The Spread and Impact of the Reformation in 16th-Century Europe

The 95 Theses / Wikimedia Commons

The many divisions among Christians led to a series of wars and persecutions.


As Protestantism spread, it branched out in several directions. By the start of the 1600s, there were already many different Christian churches in Europe.

Each Protestant denomination had its own beliefs and practices. But all Protestants had much in common. They shared a belief in the authority of the Bible, individual conscience, and the importance of faith. They were also united in their desire to reform Christianity.

The growth of Protestantism helped to encourage reform within the Catholic Church, as well. This Catholic reform movement is called the Counter-Reformation. Church leaders worked to correct abuses. They clarified and defended Catholic teachings. They condemned what they saw as Protestant errors. They also tried to win back areas of Europe that had been lost to the Catholic Church.

The many divisions among Christians led to a series of wars and persecutions. People suffered because of their beliefs. Catholics fought Protestants, and Protestants fought one another. These struggles involved political, economic, and cultural differences, as well as deep religious beliefs.

The Reformation brought much conflict to Europe, but it also created many new forms of the Christian faith. Three new branches of Christianity that developed early in the period were Lutheranism, Calvinism, and Anglicanism.


Portrait of Henry VIII after Hans Holbein the Younger, c. 1537–1547 / Walker Art Gallery, Wikimedia Commons


Anglicanism was founded in 1534 by King Henry VIII in England. Henry was not a religious reformer like Martin Luther or John Calvin. Instead, he broke away from the Catholic Church for political and personal reasons.

Politically, Henry did not want to share either his power or his kingdom’s wealth with the Church. Personally, he wanted to get a divorce so that he could marry another woman, Anne Boleyn. He wanted a male heir, and he and his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, failed to have a male child.

When the pope refused to grant permission for a divorce, Henry took matters into his own hands. He compelled Parliament, England’s lawmaking body, to declare him the head of the English church. So began the Church of England, or Anglican Church, with the monarch at its head.

Under Henry, the Church of England still greatly resembled the Catholic Church. Over time, however, it blended elements of Catholicism and Protestantism.

Beliefs About Sin and Salvation

Anglican beliefs had much in common with the beliefs of the Catholic Church. Like Catholics, Anglicans believed that baptism washed away original sin. Anglicans, however, were also influenced by Protestant ideas. Unlike Catholics, they accepted Luther’s idea of justification by faith. To go to heaven, people needed only to believe in God, regret their sins, and receive God’s mercy.

Later, Anglicans believed that people should have privacy in how they practiced religion. It was up to individuals to figure out how to live by their religious beliefs.

Ultimate Source of Authority

Anglicans based their beliefs on the Bible. However, the English monarch, as head of the Church, was the main interpreter of the Bible’s meaning. The highest-ranking bishop in England, the Archbishop of Canterbury, helped the monarch with this task. Local clergy and churchgoers could interpret Church teachings in their own ways, as long as they were loyal to the monarch.

Rituals and Worship

Anglican services were similar to both Roman Catholic and Lutheran services. Two versions of the Anglican Church service developed. The High Church service was much like the Catholic mass, and very formal. The Low Church service was similar to the Lutheran service.

Anglican services were held in former Catholic Church buildings. Most of the paintings, statues, and other decorations were removed. The inside of each church was painted white, and the Ten Commandments were painted on a plain white wall. Churchgoers sang simple hymns with English words and easy melodies.

Like other Protestant groups, Anglicans used only two sacraments: baptism and Communion. English slowly replaced Latin in Anglican services. Under Henry’s son, King Edward VI, an official prayer book, the Book of Common Prayer, was published. It provided English-language prayers for services and morning and evening prayers. It also expressed the basic ideas of Anglican doctrine. In the early 1600s, King James I had a committee of scholars prepare a new English translation of the Bible, known as the Authorized Version, or the King James Version.

Community Life

Anglican communities were not all alike. High Church communities, however, were made up mostly of wealthy people. Low Church communities were usually made up of middle-class and working-class people.

Henry VIII’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, said that no one should be forced to believe or practice a particular kind of Anglicanism. People could choose how to worship as long as they obeyed the laws of England and were loyal to the monarch. Heresy ceased to be a crime. However, citizens had to take care not to attack the monarch or the Anglican Church’s place as the official Church of England.


John Calvin / Museum Catharijneconvent, Wikimedia Commons


Calvinism was founded by John Calvin, a French humanist who did his most influential work in Geneva, Switzerland. In 1541, Calvin took over the leadership of the reform movement in Geneva.

