Overview of the Reformation
At the beginning of the 16th century Europe was covered in spiritual blindness and moral corruption. The Church of Rome was more powerful and wealthy than at any time before.
It owned thousands of monasteries, large cathedrals, palaces and vast tracts of land; in some countries, like England for example, the Church owned up to a third of the land.
The Popes of the time, who were supposedly the successors of the Apostle Peter, lived in extravagant wealth, went into battle to conquer lands for themselves, threw wild parties, fathered large numbers of illegitimate children, practiced many forms of moral perversion, and ruled as an emperor. The Pope demanded homage, and claimed that his word was above the Scripture. He was called the blasphemous names of Holy Father, God’s mediator between God and man, Christ’s presence and word incarnate on earth, the Rock on which the Church was built, and the holder of the keys of heaven and hell.
The worship of the Roman Church was filled with suppression, pagan rites, and ceremonialism; it was unrecognizable from that of the early church. Baptism had become a ceremony to cast out demons from new born babies so as to save them from entering hell if they died. The Lord’s Supper was practiced as the Mass, the most wicked of human inventions, where the priest was thought to change the bread and wine into the literal body and blood of Christ, which was re-sacrificed during each Mass for the sins of the people, because Christ’s death on the cross only covered sins committed in the past, the elements were held up to be worshiped and then the people ate what they believed to be Christ’s literal flesh.
All the services were held in Latin which most people, rich and poor alike, could not understand. Besides worshiping the elements of the Mass, people worshiped the Virgin Mary, saints, angels and images of them, as well as relics, like a splinter of the cross, a drop of Mary’s milk, the toe of St. James, the sword of St. George, a piece of the burning bush. People traveled to shrines and holy places to worship the saints and earn merit with God. Holy water, bells, beads, incense and candles adorned their worship.
Besides pilgrimages and the Mass, people worked to remove the guilt of their sin by confessing their sins to their priest and doing acts of penance, such as beating themselves, fasting or wearing a rough undershirt designed to cause continual discomfort, or they spent their money on buying indulgences in place of doing acts of penance.
The Roman Church taught salvation by works, not the works of the Scripture but manmade acts. The people and the priests by and large were violent, immoral, drunken, ignorant, and uncharitable (except when doing an act of penance).
The European family was in disarray through adultery, and as the priesthood was not to marry, but were very immoral, many children were aborted or born out of wedlock and raised without both parents. The Scripture was only to be read in Latin by the priest, and most of them were totally ignorant of its content.
In the end of the 15th century there had been a rebirth of ancient Greek and Roman thought, known as the Renaissance, which did increase literacy among the wealthy and middle classes, and gave scholars an interest in studying Greek and even Hebrew. But the Renaissance had also brought renewal of ancient thought and practice, particularly in southern Europe. Cities hired astrologers and wizards, artists began creating spectacular paintings and sculptures that glorified man’s body, usually depicted in the nude, immorality was rampant, adultery and paederastic sodomy were fashionable and were celebrated in plays, songs and poetry.
In Spain, Jews were being ruthlessly slaughtered by the Spanish Inquisition, while the few faithful Bible believing Christians, the Lollards, Waldenses and Hussites, were nearly crushed through persecution. The Muslims were the greatest threat to Europe that they had been since the 700s when Charles Martel had saved Europe from Muslim rule. They were attacking Eastern Europe on land and terrorizing and enslaving by sea as far afield as Ireland and Iceland.
The Kings and Emperors were growing in power, centralizing the governmental power in Europe, growing their standing armies and increasing taxes.
Europe was in desperate need of a work of God. And God did work in a mighty way bringing about the greatest cultural changing Revival since Pentecost, which we call the Reformation. The Reformation brought about the salvation of thousands and transformed European society for the good because God’s Spirit worked in a mighty way; it was at times messy, bloody and controversial because men were part of the picture. Every country in Europe was affected by the Reformation, but the outcome was different in each one.
Martin Luther was born in the state of Saxony, in the Holy Roman Empire, in what is today Germany. In 1505 after nearly dying in a thunderstorm Luther made a vow to enter a monastery. He entered one of the strictest orders, the Augustinians. He was weighed down with his sin, seeking relief from guilt through fasting, prayer, confession, and self-flagellation.
