Skip to main content

Highlights of Church History

Highlights of Church History Banner

4. Reformation Through Puritan Reform (1500-1700)

Martin Luther (1483-1546)

Founder of the German Reformation. Luther’s emotional childhood was wrought with fears. He vowed to be a monk when frightened during a thunderstorm.

Ordained priest in 1507; next year sent to Univ. of Wittenberg to lecture.

Teaching gradually diverged from the traditional Catholic beliefs.

Developed anxiety about ineffectiveness of his own asceticism and religious routines to bring him peace.

After reading Paul’s Letter to the Romans Luther became convinced that faith alone justifies man. He had read some of the mystics, especially Tauler and the Theologica Germanica. Luther felt that good works come naturally from faith in Jesus Christ.

In 1517, at 34, he reacted strenuously to indulgences and drew up 95 theses which he nailed to the door of the Schlosskirche at Wittenberg on Halloween.

Tried in Rome for heresy, refused to recant; had to flee Wittenberg under the protection of Frederick III.

Broke completely with Medieval Church in 1520 by writing a trilogy of denunciations.

Excommunicated in January of 1521. Summoned before Diet of Worms in 1521. Refused to recant and was banned from Empire.

Wrote and translated Bible in seclusion; married a nun; continued his bitter attacks on the papacy.

Main beliefs: (1) Every man his own priest, ministering to others. “I will give myself a Christ to my neighbor; I will be to them as He has been to me.” (2) Each individual may interpret scripture as it is most meaningful to him. (3) A democratic self-government.

Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531)

Swiss reformer; cured souls on first floor of his parsonage and on the second floor pursued humanistic studies. Corresponded with Erasmus. Came to gospel through intellectual insight; believed truth not disclosed by scripture alone, but through movement of Holy Spirit. Strongly opposed to majority of Roman Catholic doctrines.

John Calvin (1509-64)

French reformer and theologian than Luther; primarily a scholar. “Let God be God.” More systematic, Wrote the Institutes of the Christian Religion, a theological classic, defining his position. Starts with knowledge of God—we cannot know ourselves unless we know God. No revelation outside of scripture. In a sense he is the father of fundamentalism. Cannot question author of scripture. Natural man is a maze without direction. God is supreme Lord in every manner of life. Words of Jesus are to be taken literally. Awesome reverence of God. Had Servetus the Unitarian, burned for attacking the Trinity. Made Geneva a theocracy. Main beliefs are summed up under initials of t-u-l-i-p: (1) Total depravity. (2) Unconditional election. (3) Limited atonement. (4) Irresistible grace. (5) Perseverance of saints. He substituted an infallible Bible for an infallible pope.

John Knox (1505-72)

Scottish reformer. Introduced Calvinism to Scotland and founded Presbyterian church there. Drew up the Scottish Confession which abolished the authority of “papal idolatry” and the Mass, the celebration and attendance of which was forbidden under pain of death.

The Anabaptists

Tried to establish a New Testament church with four branches of Anabaptism representing a type of reformation:

Swiss Brethren. Developed a free church with adult baptism as against infant baptism. Resented coercive power of established church. Often persecuted for their beliefs. One leader, Felix Manz, was baptised to death in Zurich.

The Hutterites. So named from Jacob Hutter (1533), leader. They held to the ideas of separation of themselves from world, adult baptism and a Christian communion. They considered private property the greatest enemy of Christian life. Sect still exists today.

Melchorltes. Named from Melchior Hoffman (1498-1543). An unorthodox Christian of docetic views; advocated polygamy, revolution, and set a definite date for second coming. Established in the city of Munster, but the Roman Catholics and Lutherans took the city and put to the sword all its residents.

Mennonites. Menno Simons, (1496-1561) leader. Strict separation of church and individual society. Held to believers’ baptism, rejection of church organization, belief of real presence in Eucharist. Refuse military service, taking oaths, and have no common doctrine.

Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556) and The Roman Counter-Reformation

His “Spiritual Exercises” are a religious classic. In 1521, when his leg was broken, he read the life of Jesus and the saints and was healed. A leading mystic, but believed in total submission to the mother Roman Catholic church. He laid the foundation for the Jesuit society which carried out the Roman Counter-Reformation in opposition to the Protestant reformation. During this Roman inquisition, worse than the one of 1252, suspected heretics were punished even on suspicion with no regard for the great, no mercy. An Index of forbidden books was distributed, and one sees the more orthodox, ossified, inflexible Roman Catholicism. Index still exists for books, magazines, movies, and other forms of public communication.

Anglican Reformation

Henry VIII (1491-1547). Began the Anglican Reformation by putting his wife away in order to take another who would bear him sons. Pope refused permission, so Henry separated the Church of England from the Church of Rome. He, himself, became head of the church, but not a heretic, for he held his Roman Catholic views, introduced the use of the English Bible, and through Cranmer, published the Book of Common Prayer in 1549.

Bloody Mary of Tudor (1516-58). Daughter of Henry VIII; tried to swing people back to RC. 288 were burned, which actually won the people more to the Reformation.

Elizabeth I (1533-1603). Went on the side of Reformation. When ex-communicated by the Pope, she released her subjects from his allegiance. Had her sister, Mary of Scotts, beheaded lest her disaffected Roman Catholic subjects rally there. England became strongly Protestant.

Puritan Reform

The Puritans wanted to purify the Church of England from all traces of corruption which survived from the Roman connection. They resented also the rigid parliamentarian control of England. They attacked church ornaments, vestments, organs, the sign of the cross, ecclesiastical courts, demanded presbyterian government and Sunday observance. Their theology was Calvinist. John Bunyan (1628-1688) was a strong Puritan, imprisoned for his refusal to conform to the Church of England, and while in prison wrote Pilgrim’s Progress. The Puritans declared Christianity as a life to be lived, rather than creeds to be believed.

Smaller Emerging Groups In England

George Fox (1624-91) and the Quakers, or “Friends” as they called themselves. Imprisoned for the statement “No, it is not the scriptures, it is the spirit of God.” Central doctrine, “the inner light,” a belief that God spoke directly to men in the 17th century as he had in Bible times. The authority of the inner voice was preferable to that of the Bible or the church.

Seekers. Early 17th century Puritan sect. Believed no true church had existed since the spirit of Antichrist (pope) became uppermost in the church, and that God would in his own time ordain a new church. They were quietists and did little to hasten this process, but were in many ways like the Quakers.

Lavellers. Protested that there was a natural law written in the hearts of men, and that parliaments should be limited. Advocated complete freedom of religion and manhood suffrage.

Diggers. Protested against private ownership of land. So named because they dug in uncultivated land to sow vegetables, claiming that they had been commanded by God to take the land and make it fruitful.

Council of Trent (1545)

Clarified the position of Roman Catholicism as opposed to the doctrines of Protestantism, giving the pope supremacy over the entire church.

John Wesley (1703-1791)

Founder of the Methodist movement. Said, “The world is my parish.” Wesley came upon the scene of coarse amusements, illiteracy, filthy jails, drunkenness. Eager to reach out to men in their wider needs; enthusiastic in his experience of God’s forgiveness. His preaching became unpopular to the Church of England and he found church after church closed to him. He did not intend to break with the established church, as did Luther, but only to purify the existing organization and to intensify its concern for the neglected. After his conversion experience at Aldersgate Street, he spent the rest of his life in evangelistic work, preaching on the streets, at the mines, etc. He organized a body of lay pastors to help evangelize.

Class Assignments

  1. List some of the events leading to the Reformation.
  2. Briefly describe the main teachings of Luther, Calvin and Knox.
  3. List some of the smaller groups emerging in this period (Quaker, etc.)
  4. What was the decision of the Council of Trent?
  5. What occasioned the Puritan Reform?