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01 - UNPOPULAR CHURCH PRACTICESReformation_-_Indulgences.jpg

By the late Renaissance some people had begun to complain about problems in the Catholic Church. They called on church leaders to erase corruption and to focus on religion. Eventually, their calls led to a reform movement of western Christianity called the Reformation (re-fuhr-MAY-shuhn).

The reformers who wanted to change and improve the church had many complaints. Their complaints criticized the behavior of priests, bishops, and popes, as well as church practices. Some reformers thought priests and bishops weren’t very religious anymore. They claimed that many priests didn’t even know basic church teachings. Others felt that the pope was too involved in politics, neglecting his religious duties. These people found it difficult to see the pope as their spiritual leader.

Other reformers had no problems with the clergy, but they thought the church had grown too rich. During the Middle Ages the Roman Catholic Church had become one of the richest institutions in Europe. The church used a number of methods to raise money, and it had been able to stay rich because it didn’t have to pay any taxes.

For many people the worst problems were the methods the church used to raise money. One common method the church used to raise money was the sale of indulgence, a relaxation of penalties for sins people had committed.

According to the church some indulgences reduced the punishment that a person would receive for sins in purgatory. In Catholic teachings, purgatory was a place where souls went before they went to heaven. In purgatory the souls were punished for the sins that they had committed in life. Once they had paid for these sins, the souls went to heaven. The idea that people could reduce the time that their souls would spend in purgatory by paying for indulgences enraged many Christians. They thought the church was letting people buy their way into heaven.

The Call for Reform

The unpopular practices of the church weakened its influence in many people’s lives. By the early 1500s scholars in northern Europe were calling for reforms. One of the first people to seek reforms in the church was the Dutch priest and writer Desiderius Erasmus. Erasmus thought that the church’s problems were caused by lazy clergy. He complained that church officials ignored their duties to lead easy lives:

“Whatever work may be called for…is passed along…[but] if there’s any splendor or pleasure being given out, that our church leaders are willing to take on. class of men live more comfortably or with less trouble.”

Erasmus wanted to reform the church from within. His ideas, though, inspired later reformers who chose to break from the church completely.

02 - MARTIN LUTHERReformation_-_Luther.jpg

On October 31, 1517, a priest named Martin Luther added his voice to the call for reform. He nailed a list of complaints about the church to the door of a church in Wittenberg (VIT-uhn-berk) in the German state of Saxony. Luther’s list is called the Ninety-Five Theses (THEE-seez). Thanks to the newly invented printing press, copies of Luther’s complaints spread to neighboring German states.

The Ninety-Five Theses criticized the church and many of its practices, especially the sale of indulgences. The Theses also outlined many of Luther’s own beliefs. For example, he didn’t think people needed to do charity work or give money to the church. According to Luther, as long as people believed in God and lived by the Bible, their souls would be saved.

A Break from the Church

Luther’s complaints angered many German bishops. They sent a copy of the Ninety-Five Theses to Pope Leo X, who also became outraged by Luther’s actions. He called Luther a heretic and excommunicated him. In addition, Germany’s ruler, the Holy Roman Emperor, ordered Luther to appear before a diet, or council of nobles and church officials, in the German city of Worms (VOHRMS).

Although many of the nobles who attended the council supported Luther, the emperor did not. He declared Luther an outlaw and ordered him to leave the empire. But one noble secretly supported Luther. He got Luther out of Worms and to a castle where he helped Luther hide from the emperor. Luther remained in hiding for more than a year.

Luther’s ideas eventually led to a split in the Roman Catholic Church. Those who sided with Luther and protested against the church became known as Protestants (PRAH-tuhs-tuhnts). Those Protestants who also followed Luther’s teachings were known as Lutherans.

Luther’s Teachings

Luther thought anyone could have a direct relationship with God. They didn’t need priests to talk to God for them. This idea is called the priesthood of all believers. The priesthood of all believers challenged the traditional structure of the church. To Luther, this was a benefit. People’s beliefs shouldn’t be based on traditions, he argued, but on the Bible. He thought that people should live as the Bible, not priests or the pope, said.

