An Interesting Historical Background About Churches

Religious Empires (No. 2)

The Protestant Reformation

We late twentieth century Christians seldom, if ever, give thought to how we came to have the privileges that we enjoy as citizens of the United States, particularly our religious liberties. We know, vaguely, that our forefathers fought a war against England for our independence, and since then the United States has been a "free country.'' Of course, it is not that simple. Our forefathers were determined that they would found a free and independent nation. Those men, and women, were willing to pay the price to have that free and independent nation. They said, in order to win that freedom and independence, "We mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor." And many of them paid with their honor, their fortunes, and with their lives. And they did win that freedom and independence, and they did establish our country. This year, our two-hundredth anniversary under the constitution that they wrote, we acknowledge our debt to those who set us as a nation on the course of our great experiment in democracy.

But the quest for the religious liberty that we hold so dear did not begin in the New World Colonies. It began hundreds of years earlier in Europe. The struggle for religious liberty has followed a long and tortuous journey, and the price has been paid over and over to keep it alive. We will see what men have done, and will do, to deny freedom of conscience to others; and we will see what men have suffered, and will suffer, to be free to follow their conscience.

In our last article we reviewed, in a superficial way, what happened to Christians following the first century. They were institutionalized. Christians became subject to the institutional church which slowly developed into the Roman Catholic Church. That Church became wealthy beyond measure, it became a political nation with the Pope at its head in addition to a religious institution of enormous power and influence in the lives of its people. When the Roman Empire fell, one result was a breakdown in civil authority. The unifying social structure held together by the political empire disintegrated. The Roman Catholic Church organization moved in and helped to fill the need for some organizing and restraining authority among society as its missionaries spread the Catholic faith throughout Europe.

As the centuries passed, the power of the Church waxed and waned. Good men, of whom there were many, did their best to live godly lives and to teach others to do likewise. Others exploited their positions of church power to satisfy personal greed and lust. Some voices that we know about were raised against abuses. Some appear to have rejected the Catholic Church altogether, trying to find their way to spiritual life outside the institutional church. These were usually branded heretics and were silenced where possible. Then the sixteenth century opened with conditions favorable to real reform.

Martin Luther was not responsible for the Protestant Reformation. Luther struck the spark that set the fires of Reformation to burning throughout Europe in the sixteenth century, but many other sparks had been struck in the cause of religious reform by other people in other times and other places without significant effect. Luther appeared on the scene at a time when widely varying and converging forces of developments under no one's control set the stage for fundamental and sweeping changes throughout Europe.

The Renaissance was a period of rebirth in learning, art, science, literature, architecture, and other fields of human interest, including religion and philosophy. The period, roughly from the fourteenth through the sixteenth centuries, followed centuries of what has often been called the "Dark Ages." The Feudal System of social, political, and economic order was breaking down, giving way to the forces of nation-state and capitalist economic developments. Much of the ancient learning of Egypt and Greece was examined and re-examined and much of it was found to have a substantial basis of truth and much of it was contrary to what was believed and taught to be true at the time. Copernicus proved that the earth is not the center of the universe, reopening fields of study in astronomy, physics, and mathematics. The known world doubled in size with explorations by Dias, Columbus, and others. Johan Gutenberg's invention of movable type, leading to the printing press, made literature of all kinds available on a scale never dreamed possible. The "Black Death" plague killed about one third of Europe's population in the fourteenth century, and gunpowder was to revolutionize war.

The authority of the Roman Catholic Church, particularly the Pope's authority, was weakening and was in critical need of reform, if it was to maintain its position and protect its institutional interests throughout Europe. A hundred years before the Reformation began the Church's hierarchy was making serious efforts at reforming itself. Church councils met at Constance (1414) and Basle (1431) passing many reform resolutions. Nothing much came of the resolutions, but they gave the idea of reformation such an airing that it was never forgotten. They multiplied discontent with the way things were. Attacks upon the Church heirarchy increased.

The old ideal of Christendom, a unity of the western world under the leadership of the Roman Pope, was collapsing before the sweeping changes taking place, particularly the rise of national states. As the Pope's effective authority dwindled before the cold reality of new developments in European political, social and economic life, the more arbitrary and unrealistic the Pope's pronouncements became. (This sounds very familiar considering current Church of Christ elders pronouncement that refusal to submit to the elders' leadership decisions constitutes rebellion against God.) The Pope's Bulls thundered, but to achieve anything of importance in France, Spain, Portugal, England, parts of Italy and parts of Germany, he had to have their Kings and Emperor's support, which he often did not have.

