5 Steps to a 5: AP European History 2024 - Bartolini-Salimbeni B., Petersen W., Arata K. 2023

STEP 4 Review the Knowledge You Need to Score High
12 The Reformation and the Fracturing of Christianity

The Reformation and the Fracturing of Christianity


Summary: In the sixteenth century, the preoccupation of the Roman Church with worldly matters and its failure to meet the needs of an increasingly literate population led to challenges to its doctrine and authority. This chapter describes the rise of Protestant churches in northern Europe and the Catholic Church’s response in the Counter-Reformation.


Key Terms:

Image Papal States A kingdom in central Italy, ruled directly by the pope until Italian unification (1861—1870).

Image Indulgences Certificates of absolution sold by the church forgiving people of their sins, sometimes even before they committed them, in return for a monetary contribution. The selling of indulgences was one of the practices that Martin Luther objected to.

Image Millenarianism The belief that one is living in the last days of the world and that the judgment day is at hand (originally tied to the belief that the end would come in the year AD 1000).

Image Salvation by Faith Alone One of the central tenets of Martin Luther’s theology: the belief that salvation is a gift from God given to all who possess true faith.

Image Scripture Alone (Sola Scriptura) One of the central tenets of Martin Luther’s theology: the belief that scripture is the only guide to knowledge of God. (In contrast, the Catholic Church holds that there are two guides to knowledge of God: scripture and Church tradition.)

Image Priesthood of All Believers One of the central tenets of Martin Luther’s theology: the belief that all who have true faith are “priests,” that is, they are competent to read and understand scripture.

Image The Ninety-Five Theses The 95 propositions or challenges to official Church theology posted by Martin Luther on the door of Wittenberg castle church in the autumn of 1517.

Image Peace of Augsburg The treaty, signed in 1555, that established the principle of “whoever rules, his religion” and signaled to Rome that the German princes would not go to war with each other over religion.

Image Peasantry The class of rural, agricultural laborers in traditional European society.

Image Huguenots The sixteenth- and seventeenth-century term for French Protestants.

Image Edict of Nantes A royal edict that established the principle of religious toleration in France, proclaimed in 1598 and revoked in 1685.

Image Anglican Church The state church of England, established by Henry VIII in the early sixteenth century when he decided to break from the Church in Rome.

Image Dissenters The collective name for Protestant groups who refused to join the Anglican Church in England.

Image Predestination The Calvinist belief that asserts that God has predetermined which people will be saved and which will be damned.

Image The elect The name given in Calvinist theology to the group of people who have been predestined by God for salvation.

Image Anabaptists A sect of radical Protestant reformers in Europe in the sixteenth century who considered true Protestant faith to require social reform.

Image Council of Trent Counter-Reformation council of the Catholic Church that began its deliberations in 1545. Despite its reformist aims, it continued to insist that the Catholic Church was the final arbiter in all matters of faith.

Image Inquisition An institution within the Catholic Church, created in 1478 to enforce the conversion of Muslims and Jews in Spain. It was revived and expanded during the Reformation to combat all perceived threats to orthodoxy and the Church’s authority.

Image St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre King Charles IX’s massacre of Huguenots in August 1572.

Image Thirty Years’ War (1618—1648) The “last of the religious wars,” but actually a European-wide struggle for dominance among the Bourbon and Habsburg dynasties and the Holy Roman Empire.

Key Individuals:

Image Sir Thomas More

Image King Henry VIII (England)

Image Henri IV (France)

Image Elizabeth I (England)



The Reformation in sixteenth-century Europe began as an effort to reform the Catholic Church, which many believed had become too concerned with worldly matters. Soon, however, the Church found itself facing a serious challenge from a brilliant German theologian, Martin Luther, and his followers. What began as a protest evolved into a revolution with social and political overtones. At stake was secular as opposed to religious political control. By the end of the century, a Europe that had been united by a single Church was deeply divided, as the Catholic and Protestant faiths vied for the minds and hearts of the people.

