A Beginner's Guide to the Protestant Reformation

Portrait of Martin Luther by Lucas Cranach the Elder

Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

The Reformation was a split in the Latin Christian church instigated by Luther in 1517 and evolved by many others over the next decade—a campaign that created and introduced a new approach to Christian faith called 'Protestantism.' This split has never been healed and doesn't look likely to, but don't think of the church as divided between older Catholics and new Protestantism, because there is a huge range of Protestant ideas and offshoots.

The Pre-Reformation Latin Church

In the early 16th century, western and central Europe followed the Latin Church, headed by the pope. While religion permeated the lives of everyone in Europe—even if the poor focused on religion as a way to improve day to day issues and the rich on improving the afterlife—there was widespread dissatisfaction with many aspects of the church: at its bloated bureaucracy, perceived arrogance, avarice, and abuses of power. There was also widespread agreement that the church needed to be reformed, to restore it to a purer and more accurate form. While the church was certainly vulnerable to change, there was little agreement on what should be done.

A massively fragmented reform movement, with attempts from the pope at the top to priests at the bottom, was ongoing, but attacks tended to focus on only one aspect at a time, not the whole church, and the local nature led only to local success. Perhaps the main bar to change was the belief that the church still offered the only route to salvation. What was needed for mass change was a theologian/argument which could convince a mass of both people and priests that they did not need the established church to save them, allowing reform to run unchecked by previous loyalties. Martin Luther presented just such a challenge.

Luther and the German Reformation

In 1517 Luther, a Professor of Theology grew angry at the selling of indulgences and produced 95 theses against them. He sent them privately to friends and opponents and may, as legend has it, have nailed them to a church door, a common method of starting a debate. These theses were soon published and the Dominicans, who sold lots of indulgences, called for sanctions against Luther. As the papacy sat in judgment and later condemned him, Luther produced a powerful body of work, falling back on scripture to challenge the existing papal authority and rethinking the nature of the entire church.

Luther’s ideas and style of preaching in person soon spread, partly among people who believed in him and partly among people who just liked his opposition to the church. Many clever and gifted preachers across Germany took on the new ideas, teaching and adding to them faster and more successfully than the church could keep up with. Never before had so many clergies switched to a new creed which was so different, and over time they challenged and replaced every major element of the old church. Shortly after Luther, a Swiss preacher called Zwingli produced similar ideas, beginning the related Swiss Reformation.

Brief Summary of Reformation Changes

  1. Souls were saved without the cycle of penitence and confession (which was now sinful), but by faith, learning, and the grace of God.
  2. Scripture was the sole authority, to be taught in the vernacular (the local languages of the poor).
  3. A new church structure: a community of believers, focused around a preacher, needing no central hierarchy.
  4. The two sacraments mentioned in the scriptures were kept, albeit altered, but the other five were downgraded.

In short, the elaborate, costly, organized church with often absent priests was replaced by austere prayer, worship, and local preaching, striking a chord with laypeople and theologians alike.

Reformed Churches Form

The reformation movement was adopted by laypeople and powers, merging with their political and social aspirations to produce sweeping changes on everything from the personal level—people converting—to the highest reaches of government, where towns, provinces, and whole kingdoms officially and centrally introduced the new church. Government action was needed as the reformed churches had no central authority to disband the old church and instill the new order. The process was haphazard—with much regional variation—and carried out over decades.

Historians still debate the reasons why people, and the governments who reacted to their wishes, took up the ‘Protestant’ cause (as the reformers became known), but a combination is likely, involving seizing land and power from the old church, genuine belief in the new message, ‘flattery’ by laypeople at being involved in religious debate for the first time and in their language, deflecting dissent onto the church, and freedom from old church restrictions.

The Reformation did not occur bloodlessly. There was a military conflict in the Empire before a settlement allowing old church and Protestant worship was passed, while France was riven by the ‘Wars of Religion,’ killing tens of thousands. Even in England, where a Protestant church was established, both sides were persecuted as the old church Queen Mary ruled in between Protestant monarchs.

The Reformers Argue

The consensus which led to theologians and laity forming reformed churches soon broke down as differences between all parties emerged, some reformers growing ever more extreme and apart from society (such as Anabaptists), leading to their persecution, to the political side developing away from theology and onto defending the new order. As ideas of what a reformed church should be evolved, so they clashed with what rulers wanted and with each other: the mass of reformers all producing their own ideas led to a range of different creeds which often contradicted each other, causing more conflict. One of these was 'Calvinism,' a different interpretation of Protestant thought to that of Luther, which replaced the ‘old’ thinking in many places in the middle to late sixteenth century. This has been dubbed the ‘Second Reformation.'


Despite the wishes and actions of some old church governments and the pope, Protestantism established itself permanently in Europe. People were affected at both a deeply personal, and spiritual level, finding a new faith, as well as the socio-political one, as an entirely new layer division was added to the established order. The consequences, and troubles, of the Reformation, remain to this day.

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Wilde, Robert. "A Beginner's Guide to the Protestant Reformation." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/beginners-guide-to-protestant-reformation-1221777. Wilde, Robert. (2023, April 5). A Beginner's Guide to the Protestant Reformation. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/beginners-guide-to-protestant-reformation-1221777 Wilde, Robert. "A Beginner's Guide to the Protestant Reformation." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/beginners-guide-to-protestant-reformation-1221777 (accessed June 6, 2023).