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7th Grade Social Studies / Lesson 3 - Protestant Reformation

What will we be learning in this unit?

  • How did abuses in the Church spark widespread criticism?
  • How did Martin Luther challenge Catholic authority and teachings?
  • What role did John Calvin play in the Reformation?


 Abuses in the Church

  • Beginning in the late Middle Ages, the Church had become increasingly caught up in worldly affairs. Popes competed with Italian princes for political power. They fought long wars to protect the Papal States against invasions by secular rulers. They intrigued against powerful monarchs who tried to seize control of the Church within their lands. 
  • Like other Renaissance rulers, popes maintained a lavish lifestyle. Popes were also patrons of the arts. They hired painters and sculptors to beautify churches.


 Abuses in the Church

  • To finance such projects, the Church increased fees for services such as marriages and baptisms. Some clergy also promoted the sale of indulgences. According to Church teaching, an indulgence was a lessening of the time a soul would have to spend in purgatory, a place where souls too impure to enter heaven atoned for sins committed during their lifetimes. In the Middle Ages, the Church had granted indulgences only for good deeds, such as going on a crusade. By the late 1400s, however, indulgences could also be obtained in exchange for money gifts to the Church. 
  • Many Christians protested such practices, especially in northern Europe. Christian humanists such as Erasmus urged a return to the simple ways of the early Christian Church. They stressed Bible study and rejected what they saw as the worldliness of the Church.


 Luther's Protest

  • In 1517, protests against Church abuses erupted into a full-scale revolt. The man who triggered the revolt was a German monk and professor of theology named Martin Luther.
  • As a young man, Luther prayed and fasted and tried to lead a holy life. Still, he believed he was doomed to eternal damnation. He also grew disillusioned with what he saw as Church corruption and worldliness. At last, an incident in the town of Wittenberg prompted him to take action.


Luther's Protest

  • In 1517, a priest named Johann Tetzel set up a pulpit on the outskirts of Wittenberg. He offered indulgences to any Christian who contributed money for the rebuilding of the Cathedral of St. Peter in Rome. Tetzel claimed that purchase of these indulgences would assure entry into heaven not only for the purchasers but for their dead relatives as well. "Don't you hear the voices of your dead parents and other relatives crying out?" he demanded.
  • To Luther, Tetzel's actions were the final outrage. He drew up 95 theses, or arguments, against indulgences. Among other things, he argued that indulgences had no basis in the Bible, that the pope had no authority to release souls from purgatory, and that Christians could be saved only through faith. In accordance with the custom of the time, he posted his list on the door of Wittenberg's All Saints Church.


Luther's Protest

  • Almost overnight, copies of Luther's 95 Theses were printed and distributed across Europe, where they stirred furious debate. The Church called on Luther to recant, or give up his views. Luther refused. Instead, he developed even more radical new doctrines. Before long, he was urging Christians to reject the authority of Rome. Because the Church would not reform itself, he wrote, it must be reformed by secular authorities.
  • In 1521, the pope excommunicated Luther. Later that year, the new Holy Roman emperor, Charles V, summoned Luther to the diet, or assembly of German princes, at Worms. Luther went, expecting to defend his writings. Instead, the emperor simply ordered him to give them up. Luther again refused to recant


  Luther's Protest

  • Charles declared Luther an outlaw, making it a crime for anyone in the empire to give him food or shelter. Still, Luther had many powerful supporters. One prince hid him at a castle in Wartburg. Luther remained in hiding for nearly a year. Throughout Germany, in the meantime, thousands hailed him as a hero. They accepted his teachings and, following his lead, renounced the authority of the pope.


   Luther's Protest

  • At the heart of Luther's teachings were several beliefs. First, he rejected the Church doctrine that good deeds were necessary for salvation. Instead, Luther argued that salvation was achieved through faith alone.
  • Second, Luther upheld the Bible as the sole source of religious truth. He denied other authorities, such as Church councils or the pope.


 Luther's Protest

  • Third, Luther rejected the idea that priests and the Church hierarchy had special powers. Instead, he talked of a "priesthood of all believers." All Christians, he said, had equal access to God through faith and the Bible. Luther translated the Bible into the German vernacular so that ordinary people could study it by themselves. Every town, he said, should have a school so that girls and boys could learn to read the Bible. 
  • Luther wanted to change other church practices. He rejected five of the seven sacraments because the Bible did not mention them. He banned indulgences, confession, pilgrimages, and prayers to saints. He simplified the elaborate ritual of the mass and instead emphasized the sermon. And he permitted the clergy to marry. These and other changes were adopted by the Lutheran churches that were set up by Luther's followers.


