The Reformation Waters Burst Forth
“SUDDENLY I heard another sound, as if of thunder, rushing toward us. Our family . . . started to run frantically to a nearby hill. The foaming waters overtook us. We swam as never before. Though gulping down a quantity of seawater . . . , we made it.”
This is how one Filipino recounted a terrifying experience that changed his world. You have probably never been hit by a natural disaster—of water or any other kind. But a look at history reveals that millions of lives have been reshaped by cataclysms of one form or another.
Religion has also witnessed a number of tremendous upheavals, turning upside down the daily lot of countless people. These have included Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, and Christians. Has your life been affected by such turmoil? Almost certainly it has, wherever you happen to live. Let us illustrate this by journeying back some 400 years in time to the 16th century. First of all we focus our attention on Europe, which was then churning with dissent, like a whirlpool gathering speed.
A Growing Swell
For centuries, leading up to what we call the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church and European monarchs had vied with one another, each claiming authority over the other and over the populace. A body of people on the continent raised their voices in objection to what they saw as abuses by the church.
What sort of abuses did they see? Greed, flagrant immorality, and interference in politics. Common folk were indignant at men and women who on the one hand claimed special privileges by reason of their vows of poverty and chastity but at the same time flouted the law by being openly corrupt and immoral. Noblemen in England were incensed at the rather strange situation of having to pay tribute to a pope who was then living in and allied with France, England’s enemy at war.
The corruption within the Catholic Church seeped down from the top. Historian Barbara W. Tuchman writes in her book The March of Folly that the six popes who were in office from 1471 onward carried on “an excess of venality, amorality, avarice, and spectacularly calamitous power politics.” Barbara Tuchman further describes how Pope Sixtus IV, in order to elevate and enrich his hitherto poor family, appointed five nephews and a grandnephew as cardinals, another grandnephew as bishop, and married six of his other relatives into ruling families. Alexander VI, when he became pope, was known to have had several mistresses and seven children. In his determination to be elected to office, he bribed his two main rivals, one of them receiving “four mule-loads of bullion,” writes Barbara Tuchman. He later presided over a Vatican banquet that became “famous in the annals of pornography.” The same work then outlines how famous sculptor Michelangelo was commissioned by Pope Julius II to model a statue of him. When asked by the craftsman if the statue should show him holding a book, the warrior pope replied: “Put a sword there. I know nothing of letters.”
Breach in the Dam
Ordinary Europeans still desired spiritual guidance. Observing the various echelons of power locked in a frenzy of self-gratification, these more lowly ones turned to an alternative source of authority, one they considered superior to all others—the Bible. According to author Joel Hurstfield, the Reformation was “in the profoundest sense a crisis of authority.” Appalled at the corruption in the church, preachers and friars in Italy took to speaking publicly on the need for reform. But nowhere were the waters of discontent gathering more ominously than in Germany.
In pagan times, Germanic tribes had a tradition whereby money could be paid to effect release from punishment for crimes. With the expansion of the Roman faith, the custom found accommodation within the church in the form of indulgences. This allowed a sinner to buy from the pope the value of dead “saints’” merits and apply these against temporal penalties for sins committed. Under financial pressure, caused by wars against France and by extensive building works in Rome, Pope Leo X authorized the sale of indulgences, offering total remission of temporal penalties for sin. An indignant Martin Luther expounded his now famous 95 theses on the false teachings of the church. The movement toward reform, which had started as a trickle some generations before, became a torrent as more and more people gave their support.
In the 16th century, individuals such as Luther in Germany, Zwingli and Calvin in Switzerland, and Knox in Scotland became rallying points for many who saw the chance to purify Christianity and return to the original values and standards of the Bible. A term was coined in Germany to describe those who refused to acknowledge restrictions placed on faith by Roman Catholic princes, and who avowed allegiance to God above anyone else. This term later came to include all who lent support to the Reformation movement. The term was “Protestant.”
Protestantism swept through Europe with breathtaking speed, reshaping the religious landscape, sketching new theological boundaries. Germany and Switzerland led the way, quickly followed by Scotland, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. There were reformation movements in Austria, Bohemia, Poland, Transylvania, the Netherlands, and France.
In England discontent had been surfacing for more than a century, since the days of John Wycliffe and the Lollards. But when the break from the Catholic Church finally came, it was for more mundane reasons. The king resolved to change not his religion but his wife. In 1534 Henry VIII declared himself head of the new Church of England. His motives were different from those of the continental dissenters, but his action nonetheless opened the floodgates for the waters of religious change to flow into Britain. All over Europe, these waters swiftly turned red with the blood of thousands who were stretched on the rack of religious polarization.
