The Reformation

extracted from

The History of the Church
Howard A. White

|The Early Church| |Apostasy in the Early Church| |Development of Papal Power| |Reformation Movement| |Rise of Denominations| |Spread of Denominations| |Restoration Movement| |A Warning|

At the close of the "Dark Ages", Papal authority in religious matters was in full swing everywhere. Papal domination was sought and gained even in political affairs. In many instances, the Catholic Church resorted to carnal warfare in order to increase its power. The masses were in total ignorance of the Bible. It was truly the "Dark Ages." Simony, the custom of selling church offices to the highest bidder, was a universal practice. Miscellaneous moneymaking schemes, such as indulgences and confessionals, were a source of rich profits to the church. "While the Papacy tightened its grip upon the Catholic Church, and set itself against all reform of any kind, there arose some dissenting voices, who protested against the immorality among the clergy and spoke strongly against papal interference in political affairs."1


Gleams of light began to shoot through the darkness as individuals made attempts to reform the Catholic Church. D’ Aubigne calls these movements "Protestantism before the reformation."2 Fisher speaks of them as "Reformers before the reformation."3 At this time we shall call attention to five of these early movements which arose for reform in the church. However, the world was not ready for them and they were repressed with bloody persecution.

    1. The Albigenses became prominent in Southern France about 1170 A.D. They were opposed to traditions as authority in religion; they were opposed to the doctrines of purgatory and image-worship. They recognised authority of the New Testament and circulated it to the extent of their ability. They were extirpated in a great slaughter as the result of a call for a crusade against them by Pope Innocent III.
    1. The Waldensians were founded by Peter Waldo about A.D. 1170. Waldo was a merchant of Lyons who appealed to the Scriptures in his opposition to the practices of the Roman Catholic Church. The Waldensians were noted for their zeal for purity of life. Under the fire of persecution, they left France and found hiding places in the valleys of Northern Italy.
    1. John Wycliffe (1324-1384) was an Englishman by birth; he was a graduate of Oxford University. History calls him "The Morning Star of the Reformation" because he was the first to distinguish himself in fighting against the Catholic Church along certain lines. Some of the things which he opposed were the authority of the Pope, the doctrine of Transubstantiation, and auricular confessions.

The greatest work of Wycliffe for the enlightenment of the world was the translation of the Bible into the English Langauges.4 "Excluded from Oxford in 1382 he retired to Lutterworth where he died. Years after his death his enemies had his body dug from the grave and burned and his ashes scattered on a brook that flowed into Avon River. Wordsworth later celebrated this in his Ecclesiastical Sonnets by symbolising the spread of his doctrine to all the world as the waters of the ocean washed all the shores with his ashes."5

    1. John Huss (1369-1415) was an outstanding reformer who lived in Bohemia. A priest of the Catholic church, he became a disciple of Wycliffe. With great zeal he exalted the Scriptures above tradition and human dogma and opposed the tyranny of the clergy. He fiercely denounced the sale of indulgences. He was summoned to the Council of Constance and tried as a heretic. Although he had been promised safety by the emperor, he was burned to death in July, 1415.
    1. John Wessel (1420-1498) was a reformer of less renown than Wycliffe and Huss. However, he attacked Catholicism in some of its principle features. He avowed many of the same beliefs which were later taught by Luther.6
    1. Jerome Savonarola (1452-1498) lived in Florence, Italy. He denied the authority of the pope and make a bitter fight against the immorality of the clergy. Fisher states: When the pope found that he could not bribe the powerful preacher with the offer of a cardinal’s hat, nor reduce him to silence by repeated admonitions, his excommunication void, as contradictory to the wise and just law of God.

He was finally arrested. While in prison he wrote a tract on the fifty-first Psalm in which he set forth his ideas of justification. He was tried, condemned, and on May 23, 1498, he was burned to death in the square at Florence in front of the church where he preached so long.


As already pointed out, these early efforts at reform were soon repressed for they were somewhat premature in view of the governing circumstances. However, certain forces were in action during this period which were serving to prepare the way for a far-reaching movement which today is known as the Protestant Reformation or Revolution. Let us give brief notice to a number of these causes.

