World Religions & Cultures
Dr. Marguerite Connor
In the 16th century, alarmed at the corruption of the Catholic Church, a number of priests tried to get Christianity back to its earlier simplicity and biblical basis.   At first, they tried for reform, but they soon believed that only a total split from the Church would do.  These events revolve around four major reform movements: the Lutherans, Anglicans, Anabaptists, and the Reformed Tradition.  Chief names among these protesters (or "Protestants") were Martin Luther, Ulrich (or Huldreich) Zwingli, John Calvin and John Knox. 

There are many, many branches of Protestantism (see chart), with different beliefs in the various streams. Here, I will introduce the four movements and men above to point to the different paths. 

More and more doctrinal differences became apparent and the relatively unified Christianity split into a number of warring factions. Thousands were killed through the 16th and 17th centuries in the name of the Christian religion. 

Today, in the spirit of ecumenism, Catholics and Protestants are "brothers in Christ."  Except in rare cases, the hatred is gone.

Around 1530 a Lutheran cartoon was circulated in Germany which turned the papacy into the "seven-headed beast" of the Book of Revelation.  The papacy's "seven heads" consist of pope, cardinals, bishops, and priests; the sign on the cross reads "for money, a sack full of indulgences"; and a devil is seen emerging from an indulgence chest below.
Left: The Seven-Headed Papal Beast. 
Right: The Seven Headed Martin Luther. 
In response, a German Catholic propagandist showed Luther as Revelation's "beast."  In the Catholic conception Luther's seven heads show him by turn to be a hypocrite, a fanatic, and "Barabbas"--the thief who should have been crucified instead of Jesus. (Lerner 459)
Martin Luther 
  • Anglicanism
  • Ulrich Zwingli 
  • Anabaptist
  • Reformed Churches
  • John Calvin 
  • Breaks with Lutheran beliefs  
  • John Knox
    Relevant Links
     Martin Luther (1483-1546)

    German reformer and founder of the Lutheran church
    Martin Luther.  A portrait by Lucas Carnach.  (Lerner 452)

    Luther is the most famous of all the reformers, for he is credited with initiating the Protestant reformation on October 31, 1517 when he nailed his now famous "95 Theses" objecting to the Catholic indulgence doctrine to the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany.

    Martin Luther was originally a Roman Catholic monk and scholar who soon found himself objecting not only to the abuses in his Church, but more crucially, to some of its doctrines, or teachings. After the publication of his "95 Theses," Luther found himself in more and more trouble with Church authorities so that by 1519 he finally broke with the Church and went on to write and preach and through these activities, continue the work of the Reformation.

    Theological premises 

    Luther finally came up with three main premises, which are also accepted by many other Protestant groups. Christians should believe in:

    Luther also explained the sacrament of the Eucharist in terms of consubstantiation. This is the conviction that Christ is truly present in the celebration of the Eucharist. This doctrine comes from the same Aristotelian philosophical assumptions as the doctrine of transubstantiation, but while believers in transubstantiation believe that during the celebration of the Eucharist the bread and wine literally change to the body and blood of Jesus, believers in consubstantiation believe that the bread and wine remain bread and wine which also includes Christ's presence.

    Lutheranism was formed out of the works of Luther.  His Small Catechism, written in 1529, is a basic statement of faith for all Lutherans. One of Luther's significant contributions to all of Christianity is his emphasis on singing hymns in worship, many of which he authored.

    Many Germans followed Luther and his teachings, but this particular form of Protestantism didn't prove very popular beyond its native Germany, though the majority of Scandanavian Protestants are Lutheran. There are also large numbers of Lutherans wherever Germans settled, especially in America and in some part in Australia.

    Anglicanism takes its historical root in an essentially political battle between the papacy and the English King, Henry VIII (1491-1547 Portrait Lerner 465 ). Henry's need for an heir and a divorce from his wife, Catharine of Aragon, resulted in Henry declaring himself head of the Church of England in1534 in direct defiance of the papacy.

