What was the Reformation and When did the Reformation take place?

The Protestant Reformation took place in 1517 AD. Until then, there had been only one Christian church and religion in Western Europe and that was Roman Catholicism. Eastern Orthodoxy had split from Rome in 1054 AD but remained in the Eastern part of the Empire, called Byzantium. England, Scotland, Germany, and Switzerland were all Catholic until the Reformation.

The division of Western Christendom into separate religions can be attributed to several factors. While most people have this romantic image of Martin Luther posting his ninety-five theses on the Cathedral door as the equivalent of him burning his draft card and thus starting the Reformation, history has a different story to tell.

Internal corruption took hold among some of the clergy, including an assortment of parish priests, local bishops, cardinals, and even a few popes. Lust, greed, anger, sloth, and the other deadly sins were no stranger to many Renaissance clergy, who saw holy orders as stepping stones to an ecclesiastical career. In some cases, if Junior did not have what it took to be a military commander, then Pops would send him to a monastery (with a big donation) in the hopes that Dad’s little boy would make good someday and become abbot or bishop.

The reason for the high percentage of corrupt and ignorant (poorly trained and educated) clergy at the time Martin Luther joined the Augustinian monks in 1505 (after making a deal with Saint Ann, the mother of the Virgin Mary that if he survived a lightning storm, he would enter monastic life) was due to the Black Death. Bubonic Plague (1347–1351) ravaged Europe and killed one-third of the population but also killed two-thirds of the clergy. The clergy were hit harder because they had to go and anoint the sick without protective masks or gloves; they rapidly succumbed to the disease.

Desperate for clergy to administer sacraments, especially extreme unction (anointing of the sick), and to offer Mass, candidates for holy orders were not carefully examined or trained. Preaching suffered the most, and erroneous or distorted doctrines were espoused from pulpits as a result. What the ignorant clergy did not do with their superstition and inaccuracy, the immoral and corrupt clergy did with their bad example and scandal. The standards had been lowered so much to compensate for the huge vocation shortage coming from the Black Death, that men who should never have been ordained were ordained anyway, and some even moved up the ecclesiastical ladder and became members of the hierarchy.

After seventy years of the popes living in luxurious Avignon, France (referred to as the Babylonian Captivity by some historians), the pope moved back to Rome only to have two other pretenders claim to be pope, one in Avignon and one in Pisa.

Simultaneous to this phenomenon was the emergence of a middle class. The nobility and aristocracy were used to dealing with ignorant peasants, but the Middle Ages produced a middle level between the poor and the rich. The merchant class was partially educated and had some money. The medieval manorial system did not have a place for an economic offspring called the middle class.

Finally, the political scene in Western Europe was becoming a tinderbox. Since 800 AD, when Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne Holy Roman Emperor, there had been an emperor in Europe to whom the kings and queens, princes, barons, lords, dukes, and counts owed allegiance. When the French lost the imperial throne to the Germans, the nation of France emerged as a strong power, like England, Spain, and Portugal. There was no unified Italy yet, and Germany was still a confederation of barons and princes. One faith (Catholicism), one secular ruler (Holy Roman Emperor), and one official language (Latin) kept diversified peoples and lands together.

By the end of the fifteenth century, with the discovery of the New World in 1492, gold was being sent back to Spain and Portugal from their colonies, which diminished the power of the German emperors. The German princes, barons, and other nobility wanted a separate German nation rather than a Germany which was the puppet of the empire.

When Martin Luther visited Rome from his native Germany, he was scandalized at the ill-educated and corrupt clergy he encountered along the way. His greatest shame was in finding unscrupulous clergy selling indulgences, something forbidden by the church and considered the sin of simony. His posting of ninety five theses (propositions) on the door of the cathedral was standard practice as the door had the dual function of being the town bulletin board. He sought a debate on the theology of indulgences. Things got out of hand, tempers flared, and name calling and ad hominem attacks emerged from both sides. The princes saw an opportunity arise.

Politically, militarily, and economically, they were unable to dissolve or weaken the hold the emperor had over them, but if the ties to the empire were severed by other means, that would be to their advantage. The pope was head of the Catholic Church, and he crowned the emperor who had authority over the nobility under him. If the ties to the Catholic Church were severed, then the authority of the Catholic emperor would cease to extend to non-Catholic nobility.

Meanwhile, thanks to the printing press, the middle class read the theological tracts of Martin Luther. Unfortunately, the Catholic response was not as quick or accessible. Luther saw corrupt clergy and saw no need for a hierarchy, least of all a pope. So the ultimate authority was not the Magisterium or the Papacy but the Bible (sola scriptura). Since favors were being bought and sold, he saw no need for good works, hence the axiom sola fide, or “faith alone.” No need for confession or confessors. No need for a Magisterium or a hierarchy. The Protestant faith had been born. The princes used the situation to revolt against imperial authority which was tied to the papacy and Catholicism.

When the peasants saw the lower clergy rebel against the pope and bishops, and saw the princes and barons rebel against the emperor, they thought that democracy was in the air and they sought their independence as well. The nobility were of no mind to dissolve the institution of servants, and even Martin Luther enthusiastically sided with the German nobles to crush the Peasants’ War (1524–1525).

Once Germany became Protestant (Lutheran), England followed in 1533 when King Henry VIII declared himself supreme head of the church in England after the pope refused his request for an annulment to his Spanish queen, Catherine of Aragon, who was unable to give him a male heir, and the Church of England (or the Anglican Church) was born. Switzerland would be next in 1541 with John Calvin in Geneva founding the Calvinist or Reformed Church that would also give birth to the Presbyterian Church in Scotland with John Knox in 1560. John Smyth broke from Anglicanism to form the Baptist Church in 1609, and John Wesley would also split from the Anglican Church to form the Methodist Church in 1739.