Chapter 1 - Section 13

The Protestant Reformation Beginning in 1517

     The questioning attitudes of the Renaissance deeply affected matters of faith and religion. No longer would church abuses or the lack of real reform be acceptable to the faithful and deeply religious people of the time.

    Perhaps the most significant of the Renaissance reformers was Martin Luther. In 1517, he attacked the abuses of the Catholic Church particularly the sale of indulgences. Indulgences were certificates for the forgiveness of sins. The Church was selling these certificates to raise money for many of its building projects such as St. Peter’s in Rome. His writings, thanks to the printing press, soon spread all over Europe. He won supporters from peasants to princes. Soon a chorus of reformers was calling for the Catholic Church to clean itself up. The ideas and teachings of the reformers came to be called Protestant in protest of the Church. Thus the Protestant Reformation had begun.

     The Catholic Church in partnership with the Catholic Hapsburg Emperor, Charles V, tried to suppress Luther and his teachings without success. Luther was protected and supported by powerful German princes who for economic and political reasons, along with matters of faith, saw opportunities to seize the wealth of the Catholic Church and to diminish the authority of the emperor.

     Henry VIII (1509-1547), in England joined the Protestant movement declaring himself head of the new Church of England over the issue of divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. The Pope refused his request for the divorce. Henry also took the opportunity to seize the property and wealth of the Catholic Church in England for his own uses. Therefore, under attack from numerous quarters throughout Europe, the Church finally began to reform itself. At the Council of Trent, meeting from 1545 to 1563, the Catholic Church abolished many of the abuses, simplified its doctrines and reaffirmed the holiness of its true Christian mission. The sale of indulgences was specifically forbidden.

     As a result, the Catholic Counter Reformation was able to win back many people and geographic regions to Catholicism. However, the success of Lutheranism in northern Germany and Scandinavia, Henry VIII in England and John Calvin for Calvinism in Holland and Switzerland meant the religious uniformity and with it the Christian unity of Europe was a thing of the past.This fragmentation and the lack of any concept of tolerance for diverse religious beliefs soon led to a whole series of destructive bloody religious wars. These wars only ended in 1648 with the peace Treaty of Westphalia. Consequently from the beginning of the Protestant Reformation in 1517 through the 17th century, European civilization was wracked by almost continuous warfare on a large national and international scale. Fought also for economic and political reasons, these wars had a strong religious element and involved firmly held religious beliefs and interpretations that would often seem today as trivial.

Martin Luther

     By the end of the religious wars generally marked by the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, Europe entered the post-Renaissance era characterized by the creation of powerful nation-states. This time period brought the narrative to the completion of the foundations and origins of Modern Europe and the primary focus of this work. By this time also, Europe has seen the development of modern countries based upon a strong central government, usually a monarchy. The rise of nationalism, militarism and capitalism, concepts that would mature in their modern forms in the 19th and 20th centuries, had begun.

     European colonial, commercial and mercantile expansionism also involved wars of conquest for new territories and access to wealth. International competition for power and riches would be fought not only in Europe but on virtually every continent and ocean in the world. European civilization began its great age of expansion and colonial exploitation during the Renaissance. The term Commercial Revolution is often associated with overseas trade, building of navies and securing overseas colonies in the New World and Asia. It would continue this trend further intensified by the driving forces of the Industrial Revolution well into the 20th century.

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