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9.5 myths about the Reformation

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation and Martin Luther’s nailing of his 95 Theses to the doors of Wittenberg Castle Church. But how much of what we think about it is actually true? To coincide with this occasion, Peter Marshall addresses 9.5 common myths about the Reformation.

1. The Protestant Reformation started on 31 October 1517, when Martin Luther nailed 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Church.

The foundation-myth of the Reformation. Luther wrote 95 Theses, but probably didn’t ever fix them to a church door. It was first recorded nearly thirty years later, and Luther himself never mentioned it – though he did, in letters of 1517-18, repeatedly say he didn’t want a public debate until the authorities had a chance to respond to his concerns about indulgences. Even if the Theses were posted, this would have been no big deal. It was the normal way to announce a debate at a medieval university, and the job was undertaken by lowly beadles, not senior professors. The myth matters, though, because it implies something had ‘begun’, with unstoppable momentum behind it. In fact, Luther had no intention of starting a ‘Reformation’ in 1517, and his Theses were in many ways within the bounds of contemporary orthodoxy.

2. Martin Luther was the leader of the Protestant Movement in the Sixteenth Century. 

It wasn’t all Martin Luther, even at the beginning. He was an inspiration, but direct influence on policy was limited to the single German territory of Electoral Saxony. The Reformation movement in Germany and Switzerland in the 1520s and 30s was remarkably varied, with numerous local flavours. In Zürich, as early as 1517, Huyldrich Zwingli was much more important than Luther, as was Johannes Oecolampadius in Basel, Martin Bucer in Strasbourg, and – a little later – John Calvin in Geneva. Almost the very point of the Reformation was it didn’t have a ‘leader.’ The Protestant tendency to argue ferociously among themselves was a major source of theological creativity, as well as of practical difficulty.

3. Luther was the first person to translate the Bible into German.

Actually, no. A medieval translation of the Latin Vulgate Bible was printed well over a dozen times in Germany before 1518, and it has been calculated that at least 18 complete German editions of the Bible, 90 editions of the Gospels, and 14 books of Psalms were printed in Germany before Luther’s famous New Testament of 1522. Protestants themselves started the myth that the Bible was completely neglected in the Middle Ages. But if there hadn’t been a huge interest in the Bible among medieval Catholics, Reformation ideas would have struggled to get traction.

4. Protestant reformers wanted freedom of conscience, and for everyone to decide the meaning of Scripture for themselves.

They didn’t! The leading reformers believed the papacy had maliciously twisted and misinterpreted Scripture, and that its true meaning would be evident to anyone who read or listened to it with faithful intent. At the Diet of Worms in 1521, Luther may or may not have said, ‘Here I stand, I can do no other!’ But he did say ‘my conscience is captive to the Word of God.’ When, having read the Bible, some people decided it didn’t validate ideas such as the Trinity, or the baptising of babies, ‘mainstream’ Protestants persecuted them as enthusiastically as any Catholic bishop.

5. Henry VIII founded the Protestant Church of England.

Henry VIII always regarded himself as a totally orthodox and traditional Catholic – it was the pope and his ‘papist’ followers who had abandoned the Catholic Church. Henry hated Luther and continued periodically to burn Protestants up to his death in 1547. Whether you could actually be a ‘Catholic without the pope’ was an argument people pursued at the time, and one that has continued since.

Part of the Reformation Wall in Geneva, depicting Guillaume Farel, Johannes Calvin, Théodore de Bèze and John Knox. Photo by Roland Zumbühl. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

6. Sir Thomas More was a ferocious persecutor, responsible for the deaths of dozens of Protestants.

A sixteenth-century myth, given a new injection of life by the phenomenal success of Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. More certainly hated heresy, and believed that unrepentant heretics deserved death – but so did almost every other responsible person in the sixteenth century. During the period when More was Lord Chancellor (1529-32), six Protestants were burned in England, and he was directly involved in three of the cases – a black mark against a saint, but hardly genocidal.

7. Elizabethan England witnessed a reign of terror against Catholics.

A Catholic myth! Catholics certainly had a difficult time after Elizabeth re-established Protestantism in 1559. Catholic worship was banned, there were fines for not attending church, and missionary priests coming from abroad faced real risks: 124 were hanged over the course of the reign. But ordinary Catholics who kept out of politics were not troubled very much: Elizabeth, as Francis Bacon said of her, had no desire ‘to make windows into men’s hearts and secret thoughts.’ Catholicism survived the sixteenth century as part of an increasingly plural religious scene, and some of the great Catholic landed families still remain in possession of their ancestral homes.

8. The Reformation was always bound to fail in Ireland.

The idea that certain peoples – Irish, Spaniards, Italians – were almost genetically programmed to remain Catholic, while others – English, Dutch, Swedes – were bound to become Protestant is a pervasive myth, which ignores how much it came down, in the end, to politics and chance. Henry VIII’s break with Rome encountered little direct opposition in Ireland, and in the towns at least there was genuine interest in Protestant preaching during Edward VI’s reign. It was a failure to put enough preachers (especially Irish-speaking ones) on the ground that left the field open to Catholic evangelists (Franciscans and Jesuits) in the second half of Elizabeth’s reign.

9. Protestants rejected visual images, and swept all artwork from churches. 

It depends. Zwingli and Calvin were intensely worried about the dangers of ‘idolatry’, and in places where their ideas took root (such as Switzerland or Scotland) churches were generally white-washed and unadorned. But so long as they weren’t literally worshipped, Lutherans were much more relaxed about statues and paintings. To this day, churches in Germany and Scandinavia are full of Protestant crucifixes and altarpieces from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, often in extravagant Baroque style.

9.5 The Reformation laid the foundations of the modern world

Half-true, or only half-untrue. Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Protestants generally didn’t believe in toleration, freedom of conscience, unfettered scientific investigation, or a universe without spirits, demons, and witches. Nor did they want to change the political order (kings in charge) or the social order (husbands and fathers in charge). Nonetheless, the principal result of the Reformation across much of Europe was to create fragmented and plural societies, and a kind of stalemate where no one side could completely convert or eradicate the other. In some places this served to undermine authoritarian rule, and over the long term it led almost everywhere to a grudging acceptance of minorities, and a growing view that religion was a private matter, not the business of the state.

Featured image credit: Painting of Luther nailing 95 theses by Julius Hübner (1806–1882). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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