III. The Protestant Reformation in Europe

Martin Luther by Lucas Cranach the Elder

Martin Luther, oil on panel by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1529.
Image scan by Carol Gerten-Jackson.

The protests against the corruption emanating from Rome began in Germany when reformation ideals developed in 1517-1521 with Martin Luther expressing doubts over the legitimacy of indulgences and the jurisdictional power of the pope.  The Reformation was born of Luther’s dual declaration – first, the discovering of Jesus and salvation by faith alone; and second, identifying the Papacy as the Antichrist.  The highly educated Reformation leaders used prophecies of the Bible as their most powerful weapon in appealing to committed believers to break from Babylon, the fallen church, (i.e. Rome) and to split from the Antichrist (the Pope) who had assumed the place of God. The reformers were unanimous in agreement and this understanding of prophecy furnished importance to their deeds.

This led to the creation of new national Protestant churches.  The largest of the new church groupings were the Lutherans (mostly in Germany, the Baltics and Scandinavia) and the Reformed churches (mostly in Germany, France, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Scotland).  It also influenced the Church of England although the national church had been made independent under Henry VIII in the early 1530s for political rather than religious reasons.  There were many smaller bodies such as the Free Christians, as well.

Although the core motivation behind these changes was theological, many other factors played a part, including the rise of nationalism.  Additionally, the Western Schism (which eroded people’s faith in the Papacy), the corruption of the Curia (Church council or court), and the new learning of the Renaissance which questioned much traditional thought were significant factors in the splitting of the church.  On a technological level the invention of the printing press proved extremely significant in that it provided the means for the rapid dissemination of new ideas.

The Roman Catholic Church responded with a Counter-Reformation initiated by the Council of Trent and spearheaded by the new order of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) specifically organized to counter the Protestant movement.  In general, Northern Europe, with the exception of most of Ireland, turned Protestant.  Southern Europe remained Roman Catholic, while Central Europe, including Switzerland was a site of considerable conflict.

The Protestant Reformation began as an attempt to reform the Roman Catholic Church, by priests who opposed what they perceived as false doctrines and ecclesiastic malpractice—especially the teaching and the sale of indulgences or the abuses thereof, the selling and buying of clerical offices—that the reformers saw as evidence of the systemic corruption of the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy, which included the Pope.

The Reformation led to significant changes in civil life and state matters throughout Europe, including Zurich.  It spread to several other cantons of the Old Swiss Confederacy.  Seven cantons remained Roman Catholic, though, which led to inter-cantonal wars known as the Wars of Kappel.  After the victory of the Catholic cantons in 1531, they proceeded to institute counter-reformatory policies in some regions.  The schism and distrust between Catholic and Protestant cantons would define their interior politics and paralyze any common foreign policy until well into the 1700’s.

Despite their religious differences, and despite an exclusively Catholic defense alliance of the seven Catholic cantons, further major armed conflicts directly between the cantons did not occur.

The Thirty Years’ War, (1618-1648) was fought primarily between Catholic and Protestant factions in a battle to determine which religion would control various parts of Europe.  It wa one of the most destructive conflicts in European history.  Entire regions were destroyed and laid barren.  Governments were bankrupted, and possibly up to a third of the population was killed.  The thirteen Swiss cantons managed to maintain their neutrality, partly because all of the major powers in Europe depended on Swiss mercenaries, and would not let Switzerland fall into the hands of one of their rivals.

At the Treaty of Westphalia, which was signed at the end of the Thirty Years’ War in 1648, Switzerland attained legal independence from the Holy Roman Empire.

Next:  IV. The Protestant Reformation In Switzerland

1. Froom, LeRoy (1948) The Prophetic Faith of our Fathers vol 2.
2. Froom, LeRoy (1950) The Prophetic Faith of our Fathers vol 1.
3. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online Protestant Reformation
4. Wikipedia.org History of Switzerland
5. Wikipedia.org Protestant Reformation
6. Wikipedia.org Reformation in Switzerland