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Will Graham

Reformation or Reformations?

Should we talk about the ‘Protestant Reformation’ or the ‘Protestant Reformations’?

FRESH BREEZE AUTHOR Will Graham 21 MAY 2016 07:55 h GMT+1
knox, scotland, reformation The picture that I've used is John Knox preaching in St. Giles Cathedral.

When the Protestant Reformation is mentioned, we almost invariably conjure up images of our beloved Augustinian monk Martin Luther (1483-1546) hammering his ground-breaking ninety-five theses onto the church door at Wittenberg.

Nevertheless, we would be wrong to assume that the Reformation was only something that took place under Luther. Sure enough, Luther proved to be the key factor in unleashing an unprecedented age of Protestantism upon Germany; but the Reformation went a whole lot wider than just Wittenberg.

Today, then, we will take a quick look at five other sixteenth-century movements in the grand Protestant symphony which were instrumental in changing the shape of the North Atlantic world.

01.- The Reformation in Switzerland

Over in neighbouring Switzerland (back then the Helvetic Confederation), there was a powerful wave of Reformation which more or less coincided with that of Luther. There the man in charge was the Zurich preacher Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) who began to take the systematic exposition of Scripture seriously and to denounce certain Catholic abuses in the name of the Gospel.

Perhaps the most crucial incident in the Catholic/ Reformed divide came about when Zwingli refused to condemn several of his churchgoers who had enjoyed a sausage supper in the midst of Lent. In fact, rather than condemning them, Zwingli publically defended them by denying Rome’s authority to impose given fast days.

Since Luther and Zwingli were both fighting more or less the same battle, they decided to meet up at the 1529 Colloquy of Marburg to see if they could join forces and present a united Protestant front against Catholicism. All to no avail! In spite of many doctrinal agreements, Luther and Zwingli could not see eye to eye on the theme of the Lord’s Supper. Whereas Luther continued to believe that Christ was somehow physically present in the elements (the bread and the wine); Zwingli declared his belief that the Supper was but an act of memorial whereby believers recalled what Jesus had done for them. By no means was He physically present.

After Zwingli’s premature death on the battlefield at Kappel in 1531, Heinrich Bullinger (1504-75) took up the reins of the Reformed movement in Zurich in the early thirties; but the real advance and consolidation of the Swiss Reformation would take place in Geneva a decade later when the French refugee, John Calvin (1509-64), finally decided to stay put in that town turning it into the citadel of European Protestantism (from 1541 onwards).

02.- The Anabaptist Reformation

The Anabaptists had originally been followers of Zwingli in Zurich. However, they were becoming increasingly dissatisfied with his reforms not believing that they going fast enough nor thoroughly enough.

Two central issues that split Zwingli from the Anabaptist camp were those of the State and infant baptism. The Anabaptists did not believe the State should interfere in the things of the church. All of mainline Reformers such as the aforementioned Luther, Zwingli, Bullinger and Calvin believed in the need of the State and were more than happy to work alongside the powers that be (hence the term ‘Magisterial Reformation’). But the Anabaptists called this whole Church-State system into question, drawing a sharp line between the Kingdom of God and the fallen Kingdom of this world.

Anabaptists also hit out at infant baptism. No one should be baptized without knowing what they are doing. Baptism, they reasoned, is for believers alone. Anabaptist leaders, then, did not accept the validity of infant baptism. Therefore, when someone converted to Christ, they had to be baptized again. Anabaptist, of course, means “one who baptizes again” or “re-baptizes”.

Unfortunately for the Anabaptists, they were more or less rejected by all of the leading religious thinkers of their days (both Protestant and Catholic) and many were martyred in the name of the Christian religion and the authority of the State. Nevertheless, to this day various Anabaptist groups survive and their thinking has influenced huge sections of contemporary Evangelicalism.

03.- The Anglican Reformation in England

Luther’s German Reformation was first and foremost theological. Zwingli’s Swiss one was centred upon church worship. However, up in England, the Reformation was initially a political affair.

To cut a long story short, King Henry VIII (1491-1547) wanted to divorce his Spanish wife Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536) because he wanted a male heir. He filed for divorce. But the Pope was having none of it. So Henry did what any other king who wanted his own way would do: break from Rome! Start up a new church!

In spite of Henry’s political break from the Vatican, he never really stopped being a Catholic per se. England’s Reformation, therefore, was a whole lot slower than Luther’s and Zwingli’s. Although Henry’s first Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556), was a Protestant thinker; only small adjustments were made to Anglican theology.