The Need for a Religious Reformation

By the onset of the sixteenth century, the Catholic Church of Europe was facing a serious set of interconnected problems. Concern was growing that the Church had become too worldly and corrupt in its practices. The Church, and particularly the papacy in Rome, was widely seen to be more concerned with building and retaining worldly power and wealth than in guiding souls to salvation. The pope was not only the head of a powerful Church hierarchy, but he was the ruler of the Papal States, a kingdom that encompassed much of the central portion of the Italian peninsula. He collected taxes, kept an army, and used his religious power to influence politics in every kingdom in Europe.

The selling of indulgences (which allowed people to be absolved of their sins, sometimes even before they committed them, by making a monetary contribution to the Church) is just one example of the way in which the Church seemed more concerned with amassing power and wealth than with guiding the faithful to salvation. To many common people who yearned for a powerful, personal, and emotional connection with God, the Church not only failed to provide it but worked actively to discourage it in the following ways:

• By protecting the power of the priesthood

• By saying the mass in Latin, a language understood by only the educated elite

• By refusing to allow the printing of the Bible in the vernacular

The Lutheran Revolt

Martin Luther was an unlikely candidate to lead a revolt against the Church. The son of a mine manager in eastern Germany, Luther received a humanistic education, studying law before being drawn to the Church and being ordained as a priest in 1507. Continuing his education, Luther received a doctorate of theology from the University of Wittenberg and was appointed to the faculty there in 1512.

The revolutionary ideas that would come to define Lutheran theology were a product of Luther’s personal search. Luther believed that he was living in the last days of the world and that God’s final judgment would soon be upon the world. This view, now referred to as millenarianism and widespread in sixteenth-century Europe, led Luther to become obsessed with the question of how any human being could be good enough to deserve salvation. He found his answer through the rigorous study of scripture, and he formulated three interconnected theological assertions:

Salvation by Faith Alone, which declared that salvation came only to those who had true faith

Scripture Alone, which stated that scripture was the only source of true knowledge of God’s will

• The Priesthood of All Believers, which argued that all true believers received God’s grace and were, therefore, priests in God’s eyes

Each of Luther’s assertions put him in direct opposition to the Church’s orthodox theology:

• Salvation by Faith Alone contradicted the Church’s assertion that salvation was gained both by having faith and by performing works of piety and charity.

• Scripture Alone contradicted the Church’s assertion that there were two sources of true knowledge of God: scripture and the traditions of the Church.

• The Priesthood of All Believers contradicted the Church’s assertion that only ordained priests could read and correctly interpret scripture.

Creation and Spread of the Protestant Movement

In the autumn of 1517, Luther launched his protest by tacking 95 theses, or propositions, that ran contrary to the theology and practice of the Church to the door of the Wittenberg castle church. His students quickly translated them from Latin into the German vernacular and distributed printed versions throughout the German-speaking kingdoms and provinces. With the aid of the printing press, Luther attracted many followers, but the survival of a Protestant movement was due to the political climate. Had the papacy moved quickly to excommunicate Luther and his followers, the movement might not have survived. However, Luther found a powerful protector in Frederick of Saxony, the prince of Luther’s district. Frederick was one of seven electors, the princes who elected the Holy Roman Emperor to whom the princes of the German districts owed their allegiance. Frederick’s protection caused the pope to delay Luther’s excommunication until 1520. By that time, it was too late; Luther and his followers had established throughout Germany congregations for the kind of Christian worship that, after 1529, would be known as Protestant.

Luther promoted his theology to both the nobility and common people. To the nobility, he wrote an “Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation” (1520), which appealed both to the German princes’ desire for greater unity and power and to their desire to be out from under the thumb of an Italian pope. To the common people, he addressed “The Freedom of the Christian Man” (1520), in which he encouraged common men to obey their Christian conscience and respect those in authority who seemed to possess true Christian principles. Through this strategy, Luther offered the noble princes of Germany an opportunity to break with the Roman Church and papacy without losing the obedience of the common people. It was an opportunity that was too good to pass up. By 1555, the German princes made it clear that they would no longer bow to Rome; they signed the Peace of Augsburg, which established the principle of “whoever rules, his religion” and signaled to Rome that the German princes would not go to war with each other over religion.

