While the Catholic Church kept Western Europe religiously united for 1000 years, Protestant unity broke up almost immediately. There were three major reasons for this. First, Luther’s successful challenge to the Catholic Church set an example for other reformers to follow. Second, the printing press and translations of the Bible from Latin to the vernacular let more people read and interpret scripture on their own. Previously, the Church’s monopoly on Bibles, all written in Latin, severely limited individual interpretations. Finally, the Bible itself is often vague, which also encouraged widely differing interpretations. Consequently, a number of different sects (religious groups) sprang up on the heels of Luther’s Reformation.
Huldreich Zwingli and the Swiss Reformation
The first break in Protestant unity came from the Swiss reformer, Huldreich Zwingli. Although only a year younger than Luther, Zwingli seemed to come from a different world. While Luther’s outlook and background were very medieval, Zwingli received a liberal humanist education and did not have the great sense of guilt and fear of the terrors of hell his German counterpart had. Zwingli’s humanist education influenced him to call for a religion based entirely on the Bible. In 1518 he became a common preacher in Zurich, Switzerland and echoed Luther by speaking out against Bernhardin Samson, a local seller of indulgences. He also denounced other church abuses and thus launched the Swiss Reformation.
Zwingli’s religion was both similar to and different from Luther’s. Like Luther, he stressed a more personal relationship between man and God, claimed faith alone could save one’s soul, and denied the validity of many Catholic beliefs and customs such as purgatory, monasteries, and a celibate (unmarried) clergy. However, Zwingli’s goal from the first was to break completely from the Catholic Church. His plan for doing this was to establish a theocracy (church run state) in Zurich.
By 1525, he had accomplished this, having banished the Catholic mass and introduced services in the vernacular. He vastly simplified the service to sermon and scripture readings. Despite his love of music, Zwingli banned it from the service and even smashed the church organ. He either destroyed or whitewashed religious images, which he saw as idolatrous, served communion in a wooden bowl rather than a silver chalice, and closed down monasteries or turned them into hospitals and schools. Although not persecuted, Catholics had to pay fines for attending mass and eating fish on Fridays (a Catholic practice then to symbolize personal sacrifice by not eating meat) and were excluded from public office. Zwingli also closely supervised the morals of his congregation. All these measures anticipated the later reforms of John Calvin.
By 1528, Zwingli’s reforms had spread across northern Switzerland with the South remaining Catholic. Because of fear of being caught between Catholics in southern Switzerland and Germany to the north Zwingli followed a more aggressive foreign policy and attempts to unite with the Lutherans in common cause against the Catholics. The proposed alliance never occurred because the two camps could not agree on one piece of theology: whether the bread and wine of communion were actually transubstantiated (transformed) into the body and blood of Christ. The Catholic Church had claimed for centuries that transubstantiation did take place, and Luther agreed with them in a modified form. Zwingli said it was only symbolic of Christ’s body and blood. A personal meeting between Luther and Zwingli in 1529 accomplished nothing except hard feelings, and the proposed alliance between the Zwinglians and Lutherans fell through.
Aggressive Zwinglian missionaries in the Catholic districts of Switzerland led to war in 1531, and an army of 8000 Catholics destroyed Zwingli and his force of 1500 men. An uneasy co-existence between Protestants and Catholics followed, and Protestantism survived in Switzerland. Zwinglianism, however, did not survive, being replaced by Calvinism in the Swiss Reformed Church. Still, Zwingli was important for establishing Protestantism in Switzerland and serving as an example for the more successful Calvinists who followed.
Grassroots Protestantism: the Anabaptists
After breaking the Catholic Church’s centuries long monopoly on religion, the issue arose of how far beyond the old set of rules the new beliefs could go. Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin, despite significant religious differences, drew up new sets of rules fairly close to the Catholic Church’s. Among other things, they all believed in obedience to civil authority. However, some men preferred to go much further in rewriting the rules. As a result, some 40 different religious sects sprang up in Western Europe. Although their beliefs varied somewhat from one another, they have been lumped together under the name of Anabaptists from their common practice of baptizing members as adults when they could make the free choice to be Christians. In addition to the Bible as a source of religious truth, they also believed in inner revelation coming directly from God.
The Anabaptist movement was more involved with social discontent than the other Protestant sects were. The 1500’s saw economic difficulties resulting from rising population and inflation. Peasants, town craftsmen, and miners were especially hard hit, and it was they who especially joined the Anabaptist ranks in hope for a better world to come. Most Anabaptists denied the right of civil governments to rule their lives. They refused to hold office, bear arms, or swear oaths, which naturally made the authorities suspicious of them.
Actually, most of the Anabaptists were just trying to live good, peaceful; Christian lives in imitation of Christ himself. They did not openly resist the authorities, but they still aroused suspicion because of their different ways. Some groups held property in common. Others went to extremes in interpreting the Bible literally, preaching from rooftops and even babbling like children as the Bible supposedly told them to. They tended to separate themselves from the rest of society, which they saw as sinful. Despite their peacefulness, the Anabaptists were heavily persecuted. This forced them to migrate, which spread their beliefs from Switzerland down the Rhine to the Netherlands. It was here that the movement turned more violent as it combined frustration from economic hard times with an older tradition of socially revolutionary ideas that were popular among the peasants. The climax of this process took place in the German city of Munster in the early 1530’s.
