The exact number of Protestant denominations is not definitively known, some estimates go as high as over thirty thousand. This is likely impossibly large, and furthermore the vast majority of Protestants worldwide belong to a handful of major groups. These are, in no particular order: Anglicans, Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, Evangelicals, and Pentecostals. There are many other minor ones, and often a group’s current size does not do justice to its historical importance. Such as what are now called Congregationalists, these people are known to history as the Puritans, and played an important role in both English and American history, yet they represent less than one percent of Protestants today. Also, there are looser terms used for more general groupings of Protestantism, such as Calvinism, named for the French theologian John Calvin, or the more amusingly named Zwingllism, named for the Swiss theologian Huldrych Zwingli. This article will not discuss all individual Protestant denominations, theologians and their role in history, but rather will give a general overview of the Reformation, certain major groups, and the role of Protestantism in history, the Reformation being a central event of European Renaissance history, and lead to the creation of the modern idea of a nation state.
Traditionally, the history of the Reformation has been told as beginning with Martin Luther. While Luther is certainly one of the major figures in the history of Protestantism, the Reformation began more gradually. Other groups such as the Lollards in England, the Cathars and Waldensians in France, as well as the Czech Hussites predated Luther but made similar calls for reform of the religious authority. The so-called Humanists within the Church also had similar ideas. In addition, conflicts over the appointment of bishops, who often became important figures in their episcopal seats, between kings and popes was also an important theme in Medieval history which contributed to the Reformation. Certain historians have gone so far as to posit that the Protestant Reformation also created modern Roman Catholicism, as the Church made greater attempts at creating and enforcing uniform doctrines and practices, as well as entrenching greater Papal authority. Certain Roman Catholic cardinals at the time, known as Conclavists, favored a church governance style similar to what is found in Calvinist Presbyterianism. These attempts at Church reform from within failed, and thus was the importance of Luther, who advocated creating a new Church entirely and died successful. Luther’s influence on the Reformation should neither be understated nor overstated, but he alone was not the Reformation, and nor was Henry VIII.
Major centers of the Reformation included Germany, Holland, England, Scotland, and Switzerland. Papal authority had been centralizing at the cost of local dhurch and civil autonomy during the Middle Ages, and many people, primarily in Northern Europe, felt cut off from the Mediterranean-faced Church in Rome. The Black Death had stifled what trade connections existed on the North-South axis. Trade within Northern Europe and eastward towards the Baltic and Russia in the Late Middle Ages was facilitated by the German Haseatic League, and a new Northern European wealth and confidence emerged. The Printing Revolution in Europe was the Renaissance equivalent of the internet, creating a flurry of ideas and increasing access to information dramatically. The cloth making trade in modern Belgium, the Netherlands, and Britain was also flourishing at this time, along with wool, lace, and for the first time, beer produced for economic export. Meanwhile, Italy was also entering a golden age of art and culture, mainly centered around Florence, Venice, and Rome, where Pope Julius II, known as “The Fearsome”, initiated plans rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica, a project which would outlast him and prove exorbitantly expensive. The Pope’s prestige had been restored after the Avignon Papacy, a time when the Pontiff was subject to the King of France. Julius, a.k.a Giuliano delle Rovere, was the nephew of Pope Sixtus IV. In Latin, “nephew” is nepos, hence the word “nepotism”. The construction extended past the death of Julius, and to raise money the infamous Medici Pope, Leo X, issued a large number of what were called indulgences. Depending on the cost of the indulgence, these would buy years off purgatory, essentially heaven’s waiting room. This infuriated Luther, who was a monk at the time. Luther also contended that the Bible ought to be available in local languages. At the time, the Bible was only available in Latin, Luther and many others, such as the earlier John Wycliffe, made translations of the Bible in a language comprehensible by everyday people for the first time.
The complex theological aspects of the Protestant Reformation sometimes conceal its importance in everyday life. Luther and other reformers felt that the Papacy had begun to ignore what the Bible actually said, versus the will of individual popes and cardinals. One of Luther’s most important ideas, and one essential to Protestantism, is that of sola fide, sola scriptura, solely faith, solely scripture. To the Reformers, Faith and Scripture were the only things necessary for eternal salvation, not sacraments such as confession and the eucharist. This idea however is inherently fractious, as different people disagreed at what the Bible actually meant. In general terms, this is what lead to the numerous Protestant denominations we see today. Issues included appointment of bishops, which begged the further question whether bishops were necessary at all, adult and infant baptism, and many more. While these may seem arcane, they concern issues of personal autonomy, translating the Bible also meant a discussion among the educated about the meaning of language, and it is important to remember bishops held political sway at the time, influencing local leaders and often acted as a lord themselves. Certain people in Scotland, most notably John Knox, believed bishops were not ordained by scripture. They advocated the members of an individual parish church elect their own church leaders, called a presbytery. This is the origin of Presbyterianism, and was an inherently democratic movement at the time. Luther noticed that while there were no popes and bishops in the Bible, but there were certainly kings, who were just so long as they were godly. This is the idea that got Luther influential allies, kept him from the fury of the Inquisition, and makes the Reformation get very interesting.
