The Reformation (more fully the Protestant Reformation, or the European Reformation[1]) was a movement in Western Christianity in 16th-century Europe. Although the Reformation is usually considered to have started with the publication of the Ninety-five Theses by Martin Luther in 1517, there was no schism until the 1521 Edict of Worms. The edicts of the Diet condemned Luther and officially banned citizens of the Holy Roman Empire from defending or propagating his ideas.[2] The end of the Reformation era is disputed, it could be considered to end with the enactment of the confessions of faith which began the Age of Orthodoxy. Other suggested ending years relate to the Counter-Reformation, the Peace of Westphalia, or that it never ended since there are still Protestants today.

Movements had been made towards a Reformation prior to Luther, so some Protestants in the tradition of the Radical Reformation prefer to credit the start of the Reformation to reformers such as Arnold of Brescia, Peter Waldo, Jan Hus, Tomáš Štítný ze Štítného, John Wycliffe, and Girolamo Savonarola.[a] Due to the reform efforts of Huss and others in the Lands of the Bohemian Crown, Utraquist Hussitism was officially acknowledged by both the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor, although other movements were still subject to persecution, as were the including Lollards in England and Waldensians in Italy and France.

Luther began by criticising the sale of indulgences, insisting that the Pope had no authority over purgatory and that the Treasury of Merit had no foundation in the Bible. The Reformation developed further to include a distinction between Law and Gospel, a complete reliance on Scripture as the only source of proper doctrine (sola scriptura) and the belief that faith in Jesus is the only way to receive God's pardon for sin (sola fide) rather than good works. Although this is generally considered a Protestant belief, a similar formulation was taught by Molinist and Jansenist Catholics. The priesthood of all believers downplayed the need for saints or priests to serve as mediators, and mandatory clerical celibacy was ended. Simul justus et peccator implied that although people could improve, no one could become good enough to earn forgiveness from God. Sacramental theology was simplified and attempts at imposing Aristotelian epistemology were resisted.

Luther and his followers did not see these theological developments as changes. The 1530 Augsburg Confession concluded that "in doctrine and ceremonies nothing has been received on our part against Scripture or the Church Catholic", and even after the Council of Trent, Martin Chemnitz published the 1565–73 Examination of the Council of Trent[3] in order to prove that Trent innovated on doctrine while the Lutherans were following in the footsteps of the Church Fathers and Apostles.[4][5]

The initial movement in Germany diversified, and other reformers arose independently of Luther such as Zwingli in Zürich and Calvin in Geneva. Depending on the 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.

During Reformation-era confessionalization, Western Christianity adopted different confessions (Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, Anabaptist, Unitarian, etc.).[6] Radical Reformers, besides forming communities outside state sanction, sometimes employed more extreme doctrinal change, such as the rejection of the tenets of the councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon with the Unitarians of Transylvania. Anabaptist movements were especially persecuted following the German Peasants' War.

Leaders within the Roman Catholic Church responded with the Counter-Reformation, initiated by the Confutatio Augustana in 1530, the Council of Trent in 1545, the Jesuits in 1540, the Defensio Tridentinæ fidei in 1578, and also a series of wars and expulsions of Protestants that continued until the 19th century. Northern Europe, with the exception of most of Ireland, came under the influence of Protestantism. Southern Europe remained predominantly Catholic with the persecution of the Waldensians. Central Europe was the site of much of the Thirty Years' War and there were continued expulsions of Protestants in central Europe up to the 19th century. Following World War II, the removal of ethnic Germans to either East Germany or Siberia reduced Protestantism in the Warsaw Pact countries, although some remain today. Absence of Protestants however, does not necessarily imply a failure of the Reformation. Although Protestants were excommunicated and ended up worshiping in communions separate from Catholics contrary to the original intention of the Reformers, they were also suppressed and persecuted in most of Europe at one point. As a result, some of them lived as crypto-Protestants, also called Nicodemites, contrary to the urging of John Calvin who wanted them to live their faith openly.[7] Some crypto-Protestants have been identified as late as the 19th century after immigrating to Latin America.[8] As a result Reformation impulses continued to effect the Latin Church well past the end of what is usually considered the Reformation era.[9]

Origins and early history

Earlier reform movements

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.

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.

