A Short Historical Timeline of the Protestant Reformation

© Dane’s Place 2006

Based mostly upon “The Story of Christianity Vol. 2” by Justo L. González, Harper Collins ©1985

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Throughout the history of Christendom no marriage remains as perplexing as that which occurred in the early years of the fourth century when Emperor Constantine professed Christianity, and brought together Church and State in uneasy matrimony.  Over the centuries the peculiar consummation of that union seemed to produce a religious institution that would little resemble the family Jesus began.[1]  It would also produce many sons and daughters who labored vainly to serve these two masters; often making them either favored heirs of one, or bastard children of the other.  From the theological vantage point of this writer, the marriage of Church and State was doomed to fail before the honeymoon began.  Yet, its demise would live for well over a millennium, bringing untold theological disaster, as well as indescribable torture and needless death to the countless lives that were caught in its rigor mortis-like grip over Europe.  A rebirth of its corrupted nature was desperately needed.

Although the hammer that nailed Martin Luther’s famed Ninety-Five Theses to Wittenburg’s doors may have pounded like the heralding blast of the Protestant Reformation, it seems that foreshocks of a coming reconstruction had been echoing for some time.  Primitive strains of reform were perhaps first heard in the wake of Constantine’s profession of faith, when scores of anchorites left the organized Church for desert places.  Many of these had become disenchanted with the Church’s alliance with the State, and were seeking to distance themselves from it.

Later, the reverberation of reform would sound again as the Cluniacs brought transformation to monastic expression.  The Waldensians also brought to their lips the trumpet of protest as they insisted that Scripture be read in the vernacular of the people.  The Conciliar Movement of the early fifteenth century was yet another attempt to bring reform as it challenged some long-held Roman Catholic assumptions, while attempting to unite the institutional church.

Though some positive alterations within the Church did occur as a result of some of these events, it appears that the “reformers” in these instances did not entirely recognize how the Christian faith of their day had been greatly changed from its primitive form.  Or, if they did, they did not possess all of the necessary advantages to bring about widespread reconstruction.

One of the first indelible marks in the historical timeline precedes the Reformation.  It was made by an English diplomat, John Wycliffe (circa 1330-1384[2]).  Among other Roman Catholic beliefs, Wycliffe challenged the well-established doctrine of transubstantiation.  He also believed that Scripture belonged, not to the institutional church, but to the true body of believers who make up Christ’s universal Church.  His efforts led to a translation of the New Testament into English, and his arguments served to plough over the religious landscape in England, making it more fertile for the seeds of reformation that would be sown later.

The next significant mark on the timeline, like Wycliffe’s, falls before the actual Reformation.  Jan Huss (a.k.a. John Huss) of present-day Czechoslovakia, was born some three decades after Wycliffe’s birth, but was influenced by Wycliffe’s ideas.  He was an ordained priest who believed that the pope, as well as any Christian, should submit to the authority of the Bible.  These, and some other soon-to-be Protestant views, pushed him onto a collision course with the bigoted Roman Catholic Church.  Not having all of the ingredients for a full reformation as Martin Luther would later enjoy, Huss’ movement could not be sustained, and he was burned at the stake as a heretic.

Prior to examining the actual events of the Reformation, it is important to note that some significant changes in Western Europe had been taking place during the preceding centuries.  The Roman Empire was long past its zenith, leaving a loosely-knit kingdom.  A nationalistic attitude was developing among the various states of the empire, causing them to view themselves as separate entities.  Moreover, there was a tendency to recognize the individuality of each person.  There was also a trend developing towards rediscovering the literary classics – which led many to re-examine the Hebrew and Greek of the Bible.  And there was a general disappointment in the papacy.  These factors would play mightily into the coming change.  But one of the most important influencing components was the introduction of the moveable type printing press around 1447.  With this device the reformers were able to rapidly and widely circulate their ideas, while the Roman Catholic Church could not as easily contain the damages done by those who were challenging their institution.

The Reformation timeline is next marked by Frederick the Wise, born 1463[3].  Sovereign of Saxony, and founder of the University of Wittenberg – where Martin Luther taught – Frederick the Wise was a somewhat silent, yet important figure in Protestant history.  Although not a disciple of the Protestant movement, Frederick the Wise was sympathetic towards Luther, and would cast a protective shadow over him during intervals of crises.

Next is one of the most prominent figures in Reformation history: Martin Luther.  Born in 1483, Luther became an Augustinian monk and was teaching at the University of Wittenberg when, around 1515, he had what seemed to be a conversion experience while studying Paul’s Epistle to the Romans.  His continued studies gave him some reason to be discontent with Roman Catholicism, but there was little opportunity to voice these disagreements.  Enter John Tetzel.

Tetzel was in charge of selling indulgences in Germany.  His unorthodox practices so angered Luther that he prepared and posted ninety-five arguments against the practice of selling indulgences.  The Ninety-Five Theses were made public on 31 October 1517.

John Eck, a Roman Catholic theologian, was incensed by Luther’s arguments and lured him into a debate, which took place in Leipzig, Germany.  Scripturally speaking, Eck was at a loss to his opponent.  However, he was able to manipulate the argument and gain a confession from Luther stating that he sided with John Huss – a convicted heretic.  Luther was eventually ordered to appear at the Diet of Worms in 1521, where the pope hoped to secure the help of the emperor who examined Luther.  Luther would not recant, but before he had opportunity to test the heterodox pyre, Frederick the Wise spirited him to safety.  While in hiding, Luther further facilitated the Reformation with a remarkable work – Luther’s Bible – a German translation of the Scriptures.