Beliefs About Sin and Salvation

Calvinists agreed with Lutherans that people depended entirely on God to be saved. No one deserved salvation, and no one could “force” God to grant it by doing good works. Instead, God chose certain people, the “elect,” to be saved and to enjoy eternal life. Religious faith and salvation were God’s gifts to the elect. Everyone else was doomed to spend eternity in hell.

Calvin maintained that God knew from the beginning of time who would be saved and who would be condemned. This idea is called predestination. There was nothing people could do to change their destiny. Everything, Calvin said, is under God’s control.

Calvinists believed that the elect could be known by their actions. They believed that the world was full of opportunities to sin. But only people who were destined not to be saved would sin. Good behavior showed that a person was an elect destined for heaven. The reason for good behavior was to honor God, not to “buy” one’s salvation.

Calvinists had many strict rules defining good behavior. For example, singing, dancing, playing cards, and wearing fancy clothing were all forbidden. Many people followed these rules to show that they were saved.

Ultimate Source of Authority

Like Lutherans, Calvinists thought that the Bible was the only true source of religious guidance. Part of the task of church leaders was to interpret the Bible and make laws from it. Calvinists believed that all of life should be lived according to God’s law. Consequently, in a Calvinist state, religious rules also became laws for the government. Anyone who sinned was also committing a crime. A lawbreaker was punished first by Calvinist clergy and then by the local court system. Sins such as blasphemy (showing disrespect to God) were punished as serious crimes.

Rituals and Worship

Calvinist churchgoers attended services up to five times a week. Services included sermons that lasted for hours. The sermons explained how to live according to the Bible.

Calvinist church buildings showed Calvin’s belief in simplicity. Churches were paneled in plain wood. People sat on long wooden benches. There were no paintings, statues, or stained glass windows. The minister preached from a pulpit in the middle of the room. Men sat on one side, and women and children sat on the other side. Children had to be ready to answer questions from the minister at a moment’s notice. Failure to answer correctly would bring them shame or even punishment.

Like Lutherans, Calvinists used only the two sacraments they found in the Bible: baptism and Communion. Calvinists were not allowed to sing any words except those in the Bible. At services, they sang verses from the Bible set to popular tunes. Some Bible songs had new melodies written for them.

Community Life

Calvinists believed that each community should be a theocracy, or a state governed by God through religious leaders. Calvinists had a duty to try to establish communities in which church and state were united.

Calvinist communities had strict laws based on the Bible. Parents could name babies only certain names from the Bible. Guests at local inns were not allowed to swear, dance, play cards, or insult anyone at the inn. Innkeepers had to report anyone who broke these rules. The same rules applied to people in their homes. Church leaders could inspect homes yearly to see whether families were living by the strict Calvinist laws. Offenders were punished severely. Some were even banished.

Effects of the Reformation

The Reformation brought lasting change to Europe. Through the influence of Europeans, it also affected other parts of the world.

Religious Wars and Persecution

The Battle of White Mountain (1620) in Bohemia was one of the decisive battles of the Thirty Years’ War that ultimately led to the forced conversion of the Bohemian population back to Roman Catholicism / Bavarian Army Museum, Wikimedia Commons

The religious divisions of the Reformation led to a series of wars and persecutions during the 16th and 17th centuries. Catholics and Protestants alike persecuted members of other denominations, as well as each other. Many people died for their beliefs. Others, like the French Protestants who moved to Switzerland, fled to other Protestant countries.

Bloody civil wars erupted in many countries. In France, for example, wars between Catholics and Protestants between 1562 and 1598 left over a million dead.

The wars in France were not just about religion. They were also about the power of the Catholic monarchy. Similarly, the last major war of the Reformation was both political and religious. Called the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648), it was fought mainly in Germany. The war pitted Catholics against Protestants, and Protestants against each other. But it was also a struggle for power that involved most of the nations of Europe. Nations fought for their own interests, as well as for religious reasons. Catholic France, for example, sided with Protestants to combat the power of the Holy Roman Empire.

The Thirty Years’ War ended with the signing of the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. This treaty called for peace between Protestants and Catholics. By deciding the control of territory, it set boundaries between Catholic and Protestant lands. Most of northern Europe, including much of Germany, was Protestant. Spain, Portugal, Italy, and France remained Catholic. So did Bohemia, Austria, and Hungary. This religious division survived into modern times.