    1. There was an awakening in Europe to a new interest in literature, art and science; the change from medieval to modern aims and methods of thought. The minds of the people had become darkened with superstition, ignorance and bigotry. This renewed interest in learning served to lift the evil of ignorance and superstition and inspired independence of thought. As the amount of information increased there was also an increase in dissatisfaction with the prevailing religious condition.
    1. Another factor which paved the way for the Reformation was the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg in 1455. This made possible the printing of books from movable type. Soon books being distributed by the thousands. Hurlbut states:

Before this invention, from the beginning of time, books had been circulated only as rapidly as they could be copied out by hand. A Bible in the Middle Ages cost the wages of a working man for a year. It is significant as showing the desire of that time, that the first book printed by Gutenberg was the Bible. The press brought the Scriptures into common use, and led to their translation and circulation in all languages of Europe. The people who read the New Testament soon realised that the papal church was far from the New Testament ideal.8

In this historical fact we see a demonstration of the power of God’s word to enlighten the hearts of men and expel the darkness of superstition, ignorance and tradition. As it was then, so has it ever been and so it is today. The more people know of God the greater will be their distance for the traditions and superstitions of men.

    1. There was a growing spirit of nationalism which affected the thinking of the people and fed the desire for greater freedom in religion. Patriotism caused many to resent the idea of submitting to foreign rule over their own national churches. They disliked the idea of the pope in another land, appointing their church officers. Some refused to contribute "Peter’s Pence" for the support of the pope and the erection of magnificent church buildings in Rome.

The seeds which produced the Reformation were beginning to germinate. At the first the hand of persecution cut off each effort at reformation, but the idea was spreading and finally it gathered such momentum that it was able to march on in spite of efforts to crush it.


The only logical place to begin a study of what might be called the "Reformation Movement Proper" is with Martin Luther. He is known as "the hero of the Reformation." Some said that "Luther, apart from the Reformation, would cease to be Luther." The son of a miner, he was born at Eisleben, Germany, November 10, 1483. He was reared under rigid disciple by parents who were poor, but self-respecting. The severe discipline of home and school, and the privations of early life prepared him for later hardships and trials. His early ambition was to study law. After reading a copy of the Bible for the first time, he changed his plans against his father’s will. He entered a monastery at the age of twenty-one and studied in earnest. He later said, "if ever a monk got to heaven by monkery, I would have gotten there."9 He became a preacher at Wittenberg and also taught in the university in 1508.

Pope Leo X was eager to complete St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. A number of papal agents were sent out to sell indulgences as a means of raising money. A man by the name of John Tetzel proved to be a super-salesman. Luther questioned the whole system of indulgences and vigorously opposed it. In October, 1517, he posted, on the church door at Wittenberg ninety-five propositions, or thesis, condemning the practice of indulgences and challenged anyone to debate with him. This, of courses, caused a reaction, both favorable and unfavorable, all over Germany. Many souls rejoiced at the boldness of Luther. A great controversy followed. The dispute made Luther realize that human authority was against him and that it was necessary for him to plant his feet upon the Scriptures more distinctly.

On June 15, 1520, Leo X issued a papal bull, which gave Luther 60 days to change his course. On December 10, of that year, Luther burned the pope’s decree at the city gate. By this act he threw off his allegiance to the Roman Church. During the year 1520 he had clearly expressed his views on vital issues. He published three pamphlets in which he opposed the sanctity of the priesthood. He called upon the nobles to throw off the bandage of Rome and take over the lands and wealth that was held by the Church. He challenged the authority of the pope and condemned the sacramental system, and he set forth his views on the subject of salvation. On January 3, Pope Leo issued a bull of excommunication. Four months later, the Diet of the Holy Roman Empire declared Luther an outlaw, but he founded protection in the castle of Frederick, Elector of Saxony.

Luther was summoned to the Diet of Worms by the Emperor, Charles V, in 1521. At the trial, when the assembly called upon him retract his statements, he said, "Unless I am persuaded by means of the passages which I have quoted, and unless they thus render my conscience bound by the Word of God-I cannot and will not retract ... Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise so help me God." On his way from Worms, he was seized by masked horsemen who took him to Wartburg Castle where he remained in safety for almost a year. He died at the age of sixty-three, February 18, 1546, while on a visit to his birthplace at Eisleben.

|The Early Church| |Apostasy in the Early Church| |Development of Papal Power| |Reformation Movement| |Rise of Denominations| |Spread of Denominations| |Restoration Movement| |A Warning|


  1. Pack, Church History, 23.
  2. J.H. Mefle D’Aubigne, History of the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century, 5 vols., (New York, 1859), 1, 88.
  3. Fisher, History of The Christian Church, 271.
  4. J. W. Shepherd, The Church, The Falling Away, And The Restoration, (Cincinnati, 1929), 75.
  5. Pack, Church History,24.
  6. Fisher, History of The Christian Church, 276.
  7. Ibid., 277.
  8. Hurlbut, Story Of The Christian Church, 151.
  9. Shepherd, The Church, 93.

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