1. The Catholic Church in the 1500s
By the early 1500s, the Catholic Church in Europe had become very powerful. The pope, the religious
head of the Catholic Church, and other Church leaders had a great deal of political power.
As the Church grew in power, some people felt that it had become too involved in worldly issues. For
example, the Church collected high taxes from citizens. This helped to make the Church very wealthy. As the
wealth and power of the Church increased, some priests and Church leaders began to use the power of the
Church to gain wealth and influence for themselves. These leaders lived in luxury compared to the way most
ordinary people lived. This upset many of the members of the faith, as did some of the methods these leaders
used to gain their wealth.
One of the most controversial practices was the selling of indulgences. The Church had traditionally
taught that sins would be forgiven if the sinner confessed, asked God for forgiveness, and did good works, such
as giving to the poor. In the early 1500s, however, Church leaders began selling indulgences. This meant that
people gave money to the Church in exchange for the forgiveness of their sins. To some people, this practice of
selling indulgences was like letting people pay their way into heaven.
Even some of the traditional practices and structures of the Church made people feel distant from God.
During this time, most Christian Bibles were written in Latin and Catholic masses were held in Latin. Most
common people could not read or speak Latin. They felt disconnected from the Church. In addition, Church
leaders said that only they, and not ordinary people, could interpret the Bible. This practice meant that many
people felt they did not have a direct relationship with God. Some people began looking for ways to change
some of these practices.
2. Martin Luther
Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses
Martin Luther objected to the corrupt practices of the Church and disagreed with some of the Church’s
teachings. The Catholic Church taught that to get to heaven, people needed to have faith in Jesus Christ and do
good works on earth. Luther argued that faith alone, not good works, was the way for people to achieve
salvation. Luther also believed people should read the Bible for themselves. Because of his beliefs and the
problems in the church, he thought the Church needed to be reformed, or improved.
In 1517, Luther wrote a list of propositions for a debate about some of the practices of the Catholic
Church. According to legend, Luther nailed this list of propositions to the door of a church in Wittenberg,
Germany. Then he circulated this list of ideas among his friends and sent copies to several Church leaders.
Luther called this document the Ninety-Five Theses. Theses are arguments or propositions. Luther’s ideas
spread quickly throughout Germany, partly because of Johannes Gutenberg’s recent invention of the printing
press. With the printing press, information could be printed more quickly and cheaply, and pamphlets
explaining Luther’s ideas spread across Germany.
Reaction to Luther’s Ideas
Church leaders were angry with Luther, and the pope ordered Luther to recant, or take back, what he
had written. Because Luther refused to recant, the pope excommunicated him. This meant that Luther was
officially excluded from the Church. He could not attend worship services, he could not receive communion,
and he could not be forgiven for his sins. Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor and a German king, declared that
Luther was an outlaw, so Luther went into hiding in the castle of a German prince. Luther had hoped to change
the Church but was now banished by both religious and political leaders.
While in hiding, Luther translated the Bible into German so that more people would be able to read it.
He continued writing and trying to change the Church. His ideas gained support throughout Germany, and over
time, people began forming new churches. Because they based their groups on the ideas of Martin Luther,
these new churches became known as Lutheran churches. Many ordinary people followed Luther’s ideas
because they wanted to be closer to God or because they felt that the Catholic Church had become too corrupt.
Some German princes also supported Luther’s ideas. They believed the Catholic Church had become too
powerful and wanted to reclaim some power for themselves.
A New Church
People who joined Luther in protesting against the Church became known as Protestants, and the
movement to change or reform the Church became known as the Protestant Reformation. Although Luther and
other Protestants had initially only wanted to change the Catholic Church, they ended up creating a number of
brand new Protestant churches.
3. Other Reformers
Luther’s ideas spread quickly across Germany. Soon they advanced beyond Germany, and reformers in
other nations began following Luther’s example.
Tyndale and Zwingli
In 1520, an English scholar named William Tyndale wanted to translate the Bible into English so that
everyone in England could read it, just as Luther had translated it into German. Church leaders in England
opposed his action, so Tyndale traveled to Germany. He completed his translation of the New Testament in
1525. Because Catholic leaders opposed this action, he was captured and later executed for violating Church
teachings. However, his translation became the basis for later English translations of the Bible, including the
King James Bible, which is still widely used today.
The Swiss city of Geneva became another important center of the Reformation. Around the same time
that Luther posted the Ninety-Five Theses, a Swiss priest named Ulrich Zwingli preached reform ideas in
Geneva. Like Luther, Zwingli believed that the Catholic Church was becoming too corrupt and that people
should be allowed to interpret the Bible for themselves. Zwingli was killed in 1531 during a war fought between
Catholics and Protestants, but his ideas continued to spread.
Another reformer who believed in many of Luther’s teachings was John Calvin. Calvin was from France,
but he moved to Geneva to join the reformers. Although Calvin agreed with many of Luther’s teachings, he
differed in one important way. Calvin believed that people’s actions and faith do not determine whether or not
they will be saved and go to heaven. Instead, Calvin believed that people are chosen, or predestined, to be
saved. Although he did not believe that you could change your destiny, he did believe that hard work and
devotion to God were signs that an individual was chosen for salvation. Calvin’s teachings gained followers, and
his ideas became known as Calvinism.
Calvinism spread throughout Switzerland and then to France, England, Scotland, and the Netherlands.
Calvinist churches and religious services were very plain. They had no singing. Church buildings had no images
of saints or decorations like those found in Catholic cathedrals of the time. Calvinists also followed strict rules
for behavior, which included no drinking of alcohol, no gambling, and no dancing. Calvin’s ideas later became
the basis of the Presbyterian Church. His ideas also influenced the English Puritans who would later leave
England and settle in North America.
