American Reformation

The word reform (from the Latin reformAre) simply means to change something by making it better. In referring to The Reformation proper (or Protestant Reformation), we are describing the ecclesiastical protest of the Roman Catholic Church during the sixteenth century. The enormity of this religious event and its far-reaching implications for the world is second only to the inauguration of the Christian church in the first century. Europe was ripe for such a change, for the Reformation occurred in the heart of the Renaissance, a cultural reformation of art, science, literature, political and social thought, and technology. The feudal system was slowly waning while the middle class was waxing as a social and political force. It was in this spirit of cultural change that Johann Gutenberg invented a process of printing with movable type, which was essential to the success of the Reformation. For example, because of Gutenberg’s invention, Desiderius Erasmus was able to publish his Greek New Testament in 1516, which marked a decisive return to the Scriptures. Many figures are associated with the Reformation, but three pillars emerge as foundational. Martin Luther was a Catholic monk who, while striving for his own salvation, also became caught up in a struggle against the abuses in the Roman Catholic Church. He specifically attacked the selling of indulgences, a moneymaking scheme concocted by the papacy whereby an individual could, in effect, win pardon for a temporal sin by buying off the Church. Luther outlined his criticisms in his Ninety-five Theses, which he posted on the door of the castle at Wittenberg, Germany, in October 31, 1517. The theses were translated, printed, and widely distributed and are considered to mark the beginning of the Protestant Reformation (or, more specifically, the Lutheran Reformation). Ulrich Zwingli, a Catholic priest, launched the Reformation in Switzerland. He was a close associate of Erasmus and was influenced by the Greek New Testament.

Zwingli began his religious reform not by composing theses but by preaching expository sermons in his parish in Zurich. The result for both priest and parish was a return to a more primitive Christianity and a rejection of papal doctrines that lacked scriptural support. Zwingli’s reform quickly spread to neighboring areas around Zurich and, by the early 1500s the Swiss Reformation was well under way. John Calvin was born in Picardy, France, in 1509, and like Luther and Zwingli was trained for the priesthood. At some time during his studies in France, Calvin underwent a conversion, probably under the influence of French reformers or his professors. He then began to study Scripture and the theology of the Reformation. In 1536, he published the first edition of his most widely acclaimed work, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, which was the first systematization of reformed theology. Later, Calvin became the religious leader in Geneva and therefore continued Zwingli’s Swiss Reformation. More than Zwingli or Luther, Calvin has had the greatest impact on the Protestant churches in Europe and America. From centers in Germany and Switzerland, the ideals and theology of the Reformation spread to Scotland, England, the Netherlands, and France. Scotland became Presbyterian, and England become Anglican.

The Puritans, who struggled for church reform in England and hoped to work their religion into all aspects of life, transported Protestantism to America in the 1600s. The Protestant Reformation was a reaction to the perceived excesses of the Catholic Church in sixteenth-century Europe. Two central figures, Martin Luther and John Calvin, are portrayed in this engraving. Protestantism was brought to America by the Puritans. (Bibliotheque de l’Histoire du Protestantisme, Paris, France/Bridgeman Art Library) Although the principles of the reformation are widely debated, a few basic protests of the reformers are significant: The first protest was aimed at the abuse of papal authority. The reformers rejected not only the selling of indulgences and a merit-based system of penance but also the elevation of the pope as the head of the church. For the reformers, Jesus Christ was the only authority over the church. The reformers championed a return to the authority of Scripture (sola Scriptura) as the only rule for the life and work of the church. They advocated that the Bible be translated into common languages so that all could engage in its study. The reformers also protested the exclusivity of the priesthood and argued that all of God’s people have a divine calling to a particular vocation. This idea worked itself out in the laity’s involvement in church ministry. Finally, salvation of the individual was seen as a gift from God that could come only by God’s grace through faith (sola fide). The idea that people could be saved by their own works or merits was rejected.

Gonzalez, Justo. From the Protestant Reformation to the Twentieth Century. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1988.
Hillerbrand, Hans. The Protestant Reformation. New York: HarperCollins, 1968.
Schaff, Philip. History of the Christian Church. Vol. 7,The German Reformation: The Beginning of the Protestant Reformation up to the Diet of Augsburg 15171530.
Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996.
Schaff, Philip. History of the Christian Church. Vol. 8,The Swiss Reformation: The Protestant Reformation in German, Italian, and French Switzerland Up to the Close of the Sixteenth Century 15191605. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996.

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