In 1508 he became a professor at the University of Wittenberg and two years later he went to Rome where his eyes were opened to the sinful pride and corruption of the Pope. He began lecturing on the Epistle to the Romans and then in 1516 on Galatians through which his eyes were opened to the truth of the Gospel.
During this time Johann Tetzel began to sell indulgences to help raise money for Pope Leo X’s extravagant building projects. Through buying indulgences people were promised remission for sin, even before the sin was committed, and release from years in purgatory. Tetzel made a great show of selling indulgences crying out “As soon as the coin clinks in the chest, a soul flies up to Heavenly rest.” Crime rose as people paid to be forgiven sins. Luther was angered by Tetzel deceitfully taking advantage of the common people.
At noon on October 31st, 1517 Luther went to the Castle-Church of Wittenberg and nailed his 95 Theses on the church doors. The Theses were on indulgences and invited public discussion on the matter. No one accepted the invitation to publicly discuss the 95 Theses, but within a month they were printed, translated and distributed throughout all of Europe. In 1520 Luther wrote against the Pope and called for reform through pamphlets; the most important being, Address to the German Nobility, Babylonian Captivity of the Church, and Freedom of a Christian Man, which addressed reform in the state, church and personal lives.
On June 15th, 1520 a papal bull of excommunication was issued against Luther. Elector Frederick of Saxony resolved to protect Luther, who was very popular as a preacher and professor. Luther wrote a tract Against the Bull of Antichrist in response and on December 10th, 1520 he publicly burned the bull outside the city gates of Wittenberg.
Luther was called by the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Charles V, to a Diet in Worms. In April of 1521 Luther traveled to Worms, under the protection of Frederick of Saxony and Philip of Hesse. Large crowds greeted him as he and his friends entered the city in an open farm wagon. On April 17th Luther appeared before the emperor. Before the emperor was a table with copies of Luther’s writings. Luther was asked if they were his and when he affirmed that they were, he was asked if he was willing to recant them. Luther requested time to consider how he would respond. On the next day, April 18th, when he reappeared before the emperor, he was again asked if he would recant, to which he responded: “Unless I am convinced by Scripture or by clear reasoning that I am in error-for popes and councils have often erred and contradicted themselves-I cannot recant, for I am subject to the Scriptures I quoted; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. It is unsafe and dangerous to do anything against one’s conscience. Here I stand. I can do no other. So help me God. Amen.” The Diet was hastily adjourned, as supporters and foes alike broke into cries and calls, and Luther was hurriedly escorted out by a group of German noblemen.
While on his return journey Frederick the Wise planned a feigned kidnapping of Luther, and had him spirited away to Wartburg Cattle where he was hidden for 10 months. Luther spent his time writing tracts and working on translating the New Testament from Greek into German. Luther would later work on the Old Testament. The Luther Bible greatly aided in the growth of the Reformation as well as standardizing the German language. He publicly returned to Wittenberg on March 6th, 1522. After his return, Luther began to lead forward the rapidly growing Reformation, corresponding with and teaching many ministers, reformers and rulers from all over Europe. Luther’s teaching and writing focused on attacking Rome and its errors and on the doctrine of salvation by faith alone.
Philip Melanchthon, known as the teacher of Germany, worked alongside Luther. He was a calm and studious counterbalance to Luther’s fire and zeal. Melanchthon wrote many theological works and statements of faith helping to shape German Lutheran doctrines. He stands almost as an equal to Luther as a leader in the German Reformation.
One of Luther’s early friends, Carlstadt, soon parted ways with Luther and began to preach a radical and violent Reformation. In 1524 peasants in Swabia and the Upper Rhine near Switzerland, many inflamed by Thomas Müntzer and Carlstadt, who were both considered Anabaptists, began to rebel, destroying life and property on every hand. Most of the German Anabaptists at that time rejected the Word of God as their authority, and looked to visions and leading of the Spirit instead. They also believed that reform should take place through violent revolution.
By 1525 the rebellion had spread through most of south-western and central Germany, Switzerland and Austria. Luther strongly advocated a heavy handed and total suppression of the peasants. The German princes mercilessly crushed the uprising and all Anabaptists became seen as bloody militants.