Pressure for reform increased to such an extent that the question was when and where it would begin; it was no longer whether reforms would be made. More influential voices were joining the demand for fundamental Church reform.

Erasmus (1466-1536) was not a zealous religious reformer. He was a man deeply offended by all forms of ignorance, superstition, moral decay, abuse of power. He was particularly outraged with men who personally profited from people who were afflicted with these conditions. He was immensely hopeful of the possibility of improving all conditions under which men lived, and few of the men exploiting the conditions escaped the wit of his pen. He believed that all men are capable of improving their lives through learning and that all of them ought to have the opportunity and encouragement to do so. One particular area of his interest was what the Bible teaches and what the institutional Catholic Church taught and required men to practice. He saw pomp, ceremony, rituals, relics, pilgrimages, and indulgences as obstacles that could not be penetrated by simple unlearned men sincerely seeking to worship God in truth. Men were being taught to substitute these kinds of things for a genuine understanding of truth and a change in heart and life. Erasmus' concern was for true religion and those responsible for keeping men under them. He wrote:

"Perhaps thou believest that all thy sins are washed away with a little paper, a sealed parchment, with the gift of a little money, or some wax images, with a little pilgrimage. Thou are utterly deceived. Without ceremonies perhaps thou shalt not be a christian; but they make thee not a christian."

He made clear the difference between what the Bible teaches and what was popularly practiced as religion. And men all over Europe read what Erasmus, and others pressing for reform, wrote.

Martin Luther (1483-1546) was born a peasant, but with his father's help, he attended the University of Erfurt Law School. Though an excellent student, he was always proud of his peasant blood and often used a rough, vulgar, crude, and coarse language. After earning his degree Luther decided to enter the convent of the Austin Friars. He was an earnest friar, practicing the prayers, fasts, and all the rest with zeal, while studying the texts of the New Testament. Gradually, his conscience could find no relief for his mounting sense of guilt. The more he pressed his will to keep the rules, be contrite, list and confess his sins, the more his feeling of guilt weighed. While studying and preaching from the Psalms and studying the texts of Romans, his understanding of Paul's message gradually took shape. His writings and records of his lectures over these months of his life show a slowly developing perception of the application of "justification by faith" to the life of a man tormenting his soul through efforts to merit that justification. It finally came to an understanding that peace of mind does not come from

"the poor little efforts of the weary Christian but upon a share in an eternal peace and righteousness beyond his own. The human heart is too vicious to save itself; forgiveness is a gift, it cannot be won. The just shall live by faith."

It was at this time that St. Peter's was being built in Rome, and the Pope was near bankrupt. To raise money, new issues of indulgences were sold throughout Europe. A "treasury of the merits of the saints" used for the mitigation of confessional penalties, release from purgatory, and for the forgiveness of sins, was without scriptural foundation, and Luther knew it. In 1517 Albert of Hohenzollern, not old enough to be a bishop at all but already holding two bishoprics, was offered the archbishopric of Mainz if he would pay the installation fee. Pope Leo X asked 12,000 ducats. Albert offered 7,000. They agreed on 10,000. Albert borrowed the money and Leo permitted Albert to proclaim an indulgence in his territory for eight years, half to go to Albert and half for the construction of St. Peters. Luther very likely knew about the deal.

Luther had been preaching and teaching justification by faith before Tetzel, the "pardoner" selling indulgences, came to Wittenberg. When he arrived, Luther was ready with his "95 theses," which he posted on the Wittenberg castle door. The "theses" were sort of debate propositions, or issues, nearly all dealing with indulgences and the Pope's authority to grant them. They challenged a Church doctrinal position, not the rampant immoral conditions within the Church. Justification by faith was not mentioned. It was a frontal attack on the authority of the Pope. Copies of the theses quickly spread throughout Germany. Albert reported the Wittenberg theses to the Pope because they were hurting the sale of indulgences. The Pope treated the issue as trivial, ordering the head of the Austin Friars to silence Luther. But the absolute authority of the Pope had been questioned and that was heresy. The Dominicans, long-time defenders of orthodoxy and critics of Austin Friars, set about proving heresy. The issue quickly escalated to a general controversy over papal authority and its limits. The Pope sent Cardinal Cajetan to Augsburg in 1518 for a general church council to examine Luther and the issues he had raised. The Cardinal refused to discuss anything. He ordered Luther to retract what he had said and written or suffer the consequences. That was a mistake. Luther's prince, Elector Frederick of Saxony, didn't understand much about the doctrinal issues but he did not intend for those meddling Italians to remove one of his subjects, a respected teacher in his university, from his territory for a trial of any kind. Frederick placed Luther under his personal protection, and Rome backed off.