4. Reformation in England
In England, the Reformation began because of political arguments, not religious ones. In the 1520s, King
Henry VIII of England fell in love with Anne Boleyn, but he was married to Catherine of Aragon. Henry wanted to
marry Anne, but before he could he needed to annul, or cancel, his current marriage. The Catholic Church did
not allow divorce, and the pope refused to grant Henry the annulment. Determined, Henry convinced
Parliament to declare that England was independent of the pope’s authority. Parliament passed the Act of
Supremacy, which stated that the king was the head of the new Church of England, also known as the Anglican
Henry VIII used his new role as the head of the Church of England to make the monarchy more
powerful. He closed the monasteries, where monks lived and studied. He also took control of the monks’ land.
Henry then gave some of this land away to his political supporters. Church services were changed slightly, and a
new English prayer book was written. However, the Anglican Church remained more like the Catholic Church
than the Lutheran or Calvinist Churches.
Many people in England were not happy with Henry’s actions and refused to accept the new Anglican
Church. Even one of Henry’s closest advisors, Sir Thomas More, was executed for refusing to accept the Act of
Supremacy. After Henry died, his daughter Mary attempted to return the country to Catholicism. In her attempt
to restore Catholicism, she punished and killed many Protestants. After Mary’s death, her sister, Elizabeth,
became queen and successfully returned England to Protestantism.
5. The Counter-Reformation
In response to the Reformation, leaders of the Catholic Church began a number of reforms. They hoped
to strengthen and improve the Church and to stop the spread of Protestantism. They also wanted to spread the
Catholic faith to new parts of the world. This movement is known as the Catholic Reformation, or the CounterReformation.
Part of the reforms involved founding new orders, or special religious groups, within the Church. One of
these groups was the Society of Jesus, also called the Jesuits. The Jesuits were created to serve the pope and
the Church. They became known for their discipline and for teaching people about Catholic beliefs. They
worked both to spread Catholicism outside of Europe and to stop the spread of Protestantism. The Jesuits
founded colleges throughout Europe and sent missionaries around the world. Today, a number of colleges and
universities in Europe and the United States are still run by Jesuit priests.
An important aspect of the Counter-Reformation was a meeting of Church leaders that became known
as the Council of Trent. The council met three different times from 1545 to 1563 to discuss possible reforms for
the Church. The members of the council also clarified some Church teachings to show how the Catholic Church
was different from the new Protestant churches. The council members said that the Bible was still the source of
God’s teachings, and they reaffirmed the pope’s position as the highest authority of the Church. They also said
that Luther’s belief that faith alone was needed for salvation was wrong. The council members said that good
works and faith were both necessary.
The Council of Trent also established new rules. It limited the sale of indulgences. Later, the pope
completely banned their sale. The council also set up rules for the training of priests and rules about where
priests could live.
6. The Inquisition
In addition to these actions, the Church brought back an institution that had been created in the 1200s,
known as the Inquisition. The Inquisition was a Church court that could try and punish people who were
accused of being heretics, or people who do not follow Church teachings.
The Inquisition was originally created in the 1200s to confront a growing number of religious groups and
sects, such as the Cathars in France, that were viewed as teaching heretical ideas. Initially, excommunication
was the main punishment delivered during the Inquisition. In 1252, Pope Innocent IV approved imprisonment
and the use of torture on those accused of heresy.
During this time, inquisitors—those who presided over the trials—used common tactics to punish
prisoners, but they did not coordinate with one and other. However, during the Reformation, the Inquisition fell
under the control of the papacy and became much more organized and widely used. Many of the trials were led
by Dominicans, Franciscans, or Jesuits. The Inquisition was mostly used to convict and punish Protestants, but
other groups and individuals who went against Church law were also tried. During this time, a famous
inquisition in Spain targeted Catholics whom it suspected of being insincere in their beliefs.
Before the Reformation, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain had been fighting against people
who were not Catholics. Spain had been controlled by Muslims for centuries. After Catholic rulers took control
in 1492, the Spanish rulers forced all Jews and Muslims in Spain to convert to Catholicism. They used the
Inquisition to find anyone who still held onto non-Catholic beliefs. The Spanish Inquisition became known for
being ruthless and unfair in its trials and punishments. Many people were tortured or killed during this time.
7. Effects of the Reformation
While the Counter-Reformation did succeed in correcting some of the corruption in the Catholic Church,
it did not stop the growth of Protestantism in Europe. The Reformation had the strongest effect in northern
Europe. England, parts of Scotland, Northern Germany, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia all became
Protestant. In southern Europe, the Reformation did not grow as strong. Italy, Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, and
much of France remained Catholic. Today, Catholicism still has significant influence in southern Europe and
Protestantism remains stronger in northern Europe. This reflects the long-lasting changes the movement
In addition to effects on individual regions of Europe, the Protestant Reformation ended the domination
of the Catholic Church on the continent as a whole. Not only was Europe now divided between Catholics and
Protestants, but also the Protestants themselves were divided into several different groups. In addition, the
Reformation weakened the power of religion. By challenging the pope’s authority, it made individual rulers
Finally, the Reformation affected ordinary people. The movement taught that individuals could have a
direct relationship with God, and it created Bibles that more people could read on their own. In this way, the
Reformation emphasized the importance of people’s own thoughts and beliefs, not just those of church leaders.
Over time, this attitude would affect how people looked at their society and their governments, not just their