The Perfect Storm of Spiritual and Political Turmoil Beginning the Protestant Reformation in the 16th Century

(First Draft)

By Kathy L. McFarland

January 7, 2012

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The Perfect Storm of Spiritual and Political Turmoil

Beginning the Protestant Reformation in the 16th Century

By Kathy L. McFarland


The Holy Roman Empire is not the only unstable political and spiritual environment rolling toward confrontation by reformers in the 16th century. There were many nations with transitory political and religious situations that were rising to power prior to the historic year of 1517 when Martin Luther nails his 95 Thesis to the door of the Wittenberg Church at the beginning of the process of Reformation which finally ended with the Peace of Augsburg in 1648.[1]


South America, Middle America, Mexico in North America, and the Southwestern United States are being explored and conquered by Spanish Conquistadores with the flexing of their major political might in the 16th century that follows after the discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus in 1492.  In fact, Professor Kuyper in his Princeton Lectures on Calvinism believes it is likely that had not Calvinism spread throughout Western Europe, that the entire American continent would be subject to Spain today; Spain would have crushed the Netherlands and led to Western Hemisphere domination without the unifying nature of the Calvinistic spirit.[2]

Spain was powerful in its exploration and settlement of territories under its control in the 16th Century as their Spanish minds were opened to new visions of adventure, discovery, and conquest. Their adventures, funded by cheap labor and slaves in the Caribbean through sugarcane, made them wealthy and able to expand their presence throughout the world during the century leading up to the Protestant Reformation.[3] It is the commission of the Spanish crown that sent Columbus to seek a new route to India leading to the discovery of America in 1492, and the Western Hemisphere was given to Spain formerly through the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494.

Before the Spanish martyrdoms bring death to some under Diocletian’s wicked rule by the 3rd Century, the real presence of Christianity is recorded in Spain as early as 254 by a letter from St. Cyprian.[4] However, tradition declares the evangelization of Christian faith in Spain through the direct receipt of testimony by St. Paul and St. James.[5]

By the 16th Century, the Holy Roman Empire and the Nation of Spain are joined together through the emperor of both; intrigue and liberal bribery place the imperial and Neopolitan crowns on his twenty-year-old head.[6] Charles I of Spain and Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire are the same man, with the rule of the Spanish Empire from 1516 to 1556 and the Holy Roman Empire from 1519; immediately he arranges strategic matrimonial alliances throughout Europe to protect and consolidate his powers.[7] As a result of this power-grabbing presence of the two-crowned Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and King of Spain, and the conquer of vast treasures seized by his conquistadors,[8] the nation of Spain remains a wealthy Roman Catholic nation throughout the Protestant Reformation, and is a staunch defender of the Roman Catholic faith even today.

Charles opposes the Protestant Reformation in support for the Holy Roman Empire and the Roman Church, but his heart is wearied by conflict. When finally he recognizes the threat of the growing movement led by Martin Luther, he offers him safe passage to the Diet of Worms in 1521, in an effort to resolve their differences. By the time of the Peasants’ Revolt in 1524 to 1526 that challenges his authority he fights the battles that come to him and manages to bring some of the German princes to support the Holy Roman Empire. He pushes for the Council of Trent, and eventually legalizes Lutheranism with the Peace of Augsburg.

But Charles’ political and spiritual conflicts at the beginning of the Reformation keep him occupied.  Luther, a full-blown heretic by 1521, forces Emperor Charles V to issue an edict to gather and burn the writings of Luther in an attempt to erase the damage he was doing to the powerful Roman Church and Holy Roman Empire.  Then there is the matter of King Henry VIII divorce, and the clever but cunning, cowardly Pope Clement VII, who gives lip-service to Charles V, in an effort to please both the King of England and satisfy the Emperor of Rome.[9]

