land, Israel. As the old Roman empire fell, the entirety of the West was transformed. Constantinople became the capital of the Roman empire for many years. It was a stronghold against the Muslims. However, in 1453, they finally pushed their carts into Constantinople and took modern Turkey. At this point, Constantinople had not only been a stronghold for the political Western cause in the East but a religious one as well. As Constantinople fell, centuries’ long-held preservation of relics and libraries were spread into the West as a safe haven. With all this new religious and philosophical material now available to western Christians, it was hard to hold black back the floodgates of personal enlightenment.
8 The Babylonian Captivity of the Church:
The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, also known as the Avignon Papacy, refers to a period from 1309 to 1377 when the papal seat was moved from Rome to Avignon in France. This relocation of the papacy had significant consequences for the authority and credibility of the Catholic Church, setting the stage for the Reformation.
9. Catherine von Bora, the Wife of Martin Luther
The influence of women cannot be overstated for this time. A great example is the wife of Martin Luther. Catherine (“Katie”) had a profound role in shaping the great reformer. Beyond being a devoted spouse and manager of their household, Catherine actively engaged in theological discussions, provided emotional support, and contributed to Luther’s intellectual development. She cheered him up when he was down. She could knock the smirk right off his face, and pushed him to regain perspective when his emotions were in turmoil (which was often). She also was know for making him laugh. The things they loosely talked about would bring a blush even to the face of modern readers. Her practical skills, including financial management and philanthropic efforts, furthered the Reformation’s cause. Catherine’s influence on Luther’s life and work is just one example of the invaluable role of women during this transformative period, challenging traditional narratives and emphasizing their agency and contributions to the Reformation movement.
Here is a good book about their relationship.
10. The Bubonic Plague and the Erosion of Church Authority:
The outbreak of the Bubonic Plague, also known as the Black Death, in the 14th century had profound consequences for European society, including a significant impact on the authority and influence of the Catholic Church. During the plague, priests and clergy members were expected to provide spiritual guidance and comfort to the afflicted. However, many priests, fearing the contagious nature of the disease, abandoned their pastoral duties and fled from the affected areas. This abandonment caused a loss of trust in the Church’s ability to fulfill its role as caretaker and protector of the community and set the stage for the zeitgeist of reform.
11. The posting of the 95 Theses was not intended to spark the Reformation it did.
Luther posted the theses in Latin. Latin was the academic language of the time, commonly used for scholarly and theological debates. By posting his theses in Latin on the doors of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Luther intended to initiate a scholarly discussion within the academic community, not knowing that his words would resonate far beyond his initial expectations. The doors of the church served as a public bulletin board where various announcements, debates, and even indulgence sales were posted, making it a fitting place for Luther to present his concerns and invite scholarly dialogue. Little did he know that his act would become a catalyst for the Reformation, shaping the course of history and forever transforming the religious landscape of Europe.
Anything I left out?