The Rise of Nationalism and Democratic Practices

The spread of Protestantism went hand in hand with a growing feeling called nationalism. More and more, people identified with their nation, rather than with their local area or lord. Throughout Europe, official state religions strengthened national unity.

Along with nationalism, monarchies were also growing stronger. Protestant rulers claimed authority over religious, as well as secular, matters. Even Roman Catholic rulers became increasingly independent of the pope.

These changes led to what is often called “The Age of Monarchs.” Monarchs revived the old idea of the divine right of kings. According to this idea, rulers received their authority directly from God. This way of thinking reached its height in the late 17th and early 18th centuries when some rulers established absolute monarchies.

Yet the Reformation also planted the seeds of democratic ideas and practices. Beginning with Martin Luther, Protestants emphasized being true to the Bible and to their own consciences. This belief made people more willing to fight for their own ideas and rights, and to resist authority.

Some persecuted groups sought freedom to worship in their own ways. For example, the Calvinist Puritans fled England for North America in search of religious liberty. Many Protestant local groups, or congregations, insisted on their right to control their own affairs. In addition, the leaders of Protestant churches were elected by congregation members, not just by the powerful. Such beliefs about religious freedom and church government helped pave the way for democracy.

The Spread of Christianity

By the time of the Reformation, Europeans had embarked upon a great age of exploration. As they voyaged around the world, both Catholics and Protestants worked to spread their faith. By the 1700s, there were missionary societies in several European countries. Jesuit missionaries were particularly active in spreading Roman Catholicism. Jesuits traveled to India, China, Japan, and Southeast Asia. Protestant missionaries worked in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), India, and Indonesia.

The religious divisions in Europe were repeated in areas controlled by Europeans around the world. This was especially true in the Americas. Most people in English colonies in North America were Protestant. Missionaries and settlers from France brought Catholicism to parts of Canada and the Mississippi Valley. The Spanish and Portuguese brought Catholicism to the American southwest, Mexico, and South America. These patterns of religious faith are evident today.

Planting the Seeds of Modern Democracy and Federalism

John Trumbull’s painting Declaration of Independence, depicting the five-man drafting committee of the Declaration of Independence presenting their work to the Second Continental Congress / Wikimedia Commons


The Protestant Reformation had many far-reaching effects. One important impact was on people’s thinking about the problems of government.

More than 250 years after Martin Luther began the Reformation, the American Revolution created the first modern democracy. At that time, many European monarchs still claimed an absolute right to rule. America’s founders adopted a different idea. They believed that government was based on an agreement among free people. That is why the U.S. Constitution begins with the words “We, the people.” In return for the benefits of government, the founders believed, people willingly gave up some of their natural freedom. The government’s right to rule was therefore based on the consent of the governed.

The authors of the Constitution also created modern federalism. In a federal system, smaller units of government (such as states) share power with a central government. The smaller units govern local affairs. The central government serves common needs, such as national defense. Citizens are bound to obey both the local and the central government.

The ideas behind the Constitution grew out of many influences. One of these influences was the Reformation. The beliefs and practices of early Protestants helped plant the seeds of modern democracy and federalism. Let’s look at how.

Individual Liberty and Equality

Individual liberty and equality are basic ideas in modern democracy. One source of these ideas was the Reformation.

The medieval Catholic Church was strongly hierarchical in its organization. At the bottom of the hierarchy were ordinary church members, or laypeople. Above them were priests. Priests had a special role to play in guiding believers and administering the sacraments. Bishops had authority over priests and laypeople alike. At the top of the hierarchy was the pope, who had the greatest authority of all.

The authority of church officials included the power to interpret the Bible and God’s will. The church stressed the duty of Catholics to obey its authority.

Martin Luther rebelled against this hierarchical structure. He prized the liberty of individual conscience and preached “the priesthood of all believers.” In a famous sentence, he declared, “A Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to everyone.” In other words, no Christian had a special, God-given authority over others. At the same time, all Christians had a duty to love and care for one another. In place of priests, Luther called for ministers who served the church with the consent of Christian believers.

The liberty and equality of Christian believers became a basic part of Protestantism. Later these ideas would find their place in people’s thinking about government.

New Forms of Church Government

Protestants, as we have seen, rejected the Catholic hierarchy. Consequently, they had to create their own forms of church government. This meant finding a structure for their churches that fit Protestant beliefs.

Three main forms of Protestant church government emerged. In all of them, laypeople played a greater role than in the medieval Catholic Church.