Many of the German princes and dukes introduced the Lutheran Reformation in their states and protected Luther and other reformers.
It was at the Diet of Speyer in 1529 that the Evangelicals or Lutherans began to be called Protestants because of their celebrated Protest against the decrees of the Diet, which declared that Lutheranism was not allowed to spread any further. Against these the Lutheran princes signed the Protestation.
A year later The Augsburg Confession was subscribed by seven princes and the representatives of two cities as the confession of their faith and that of their provinces. The Augsburg Confession became the standard Lutheran confession of faith.
In Sweden in 1523, King Gustavus Vasa became king and won the independence of Sweden from Denmark and soon after conquered Finland. He became convinced of the truth of the Reformation doctrines and encouraged their teaching though he did not require his people to accept Protestantism. Vasa employed two brothers named Olaf and Lawrence Paterson to lead the Reformation in Sweden. Through their preaching, translating of the Scripture into Swedish and public debates with the Roman priests the Paterson brothers won over most of the people to the doctrines of the Reformation. In 1528 Vasa had himself re-crowned as a Protestant King and ejected all the Catholic priests from the country, replacing them with Lutheran pastors.
In Finland Mikael Agricola, through preaching and translating the Scripture helped advance the Reformation.
In Denmark Johannis Taussan, who studied under Luther, began preaching the Reformation doctrines with the blessing of the king. Taussan became known as the “Luther of Denmark” for his tireless labors as a preacher of the Gospel. Another key reformer in Denmark was Jørgen Jensen Sadolin. In 1537 King Christian III of Denmark requested Johannes Bugenhagen, one of Martin Luther’s chief co-workers, to preside over his coronation and to organize and establish a Protestant State church in Denmark.
At the time Denmark also ruled over Norway and Iceland, where the Reformation was slow in coming. The Danish government expelled the Catholic priests and sent Lutheran Danish ministers to fill the pulpits. One of the most influential of these preachers in Norway was Jørgen Erickssen; while in Iceland it was Gisser Enersön. Through the faithful preaching of the Word the people were eventually won over to the Reformation and Norway and Iceland became staunchly Protestant.
The Scandinavian Reformation was one of the only ones that took place without martyrs or fighting.
In 1525 Albert Duke of Prussia ended the rule of the Teutonic Knights, who were the last of the monastic knight order. Albert established a Protestant University and made Prussia a safe haven for Protestants, at first mostly Lutherans and Bohemian Brethren, but later many Mennonites from Holland came to Prussia. They were given land in the swampy delta near Danzig, which being Dutch, they were able to skillfully drain and turn into prosperous farmland, winning the favor of the government. Danzig became one of the largest Mennonite centers in all of Europe.
Through Luther’s writings and many commercial interactions the Reformation quickly made inroads into Austria, and soon 80% of the population became Protestant. Many of the noblemen became Lutherans, most notably the wealthy and powerful Jörger family who worked for several generations to advance the Gospel. Most of the peasants became Anabaptist and many of them followed Hans Hut. Hut believed that all government was illegitimate and that believers were not bound to submit to the state. Because some followed his anti-government teachings all Anabaptists were seen as a threat to order in the country. Another Austrian Anabaptist leader was Jacob Hutter, who organized Hutterite communes.
The government in Austria remained Roman Catholic and strongly opposed the Reformation, and many Lutherans and Anabaptists were martyred and banished. In the 1580s over 100,000 Protestant Austrians were forced out of the country and by the 1620s the Reformation in Austria was fully crushed.
While the Reformation in Germany was beginning under Luther, a separate but simultaneous movement of Reformation was taking place in Switzerland led by Ulrich Zwingli. Zwingli was born in 1484 in Toggenburg, high in an Alpine valley. When Zwingli was ordained he became a parish priest in Glarus where he taught himself Greek so he could study the New Testament in the original. From 1512-1515 Zwingli, serving as a chaplain, accompanied mercenaries from Glarus to fight for Pope Julius II in Italy against the French. Over 6,000 Swiss youth died in this conflict. Zwingli began preaching against the Swiss tradition of making money by selling the military service of their young men.
In 1516 Zwingli became the parish priest; during this time he grew greatly in his knowledge and love of the truth of the Scripture. He began preaching the Gospel and against abuses in the Catholic Church, such as the veneration of Mary and the sale of indulgences by a Franciscan monk, Bernhardin Samson.