It would not be until Henry’s young Protestant son Edward VI (1537-53) ascended to the throne in 1547 that some serious doctrinal work could get done i.e. the 1549 Book of Common Prayer and its revised edition in 1552. Following Edward’s premature death in 1553, Protestant thought was brought to a violent halt until Elizabeth I’s coronation in 1559. It was under Elizabeth that the Anglican Church became more self-consciously and systematically Protestant via the oft-cited Thirty-Nine Articles (1563) whereby the key elements of continental Protestant thought were incorporated into the Church of England.

04.- The Puritan Reformation in England

Just as the radical Anabaptists believed that Zwingli’s Reformation had not gone deep enough, so too in England the Puritans were convinced that the nominal Protestantism of Elizabeth I and her successors James I (who was king from 1603 to 1625) and Charles I (from 1625 to 1649) was just not biblical enough.

The Anglican Church, in Puritan opinion, was too Roman Catholic and her worshippers were still ignorant regarding the great truths of Protestantism. Although many Puritans opted to stay within Anglicanism a lot of them decided to come apart and organize themselves into Presbyterian or Congregationalist forms of church government, rather than accepting the Episcopalian system at work within the Church of England.

It was not until Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) became the ‘Lord Protector’ of England after Charles I’s execution in 1649 that Puritanism was finally granted a new sphere of influence in English life. The recently published Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) became the official confession of faith of English Presbyterianism. The Congregationalists too warmly embraced the Westminster Confession albeit with some minor modifications in the Savoy Declaration (1658), under the leadership of the renowned Thomas Goodwin (1600-80) and Cromwell’s right-hand man, John Owen (1616-83).

Cromwell’s puritan policies, however, were not overly popular with the English. Writes Michael Reeves, “The theatres were closed; adultery became a capital crime; swearing (merely saying ‘upon my life’) could merit a hefty fine; the Sabbath was upheld (making any ‘walking abroad’, except going to church, illegal); and ‘superstitious’ holidays, such as Christmas, were abolished and replaced by monthly fast-days”.[1]

So when Cromwell passed away in 1658, the crown was offered to Charles I’s son, Charles II (1630-85), by popular demand. Rather than sharing Cromwell’s Puritan convictions, Charles II reverted back to the nominal Protestantism of Elizabeth, James and Charles I and even went so far as converting to Catholicism on his deathbed. It was under Charles that the Puritan movement was dealt the deathblow. Two thousand Puritan ministers were axed from their posts within the Anglican Church after refusing to accept the imposition of the Book of Common Prayer during the Great Ejection of 1662. Over the next twenty years, some twenty thousand Puritan ministers were to be imprisoned and even martyred for their Scriptural convictions. Little by little the Puritan flame was snuffed out.

05.- The Scottish Reformation

Further north in Scotland, the Reformation was a lot more radical than in Anglicanism. It was closest in doctrine and worship to English Puritanism. In fact, Scottish Presbyterians and English Puritans held each other in high regard. Doubtlessly the success of the Scottish Reformation had a lot to do with reigning anti-Catholic (and anti-French) sentiments amongst the Scots. When the fiery Protestant preacher John Knox (1513-72) returned home in 1559 after a blessed spell in Calvin’s Geneva, he found himself supported by both Scottish nobles and the people as a whole.

Thanks to Knox’s popular influence and English troops sent north by Elizabeth I, the Scottish nobility overthrew the Catholic Queen Mary and forced her to abdicate in 1567 leaving the future of the country’s religious life in the hands of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland (which had been founded some seven years earlier). Knox, alongside five other leading Scottish Reformers, drew up the influential Scots Confession and The First Book of Discipline (both in 1560) which proved to be instrumental in the Kirk’s faith and practice.


All in all, it should now be clear that the Protestant Reformation was a lot more than Luther hammering some nails to the church door at Wittenberg. Obviously all of the wings of the Protestant Reformation where in hearty accord with Luther’s rediscovery of ‘justification by faith alone’ and the supreme authority of Scripture in matters of faith and conduct, nevertheless each wave of Reformation throughout Western Europe had certain aspects that made them wholly unique.

Before wrapping up, it should also be pointed out that there were further movements of reform going on beyond Germany, Switzerland, England and Scotland. But that’s a story to be told on another day. So rather than talking about the ‘Protestant Reformation’ it would perhaps be more correct to allude to the ‘Protestant Reformations’.


[1] REEVES, Michael, p. 166.


Reformation 2017
Pope Francis will attend joint celebration of Reformation in Lund (Sweden) organised by the Lutheran World Federation. Is commemorating Luther’s 95 theses with the Roman Catholic Church a good idea?
No, Catholicism still teaches doctrines that Luther denounced.
I don't know what to think, it’s a complex issue.
Yes, we should walk towards the unity of all Christians and promote ecumenism.
This Poll is closed.
Number of votes: 393


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