Common factors that played a role during the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation included the rise of nationalism, simony, the appointment of Cardinal-nephews, and other corruption of the Roman Curia and other ecclesiastical hierarchy, the impact of humanism, the new learning of the Renaissance, the epistemological shift between the schola moderna and schola antiqua within scholasticism, and the Western Schism that eroded loyalty to the Papacy. 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, especially 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 Roman 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.[10] Hus rejected indulgences and adopted a doctrine of justification by grace through faith alone.[citation needed]

The leaders of the Roman Catholic Church condemned him at the Council of Constance (1414–1417) by burning him at the stake despite a promise of safe-conduct.[11] Wycliffe was posthumously condemned as a heretic and his corpse exhumed and burned in 1428.[12] 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.[13][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.[14] 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.[15][better source needed] In response to papal corruption, particularly the sale of indulgences, Luther wrote The Ninety-Five Theses.[16][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).

Magisterial Reformation

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 when asked to by Charles V. (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 devotion to Virgin Mary, the intercession of and devotion to the saints, the sacraments, mandatory clerical celibacy, 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, good works, and monasticism.[17] Some nuns left the monastic life when they accepted the Reformation, such as Katharina von Bora and Ursula of Munsterberg, but other orders adopted the Reformation, as Lutherans continue to have monasteries today. In contrast, Reformed areas typically secularized monastic property.

Reformers and their opponents 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.[18][19] Magdalena Heymair printed pedagogical writings for teaching children Bible stories.

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.

After this first stage of the Reformation, following the excommunication of Luther in Decet Romanum Pontificem and the condemnation of his followers by the edicts of the 1521 Diet of Worms, the work and writings of John Calvin were influential in establishing a loose consensus among various churches in Switzerland, Scotland, Hungary, Germany and elsewhere.

Although the German Peasants' War of 1524–1525 began as a tax and anti-corruption protest as reflected in the Twelve Articles, its leader Thomas Müntzer gave it a radical Reformation character. It 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.[20]In response to reports about the destruction and violence, Luther 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.[21][22] Some 100,000 peasants were killed by the end of the war.[23]

Radical Reformation

The Radical Reformation was the response to what was believed to be the corruption in both the Roman Catholic Church and the Magisterial Reformation. Beginning in Germany and Switzerland in the 16th century, the Radical Reformation developed radical Protestant churches throughout Europe. The term includes Thomas Müntzer, Andreas Karlstadt, the Zwickau prophets, and Anabaptists like the Hutterites and Mennonites.

In parts of Germany, Switzerland and Austria, a majority sympathized with the Radical Reformation despite intense persecution.[24] 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.[25]


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.[26][b][18][28] 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.[29][c]

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, although the term propaganda derives from the Catholic Congregatio de Propaganda Fide (Congregation for Propagating the Faith) from the Counter-Reformation. Reform writers used existing styles, clichés and stereotypes which they adapted as needed.[29] 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.[31]

Causes of the Reformation

Erasmus was a Catholic priest who inspired some of the Protestant reformers.

The following supply-side factors have been identified as causes of the Reformation:[32]

  • The presence of a printing press in a city by 1500 made Protestant adoption by 1600 far more likely.[18]
  • Protestant literature was produced at greater levels in cities where media markets were more competitive, making these cities more likely to adopt Protestantism.[28]
  • Ottoman incursions decreased conflicts between Protestants and Catholics, helping the Reformation take root.[33]
  • Greater political autonomy increased the likelihood that Protestantism would be adopted.[18][34]
  • Where Protestant reformers enjoyed princely patronage, they were much more likely to succeed.[35]
  • Proximity to neighbors who adopted Protestantism increased the likelihood of adopting Protestantism.[34]
  • Cities that had higher numbers of students enrolled in heterodox universities and lower numbers enrolled in orthodox universities were more likely to adopt Protestantism.[35]

The following demand-side factors have been identified as causes of the Reformation:[32]

  • Cities with strong cults of saints were less likely to adopt Protestantism.[36]
  • Cities where primogeniture was practiced were less likely to adopt Protestantism.[37]
  • Regions that were poor but had great economic potential and bad political institutions were more likely to adopt Protestantism.[38]
  • The presence of bishoprics made the adoption of Protestantism less likely.[18]
  • The presence of monasteries made the adoption of Protestantism less likely.[38]
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
සිංහල: Protestant 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