It was in Munster that radical Anabaptists seized power and combined religious fanaticism with a reign of terror that tarnished the reputation of other Anabaptists for years. All books except the Bible were burned. Communal property and polygamy were enforced. Their leader, John Bockleson, ruled with a lavish court while ensuring his followers that they too would eat from gold plates and silver tables in the near future. So alarming was this spectacle that Lutherans and Catholics combined forces to snuff it out. The determined and disciplined resistance of the Anabaptists led to a drawn out siege (1534-35). The city was finally betrayed and the Anabaptist leaders exterminated. An intense persecution of the Anabaptists followed, killing thousands and driving many more from place to place. Some of them, such as the Mennonites and Amish, found a home in North America and have had a profound influence on our attitude of separating church and state. Others made their way to the Spanish Netherlands where they helped stir up a major revolt against Catholic Spain.
The English Reformation
As discussed above, the strong medieval monarchies of France, England, and Spain assumed more and more control over the Church within their own lands. As a result, these kings had few grievances against the Church and were generally hostile to the Reformation, since it threatened their own control of religious policies. They were also strong enough to repress the spread of Protestantism among the lower classes. However, the Reformation found a home in one of these monarchies, England, thanks to some very peculiar circumstances.
Henry VIII of England had been given the title of “Defender of the Faith” by Pope Clement VII for a work he had written attacking the Lutherans, mainly on political grounds. However, just as at one point he defended the Church for largely political reasons, at a later date, Henry broke with the Church, also for political reasons.
Henry had a problem: he needed a son to succeed him to the throne. Without such a son, England might plunge back into civil war like the Wars of the Roses that Henry’s father had ended in 1485. Henry’s wife, Catherine of Aragon, had borne him a daughter, Mary, but no sons. Since Catherine was getting older, Henry wanted his marriage annulled so he could find a new wife to bear him a son. Unfortunately, Catherine was the aunt of the Hapsburg emperor, Charles V. Naturally he wanted Catherine to remain as Queen of England in order to influence its policies and possibly get control of the throne herself. Since Charles also controlled the pope, the annulment was refused. Meanwhile, Henry had fallen in love with a young woman of the court, Anne Boleyn, giving him more reason to dispose of Catherine.
Only twenty years earlier, Henry would have had to accept this verdict or resort to violent means to solve his problem. Ironically, the Lutherans that Henry despised provided him with an answer to his problem: break with Rome. However, he had to move quickly, because Anne was with child and Henry wanted the baby, hopefully a boy, to be born after the break with Rome in order to be legitimate.
In 1533, Henry started to break England’s ties with the Catholic Church. He was clever in how he accomplished this, doing it in stages, first by cutting off money to Rome, then curtailing the power of the Church courts and assuming more authority over the English clergy. Also, he did this through Parliament so it would seem to be the will of the English people rather than the mere whim of the king. In 1534, he severed the last ties with Rome, and the Church of England replaced the Catholic Church. All this took place in time for the birth of the baby, which turned out to be a girl, Elizabeth.
The average churchgoer in England would have noticed little difference in the dogma and service as a result of this break, since the Church of England was basically the Catholic Church without a pope. Therefore, most people accepted it since there were no drastic changes, they resented Church abuses, and feared a civil war if Henry died without a male heir.
After Henry’s death, his nine-year-old son, Edward VI, the son of Jane Seymour, one of Henry’s later wives, took the throne. During his brief reign, the nobles ruling in his name followed Protestant policies. However, when Edward died in 1553, his older half sister, Mary, came to the throne. She was an ardent Catholic like her mother, Catherine. She even married Philip II of Spain to enforce her Catholic policies. The main effects of Mary’s persecutions were to alienate the English People, make them more firmly Protestant, and earn her the title of Bloody Mary.
When Mary died childless in 1558, her half sister, Elizabeth I, succeeded her. This remarkable woman, one of England’s ablest and most popular monarchs steered an interesting course between Protestantism and Catholicism. The English, or Anglican, Church under Elizabeth grafted moderate Protestant theology on top of Catholic organization and ritual. This compromise satisfied most people, but the more radical English Calvinists wanted more sweeping reforms, such as doing away with bishops and archbishops altogether. These people were known as Puritans, since they wanted to purify the Anglican Church of all Catholic elements. Their numbers and power would continue to grow throughout Elizabeth’s reign, although she was able to control them.
In addition to England’s navy saving European Protestantism from extinction at the hands of the Spanish Armada in 1588, the English Reformation was important for opening the way for the more radical Puritans Calvinists to filter in. Eventually, they would become influential enough to overthrow the pro-Catholic king, Charles I, and establish a parliamentary democracy. This in turn would inspire the spread of democratic ideals to America, Europe, and the rest of the world.