1517: Luther takes the pope to task

Martin Luther, a devout Augustinian friar and university lecturer at Wittenberg in Saxony, north Germany, launches an attack on indulgences, which the church grants to believers to shorten the time they spend in purgatory in the afterlife, before entrance into heaven. He outlines a critique in 95 propositions (theses) for debate on this aspect of the official theology of salvation, prompted by fury at a crude sales campaign for an indulgence financially benefiting the pope and Luther’s own local bishop Albrecht, a great German nobleman.

To Luther’s surprise, his initiative sparks excitement across Germany. Discovering a gift for popular communication – despite having published virtually nothing before – he begins writing a stream of pamphlets and books explaining his ideas in vigorous German. The western church hierarchy views this as a threat to its authority. The two sides talk at cross-purposes: Luther about salvation, the authorities about obedience.

1519: Reformist zeal sweeps the south

In Zürich, hundreds of miles to the south of Wittenberg, a prominent city priest called Huldrych Zwingli begins preaching systematically through books of the Bible. His message that God alone is in charge of salvation also challenges official church teaching on a wide front. He sparks a Reformation in Zürich, then in many parts of Switzerland and south Germany – one that is parallel to Luther’s, but never identical with it, and not at all respectful of Luther’s authority.

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1520: Rome flexes its muscles

By now, Luther and the central church authorities in Rome are on a collision course. He regards himself as merely restating a traditional view on salvation, echoing the writings of ancient Christian authorities, Paul of Tarsus and Augustine of Hippo, while church leaders are furious that he will not obey commands to keep silent.

The pope issues a solemn pronouncement (a ‘bull’) condemning Luther and his disobedience. Luther destroys it in a public demonstration, and writes three classic works setting out an alternative structure of Christian thought, centring on ‘justification by faith’. He claims that God’s gift of faith through grace to an individual believer is the only way to win salvation. There is nothing that the church can add to that, least of all by the granting of indulgences. The church authority of his time is therefore based on a sham, and should be destroyed.

1521: Luther stands firm at Worms

Summoned to meet the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at the imperial Diet (a regular assembly) at Worms, Luther refuses to back down. His followers remember this act of conscience in the words: “Here I stand; I can do no other.” The emperor honourably upholds a promise of safe-conduct to the Diet, so Luther rides away a free man.

Luther has now defied both pope and emperor, but many local rulers in Germany are supporting his movement. His long-term supporter the Elector of Saxony engineers his preservation from further attack via a staged ‘kidnapping’, and in seclusion in the Electoral castle of the Wartburg, Luther begins translating the Bible into German. It will have a great influence on the way German is spoken. A lover of music, Luther also begins writing superb hymns in German, which remain basic to the Lutheran tradition.

1525: Rebels are butchered in their thousands

Widespread unrest, combining traditional local tensions with new excitement at the radical implications of Luther’s message, coalesces into rebellions through much of the Holy Roman Empire: the Farmers’ (or Peasants’) War. The rebels are brutally crushed.

Luther, appalled at the disruptive use of his message, backs harsh official repression. There is widespread popular disillusionment at his stance, and he comes to rely more on the secular governing class to further his version of Reformation. Many who had supported the rebellions take their dissenting thoughts in far more radical directions, rejecting centuries-old Christian consensus, for instance, on the nature of the Christian Trinity, or the close relationship between worldly power and the church. They seek earlier, more biblical answers.

Their opponents, both Catholic and Protestant, condemn and often persecute them, angrily labelling them ‘Anabaptists’ (‘rebaptizers’), since one radical proposition is that only adult believers who have made a conscious choice to become Christians should be baptised, not infants.

1530: Protestants fight among themselves

When the imperial Diet meets at Augsburg, Luther’s political supporters (now nicknamed ‘Protestants’ from their Protest against an imperial ban on Luther’s movement) persuade Charles V to consider two statements of Reformation belief: one from the Lutherans, the other from four imperial cities more in sympathy with Swiss Reformers. Charles accepts neither, but the Lutheran statement stands as the ‘Augsburg Confession’, and the rift between Lutherans and non-Lutheran Protestants (later known as ‘Reformed’ Protestants) becomes permanent.

Reformed Protestants, admirers and successors of Huldrych Zwingli, place much more stress than Luther on the wickedness of idolatry, and destroy images in churches (Luther quickly decides that this is a bad idea). They also have a radically different view of the meaning of the central Christian act of worship: the ‘Eucharist’, or thanksgiving in bread and wine, instituted by Jesus himself in the Last Supper. The Reformed take a symbolic view of eucharistic bread and wine, denying that these become the body and blood of Christ in an objective sense, created by the act of worship. They consequently reject the theology of the eucharist as a sacrifice called the ‘mass’, while Luther upholds much of the mass’s old ceremony.

Luther and Zwingli have already agreed to disagree, meeting at Marburg in 1529: a painful and permanent rift. The two groupings within Protestantism do agree on two things: that the pope is the enemy of God, and that it is important to assert that clergy are not a privileged caste marked out by celibacy, so like laypeople, they should be allowed to marry. But the division is sealed by Lutheran insistence on strictly defining Lutheranism in the ‘Book of Concord’, published in 1580 a symbolic 50 years on from the Augsburg Confession. Dogmatic Lutherans often detest Reformed Protestantism as much as they do Roman Catholicism.

1536: Calvin strikes a chord with reformers

A French religious exile, Jean Calvin, arrives in the city of Geneva, already experiencing a chaotic Reformation, and becomes a prominent church leader there. Gradually, overcoming much opposition (not least from fellow-reformers), he establishes his own Reformation there, given particular energy by large numbers of fellow exiles. Geneva becomes a leading centre in Reformed Protestantism alongside Zürich.