Wherever the urge for reform took hold, church properties and estates caught the eye. Within just four years, the English Crown confiscated 560 monasteries, some having huge incomes. Other countries saw kings as well as laymen taking over church lands. When Rome itself was sacked, cruelty knew no bounds. “The ferocity and bloodthirstiness of the attackers ‘would have moved a stone to compassion,’” is how Barbara Tuchman describes it. “Screams and groans filled every quarter; the Tiber floated with dead bodies.” Minorities, both Catholic and Protestant, were brutally persecuted. In Bohemia, Protestants were expropriated, whereas in Ireland it was the Catholics’ turn. Protestant French Huguenots were hounded, as were Scottish Presbyterians and English Puritans. It seemed as if a senseless merry-go-round of slaughter had been set in motion, and religion was the chief lubricant. Would the atrocities never stop?
The church had no olive branch to offer. But the monarchs, tired of the drain of civil war, reached agreements that formalized the boundaries between opposing faiths. The Peace of Augsburg in 1555 and the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 brought religious and national frontiers into unison, allowing the local prince to decide which faith his populace was to follow. Europe thus embarked upon a new epoch, one which was to last some 300 years. Not until the end of World War II was influence in Europe to be totally redefined by the then victorious Allies.
The yearning for religious freedom and reform had built up pressure behind the dam of church restraint. After centuries of unyielding constraint, the waters finally burst forth, cascading through the valleys of Europe, leaving a devastated landscape in their wake. When the swell settled, guidance in matters of faith in Protestant lands had been swept away from the clergy and lay beached on the shores of secular powers. Europe was still drenched in religious intolerance, though, and refugees fled from one country to another. The continent could no longer embrace the loosened waters. They soon began to spill abroad. The 17th century offered a channel for the overflow. The New World was being colonized.
Spillover Funneled Abroad
“One of the prime causes for early migration to America,” writes A. P. Stokes in Church and State in the United States, “was the desire for religious freedom.” People were tired of the harassment. Baptists, Quakers, Roman Catholics, Huguenots, Puritans, Mennonites, and others all were willing to put up with the rigors of the voyage and to take a plunge into the unknown. Stokes quotes one as saying: “I yearned for a country where I could be free to worship God according to what the Bible taught me.” The measure of intolerance these emigrants left behind can be judged by the hardships they were willing to endure. According to historian David Hawke in The Colonial Experience, a heartbreaking departure from the home country was likely to be followed by “two, three, or four months spent with daily expectation of swallowing waves and cruel pirates.” Thereafter, the weather-beaten traveler would be “landed among barbarous Indians, famous for nothing but cruelty . . . [and would remain] in a famishing condition for a long space.”
Individuals reached out for freedom, the colonial powers for wealth. Regardless of motive, settlers took with them their own religion. Germany, Holland, and Britain made North America a Protestant stronghold. Particularly the British government wanted “to prevent Roman Catholicism . . . from getting the upper hand in North America.” Canada came under the influence of both France and Britain. The policy of the French government was that of “keeping New France in the Roman Catholic faith,” even refusing to allow Huguenots to immigrate to Quebec. Southern Africa and parts of West Africa came under Protestant influence. This influence increased with the passage of time as Australia, New Zealand, and many Pacific islands were added to the Protestant fold.
Spain and Portugal were already Catholicizing South and Central America. French and Portuguese hoisted the Catholic banner in Central Africa. In India, Goa was under Portuguese influence, so Catholicism took root there.
The Society of Jesus (Jesuits) was formed in the 16th century to advance the Catholic cause. By the middle of the 18th century, there were over 22,000 Jesuits working all over the globe, and they even solidified Catholic influence in China and Japan.
The New Panorama
Unleashed water has tremendous power, as the witness quoted at the beginning of this article testified. It flattens landscapes, carves new valleys and ravines, smashes obstacles in its path. A raging torrent knows no master, cannot be controlled or directed. It was just so with the Reformation deluge.
“What happened . . . was, therefore, not so much the triumph of a new separatist faith,” states G. R. Elton in The Reformation Crisis, “as the general and gradual acceptance of a divided Christendom which no one had wanted.” Christendom was split, storm tossed, sapped of its strength. Allegiance became more closely tied to local monarchs and to smaller national churches. The long-established rule from Rome had been undermined. Nationalism took root in the sodden landscape of Protestantism. Britain and the United States, firmly in the hands of Protestant secular leaders, together formed the seventh world power of Bible history, taking hold of the rudder in the 18th century.
However, the Reformation movement did not do the very thing that it had been hoped it would accomplish. What was that? With the passage of time, basic doctrines of Protestant churches, whether national churches or otherwise, fell largely into line with those of Rome. Early reformers had dreamed of returning to Bible standards, to pure Christianity. As the wave of support grew in size and momentum, confusion in direction simply poured cold water on those dreams.
The ground swell of the Reformation waters has left trenches even in our 20th century. Can you identify some of them? Still more important, we stand on the brink of a final worldwide religious upheaval. Religion’s past is catching up with it. Will you then survive to peruse the new horizon? These questions will be answered in a November issue of this magazine.