One of the most interesting and important aspects of the Reformation was the establishment of the state of Prussia, the first officially Protestant, Lutheran, state. Hitherto, the region was not really a “state” in the modern sense of the term. It was the territory owned and ruled by the Teutonic Knights, a monastic order of German knights who had conquered a large portion of modern day Poland, Germany, and the Baltic states during the Middle Ages. The last leader of the Teutonic Knights, Hochmeister Albrecht von Brandenburg, agreed with Luther and converted. He took the title Duke of Prussia, as he was no longer a monk he could father a dynasty, the House of Hohenzollern. The Duchy of Prussia would expand and eventually unify the German states and become modern Germany, the Hohenzollerns would rule the German Empire until the end of World War One. Switzerland, too, became an important centre of the Reformation, with many important thinkers there, especially in Geneva. Theologians who lived and wrote in Switzerland included the Presbyterian Knox, the Calvinist John Calvin, and the Zwingllian Huldrych Zwingli. Also however were painters such as Hans Holbein the Younger, and the city welcomed large numbers of Protestant refugees from France and other Catholic countries.
The Protestant Reformation also profoundly effected countries which remained predominantly Catholic. In 1492, the last Muslim state on the Iberian peninsula, Granada, was conquered and the Christian kingdoms of Castile and Aragon were united, becoming the Kingdom of Spain, at the time the most powerful nation in Europe and soon to become the most powerful empire on Earth. These events occurred the same year Columbus reached North America, and some historians have drawn a connection between the brutal campaigns of conquest by Cortez and Pizarro to the Crusading zeal felt by Spain with the end of the Reconquista. However, with the Muslims defeated this zeal was directed towards Protestantism and the natives of the Americas. Through strategic marriages the Spanish royal family was united with the Austrian Hapsburgs and Charles V, King of Spain became the most powerful man in Europe, ruling a vast dominion in modern Spain, Austria, Italy, Switzerland, and the Low Countries. Charles was imbued with vociferous anti-Reformation spirit, and believed that Spain was God’s tool for saving the soul of Christendom. Phillip II of Spain would wed Mary I of England, and they attempted to undo Mary’s father Henry VII’s conversion of England, re-Catholicizing England with sword and fire.
Let us however pause for a moment, as history is not only the deeds of monarchs and princes. Luther’s criticism of the Church and Papacy triggered a movement questioning all hierarchies and hitherto “received wisdom”. Coupled with heavy taxes a string of peasant rebellions swept modern Germany from 1524-25 and were brutally suppressed, it has been estimated that over 100,000 peasants were killed as a result of the rebellions. There was a movement that has come to be known as the Radical Reformation, which questioned the authority of all governments and kings. These included Thomas Müntzer, a Reforming opponent of Luther who supported the Peasant’s Revolt, and was executed as a result. Ironically, despite the violent beginnings of the Radical Reformation, it is the origin of the modern Mennonites and Amish, influenced by the Reformation-era Dutch theologian Menno Simons and seventeenth century Swiss thinker Jakob Amman, the founders the Mennonites and the Amish. The Radical Reformers known as the Swiss Brethren, of which Menno Simons was member, influenced their beliefs about the virtues of simplicity, and rather than taking a violent tone, they adopted a strong pacifism. Remember, the current Amish lifestyle was the norm across North America and Europe for a long period of time. These groups didn’t begin to adopt ideas of anti-Industrialization until the 1850s and 60s when the changes brought the Industrial Revolution were in full swing.
Different European monarchs were quick to pick sides in the Reformation. Within a single lifetime, Europe had gone from near-complete religious uniformity with a limited degree of local variety, to widespread religious violence and was replete with numerous religious schisms. France today is seen as a mostly post-religious but semi-Catholic country, but had a significant Protestant minority until the Wars of Religion during the 1500’s. The conflict left most of the French Protestants, called Huguenots, dead, refugees, or in genteel exile if wealthy. In several weeks of apocalyptic violence in 1572 between 5,000 and 30,000 French Protestants were murdered by Catholic mobs with the approval of the King. Between 1615 and 1648 Europe was gripped by the Thirty Years War (yes, it was 32 years long) wherein Europe was split mostly between Protestant and Catholic countries, it was the deadliest conflict in Europe until that point, and was the reason modern Germany remained a small patchwork of duchies and principalities until the late 19th century. The 1648 Peace of Westphalia contained an agreement that states would respect each other’s different religions and local governments, during the Middle Ages a more loosely defined idea of “Christendom” held a stronger idea in people’s minds. Furthermore, state interests had trumped religion, Cardinal Richelieu, who was essentially the first “Prime Minister”, dominated French political life, surprisingly however France fought on the side of the Protestant countries, such as Sweden and England in the Thirty Years War, against Spain, Austria, and the Catholic German states, known as the Catholic League. After the Peace of Westphalia, religion played a less defining role in international politics. Internal politics were a different affair however, especially in the British Isles. Nevertheless, the Protestant Reformation, through the Thirty Years War and the Peace of Westphalia, played a central role in the creation of the contemporary idea of the nation state.
