Protestant Reformation

16th-century movement in Western Christianity

The Protestant Reformation was a series of events that happened in the 16th century in the Catholic Church. Because of corruption allegations in the Catholic Church, some people saw that the way it worked needed to change. People like Erasmus, Huldrych Zwingli, Martin Luther and John Calvin claimed about the corruption and tried to stop it. This led to a split in the church, into Catholics and various Protestant churches. The Protestant reformation triggered the Catholic Counter-Reformation.

Luther's 95 Theses

Martin Luther's posting of The Ninety-Five theses at Wittenberg is seen as the start of the Protestant Reformation. This happened in the year 1517. John Knox brought Luther's ideas to Scotland and founded the Presbyterian Church. As various countries adopted Protestant ideas, wars broke out between Catholic and Protestant factions and countries. Many people died in these wars, which included the Thirty Years' War and the Eighty Years' War. These wars were not just about religion. Since most countries have recognized (state) religion, many of the disputes were political. The Peace of Westphalia in 1648 recognized Protestants when the signers agreed not to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries. This included their chosen religion.

The recent invention of the printing press helped spread awareness of the Church's abuses. A start was made in translating the Bible into various local languages. For example, John Wycliffe and William Tyndale worked on translating it into the English language. Much of Tyndale's translation was used in the King James version of the Bible. Luther translated the Bible into German.

Causes of Reformation


The start of the 16th century, many events led to the Protestant reformation. Clergy abuse caused people to begin criticizing the Catholic Church. The greed and scandalous lives of the clergy had created a split between them and the peasants. Furthermore, the clergy did not respond to the population's needs, often because they did not speak the local language, or live in their own diocese. The papacy lost prestige.

However, the split was more over doctrine than corruption. The main points of criticism were:

  • The Bible was only printed in Latin. It was not printed in the local language. Printing was controlled by the church by a system of censorship. Catholic Mass, the Church's chief religious service, was also in Latin. This meant the people could not check whether what the priest said was actually correct.
  • In 1476 Pope Sixtus IV said that someone could buy an indulgence for someone in purgatory. This meant that by paying money a person could help a family member or friend go to heaven.[1] The abuse of indulgences by selling them was a serious problem. But the church was unable to stop it.[2]
  • Religious posts were often sold to whoever was willing to pay the most money for them, see Simony. This meant many priests did not know enough about Christianity. So they told the people many different things. Some of the things had little to do with what was written in the Bible.

In 1515, the Pope started a new indulgence campaign to raise money for the rebuilding of St. Peter's Basilica, a church in Rome. Preachers came to Germany to sell the indulgences, promising that money could release souls from purgatory. Martin Luther, a German Catholic monk thought this went too far. On October 31, 1517, he sent his 95 theses to the local archbishop in protest. It is said he nailed a copy to the door of a church in Wittenberg. These theses, written in Latin, were points that Luther wanted to debate. Most of them related to the problems caused by the sale of indulgences. Luther said that the idea that money could buy forgiveness prevented people from turning away from sins. He said that it also made people give less money to the poor. Luther did not attack the Pope. He blamed the abuses on others. Nevertheless, his ideas implied that the Pope was corrupt also. Without Luther's permission, the 95 Theses were translated into German and sent to many places. Many people agreed with Luther. The Catholic Church tried to stop these new ideas, but without much result. Luther was considered an enemy of the Pope, and when he refused to change his ideas he was excommunicated (put out of the church). In the beginning, Luther had not planned to separate from the Catholic Church or to create a new religion; he wanted to reform the Catholic Church.[3]



In many countries, Christians put the needed reforms listed by Luther into practice. People began to read the Bible in their own language, and many could see for themselves how the Catholic Church had let the Christian faith become corrupted. Many who stayed in the Catholic Church adopted some of Luther's ideas. The Pope reestablished the Inquisition to combat heresy. The Catholic Church responded to the Protestant reformation with the counter-reformation. Between 1545 and 1563 the Council of Trent met to decide what to do. Some of the worst abuses were eliminated but many of the old teachings were kept. The Inquisition tried to force people to keep those ideas. Finding force not very successful, the Pope created new religious orders like the Jesuits. These new religious orders were told to combat Protestantism by educating the population to Catholicism. The Pope made the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, a list of banned books. It had a big influence in its first centuries and was not ended until the 1960s. The Catholic Church used baroque art to touch the religious feeling of the faithful and bring them to the Catholic religion.[4]

In addition to the conflict in the churches, there were political consequences. Common people were made more open to questioning their leaders. In 1524-1525, millions of peasants rebelled against the nobles in the name of equality of humanity in front of God. Many countries in Europe choose Protestantism as the state religion and so Europe was divided by religion. This brought religious wars such as the French Wars of Religion. For a short time, Protestant and Catholic had managed to live with one another and with the Peace of Augsburg in 1555.[5] This Peace recognized the confessional division of the German states and gave the right to Protestants to practice their religion.

Longer Term Impacts


Catholic countries such as Spain and Italy for a long time didn't allow Protestants to live there, and Protestant countries kept out Catholics. With the American Revolution the idea of freedom of religion began to expand. Protestants are influential in the United States and the English Canada. Quebec was a (formerly French) Catholic province of Canada. After the Seven Years War the British imposed the Quebec Act [6] granting freedom of religion in Quebec, while including in Quebec some of the present day United States, for example Ohio and Michigan. Catholics were granted religious freedom in those areas. Protestant colonists saw this as one of the Intolerable Acts. In later centuries, many Protestant churches were established in the province of Quebec. Many Catholic churches began in Ohio and Michigan. Eventually most Christian countries allowed some religious freedom.

Churches based on Reformation ideas have multiplied into different forms, especially in historically Protestant countries. Even in much of Latin America, which is historically Catholic, Evangelical churches, which follow many of the Protestant ideas have greatly expanded. In the 20th century, some countries still had state churches, but also allowed full freedom of religion. In these countries, conflict between Protestant and Catholic Christians have become less important. They have to work together to confront a more secular society. In 2016 Pope Francis praised Luther in a prayer service commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.[7] In turn, some Protestant churches have embraced some Catholic worship traditions,[8] and others have praised them for their stand on social issues.



  2. Kent, William. "Indulgences." The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. 7. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 9 July 2019  This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  4. Laville, Christian & Simard, Marc. 2010. Histoire de la civilization Occidentale. Ville Saint-Laurent, Erpi, 3e edition, p. 175 to 191.
  5. "Les Réformes protestantes" (in French). Département de philosophie, UQÀM. 2010. Archived from the original on 15 July 2012. Retrieved 11 February 2014.
  6. "Quebec Act | Great Britain [1774] | Britannica".
  7. "Pope in Sweden heaps praise on Luther, but no breakthrough on Communion".
  8. "Why Evangelical megachurches are embracing (Some) Catholic traditions". 2 May 2019.