Sunday, May 19, 2019


What started as a reform of one Church produces an open-ended array of competing churches, which virtually no one at the time considers a good thing.

The Reformation played out differently in Germany, France, England, and the Low Countries.  Gregory examines each in turn.  This post will run a bit long; I am treating it more like a history lesson (for me) and I want to get through it in one post.  If this isn’t of interest for you or is otherwise unnecessary, feel free to stop here.


Gregory spends some time on The Council of Trent – spelling out the Church’s views on various aspects of Reformation theology and practice.  I will spend no time on the details of this – a mine field I would rather not traverse.  For those interested, I offer three sources: one Catholic, one Reformed, and Wikipedia.

According to Gregory, Catholic leaders reject the most fundamental Protestant premise: The Church offers false doctrines.  On a second and also important premise, there are plenty of Catholic leaders that recognize that there are and have been sinful abuses and a lack of holiness among both clergy and laity.

Further attempts are made at some sort of reconciliation between the Reformers and the Church.  The final meaningful attempt was made at Regensburg in 1541, the Colloquy (or Diet) of Regensburg.  A summary:

…a conference held at Regensburg (Ratisbon) in 1541, during the Protestant Reformation, which marks the culmination of attempts to restore religious unity in the Holy Roman Empire by means of theological debate between the Protestants and the Catholics.

Agreement was easily reached on some articles, tenuously reached on a few, and not at all on others.  Even where agreement was reached, it mattered little if Luther did not also accept these positions.  Before Luther offered any formal rejection, Rome rejected the formula for justification.  That was that.

Returning to Gregory: then come the wars.  Catholic against Protestant; Catholic and Magisterial Protestants against other Protestant sects.  Next comes the Peace of Augsburg, “a Holy Roman Empire with two religions, Lutheran and Catholic.”  Wow.

Noticeably missing from this peace is Reformed Protestantism (Calvinism).  This is a problem as one and then more princes convert from Lutheranism to Reformed – sometimes referred to as Germany’s Second Reformation.  However, there is generally peace for some decades after Augsburg.  This peace would end with what is now known as the Thirty Years’ War, beginning in 1618.

The Thirty Years' War was a war fought primarily in Central Europe between 1618 and 1648. One of the most destructive conflicts in human history, it resulted in eight million fatalities not only from military engagements but also from violence, famine, and plague.

This war ended with the Peace of Westphalia, creating a framework for Protestant and Catholics to coexist – in neighboring principalities.  Religion and politics will align within any given political border.  This basic structure would persist until the nineteenth century.

By 1650, it looks as though all the political leaders who were confident God was on their side were wrong.  Perhaps God had never been on anyone’s side.


There is no Lutheranism in France.  Calvinism arrives in the form of the Huguenots.  Pamphlets, trials, executions.  As late as 1554, there are still no established Calvinist churches in France – although the number of underground believers is growing.  By 1562, perhaps 800 such churches exist.  Most are far from Paris, in the south.  The growth emboldens the Huguenots: they destroy church art, deface alters and harass clergy.

They make up perhaps ten percent of the population, but a much larger proportion of the nobility – a problem because still in the sixteenth century no ruler could rule without noble support.

In 1561, Catherine de' Medici, queen-mother and regent of the eleven-year-old King Charles IX, called the Colloquy of Poissy.  It was an attempt to reconcile the Catholics and Protestant Huguenots.  Gregory describes the meeting as an utter failure.

Beginning in 1562, a series of eight civil wars ensue; from start to finish, these last longer than the Thirty Years’ War with perhaps 3 million deaths.  As in Germany, what is described as French Wars of Religion might be better described as wars for political power: a dynastic power struggle between powerful noble families in the line for succession to the French throne – one Catholic and the other Reformed – with the reigning royal family trying to stride the middle in the form of Catholic conciliation. 

Massacres, conversions, refugees, assassinations, acts of revenge.  After thirty-six years, in 1598, King Henry IV signed the Edict of Nantes, granting the Huguenots substantial rights but leaving them with no army.  Fearing an erosion of these rights – as would soon enough prove a rational fear – hundreds of thousands of Huguenots flee France for Calvinist territories in England, the Dutch Republic, the Holy Roman Empire, and the Carolina Coast of the New World.


During the sixteenth century, England was religiously whipsawed more than any other major kingdom in Europe.  Henry VIII authored a Latin defense of the Catholic faith; within a decade he would denounce the “Bishop of Rome” as a usurper and declared himself head of the Church of England.  A few years later, he started severing the heads of those who wouldn’t take an oath confirming this status.

Did Henry receive a vision from Luther, Calvin, or Jesus himself?  Hardly.  He wanted a divorce.  Unfortunately for Henry, his wife was the aunt of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.  No papal dispensation would be forthcoming. 

Henry’s Reformation was anti-Catholic and anti-Protestant.  Henry would punish all who challenged his authority – from any source. 

On June 30, 1540, two days after he ordered the execution of Thomas Cromwell, he burned three Protestants for heresy and ordered three Roman Catholics hanged, drawn, and quartered as traitors for denying royal supremacy.

When Henry died seven years later, Reformed Protestantism would arrive with a vengeance.  Anti-Protestant laws were repealed, clergy could marry, the mass was abolished, alters were torn down, paintings and sculptures were removed from churches, church gold and silver were seized, a new liturgy was developed in English.

A new king (actually a new queen, Mary I, Henry’s daughter by Catherine) and another change – with an about face to Roman Catholicism.  She reversed everything done by her half-brother.  She revived laws against heresy, with three hundred executions carried out during her five-year reign.

Then Mary died.  Elizabeth I took the throne.  She undid everything Mary had done, severing once again England’s ties to Rome.  Her reforms are not as draconian as the back-and-forth changes that preceded her reign.  Taking a less-than-extreme approach, she upset the harder-line Protestants that desired a stronger line be drawn – popularly known as “Puritans.”

The Catholics are equally put off.  Perhaps more equally; make that much more equally.  During her reign, Elizabeth approved the executions of more than a hundred Catholic priests, dozens from the laity, and her Catholic cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots.  This was her less-than-extreme defense of Protestantism.

Elizabeth dies without an heir, opening the throne to James VI of Scotland – now James I of England as well.  He is the son of the recently beheaded Mary, yet unlike his mother he is a committed Reformed Protestant.  He is the “James” of King James fame – as in the Bible translation, much of which is adopted from Tyndale.

James moves from a committed Calvinist into at least some toleration of Arminianism; disturbing to the godly, but not nearly as disturbing as when his son ascends to the throne.  Charles I marries a French Catholic princess, opens his court to Catholics, and as if this wasn’t bad enough, he openly takes the mass himself.  Many Puritans emigrate to Massachusetts.

Strife with Calvinist Scotland over religious matters; uprisings that need to be squelched; funds required from Parliament to do so.  When Charles assembles Parliament, it is the first time this body has assembled in more than a decade.  The members are seething.

Parliamentary forces in league with the Scots defeat Royal forces.  Charles is executed as a traitor in 1649 and England is declared a republic.  A decade of instability follows, until Charles II is restored to the throne.  The King James Bible returns, along with the Book of Common Prayer.

The Low Countries

Belgium and the Netherlands; the northern provinces take their independence from Spain and support Reformed Protestantism; the southern provinces remain Catholic.

The development of the Reformation in many ways parallels developments in other regions of central Europe: Lutheran and Anabaptist heresies followed by executions – more than 1,300 executions by 1566, and more than in any other region.  Charles V is working hard to contain the heretics.

Nevertheless, in the Netherlands Reformed Protestantism continues to increase; Charles cedes control of the Low Countries to his son, Philip II, king of Spain.  Nobles petition for a softening of anti-heresy laws; the Spanish king sharply rebuffs them, saying he would rather lose all his lands than rule over heretics.

