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Introduction to the Protestant Reformation: Varieties of Protestantism

Learn about the varieties of Protestant religion that emerged from the Reformation. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user HI there
    So was the Protestant Reformation a good thing or a bad thing?
    (5 votes)
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    • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Миленa
      tl; dr - The Protestant Reformation was neither good nor bad, because (1) historians try not to take a bias towards events in history; (2) the Reformation had both good and bad side effects; and (3) it is difficult to tell if these side effects would have happened anyway without the Reformation or if the Reformation was what caused or escalated them.
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      Full answer:
      Historians try not to have a bias towards a time period. Not only would that overlay our own values onto a distant era - allowing for anachronisms and making objective discussion difficult - but history is so complex that it is difficult to define something as "good" or "bad."

      The Protestant Reformation is no exception. On one hand, it weakened the power of the Catholic Church, freeing European countries from political ties to that institution and thus giving them more freedom to centralize power (something seen as being an essential step in the development towards the modern world). On the other hand, the Reformation also kicked off an era of religious wars in Europe lasting from around 1524 to 1648 - more than a hundred years of bloodshed which significantly disrupted civilization. Germany, for example, lost about one third of its entire population.

      Further problems complicate the picture - would these apparent "side effects" of the Reformation have happened inevitably, or were they mostly caused by the Reformation? For example, how big of a part did religion really play in the European religious wars - was religion the main cause (as German aggression was during WWII), or would the nations have gone to war anyways because of competition for power, territory, and resources?

