The Reformation (more fully the Protestant Reformation, or the European Reformation[1]) was a schism in Western Christianity initiated by Martin Luther and continued by Huldrych Zwingli, John Calvin and other Protestant Reformers in 16th-century Europe.

It is usually considered to have started with the publication of the Ninety-five Theses by Martin Luther in 1517 and lasted until the end of the Thirty Years' War in 1648. It led to the division of Western Christianity into different confessions (Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, Anabaptist, Unitarian, etc.). By the time of its arrival, Western Christianity was only compromised in the Lands of the Bohemian Crown, where Utraquist Hussitism was officially acknowledged by both the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor; in addition, various movements (including Lollards in England and Waldensians in Italy and France) were still being actively suppressed.

Although there had been earlier attempts to reform the Catholic Church – such as those of Jan Hus, Peter Waldo, John Wycliffe, and Girolamo Savonarola – Luther is widely acknowledged to have started the Reformation with the Ninety-five Theses. Luther began by criticising the sale of indulgences, insisting that the Pope had no authority over purgatory and that the Catholic doctrine of the merits of the saints had no foundation in the Bible. The Reformation incorporated doctrinal changes such as a complete reliance on Scripture as the only source of proper belief (sola scriptura) and the belief that faith in Jesus, and not good works, is the only way to obtain God's pardon for sin (sola fide). The core motivation behind these changes was theological, though many other factors played a part, including the rise of nationalism, the Western Schism that eroded loyalty to the Papacy, the perceived corruption of the Roman Curia, the impact of humanism, and the new learning of the Renaissance that questioned much traditional thought.

The initial movement in Germany diversified, and other reformers arose independently of Luther. The groundwork of the Reformation was developed by three major reformers: Luther in Wittenberg, Zwingli in Zürich and Calvin in Geneva. Depending on country, the Reformation had varying causes and different backgrounds, and also unfolded differently, than in Germany. The spread of Gutenberg's printing press provided the means for the rapid dissemination of religious materials in the vernacular. Lutheran churches were founded in Germany, the Baltics and Scandinavia, and Reformed ones in Switzerland, Hungary, France, the Netherlands and Scotland. The movement influenced the Church of England after 1547, under Edward VI and Elizabeth I, although the English Reformation had begun under Henry VIII in 1534.

Reformation movements throughout continental Europe known as the Radical Reformation gave rise to various Anabaptist movements. Radical Reformers, besides forming communities outside state sanction, often employed more extreme doctrinal change, such as the rejection of the tenets of the councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon. Anabaptism suffered a major blow early in the German Peasants' War and was persecuted for centuries after that. The Reformation in Transylvania led to the emergence of Unitarianism; it is historically considered an "exceptional event in church history".

The Catholic Church responded with a Counter-Reformation, initiated by the Council of Trent in 1545, and a new order, the Jesuits, founded in 1540. Northern Europe, with the exception of most of Ireland, came under the influence of Protestantism. Southern Europe remained Catholic, except Greece, which remained predominantly Eastern Orthodox, as did Eastern European countries of Bulgaria, Romania, Russia, Ukraine and Serbia. Central Europe became a site of a fierce conflict that culminated in the Thirty Years' War.

Origins and early history

The oldest Protestant churches, such as the Unitas Fratrum and Moravian Church, date their origins to Jan Hus (John Huss) in the early 15th century. As it was led by a Bohemian noble majority, and recognised, for a time, by the Basel Compacts, the Hussite Reformation was Europe's first "Magisterial Reformation" because the ruling magistrates supported it, unlike the "Radical Reformation", which the state did not support.

The later Protestant Churches generally date their doctrinal separation from the Catholic Church to the 16th century. The Reformation began as an attempt to reform the Catholic Church, by priests who opposed what they perceived as false doctrines and ecclesiastic malpractice. They especially objected to the teaching and the sale of indulgences, and the abuses thereof, and to simony, the selling and buying of clerical offices. The reformers saw these practices as evidence of the systemic corruption of the Church's hierarchy, which included the pope.

Earlier schisms

Execution of Jan Hus in Konstanz (1415). Western Christianity was already formally compromised in the Lands of the Bohemian Crown long before Luther with the Basel Compacts (1436) and the Religious peace of Kutná Hora (1485). Utraquist Hussitism was allowed there alongside the Roman Catholic confession. By the time the Reformation arrived, the Kingdom of Bohemia and the Margraviate of Moravia both had majority Hussite populations for decades now.

