The Reformation of European religion in the 16th century cannot be generally attributed to the secular spirit of the Italian Renaissance. Although the peasants saw bishops and abbots as part of a wealthy and oppressive ruling class and rebelled against the Roman Catholic Church for reasons primarily pertaining to the lavish adornments used by those aforementioned, their power was not great enough, nor did their reasons carry enough clout to start a reformation movement throughout Europe: that job was accomplished by those already having some, however small, social or religious power, such as the monk Martin Luther, the accomplished priest and lawyer Jean Cauvin, and King Henry VIII of England.
The Lutheran and Calvinist Reformations were very similar in principle, although the Lutheran Reformation was less widespread. Luther and Calvin held that not mere abuses of the Roman Catholic Church needed correcting, but that the Catholic Church itself was wrong in principle. Luther’s cause for reformation of 16th century European religion came from his unnatural paranoia that he was damned. He had problems convincing himself that his spirit was pure and that he would go to heaven; internal distress raged within him about the awful omnipotence of God, his own insignificant existence in comparison, and his apprehensiveness of the devil. His personal problems would not yield to the existing manners of assuring oneself that he/she was headed for heaven such as sacraments, alms, prayer attendance at Mass, and assorted “good works.” Luther solved the problem, however, by believing that good works were the consequence and external evidence of an inner grace, but in no way the cause of this grace. He felt that if one had faith in themselves, the religion, and God, then good works would manifest themselves because of it. This was Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith. Luther was then involved in various events that provided for the spreading of Lutheranism, albeit sometimes indirectly. The agitation that Lutheranism was creating throughout Europe had revolutionary side effects where the reforming religious spirit was mistaken for that of a social and economic one, especially in Germany in the 1520s. A league of imperial knights, adopting Lutheranism, attacked their neighbors, the church-states of the Rhineland, hoping by annexations to enlarge their own meager territories. In 1524, the peasants of a large part of Germany revolted due to thoughts stirred up by preachers that took Luther’s ideas a little too far: anyone could see for himself what was right. The peasants’ aims dealt not with religion, however. They demanded a regulation of rents and security of common village rights and complained of exorbitant exactions and oppressive rule by their manorial overlords. Luther, in seeing his original intentions fractured for other uses, redefined his position more conservatively. Nonetheless, Lutheranism spread throughout the Scandinavian and Baltic regions as well as Germany. Lutheranism was closely associated with established states, inhibiting its widespread acceptance. The most widely accepted form of Protestantism was Calvinism, to be discussed shortly hereafter. It is apparent, however, that the Lutheran Reformation was clearly not because of the secular spirit of the Italian Renaissance, but more because of the personal conviction of a apprehensive monk.
At the age of 24, John Calvin, a Frenchman born Jean Cauvin, experienced a sudden conversion; a fresh insight into the meaning of Christianity. He joined forces with the religious revolutionaries of whom the best known was then Luther. His book, Institutes of the Christian Religion, appealed to human reason itself. If dissatisfied with the Roman church, people of all countries could find an idea that would most appropriately fit their beliefs or the situation they were in. In general, Calvin was in agreement with Luther’s criticisms of the Roman church and Luther’s fundamental religious ideas, such as justification by faith and not by works. However, the two differed in the area of Catholic Mass. Although both of them rejected transubstantiation, Luther maintained that God was somehow actually present in the bread and wine used in the service while Calvin regarded it as an act of symbolic nature. Calvin also took exception to two other areas that Luther did not touch on: the idea of predestination and Calvinism’s attitude toward society and state. Calvin felt that God, being Almighty, knew and willed in advance all things that happened, including the way in which every life would turn out. He knew and willed, from all eternity, that some were saved and some were damned. Calvin, being a severe critic of human nature, felt that an elite few were saved. One could believe in his own mind that he was among the saved, God’s chosen few, if throughout all trials and temptations he persisted in a saintly life. Thus, the idea of predestination became a challenge to unrelenting effort, a sense of burning conviction, a conviction of being on the side of that Almighty Power which must in the end be everlastingly triumphant. Only the most resolute people were attracted to Calvinism. Calvinists, like Jesuits, were militant, uncompromising, perfectionist. Calvinists also believed that true Christians, the elect or saved, should Christianize the state. They would not be recognized as subordinate to the state. Calvinists hoped to remake society into a religious community. In rejecting the institution of bishops, Calvinists felt that the church should be governed by presbyteries and devout laymen, breaking up the monopoly of priestly power and promoting secularization. At the same time, however, they were trying to Christianize all of society (see Forward). The wide adoption of Calvinism came mainly from groups who found Calvin’s Institutes to be a method of organization. Because of Calvinism’s instrumental role in the development of democracy and the Institutes’s ability to appeal to a large audience, Calvinism spread throughout Europe, although in places like Germany where Lutheranism had already taken root it was scorned by those who had already reformed (another paradox between the similar religions, see Forward). Another instrumental religion during the Reformation had formed due to religious differences with the Catholic church.
Throughout both of these major reformations, England remained virtually unchanged, most likely due to its rather remote location in relation to the rest of Europe. England’s religious orientation changed, however, because of a reason completely unrelated to those of personal conviction or in revolt to the secular spirit of the Italian Renaissance. In fact, Henry VIII prided himself on his Roman Catholic orthodoxy. In response to some whisperings about the stir being made by Luther in the 1520s, Henry wrote a Defense of the Seven Sacraments in refutation, for which the pope gave him the title of “Defender of the Faith.” The reason for the change of religion in England was for the simple fact of a lack of a male heir to the throne. Henry felt that an heir was essential, especially when one recalled the anarchy from which the Tudor dynasty had extricated England. Because his existing wife, Catherine of Aragon was old and unable to have a child, Henry asked the pope to annul his marriage to her so that he may marry someone else and have a son. The pope, however, would not annul the marriage due to the fact that Catherine was the aunt of Emperor Charles V, whom the pope was in no position to offend. Henry had no patience for the pope to balk at such a request when demands for other annuls had been made in the past. He drove matters forward, putting in a new archbishop of Canterbury, broke off connections with the Roman church, named himself “Protector and Only Supreme Head of the Church and Clergy of England,” and married Anne Boleyn. Thus, in one fell swoop, the situation had been alleviated. Henry’s original intent was to maintain the Catholic practices while taking control of the religious situation of his country. However, in 1536, he forcibly suppressed a predominantly Catholic rebellion. The practice of continuing Catholic doctrines under a different leader would not last long in England, as many people in England began to favor one or another of the ideas of Continental Reformers. Upon 10-year old Edward’s, Henry’s son, succession to the throne, Protestantism became the religion in England. However, Edward died a short time later and was succeeded by his older half-sister, Mary, a devout Roman Catholic. She tried to re-institute the Roman church in England and made it more unpopular in the process. Upon her death, Elizabeth, Anne Boleyn’s daughter, took the throne and England became Protestant once more. England’s Reformation was associated the least with the Italian Renaissance, making it a perfect example of the non-factor that the secular spirit of the Renaissance was.
The 16th Century Reformations represented a significant wave of change for all of Europe subsequent to the Italian and Northern Renaissances. However, the various Reformations of 16th century Europe by Martin Luther, John Calvin, and King Henry VIII of England had little or nothing to do with the worldly and decided non-religious attitude of the Italian Renaissance.