Calvin places a special emphasis on discipline and carefully ordered church government, and the results are much admired across Europe, for many experience disorder and public violence as a constant anxiety. Calvin’s colleagues also encourage a new form of church music very different from that of Lutherans: it is exclusively based on the texts of songs in the Bible, principally the 150 Psalms of David. These are expressed in simple verse with simple tunes for everyone to sing (‘metrical psalmody’). For many, this is a liberation in worshipping God, and metrical psalms become a powerful symbol of group identity among Reformed Protestants, transcending local and cultural boundaries.

1555: Charles V brokers an uneasy peace with Lutherans

After nine years of war in central Europe, Charles V and his Habsburg family are forced to recognise the official existence of Lutheranism, wherever subordinate rulers within the empire wish it to be established for their subjects. Elsewhere, the Habsburgs try to protect and revitalise Catholicism. This compromise settlement, the ‘Peace of Augsburg’, does not involve or mention Reformed Protestantism, though in the next decades some regions of the empire do gain Reformed Protestant rulers. That silence on the Reformed creates instability and uncertainty in the religious politics of central Europe. By 1600, Scandinavia and most of northern Germany are self-consciously Lutheran, but Reformed churches are established as far west as Scotland and England, and as far east as Transylvania and parts of Poland and Lithuania.

1558: England's new queen seeks the middle ground

Elizabeth I succeeds to the English throne, and after agreeing a Settlement of Religion with parliament in 1559, ends decades of religious uncertainty in England by maintaining the settlement throughout her 45-year reign. From her father Henry VIII’s break from papal obedience in 1533, the kingdom has swung between Henry’s ambiguous attitude to the Reformation, his son Edward VI’s energetic promotion of it and his daughter Mary’s uncompromising reintroduction of Roman Catholicism.

Elizabeth is a cautious Protestant, but her clergy and opinion-formers move enthusiastically to continue the Reformed Protestant trajectory of Edward’s church, and there is not much that she can do about this, apart from forbidding any further official enactments of religious change. Crucially nevertheless, she insists on keeping not just bishops, but cathedrals as functioning church institutions.

The cathedral ethos of ordered worship supported by professional choirs is quite different from the Reformed Protestant religious culture spreading through English parishes, and bequeaths a lasting double message to the Church of England’s theology: Catholic or Protestant? The question has never been resolved.

The church is united by a common English bible (reaching a long-definitive form, after nine decades of translations, in the ‘King James’ version of 1611) and by the Book of Common Prayer, descended from Archbishop Thomas Cranmer’s first English liturgies of 1549 and 1552, and taking its final form in 1662. From this English church has grown ‘Anglicanism’, while those English Protestants who could not accept the 1662 settlement have formed churches in ‘Dissent’ or ‘Nonconformity’, later known as ‘Free Churches’.

1563: Bishops launch the Counter-Reformation

A Council of Roman Catholic bishops meeting at Trent in northern Italy closes following a series of sessions that began in 1545. It has achieved much in restoring self-confidence and structure to the old western church after the buffeting of the Reformation. Although some questions (such as the nature of the pope’s authority) are deliberately left unresolved, it has uncompromisingly affirmed doctrine and practice as it had been on the eve of Luther’s rebellion, barring some tidying-up of abuses.

Coinciding with outbursts of energy in renewing the religion of southern Europe, which have failed to find a place in the Protestant Reformation, the council’s enactments fuel a revitalised ‘Counter-Reformation’ identity for the Catholic church, supported by the power of monarchs – particularly in France, Poland and the Holy Roman Empire. Catholicism, because of Portuguese and Spanish overseas expansion and activity in America, Africa and Asia, becomes the first worldwide religion, decisively backed by military power against other religions wherever the Spanish and Portuguese authorities are able to assert themselves.

1607: Protestants colonise North America

The first English colony to survive permanently in North America is established at Jamestown (named after the current king, James VI and I – though the colony was named Virginia, after Virgin Queen Elizabeth). Its establishment heralds English-speaking Protestantism’s expansion from a small island to become a worldwide expression of Christian faith. Virginia is happy to establish an official religion that is a version of the established Church of England. But other colonies, far to the north of Virginia on a seaboard hopefully named ‘New England’, are founded by people deeply dissatisfied with what they see as the popish compromises of the English church.

1618–19: Europe is pitched into a destructive war

A synod (assembly) of the Dutch Reformed Church meets at Dordrecht (Dort) to settle formulations on what the church believes about the means of salvation, after violent theological and political controversy has given victory to those proclaiming a strict scheme of belief in divine predestination. Representatives of other Reformed churches attend, including from England, so this synod is the nearest thing to an international meeting that the always fragmented Reformed churches ever achieve. It sets narrow boundaries on the identity of Reformed Protestantism. Not all Reformed Protestants accept this, and drift in radical, less confined directions – always a tendency in Reformed Protestant belief.

At the same time, a struggle to become king of Bohemia – between a Catholic Habsburg and a Reformed Protestant member of the Wittelsbach dynasty – results in a crushing defeat for Protestantism (at the battle of White Mountain, 1620). Fear of this Habsburg triumph among other powers escalates a regional conflict into a widespread and destructive war in central Europe. After the Thirty Years’ War ends in 1648, Protestant territories across Europe are much reduced, but many Europeans are sickened by religious violence, and explore how reason might be applied to religious belief in less dogmatic ways. Their efforts shape an outlook that is soon to be called ‘The Enlightenment’.


Diarmaid MacCulloch is professor of the history of the church at the University of Oxford. His books include All Things Made New: Writings on the Reformation (Allen Lane, 2016)
This article was first published in the May 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine