The holy Catholic Roman church, by the time of Martin Luther and John Calvin, had been in power for a thousand years and held one third of the land in Europe. The pope, cardinals and bishops came exclusively from the aristocratic elite of Europe. Because of this the clergy already wielded an incredible amount of wealth, and influence. As the heads of the church they were practically un-opposable. Should an outside power pose a problem the church could often call forth forces from various kingdoms in Europe, by influence caused by a direct link from the pope and his family to the government in question, or by threatening excommunication and damnation on its king. Against threats from domestic problems offenders were branded heretics, witches, or other undesirables and were quickly, or slowly and excruciatingly, dealt with by the various branches of the inquisition. Even after the break up of the churches monopoly on knowledge by this time, they still held complete control on salvation.
The church knew how to sap every last drop of wealth they could from this monopoly. Between donations in church, heavy papal taxation, and indulgences, the church was draining its followers and everyone else they could. The church hierarchy was stagnant with corruption. The list of the disgruntled was long, but until the reformation no one proved adequate to the task of opposing the church, but now the situation was right.
Martin Luther was to be a lawyer but during an intense lightning storm he made an oath to become a monk if he were saved. He did become a monk, and eventually a theology teacher at the suggestion of a priest. During this time he came to the revelation and belief that salvation was based on faith alone, instead of faith and an endless series of good works. He saw complete observance of the commandments and laws of god as impossible, and the numerous rituals and works as inadequate to achieve salvation. Only god in his infinite glory and mercy could give salvation to the undeserving, which was everyone. The reformation is seen by many historians as starting in 1517 when Martin Luther posted ninety-five theses objecting to the indulgences, beginning his separation from Rome.
For hundreds of years the church had been rewarding followers with indulgences, which were treated as extra good deeds and works, which could be reallocated to sinners. Indulgences were originally given to those going on crusades, but with the continued degradation of the church they were now being given out for monetary donations. Indulgences were used for lowering the amount of time spent in purgatory, which was the place one would spend time paying for ones sins before going to heaven. You could spend thousands of years in burning pits of torture before being allowed to ascend. The church eventually sunk to the level of selling indulgences, which would get ones dead relatives out of purgatory.
For the entirety of this practice there had been monks, priests and others who had objected to it, but there were some key differences that made Luther a success. He had written his theses in the scholastic language of Latin, as it was written for his colleagues, but it was taken and translated into the local German, and then printed and distributed to the public. So unlike most of those who came before him, his word was heard by many, and spread.
Normally Luther would have been quickly dealt with by the church, and even his direct attacks on the pope may have amounted to little, but we cannot forget the disgruntled nobility, the Germans in particular. Pope Leo X had sent a bull to Luther ordering him to recant, which Luther threw into a bonfire, along with all of the church laws, in front of a crowd. He was now seen as a heretic by the church, if he had not been seen as this before. His lay overlord, Frederick the wise of Saxony, was German and so had an underlying bitterness towards the church, so decided not to burn Luther as a heretic on account of him not having a fair hearing. Luther was then summoned to the city Worms to be tried by a council of the princes of the Holy Roman Empire. The head of this council was the emperor of the empire itself Charles V, who was not German. Luther was officially labeled a heretic, but not before he was whisked away to the safety of the castle of the Wartburg by Frederick.
From Wartburg Luther continued his works. As Luther believed in salvation by faith alone, he denounced the whole ecclesiastical hierarchy as no more holy or virtuous than other followers. The particular bitterness of the German aristocracy was primarily caused by the lack of agreements between the pope and emperor limiting the power of the church in Germany. From this Papal taxes were exorbitantly high. Unsurprisingly Lutheranism first took hold in the German Aristocracy. Germany was in the heartland of the Holy Roman Empire, and now it was by large rejecting the Catholic Church.
Kings and lords began converting to Protestantism, whether for spiritual, or other purposes it had a profound impact on the church in their lands. Without the pope, or regional clergy office to assign and control the churches in an area, the prince or reigning government would do so, maintaining more of their own power over their land. Also monasteries, nunneries, and other ecclesiastical organizations were disbanded by the state, their wealth typically seized at the time.
With Luther’s success, many others found the audacity to challenge the church(,) and its practices, more openly. From this stemmed variations of Protestantism, as Lutheranism and its offshoots came to be known, such as Zwinglianism which was founded by Ulrich Zwingli who had objected against the church since before Luther’s time but had not voiced himself until after Luther’s reformation had begun. Another contemporary was the Anabaptist faith, an extreme form of Protestantism who believed in adult baptisms and a communal, communistic way of government and living. Also came Calvinism as I will mention soon.
Zwinglianism was the most moderate of the protestant sects. Zwinglianism was accepted and adopted by Zurich and northern Switzerland, but only lasted for about ten years when Ulrich Zwingli was killed in battle against Catholic forces, and most of its followers were absorbed into Calvinism. One determining factor in the short life of Zwinglianism was the difference in beliefs between Zwingli and Luther in that Luther believed in the real presence of Christ’s body in the sacrament, while Zwingly just saw it as a symbolic reminder of Christ. This difference maintained a separation of Zwinglianists and Lutherans that left Zwinglianists to defend themselves against the Catholics, without help. As fleeting as it was this movement still helped break up the Catholic monopoly, and served as a sag-way for Calvinism.
Anabaptists were the extremist offshoot of Protestantism. They believed in adult baptisms, that believers needed to understand the significance of the baptismal for it to be a true baptism. In a similar way to Lutheranism, Anabaptism did not agree with the catholic ecclesiastical hierarchy. They viewed the ‘true’ church as a small community of believers who were not merely members at birth, but had to intentionally join. In 1534 a group of Anabaptists took control of the German city of Munster. They tried to turn it into a new religious center, its leader calling himself the successor of David, and the king of the new temple. A year after taking control Catholic forces took the city. The Anabaptists, in the city and elsewhere, were tortured, prosecuted, and scattered beyond cohesion.
The next aspect of Protestantism’s spread and social impact has much to do with Calvinism, so let us introduce this sect. Like Luther, John Calvin was to be a lawyer but turned to religion. Calvin believed in the complete omnipotence of god, and that it was the fate of every sinning human, of which was all of them, to be either damned to hell for eternity, or to be saved by god. Naturally Calvinists were the only ones predestined to be saved, and all others were damned no matter what. The signs of being saved were to be a Calvinist, as above, to follow the laws of the bible, and to be successful. The upper class outside of Germany was content with remaining within Catholicism as they had the money to buy indulgences and lacked the bitterness of the German aristocracy.
Typically the only way to make a substantial headway towards salvation under Catholicism for the middle class was by fighting in crusades, which by this time were not as common as at the founding of indulgences. Calvinism thus became the religion of the middle class. Catholicism had placed a cap of 15% of profit, and a ban on money lending, which Calvinism did not. This helped pave the way for increased mercantile trade, and banking. Calvinists believed in hard work, and were against drinking, dancing, whoring, and any temptation. (Synonym: FUN). Naturally a new drink appeared during this time, coffee. This was the drink of the middle class, ironically enough. Calvinists were industrious and strove to be successful, as the saved must be successful.