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Political and Social Consequences of the Protestant Reformation

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One of the most important religious revolutions in history was the sixteenth century religious revolt known as the Protestant Reformation. This conflict divided the Christians of Western Europe into two religious groups: Protestants and Catholics. The reasons behind the Reformation movement included political, economical, social, and religious differences. In the beginning of the sixteenth century, Western Europe had one major religion, that of Roman Catholicism. The Catholic Church was wealthy, powerful, and had maintained a tight reign on Europe’s traditional society. Gradually, however, there developed political and social problems within the Church. The common people criticized the management of the church and began to doubt some of its teachings. As old methods of the church lost efficiency, and a new denomination of religion formed, political and social changes began to shake the foundations of Europe.

With recourses like the printing press now available, translation of religious texts were now possible, yet the Catholic Church was hesitant on doing so, for it would bring controversy. An example may be seen in the old verse, All men are equal in the eyes of God; such proverbs would create a kink in the Great Chain of Being, and would, therefore, challenge the authority of the pope and other major religious figures. Yet, The Protestant Revolution, brought changes, including translation of these texts. Rooted in Protestant teachings is the belief that one may find salvation through The Bible without a priest or a middle-man. As a result a The Bible was translated so Protestants may find such salvation.

In fact, Luther made the translation of the Bible from Greek and Hebrew into German, and soon all the countries of Europe followed his example by translating the Scriptures into their languages. Since The Bible, was the most read book in Europe, and it was finally translated into the vernacular, literacy and self awareness increased. In addition to The Bible, many great hymns and church music began to be produced as well as changes to worship forms which reflected the new protestant doctrines. These forms and music were almost exclusively in the vernacular, whereas much had previously been in Latin only, which only educated people knew. Thus, much religious practice which had previously been a mystery to many, particularly the poor, uneducated classes was made accessible and understandable. Social life changed drastically. Finally, the poor were included in popular culture.

Many consequences of the reformation were political. Often times, certain religions felt the need to set up their own societies. Religious communities, such as Geneva, under Calvinist teachings, were established during the time of the Protestant Revolution. In such a city, separate laws and regulations would be set. It would almost be almost like a country itself. In addition to the Calvinists Geneva, Anabaptists set their own communities as well. With separation of church and state, adult baptism, nudity, strict moral code, and isolation from the outside world, the European government saw a threat and wiped out their population. Revived by Spanish government in 1477 to protect Spanish Christians against Jews and Moors, Jews who did not convert or leave the country were killed.

Events like the Babylonian Captivity and the Great Schism ended up being a political nightmare for the Roman Catholic Church because citizens were realizing that the church couldn’t govern itself and the Church was losing its prestige. Finally the spirit of humanism, which swept Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth century, encouraged many people to question the church’s teachings and attacked the abuses of the clergy. Taking daring risks reformation leaders such as Luther and Calvin lead the way for political and social change.

Based on the AP European History lectures of Lowell Benner at El Modena High school.

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