Why did the Protestant Reformation happen?

Why did the Protestant Reformation happen? Could the Reformation and the negative ramifications that came for it (bloodshed, massacre of Catholics in Protestant countries, international warfare, discrimination of Catholics, etc. )have been prevented?

Oh my, what a huge question! People have devoted entire careers to this sort of thing! For the first part, I suggest as good a place as any is the wikipedia entry on the Reformation, which is fairly neutral and obviously links to more in-depth articles on particular issues.

Whether its negative outcomes (which were negative in various ways for loads of people, not just Catholics), could have been prevented, is a much harder question because it’s clearly speculative.

My view (and I should point out that, on the whole, my knowledge of the Reformation is confined to what happened in England, which had a specific set of circumstances anyway), is that it probably couldn’t. Largely speaking, because there were two aspects to R: the doctrinal and liturgical reforms/heresies (some are both!) on the one hand, and its association with national politics on the other. (So, for instance, the Reformation would have taken a very different course in England - and in my view might not have happened, or been successful, at all - had not the King been politically motivated to break with Rome anyway, over the issue of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon).

Once R sort of became cemented on what turned out to be national lines (much of Northern Germany, Switzerland, and parts of France at various times, as well as the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries, and of course the British Isles apart from Ireland), then it becomes much easier to understand why you might have religiously-motivated wars (like the Thirty Years War, or even single events like the Spanish Armada which threatened England in 1588): you can paint your national enemies (Spain, for example, if you are England) as being not only bad because they’re a different country, but also, now, a different religion.

Persecution of course came from both sides equally, and who was a serious risk of being burned at the stake basically just depended which country you’re talking about. It’s much easier to persecute, and enact laws against, a group of people who have, in your eyes, “proved” themselves to be traitors to your state…and penal legislation wasn’t confined to the Reformation period itself. (If you were Roman Catholic in England you basically had no political rights, more or less, until as late as 1828…and many of the laws which lasted until then didn’t date from the Reformation at all, but from the late 1600s and early 1700s).

The short answer is - we live in a more ecumenical age, and one in which very many people are not religiously motivated at all - so it can be hard to appreciate that in an era when, essentially, everyone had faith (whether it was informed by any sort of education, or not), questions of theology took on very much greater importance than they might do today.

Everyone else - chip in!

God bless,

Ellie x

As mentioned by the previous poster - this is a hugely complex question. And like the previous poster I have a rather limited knowledge of the Protestant Reformation as a whole.

Could it have been avoided?

Sure it could…one need only pick out some event (or series of events) in the history of the Church and Christendom and present an alternate history from there.
Overall, I think that for every point that one might say, "The Reformation was inevitable…"one could say, yes but if this or that changed, then the Reformation might have been avoided.

It must be recognized that Luther, the oft thought of “father of the Reformation” was not an isolated case of dissent…He was simply the spark that set of the conflagration. There was a great deal of discontent at the time - both in the theological realm and also the political realm.

In my view the “permanence” of the Reformation (and many of the excesses) is due largely to political factors of the time rather than theological ones. Many theological crisis came and went in the Church over the first 1500 years without the sort of splintering that the Reformation represented. So I really don’t see the theological differences as being so significant as to lead to the mass defection.

This leaves us with the political aspect…

The dual role of the Church at that time - being both spiritual and political - led to all sorts of conflicts in who occupied the various offices and how the occupants acted. Add to this the desires (good or bad) of the various kings and princes and one can find one’s self sitting on a powder keg.

The situation for the common man was quite different too…
You were expected to be whatever your prince or king was…So if the King was Catholic, so were you. If the King went protestant - you had best follow. If you did not, then you were considered disloyal to your king and that could get you killed.

I apologize for the rambling nature of this post…It’s early and my thoughts are just wandering around…
Perhaps the best answer is this…

The Reformation could NOT have been avoided, because reform was needed at the time. The** form **that the Reformation took could certainly have been different…

Just some thoughts…


As has been said above it is an issue that is hugely complex.

One aspect of it though, must be that while it is called a reformation, in large part it turned out as a state take-over of Christianity. which has had impacts down to us today.

