Why the Protestant Reformation Succeeded

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The “success” of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th Century may be a relative concept. The Reformation is generally associated with Martin Luther and the publication of his 95 theses in 1517. Yet, although the Reformation became very political, Luther’s focus remained on the Gospel and the epistles of the New Testament as pointing the way toward salvation through faith. He never set out to create a movement or form a new church. His “success,” however, owes much to the political climate of the day, notably the support of his patron Frederick the Wise as well as the relationship between Emperor Charles V, the Germanic princes, and the papacy.

The Sense of the German People and Their Grievances

Luther, had he been so inclined, could have agitated for a German “national” church much as England’s King Henry VIII had done. The idea of such an enterprise, however, was not part of Luther’s ministry even though contemporaries, both poor and rich, frequently viewed his message apart from the theological implications of his writings and preaching. Luther, for example, condemned the 1525 Peasant War.

Luther’s 95 theses were published before Charles V was confirmed Holy Roman Emperor by seven electors, one of who was Frederick the Wise of Saxony. According to scholars, there is no historical evidence that Charles or his agents influenced in any way Frederick’s vote, which was cast without any foreknowledge. The relationship between Frederick and Charles impacted how the new emperor would deal with Luther.

Charles was also keenly aware that many of the German princes sought taxation relief tied to Rome and the insatiable greed of the Church hierarchy. At issue was the so-called “Crusade” tax, also referred to as the “Turkish penny.” Luther historian Heiko Oberman writes that Luther’s patron, Frederick, was, “…at the forefront when it came to throwing off the yoke of ecclesiastical power.”

Frederick supported Luther’s criticism of the recently promulgated plenary indulgence, banning the Dominican Johann Tetzel from Saxony. Frederick’s decision, it should be noted, was to safeguard revenue obtained from his own relics collection; Tetzel was competition. Additionally, Luther was an important member of his faculty at the University of Wittenberg.

Changing World Patterns and Religious Policy

Unlike earlier centuries in which heretic groups like the Albigensians were the objects of Church-sanctioned crusades leading to merciless slaughtering, most notably in Southern France, the Europe of Charles V imposed different priorities. Oberman refers to “shifting geopolitical patterns.”

Charles was a Spanish Habsburg and Spain was rapidly developing a New World empire. At the same time, new Muslim incursions in the Levant and the eastern Mediterranean region threatened Venice while imposing upon Spain and Charles in particular a Christian sovereign’s duty to protect Christian Europe. The Luther-problem did not warrant similar concerns.

In not addressing the growing Protestant movement forcefully enough, Charles may have inadvertently strengthened Lutheranism and the various off-shoots that emerged later in the century such as Calvinism. Oberman, for example, argues that, “…it was the emperor’s religious policy that…enabled the powers Luther had unleashed to bring about radical change in theology, the church, and the balance of power in Europe.”

The Extravagance of the Roman Church

Indulgences were merely the proverbial “tip of the iceberg” when it came to Church abuse. Church extravagance had been an issue for centuries, prompting, for example, St. Francis of Assisi to embrace a poverty he and his initial followers identified with Jesus. Others, such as John Wycliffe in England, also a Franciscan, preached against the properties and luxuries of what was the wealthiest extension of Catholicism in Europe.

Luther himself had been appalled by the conditions he witnessed in Rome while on an official visit for the Augustinian order. Ironically, the visit was part of an on-going dispute between different factions within the order. Luther sided with the “Observant” faction that sought a simpler monastic life, rejecting the extravagance of other orders and the Church hierarchy.

Education and the Growth of Urban Centers

The success of Luther’s Reformation also has much to do with education and literacy. R. W. Scribner refers to the Reformation as the “first great age of mass propaganda” in his studies of 16th Century broadsheets and woodcuts. Filled with recognizable symbols, these images, often including rhymes easy to memorize by illiterate peasants, conveyed powerful if not always accurate messages.

Historian Miriam Chrisman, analyzing printing in Strasbourg, writes that the emerging pamphlets, songs, and other printed materials, “enable us to reconstruct the intellectual milieu of ordinary men and women.” It is significant that this took place first in the cities. Steven Ozment, writing about the Reformation in the cities, comments that, “Few movements have been assisted by a more able group of popular writers than the Protestant Reformation.”

The impact of literacy within imperial cities as contributory to the success of Luther’s Reformation is corroborated by Bernd Moeller’s study. According to Moeller, “…in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries the upper classes of the imperial cities formed the elite of the whole empire, and the intellectual life of Germany reached a truly European level for the first time.”

Moeller, however, concludes that towns tended to become more secular and that “…demands for Reformation with desires for social and economic reform…retarded…the victory of the Reformation.” The eventual triumph of the Reformation is attributed by Moeller to “much more profound sentiments.” The same general patterns were evident in French cities where Calvinism flourished.

Why the Protestant Reformation Succeeded

Luther’s success was tied to his focus: the message of salvation; the success of the ensuing movement had much to do with imperial politics, the personalities of men like Frederick and Charles V, mass facilitation of the printing press for the first time, growing literacy, and a spirit of urban autonomy tied to a better-educated community. At the same time, Catholicism rejected any real effort at reform, projecting the image of intractable extravagance.

Sources:

Miriam U. Chrisman, “Printing and the Evolution of Lay Culture in Strasbourg, 1480-1599,” The German People And The Reformation, Edited by R. Po-Chia Hsia (Cornell University Press, 1988)
Bernd Moeller, Imperial Cities and the Reformation (The Labyrinth Press, 1982)
Heiko A. Oberman, Luther: Man between God and the Devil (Yale University Press, 1989)
Steven Ozment, The Age of Reform 1250-1550 (Yale University Press, 1980)
Steven E. Ozment, The Reformation in the Cities (Yale University Press, 1975)
R.W. Scribner, Popular Culture and Popular Movements in Reformation Germany (The Hambledon Press, 1987)