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Editor’s note: This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, and this is one in a series of columns to describe the origins, nature and impact of the events and personalities of the Reformation. Previous articles are online at deseretnews.com/faith.
In the early 16th century, most Protestants belonged, broadly speaking, to the Lutheran or Reformed (Calvinist) movements. However, many other minority Protestant denominations quickly developed.
When Luther launched the Reformation in 1517, he could have had no idea of the Pandora’s Box of sectarianism that he was opening.
Reformers maintained that both the authority of the pope and the previous centuries of Catholic tradition were ultimately unreliable sources for Christian theology and practice. That left the Bible alone as the source of both authority and theology for Protestants.
But this new understanding opened many avenues of potential dispute. Are the Apocrypha to be included in the Bible or not? Which translation, if any? And which interpretation? In many ways the Reformation became a battle over the meaning of the Bible. While Protestant teachers all agreed that the Catholic interpretation of the Bible was wrong, they often couldn’t agree on which interpretation was correct.
The “Magisterial” Reformation — meaning essentially Lutheranism and Calvinism — believed that church and state (the “magistrates”) were interdependent, and that the church should be intimately involved in political affairs. In Calvin’s Geneva, church and state were essentially one.
In many ways, this policy was related to attempts by early Protestants to gain political protection from friendly princes against potential harassment and persecution by Catholic religious and secular authorities. But the state just as easily became a mechanism by which Protestant leaders could impose their will on Protestant dissenters.
And there were many such dissenters — some of whom were called “Radical Reformers” because they believed not just in theological reform of the church but in reform of the very root of the contemporary social and political order. In many ways the Radical Reformers believed in the supremacy of the individual conscience against state-sponsored religion — be it Catholic or Protestant.
A core component of the thinking of many Radical Reformers was the insistence that each individual must have a personal conversion to Christ and undergo adult “believer’s baptism.” Infant baptism was meaningless, because infants were unable to have faith in Christ. These people were often called “Anabaptists” or “re-baptizers.” A person can’t be born a Christian; he must make an informed adult decision to become a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Many reformers were restorationists, believing that the ultimate purpose of the Reformation was to restore the original form of Christianity described in the New Testament. Often called Christian Primitivists, they included theologians such as Heinrich Bullinger (1504-1575) and Martin Bucer (1491-1551).
Many early Protestant denominations were millenarian, expecting the imminent return of Christ as predicted in the book of Revelation. Some Anabaptists, like the “Zwickau prophets,” believed that they had received new revelations from the Holy Spirit in preparation for the forthcoming Apocalypse. Most Protestant leaders rejected the claims of such new prophets.
Some Radical Reformers, such as Thomas Muntzer, believed that religious reformation must include social revolution, which could involve political violence and war. Muntzer was a major supporter of the German Peasants’ War (1524-1525), in which hundreds of thousands of peasants were killed in a battle against largely Lutheran aristocratic armies. Luther himself supported the princes against this revolution in his tract “Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants.”
Some Protestants were willing to use political violence to achieve their religious ends. For example, the French anti-Protestant Duke of Guise was assassinated by a French Protestant in 1563. Calvin infamously ordered his Protestant rival Michael Servetus burned at the stake for heresy in Geneva in 1553.
Other Radical Reformers, however, were pacifists, notably Menno Simons (1496-1561), founder of the Mennonites. Simons believed that absolute pacifism was the very heart of Christianity and rejected any form of state-sponsored Christianity. Being a Christian was a matter of personal conscience, not a state-enforced decision. The Hutterites (from Jakob Hutter, 1500-1536) and Amish (from Jakob Ammann, 1644-1730) are similar groups, believing in Christian communalism based on Acts 4:32-35.
Within a few decades of the inauguration of the Reformation in 1517, the movement had already splintered into many different groups. These movements agreed on many major issues — especially their rejection of the Catholic Church — while disagreeing on many often technical theological doctrines.
This splintering of the Reformation movements has continued until the present, most importantly with the rise of the post-Reformation Baptists (17th-century Holland and England) and the Methodists, founded by John Wesley (1703-1791) in 18th-century England. In a future column, we plan to discuss the origins and impact of the 16th-century English Reformation.
Daniel Peterson founded BYU’s Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is the author of several books on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.
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