Zwingli then went to Zurich. Zwingli’s first sermon in Zürich was delivered in 1519; it was on the first chapter of Matthew. From that point forward he preached expositionally through books of the Bible, preaching only what was clearly in the text. His sermons were plain, practical and powerful, delivered with rugged masculine forcefulness. Zwingli set up a class for young men in which he taught them Greek, Hebrew and Latin classics as a way to lead them into Bible study.
In 1520 the city council ordered the priests to preach the Scripture and to remain silent on matters of human invention. Every Friday Zwingli preached the Gospel to large crowds in the market place.
Most of the people of Zürich began to embrace the Gospel and to burn with zeal for the Lord. Zwingli held several debates or disputations before the council of Zurich on matters of religion. The first disputation was held on January 9th, 1523. The council ruled in favor of Zwingli, directing him “to continue to preach the holy gospel as heretofore, and to proclaim the true, divine Scriptures.” Leo Judæ, Conrad Grebel and Felix Mantz were some of his closest followers and supporters during this time.
A second disputation was held in October on the question of the mass and the use of images, both of which Zwingli had preached against. The council was not prepared to abolish either and Zwingli believed that he should submit to their decision and wait for God to change their hearts. This decision caused a rupture between Zwingli and some of his followers, including Grebel and Mantz, who argued that if the mass and the veneration of images was idolatry then Zwingli should obey God rather than man.
Grebel, Mantz and others, including George Blaurock, soon formed their own Bible study and began teaching against infant-baptism and baptized one another based on their profession of faith. This group of Anabaptists, known as the Swiss Brethren, grew throughout Switzerland, facing persecution from Reformed and Catholic governments alike. Felix Mantz was martyred by the Zurich council. Other Swiss Brethren leaders were Michael Sattler, who wrote the Schleitheim Confession and was cruelly martyred by the Catholic government in Austria, and Wolfgang Ulimann, the leader of the Swiss Brethren in St. Gall. Balthazar Hubmaier was an important leader among the Swiss Brethren who did not believe in the non-resistant beliefs of Grebel and Sattler.
Though reform had not moved as quickly as Grebel and Mantz had wanted in Zurich it did continue to move forward and on June 20th, 1524 a procession of 12 councilors, three pastors and many craftsmen went throughout the town removing images from the churches. On April 11th, 1525 Zwingli begged the council to abolish the Mass before the coming Easter. The council ruled in favor of Zwingli and ordered that on Maundy-Thursday the Lord’s Supper should be served after the simple apostolic institution instead of that of Rome.
Zwingli fully rejected transubstantiation and taught that the Lord’s Supper was simply a memorial that only benefited those that had faith in the finished work of Christ which was being remembered by taking the bread and wine. Luther and Melanchthon attacked this view of Zwingli, beginning a heated and at times ugly debate on the matter, each writing many essays, pamphlets and books. This controversy brought disunity between Protestants and Protestant states who were trying to defend themselves against the doctrines and armies of the Catholic countries. The Marburg Colloquy began on Friday, October 1st, 1529 to resolve differences. The two parties were able to agree on 14 articles of faith but though the spirit of the meetings was cordial the 15th article on the Lord’s Supper could not be resolved. Luther kept insisting that “This is my body” was literal. The Marburg Colloquy sadly failed to bring theological unity, tolerance or a military alliance, which had all been hoped for.
After Zwingli’s death in battle in 1531, Heinrich Bullinger became the leader of the Reformation in Zurich. Bullinger was a theologian and had a loving pastor’s heart. He helped to establish the Swiss Reformed churches’ structure and doctrine.
Reformation in other Swiss Cantons were led by Berthold Haller in Bern, Johannes Œcolampadius in Basle, Vadian in St. Gall, and Sebastian Hofmeister in Schaffhausen, among others. The Swiss Reformed churches stress simple worship (no images, no holidays, no vestments, no musical instruments, and, in some cases, no music or singing at all), preaching of the Word, personal holiness and the Lord’s Supper as being simply a memorial. The Swiss Brethren and the Swiss Reformed Churches purged far more Roman traditions from their churches than the Lutherans did.
Another prominent Reformed leader was Martin Bucer who worked in Strasburg in Southern Germany and later in England. Besides working as a preacher, professor and pastor Bucer tirelessly, though unsuccessfully, worked to bring peace and unity among the many strains of the Reformation.
In Hungry the Reformation made great progress though the nation was being invaded by the Turks and while suffering a civil war. Though at first the source of the Reformation was from Luther and the German Reformation, the Hungarians soon embraced the more thorough reformation of Switzerland, established Reformed churches throughout the country though most predominately in Transylvania, which also became a place of safety for Lutherans, Reformed, Bohemian Brethren and Hutterites fleeing persecution in Austria, Bohemia and Catholic parts of Southern Germany. Matthias Biro Devay and Stephen Kiss were two of the leading reformers of Hungry.
During the 16th century Poland became the country with the most religious freedom, and Lutherans, Reformed Churches and Bohemian Brethren were the largest groups. Sadly this freedom was often used for arguing among the different Protestant groups, paving the way for the “unified church of Rome” to win back the hearts of the children and grandchildren of those that at first embraced the Reformation. One of the most active reformers of Poland was the Calvinistic Lithuanian Prince Nicholas Radziwill. Radziwill financed the translation of the Bible, the establishment of Reformed colleges and schools, and the printing of Reformed literature.
To the south in Bohemia and Moravia a Reformation had began in 1400 under the leadership of Jan Huss. After Huss’s martyrdom in 1415, his followers, led by Bohemian noblemen, waged a victorious 13 year war of independence against Roman Catholic rule. But a civil war between the different Hussite groups weakened their faith and their ability to resist the Catholic armies. The only group of Hussites that remained during the time of the Reformation was the non-resistant Bohemian Brethren. The tidings of the German Reformation breathed new life into the Bohemian Brethren churches but also brought on a hundred years of severe and cruel persecution, which would destroy nearly all Brethren churches in Bohemia. In the early 17th century 3 1/2 million Bohemians were killed or banished in an attempt to cleanse the country from Protestants, leaving only about six hundred thousand people living in the whole country.
The Reformation even reached into Italy, a nation overcome by the un-godliness of the Renaissance, immorality and the most corrupt form of Romanism in Europe. In each of the city-states and provinces of Italy God raised up men to preach the true Gospel. Peter Martyr, Bernardino Ochino and John Mollio led one of the most prominent Reformations in Italy in the city of Naples. The Spanish Juan Valdés was also very influential through his preaching and training of pastors. Pietro Carnesecchi was the personal secretary to Pope Clement VII and during that time he practically ruled as the pope. After Clement’s death Carnesecchi embraced the true Gospel under the teaching of Juan Valdés. He worked to finance the escape of many Italians to Geneva and kept up a vigorous correspondence with many churches and pastors throughout Italy encouraging them in the faith until his martyrdom in 1567.
In 1550 when persecution in Italy began to increase, about two hundred Italian reformed refugees had left Italy. By 1559 eight hundred more had fled, and in the next ten years the numbers multiplied exponentially. Most of these refugees fled to Geneva, Strasburg, London and the Grisons Canton, an independent republic in the Italian speaking Alpine region of modern Switzerland. Though the Reformation in Italy was crushed the Italian Protestants founded sizable churches in these cities and regions where they immigrated.
In Spain the Reformation centered in two cities, Seville in the South and Valladolid in the North. Constantine Ponce de la Fuente, Dr. Egidius, and Vargas worked together preaching the Gospel to thousands who flocked to hear their teaching. It was said of them that “The brotherly affection which united them filled their hearts with joy, and this joy was perfumed with the sweet odor of the service of God.” Not far from Seville the men of the Monastery of San Isidro del Campo almost entirely embraced reformed doctrine. The monastery was led by Garcia de Arias, commonly called Doctor Blanco (White), due to the extreme whiteness of his hair.
Once the monks began to embrace the truth in 1557, Casiodoro de Reina, one of the monks, became a leader in bringing about positive change in the monastery. Soon they put aside all Popish superstitions except the wearing of the monkish habits and the observance of the Mass, because setting these aside would dangerously expose their new beliefs. They traveled throughout Spain seeking to share the truth and to distribute Spanish Bibles and reformed writings.