Unrest due to the Great Schism of Western Christianity (1378–1416) excited wars between princes, uprisings among the peasants, and widespread concern over corruption in the Church. New perspectives came from John Wycliffe at Oxford University and from Jan Hus at the Charles University in Prague. Hus objected to some of the practices of the Catholic Church and wanted to return the church in Bohemia and Moravia to earlier practices: liturgy in the language of the people (i.e. Czech), having lay people receive communion in both kinds (bread and wine – that is, in Latin, communio sub utraque specie), married priests, and eliminating indulgences and the concept of Purgatory. Some of these, like the use of local language as the lithurgic language, were approved by the pope as early as in the 9th century.[2]

Hus rejected indulgences and adopted a doctrine of justification by grace through faith alone.[citation needed]

The Catholic Church officially concluded this debate at the Council of Constance (1414–1417) by condemning Hus, who was executed by burning despite a promise of safe-conduct.[3] Wycliffe was posthumously condemned as a heretic and his corpse exhumed and burned in 1428.[4] The Council of Constance confirmed and strengthened the traditional medieval conception of church and empire. The council did not address the national tensions or the theological tensions stirred up during the previous century and could not prevent schism and the Hussite Wars in Bohemia.[5][better source needed]

Pope Sixtus IV (1471–1484) established the practice of selling indulgences to be applied to the dead, thereby establishing a new stream of revenue with agents across Europe.[6] Pope Alexander VI (1492–1503) was one of the most controversial of the Renaissance popes. He was the father of seven children, including Lucrezia and Cesare Borgia.[7][better source needed] In response to papal corruption, particularly the sale of indulgences, Luther wrote The Ninety-Five Theses.[8][better source needed]

A number of theologians in the Holy Roman Empire preached reformational ideas in the 1510s, shortly before or simultaneously with Luther, including Christoph Schappeler in Memmingen (as early as 1513).

Martin Luther and the beginning

Martin Luther initiated the Reformation with his Ninety-five Theses against the Catholic Church
Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms, where he refused to recant his works which were deemed heretical by the Catholic Church (painting from Anton von Werner, 1877, Staatsgalerie Stuttgart)

The Reformation is usually dated to 31 October 1517 in Wittenberg, Saxony, when Luther sent his Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences to the Archbishop of Mainz. The theses debated and criticised the Church and the papacy, but concentrated upon the selling of indulgences and doctrinal policies about purgatory, particular judgment, and the authority of the pope. He would later in the period 1517–1521 write works on the Catholic devotion to Virgin Mary, the intercession of and devotion to the saints, the sacraments, mandatory clerical celibacy, monasticism, further on the authority of the pope, the ecclesiastical law, censure and excommunication, the role of secular rulers in religious matters, the relationship between Christianity and the law, and good works.[9]

Reformers made heavy use of inexpensive pamphlets as well as vernacular Bibles using the relatively new printing press, so there was swift movement of both ideas and documents.[10][11]

Magisterial Reformation

Parallel to events in Germany, a movement began in Switzerland under the leadership of Huldrych Zwingli. These two movements quickly agreed on most issues, but some unresolved differences kept them separate. Some followers of Zwingli believed that the Reformation was too conservative, and moved independently toward more radical positions, some of which survive among modern day Anabaptists. Other Protestant movements grew up along lines of mysticism or humanism, sometimes breaking from Rome or from the Protestants, or forming outside of the churches.

After this first stage of the Reformation, following the excommunication of Luther and condemnation of the Reformation by the Pope, the work and writings of John Calvin were influential in establishing a loose consensus among various groups in Switzerland, Scotland, Hungary, Germany and elsewhere.

The Reformation foundations engaged with Augustinianism; both Luther and Calvin thought along lines linked with the theological teachings of Augustine of Hippo.[citation needed] The Augustinianism of the reformers struggled against Pelagianism, a heresy that they perceived in the Catholic Church. In the course of this religious upheaval, the German Peasants' War of 1524–1525 swept through the Bavarian, Thuringian and Swabian principalities, including the Black Company of Florian Geier, a knight from Giebelstadt who joined the peasants in the general outrage against the Catholic hierarchy. Zwinglian and Lutheran ideas had influence with preachers within the regions that the Peasants' War occurred and upon works such as the Twelve Articles.[12] Luther, however, condemned the revolt in writings such as Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants; Zwingli and Luther's ally Philipp Melanchthon also did not condone the uprising.[13][14] Some 100,000 peasants were killed by the end of the war.[15]

Radical Reformation

The Radical Reformation was the response to what was believed to be the corruption in the Catholic Church and the expanding Magisterial Protestant movement led by Martin Luther and many others. Beginning in Germany and Switzerland in the 16th century, the Radical Reformation gave birth to many radical Protestant groups throughout Europe. The term covers radical reformers like Thomas Müntzer and Andreas Karlstadt, groups like the Zwickau prophets, and Anabaptist groups like the Hutterites and Mennonites.