The first type is episcopal, which means “government by bishops.” The Anglican Church, for example, rejected the pope but kept the office of bishop. As in the Catholic Church, bishops ordain (formally appoint) the clergy. Laypeople, however, have a role in helping to govern the church. Some other Protestant churches also have an episcopal organization, with bishops who are elected by church members.

The second type of church organization is presbyterian. The word presbyter means “elder” or “leader.” In Presbyterian churches, local congregations elect leaders called presbyters. The presbyters may be laypeople as well as clergy. A presbytery coordinates and governs the actions of the congregations in a particular area. The presbytery is made up of the local pastors and elders. It is the presbytery that ordains clergy. Other representative groups above the presbytery exercise authority over wider areas.

The third type of church organization is congregational. In this system, every congregation is independent and self-governing. Each chooses and ordains its own ministers. Similar congregations also work together in larger associations.

In these ideas, you can see elements of democracy and federalism. Believers are treated as equals. The old separation between clergy and laypeople is reduced or eliminated. Church members elect their own leaders, and local government is combined with larger associations.

These ideas eventually influenced thinking about government outside the church. For example, the Pilgrims who settled in New England were Congregationalists. When they wrote the Mayflower Compact to describe how their colony would be governed, they based it on their style of church government.

Government Based on Agreement of the Governed

The Mayflower Compact illustrates another Protestant idea that influenced democratic thinking. This was the idea that the authority of governments rests on covenants, or solemn agreements.

The idea of covenants is rooted in the Bible. In the Old Testament, God is said to form a covenant with the Hebrew (Jewish) people. Both God and the Hebrews enter this covenant by their own choosing. In turn, covenants unite the different tribes of Hebrews under God’s laws. To some Protestants–including many early Americans–the ancient Hebrew covenants were an early example of federalism.

Many Protestants, especially congregationalists, saw their churches as based on covenants that people entered into freely. From there, it is a short step to the idea that governments, too, are formed by the free choice of people to join together for their common good. And that means that a government’s right to rule is based on the consent of the governed.

In the 1600s and 1700s, some thinkers argued for similar ideas without basing them on religion. But there is no doubt that the Reformation helped plant the seeds of ideas that proved to be truly revolutionary.


Martin Luther (1529) by Lucas Cranach the Elder / Wikimedia Commons


The first major Protestant sect was Lutheranism. Lutheranism began in Germany after Martin Luther was excommunicated by the Catholic Church in 1521.

Luther was a Catholic priest and scholar. He taught scripture and theology (the study of religion) at the University of Wittenberg. As he studied the Bible, Luther became troubled. He could not find a basis in the Bible for many Church teachings and practices. He was also upset about corruption in the Church, especially the sale of indulgences.

Luther tried to work out his differences with the Church. But after his views were condemned, he started the separate movement that became Lutheranism.

Beliefs About Sin and Salvation

Luther and his followers disagreed with the Catholic Church about sin and salvation. Catholics believed that people earned salvation by following the teachings and practices of the Church. Taking part in the sacraments was essential. For example, the sacrament of baptism wiped away original sin. In Christian belief, this was the sinful condition passed on to all people by Adam, the first man created by God. Once they were baptized, people needed to pray, take the sacraments, follow rules laid down by the Church, and perform good works.

Lutherans did not believe that people could do anything to earn their salvation. Salvation, they said, was God’s gift, which people received in faith. People would be “justified,” or saved, if they sincerely believed in Jesus Christ, were sorry for their sins, and accepted the words of the Bible as truth. Luther called this “justification by faith.” Those who have faith perform good works and avoid sin because God commands them to, not in order to earn salvation.

Ultimate Source of Authority

Lutherans rejected traditional sources of religious authority, such as Church councils and the pope. They believed that the Bible was the only true source of religious guidance. Reading the Bible was the only way to learn how to lead a good life and gain faith in God. Lutherans published the Bible in several languages so that people could read it for themselves.

Rituals and Worship

Lutheran services combined Catholic practices with new Lutheran ones. Lutherans met in church buildings that had originally been Catholic. Like Catholics, they used an altar, candles, and a crucifix, which represented the crucifixion of Jesus.

Lutheran services resembled the Catholic mass in several ways. The services included Holy Communion, the Christian ritual of sharing bread and wine to commemorate the last meal Jesus shared with his disciples before his death. Lutheran services also included Bible readings and a sermon, in which clergy explained the day’s lesson from the Bible. Like Catholics, Lutherans sang hymns. Luther wrote hymns for his followers. He used German words and often set hymns to popular tunes so everyone could learn them more easily.

