The European Reformations as the Most Transformative Events in the History of Religion

The religious revolution of the sixteenth century was not an overnight event. Discontent had been seething for several centuries. Ebenstein and Ebenstein (2000, p. 303) note that prior to the thirteenth century, reformers did not pose much of a threat to the Catholic Church. As these critics lacked real religious fervor, the Church was easily able to ignore or quash their protests. From the thirteenth century onwards, however, increasing numbers of passionately religious individuals began to object to the Church’s excesses. Some church leaders tried to enact reforms within the framework of Catholicism, most notably through the failed Councils of Constance and Basel. During the Renaissance, some Christian Humanists such as Erasmus appealed to their fellow Catholics’ reason and faith to spur change. However, the supreme leader of the Church balked at any type of shift. The excesses that offended devout Catholics such as Martin Luther remained unchecked, and revolution became inevitable.

The nature of religion in the sixteenth century made it impossible for the Reformation not to become a political concern. The Catholic Church enjoyed a great deal of secular power in the form of immense wealth, vast tracts of land, and powerful political alliances. All of these factors, coupled with the Church’s sway over the hearts and minds of the common people, made the Church a formidable opponent indeed. Nevertheless, the unshakeable religious conviction of the reformers proved a decisive factor in the survival of their ideas, which spread like wildfire through the continent.

Among the bitterest conflicts in human history are those disputes between fervent believers of opposing religions. The collision of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation movements is one of the most prominent examples of this type of conflict. The dispute was also exacerbated by the socio-economic-political factors previously mentioned. Almost all European countries took sides, either with the Reformation or the Counter-Reformation. Some leaders based their decisions on religious fervor, while others simply saw a chance for political gain in the turmoil.