During this time the Bible was never translated into Gaelic. As such, most of the Gaelic-speaking inhabitants of Ireland remained Catholic, given most could not understand, let alone read, using English. Elizabeth I began to enforce Protestant religious uniformity and English law to a greater degree than Henry VIII had done, and thus many of the Gaelic-speaking and Catholic Hiberno-Norman Lords, most notably Hugh O’Neill who was appointed leader of the Irish army by the Pope and was supported by King Philip of Spain, the husband of Elizabeth’s dead sister Mary, revolted against Elizabeth, and the Queen reacted in kind. The rebels were crushed militarily, but Elizabeth sought a permanent solution to Irish issues, the country was to be settled by Protestants. People mainly from the Scottish-English borders were brought to live in Ireland; the many forests were cleared to be turned into farmland for the new inhabitants. This was known as the Plantation, and the bulk to the new settlers were brought to the north-eastern province of Ulster, these Protestant settlers are the ancestors of most of the Protestants of Northern Ireland today. The popes would continue to directly support Irish rebellions with money and arms; once in 1672 these were hand delivered by a cardinal. Conflict between Anglicans, Puritans, Catholics, and Presbyterians would be a continuing trend in British and Irish history, even into the early 1990’s. Since Hugh O’Neill’s Rebellion, Catholicism with Irishness and Protestantism with Britishness became uncomfortably dually wed, and until very recently have remained as such.
A question debated by historians is whether Martin Luther was the first Modern man or the last Medieval man. Regardless of the answer, he and the Reformation represent an important change in the intellectual consciousness of the world. Proponents of Luther’s modernity posit that his ideas about scripture contributed to ideas about evidence-based reasoning, one should believe something because there is proof for it, rather than from tradition, a belief which held sway during the Middle Ages. Historians who claim his “Medieval” mind point to Luther’s strong religious beliefs and his anti-semitism, particularly his work Von den Jüden und iren Lügen, “On the Jews and Their Lies”, a vehemently anti-semitic work, which advocated Jews ought to be killed, their property taken, as well as their synagogues and religious books burned. This work however was written and published quite late in Luther’s life, was written after many failed conversion attempts, and is not considered doctrine by the Lutheran Church. In addition, Luther learned Hebrew for his translation of the Bible to ensure accuracy. Some historians have claimed that Luther’s anti-semitic writing was an antecedent of World War Two era anti-semitism. Yet, it is worthy to note that Spanish and Italian fascism were supported by the Catholic Church, and Hitler himself was raised Catholic, Fascism was seen by the mid twentieth century Catholic Church as an effective ally against the Atheistic Communists and the Materialistic Capitalists. Furthermore, one must remember that “modern” is not synonymous with “good” or “beneficial”, Luther’s anti-semitism differed from Medieval and most Renaissance-era anti-semitism, a rebuttal posited by advocates that Luther was the first modern man. In Luther’s work he contends that Jews are inherently corrupt, rather than able to convert and be redeemed; he believed most Jews who converted were lying anyway; this is why it is a “happy” thing Shylock is forced to convert at the end of The Merchant of Venice, he’s Christian now so he’s okay. Luther was different from his contemporaries in this way. People are always complicated beings.
Regardless of one’s religious beliefs one should understand how and why the Protestant Reformation had a profound impact on human identity, government, and intellectual spirit. The Reformation was one trend of many during what we call the Renaissance, a period which saw a blossoming intellectual, economic, and cultural environment in Europe. Luther was a contemporary or near contemporary of Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Bosch, Shakespeare, and Machiavelli. Furthermore, the events of the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries in Europe were heavily tinged with religion, and the conflict in Northern Ireland from the 1960s to the 1990s was the reverberation of these earlier conflicts. In addition, the intellectual and cultural environment of Europe was given an electric shock from the Reformation, paving the way for the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions. Even Catholicism was irrevocably changed by Luther, as for the first time the Church needed to articulate its beliefs, and began to publish official printed catechisms and adopt more rigorous education standards for its priests and clergy. In the 1960’s the Catholic Church held the Second Vatican Council, the Concilium Oecumenicum Vaticanum Secundum, which allowed for Bibles not written in Latin, something Luther had advocated in 1517.