To help people understand how God wanted them to live, Luther translated the Bible’s New Testament into German, his native language. For the first time many Europeans who didn’t know Greek or Latin could read the Bible for themselves. In addition to translating the Bible, Luther wrote pamphlets, essays, and songs about his ideas, many of them in German.

Many German nobles liked Luther’s ideas. They particularly supported Luther’s position that the clergy should not interfere with politics. Because these nobles allowed the people who lived on their lands to become Lutheran, the Lutheran Church soon became the dominant church in most of northern Germany.



Even before Luther died in 1546, other reformers across Europe had begun to follow his example. Some of them also broke away from the Catholic Church to form churches of their own

William Tyndale

Another important reformer was William Tyndale (TIN-duhl), an English professor. Like Luther he thought that everyone should be able to read and interpret the Bible. This belief went against the teachings of the Catholic Church, in which only clergy could interpret the Bible.

Tyndale decided to translate the Bible into English. This upset the English clergy, who tried to arrest him. Tyndale fled the country and continued his translation. He sent copies of his Bible back to England. Tyndale’s work angered Catholic authorities, who had him executed.

John Calvin

A more influential reformer than Tyndale was John Calvin. One of Calvin’s main teachings was predestination, the idea that God knew who would be saved even before they were born. Nothing people did during their lives would change God’s plan. However, Calvin also taught that it was important to live a good life and obey God’s laws.

In 1541 the people of Geneva, Switzerland, made Calvin their religious and political leader. He and his followers, called Calvinists, passed laws to make people live according to Calvin’s teachings. Since Calvin’s followers believed that people were generally sinful, they banned many forms of entertainment, such as playing cards and dancing. They thought these activities distracted people from religion. Calvin hoped to make Geneva an example of a good Christian city for the rest of the world.

Henry VIII

In England the major figure of the Reformation was King Henry VIII. Because he had no sons and his wife couldn’t have any more children, Henry asked the pope to officially end his marriage. Henry wanted to get married again so that he could have a son to whom he could leave his throne. The pope refused Henry’s request. Furious and hurt, Henry decided that he didn’t want to obey the pope anymore. In 1534 he declared himself the head of a new church, called the Church of England, or Anglican Church.

Unlike Luther and Calvin, Henry made his break from the Catholic Church for personal reasons rather than religious ones. As a result, he didn’t change many church practices. Many rituals and beliefs of the Church of England stayed very much like those of the Catholic Church. Henry’s break from the church, however, opened the door for other Protestant beliefs to take hold in England.



By the mid-1500s Catholic leaders in Europe were responding to the criticisms of Protestants. They responded in many ways. Some reformers created new religious orders. Others tried to change church policy. Still others tried to stop the spread of Protestant teachings in Catholic areas.

New Religious Orders

Catholic reformers created many new religious orders in southern Europe in the 1500s. These orders had different rules and customs. But they all shared one important goal—they wanted to win back support for the Catholic Church from people who had turned away. The first new order was founded in 1534 by a Spanish noble, Ignatius (ig-NAY-shuhs) of Loyola. This new order was the Society of Jesus, or the Jesuits. The Jesuits were a religious order created to serve the pope and the church. Ignatius had been a soldier, and the organization of the Jesuits reflects this background. Jesuits tried to be as disciplined as soldiers in their religious duties. As the Jesuits’ leader, Ignatius took the title of general, and he referred to the Jesuits as soldiers.

One of the Jesuits’ goals was to teach people about Catholic ideas. They hoped that a strong Catholic education would turn people against Protestant ideas. Another order was created in 1535 in Italy by Angela Merici (may-REE-chee). Called the Ursuline Order, it was created to teach girls rather than boys. Like the Jesuits, the Ursulines thought Catholic education was the key to strengthening the Catholic Church and limiting the impact of Protestant teachings.