As the last of the medieval emperors, Charles is loyal to the Roman Church; however, he is convinced that they are adhering to popular heresy, making it tremendously difficult to rule the Empire. He strives for most of his life to convince others to develop the same religious beliefs that he holds; he finds it to be a futile effort, related by him to be the same as trying to make a dozen clocks tick together in unison and harmony.[10]


France, the second-most powerful nation at the beginning of the 16th century, attempts reform more than does Spain; after much bloodshed, they ultimately remain a Roman Catholic nation that is unchanged by the dissension leading to the Protestant Reformation. However, France’s chief rival is Spain and this contentious relationship influences the outcome of reform.  Since France allies with Scotland, and Spain allies with England, England and Scotland are at odds as well.  The combative posturing of these nations and the war between France and Spain keep Charles I’s attention away from Luther, allowing the reform movement to grow in intensity and reach more places.[11]

The Christian faith and practices are introduced into Gaul by the 2nd century through the efforts of missionaries from Asia Minor.[12] The Christian community at Lyons are led by St. Irenaeus, who is a well-known bishop, apologist, and theologian; some of these Lyons’ Christians were persecuted in 177.[13] Rome made contact with the Gallic episcopate between c. 250 and 313 and the Gallo-Roman Church is organized by the 3rd century.[14] By the 16th century, French Christians are piously participating in worship activities with elaborately decorated churches elevating their prayers of devotion, with the purchase of indulgences elevating their eternity to a bearable existence that promised to release them from a purgatory hell.[15]

Catherine de’ Medici (1519-89) was the Queen-Consort of France from 1547 and Queen-Mother from 1559. She marries Henry, son of Francis I of France in 1533; the marriage is arranged because she is a relative of Pope Clement VII and the marriage offers support to the Pope which removes some control of Emperor Charles V.[16] She has little political control during the reign of her father-in-law or her husband; however, during the reigns of her sons, Francis II (1559-60), Charles IX (1560-74), and Henry III (1574-89), she exerts great control and is thought to be the real ruler of the country during these times by most historians.[17]

Legend says Catherine is wicked; the massacre of St. Bartholomew in 1572 leaves little doubt to her character.[18] However, it is just one event of many throughout her lifetime that historians have used to declare her equal to the notorious Machiavelli.[19] The resentment toward her evil ways is stirred by her unfettered ambition for power.  By the 19th century, the legend of her wickedness was fully asserted by scholars with profound descriptive words such as “cold, cruel, calculating, treacherous, and evil.”[20] She is described in new history records with such descriptions as a “monster of selfish ambition who sacrificed her children, her adopted country, [and] her principles – if she ever had any.”[21]

However, those history books written closer to her time, such as the Histoire universelle of de Thou (1604), and the Histore universelle of the Calvinist Agrippa d’Aubigne (1616-1620) blame the French Crown’s damage before Catherine emerges from obscurity in 1561.[22] There is not one accusation or resentment against Catherine that is expressed in the first published history in 1580 entitled Histoire ecclesiastique des eglises reformees de France.[23] In that first history account, she is acknowledged as one that wishes to rule, but struggles against forces so powerful, that she has no hope to prevail against them. Thus, historians that writes of Catherine in the beginning, those who still possess a living memory of her activities, are more favorable to her political and spiritual analyses than were those who evaluated her actions centuries later. Regardless of historical slants, Catherine de’ Medici was of enough wicked character that she was able to participate in the massacre at St. Bartholomew without hesitation, and that ability must be measured with the spiritual and political influences bearing down upon mankind at the beginning of the Reformation.

(John Calvin study goes here)


The island of England is separate from the continent of Europe giving advantage to its natural defense lines of coastal territory and it rises to become one of the most powerful nations out of Europe after the 16th century.  However, England is not powerful when the Reformation begins.[24] Henry VII, King of England, is busied by the end of the War of Roses which lasts under several kings from about 1455 to 1485. Henry VII declares victory with some exaggerated and calculated magnificence to increase his role in ending the War of Roses and blames the War with Scotland to be started by James IV rather than himself.[25] This garners him greater accolades for his efforts.