Once it gained a foothold in northern Germany, Protestantism tended to flourish in those areas where the local rulers were either unwilling or not strong enough to enforce orthodoxy and loyalty to Rome. Accordingly, the Protestant movement spread with success to the Netherlands, Scandinavia, Scotland, and England, but it encountered more difficulty and little or no success in southern and eastern Europe. The site of the most bloodshed was France, where Protestantism was declared both heretical and illegal in 1534. Initially French Protestants, known as Huguenots, were tolerated, but a civil war pitting Catholics against Protestants erupted in 1562. Peaceful coexistence was briefly restored by the Edict of Nantes in 1598, which established the principle of religious toleration in France, but the edict would be revoked in 1685.

The English Reformation

The English Reformation was unique. England had long traditions of dissent and anti-clericalism that stemmed from a humanist tradition. In that context, Protestantism in England grew slowly, appealing especially to the middle classes, and by 1524, illegal English-language Bibles were circulating. But as the English monarch Henry VIII tried to consolidate his power and his legacy, he took the existence of a Protestant movement as an opportunity to break from Rome and create a national church, the Church of England, or, the Anglican Church.

Henry needed a divorce from his wife, Catherine of Aragon, because she could not provide him with a male heir to the throne. He also needed money and land with which to buy the loyalty of existing nobles and to establish loyalty in new ones who would owe their position to him. In 1534, he officially broke with the Church in Rome and had himself declared the head of the new Church of England. In 1536, he dissolved the English monasteries and seized church lands and properties, awarding them to those loyal to him. English humanist Sir Thomas More, friend and counselor to Henry, refused to swear allegiance to Henry and was subsequently executed. It soon became apparent, however, that the Church that Henry had created was Protestant only in the sense that it broke from Rome. In terms of the characteristics opposed by most Protestant reformers—its episcopal or hierarchical nature, the existence of priests, and the retention of the sacraments and symbols of the traditional Roman church—the Church of England was hardly Protestant at all.

For the rest of the century, the unfinished Reformation left England plagued by religious turmoil. During the reign of Edward VI, the son of Henry and Jane Seymour, England was officially Anglican, but communities who wished to organize themselves along more Protestant lines grew to sufficient numbers to be known collectively as Dissenters. Upon the accession of Mary I (the daughter of Henry and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon), England was returned to Catholicism and Protestants were persecuted. Under the subsequent reign of Elizabeth I (the daughter of Henry and Anne Boleyn), England was again Anglican. Elizabeth was moderate in her religious views and a political pragmatist. To secure her throne, she would need the support of influential nobles and bishops, many of whom were Catholic. At the same time, upon her ascent to the throne in 1558, throngs of Protestants (including more radical Puritans), who had fled to Europe to avoid persecution under Mary I, returned to England expecting Elizabeth to stamp out Catholicism and elevate Protestantism. As part of the Elizabethan Religious Settlement, the Act of Supremacy in 1559 declared Queen Elizabeth Supreme Governor of the Church of England and required an oath of loyalty from all public officials. She also passed the Act of Uniformity (1559), which made both attendance at Anglican services and use of a Common Book of Prayer (revised to include some elements acceptable to Catholics) mandatory, though in practice she overlooked private Catholic worship from those who were loyal.

Unfortunately, religious conflict in England was not so easily settled. In 1570 a Papal Bull labeled Elizabeth a heretic and usurper, and absolved Catholics of all allegiance to her. Mary, Queen of Scots, remained a focal point for Catholic plots to reinstate a Catholic on England’s throne, especially since Elizabeth had no heir, resulting in her imprisonment in the Tower of London for years. Geopolitics and religion were intertwined, as Catholic Spain brutally suppressed Protestant revolts in the Netherlands, right on England’s doorstep. This prompted Elizabeth I to provide military support to the Netherlands, albeit half-heartedly. An enraged Philip II of Spain then ordered the Spanish Armada into the English Channel in 1588, only to see them defeated by the English. These events served to erode Elizabeth’s patience for religious toleration. During this period, Jesuits and Catholic priests were expelled (1585), Mary Queen of Scots was beheaded for plotting against Elizabeth (1587), and commissions were established to seek “recusants,” or those who refused to worship at Anglican services. Although Elizabeth never engaged in religious repression to the extent Mary I did, her later reign was less tolerant than the early years.