    Henry's concerns were more secular than theological. He was never truly "Protestant", holding on to the essentials of Roman Catholicism. His efforts in church affairs were clearly aimed at strengthening England's position in the power structure of Europe; consequently, the Episcopal Church, which is Anglican, is in many ways much closer in theology, government and practice to the Roman Church than to the Protestant Church with which it is usually associated. But many of the theologians surrounding Henry were sincere in their religious questioning and were followers of the teachings of Luther.

    History and Politics 

    After Henry's death, he was followed on the throne by his young son, King Edward VI (son of the Protestant Jane Seymour), a staunch Protestant influenced by the teachings of Calvin, so the Church of England moved closer to its continental cousins.

    Edward"s early death at the age of 16, after only seven years as king, left the throne to his Catholic sister, Queen Mary I (daughter of Henry and Catharine of Aragon).  Known as "Bloody Mary," during her five-year reign, Mary attempted to bring England back to the Roman Catholic Church.  She martyred many people in the process (hence the nickname), alienated the British and ultimately failed. 

    Mary Tudor  (Lerner 467) 


    Her Protestant sister, Queen Elizabeth I (daughter of the Protestant Anne Boleyn) followed her on the throne. One of England's shrewdest rulers, Elizabeth realized that the "religious question" needed to be settled in England once and for all. No religious zealot herself (an unfortunate tendency shared by her brother and sister), by "An Act of Supremacy" in 1559, Elizabeth prohibited the exercise of any authority by foreign religious powers and made herself "Supreme Governor"  of the English Church, a more "Protestant" choice than her father's title of "Supreme Head," since Protestants see Jesus Christ as the head of the church.

    She accepted the Protestant ceremonial reforms made during the reign of her brother, but she retained church government by bishops and left the definitions of some controversial articles of faith, in particular the meaning of the Eucharist, vague enough to satisfy the scruples of all but the most extreme Catholics and Protestants.

    As a result of these reforms, the Anglican church today embraces diverse elements from the "high church" Anglo-Catholics who only differ from Roman Catholics in rejecting papal supremacy, to the "low church" Anglicans who are as Protestant in their practices as other modern Protestant denominations.

    Ulrich Zwingli (1484 -- 1531)

    Leader of the Reformation in Switzerland (Portrait Bainton 79)

    At first a rather indifferent Catholic priest, by 1516 Zwingli came to conclude that contemporary Catholic theology and observances conflicted with the Bible. In 1522, Zwingli began attacking the authority of the Church in Zurich, and soon all of northern Switzerland was following his leadership. He helped institute reforms that closely followed those of Martin Luther in Germany.

    He differed from Luther on the meaning of the Eucharist. While Luther and his followers believed in the real presence of Christ's body, Zwinglianism believed that Christ was present merely in spirit. Therefore, the sacrament conferred no grace at all and was maintained merely as a memorial service. This difference was enough to prevent Zwinglians and Lutherans from uniting. This forced Zwingli and his followers to fight alone, and in a battle with Catholic forces in 1531 Zwingli was killed.

    His movement later became absorbed by the more radical Protestantism of Calvin, but first came the short-lived movement called Anabaptism.


    This term refers to a collection of the most radical groups within the Protestant Reformation. The term literally means "re-baptizers" a reference applied by their opponents because Anabaptists did not believe in baptizing infants and so insisted on the re-baptism of all believers. They also believed that one had to follow the guidance of one's own "inner light" in choosing church membership. Unfortunately this apolitical nature in a time when religion and politics were tightly intertwined made "official"¨ acceptance impossible.
    Anabaptist Martyrs  (Picture Bainton 102)

    There are four general categories of Anabaptists: the main liners, those who formed communities to live a strict biblical life; the spiritualists, those who appealed to the Holy Spirit more than the Bible; the rationalists, those who read the Bible in the light of reason and thus rejected many traditional beliefs; and the revolutionaries, those who proposed bringing in the Kingdom of God by the sword.

    These groups were ruthlessly persecuted, and except for the Mennonites, who are mainly found in America today, they have few descendants.

    Reformed Tradition or Churches 

    These are the churches that follow the policies or doctrines of the reformers Zwingli or Calvin rather than the Lutheran tradition. One of the chief distinctions of the reformed churches is their doctrine of the Eucharist. It rejects both transubstantiation (Roman Catholic) and consubstantiation (Lutheran)

    The best known of the Reformed Churches are the Presbyterian Church and the Dutch Reformed Church.