Other parts of Lutheran worship were different from Catholic practice. Prayers were written and spoken in German, not in Latin, so that everyone could take part. Instead of having seven sacraments, Lutherans had just two: baptism and Communion. Luther believed that they were the only sacraments clearly named in the Bible.

Community Life

Luther gave his followers certain rules for how to live. Over time, he preached less about the Bible. He began to place greater importance on discipline and strong families. He said that fathers should teach their children religion by having them pray before meals and before bed. “Unless they [pray],” he said, “they should be given neither food nor drink.” He also thought that women should get married and give birth to as many children as possible. He believed that these rules would help to strengthen Lutheran communities.

Unlike Catholic priests, Lutheran ministers, or members of the clergy, were free to marry. Luther himself married a former nun.

The Counter-Reformation

Council of Trent, painting in the Museo del Palazzo del Buonconsiglio, Trento / Wikimedia Commons

As Protestantism spread, the Catholic Church responded with a program of serious reform. It clarified its teachings, corrected abuses, and tried to win people back to Catholicism. This movement is known as the Counter-Reformation.

The Council of Trent

A major feature of the Counter-Reformation was the Council of Trent. The council was a meeting of Catholic leaders that began in Trent, Italy, in 1545. Pope Paul III summoned the council to combat corruption in the Church and to fight Protestantism. The council continued its work in more than 20 sessions over the next 18 years.

In response to Protestant ideas, the council gave a more precise statement of Catholic teachings. It rejected predestination, declaring that individuals do have a role to play in deciding the fate of their souls. The council agreed with Protestants that faith was important and that salvation was God’s gift. But it rejected justification by faith alone. The council insisted that faith, good works, and the sacraments were all necessary for salvation. It reaffirmed the Catholic belief in seven sacraments.

The council acknowledged the importance of the Bible. It insisted, however, on the Church’s authority to interpret the Bible. It said that the Latin Bible was the only official scripture.

The council also took action to make needed changes in the Church. It required better education and training of its clergy. It called for priests and bishops to spend more time preaching. It corrected many of the abuses involving money and Church offices. It also established rules for services so that they would be more consistent from church to church.

The Council of Trent went a long way toward achieving the goals of Pope Paul III. The council’s work brought a higher standard of morality to the Church’s clergy and leadership. Its statements of Catholic belief and practices helped to unify the Church. The reformed Church was now better able to compete with Protestantism for the loyalties of Christians.

Catholic Reformers and Missionaries

The spirit of reform brought new life to the Catholic Church and its followers. Many individuals and groups helped to reform the Church and spread its message. For example, Teresa of Avila, a nun, started a new religious order in Spain and helped reform the lives of priests and nuns. Her example and writings inspired many Catholics to return to the values taught by Jesus.

Other new orders were formed to preach, to educate people, and to perform such services as feeding the poor. The most important of these orders was the Society of Jesus, also known as the Jesuits.

The Jesuits were founded by Ignatius of Loyola, a Spanish nobleman. As a young soldier, Ignatius had his leg shattered by a cannonball. While he was recovering, he read about the lives of saints. He vowed to become a “soldier for Jesus.”

After years of study, Ignatius started the order that became the Society of Jesus, or the Jesuits. The Jesuits were dedicated teachers and missionaries. They founded schools and colleges, and they brought many Europeans back to the Church. They worked to spread Catholicism in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. They became the largest order in the Church and actively supported the pope.

Fighting the Spread of Protestantism

The Catholic Church also fought the spread of Protestantism by condemning beliefs that it considered to be errors and by dealing harshly with those it labeled as heretics. It looked to Catholic rulers to support its efforts and to win back lands lost to Protestantism.

To deal with heresies during the Middle Ages, the Church had established the Inquisition. This body was made up of clergy called inquisitors who sought out and tried heretics. Inquisitors could order various punishments, including fines and imprisonment. Sometimes, they turned to civil rulers to put heretics to death.

King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella used the Spanish Inquisition to persecute Jews. With the start of the Reformation, the Spanish Inquisition also fought the spread of Protestantism. In Rome, the pope established a new Inquisition. The Roman Inquisition also sought out and condemned people whose views were considered dangerous.

Originally published by Flores World History, free and open access, republished for educational, non-commercial purposes.