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It all began with hammer blows.” – Basically like that, the general view on the beginning of the Reformation could be sketched. In fact, the Reformation is a complex, decades-long process, the causes of which go way back into history and which influenced more than just the spiritual life. Few historical events led to such sustainable changes as the Reformation. It had profound effects on many fields of life and it left traces behind worldwide, which are still visible 500 years later.

Causes for the Reformation

Nowadays, the word „Reformation” (lat.: renewal, restoration) stands for a renewing movement in the early 16th century, which was mostly pushed forward by Martin Luther in Germany and by Johannes Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli in Switzerland. The beginning of the Reformation is generally dated as the 31st October 1517, the day on which the friar Martin Luther is said to have nailed his 95 theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg. However, its causes and precursors go back much further. The increasing secularisation and the often hardly exemplary lifestyle of higher and lower clergymen, as well as the venality of clerical offices, deepened the population’s discontent. The sale of indulgences whereby incomes were used to finance the St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, were among causes that finally started the Reformation.

The 95 Theses

The praxis of the church, to deliver people from sin in exchange for money, was against Martin Luther’s philosophies. He saw the sale of indulgences as an abuse and therefore demanded a return to biblical principles of the Evangelism. He believed that Christians could be freed from the punishment after death, just and only by their belief in God. His 95 theses show his views of the church’s role and his discontent with the clerical sale of indulgences. Due to the technical innovation of the letterpress, these texts could be duplicated and shared widely, so that they reached a vast audience.

Fight for power between emperor and princes

Martin Luther’s demand for reforms within the church had the finger on the pulse. Even princes and cities stood behind him and his theses. They applied his demands to their dominions – and thereby withdrew themselves from the power of the emperor and the pope. Once more and more Imperial States accepted the Lutheran Reformation, the Reich was in danger of splitting into two sectarian factions.  

During the Augsburger Reichstag of 1530 the different positions were discussed. The Protestants put effort into a peaceful solution for the conflict and presented Kaiser Karl V. the „Confessio Augustana” or Augsburger Confession, which demanded religious independence from the pope. Karl V. rejected this demand. Following that, the Protestant princes founded the „Schmalkaldischen Bund” as a defensive alliance during the next year. This alliance was defeated by the emperor’s troops during the „Schmalkaldischen Krieg” in the battle of Mühlberg in 1547.

But only the Peace of Augsburg of 1555 brought some peace between emperor and the Imperial States. The Augsburg Settlement entitled every prince to choose their religious denomination for their dominion individually.

Consequences of the Reformation

In Augsburg the belief and ideology of the Lutherans was accepted and thereby also the failed reintegration of the Protestants into the Catholic Church. The reform movement split into different Protestant denominations due to the different teachings; the Lutheran was only one of them. 

The Reformation, originally planned by Luther as a change within the church to improve several deficiencies, eventually led to an unplanned separation of the church, but also a separation of German territories into Catholic and Protestant. The Reformation didn’t just revolutionise the church and theology, it was also the start of a profound socio-political development: music and art, economy and society, language, law and politics, hardly any sphere of life wasn’t influenced by the Reformation.