Luther’s ideas continued to gain momentum in Germany.  Meanwhile the emperor’s other political interests, an unstable papacy, and Fredrick the Wise’ guardianship of Luther, kept him and other Protestants from the spotlight.  Eventually the Ausburg Confession of 1530 united the Protestants beneath their German princes.  Catholics and Protestants were gearing for war when the international political winds changed, forcing Charles V to seek peace.  The Peace of Nuremberg was reached with the Protestants in exchange for a united Germany.  Protestantism finally gained an official, but limited, foothold.

As the upheaval in Germany was taking place, a parallel movement in Zurich, Switzerland was underway.  Ulrich Zwingli, a Roman Catholic priest, was reaching many of the same theological conclusions as Luther – by simply studying the Bible.  Zwingli won the favor of his local canton, and soon his ideas spread to other Swiss districts. He broke free from Rome and, though he was not joined to Luther, became Protestant.

Out of Zwingli’s faction sprang another distinct movement of Protestantism: the Anabaptists.  This expression of reformation was so heroic – so refreshing – so inspiring – that, in the opinion of this student, its mark in the timeline radiates.  It was mainly spearheaded by George Blaurock and Conrad Grebel, former disciples of Zwingli.  Convinced that Zwingli had not radically enough reduced Christianity to its origins, they felt compelled to take the Reformation further.  Rejecting infant baptism for believer-baptism they “re-baptized” themselves and their group on 21 January 1525.  This act was tantamount to signing their own death warrants.  Pacifistic to a fault, these brave men and women endured some of the harshest treatment that the institutional church could devise.  They were beheaded by the emperor and burned by Roman Catholics.  The Protestants, who seemed to have forgotten what it was like to be in the crosshairs of persecution, were particularly fond of drowning them.  The Anabaptists’ conviction in the face of persecution is one of the most inspirational stories to come out of the Reformation (see Martyrs Mirror, by Thieleman J. Van Braght, Herald Press; 2nd Rep edition, © 2001).

Another significant mark in the Reformation timeline was made by John Calvin.  His life overlapped Luther’s, and so he might be considered a second-generation reformer.  Unlike Luther’s conversion experience, it is difficult to footnote Calvin’s with date or details.  He was at first a humanist theologian.  He probably embraced Protestantism around 1535[4], and desired only to be a theologian. His greatest contribution to the Reformation was a systematical articulation of theological thought.  Posthumously, Calvin’s work gained momentum, and would continue to leave a wide mark into Protestant history.  His theological legacy would become known as Reformed Theology.

At about the time Calvin was breaking from Rome, Henry VIII, King of England, was setting the stage for eventual reformation in Great Britain.  He was not a radical like Luther, or a great theologian like Calvin.  Instead, he was a selfish man with political designs who had grown weary of keeping his marital covenant with his first wife.  When the pope hesitated to give him an annulment, Henry VIII sought the counsel of Thomas Cranmer and began to separate from Rome.  He would eventually be declared “the supreme head of the Church of England”[5] by Parliament.  Over the next several decades England’s reformation would pendulum swing between Roman Catholicism and a form of Protestantism (Anglicanism) while various kings and queens throned in Great Britain.  In 1558 Queen Elizabeth gained the throne and finalized Britain’s Protestant direction.

Until this point Britain’s reform was anything but edifying.  It was during King James’ reign, which began in 1603 that England began to see some significant spiritual reform.  This was largely due to the influence of the Puritan movement.  The Puritans were generally influenced by the Swiss reform, and could be considered staunchly Calvinistic in their theology.

Northward in Scotland the Reformation had already been spreading.  One of Scotland’s most notable contributions to the Reformation was the ardent John Knox.  He was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in 1540.  Several years later he converted to Protestantism and came under the influence of Calvin.  His life-story is filled with adventurous travels, trying hardships, and volatile confrontations – which are too detailed to account for in this brief overview.  It is sufficient to note that Knox was influential in giving rise to the Reformed Church of Scotland – a precursor to modern Presbyterianism.

Across the channel in France, Protestantism was able to find a home, but it never gained a majority voice.  Calvin, who was French, had significant influence, but only a marginal number of French became Protestant.  These Calvinists would be known as the Huguenots.  But the majority of France remained faithful to Rome and dealt viciously with the Protestant movement. An attitude of tolerance eventually presided, but even as late as the late nineteenth century, the French government was still refusing to recognize marriages performed by Protestant ministers.

Just as it was difficult to sense the earliest movements of the Church’s reformation, it is also difficult to mark its closing.  Perhaps a good argument could be made that it has not ended.  For, whenever a Christian discovers that his or her life might not be as radical or pure as Christ intended, the trumpet of reform should be sounded – even if it is played only for that believer.  But, if it is for the church, then to those who have ears let them hear.

Dane Cramer is a backpacker, Christian blogger, jail chaplain, amateur filmmaker, and author of two books: Romancing the Trail and The Nephilim: A Monster Among Us.

[1] This writer does not wish to imply that Jesus sired children; rather, Jesus began a movement with structure resembling that of a family’s.

[2] Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, © 2000 by Merriam-Webster, Inc, Version. 2.5.

[3] http://www.pbs.org/empires/martinluther/char_frederick.html – last visited 28 August 2006.

[4] González points out that it is impossible to trace exactly when this happened.  Source: Justo L. González, This Story of Christianity Vol 2, Harper Collins © 1985, page 63.

[5] Justo L. González, This Story of Christianity Vol 2, Harper Collins © 1985, page 73.



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