In the beginning of 1558 they decided it was wrong to continue observing the Mass and that it was no longer safe to live in Spain. At first twelve of their number left, among them Cipriano de Valera and Casiodoro de Reina, each separately working his way to Geneva where they would both work to produce the Spanish Bible. A few days after this group left a wave of persecution broke on Seville. Those monks that were unable to flee were quickly imprisoned and martyred. Through the severe persecution of Philip II and the Spanish Inquisition, all Spanish Protestants were martyred or escaped into exile. Though the Reformation in Spain was suppressed, Spanish Protestant churches were established throughout Europe, most notably in Geneva, the Netherlands and England. Of those that fled Spain most were from high ranking families and were among the most learned Spaniards of their day.
While Luther was teaching in Wittenberg and studying the Book of Romans and Zwingli was beginning to speak out against Swiss mercenaries, Jacques Lefèvre, the chair of the famous Sorbonne in Paris, at the age of 70 began teaching salvation by grace and not by works to a group of his devoted students. Lefèvre also translated the New Testament into French. Lefèvre was soon forced to leave Paris and went to Meaux where he quietly taught reform to a circle of young men. Some of his followers, like Gérard Roussel, followed his example of trying to reform the Catholic Church slowly from within, but others, like William Farel, broke with Rome and perused quick and radical reform.
Farel traveled to Switzerland where after meeting several different reformers he traveled throughout Switzerland fearlessly preaching the Gospel.
In 1532 Farel met with Waldensian leaders helping to join them to the Reformed church. The Waldenses, which were centered in the high Alps of Savoy between France and Italy, were separated from the Church of Rome and had maintained pure practice and beliefs for centuries, though they faced severe persecution. Farel then began preaching in the French speaking Geneva alongside the less fiery though just as courageous reformer, Pierre Viret.
In 1536 Farel strongly urged a young reformed French scholar, John Calvin, to stay in Geneva and help reform the city. Though Calvin was only 27 he had already preached the Gospel throughout France, helped his cousin translate the Bible into French and written his monumental work Institutes of the Christian Religion. He had been escaping the bloody persecution in France and was planning to only stay one night in Geneva, but compelled by the Holy Spirit and the fiery force of Farel Calvin decided to stay on. Calvin and Farel worked together to reform the worship, morals and character of the people of the city. On Easter Sunday 1538 Farel and Calvin turned members of the city away from the Communion table because of their lack of a personal testimony and a changed life. The members of the city were so outraged that they convinced the city council to banish the two preachers. After three years of living in Strasburg the city of Geneva called Calvin back to work among them; he would stay there until his death 23 years later.
Calvin soon led the city council of Geneva in adopting a new and stricter church order. Calvin worked as a pastor, preacher, professor of theology, superintendent of churches and schools, an author, correspondent and adviser to Reformed churches throughout Europe.
Many refugees, most of them highly educated, came from all over Europe to Geneva for religious freedom and to study under Calvin; between 1543 and 1550 over 8,000 refugees settled in Geneva. Italian, English and Spanish churches were organized in Geneva. Calvin helped send out church planters throughout France, assisting to found over 2,000 congregations. He attempted a mission work throughout Europe and even to Brazil. Using his sermon notes he produced many commentaries on books of the Bible.
Calvin’s teaching and preaching emphasized God’s sovereignty in salvation, the need for a personal and zealous relationship with Christ and a holy life, simple and modest life style and dress, the importance of sharing the Gospel, God’s desire for pure, simple, fully Bible based, unadorned and unadulterated worship, strict church discipline, representative government in both church and state, the duty of the state to regulate public morals and support pure doctrine, and the use of covenants in God’s ordering of the plan of salvation, as well as in family, church and state.
Calvin was succeeded by Theodore Beza who labored not only in Geneva but throughout France. The members of the French Reformed Churches, known as Huguenots, though many in number, even among the nobility, were severely persecuted. In 1572 on St. Bartholomew’s Eve the French Catholic government slaughtered over 80,000 Huguenots throughout France, among them about 10,000 in Paris, most of them noblemen who had gathered for the king’s wedding. Through persecution and religious wars most of the Huguenots were killed, forced to flee or returned back to the Catholic Church.
