On 31 October 1517, 499 years ago, the Augustinian monk Martin Luther from Wittenberg sent his Ninety-Five Theses, harshly criticizing the Roman Catholic practice of selling indulgences. This would become the starting point of the Reformation. The intention was to fundamentally reform Latin Christendom and the Church. The result, however, was a schism. It led to the pluralism of Christian denominations which we are knowing today. In Germany, 2017 will be an official year of remembrance of the Reformation.
There is no doubt that Christianity is one of the deepest roots of Europe. It is part of Europe’s history and identity. This is true even with empty churches in a secularised Europe of our times and even if people only hear the Word but no longer understand it.
In 313 AD, the Roman emperor accepted Christianity in the course of the Constantinian shift. A few decades later, it became the Empire’s official religion. Over the next centuries, the close ties as well as the rows between the Pope on the one hand and emperors and kings on the other left their mark on the European world.
In the early 16th century, however, the Church was in a bad state. Simony and the accumulation of episcopates as well as the breach of celibacy were widespread. Reforms had been demanded again and again. Even before Martin Luther, reformist ideas had already been spread by John Wyclif in England and Jan Hus in what is now the Czech Republic. Both had been sentenced by the Council of Constance about 100 years earlier. Ulrich Zwingli from Zurich and Martin Bucer from Strasbourg were contemporaries of Luther. Menno Simons, the Anabaptist leader, was another one and lived from 1496 to 1561. And John Calvin, later leading his own reformation from Geneva, was born when Luther was 25 years old.
Still, it was the theologian from Wittenberg and his collaborator Philip Melanchthon who had the greatest impact at the beginning of the Reformation.
The Reformation in some countries of the European Union
Due to the close ties in the Baltic Sea region, many theologians from Scandinavian countries studied in Wittenberg in the early days of the Reformation, taking the Lutheran Reformation back to Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Norway upon their return. As such, Scandinavian countries were predominantly Protestant by as early as the 1530s.
The English Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy in 1534 and thus appointed King Henry VIII Supreme Head of the Church of England. However, this had little to do with the religious identity of the English king: In 1521, right at the beginning of the Reformation, he had personally attacked Martin Luther – backed by his Lord Chancellor Thomas More – and advocated that the seven sacraments be kept. For that, the Pope even bestowed upon him the title Fidei Defensor, or Defender of the Faith – a title which British monarchs hold to this very day. Nevertheless, ideas from the Reformation also caught on in England. Tyndale had travelled to Wittenberg in 1524 and translated the Bible into English. The English king, however, was mainly interested in his own independence and power and in the fate of his dynasty when he introduced the Reformation. Indeed, the introduction of the Reformation in England was sparked by a marital issue involving one of his – finally – six wives. The king needed a male heir. The fact that this triggered a breakaway from the Roman Catholic Church seem to be as absurd as the fact that a power struggle within the Tories between two schoolboys from Eton is triggering Brexit today. It is almost superfluous to mention that Henry VIII had his new wife beheaded three years later. Still, conflicts about the right faith continued. They ultimately left a distinct mark on Great Britain, even in the form of civil wars.
And even today, the issue of the right faith is very tangible in Northern Ireland. It was only in 1998 when the Good Friday Agreement brought new peace to Northern Ireland. Now, people are rightly wondering whether the peace in Northern Ireland will survive Brexit.
The Church of England was also the fertile soil on which further Protestant churches developed: Puritanism, Presbyterianism, Baptism and Methodism – they are all based on the Church of England and had a profound impact on the history of the United States of America.
In France, Martin Luther’s works were prohibited at the beginning of the Reformation. The influence of John Calvin then led to a separate Reformed profession of faith by 1559. However, this did not prevent the bloodshed of thousands of Protestants during the infamous St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of 1572. Not until the Edict of Nantes in 1598 were French Protestants granted permanent religious rights. About 100 years later, in 1685, this was revoked by Louis XIV, who supported the notion of “Un roi, une loi, une foi”. The ensuing alliance between an absolutist state and an intolerant Church fuelled fierce anti-clericalism in France. Ultimately, the concepts of the Enlightenment culminated in another event of global importance in 1789, i.e. the French Revolution with its declaration of universal human and civil Rights.