The Council of Trent

The new religious orders were one response to reform, but many Catholic leaders felt that more change was needed. They decided to call together a council of church leaders. Held in Trent, Italy, this council was called the Council of Trent. At this meeting, clergy from across Europe came together to discuss, debate, and eventually reform Catholic teachings.

The Council of Trent actually met three times between 1545 and 1563. The decisions made in these meetings led to major reforms in the Roman Catholic Church. The council restated the importance of the clergy in interpreting the Bible, but it created new rules that clergy had to follow. For example, the council ordered bishops to actually live in the areas they oversaw. Before this decision some bishops had lived far from the churches they ran.

The Council of Trent endorsed Catholic teaching and instituted reform of Catholic practice. From this point on, there was a clear distinction between Catholic and Protestant beliefs and practices.

The Fight against Protestants

Some Catholic Reformation leaders wanted to be more direct in their fight against Protestants. They thought Protestants were heretics who should be punished. To lead the fight against Protestants, the pope created religious courts to punish any Protestants found in Italy. He also issued a list of books considered dangerous for people to read, including many by Protestant leaders. People reading books on this list could be excommunicated.



Rather than change the church, many Catholics decided to dedicate their lives to helping it grow. They became missionaries. Their goal was to take Catholic teachings to people around the world. Many also hoped to win Protestants back to the Catholic Church.

Missionary work was not a new idea. Christians had been sending missionaries into non-Christian areas for hundreds of years. As early as the mid-1200s a group of Catholic missionaries had traveled as far as China. During the Catholic Reformation, however, Catholic missionary activity increased greatly. Some Protestant groups also sent out missionaries during this time, but they were generally outnumbered by Catholic missionaries.

Many of the new Catholic missionaries were Jesuits. Jesuit priests went to Africa and Asia to teach people about the Catholic Church. In addition, some Jesuits traveled with explorers to America to convert the native peoples there.

Probably the most important missionary of the period was the Jesuit priest Francis Xavier (ZAYV-yuhr). He traveled throughout Asia in the mid-1500s, bringing Catholicism to parts of India and Japan. As a result of his efforts, some people in those regions became Catholics. Around the world Catholic missionaries baptized millions of people. Through their efforts the effects of the Catholic Reformation reached far beyond Europe.


At the beginning of the 1500s nearly all of Europe was Catholic. As you can see on the map on the next page, however, that situation had changed dramatically 100 years later. By 1600, nearly all of southern Europe was still Catholic. But the majority of people in northern Europe had become Protestant.

Division within Europe

In many European countries, like Spain, nearly everyone shared the same religion. In Spain most people were Catholic. In northern countries such as England, Scotland, Norway, and Sweden, most people were Protestant. In the Holy Roman Empire each prince chose the religion for his territory. As a result, the empire became a patchwork of small kingdoms, some Catholic and some Protestant. Keeping peace between kingdoms with different religions was often a difficult task.

Division in the Americas

When explorers and missionaries set out from Europe for other parts of the world, they took their religions with them. In this way, the distribution of religions in Europe shaped religious patterns around the world. For example, some parts of the Americas were settled by people from Catholic countries such as Spain, France, and Portugal. These areas, including parts of Canada and most of Mexico, Central America, and South America, became Catholic. In contrast, places settled by Protestants from England and other countries—including the 13 colonies that became the United States—became mostly Protestant.


Disagreements about religion and violence often went hand in hand. During the Reformation, this violence was sometimes tied to political concerns. For example, German peasants rebelled against their rulers in 1534 after reading Luther’s Bible. It says that all people are equal, and the peasants wanted equal rights. They began a revolt that was soon defeated. In most places, though, religious concerns between Catholics and Protestants, not politics, led to conflicts and violence.


Although most people in France remained Catholic, some became Protestants. French Protestants were called Huguenots (HYOO-guh-nahts). A series of conflicts between Catholics and Huguenots led to years of bloody war. The conflicts began when the French king, who was Catholic, decided to get rid of all the Protestants in France. To accomplish this he banned all Protestant religions in France and punished or exiled any Protestants he found.
The king’s efforts to eliminate Protestants increased tensions, but violence didn’t break out until 1562. In that year a Catholic noble attacked and killed a group of Protestants in northwestern France. The attack infuriated Protestants throughout France. Angry Protestants rose up in arms against both the noble and France’s Catholic monarchy. After about a year of fighting, both sides agreed to stop fighting. As a gesture of peace the king allowed Protestants to remain in France, but only in certain towns.

