A religious, social, and political upheaval from 1517 to 1648, now frequently and more accurately called the Protestant Revolt or Protestant Revolution. The need of reform had long been felt when this revolution broke out, but the so-called Reformers, far from suppressing abuses, added religious discord to the prevalent evils.
The causes of the Reformation were
- the weakening of papal authority through the protracted residence at Avignon, France, the dissensions of the Great Schism of the West, and the worldliness of some popes
- the reservation of too many ecclesiastical appointments to the Roman Curia
- the opposition to papal authority on the part of some bishops who were in reality temporal princes rather than spiritual rulers
- the poverty, ignorance, or unfitness for their sacred calling of many of the lower clergy
- the wealth of Rome, of the monasteries in Germany and England, and the dissensions among their inmates
- the ignorance, superstition, and religious indifference prevalent among many Christians
- the tendency in civil governments to encroach upon the rights of the Church
- the social unrest consequent upon the disintegration of the feudal system
- the support given the new movement by the secular power, which was thus enabled to usurp the religious authority of the pope and to confiscate the property of the Church
- the revival of pagan religious thought and practise
- the restlessness and love of material gain attendant upon the geographical discoveries
- the printing press so effectively used by the innovators to calumniate the Church and spread their views
The author of the Protestant Revolution was the Augustinian priest, Martin Luther. The pretext was the abuses connected with indulgence preaching. The occasion, the preaching of indulgences in the neighborhood of Wittenberg by the Dominican Johann Tetzel. On 31 October 1517, Luther challenged his contemporaries to a public debate on 95 theses or propositions which he had nailed to the church door at Wittenberg. They dealt with many points of Catholic doctrine and practise, particularly indulgences. The challenge led to vehement controversy in Germany. As Luther denied some points of Catholic teaching and fomented division in the state, papal and imperial authority intervened, after a few years, to obtain a retractation and to maintain civil concord. Their efforts were unsuccessful, as Luther was supported by the Elector of his native Saxony, and by the ever-increasing number of his adherents. As the right conceded in theory to each individual, to find his own religion in the Bible, led in practise to religious anarchy, Luther placed his new religion under the supreme authority of the state. His followers and all other Reformers gradually received the name Protestants, from the protest issued by the Lutheran princes and cities against the Edict of Speyer (1529). At the Diet of Augsburg in 1555, two denominations, the Catholic and the Lutheran, were officially recognized in Germany. By the Treaty of Westphalia (1648), recognition was extended to the Calvinists. Lutheranism spread into Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, whereas Zwinglianism was introduced in German-speaking Switzerland. At Geneva the desire to free themselves from the authority of the Catholic bishop led the inhabitants to submit to John Calvin. In England the sensual despot, King Henry VIII, imposed a schism on the country; King Edward VI introduced Protestantism; Mary Tudor, in hasty and harsh fashion, restored the Catholic religion; and Queen Elizabeth, through executions and confiscations, definitively established Anglicanism. In Scotland and the Netherlands the nobility were responsible for the success of Calvinism.
The Protestant Reformation was a source of misery, discord, and civil war for the adherents of the Christian faith. It destroyed Christian unity, gave rise to a multitude of sects, and is responsible for the disintegration apparent today in non-Catholic Christian denominations. It introduced neither religious liberty, nor religious reform. It denied the existence of spiritual authority in its lawful possessor, the pope, and placed it in the hands of the civil ruler. It did not bring religious reform, as, according to Luther‘s own admission, immorality and corruption were more prevalent among his followers than in the Church of Rome. In politics it effected a prodigious transfer of property from the Church to the State and an enormous increase in the authority of the civil rulers. Through this strengthening of the secular authofity despotism and tyranny, rather than democracy and liberty, gained from the movement. Genuine reform was introduced by the Catholic Church in the work known as the Counter-Reformation.