The Reformation reached the Netherlands very early on. The Netherlands, also known as the Low Country or the 17 Provinces, was ruled by the foreign and tyrannical Spanish government and consisted of what is today the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxemburg, and Flanders in France. The Reformation in the Netherlands did not have any larger than life leaders, and at first did not have protection by princes, councils, or noblemen but was one in which most of the people personally chose to embrace the Scripture. Persecution in the Netherlands was some of the most severe of any other country, over 100,000 Reformed and Anabaptists were martyred for their faith during this time, most of them burned at the stake or crucified.
The years 1525, 1535, 1540 and 1559-1572 were especially marked by bloody government aggression. Many people were put to death for such things as being accused of having daily family or personal devotions, for not worshipping the image of a saint as it was carried down the street, for singing a psalm or even whistling a tune from the Geneva Psalter, or for simply being suspected by their neighbors of not being a Roman Catholic. During the six years that the Duke of Alva governed, beginning in 1567, he set up a tribunal known as the “The Council of Blood” which executed 18,000 Protestants.
During the 1560s a revival swept the country, where, despite the danger of persecution, thousands gathered at a time to hear Gospel messages preached by Reformed ministers, many of them from France. Large mobs of Reformed and Anabaptist peasants cleared the churches of images. Tired of persecution and tyranny, Prince William of Orange, known as William the Silent, (and after his death his son Maurice), led the Protestant Dutch in a War of Independence. In 1579 The Union of Utrecht unified the five Northern Protestant Provinces in the country now known as the Netherlands.
The Netherlands also had one of the largest Anabaptist movements. At first most were militaristic and mystical and were very preoccupied with the date of the end of the world. In 1534 a large group of them went to the German city of Münster, where they put everyone to the sword that would not be re-baptized by them, and set up a “New Jerusalem”. After about a year and a half siege the Catholics retook the city killing most of the Anabaptists inside. The Münsterites brought a bad reputation on all Anabaptists in the Netherlands and throughout Europe and most of the governments in Europe believed that all Anabaptists had the vision of overthrowing the state and setting up radical governments like the one in Münster.
Soon after the tragedy of Münster a Catholic priest in the northern part of the Netherlands, Menno Simons, left his parish and joined a small non-resistant Anabaptist group of which he soon became the leader. The next twenty years Simons spent traveling throughout the Netherlands, western Germany and Denmark, preaching, baptizing and planting churches, as well as writing and printing books on doctrine and devotion, while always trying to avoid arrest. His book Foundation of Christian Doctrine was first published in 1540. This book was important in laying out doctrine for future Mennonite generations as well as helping to give rise to the English Baptist movement in the beginning of 1600s.
Across the channel lies England, where the Reformation had been prepared for by John Wycliffe and then his followers, the Lollards, for the past 150 years. The Lollards faithfully preached, lived and died for the Word of God. The beginning of the 16th century Reformation in England can be traced to the conversion of a Cambridge student Thomas Bilney.
Bilney was converted through reading the newly printed Erasmus’ Greek New Testament, which was first printed in 1516, giving Europe for the first time a copy of the New Testament in its original form. Bilney began to preach the Gospel and was soon joined by William Tyndale and John Fryth. Bilney also met with a group of students at the White Horse Inn, who gathered to discuss matters that were illegal to speak of in the class room. Among those that gathered there and were brought to Christ through Bilney’s testimony were men that were to become the leaders of the Reformation in England Thomas Cranmer, Myles Coverdale, Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer.
Though the writings of Luther and Erasmus had an impact on the Reformation in England it was the preaching of the Gospel, the translation of the Bible into English, and the eventual implementation of reform by the government that brought about the Reformation in England. William Tyndale, with the help of John Fryth, Myles Coverdale, and John Rogers, translated the New Testament into English. Tyndale was forced to work in Germany and the Netherlands translating, printing and smuggling Bibles into England. He was betrayed and martyred in 1536. Before dying at the stake he cried out “Lord, open the king of England’s eyes!”
That King was Henry VIII. Henry VIII was a staunch Catholic but the Pope would not allow him to divorce his wife and remarry, which he strongly desired to do. So in 1534 he severed the Church of England from Rome and appointed himself the head of the church. Thomas Cromwell was appointed the king’s deputy as head of the church and labored with the help of Thomas Cranmer Archbishop of Canterbury to bring about reform in the church. In 1539 the English Great Bible was authorized by the king to be placed in every church in England.