The peace didn’t last for long, though. Fighting soon resumed, and the war continued on and off for almost 20 years. The worst incident of the war was the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. It took place on August 24, 1572, which Catholics called St. Bartholomew’s Day. In one night Catholic rioters killed about 3,000 Protestants in Paris. In the days that followed, riots broke out all over France.

The war between French Catholics and Protestants finally ended in 1598. In that year King Henry IV—who was raised a Protestant—issued the Edict of Nantes (NAHNT), granting religious freedom in most of France. It allowed Protestants to live and worship anywhere except in Paris and a few other cities. Henry’s law stopped the war, but resentment between Catholics and Protestants continued.


The Holy Roman Empire
Religious wars caused even more destruction in the Holy Roman Empire than in France. Major violence there broke out in 1618 when unhappy Protestants threw two Catholic officials out of a window in the city of Prague (PRAHG). Their action was a response to a new policy issued by the king of Bohemia—a part of the empire. The king had decided to make everyone in his kingdom become Catholic. To enforce his decision, he closed all Protestant churches in Bohemia. The king’s decision upset many Protestants. In Prague, unhappy Protestants overthrew their Catholic ruler and replaced him with a Protestant one. Their action did not resolve anything, however. Instead, it added to the religious conflict in the Holy Roman Empire.

Their revolt quickly spread into other parts of the empire. This rebellion began what is known as the Thirty Years’ War, a long series of wars that involved many of the countries of Europe. The war quickly became too much for the Holy Roman Emperor to handle. He sought help from other Catholic countries, including Spain. As the fighting grew worse, the Protestants also looked for help. Some of their allies weren’t even Protestant. For example, the Catholic king of France agreed to help them because he didn’t like the Holy Roman Emperor.

Although it began as a religious conflict, the Thirty Years’ War grew beyond religious issues. Countries fought each other over political rivalries, for control of territory, and about trade rights. After 30 years of fighting, Europe’s rulers were ready for the war to end. This was especially true in the German states of the Holy Roman Empire, where most of the fighting had taken place. In 1648 Europe’s leaders worked out a peace agreement.

The agreement they created, the Treaty of Westphalia, allowed rulers to determine whether their countries would be Catholic or Protestant. The treaty also introduced political changes in Europe. One important change affected the Holy Roman Empire. The states of Germany became independent, with no single ruler over them, and the Holy Roman Empire no longer existed.


The religious changes of the Reformation and the political turmoil that followed set other changes in motion. People began to question the role of government and the role of science in their lives.

Before the Reformation most Europeans had no voice in governing the Catholic Church. They simply followed the teachings of their priests and bishops. Many Protestant churches didn’t have priests, bishops, or other clergy. Instead, each congregation, or church assembly made its own rules and elected leaders to make decisions for them. People began to think that their own ideas, not just the ideas of the clergy, were important.

Once people began to govern their churches they also began to want political power. In some places congregations began to rule their towns, not just their churches. In Scotland, England, and some English colonies in America, congregations met to decide how their towns would be run. These town meetings were an early form of self-government, in which people rule themselves.

As time passed, some congregations gained more power. Their decisions came to affect more aspects of people’s lives or to control events in larger areas. The power of these congregations didn’t replace national governments, but national rulers began to share some power with local governments. The sharing of power between local governments and a strong central government is called federalism.

New Views of the World

Once people began to think that their own ideas were important, they began to raise questions. They wanted to know more about the natural physical world around them. In addition, more and more people refused to accept information about the world based on someone else’s authority. They didn’t care if the person was a writer from ancient Greece or a religious leader. The desire to investigate, to figure things out on their own, led people to turn increasingly to science.