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People & Ideas: The Protestant Reformation

The Protestant Reformation

Source: Library of Congress

In 1517, the German monk and theologian Martin Luther challenged Catholicism and its influence on Europe. Luther attacked the sale of indulgences, certificates sold to the faithful and intended to limit the time the dead spent in purgatory. But Luther's real challenge to the church was his new understanding of salvation.

In contrast to Catholicism, which stressed the authority of the church, Luther gave primacy to individual experience, the radical notion that the individual could communicate directly with God and seek his or her own salvation, without the intermediating authority of the church or priests. He was convinced that sins could not be washed away by penance or forgiven by indulgences; salvation came from faith in God and by faith alone -- sola fide. Faith in God came only through contemplating the word of God -- sola scriptura. On spiritual matters, it was the Bible -- not the Vatican -- that possessed ultimate authority.

Luther's ideas struck a fundamental blow to the primacy of the Catholic Church. He was excommunicated by the pope and rejected by the Holy Roman emperor Charles V, but he had captured the imagination of many in Catholic Europe.

Source: Hessisches Landesmuseum Darmstadt

By the mid-16th century, two competing ideologies -- one Catholic, the other a burgeoning Protestantism -- warred for supremacy. The ideological battle raged with particular ferocity in England, where King Henry VIII wished to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon, the daughter of Spain's Ferdinand and Isabella, in order to marry his mistress, Anne Boleyn. When the Vatican refused to grant a divorce, Henry separated himself from the Catholic Church and established the Church of England. He then became head of both the church and the state in England. Catholics who refused to swear oaths of allegiance or recognize Henry's new marriage were persecuted.

When she became the queen of England six years after her father's death, Mary Tudor, King Henry's daughter by Catherine of Aragon and an ardent Catholic, attempted to restore Catholicism to England and launched a systematic persecution of Protestants. At her death in 1558, her half-sister, Elizabeth I, was crowned queen of England.

For Protestants, Elizabeth's ascension in 1558 served as a symbol of their hopes. Her triumphal entry into the capital London in 1559 was carefully scripted by her advisers as a display of Protestant pageantry. That same year, Parliament, with a bare Protestant majority, passed the Religious Settlement Act. Thirty-nine articles stated the basic doctrines of the church. The Book of Common Prayer proscribed the prayers and the liturgy to be followed each day. The style of worship was in keeping with the queen's own personal tastes: She liked imagery, in moderation, appreciated choral music and was less enthusiastic about preaching. These reforms passed by Parliament were not radical ones, but steered a careful middle course that was sensitive to Catholic tradition and did not loudly proclaim a robust and assertive Protestantism. But the lingering remnants of Catholicism troubled some Protestant reformers.

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Published October 11, 2010

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