In parts of Germany, Switzerland and Austria, a majority sympathized with the Radical Reformation despite intense persecution.[16] Although the surviving proportion of the European population that rebelled against Catholic, Lutheran and Zwinglian churches was small, Radical Reformers wrote profusely and the literature on the Radical Reformation is disproportionately large, partly as a result of the proliferation of the Radical Reformation teachings in the United States.[17]


Martin Luther's 1534 Bible translated into German. Luther's translation influenced the development of the current Standard German.

The Reformation was a triumph of literacy and the new printing press.[18][a][10][20] Luther's translation of the Bible into German was a decisive moment in the spread of literacy, and stimulated as well the printing and distribution of religious books and pamphlets. From 1517 onward, religious pamphlets flooded Germany and much of Europe.[21][b]

By 1530, over 10,000 publications are known, with a total of ten million copies. The Reformation was thus a media revolution. Luther strengthened his attacks on Rome by depicting a "good" against "bad" church. From there, it became clear that print could be used for propaganda in the Reformation for particular agendas. Reform writers used pre-Reformation styles, clichés and stereotypes and changed items as needed for their own purposes.[21] Especially effective were writings in German, including Luther's translation of the Bible, his Smaller Catechism for parents teaching their children, and his Larger Catechism, for pastors.

Using the German vernacular they expressed the Apostles' Creed in simpler, more personal, Trinitarian language. Illustrations in the German Bible and in many tracts popularised Luther's ideas. Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553), the great painter patronised by the electors of Wittenberg, was a close friend of Luther, and he illustrated Luther's theology for a popular audience. He dramatised Luther's views on the relationship between the Old and New Testaments, while remaining mindful of Luther's careful distinctions about proper and improper uses of visual imagery.[23]

Causes of the Reformation

The following supply-side factors have been identified as causes of the Reformation:[24]

  • The presence of a printing press in a city by 1500 made Protestant adoption by 1600 far more likely.[10]
  • Protestant literature was produced at greater levels in cities where media markets were more competitive, making these cities more likely to adopt Protestantism.[20]
  • Ottoman incursions decreased conflicts between Protestants and Catholics, helping the Reformation take root.[25]
  • Greater political autonomy increased the likelihood that Protestantism would be adopted.[10][26]
  • Where Protestant reformers enjoyed princely patronage, they were much more likely to succeed.[27]
  • Proximity to neighbors who adopted Protestantism increased the likelihood of adopting Protestantism.[26]
  • Cities that had higher numbers of students enrolled in heterodox universities and lower numbers enrolled in orthodox universities were more likely to adopt Protestantism.[27]

The following demand-side factors have been identified as causes of the Reformation:[24]

  • Cities with strong cults of saints were less likely to adopt Protestantism.[28]
  • Cities where primogeniture was practiced were less likely to adopt Protestantism.[29]
  • Regions that were poor but had great economic potential and bad political institutions were more likely to adopt Protestantism.[30]
  • The presence of bishoprics made the adoption of Protestantism less likely.[10]
  • The presence of monasteries made the adoption of Protestantism less likely.[30]
Other Languages
Alemannisch: Reformation
azərbaycanca: Reformasiya
Bân-lâm-gú: Chong-kàu Kái-kek
башҡортса: Реформация
беларуская: Рэфармацыя
беларуская (тарашкевіца)‎: Рэфармацыя
български: Реформация
bosanski: Reformacija
čeština: Reformace
Deutsch: Reformation
Ελληνικά: Μεταρρύθμιση
Esperanto: Reformacio
客家語/Hak-kâ-ngî: Chûng-kau Kói-kiet
한국어: 종교 개혁
հայերեն: Ռեֆորմացիա
hrvatski: Reformacija
Bahasa Indonesia: Reformasi Protestan
interlingua: Reforma protestante
íslenska: Siðaskiptin
қазақша: Реформация
Кыргызча: Реформация
Latina: Reformatio
latviešu: Reformācija
Lëtzebuergesch: Reformatioun
lietuvių: Reformacija
Limburgs: Reformatie
Lingua Franca Nova: Reformi protestantiste
magyar: Reformáció
Bahasa Melayu: Reformasi Protestan
Nederlands: Reformatie
Nedersaksies: Reformasie
日本語: 宗教改革
norsk nynorsk: Reformasjonen
occitan: Reforma
oʻzbekcha/ўзбекча: Reformatsiya
Plattdüütsch: Reformatschoon
polski: Reformacja
rumantsch: Refurmaziun
русиньскый: Реформация
русский: Реформация
саха тыла: Реформация
Seeltersk: Reformation
Simple English: Protestant Reformation
slovenčina: Reformácia
slovenščina: Reformacija
srpskohrvatski / српскохрватски: Reformacija
svenska: Reformationen
Türkçe: Reform (tarih)
Türkmençe: Reformasiýa
українська: Реформація
吴语: 誓反裂教
粵語: 宗教改革
žemaitėška: Refuormacėjė
中文: 宗教改革