Some might think the war between nobility matters little to the commoners and has scarce impact upon medieval society. But Henry VII’s regime experiences a closer and wider relationship with the commoner subjects than has any other English King experienced to that date.[26] The crown engages individuals below the level of gentry and asks them to sit on juries to meet judicial and fiscal objectives.[27] Townships formed relationships with King VII’s councilors in mutually beneficial relationships to secure power and privileges from the king.[28]

Henry VII’s rule was as a liminal king, first of the Tudors, last of the Lancastrians, with the eve of Reformation creeping close; soon he will be outshone by his son,[29] which says a great deal when one considers the opulence surrounding the processions organized by Henry VII with gold, pearls and precious stones bedangled upon his horses in marches through London and Kent.[30] He was the Savior of England from King Richard’s tyranny, his victory captured poetically by Shakespeare’s King Richard III.[31] His complex role with the Church, with a conspicuous piety that maintains ruthless control over the clergy, leads him to ask the pope to increase his confessor’s powers in 1504, so he might forgive himself of simony.[32]

Traditionally, Henry VII is thought to be materialistic, cold, stingy, and avaricious; but, he develops a self-image through religious imagery, miracles, and reliance upon self-interpreted Providence to boost his self-worship and reflect that God-kissed nature of the Tudor dynasty toward the rule of his subjects.[33] He gives credit to the Virgin Mary at key times during his reign; his devotion to the Virgin is elevated by many similarities to his own birth without the presence of a human father. That he was born of his mother Margaret, who was at the same age of Saint Agnes’ martyrdom, and their escape from the bloodshed of Richard III through their exile, duplicating the escape of Mary and Jesus from King Herod’s massacre, gave further confidence to King Henry VII of his providential destiny. [34]

Another fortunate development was the cultish worship of his uncle, Henry VI. Though Henry VII did not invent the cult of Henry VI, he promotes it by encouraging successive popes to have his uncle named formally as a saint.[35] This campaign promises to add even more credibility to King Henry VII’s assertions of being chosen by God; a saint in the family buttresses his kingship. In the last decade of Henry VI’s life, he does his best to link himself with his saintly uncle by connecting their tombs together in St. George’s Chapel for a time, until cult supporters remember Henry VI wishes to have Westminster as his final resting place.  A public relations campaign is started in the process by offering special indulgences for pilgrims to Windsor.  Henry VII dies well, creating a double tomb to enclose his body in Westminster Abbey for his mortal remains, minus his grave partner Saint Uncle Henry VI. It was Henry VII’s scheme for personal salvation in the hereafter that prompts this interest in connecting to his uncle, the Saint;[36] while his eternal rewards or punishments are not known, he leaves this world with heavenly and dynastic imagery surrounding his corpse, in a grave fit for a Saint.[37]

By the time of reform in the 16th century, Henry VIII assumes the throne peacefully in April 1509, thanks to his egomaniac father’s earlier efforts to raise the climate of opulence and power by giving credit to God’s Providence, which gives his son higher footing than that of just a mere king.[38] Henry VIII seeks reform for the nation of England in an effort to control the Church and State to his benefit as ruler of both and to gain power over other nations once again. His reform effort causes the Anglican Church to separate from the Holy Roman Church, and becomes a key event in the Protestant Reformation history.

(John Wycliffe and John Huss notes here)


Germany is the center of the Holy Roman Empire in the 15th and 16th centuries. While other nations and states are removing their attachments to the Empire, Germany becomes increasingly identified with the Holy Roman Empire and Southern Germany remains in the heart of it. By the middle of the 16th century Germany is divided between Protestant and Catholic faith as the Reformation process unfolds.  Martin Luther’s efforts in Northern Germany eventually lead to the masses moving to the Lutheran faith, while the Catholics in Southern Germany remain Catholic.