Excellent post. From a political standpoint the Reformation was an essential step toward representative government.
From a theological view, it was a disaster, because it fostered even more confusion and resentment. Something will still see today.

Just my view.

i will always live by the writing of William Cobbett- The history of the protestant Reformation
in England and Ireland-- Once you read it , you will pick it up and read it again.
practically no one can refute what he had to say.

One book that I read about it pointed out the greed and coveting of kings and princes who saw the local church donations being sent off to Rome.

So, the authority and control from Rome was resented, on several levels. Certainly a “wedge” issue was that of purgatory and indulgences and the selling of indulgences.

Elsewhere, Martin Luther, who took vows of poverty, chastity,and obedience, traveled to Rome for some reason, probably theological or spiritual in nature, and was shocked and outraged by the lavish spending at the Vatican by the Popes and “princes” of the church.

I picked up a copy of The Orthodox Study Bible (amazon.com/Orthodox-Study-Bible-Ancient-Christianity/dp/0718003594/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1404479911&sr=1-1&keywords=the+orthodox+study+bible) and it makes some remarks about what the Orthodox Church is (to them, it is the church of the Bible).

The commenter in TOSB bemoans that the reformers did not simply switch over to the Orthodox Church, but rather even apparently rejected that and went off in another direction of schism. The OC regards the separation of Rome from what was to be known as the Orthodox Church as the key event in the Reformation, setting up the precedent of splitting away from the true church. So, the OC sort of blames the Roman church for its schism and subsequent schisms. From the OC point of view, the OC didn’t like what was happening in the RCC and (to the OC it was no surprise that) neither did the later reformers. (put that in your pipe and smoke it)

Violence begets violence.
Perhaps the bloodshed, massacres, international warfare, and discrimination of non-Catholics in the centuries leading up to the Reformation had something to do with it. Each crusade was launched by a pope, I think.

But as for Luther, he had specific complaints of the corruption going on within the Catholic church. His writings were a big inspiration for the Reformation, right?
Perhaps if that wrongdoing was not happening, the Revolution may not have happened.

Then again…there was the printing press and the Renaissance…more people had access to the Christian canon and read it for themselves and exchange and spread new ideas and thoughts about it.

Combine that with the loss of faith many had in the Papacy and Curia at the time and…you have yourself a Revolution.

I don’t think the Revolution/Reformation could have been stopped, it was a natural progression of the seeds planted in the centuries before it.

Interesting that you only note “massacre of Catholics in Protestant countries”.
Didn’t the ensuing Catholic “counter reformation” then spawn the Roman Inquisition…in which thousands of Protestants or anybody who was not adhering to Catholic doctrine were massacred?

It’s all part of the big picture.
But I think the main seed was…people had lost trust and belief of many practices of the Catholic church and those running it…so they wanted and demanded a change.
Had people had “freedom of religion” back then, the change they sought may have been achieved without all that bloodshed.

The violence afterward is what happens when one group of people thinks they are right, and decides to kill all others who don’t agree with them for fear of being overtaken or being wiped out.
It’s a survival mindset and primal wiring that has been around since time began, I imagine, and is still around today.

But I bet if women were in charge–of the religions, of the politics–there would have been much less violence and murder going on.


Luther saw abuses that were going on within the Catholic Church, but because of the abuses he saw he decided that if the Church was wrong about what it was doing so to the doctrines needed to be changed. This led of course to others like Calvin and Zwingli to question the CC’s doctrines etc. I do agree it is a very big complex question, with many factors to consider.

Reform happened because there was abuse in the Church.

The Protestant ‘Reformation’ happened because convicting the leaders of their abuse was too difficult and time consuming, which required lots of suffering. It was easier to appoint themselves new authorities in their own communions.

Not just kings and princes. At least in Germany, the resentment of Rome went quite a way down the social ladder. It’s less clear that most people in England, for instance, cared.

Elsewhere, Martin Luther, who took vows of poverty, chastity,and obedience, traveled to Rome for some reason, probably theological or spiritual in nature, and was shocked and outraged by the lavish spending at the Vatican by the Popes and “princes” of the church.