    John Calvin (1509 -- 1564)

    Greatest intellectual genius of the Protestant Reformation 

    Trained as a lawyer and theologian in France, Calvin was forced to leave Paris in 1535 because of his indirect support of Martin Luther. After that time, he centered his activity in Geneva where he served as a teacher, pastor, and mayor of the city. His work, The Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536) systematically presents a Protestant response to Roman Catholic doctrine and formed the theological basis for the Reformed tradition, and it is viewed as one of the great classics of Christian history. It was also this book which thrust him into the forefront of Protestantism. 
    Above & Left: Calvin as Seen by His Friends and His Enemies. 
    (Lerner 474)  
    Above : An idealized contemporary portrait of Calvin as a pensive scholar. 
    Left: A Catholic caricature in which Calvin's face is a composite made from fish, a toad, and a chicken drumstick.
    Many foreigners were drawn to Geneva either for refuge or instruction, often returning home to become fierce proponents of Calvinism. John Knox, who went to Geneva three times to study with Calvin, called Calvin's Geneva "the most perfect school of Christ that ever was on earth since the days of the Apostles."

    Calvin's Theology 

    Since according to Calvin, the Bible specified the nature of theology and of human institutions, in The Institutes of the Christian Religion, he tried to explain Bible theology by following the articles of the Apostles' Creed.

    Calvin explained that the entire universe in dependant upon the will of God, who created all things for His own greater glory. Because of the original fall from grace (Adam and Eve's eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge as told in Genesis), all human beings are sinners by nature, bound to an inheritance they cannot escape.


    But out of His great mercy God has predestined (already determined that) some humans will receive eternal salvation in heaven while all other humans will be damned to the torments of hell. Nothing humans can do will alter this fact. Their fate is sealed.

    This does not mean that Christians can do anything they wish. If they are one of the elect, God has also given them a predisposition to live correctly. Upright behavior is a sign, though a sometimes imperfect one, of being one of the elect.

    Public professions of faith and active participation in the sacrament of the Eucharist were also signs of being one of the elect. But Calvin also required a life of piety and morality.

    Breaks with Lutheran beliefs 

    While Calvin admitted a theological debt to Luther, the two men differed on many important points.

    Large followings

    Calvin attracted large numbers of followers. Soon Calvinists became the majority in Scotland, where they were known as Presbyterians; a majority in Holland, where they founded the Dutch Reformed Church; a substantial minority in France, where they were known as Huguenots; and a substantial majority in England, where they were called Puritans.

    John Knox (c. 1505 - 1572)

    Scottish Reformer and founder of Presbyterianism in Scotland

    Ordained a priest in the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland around 1530, Knox had already begun to question the scholastic teachings of his day. When his close friend George Wiseheart, a young man with Protestant leanings, was burned at the stake by a Catholic Cardinal for his part in trying to marry the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots to the young Protestant English Prince Edward (son of Henry VIII), Knox became the enemy of the Roman Catholic Church.

    Mary Queen of Scots (Ferguson 5)
    He remained a preacher, though, in the mold of Calvin, and as such, accused the Catholic clergy of Scotland of being "gluttons, wantons and licentious revelers, but who yet regularly and meekly partook of the sacrament [the Eucharist]."

    He traveled to Geneva three times to study under Calvin who had a high regard for the Scotsman. Knox returned to Scotland, married at age 38, and was widowed a few years afterward.

    His book, The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, had Mary Tudor (the Catholic queen of England) and the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots, in mind. It was Knox who would lead the movement forcing the abdication of the Roman Catholic monarch, Mary, Queen of Scotland, in 1567.

    Relevant Links

    Picture Sources:
    1. Lerner, Robert E. et al.  Western Civilizations: Their History and Their Culture.  12th Ed.  New York: Norton, 1993.
    2. Bainton, Roland H.  The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century.  Boston: The Beacon P, 1952.
    3. Ferguson, Margaret W. et al. eds.  Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe.  Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1986.

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