It is a significant appointment of Luther’s supporting prince, Prince Frederick the Wise, to sit as one of seven electors of the Holy Roman Empire that are given the responsibility to cast votes for the next Emperor.  Prince Frederick’s secular elector position gives him tremendous power; those seeking his vote garner special treatment to encourage his compliance.  Prince Frederick is also powerful in his own right; enough that he is considered to assume the position of Emperor for the Holy Roman Empire.[39] But, Frederick declines the position and does not seriously campaign for the title.

It is Prince Frederick’s position as an elector, however, that gives Luther the ability to move about a little less hindered.  It is well-known that Martin Luther was well-liked by Prince Frederick, and had his support.  This support becomes vitally important as Luther stirs the angst of the Holy Roman Empire, and most surely keeps his head attached to his body when his arguments begin reform.

And Martin Luther prospers; he nails his 95 thesis upon the Wittenberg Church, and begins a Reformation that changes religion forever.  But it was more than a freeing of faith from control of the Holy Roman Church.  It is a political cannonball that pummels the force for change, and grows to places often unrealized.  Karl Marx classifies the Reformation as the theoretical remains of the ‘revolutionary past’.[40] He says of Luther:

[Luther] overcame the bondage of piety by replacing it by the bondage of conviction.  He shattered faith in authority because he restored the authority of faith.  He turned priests into laymen because he turned laymen into priests.  He freed man from outer religiosity because he made religiosity the inner man.  He freed the body from chains because he enchained the heart.  But, if Protestantism was not the true solution it was the true setting of the problem.[41]

While it is seldom a tradition to quote Karl Marx in an essay concerning the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, it seems important to note that it was not only reform of the 16th century Roman Catholic Church that is the final outcome of Luther’s efforts.  In future analysis, political direction and rebellious practice is gleaned from Luther’s actions, and inserted into many of the radical left and right leanings of developing political thought.  The idea of taking a rebellious stance against a powerful entity seen through Luther’s actions becomes a theory for later revolutionists, to which Marx recognizes.

Martin Luther’s journey before the defining point of nailing his 95 objections to the Roman Catholic Church’s practice for the sale of indulgences to lesson time in Purgatory is filled with self-examination, pious repentance, and difficult Anfechtung testing allowed by God.  He struggles mightily between himself and the devil as God molds and forms his nature, character, and soul with the tools necessary to accomplish the important tasks of reform.  But, it is not just Luther’s journey, but also the destiny of many as God brings spiritual and political stirrings to the important nations and Christians in the known world to carry out His plans perfectly.

(More Martin Luther notes here)


Italy is not yet born in pre-reformation days; it would not become a nation until the 19th century when it is created by Victor Emmanuel for the first time. At the beginning of the 16th century the Italian speaking people are divided into various states, called the Papal States; these states are Venice, Florence, Milan, and Naples. As a result of this connection, though Italian people are divided upon reformation efforts, the states remain faithfully Roman Catholic.

They also remain unified as the place of learning, revived in the Renaissance, which keeps the Italian people at the center of scholarship and knowledge. A large part of the Reformation is the scholasticism emphasis that focuses upon knowledge and understanding.[42] While a person’s soul is saved in the Middle Ages by submission to the Sacraments, Luther brings the concept of Sola Fida, by faith alone for salvation, to bear.  Since most of the reformers were University men, Calvin, Luther, Zwingli, John Huss and John Wycliffe, the reform has an intellectual debate always within it.  The Italian Roman Catholics maintain their scholastic focus with the tradition of the church supporting their stances through their vast network of writings and councils that have served their religion well.  The writings of the Apostolic Fathers and the numerous Council gatherings formed to prevent heresy and establish doctrine in the past are leaned upon heavily to defend their faith.


German-speaking Zurich, Switzerland is a key nation in the reformation process, and has influence far beyond its size.  Ulrich Zwingli takes the lead for reform from is city in Zurich, as John Calvin does in his city of Geneva.  French-speaking Geneva is located in the southwestern section of Switzerland. Thus, both German and French speaking peoples are involved in the reform process from Switzerland. Interestingly, the thirteen different cantons of Switzerland are divided upon the reformation developments dependent upon the places they live.  Those who dwell in the city cantons tend to become reformation supports while the countryside, rural cantons tend to remain Catholic.