That’s what he said later on, but I don’t believe him. He went to Rome as part of a delegation from the Observant branch of the Augustinian Order, in their long quarrel with the Conventual branch (much like the division in Protestant denominations today between “mainline” and more conservative branches). He was, in other words, already involved in religious politics and was part of a reform group that looked on established ecclesiastical institutions with a good deal of suspicion. And it’s now been well documented that German Christians of the era in general were very suspicious of Rome, and there were plenty of stories about Roman corruption. It just isn’t believable to me that someone in Luther’s position would have gone to Rome as naive as he makes himself sound. In my opinion, the trip to Rome is very unlikely to have played any significant role in the development of Luther’s opposition to the Church, though I’m sure it strengthened the prejudices he already had and made it easier for him to oppose Rome later.

What is missing in your account is what most Protestants at the time thought was the main issue: the recovery of “the Gospel.” By this they meant the proclamation that people’s sins were forgiven based on faith in Christ.

The political and cultural factors, which were extremely important, came to a head in the conflict over Luther’s teachings on salvation. Without those teachings, there might well have been a split in the Western Church (along “Zwinglian” lines), but it wouldn’t have been as spiritually powerful and probably wouldn’t have been as successful. We certainly wouldn’t have evangelicalism today–we might have liberal mainline Protestantism.


I thought people’s sins were forgiven based on the living God becoming man and offering Himself as a sacrifice for us?

The primacy of Peter among his brethren did not contradict the gospel, nor does the successing office. But individuals in the Church became corrupt masters.

I see you were not purposing this to be true, but the mentality and desire of the first protesters against the Church heirarchy.

What I see during these times was a super difficult challenge put before the laity, and genuine faithfull. They were called to the general priesthood which at the time was demanding them to rebuke the behavior of their leaders. This comes at a price of losing freedoms and gain. But starting with Luther and then the rest who rejected the authority that was real, they took up more freedom and gain. Luther entering into a marriage which he vowed not to, then gained fame and political influence.

If we are to judge the validity of a Church leader by his deeds, then Luther himself would have been considered invalid. Or maybe Peter himself after Paul rebuked him.

I agree that the path of resistance to corruption and abuse while continuing to acknowledge the authority of the Church was the more difficult one, and that taking the “Protestant” way enabled reformers to “bid” high for the support of rulers who had long desired more control over the Church.

However, I think you’re still overemphasizing the importance of abuses. There have always been abuses. And as you say (and as Luther himself would admit, I think), if you’re looking for a thoroughly irreproachable leader, Luther wouldn’t be the guy. That really wasn’t the issue, at least for Luther. The issue was doctrinal. Of course the appeal of the doctrinal “reform” to a lot of folks was that it explained the abuses and purported to have an answer. And the reasons why Luther did things, why some of the other (more moralistic) Reformers did things, and why laypeople of various social classes listened to them were not necessarily all the same.


Excerpts here point to the reasons as none other than the brilliant Archbishop Charles Chaput observes.

December 19, 2012
What the Reformation has Wrought
by Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap
Contemporary Problems Developed Over Centuries

"Brad Gregory, the Notre Dame historian, seeks to show how we got this way in his recent book The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society. His answers are surprising, and for some readers, controversial. But his book is also important—and in its explanatory power, brilliant.

"Gregory argues that today’s relativism and cult of the consumer—what he ironically calls “the goods life”—have roots that run centuries deep. He wastes no time on nostalgia for a golden age that never existed. But he does show with riveting clarity that in the sixteenth century, Protestant Reformers unintentionally set in motion certain ideas that eventually enabled today’s radical self-centeredness.

"Late medieval clergy too often preached one thing and did another. Greed, simony, nepotism, luxury, sexual license, and schism in the hierarchy created an intolerable gap between Christian preaching and practice.

"Many Catholics worked for reform from within. Some had success. Franciscans, Dominicans, and Cistercians owe their origins to medieval reform. Humanists such as Erasmus and Thomas More were part of an international community of letters determined to renew Christian life from the inside. Saints such as Catherine of Siena and Bernard of Clairvaux spoke truth to ecclesiastical power.

