In a nutshell: the Reformation

This religious revolution tore apart the Christian world in the 16th century and created a new faith.

In a nutshell: the Reformation © Wikimedia Commons

What was it?


The Reformation was a schism in the Catholic Church during the 16th century, which had major political, economic and religious implications and led to the creation of Protestant Christianity.

Why did it begin?

Although there had been previous calls for change, the Reformation started in 1517 when German religious thinker Martin Luther wrote the Ninety-Five Theses. He argued for extensive reform of the Catholic Church, then the dominant religious authority in Western Europe. One of the issues that concerned Luther the most was the sale of indulgences, whereby the church allowed people to escape punishment for their sins, but for a fee.

According to legend, Luther nailed his Theses to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg. Whether this is true or not, there is no question about the impact of Luther’s arguments. His words tapped into existing frustrations about the state of the church, especially its wealth and power and the widespread corruption of some of its priests. These criticisms were not new and nor was Luther the first to seek to reform the church. Yet, the recent invention of a printing press meant that his ideas spread quickly across Europe, where they reached receptive audiences.

One of his most important publications was a 1534 German translation of the Bible, which allowed far more people to read it for the first time. The Bible had mostly been written in Latin and could only be read by the priests, but now people could form their own opinions of their faith.

Martin Luther's Disputatio pro declaratione virtutis indulgentiarum, better known as the Ninety-Five Theses, first published in 1517 (public domain)
Martin Luther’s Disputatio pro declaratione virtutis indulgentiarum, better known as the Ninety-Five Theses, first published in 1517 (public domain)

How did Luther’s arguments lead to a split in the church?

While Luther hoped to reform the church, he did not plan to divide it. His vision of Christianity, however, went against the basic tenets of the Church and the authority of the Pope, so set him on a collision course with the church hierarchy. In 1521, Luther was excommunicated by Pope Leo X. Europe’s growing Protestant movement (so-called because they were religious protestors) began to develop outside the Catholic sphere and Protestantism branched out into a number of different strands, including the Lutherans and Calvinists, named after another reformer, John Calvin.

What happened in Britain?

Although some churchmen and thinkers supported reform in England, King Henry VIII initially remained a staunch supporter of the Catholic church. That all changed when he decided he wanted to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and marry Anne Boleyn. The Pope refused to allow the divorce, and so Henry and his advisors split the church away from Rome, a process completed in 1534.

Henry became head of the Church of England and, with no need to defer to the Pope, married Anne Boleyn. Taking advantage of his new authority, Henry ordered the disbanding of England’s monasteries in order that he could seize their wealth for himself. Despite these changes, Henry continued to be fairly traditional in his religious beliefs, and the Church of England did not take on a fully Protestant character until the reigns of his more reform-minded children, Edward VI and Elizabeth I.

As for Scotland, it had its own reformation led by John Knox, a follower of John Calvin. The Scottish reformers followed England’s lead and broke their church away from Rome in 1560.

The Council of Trent, setting off the Counter-Reformation © iStock
The Council of Trent, setting off the Counter-Reformation © iStock

How did the Catholic Church respond to the Reformation?

It fought back with the Counter-Reformation, a movement beginning in the reign of Pope Paul III (1534-49). The Counter-Reformation sought both to challenge the reformers and to improve some aspects of the church that originally inspired the Reformation. In general, the Counter-Reformation won out in southern Europe, while the Reformation remained stronger in the north of the continent.

What was the legacy of the Reformation?


The Reformation was without doubt one of the most important events in European and world history, leading to the formation of all the branches of Protestantism that exist today. It also resulted in a great deal of violence as Protestant and Catholic powers battled for supremacy in Europe for centuries afterwards. In some places, these wounds have still not completely healed.

This article was first published in the July 2015 issue of History Revealed.