Spread of Lutheran Ideas

  • Why did Lutheranism win widespread support? Many clergy saw Luther's reforms as the answer to Church corruption. A number of German princes, however, embraced Lutheran beliefs for more selfish reasons. Some saw Lutheranism as a way to throw off the rule of both the Church and the Holy Roman emperor. Others welcomed a chance to seize Church property in their territory. Still other Germans supported Luther because of feelings of national loyalty. They were tired of German money going to support churches and clergy in Italy.


Spread of Lutheran Ideas

  • Many peasants also took up Luther's banner. They hoped to gain his support for social and economic change. 
  • In 1524, a Peasants' Revolt erupted across Germany. The rebels called for an end to serfdom and demanded other changes in their harsh lives. Luther, however, strongly favored social order and respect for political authority. As the Peasants' Revolt grew more violent, Luther denounced it. With his support, nobles suppressed the rebellion, killing tens of thousands of people and leaving thousands more homeless.


  Spread of Lutheran Ideas

 

  • During the 1530s and 1540s, Holy Roman emperor Charles V tried to force Lutheran princes back into the Catholic Church, but with little success. Finally, after a number of brief wars, Charles and the princes reached a settlement. The Peace of Augsburg, signed in 1555, allowed each prince to decide which religion-Catholic or Lutheran-would be followed in his lands. Most northern German states chose Lutheranism. The south remained largely Catholic.


  Spread of Lutheran Ideas

 

  • During the 1530s and 1540s, Holy Roman emperor Charles V tried to force Lutheran princes back into the Catholic Church, but with little success. Finally, after a number of brief wars, Charles and the princes reached a settlement. The Peace of Augsburg, signed in 1555, allowed each prince to decide which religion-Catholic or Lutheran-would be followed in his lands. Most northern German states chose Lutheranism. The south remained largely Catholic.


John Calvin

  • Two other reformers, Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin, presented further challenges to the Catholic Church. Zwingli, a priest and an admirer of Erasmus, lived in the Swiss city of Zurich. Like Luther, he rejected elaborate church rituals and stressed the importance of the Bible. John Calvin had a logical, razor-sharp mind. His ideas had a profound effect on the direction of the Reformation. 
  • Calvin was born in France and trained as a priest and lawyer. In 1536, Calvin published the Institutes of the Christian Religion. In this book, which was read by Protestants everywhere, he set forth his religious beliefs. He also provided advice on how to organize and run a Protestant church.


 John Calvin

 

  • Like Luther, Calvin believed that salvation was gained through faith alone. He, too, regarded the Bible as the only source of religious truth. But Calvin put forth a number of ideas of his own. He preached predestination, the idea that God had long ago determined who would gain salvation. To Calvinists, the world was divided into two kinds of people-saints and sinners. Calvinists tried to live like saints, believing that only those who were saved could live truly Christian lives.


John Calvin

  • In 1541, Protestants in the city-state of Geneva in Switzerland asked Calvin to lead their community. In keeping with his teachings, Calvin set up a theocracy, or government run by church leaders.
  • Calvin's followers in Geneva came to see themselves as a new "chosen people" entrusted by God to build a truly Christian society. Calvinists stressed hard work, discipline, thrift, honesty, and morality. Citizens faced fines or other harsher punishments for offenses such as fighting, swearing, laughing in church, or dancing. Calvin closed theaters and frowned on elaborate dress. To many Protestants, this emphasis on strict morality made Calvinist Geneva seem a model community.


 John Calvin

 

  • Like Luther, Calvin believed in religious education for girls as well as for boys. Women, he felt, should read the Bible-in private. Calvin also allowed women to sing in church, a practice that many church leaders criticized.
  • Reformers from all over Europe visited Geneva and then returned home to spread Calvin's ideas. By the late 1500s, Calvinism had taken root in Germany, France, the Netherlands, England, and Scotland. This new challenge to the Roman Catholic Church set off bloody wars of religion across Europe.


John Calvin

  • In Germany, Calvinists faced opposition not only from Catholics, but from Lutherans as well. In France, wars raged between French Calvinists, called Huguenots, and Catholics. Calvinists in the Netherlands organized the Dutch Reformed Church. To avoid persecution, "field preachers" gave sermons in the countryside, away from the eyes of town authorities. 
  • In Scotland, a Calvinist preacher named John Knox led a religious rebellion. Under Knox, Scottish Protestants overthrew their Catholic queen. They then set up the Scottish Presbyterian Church.