"But one key difference separated these Catholic voices from the Protestant Reformers: The Catholics believed that the Church had her teachings right. She just needed to actually live them. The Catholics believed that Christ’s presence in the Eucharist and other sacraments, in the Scriptures, in the saints, and in the Church’s historic doctrines offered an authentic, all-encompassing Christian way of life sufficient to sanctify human existence—if it was actually embraced and shorn of its abuses.
"The Protestants, preaching sola scriptura, threw much of it away.

"Competing interpretations of Scripture actually intensified the confusion. Lutherans read Scripture one way, Calvinists another, with varieties of Anglicans, Anabaptists, Baptists, Puritans, Pietists, Methodists, and Quakers veering off into options beyond counting.
Gregory also chronicles the secular philosophers who stepped into the breach. In the place of sola scriptura, the Enlightenment offered wisdom sola ratio. From Descartes, through Hobbes, Spinoza, Rousseau, Kant, Hume, Hegel, and others, on to Heidegger and Levinas and their successors, the great end-run around revealed religion and its traditions began, seeking truth based on human reason alone.

“But as Gregory shows, the philosophers fared no better than the Reformers. Competing ideas proliferated. Truth, and answers to life’s big questions, remained disputed. In more recent times, Nietzsche, Foucault, and the post-modernists have been honest enough to say so, scorning the Enlightenment as much as they scorned Christianity. We can see the results in today’s pervasive spirit of irony and skepticism.”

‘The Reformation has led, by gradual, indirect, and never-intended steps, to what Gregory calls the “Kingdom of Whatever.” It’s a world of hyperpluralism, where meaning is self-invented by millions, and therefore society as a whole starves for meaning.’

Not true, Each crusade was not launched by the Pope. The first crusade was called as a last resort as defence and AFTER the conquering of 2/3 rds of Christendom.

It was also AFTER delegations and efforts at dialogue and serious discussions on the appropriateness and need of violence.

It is only the madness of 1960’s militant feminists who ignore the history of attempted resolution and blame the victims of groups and their gender because they are/were attacked by groups such as the present day ISIS.

Thank God the insane feminists have never been in charge of civilisation. It never would have survived.

It started the ball rolling but in most places it was a top down takeover of Christianity by the state who took over the property, hospitals, universities etc of the Catholic Church. For example, there were parts of Scandanavia centuries after the Reformation which were still saying mass in Latin, simply because that was what they had always done.

I think the militant feminist movement is a special kind of madness. They have tried very hard to describe history and reality not as it was and is, but how they would have liked it to have been so as to use it as justification for their own destructive doctrines.

Part of that re-working of reality in their minds is to be completely derogatory and slanderous of the Church.

Such dated groups of people deserve exactly the level of modern respect they get - not much.

Popular dissatisfaction with government/centralised authority (including the Church) + ecclesiastical misbehaviour + radicals who just wanted something to complain about + a power struggle between northern Europe and southern Europe + Martin Luther = :slapfight:

Was either side “right”? No, but that is normal for wars.

Could the Reformation and the negative ramifications that came of it (bloodshed, massacre of Catholics in Protestant countries, international warfare, discrimination of Catholics, etc.) have been prevented?

Historical-determinist answer: No, given that it happened.
Idealist answer: Yes, if everyone had just been a bit more willing to communicate.
Cynical answer: Yes, but it would not have helped, because someone somewhere would have found some other way of causing that much trouble.

Should the Church have prevented it? Only if they had seen it coming, which they quite reasonably did not.

For the same reason every outbreak happens, some guy wants to rule the flock himself, so he breaks away and takes a part of the flock with him. The reason given is always different, but the real reason is always the same, power over the flock. Solution, give them power inside the church, before they start making things up !

This isn’t always possible.


There were lots of causes. Corruption, rise of nation states, conflict over secular affairs, taxation without representation, emergence of a middle class challenging the aristocrats, improvements in education leading to widespread dissatisfaction… basically the old system was tired, and stresses built up all over it until finally the dam burst.

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