Reformation in Eastern Europe

Poland-Lithuania’s reformation got underway when university students began to spread ideas of religious reform. Although pockets of Lutheranism developed in a few German communities, antipathy toward Germany meant the Polish people were more likely to follow other reformers, like Ulrich Zwingli, Jan Hus, and especially John Calvin. In addition, many Jewish refugees found a home in Poland, while Lithuania was primarily Orthodox, with a small Islamic Tatar population. Though diverse Protestant sects were able to gain a foothold in Poland, in the end their divisions prevented them from mounting a unified opposition to a rejuvenated Catholic presence. A concerted effort by the Jesuits to restore Catholicism to respectability, together with the support of the poor, who had never really adopted the Calvinist beliefs favored by local nobility, resulted in the eventual dwindling of Protestant numbers.

The progress of the Reformation in Hungary was complicated by the invasion of the Ottoman Turks. In 1526, at the Battle of Mohács, Ottoman forces led by Suleiman I defeated Habsburg armies, resulting in the division of Hungary into three parts: the southern plains became part of the Ottoman empire, Eastern Hungary/Transylvania was governed by Hungarian Magyars as Ottoman vassal states, and the Northwest was governed by the Habsburgs, ruling as Kings of Hungary. The Ottomans practiced religious toleration and were more accommodating to Protestants than to Catholics, who would be likely to support the Catholic Habsburgs. Christians paid a head tax but weren’t forced to convert. Among the Magyar, Calvinism became popular. For the next 150 years or more, Hungary was plagued by intermittent border conflicts until the Ottomans were driven out in the late seventeenth century. Afterward, the Habsburgs engaged in an aggressive Counter-Reformation campaign to restore Catholicism as the dominant faith.

Calvin and Calvinism

Once the break from the Roman Church was accomplished, Protestant leaders faced the task of creating new religious communities and systematizing a theology. The most influential of the second-generation Protestant theologians was John Calvin. Converting to Protestantism around 1534, Calvin was forced to leave his native France and flee to Switzerland, whose towns were governed by strong town councils that had historically competed with the Church bishops for local power. Calvin settled in Geneva where, in 1536, the adult male population had voted to become Protestant. For the next 40 years, Calvin worked in Geneva, articulating the theology and structure for Protestant religious communities that would come to be known as Calvinism.

Calvinism accepted both Martin Luther’s contentions that salvation is gained by faith alone and that scripture is the sole source of authoritative knowledge of God’s will. But on the subject of salvation, Calvin went further, developing the doctrine of Predestination, which asserted that God has predetermined which people will be saved and which will be damned. Those who are predestined to salvation are known as “the elect,” and, although their earthly behavior could not affect the status of their salvation, Calvin taught that the elect would be known both by their righteous behavior and by their prosperity, as God would bless all their earthly enterprises.

In Calvinist communities, the structure and discipline of the congregation were integrated into those of the town. In place of the hierarchical structure of the Roman church, Calvinist churches were organized by function:

• Pastors preached the gospel.

• Doctors studied scripture and wrote commentaries.

• Deacons saw to the social welfare of the community.

• Elders governed the church and the community in moral matters and enforced discipline.

Geneva soon became the inspirational center of the Protestant movement.

Social Dimensions and the Radical Reformation

The Protestantism of Martin Luther and John Calvin appealed to the industrious and prosperous commercial and merchant classes. At these higher rungs of the social hierarchy, people could read and react to criticism of both the doctrine and practice of the orthodox Roman Church. The strict discipline of the Calvinist communities mirrored the self-discipline their own professions demanded, and the promise that God would bless the worldly endeavors of the elect provided a self-satisfying justification for the wealth and prosperity that many were enjoying. Further down the social ladder, among the artisan and peasant classes, a more radical reformation was being shaped.