Luther continued to study, teach, and write, and he bad a very receptive audience. In 1519 Luther met John Eck in Leipzig for a public discussion of the issues. Eck was masterful at driving Luther to extreme positions, a relatively easy thing to do because of Luther's dogged determination to find the truth, whereever it led him, and to accept it. Leipzig was near Bohemia where John Huss had been convicted of heresy and burned at the stake a hundred years before. Eck charged Luther with holding some "Hussite" positions. Luther admitted that Huss had sometimes been right and that the General Council of Constance had been wrong when it condemned him. Now he had denied the infallibility of the Pope and Church Councils. His original intent had been purification of the Catholic Church, not revolution, but the Leipzig debate took him across a line that he could never re-cross. The issue now became the Bible against Church authorities.

Luther was excommunicated (1520), then the following year was ordered to appear before the Emperor, Charles V, at the Diet of Worms. Given an opportunity to recant, he refused, and the Ban of the Empire was declared against him, a death sentence. But support was strong and growing throughout Germany. He was hidden in the Wartburg Castle for over a year. Writings poured out, including a translation of the Bible into German. The following years saw the practical separation of the northern German states from Roman Catholic control and the gradual development of new church administrative organization. The Augsburg Confession (1530) expressed in its first 21 articles what was to be the basis of the Lutheran faith.

Switzerland has a very long history of political democracy. Most Swiss cities of the sixteenth century were independent administrative units within the Holy Roman Empire. Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531), in Zurich, said that he was teaching some of the things that Luther was teaching before he heard of Luther. True or not, Zwingli tried to learn all he could about Luther's teaching and methods. Swiss cities were governed by a council of leading citizens. The leading citizens, following Zwingli's teaching, repudiated the authority of the Bishop of Constance, legislated reform within the local churches, allowed clerical marriage, removed superstitious images and relics, and ordered a simple observance of the Lord's Supper in the vernacular instead of mass. They also removed the organ from the church.

The reforms made in the observance of the Lord's Supper were to be of fundamental importance in efforts to find agreement between Zwingli and Luther. Both believed that nothing in the church public services should be contrary to God's Word. Luther assumed that whatever the Scriptures did not explicitly forbid should be permissable, while Zwingli believed that the Scriptures must explicity authorize anything done in the service. (Sounds very familiar.) The appearance and conduct of Swiss services were starkly different from that of German services. Both used bread and wine in observing the Lord's Supper, a radical departure from Catholic practices, but Zwingli, unlike Luther, believed that the Lord's Supper had been corrupted by the Catholic doctrine of the eucharist, teaching the notion that Christ's Body is "substantially" or "corporeally" present in or under the elements of bread and wine. Zwingli believed that the observance was a memorial of the Lord's death, a thanksgiving for it; the bread and wine were not vehicles of a present Christ, but signs of Christ's presence by faith.

Increasing conflict between Protestant States and Catholic States emphasized the need for unity among protestants. German Princes headed political states and also had the final responsibility in church matters because of the integrated administration of church and state. Trying to find a basis for agreement between Luther and Zwingli, the Landgrave Philip of Hesse, brought the two, with their close associates, together at Marburg in 1529. Luther took the floor first. He wrote on the table between them, "This is my body," and said, "I am not going to argue whether is can mean is a sign of. I am content with what Christ said." Close associates of both men believed a basis for working together was there, but Luther would not extend the hand of fellowship to Zwingli. The division between the two Protestant leaders and their followers deepened. Protestant leaders from southern Germany, France, and Holland followed Zwingli and the Swiss cities' leadership rather than Wittenberg. Zwingli died in 1531 in a battle between Zurich and the Catholic Cantons.

John Calvin (1509-1564) studied Latin and theology at the University of Paris and law at Orleans. France was not a safe place for him with his Protestant views, so he, and many others, left France. Calvin took a position with the city of Geneva as a teacher of scripture. His view of needed church reform was a systematic reproduction of the organization, faith, and practice of the first century church. After a false start or two, Calvin presented a church reorganization plan to the Geneva city council. With papal authority broken, another organizational form was needed to administer the affairs of the church--they all seem to have started in their thinking with church organization as a given. It was said that without church officials to govern church members and the state to back them by punishing convicted stoners, anarchy would reign and "every man would be left to go to hell in his own way." Under Calvin's plan, church authority was in the hands of pastor-ministers, as a group called the "Venerable Company." "Elders" in local churches were appointed by the pastor-ministers. It was their job to keep watch on the morals of the congregations and report to the pastors. The city councils and magistrates in all the independent Swiss cities were careful to keep the growing authority of the clergy under civil control. Only civil authorities could punish citizens, but the close integration of church and state government often found the same men in both civil and church offices. Morals became more and more important to Calvin and his close associates. He saw danger in the most trivial things, often determined by his personal likes and dislikes. He took a grim view of anything he considered offensive. His forceful and dominant personality and his unbending will to impose his convictions on the church are still with us more than four hundred years later.

