What was the Protestant Reformation?

Keywords: Reformation, Martin Luther (1483-1546), Lutheran, Protestant, Ninety-five theses

Socio-Cultural Background


Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus’ (56–117 A.D.) Germania, (first printed in German in 1473 in Nuremberg), enabled the Germanic people to rediscover their cultural identity without influence from foreign powers (Krebs, 2011, p. 17; Hughes, 1992, p. 20; Morris, 2002, p. 58. For an English translation see Tacitus, 1999). Influenced by Tacitus, Ulrich von Hutten’s (1488-1523), Arminius consisted of a dialogue between Tacitus and other commanding generals. In the dialogue, Hutten mythologises Arminius who led the Germanic tribes as the ‘liberator of Germany’ against Rome in 9 A.D (Hutten, 2008, p. 27; Wells, 2004, p. 34). While disregarding the more derogatory observations like lawlessness, ancient Germans were reinterpreted in terms of original nobility and natural morality (Krebs, 2009, p. 105; Hirschi, 2011, p. 170). A reinterpretation of the history of the early Germans allowed the German people to contrast their simple beginnings with the decadence of Rome (Krebs, 2009, p. 105). Martin Luther (1483-1546), witnessed the corrupt decadence of Rome firsthand during his travels in 1510-11, including the sale of indulgences for the building of St. Peter’s Basilica (Füssel, 2005, pp. 164-5). Luther called the selling of indulgences robbery (Luther, ‘Dr. Martin Luther’s Warning to his Dear German People,’ 1974, pp. 142-43). Thesis 32 of Luther’s Ninety-five theses states: ‘Anyone who thinks that owning an indulgence certificate can guarantee their salvation will end up in Hell along with those who taught them to think that way (Luther, 1996, p. 15).’ In this way, the Protestant Reformation in Germany was as much about secular independence, as it was spiritual.

Anti-Roman sentiment was fuelled by Germany’s long history with Rome who had regarded Germans as barbarians, including Italian Renaissance scholars such as Hermolaus Barbarus (1454-1493) (Stadtwald, 1996, p. 61; Krebs, 2009, p. 283; Strauss 1971, pp. 73-4). This in turn induced a longing for pride at a time when Germans were stereotyped as drunkards and barbarous. As Conrad Celtis (1459-1508) explained, ‘writers […] ascribe to us drunkenness, cruelty, savagery and every other vice bordering on bestiality and excess (Celtis, 1948, p. 43).’ Celtis, who died before 1517, combined reformation thought with German independence by calling upon Germans to rise against the corruption of the foreign papacy and to restore their honour and dignity, by stating: ‘The Emperor rules in the German lands, but the Roman shepherd alone enjoys the pasture. When will Germany regain her old strength and shake off the foreign yoke? (Cited in Waley and Denley, 2013, p. 235; Estep, 1986, p. 53; Silver, 2000, p. 1)’ The desire for independence from Rome, in conjunction with Germany’s rich printing culture, can explain why the Protestant Reformation began and succeeded in the German lands.

The Reformation in Germany was incited by humanists, like Ulrich von Hutten (1488-1523), who wanted a unified German identity, which was in turn fuelled by a desire to unite the nation and to purify the Church (Jensen, 1992; Stolleis, 1998, p. 15; See Dixon, 2010, p. 20). Rome’s constant press for taxes reinforced this sentiment (Krebs, 2009, p. 283; Strauss, 1971, pp. 73-4). As Martin Luther had stated in a pamphlet marking a clear break from the papacy, An Open Letter to the Christian Nobility to the German Nation (An den christlichen Adel deutscher Nation, 1520): ‘How comes it that we Germans must put up with such robbery and such extortion of our property, at the hands of the pope? If the kingdom of France has prevented it, why do we Germans let them make such fools and apes of us? (Luther, 1947, p. 83)’ According to Luther, the German emperors were ‘shamefully oppressed and trodden under foot by the popes’ (Luther, 1947, p. 64). Luther feared the church would plunder Germany: ‘Now that Italy is sucked dry, they come into Germany (Luther, 1947, pp. 81-2).’ Luther compared cardinals to wolves, stating that: ‘they all lie in wait for the prebends and benefices of Germany as wolves lie in wait for the sheep (Luther, 1947, p. 84).’ While the sphere of Italian influence remained, it served to both fuel resentment and as a means for literary and artistic representation (Muldoon, 1999, p. 115).

