The Reformation in Europe (1500-1700)
In 1517 Martin Luther, a German Catholic priest at the University of Wittenberg, appealed to the Pope to correct abuses in the Roman Catholic Church, about which there was already widespread concern within the church and among the laity. When reforms were not forthcoming, and Luther was excommunicated by the Pope for insubordination, religious dissension and wars erupted in Europe, and continued intermittently for the next 200 years. When, ultimately, a religious "balance of power" emerged, the political face of the continent had been changed.
Historians now refer to these events, in retrospect, as the Reformation. During this period the Catholic Church was reformed and reorganized, and numerous "protestant" sects were separately established. These included Lutheran, Anglican and Calvinist denominations. The Protestants were later subdivided by doctrinal differences into a bewildering number of sects known as Congregationalists, Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Puritans, Quakers and so on. In keeping with the long tradition of deep involvement of the church in political affairs, European states, large and small, adopted either a Protestant sect or Catholicism as the state religion in accordance with the ruler's religious preference (cuius regio eius religio, "whose the region, his the religion").
When each ruler attempted to enforce religious conformity within his domain, religious intolerance, already the norm, was intensified. Special police and courts were set up to investigate and penalize non-conformity. Expulsion, imprisonment, torture, the death penalty, mass executions and massacres were tools of religious repression applied by both Catholics and Protestants. To these afflictions of European society, already inured to centuries of judicial cruelty, were added the destruction and demoralization of the protracted religious wars.
Why was the struggle so bitter, long and deadly? Because the Protestant movement, as it evolved, sought not merely to reform the Catholic Church; it aimed to replace it with a church based on the Protestant interpretation of the Bible, shorn of traditional Catholic sacraments, ritual and ecclesiastical hierarchy for which the Protestants could find no scriptural justification. At stake was the immense and pervasive spiritual and temporal power of the medieval Catholic Church. Finally, after 200 years, either Catholicism or Protestantism had achieved dominance in each European state. Religious strife then gradually waned. However, a state policy of religious toleration was rarely adopted until much later. Catholics and Protestants simply became reconciled to a wary coexistence.
The Catholic Church retained its ascendancy in Spain, Portugal, France, Ireland, and in southern and eastern Europe. Protestant denominations prevailed in central and northern Germany, Holland, the Scandinavian countries and in England and Scotland. Meanwhile, major political realignments and consolidations occurred within the nations of Europe, leading to establishment of strong secular states that progressively reduced the influence of religion in government.