The Swiss churches, and those throughout Europe following the Swiss pattern of reform, are known as the Reformed Church. The Lutheran churches were largely concentrated in northern Germany and Scandinavia. France was heavily Catholic and a dangerous place for Protestants. Anyone in Italy or Spain holding strong Protestant convictions left for safer places to live.

In German Saxony the Reformation was first religious, then political. It spread with such ease and so quickly in part because the German Princes' saw that the vast assets of the Roman Catholic Church could be taken. Widespread opinion supported seizure of the property as a public duty. The hierarchy had been bleeding them for centuries. Some states invited and encouraged the Protestants because the rulers wanted to get their hands on the church's wealth. In Sweden and Denmark the Reformation was a political revolution with religious consequences.

In England, the Reformation was unique in cause and consequence. Unique in cause because a powerful King Henry VIII started it. Unique in consequence because the Protestant Church it brought into being was not like any other anywhere. It is particularly important to us because England is our Mother Country. Our forefathers fought Her for our independence.

Henry VIII was married to Catherine of Aragon, widow of his brother Arthur and sister to the King of Spain. His father, Henry VII, had claimed the throne of England by defeating and killing Richard III at Bosworth Field. The Tudor claim to the throne was weak, and far from secure. Henry VIII had no son by Catherine and she was aging. And Henry was infatuated with Anne Boleyn, one of the queen's ladies-in-waiting. Henry wanted to annul his marriage with Catherine and marry Anne. This sort of thing was not usually a problem for the Pope, but in this case it was a problem, a very big one. Catherine could not marry Henry because she had been his brother's wife, but the Pope fixed that with a quick dispensation. Now the Pope was being asked to say that the dispensation allowing Henry and Catherine to marry had been wrong and to annul the marriage. Popes can't make those kinds of mistakes without lots of trouble. And on top of that, Spain was the most powerful nation in Europe and Catherine was the Spanish King's sister and Aunt to Emperor Charles V, whose armies had sacked Rome and captured the Pope in 1527. The Pope was in an impossible position, so he delayed a decision again and again. Henry soon tired of waiting and took matters into his own hands. He dismissed Cardinal Wolsey, the Pope's legate in England and the King's chief minister and appointed Thomas Cranmer archbishop of Canterbury. Cranmer annulled Henry's marriage to Catherine and opened the way for his marriage to Anne Boleyn. Henry then set about to destroy papal authority in England. Parliament passed a series of laws designed for the most part with cutting ties with Rome, stopping the flow of affairs, confiscating Church property. The Act of Supremacy (1535) declared the English King head of the church in England. Henry's authority over the church extended to organization, appointments, doctrine, and nearly everything else short of what a priest alone could do. The raid on ecclesiastical property was massive. The Catholic Church had held about thirty percent of the land in England. Henry gave so much of it to his nobles and gentry, creating such a vested interest, that later efforts to reverse what Henry had done were practically impossible.

Henry VIII was not a Protestant. He was a Catholic. Not a Roman Catholic, an English Catholic. He had defended the Pope against Luther's attacks and had been named "Defender of the Faith" by the Pope, a title retained by English Monarchs. The "Six Articles," passed by Parliament, reaffirmed traditional doctrine. Henry's intent was never to follow the doctrinal reforms of the Lutheran and Reform Protestants on the Continent. The Act of Six Articles also attempted to vindicate Henry's Catholic faith by legislating severe penalties for anyone who denied transubstantiation, private masses, private confession, or the need for clerical celibacy. Henry ended papal authority in England, devastated Catholic Church wealth in England by suppressing monasteries and confiscating other Church assets, placed English translations of the Bible in the churches, and brought the entire church hierarchy under his personal control.

Dedicated Protestants were frustrated under Henry's rule, and many went to the Continent to work, study, and publish. Many of them paid a heavy price for their convictions. William Tyndale, who printed the first English version of the New Testament in 1525, was tried, convicted of "heresy" and burned at the stake at Antwerp in 1536. Robert Barnes, formerly a member of the Austin Friars at Cambridge, was burned at the stake at Smithfield in 1540. Thomas Cromwell, that firm believer in the supremacy of the king over the church hierarchy who paved the way for Henry to divorce Catherine and marry Anne, ended up charged with treason and heresy and was beheaded in 1540. The English Reformation was indeed begun by Henry VIII, but fundamental doctrinal reform fell far short of what serious church-reformers thought was needed.