(Ulrich Zwingli notes go here)


The Low Countries of Holland and the Netherlands are part of Spain prior to the Reformation.  It is during the Reformation period that they are able to achieve national separation.   As long as it remained part of Spain, it was fully Catholic; but, when it achieved its independence from Spain it immediately became Protestant.  Through the efforts of John Calvin and the Anabaptists a reformed Protestantism develops that brings even deeper changes to the climate of Protestant faith.

A key player in the Reformation development is Desiderius Erasmus, an evangelical humanist that was critical of the Church but never actually joined the Reformers.  His great contribution to the Reformation is his translation of the New Testament into Greek, which gives Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin the tools to translate it into their own vernacular languages. Prior of this time, the Latin Vulgate translated by Jerome was used, which prevents the majority of Christians from reading God’s Word. With the edition of a New Testament that can be read by commoners without advanced University degrees, published by the printing press that soon arrives as the demand for copies spread. The Protestant longings for the written Word of God begin with Erasmus’ translation.


It is important to consider that the Reformation takes place at the same time the Western Hemisphere is being settled. Columbus sails the ocean blue and locates America in 1492 and Jamestown is settled in 1607.  Not only is Europe embroiled in the revolutionary religious reform, Spain and England were conquering New Worlds and settling them at a rapid rate.  The Spanish conquerors promoted Roman Catholicism, and the English spread Protestantism in the places they conquered.  To this day, South America is largely Catholic, and North America, largely Protestant, as a result of the nations that originally conquered them.


The Renaissance includes the invention of the printing press, a desire for scholarship and an interest in books.  The movable type printing press invented by Guttenberg in 1450 allows the Reformers to print books and in one notable case, a list of 95 Thesis outlining the things wrong about the Catholic’s religious practice.

It is a changing time as explorers and revolutionists stood upon the crevices of encroaching change.  Nations are forming and separating; politicians and religious leaders are arguing and debating.  Some, more than others, are credited with starting the reform of religion that would change the way God was approached by a people who relied upon Him for salvation that is undeserved, and unobtainable through sacriments, indulgences, or gold pressed into the hand of a priest.

The Roman Catholic Church had become corrupt.  Its priests were greedy, secular, dissenting, and immoral. Dissent outside the Church was encouraged by the Lollards who follow John Wycliffe and the Bohemian Brethren who follow John Huss, and the Valdenses coming out of the Catholic Church.  This was the religious situation on the eve of the Reformation.

Politically, Kings and Priests and Church Officials were fighting each other for power, when God chooses mere men to stand against them for Him.  In the end, Martin Luther rallies the humanists, the scholars, and the people to support his moves and he inspires them to reform the wrongs outside the Roman Church. To his enemies in the Roman Catholic Church, he is the devil himself, and is burning in the flames of Hell according to the Roman Church today.[43] Yet, his faith was sure and his guidance Supreme, as he places his full faith upon Calvary’s Cross, and rejectes the Sacraments and Indulgences of a Church that has gone down the wrong path for too long.  That surety of faith through salvation alone could never have come, had not brave men and their followers taken strong steps of revolutionary faith before reformation was assured, to declare God’s Truth to very stubborn men, institutions and nations in pre-Reformation revolutionary ways.



Brinks, Jan Herman. Paradigms of Political Change--Luther, Frederick Ii, and Bismarck : The Gdr on Its Way to German Unity: Marquette University Press, 2001.

Cross, F.L. . The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. 3rd ed. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Cunningham, Sean. "Henry Vii and the Shaping of the Tudor State." History Review 51,  (2005): 28-33.

D'aubigné, J.H. History of the Reformation in Europe in the Time of Calvin. Vol. 4. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009.