The lack of independence from Rome and the push for taxes led to hostility, creating conditions ripe for the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther’s (1483-1546) posting of his Ninety-five theses critiquing the Catholic Church’s sale of indulgences on Wittenberg’s church doors in 1517 was a significant turning point to the stability of Empire and papal authority that had long and wide-ranging consequences (Marshall, 2017, p. 1). As Charles V was drawn into the conflict in Italy during the 1520s, it took his attention away from the growing threat of Protestantism, which included the conversion of regional ruling Princes and Dukes to Lutheranism (Sider, 2007, p. 15). However, even prior to the Reformation, there was an increase in the powers of princes and cities over churches on a local level (Spitz, 1987, p. 322). As Lewis W. Spitz argues, the Reformation accelerated the disunity of the empire, rather than was the cause (Spitz, 1987, p. 319). Instead, the fragmentation of the empire made the Reformation possible (Spitz, 1987, p. 323).

Luther disdained the superficiality manifested in elaborate rituals and costumes that reflected imperialist and hierarchical papal greed. Clerical robes, rosary beads and crucifixes were considered symbols to disguise the papacy’s true nature. Luther had called out the superficiality of clerical dress by stating: ‘The pope or bishop anoints, shaves heads, ordains, consecrates, and prescribes garb different from that of the laity, but he can never make a man into a Christian or into a spiritual man by so doing (Luther, 1947, p. 40).’

The Reformation

While Luther’s Ninety-five theses was not designed for a broad audience as it was published in Latin, unauthorised copies in German were subsequently created (Bagchi, 1991, p. 187; For an English translation see, Luther, 1996, pp. 14-16). The reproduction and spread of his theses would have taught Luther and his followers the power of print. Luther’s theses became widely known in Germany after only two weeks, and within Europe after a month ( Ingelhart, 1998, p. 32). Luther and his supporters launched a massive propaganda campaign during the 1520s, after his ex-communication from the Catholic Church in 1521 with the publishing of the papal bull Exsurge Domine (‘Arise, O Lord’) that condemned 41 of his propositions (Roper, 2016, p. 171; Füssel, 2005, p. 167; Holborn, 1965, p. 147). Among Luther’s scholarly works were popular illustrated prints including a pamphlet entitled Deuttung der czwo grewlichen Figuren, Bapstesels czu Rom und Munchkalbs zu Friberg ijnn Meijszen funden (‘Meaning of Two Gruesome Figures, the Papal Ass of Rome and the Monk Calf of Freiberg found in Meissen’). Produced by both Luther and Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560) in 1523, the pamphlet included illustrated woodcuts of monstrous births resembling a hybrid animal pope and a calf that resembled a monk (Spinks, 2009, pp. 62-3; Crawford, 2005, p. 27). Satire helped to delegitimise the clergy, thus providing the conditions to criticise and challenge them leading to the Protestant Reformation.

Luther, Martin and Philip Melanchthon, Deuttung der czwo grewlichen Figuren, Bapstesels czu Rom und Munchkalbs zu Friberg ijnn Meijszen funden, Wittenberg: Rhau-Grunenberg, Johann, 1523, Bayerische StaatsBibliothek, Munich,

Luther’s objection to the Catholic Church was not simply because of papal corruption and greed, it was also theological. Thereafter, leading theologians across the Protestant and Catholic divide wrote disputations and biting satire, critiquing one another. While Luther commonly expressed opposition to the papacy as an institution, he also identified and targeted opponents in a personal manner. Protestant responses to their adversaries continued to be written in German allowing it to be read by a wider audience.

As a result of the Protestant Reformation, German civilians became divided across religious lines. The division was not only created between Protestants and Catholics, but multiple denominations within Protestantism including Lutheran, Calvinism, Anabaptist, and others (Kaplan, 2009, pp. 3-4). Despite the reforming nature of the age, confessions that did not fall under the main Protestant denominations, such as the Anabaptists, were brutally persecuted (Hillerbrand, 2007, p. 104). Anabaptists were considered a greater threat than Lutheranism (Haude, 2000, pp. 30, 52). A mandate in 1528 (and accepted at the Second Diet of Speyer in 1529) called for the execution of all adult Anabaptists (Cunningham and Grell, 2000, p. 38).

