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The Shaping of Modern Europe Index

Introduction to the Reformation
The Church before the Reformation I : Indulgences, Relics and Pilgrimages
The Church before the Reformation II : The Wealth and Political Power of the Church
The Church before the Reformation III : The Clergy
The Church before the Reformation IV : Inside a Church
The Lutheran Revolt
Conflict between Luther and the Church
The Church reacts to Luther
Huldreick Zwingli
John Calvin
The English Reformation

17th Century Europe

Europe in the 1600s
17th Century Europe

History Chapters Main Index



Martin Luther

Portrait of Martin Luther


Desiderius Erasmus

Portrait of Desiderius Erasmus by Hans Holbein (1523)




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The Catholic and the Lutheran Church

Elector John succeeded Frederick the Wise in 1525 and was much more in agreement with Lutheran ideas. He set up, in Saxony, an organisation called "The Visitation". This consisted of two government officials and two theologians, and it replaced the Bishops. This team made sure that Churches in Saxony were the same, checked up on the Clergy and were responsible for the well-being of the people.

This was a direct confrontation with the power of the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church, but the political nature of the times meant the Pope had no way of stopping it from happening. It gave the rulers of all the other states which accepted the Lutheran Reformation a chance to gain control of the Church and all it's power quickly and easily. the German rulers, therefore, had a self-interest in spreading Luther's ideas.


The Peasants' War

This was not really a Peasant's uprising but was led by smallholders and craftsmen from the towns. It lasted from June 1524 to May 1525. It was a rebellion against the treatment of the poor by the rich and was, therefore, aimed at the nobility who taxed people too heavily and treated them unfairly. Monasteries were attacked and some monks killed. On the whole, the "peasants" were not that violent but the aristocracy was. A professional army - the Swabian League - under General Truchsess, made sure that the revolt was violently suppressed. As many as 100,000 "peasants" were killed, usually after the battles had ended.


Luther's reaction

Luther was becoming concerned that events, such as the Peasant's War and the setting up of a Church controlled by the State of Saxony, were distracting people from the real task of salvation in Heaven.

Other people too, such as Erasmus, were increasingly worried that all the "good" in the Catholic Church was being thrown out with the "bad".


The Effects of Lutheranism

One of the greatest changes that had taken place as a result of Luther and his writings was that many German rulers accepted the Reformation - East Prussia, Hesse, Brandenburg, Schlerwig, Brunswick, Nurenberg, Ulm, Straaburg, Augsburg and Magdeburg, all left the Roman Catholic Church between 1525 and 1531.

One of the consequences of this change from a Catholic to a Lutheran Church  was that Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, now felt that his orders which had been issued at the Diet of Worms in 1521, were being ignored. Not only was there conflict between the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor, but a conflict also existed between the Holy Roman Emperor and the German princes.

By 1529 the radical changes that had developed in "Germany" were beginning to calm down. This did not mean the end of the Reformation, however, because Zurich and Zwingli became the focus of new upheavals.



In 1529 Charles V summoned a Diet at Speyer. Here a few of the "Lutheran" princes protested about Charles' attempts to make them conform to Catholicism. These Protestant princes, by 1539, had got together to defend themselves religiously and politically from the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor. They called themselves the Schmalkaldic League.


Political intrigues

Protestants found support from several areas outside Germany, otherwise the Reformation may well have been stamped out. Charles V, as King of Spain, was at war with France in 1527. The Pope, Clement VIII, was an ally of France. The French wanted a decided and strong "Germany" in order to maintain a "second front" against Charles V. The Protestants were also protected because of the threat from the Ottoman Turks on Charles V's Horganion lands.


Comparing Four Reformers


Desiderius Erasmus

Martin Luther

Huldreick Zwingli

John Calvin


Desiderius Erasmus

Martin Luther

Huldreick Zwingli

John Calvin






Place of birth





Place of study

Sorbonne, Paris

Wittenberg University, Saxony

Vienna and Basle

Orleans and Bourges


Augustinian friar

Augustinian friar

People's priest

Lawyer and later theology student

Lived in

Basle, Switzerland

Wittenberg, Germany

Zurich, Switzerland

Basle, Switzerland + Geneva

Important publications

"Guide to Practical Piety and Programme for Moral Reform"

"The Handbook of the Christian Soldier" (1504)

New Testament (Latin translation)

 "Ninety Five Theses" (1517)

Translated the Bible into German


"Institutes of the Christian Religion" (1536)


Pointed out errors in the "official" Vulgate translation of the bible by St. Jerome.

Pointed out that even St. Jerome had stated that the Bible should be available to lay people to study.

Laid stress on the teachings of St. Paul the Apostle.

Believed in predestination (that some people are chosen to be "saved" and others are not), but people could be saved by absolute belief in God and in Christ's sacrifice on the cross.

People should accept God into themselves.

Individual relationship with God (through the written word of God - the Bible)

Taught that the bread and wine of the mass were symbols of Christ's body and blood.

Believed in the Bible as a precise authority (much more vigorously than Luther).

Denounced the use of music, pictures and sculptures in church.

Taught that the bread and wine of the mass were the real body and blood of Christ.

Believed in predestination and salvation through complete surrender to God (as did Luther).

Believed that there could only be one type of religion in any State.

Believed that the Church should govern society in daily life under a strict code of discipline and morality.

Disagreed with the pomp and ceremony of the established Church and denounced the use of any form of ornaments.


He was the first person to translate the New Testament without the censure of the Catholic church.

He never considered separating from the Catholic church.

He criticized the abuses of the Catholic church e.g. indulgences.

He demanded direct and uncensored access to the scriptures.

His teachings were against the established church because he disagreed with the pomp and ceremony.

He also disagreed with the need of the clergy as middle-men to God.

Said he was influenced by Erasmus rather than by Luther. When he met Luther, he argued with him over the meaning of Christ's words about the bread and wine during the Last Supper.

He was killed in battle against Swiss Catholics in 1531.

His ideas went further than those of Luther since he saw his religion dictating to society and believed in the formation of courts working on religious principles.

He saw the Church as a community with Christ at the head and all other members of the community as equals - the Presbyterian church.


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