      As you can see, an event being "good" and "bad" is not as clear-cut as we would like it to be.
      (19 votes)
  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user UnrealDreamer989
    Who were the wives of King Henry VIII?
    (3 votes)
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  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Lameem Akbor
    Why are there so many denominations? If these variations have different beliefs, then couldn't they be combined into a religion with different ways of practicing religion?
    (3 votes)
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  • orange juice squid orange style avatar for user EdenSims
    At ,who wrote The edict of Nantes and why? Also how does it end the civil war in France?
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    • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Миленa
      Henry IV of France issued the Edict of Nantes to protect Protestants. He did this because he was a Protestant himself (although he had to covert to Catholicism to become King of France -- remember, France is predominately Catholic). His willingness to tolerate religious differences makes him a politique -- a ruler interested in the well-being of the state above all else, including religious unity.
      (3 votes)
  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Girl on Fire
    At Where did the name 'Huguenots' come from? Is it French for something?
    (1 vote)
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  • sneak peak green style avatar for user Ryan Nee
    At , they mention that Zwingli believed that Eucharist/communion is completely symbolic and is not literally Jesus' body and blood. My family growing up went to a Methodist church, and I assumed most modern protestants assume that communion is a strictly symbolic exercise. Is that true? If so, when did these beliefs about the Eucharist change?
    (2 votes)
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    • old spice man green style avatar for user Mary Schlueter
      Luther and Zwingli debated this at Marburg. The Eucharist was the point on which they could not agree. While Zwingli put forward the view that the bread and wine "represent" Christ's body and blood, Luther maintained that Christ's actual body and blood are present in the earthly elements, which is called the doctrine of "real presence."
      (4 votes)
  • piceratops sapling style avatar for user Brandonfrederick20
    At , how did the edict of Nantes promote religious tolerance?
    (2 votes)
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    • mr pants teal style avatar for user Pedro Queiroga
      As far as I know, the edict of Nantes was created in order to make the calvinism a permitted religion. The official religion didn't change, it remained the catholicism. The edict granted freedom of worship (so the calvinist shouldn't be persecuted), but it also had lots of limitations. The calvinists would still have to pay the tithe (1/10 of your income goes to the catholic church) and respect catholic holidays.
      That's how it tried to promote some religious tolerance. Was not well-received by the Pope Clement VIII. Was later rovoked by Luis XIV.
      (3 votes)
  • male robot hal style avatar for user Bryan
    If huguenots are french protestant, who were calvinist?
    Where did they start?
    (1 vote)
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    • purple pi purple style avatar for user Yubin
      Calvinists are people that are in Protestant church denominations that follow John Calvin. John Calvin was a French man who ran away from France when the Catholics hunted down Huguenots, and went to Geneva, Switzerland. Technically, Calvinism started at Geneva, but most denominations of Calvinism (Presbyterian, Reformed, etc...) were not created by Calvin himself, but other people who saw Calvin's teachings (ex: Presbyterian was created by John Knox, a Scottish man, who visited Geneva and admired it).
      (5 votes)
  • piceratops seed style avatar for user brianne.kresyman
    Why was the bible important to Luther?
    (2 votes)
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  • leaf grey style avatar for user ReallyBadMMDAnimator
    So, what other types of protestant faiths are there?
    (1 vote)
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Video transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: So to recap from the last video, Luther refused to renounce his teachings at the Diet of Worms, and was kidnapped, as he left the Diet of Worms, by the Elector of Saxony, and secreted away in a castle where he translated the New Testament into German. DR. BETH HARRIS: This is an enormous undertaking, which he completes in a matter of months. And it's important to Luther because it means that everyone can read the Bible for themselves. Luther's main ideas are scripture alone, and the priesthood of all believers. So you don't need to go to the church to understand the word of God, to understand the path to salvation, all you need to do is to read the Bible-- scripture alone, so putting the Bible in the hands of everyone. This other idea of the priesthood of all believers, is this notion that we can have a direct relationship with God that's unmediated by the priests, by a local bishop, or by the pope. It's just us and our creator. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: So we've come across three major ideas then from Luther, faith alone, scripture alone, and the priesthood of all believers. Now these ideas, that we can look directly at the scriptures, that we can have that kind of direct relationship with God, means that lots of people can come up with slightly varying understandings of what that relationship is. DR. BETH HARRIS: Right. As soon as the word of God is not mediated by the church, as soon as everyone can read it for themselves, it becomes clear just how ambiguous much of what's in the New Testament and the Old Testament really is, and how differently it can be interpreted by different people. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: And that's why we have so many different Protestant sects. DR. BETH HARRIS: Immediately, Luther's words spread very quickly. If we go to Zurich, to Switzerland, we find Zwingli. Like Luther, he looks to scripture as the sole authority, not the church, but scripture. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Now he differed from Luther in one important regard, the Eucharist. Now Luther had already broken with the Catholic Church's understanding of the Eucharist, that there was transubstantiation-- that is, that the bread and the wine was by miracle transformed into the actual flesh and the actual blood of Christ. Luther believed that the blood of Christ and the flesh of Christ was present in the bread and the wine, but not that the priest had this, kind of, special power that allowed for the transformation itself. And then Zwingli changes that interpretation, and says that the Eucharist is entirely symbolic, and that there is no actual blood and no actual flesh present in the church. DR. BETH HARRIS: Right, and actually, Luther and Zwingli got together to debate this issue, to try to create a more unified Protestant Church, but they were unable to agree. So you can see these very serious doctrinal disputes that are going on during this time. Everything is being questioned. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Well, in Zurich, at the same time also, we have another group, the Anabaptists. And they're fascinating, because they take issue with the practice of baptism close to birth. That is, an infant is brought and baptized. They look back to the belief that Christ was baptized as an adult. That is, he was baptized of his own free will. And they were called the Anabaptists by people who didn't like them, because they saw this kind of spiritual awakening later in life when we could take responsibility for our spiritual lives. DR. BETH HARRIS: Right. And Anabaptist actually means re-baptism, which was completely against Catholic Church doctrine. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: And the Amish and the Mennonites, actually, come directly from the Anabaptists. DR. BETH HARRIS: And those may be more familiar to us. John Calvin, another really important reformer during this period, who we might know for his doctrine of predestination. This is really following very much what Luther also taught, that all you needed to have was faith. God had already decided, for Calvin, from the beginning of time who was elect. In other words, who was blessed, who would go to Heaven, and who would go to Hell. In other words, completely disregarding the possibility of free will, of choice. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: It's interesting, because we generally think that we have some agency-- that we can make our way into Heaven if only we are really, truly good. But Calvin and Luther are both saying, no, this is entirely God's will, and we only enact it. DR. BETH HARRIS: God exists in an eternal realm, and so it's not like God woke up on Monday and said, you're damned, and you, over there, you're going to Hell. But something that's predetermined. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Now, Calvin was French. He was a lawyer, originally, but he fled to Switzerland. But let's go to England. What's happening there? DR. BETH HARRIS: Well, Henry VIII wants an annulment from his first wife Catherine of Aragon, because she's failed to produce any male heirs to the throne. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Well, she had produced, or I should say, they had produced male heirs. They just haven't survived infancy. DR. BETH HARRIS: And so Henry VIII applies to the pope for an annulment, and the pope is actually worried about offending the Holy Roman Emperor, and there's all sorts of political issues, but he says, sorry, I can't grant you an annulment. So Henry then goes to the head of the Church in England, and says, will you grant me an annulment? And that is granted. And so the power of the pope is usurped in this case, and soon after that, an act of parliament makes the king, the monarch of England, the head of the Church in England. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: But I think we need to be careful. Because we don't want to say that the Anglican Church, that is, the Church of England that Henry is now heading, is entirely the result of his desire for a divorce, or an annulment. There are strong spiritual and also political issues here. Just like in the Germanic countries, many felt that the pope had too much power. And Henry was not only getting his annulment, he was also getting the lands of the church. DR. BETH HARRIS: Protestantism is spreading in primarily German-speaking countries, up in Scandinavia, and England, and Scotland, in Switzerland, but if we look to southern Germany and Italy, or France, or Spain, those countries remain predominantly Catholic. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: All true, but focusing too much on the politics and focusing too much on Henry's marriages-- because ultimately, Henry VIII will have six marriages-- is to miss the brutality, the violence of this period. DR. BETH HARRIS: On both sides, Catholics and Protestants. Thousands of people were hanged, burned at the stake, tortured, simply because of their beliefs. And each side was convinced that they were in the right, and the other side was not only in the wrong, but actually, somehow in the power of the devil. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: This was one of the most violent periods in Europe, and some of the worst violence took place in France. Now the French Protestants were known as Huguenots. And initially, there was some tolerance, but that ended fairly quickly. And the Huguenots were declared, en masse, heretical. That is, Protestantism was outlawed in France. DR. BETH HARRIS: And it was a civil war in France for much of the end of the 16th century. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: But just like in the German countries and just like in England, the issues were not only spiritual, they were also political. And so what you had is an alignment of the ruling families of France pitted against each other on both the Protestant and the Catholic sides. DR. BETH HARRIS: We also see attempts at tolerance. So for example, in the German states, the Peace of Augsburg in 1555 establishes this principle of, "Whose realm, his religion." This idea that the local princes in the Holy Roman Empire could choose the religion for their area. In other words, they could choose between Protestantism and Catholicism. It's not going to be declared by the Holy Roman Emperor. The ruler of each region is going to get to decide. And similarly, in France, we have the Edict of Nantes in 1598, which establishes the principle of religious toleration. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: So that really ends this long period in the second half of the 16th century known as the French Wars of Religion. And finally, there is some peace. But ultimately, things just got worse. By the early 17th century, we see the beginning of the 30 Years' War, which pitted Protestants and Catholics against each other, especially in the Holy Roman Empire. [MUSIC PLAYING]