The religious beliefs of the poorer and less-educated classes were always less uniform than those of the elite. Their knowledge of Christian theology tended to be superficial and wedded to older folklore that deified the forces of nature. What they cared about was that the suffering they endured in this life would be rewarded in the next. Accordingly, leaders of Protestant movements among the artisan and peasant classes interpreted the doctrines of justification by faith alone and predestination to mean that God would never abandon the poor and simple people who suffered, and that they could have direct knowledge of their salvation through an inner light that came to them directly from God. In some circles, this was combined with millenarian notions that the judgment day was near, to create a belief that the poor had a special mission to purge the world of evil and prepare it for the second coming of Christ.

The first and largest group of such radical reformers was known as “the Anabaptists.” In 1534, proclaiming that judgment day was at hand, a group of them captured the German city of Münster, seized the property of nonbelievers, and burned all books except the Bible. To Protestant and Catholic elites alike, the Anabaptists represented a threat to the social order that could not be tolerated. Their rebellion was subsequently put down by an army led by the Lutheran Prince Philip of Hesse, and the Anabaptist movement was violently repressed and driven underground.

The Catholic Response

Although it was slow to believe that Protestantism could pose a threat to its power, the Roman Church—which was increasingly referred to as “catholic” (meaning one, true, and universal)—began to construct a response by the middle of the sixteenth century. Although sometimes referred to as the Counter-Reformation, the Catholic response actually had two dimensions: one aimed at reforming the Catholic Church and another aimed at exterminating the Protestant movement.

At the center of both dimensions was the Society of Jesus. Founded in 1534 by Ignatius Loyola, the Jesuits (as they came to be known) were a tightly organized order who saw themselves as soldiers in a war against Satan. Strategically, the Jesuits focused on education, building schools and universities throughout Europe. The Jesuits also served as missionaries, and they were often among the first Europeans to visit the new worlds that the Age of Exploration was opening up, thereby establishing a beachhead for Catholicism. Internally, they preached a new piety and pushed the Church to curb its worldly practices and to serve as a model for a selfless, holy life that could lead to salvation.

The Catholic reform movement reached its peak with the Council of Trent, which began its deliberations in 1545. Over many years, the Council passed reforms abolishing the worst of the abuses that had led to Protestant discontent. However, the Council of Trent also symbolized a defeat for Protestants who hoped for reconciliation, as the Council refused to compromise on any of the key theological issues and continued to insist that the Catholic Church was the final arbiter in all matters of faith.

At the heart of the Catholic Church’s efforts to defeat Protestantism was the office known as “the Inquisition.” An old institution within the Church that investigated charges of heresy, its duties were revived and expanded to combat all perceived threats to orthodoxy and the Church’s authority. Those who ran afoul of the Inquisition ran the risk of imprisonment, torture, and execution. The Church’s other main weapon in its aggressive response to the Reformation was censorship. Books that were considered unorthodox or at odds with the Church’s teachings were placed on the Index of Banned Books.

Review Questions

Multiple Choice

Questions 1—3 refer to the following passage:

The covenant of life not being equally preached to all, and among those to whom it is preached not always finding the same reception, this diversity discovers the wonderful depth of the Divine judgment. Nor is it to be doubted that this variety also follows, subject to the decision of God’s eternal election. If it be evidently the result of the Divine will, that salvation is freely offered to some, and others are prevented from attaining it—this immediately gives rise to important and difficult questions, which are incapable of any other explication, than by the establishment of pious minds in what ought to be received concerning election and predestination . . . that . . . some should be predestinated to salvation, and others to destruction. . . . His eternal election, which illustrates the grace of God by this comparison, that He adopts not all promiscuously to the hope of salvation, but gives to some what He refuses to others. . . .

We affirm that this counsel, as far as concerns the elect, is founded on his gratuitous mercy, totally irrespective of human merit; but that to those whom he devotes to condemnation, the gate of life is closed by a just and irreprehensible, but incomprehensible, judgment. In the elect, we consider calling as an evidence of election, and justification as another token of its manifestation, till they arrive in glory, which constitutes its completion. As God seals his elect by vocation and justification, so by excluding the reprobate from the knowledge of his name and the sanctification of his Spirit, he affords an indication of the judgment that awaits them.