What are now the Benelux states were integrated into the Habsburg Empire following the marriage between Mary of Burgundy and Maximilian. They were the grandparents of Emperor Charles V, who was to become Martin Luther’s major opponent. Reformist ideas from the likes of Luther, Calvin and the Anabaptist Menno Simons were also well-received in the Benelux states. The Catholic dynasty reacted by persecuting the “heretics”. The year 1566 saw uprisings in the northern Netherlands, culminating in the Eighty Years’ War between Spain and the Netherlands. Religious tension and aggression initially erupted into the Iconoclastic Fury. The rulers reacted by sending the notorious Spanish Duke of Alba and his army and intensifying the Inquisition. His repressive acts caused even the Dutch, who were rather moderate, to join the uprising. They found their leader in William of Orange. Then, in 1579, the southern and northern provinces were split up. The seven northern provinces declared their independence from Spain and formed the first European republic of the modern era. This was the beginning of the Netherlands we know today. The southern Provinces – which were still under Spanish/Catholic influence – later became what are now Belgium and Luxembourg. The history and origin of today’s Benelux states is therefore closely tied to the history of the Reformation.
The first sectarian war in Germany itself occurred in 1546/47. In 1555 the two major denominations signed the Peace of Augsburg. Among other rights, it included the right to leave a territory for religious reasons. It was the first fundamental right to be written down in the constitutional history of Germany. However, Zwinglianism, Calvinism and Anabaptism continued to be prohibited. An uprising against the Catholic Habsburg Emperor in the Protestant Czech state 63 years later culminated in the Thirty Years’ War, which left Germany devastated. That war was ended by the Peace of Westphalia signed in Muenster and Osnabrueck.
What can the Reformation tell us today?
The good news first: All of this is history.
There are no more religious wars in today’s Europe. And nobody needs to fear being prosecuted or threatened by a state or government because of their religious beliefs. This is without a doubt a very important and great achievement.
Emphasising this fact, however, might come as a surprise to today’s Europeans. But a quick look at the Islamic world shows that it cannot be taken for granted at all. In the denominational conflicts between Sunnis and Shiites, the fighting between Iran and Saudi Arabia and their proxy wars, religious matters are just as balefully linked to earthly political power as they once were in Europe. On top of this mess, we have ideological, religiously motivated terrorism. And not least, some of the Islamists have a European passport and are thinking they should be running around shooting and murdering or blowing themselves up on European streets, because they don’t know anything better to do with their lives.
So when searching for inspiration for comprehensive peace in the Near and Middle East, it does not seem so far-fetched to consider a peace that once ended the religious and proxy wars in the heart of Europe and became one of the most outstanding peace agreements of European diplomacy: the Peace of Westphalia, made in Muenster and Osnabrueck.
Remarkably the German foreign minister, who is from Westphalia, has therefore already established a “workshop” for this at Germany’s Federal Foreign Office. He received his inspiration not on his own, but – quite astonishingly – from a Saudi Arabian intellectual during a trip to Jeddah in early 2015. Despite Brexit, Cambridge University was secured as a partner. And just recently the American magazine “Foreign Affairs” picked up the idea in a remarkable article. You can find it here: “A Westphalian Peace for the Middle East”. Without the Thirty Years’ war fuelled by different interpretations of religion, without the Reformation, the Peace of Westphalia would hardly have been required.
So today, more than ever, the upcoming 500th anniversary of the Reformation encourages to engage in useful reflections and dialogues about common grounds in European history, about the rediscovery of the real theological concerns of the Reformers (which can not be explained in a short article like this one), about Europe’s Christian roots, European identity and the way Europeans see themselves, about the value of religious tolerance, about religious fundamentalism, about the blessings of European Enlightenment and the separation between church and state, about a European Islam, which makes the values of European Enlightenment available for today’s Islam and makes it flourish, about the history of European freedom or about the possible factors of success of a widespread peace in the Near and Middle East.
If properly led and understood, such reflections and dialogues will strengthen freedom, peace and tolerance in a politically united Europe and maybe beyond – and even when the British are currently in a phase of searching their European soul…Oliver H. Schmidt