Be careful what you wish for, I guess:  In April 1566, three-hundred armed nobles ride into Brussels and present Margaret, the king’s regent, with the Compromise of the Nobility – with a demand, backed by arms, of reducing the anti-heresy laws.  Margaret has no choice but to relent; in the wake, Calvinism explodes and denunciation of Catholic idolatry and Spanish tyranny boil over.

Monasteries attacked and destroyed, the start of what we now know as the Eighty Years’ War.  Philip sends an army of more than 10,000 men, headed by the Duke of Alva: trials of more than 12,000 people take place; 9,000 are deprived of property; more than 1,000 are executed.  New taxes are imposed, provoking Calvinists and Catholics alike.

Dutch Calvinist pirates begin seizing coastal towns, eventually taking all major cities in the province except Amsterdam.  They drive out the priests and kill over 130 of them.  Philip can little afford the cost of wars against the Calvinists in the north while at the same time battling the Ottoman Turks.  Troops in the Low Countries go unpaid, so they mutiny – sacking Antwerp, killing 8,000 and destroying more than 1,000 homes.  What a mess.

The Dutch Republic is formalized in 1581; the southern provinces (essentially Belgium) go their own way.  Yet the conflicts continue:

In the judgement of some, Catholicism under Spanish control is better than the violent aggression wrought by militant Calvinists.

The fighting continues on and off until 1648 with more bloodshed and more refugees.  This is resolved along with resolution of the Thirty Years’ War in the Peace of Westphalia.

At first glance, the Dutch Republic and the Spanish Netherlands look quite similar – except for religion, obviously.  But these are quite different, and the Dutch Republic develops in a manner unique from elsewhere in Western Europe:

In the Dutch Republic there is no state church, as there are in France, Spain, England, German Lutheran territories, Scandinavian countries, or the Reformed Protestant territories of the Holy Roman Empire.

People in the Republic do not have to belong to a particular religion; while there is a state-supported church, only a small minority of the population belong to it.  The Republic becomes a haven for religious groups of all sorts, and especially in Amsterdam political authorities are relatively tolerant…

…allowing almost anyone to believe and worship together however they wish, provided they worship behind the closed doors of “hidden churches” and remain politically obedient.

That last part’s the rub, isn’t it?  Certainly one had to be politically obedient during the Middle Ages as well (when or where in history have we not?), but one also had an outlet for appeal given the decentralized nature of governance and the separate power and authority of church and king.


Regardless of the form it took, political power was central to the Reformation era.

Calling these wars of religion is intended to draw our gaze to the wrong culprit.  Religion was a pretext; political power was the objective.


The Netherlands would provide what would become the model for society that lost religion for its cohesiveness: markets in material goods.  Trade would bring men together peacefully – at least for a time and at least for a time when the continent was exhausted from war.


  1. It was helpful to summarize all that in one place. What a crazy time in history.

  2. Very interesting summary review of some elements of what Eric Voegelin called "The Great Confusion". Missing, however, in your post is any mention of the Jewish role in all these events. Many Jews late in the fifteenth century left Spain (convert to Christianity or leave was the policy of Ferdinand and Isabella) for the Low Countries, where they remained established (although a goodly number emigrated to England after bankrolling Cromwell). And so on. More reading to do.

  3. I think that an excerpt from Josephus might be useful here:

    "... they, imagining the prosperity they enjoyed was not derived from the favor of God, but supposing that their own power was the proper cause of the plentiful condition they were in, did not obey him ... Now it was Nimrod who excited them to such an affront and contempt of God ... He persuaded them not to ascribe it to God, as if it was through his means they were happy, but to believe that it was their own courage which procured that happiness. He also gradually changed the government into tyranny, seeing no other way of turning men from the fear of God, but to bring them into a constant dependence on his power ..."
    Flavius Josephus "Antiquities Of The Jews" Ch 4 vs 1, 2

    Seems like the idea of political authority usurping and controlling religious authority for their own ends has been going on for a very, very long time indeed.