John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1536

1. From the passage, one may conclude that Calvin asserted as true which of the following?

A. God does not offer salvation to everyone.

B. Man is incapable of understanding salvation.

C. One can “elect” to be saved or refuse to be saved.

D. Only Protestants are saved.

2. Calvin believed that the fact that some souls are predestined to eternal condemnation resulted from which of the following?

A. Sins committed by those souls on Earth.

B. Sins committed in a previous life.

C. It is not open to human understanding.

D. It is open to interpretation.

3. Calvin asserted that finding a “calling” led to which of the following?

A. Finding a “calling” or vocation earns one salvation.

B. Finding a “calling” or vocation is evidence that one is predestined to salvation.

C. Finding a “calling” or vocation can save the previously damned.

D. Finding a “calling” or vocation offers consolation to the damned.

Chapter Question (Comparison)

4. Briefly explain TWO ways in which Protestant theology differed from Catholic theology and ONE way in which Lutheran theology differed from Calvinist theology.

Answers and Explanations

1. A is correct because the passage clearly states that, where salvation is concerned, God “gives to some what He refuses to others.” B is incorrect because the passage does offer an explanation of salvation and how it comes to some. C is incorrect because, in the passage, the word “election” refers to God’s choosing to elect (or predestine) some souls for salvation. D is incorrect because the passage does not say that all Protestants are saved or that non-Protestants are damned.

2. C is correct because the passage asserts that the condemnation of some souls is due to God’s “just” but “incomprehensible” judgment. A is incorrect because the passage states that salvation or condemnation is “totally irrespective of human merit.” B is incorrect because the passage makes no mention of previous lives. D is incorrect because the passage states that God’s judgment is incomprehensible, not open to interpretation.

3. B is correct because the passage states that Calvin and his followers “consider calling as an evidence of election.” A is incorrect because the passage does not say that finding a calling earns one salvation. C is incorrect because the passage indicates that nothing can save those to whom salvation has been denied. D is incorrect because the passage says nothing about consolation for the damned.

4. Suggested answer:

Thesis: Protestant theology differed from Catholic theology in its assertion of the doctrine of Scripture Alone and in its denial that good works could earn one’s soul salvation. Calvinist theology differed from Lutheran theology in its insistence on the doctrine of Predestination.

Paragraph Outline:

I. The Protestant doctrine (articulated by Luther) of Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone), which stated that only scripture provides reliable knowledge of God’s will, contradicted the Catholic Church’s assertion that both scripture and the traditions of the Church provide reliable knowledge of God’s will.

II. The Protestant doctrines of Faith Alone (Luther) and Predestination (Calvin) contradict the Catholic Church’s assertion that good works can earn one salvation.

III. Luther’s doctrine of Faith Alone asserts that anyone who has true faith (thereby receiving God’s grace) can be saved. Calvin’s doctrine of Predestination asserts that God has predestined some to salvation and some to damnation; no one not elected by God can achieve salvation by developing true faith.

Rapid Review


By the sixteenth century, the Christian Church was faced with mounting criticism of its preoccupation with worldly matters. In Germany in 1517, Martin Luther charged that the Church had abandoned scripture and strayed from its mission. He offered an alternative and simplified theology that asserted that salvation came by having faith alone, and that scripture alone was the source of all knowledge about salvation. In England, the powerful monarch Henry VIII used the existence of a Protestant movement to break with Rome in 1524, confiscating church lands and creating the Church of England, which retained the hierarchy and trappings of the Catholic Church. By mid-century, the Protestant movement had diversified and fragmented, as second-generation Protestant theologians faced the task of articulating the specific beliefs and structures of the new Church they were building.

The Catholic response to the Protestant movement, the Counter-Reformation, was two-pronged. The Church carried out many internal reforms that addressed the grievances of the faithful; it also enhanced the role of the Inquisition, which was aimed at stamping out Protestantism.

Further Resources


The Borgias (1981, PBS/BBC miniseries in 10 episodes)—fifteenth-century Pope Alexander VI

Martin Luther (1953)—Reformation

A Man for All Seasons (1988)—English Reformation and Henry VIII

Elizabeth (1998)—English Reformation and Elizabeth I