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The Shaping of Modern Europe Index

Introduction to the Reformation
The Church before the Reformation I : Indulgences, Relics and Pilgrimages
The Church before the Reformation II : The Wealth and Political Power of the Church
The Church before the Reformation III : The Clergy
The Church before the Reformation IV : Inside a Church
The Lutheran Revolt
Conflict between Luther and the Church
The Catholic and the Lutheran Church
Huldreick Zwingli
John Calvin
The English Reformation

17th Century Europe

Europe in the 1600s
17th Century Europe

History Chapters Main Index


Lutheran ideas

The main ideas that Luther put forward from 1520 were a development of what he had already written:

  • That people must show to God that they were worthy of Heaven not just by doing good deeds but by really believing in God and the Bible. This he called "Justification by faith alone".

  • He wanted all religious ideas based upon the Bible and not on the religious teachings of priests.

  • That "every man was a priest".

  • That all Christians are equally sacred in God's eyes no matter what their job. Therefore a clergyman is not better than a labourer , for example.

Basically, what Lutheranism was doing was bringing the church services to a level that people could understand - in German, and without excessive ceremony.

Other people contributed to the development of what became the Protestant Church: 

  • Melanchthon wrote several books, the most famous of which was "Loci Communes" (Commonplaces) in 1521

  • John Burgenhagen

  • Catherine von Bora (who became Luther's wife, despite the fact they had both taken vows of chastity).

Catherine von Bora

Portrait of Catherine von Bora




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The Church reacts to Luther

Luther's writings

Just as people today write controversial ideas in books so that their books will sell and make them famous, so it was in the 16th century. From 1520 onwards Luther wrote pamphlets in German, as well as in Latin, expressing his ideas. The printing press made sure that these were widely read. The purpose of his writings was to reform Christendom.

His most famous works of this period were, "To the Christian Nobility of the German People" (in German), "The Babylonish Captivity of the Church" and "Of the Liberty of the Christian Man". In these books he attacked the Pope and the structure of the Church but, more importantly, he called on the German princes to reform the Church. He wanted the kings and princes to destroy the power of the Pope in the German states. Not only the power of the Pope but also the Pardons, taxes and the wealth of the Cardinals and Bishops should all be destroyed. What Luther was writing about was a return to "the basics". The Bible was the word of God and people did not need the Church to worship God. Extravagances should be restrained.

In these writings Luther had moved a long way; from questioning indulgences to calling for the princes to destroy the Church. This was even more revolutionary than the period 1518-20.


The Church reacts to Luther


Luther burning the Papal Bull

Luther burning the Papal Bull


In June 1520 the Pope reacted to these heretical and revolutionary ideas by issuing a Bull - the Exsurge Domine. This was an appeal, or even a command, to the faithful to burn Luther's books. It was also designed to make Luther recant or be excommunicated. Forty one of his ideas were announced as heretical.


From words to action

Luther's reaction to the Papal Bull was quite simple and, by this stage, unsurprising - he publicly burnt it in December 1520. The crowd which had gathered joined in and burnt more Church books. Naturally enough, the Pope had to excommunicate Luther, which he did in January 1921.

Between them Luther, Tetzel, the Electors and the Pope had caused a minor issue to be transformed into a revolution against the Roman Catholic Church and the authority of the Pope. Who was most to blame for this?

A Papal legate (diplomat) wrote in 1521, "All Germany is in revolution. Nine tenths shout "Luther!" as their war cry. The other tenth cares nothing about Luther and cries "Death to the Court of Rome!"


The Diet of Worms


Charles V

Portrait of Charles V by Titian


In April 1521 Charles summoned his first Diet (a council gathering) at Worms. The main issue was Martin Luther so he summoned him to appear to recant or to be banished from the Empire.

Luther expected to have to deal with a theological debate but instead was asked if he had written books attacking the Pope, if he recanted - to which the answers were yes and no - and lastly told that he was outlawed.


Luther as an Outlaw

After the Diet of Worms Luther disappeared for his own safety, but he continued to write and to spread his ideas.

Far from silencing the opposition of Luther and his followers, outlawing him created far greater problems for the Church. Few people knew what had happened to him so that gossip and rumour spread, making him more famous. Also, he was a restrained and conservative person at heart but his public replacement as leader of the opponents of Tetzel and indulgences was more extreme. His name Andrew Carstadt.

Carstadt was opposed to the mass and to celibacy (he quickly found himself a wife). His followers were often described as "religious maniacs".

Luther came out of hiding to restore order to the Reformation. He still wanted a united Church but had not changed his attitudes towards indulgences and the pope. However, despite this, Lutheran followers gradually split from the Catholic Church by worshipping in new buildings and having different devices.


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© Shirley Burchill, Nigel Hughes, Richard Gale, Peter Price and Keith Woodall 2018

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