Martin Luther’s principal critique of the Catholic Church was its authority over the spiritual and temporal spheres (Bagchi, 1991, p. 265). Martin Luther argued against papal authority over the spiritual estate by quoting Paul in I Corinthians 12.12-13:

we are all one body, yet every member has its own work, whereby it serves every other, all because we all have one baptism, one Gospel, one faith, and are all alike Christians; for baptism, Gospel and faith alone make us ‘spiritual’ and a Christian people .

(Luther, 1947, p. 66)


Luther further argued that St. Peter was not given the keys to Heaven by Jesus (Matthew 16.17) alone but was intended for the whole community (Luther, 1947, p. 75). As Luther had taught, there was no true separation between the layman or clergy; all were of the spiritual estate (Luther, ‘To the Christian Nation Concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate’, 1974, p. 41).


In 1530, Emperor Charles V waged war against Lutheranism and the establishment of the Schmalkaldic League in 1529 (Schmalkaldic War of 1546-1547) (Luther, ‘Dr. Martin Luther’s Warning to his dear German People’, 1974, p. 136). The Peace of Augsburg of 1555 led to electors and princes being able to determine the religion of their estates in the Germanic territories: (Cuius regio, eius religio – ‘whose realm, his religion’) (Smith, 2016, p. 53). A consequence of the Peace of Augsburg was that it made reformed churches besides the Lutheran Church illegal within the Holy Roman Empire by excluding them from the peace deal (Bettenson and Maunder, 1999, pp. 238-39). As territories changed religion, Protestants and Catholics unwilling to convert due to the whims of their rulers were persecuted. People were either forced to convert or move elsewhere (Smith, 2016, p. 53). This also marks the period where Catholicism started to rebound, a period known as the Counter-Reformation, or Catholic Reformation (Chipps, 2016, p. 57). The Peace of Augsburg eventually failed. The Thirty Years’ War broke out between 1618-1648, where both Catholics and Protestants wanted to be recognised as the one true religion (Fuchs, 2012, p. 72).

Protestant Reformation and the Printing Press

Protestant doctrine centred on the humanist theme of reading the direct word of God from the Bible. The close reading of the Bible was the only authority to the direct word of God (sola Scriptura) and only Christ should act as a mediator (solus Christus) (Füssel, 2005, p. 163; Whaley, 2012, p. 150). The Catholic Church believed God gave the clergy the authority to interpret the Bible for their congregation, known as the doctrine of justification (Laube, 1987, p. 362). The Roman Catholic Church discouraged the laity from reading the Bible (Sanders, 2010, p. 117). If their congregations read scripture directly, it would be interpreted independently, and the Church would lose its power and authority, eroding the division between the clergy and the laity (Lyons, 2010, pp. 50, 51). However, Martin Luther later changed his view on the popular reading of the Bible after the Peasant’s War (1524-25) following unorthodox interpretations (Gawthrop and Strauss, 1984, p. 220).

Against the backdrop of iconoclasm, Luther still maintained the importance of visual art for educational purposes (Lepage, 2013, p. 378). Prints were used to reach the widest audience as possible. They were almost exclusively printed in German vernacular. However, some prints such as broadsheets included Latin and other European languages to spread the Lutheran message abroad or aimed at educated circles. The continued use of Protestant propaganda pamphlets and leaflets demonstrate the combative nature of the reformation and counter-reformation that played out in discourse. The prolific use of broadsheets during the Reformation period demonstrates the importance of imagery as well as text to convey messaging during the sixteenth century. Protestant reformers took full advantage of the new technology of printing with Martin Luther calling it ‘God’s highest and extremist act of Grace (Martin Luther cited in Flood, 1990, p. 25).’ No Catholic author during the Reformation matched the prolific outpouring of Luther’s publications. (Edwards, 1988, pp. 155-56. See fig. 1 on p. 154 for total printings of Luther’s publications.) Printing intensified the spread of Luther’s ideas, weaponising them against the Catholic Church, making Luther stand out from his precursors like Jan Hus (1369-1415) (Eisenstein, 2011, p. 34).

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