After Henry’s death his young and godly son Edward VI ruled for six years during which time reform took great strides. The Anglican Church became quite Reformed in doctrine and many Catholic additions to worship were abolished.
After Edward’s untimely death, his older sister Mary became Queen. Mary, known as Bloody Mary, worked to root out all reform and return England to Rome. She had over 350 church leaders and pastors burned at the stake, among them Archbishop Cranmer, Bishop Ridley, Bishop Latimer and Bishop Hooper. During the ten years of her reign Bloody Mary’s persecution only strengthened and purified the faith and resolve of the English people who on the whole resisted her return to Rome.
In 1558 after Mary’s death her sister Elizabeth began her 45 year reign. Elizabeth was a moderate Protestant who defended Protestantism but resisted radical reform. Elizabeth helped establish England as one of the strongest Protestant nations. Three Protestant groups developed in England, the High Anglicans who wanted to retain as much of Roman practice as possible, the Puritans who wanted to reform the Church of England from within, modeling it after John Calvin’s church in Geneva, and the Separatists, which included Independents, Anabaptists and Baptists who believed that the church and state should be separated and worked for purity of life and worship.
To the north of England in the nation of Scotland the Reformation began with the preaching of the 23 year old Patrick Hamilton, who had studied at Wittenberg and Marburg. After only a few months of preaching Hamilton was burned at the stake in 1527, arousing many Scots’ interest in reform. George Wishart began traveling through Scotland preaching the Gospel to large crowds, ministering to the sick and needy, and leading people to abolish images. In 1547 he was burned at the stake, causing a great outcry against the Catholic Church.
The Bishop who had ordered Wishart’s death was cruelly murdered by angered and misguided followers of Wishart; they then took the city of St. Andrews. John Knox, who had been Wishart’s body guard, was elected their chaplain. After a long siege by French ships St. Andrews was taken and Knox spent two years as a galley slave.
John Knox on being released went to England, where at the time Edward VI was reigning; he stayed there until Bloody Mary began to reign at which time he went to Geneva, returning to Scotland for a short time to preach the Gospel. During his stay in England and Geneva Knox wrote many powerful tracts against Rome that were published in Scotland.
In Scotland a group of Protestant noblemen which called themselves Lords of the Congregation began to resist the Catholic government and called on John Knox to return to Scotland to help them reform the nation. In 1559 Knox returned to Scotland and aided in the resistance against the government that at the time was ruled by a regent, Mary of Guise. The Protestants were successful and after Mary of Guise died within a year of Knox’s return to Scotland, the Reformed Church of Scotland was made the national church.
In 1560 Knox wrote the Scotch Confession of Faith and began his labors to purify the church. These were resisted by the beautiful, deceitful and immoral new queen, Mary Queen of Scots, but in the end it was Knox and the reformers who were successful. The church of Scotland became one of the most Reformed national churches in Europe removing nearly all Roman Catholic practice, with the exception of infant baptism. Scottish worship was simple and unadorned and the people became hard working and strictly moral.
The Reformation touched all of Europe bringing thousands to salvation and transforming many nations. Germany, Scandinavia, Switzerland, the Netherlands, England and Scotland in particular were transformed. To the degree to which the Word of God was followed each nation became strong and productive, producing a moral, industrious, and well educated population. North Western Protestant Europe and its colonies of America, Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand became the most religiously free, well educated and productive nations that the world has ever seen. This was because, though not perfectly, they were built on the doctrine of the Reformation that the Word of God is to guide every aspect of life, worship, family, church, government, business, and entertainment. Every blessing we enjoy today in the West can be traced to the return to the Scriptures during the time of the Reformation.
We should be praying that the Lord will be gracious to visit us with another such revival, but until that day may we be faithful to our heritage, the heritage of looking to God’s Word, transforming our minds and conforming our lives to its teaching. We should guard our thoughts, worship, pastimes, dress, media intake, family life, business practices and work ethic against worldliness, comparing our actions to the teaching of the Word of God. The Word of God must be the standard for our lives!!!