The Reformation: History in an Hour

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Looking for a short primer on the Reformation? The Reformation, by Edward E. Gosselin can be purchased at Amazon.com (Kindle Edition) for $1.99. Part of the History in an Hour series, this book can be read in under an hour. Of course it only hits the high and low points.

Gosselin defines the Reformation from Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses in 1517 to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which ended the 30-Years War.

He defines three distinct developments of the Reformation:

1. The Evangelical Period. Luther’s and others’ evangelical movement (1517-1525), ending with the Peasants’ Revolt.
2. The Reformation from Above (1525-1550), ending with the Augsburg Interim.
3. The Confessional Wars Period (1550-1648) in which princes conducted wars of belief, ending with the Peace of Westphalia at the end of the 30 years war.

Introduction

Gosselin begins, “From the time of St. Peter until AD 1521 The Roman Catholic Church was the only official church in Western Europe. He provided the only means through which a person could expect to have access to God and to gain entry into heaven.”

Securing your eternal salvation was as important as planting crops. This could not be done without the church, which bestowed sanctifying grace. Baptism removed original sin. Confession removed sins committed since baptism. Then last rights removed any sin since ones last confession. If one died with venial sins unconfessed, one went to purgatory for an unknown period of time. If one died with mortal sins unconfessed, one most certainly went to hell.

Gosselin discusses the abuses of the Medieval Church, and those who attempted to reform those abuses, like Erasmus. He then distinguishes Luther’s approach, which was to reform the theology that undergirded those practices. Because of his critique, the Pope declared Luther a heretic, and Emperor Charles V declared him an outlaw and enemy of the empire.

Zwingli (1484-1531) was a Roman Catholic parish priest. When he was appointed to the Zurich’s Grossmünster Church in 1519, he began to preach reform. He presented to his congregation a simpler liturgy, and encouraged the removal of statues. He rejected both Roman Catholic transubstantiation and Lutheran consubstantiation. He and Luther met to work it out, but couldn’t. Luther was said to have carved “This is my body” into the table.

A third variety of reformation churches arose, calling themselves Baptists. Their opponents called them Anabaptists, or rebaptizers, because they rebaptized those who had been baptized as infants. Biblical literalists, they even refused to answer summons to court because of Matthew 5:24.

John Calvin (1509-1564) was influenced by Protestant ideas, but believed the Anabaptists to be unscriptural. He was known for a doctrine now known as “double predestination.” Some are predestined for salvation, therefore, others are predestined for damnation. After being expelled from Geneva, in time he was welcomed, and Calvinism became the religion of Geneva. In time, Calvinists and Zwinglians would unite.

Gosselin spent time on Catholic and Protestant intolerance of one another, something all too often smoothed over by proponents of either side. John Calvin presided over the trial and execution of Servetus, who denied the Trinity. John Knox, also present at the burning, applauded when Servetus finally died. In 1542 to the Pope reinstituted the Inquisition to stamp out Protestant heresy.

While Luther did not burn heretics, he did respond strongly to the Peasants’ Revolt, telling the aristocracy that they had misunderstood his tract Christian Liberty, and they should be put down like mad dogs. This was something on which both Catholic and Lutheran aristocracy agreed. 100,000 people were slaughtered. With that, Lutheranism became a middle and upper class religion, and many of the peasants turned to the Anabaptists. Other radical reformers are explored as well as the reforms of the Council of Trent.

With the end of the Peasants’ Revolt, Gosselin’s second period of the Reformation begins, the Reformation from Above. During this time, people believed one way or the other. Churches sided with the Roman Catholic church or one of the various kinds of Protestants. Around 1530, people’s ability to choose became increasingly curtailed. The local prince decided what religion a jurisdiction would be.

During this period of the Reformation from Above, Henry VIII split from Rome. He nevertheless maintained Luther was a heretic, and even declared the queen a Lutheran and had her executed. Spain remained Catholic, but had several reform movements. In France, Calvinists (Hugenots) spread rapidly. Others remained Catholic, but broke with Rome and refused to send money to the Pope.

The third period Gosselin discusses is the period of the Confessional Wars, in which princes conducted wars of belief, vying for control. In time the French Hugenots (Calvinists) were slaughtered by the Catholic kings, thenceforth making France entirely Catholic.

England went back and forth: Henry VIII: Anti-Lutheran, but broke from Rome. Edward VI was Calvinistic. Catholics were persecuted and executed. Mary Tudor was Catholic. Protestants were persecuted and executed. Elizabeth I returned England to Protestantism. James I was a Protestant. James II (1685-1688) was the last Catholic monarch of England.

Gosselin traces the Protestant histories of Spain and the Low Countries as well, then on to the colonies. In time Calvinists fled to the American Colonies. John Winthrop led the Puritans to Massachusetts Bay where they founded a college and seminary in 1636 called Harvard.

The end of the Reformation takes place with the close of the 30 years War (1618 to 1648). The Peace of Westphalia allowed Catholic, Lutheran and Reformed Calvinist churches to coexist in the Holy Roman Empire. It ended the wave of religious intolerance that had captivated Europe for a century.

Rather than focusing on Luther or Calvin, this book is a view from 30,000 feet of the scope of the Reformation. It’s a short read, but worth the time.

 

 

 

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