Diemer, Dr. Carl. "Introduction to Church History 2," CHHI525, Liberty University. Lecture,  (accessed 12/20/2011).

Fahlbusch, Erwin. The Enclyclopedia of Christianity, Volume 1. Vol. I. Grand Rapids, Mich.; Leiden, Netherlands: Wm. B. Eerdmans; Brill, 1999-2003.

Fahlbusch, Erwin The Encyclopedia of Christianity, Volume 3. Vol. 3. Grand Rapids, Mich.; Leiden, Netherlands: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1999-2003.

Gunn, Steven. "Henry Vii in Context: Problems and Possibilities." History 92, no. 307 (2007): 301-317.

Kuyper, Abraham. Calvinism: Six Lectures Delivered in the Theological Seminary at Princeton. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2008.

Marsden, G. "Henry Vii Miracle King." History Today 59, no. 3 (2009): 54-60.

Marx, Karl. A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right Works of Karl Mark 1843. Paris: Deutsch-Franzosische Jahrbucher, 1844.

McShane, E. D. "Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor." In New Catholic Encyclopedia, 3, 429-432. Detroit: Gale, 2003.

Sutherland, N. M. "Catherine De Medici: The Legend of the Wicked Italian Queen." The Sixteenth Century Journal 9, no. 2 (1978): 45-56.

Tan, Paul Lee. Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations: Signs of the Times. Garland, TX: Bible Communications, Inc., 1996.




[1] Dr. Carl Diemer, "Introduction to Church History 2," CHHI525, Liberty University. Lecture,  (accessed 12/20/2011).

[2] Abraham Kuyper, Calvinism: Six Lectures Delivered in the Theological Seminary at Princeton (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2008), 43-44.

[3] Erwin  Fahlbusch, The Encyclopedia of Christianity, Volume 3, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, Mich.; Leiden, Netherlands: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1999-2003), 178.

[4] Erwin Fahlbusch, The Enclyclopedia of Christianity, Volume 1, vol. I (Grand Rapids, Mich.; Leiden, Netherlands: Wm. B. Eerdmans; Brill, 1999-2003), 609.

[5] Ibid.

[6] E. D. McShane, "Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor," in New Catholic Encyclopedia(Detroit: Gale, 2003), 429.

[7] Ibid., 430.

[8] Ibid., 431.

[9] J.H. D'aubigné, History of the Reformation in Europe in the Time of Calvin, vol. 4 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009), 30-31.

[10] Paul Lee Tan, Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations: Signs of the Times (Garland, TX: Bible Communications, Inc., 1996), 3080.

[11] Diemer.

[12] F.L.  Cross, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed. (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 631.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., 306.

[17] Ibid.

[18] N. M. Sutherland, "Catherine De Medici: The Legend of the Wicked Italian Queen," The Sixteenth Century Journal 9, no. 2 (1978): 45.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., 46.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Diemer.

[25] Steven Gunn, "Henry Vii in Context: Problems and Possibilities," History 92, no. 307 (2007): 315.

[26] Ibid., 316.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid., 317.

[29] Ibid., 301.

[30] Ibid., 314.

[31] Sean Cunningham, "Henry Vii and the Shaping of the Tudor State," History Review 51, (2005): 28.

[32] Gunn: 317.

[33] G. Marsden, "Henry Vii Miracle King," History Today 59, no. 3 (2009): 55.

[34] Ibid., 57.

[35] Ibid., 58.

[36] Ibid., 59.

[37] Ibid., 60.

[38] Ibid., 55.

[39] Diemer.

[40] Jan Herman Brinks, Paradigms of Political Change--Luther, Frederick Ii, and Bismarck : The Gdr on Its Way to German Unity (Marquette University Press, 2001), 40.

[41] Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right, Works of Karl Mark 1843 (Paris: Deutsch-Franzosische Jahrbucher, 1844).

[42] Diemer.

[43] Ibid.

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