Anne Boleyn also failed to have a son by Henry. She did have a daughter, Elizabeth, but that was not good enough. Anne was executed in 1536. The same year Henry married Jane Seymour. Jane gave birth to the future Edward VI and died twelve days later. Henry then married Anne of Cleves whom he divorced before marrying Catherine Howard whom he had executed before marrying Catherine Parr who survived him. Henry's Catholic faith seems to have been something less than stable.

Edward VI (1547-1553) came to the English throne as a nine-year-old. Power was soon in the hands of Protector Somerset, a friend of reform. In short order Protestants were free to preach reform doctrines, remove images from and change the appearance of churches, publish and preach against the Latin mass, and begin development of a "confession" or "prayer book" which would standardize services throughout the English Church. Catholics kept a low profile.

Although Catherine did not have a son by Henry, she did have a daughter, Mary. Edward's reign ended in 1553 with his death. Mary was the oldest surviving child of Henry and first in line for the throne. She was half-Spanish and was often treated by Henry as illegitimate. She was not only a Catholic; she was a fanatic. Under Edward's reign Mary had been treated with gross indignity and persecution because of her insistence on keeping her mass. She came to the throne at thirty-seven, already an embittered spinster. Her principal objective was to restore the Catholic faith to England. Not the non-Roman Catholicism of Henry but the restoration of the Pope's and the hierarchy's authority throughout England. High church authorities went to prison and some 2,000 clergy were ejected from their positions because they had married.

The old statutes against heresy were re-established and the first Protestant, John Rogers, was burned at the stake at Smithfield. Over the next three and a half years about three hundred people were burned to death as Protestant heretics. Perhaps the saddest circumstance was that of Thomas Cranmer. Cranmer was not a mill rant reformer; he was a quiet scholar whose greatest weakness, apparently, was a tendency to try to see all sides of an issue before making up his mind. He had been appointed Archbishop of Canterbury by Henry VIII and was in that position for about twenty years. In 1556 two Spanish friars were sent to Oxford to examine Cranmer's views on papal authority. This gentle and moderate man was pushed into admitting more evidence of papal supremacy than he really believed. Pressed harder he submitted to the Catholic Church and to the Pope as its supreme head. He said that he believed all the articles of the Catholic faith and denounced the heresies of Luther and Zwingli. On the day appointed for his execution he stood before the Catholic officials in St. Mary's Church while a priest preached at him. When the priest finished, Cranmer knelt and prayed. Then he stood and faced his accusers and to their dismay revoked all his recantations. He said that he had not believed them, that he had signed them only hoping to save his life. At the stake he held his hands in the rising flames and did not cry out.

Mary's reign lasted for only five years. But those five years insured for all time that England would never be Catholic again. She did not execute unpopular Protestant fanatics, she put to death leading men respected for their high integrity, men who held positions of great responsibility in service to Henry VIII and Edward VI. Before Mary, Englishmen had been anticlerical, not anti-Catholic. England had not been a hotbed of Protestant revolutionaries. But in five short years Mary saw to it that the English Reformation was baptized in the blood of good and honest men. Mary's reign seared the collective mind of Englishmen with a fatal connection between ecclesiastical tyranny and the Roman Pope. The connection remains to this day.

Mary died in 1558, and her half-sister, Elizabeth ascended to the throne. Queen Elizabeth's personal religious convictions are not known. What she believed at any given time seems to have depended on her audience and what would serve the best interest of England at the time. That is not to say that Elizabeth had no personal faith. It is to say that being the Queen of England at that time and under those circumstances made imposing her personal faith upon her subjects impractical and self-defeating. The treasury was impoverished and England could not defend herself. France claimed the English crown through Mary Queen of Scots. A large Spanish army sat across the channel in the Netherlands. Two thirds of her subjects believed themselves to be Catholics of some sort. This was no time to make an issue of her personal faith.

Elizabeth appointed Matthew Parker, a man known to be a friend to reform, Archbishop of Canterbury. Soon Protestant leaders who had fled England under Mary returned and took up their reform work. Elizabeth ruled England for forty-five years. Some say that the English Reformation began under the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

We have seen three great Protestant churches begin: The Lutheran, The Reformed, and The Church of England. Of course, there were other religious movements going on at the same time. The Huguenots, the Anabaptists, the Hutterites, and men of consequence like John Knox and the Reformation in Scotland are of interest to us and deserve some attention. These will come next. -Protrepo.