16th Century Religious Reformation: What Did the Term “Reform” Mean?

by Heather R. Darsie

The idea of ‘reform’ is multifaceted, with its meaning changing from Reformer to Reformer. This article looks at the German Martin Luther’s,  itinerant German-turned-Swiss preacher Melchior Hoffman’s, and Swiss Heinrich Bullinger’s basic thoughts on church reform. It is by no means inclusive of all their ideas, but is hopefully a springboard for further discussion.

Martin Luther, who famously posted his 95 Theses in 1517, was against what he saw as abuses of the Catholic church. These included the selling of indulgences, the use of rosaries, and the increasing deification of the Pope. For Luther, reform meant allowing lay persons to read the Christian Bible in a language which was understandable, and doing away with the aforementioned abuses. Additionally, Luther sought to break the church away from papal authority.

Martin Luther c. 1529 by Lucas Cranach the Elder, via Wikimedia Commons.

Melchior Hoffman also sought to end papal abuses, but he came upon what was then considered a radical idea: adult baptism. Hoffman is credited with creating the groundwork for the Anabaptist movement, with Anabaptist meaning “re-baptism.” Generally speaking, infants were baptized immediately upon birth. The idea of waiting until a person became an adult for them to b truly baptize was abhorrent to deeply religious society.

Melchior Hoffman, engraving from 1600, via Wikimedia Commons.

Heinrich Bullinger was the successor to Huldrych Zwingli. He supported the idea of Mary as a more divine figure, and also thought it best to break away from papal traditions. Bullinger’s Second Helvetic Confession became a founding document for many reformed churches throughout European lands.

Heinrich Bullinger c. 1550 by Hans Asper, via Wikimedia Commons.

All three of these men took full advantage of the printing press and pulpit to further their views. All three men believed that they were living through the End Times as described in Revelation, and several of their writings and sermons were eschatological in nature. The ability to quickly and easily disseminate each man’s thoughts and sermons through the use of pamphlets, broadsheets, and books made these ideas incredibly accessible to the common person. Additionally, Luther took advantage of his connection to the court of the Electors of Saxony to employ Lucas Cranach the Elder, who made several engravings for Luther’s published works. Cranach’s engravings were frequently featured in the book of Revelation, although Luther was not entirely convinced of Revelation’s authenticity.

This swift and frequent dissemination of works with explanatory pictures to an increasingly literate public arguably led to the Peasants’ Revolt in the 1520s. The Peasants swept across Germany, extolling Luther and his teachings. Luther tried his best to distance himself from the violent movement through publishing a denunciation of the Peasants’ activity.

To expound further on the Anabaptist movement, the sect was increasingly seen as dangerous in the Low Countries and parts of Germany. Part of this was due to the chiliast or millenialist views of Hoffman, mainly that a Golden Age would come in 1533. It was this belief which led to the Anabaptists seizing control over Muenster for around a year, during 1534-1535. This sort of behavior, if exhibited today, might be viewed as acts of terrorism. Anabaptist revolts in what are now the Netherlands swiftly followed the capture of Muenster, fully displaying the serious threat which Anabaptists posed to the nobility, and law and order. Muenster was recaptured in 1535, and the Anabaptist leaders executed.

Considering that belief in religion, souls, and the Bible was very serious and very real in the early 16th century, it is easy to understand what made the early reformist movements so dangerous. These beliefs were very real, the idea of Apocalypse arriving was a true concern. The combination of the printing press and a desire for social and ecclesiastical reform catapulted the Reformation into a major bulwark of social, religious, and political change in the 16th century.

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Sources & Suggested Reading

  1. Cunningham, Andrew, and Ole Peter. Grell. War, Famine, Disease, and Gospel in Reformation Europe: the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2000).
  2. Darsie, Heather R. Anna, Duchess of Cleves: The King’s ‘Beloved Sister’. Stroud: Amberley Publishing (2019).