Tactics of a Revolution: The Protestant Reformation
The Protestant Reformation was a long time coming, with the influences of John Hus and John Wyclif. However, Martin Luther’s attempt to reform organized religion in Germany, especially, was far more successful than the efforts of Hus and Wyclif. Not only was German society ready for a drastic change due to the dissatisfaction with the Catholic church, but the printing press, growing literacy, and the weakness of political powers lead to a total and permanent split in western Christianity.
Luther’s beliefs were much the same as Hus and Wyclif’s. All three fought against the wealth of the church and the extent of the power of the pope; desired an end to pilgrimages and veneration of saints; believed that priests were no better or more religious than anyone else and that, in essence, all believers were priests; and thought that the Bible should be available to all people in their own language. However, it seems that the timing for a reformation was simply not right during the times of Hus and Wyclif. When Luther began his crusades, numerous groups in Germany were discontented with the changes they saw taking place around them. Peasants desired the right to hunt and fish as they had been able to in the past, and disapproved of the rising taxes being imposed on them by their landlords. The common people were also unhappy with the church, feeling that the clergy were greedy and more interested in acquiring wealth than being the spiritual leaders they were appointed to be. Landlords were forced to sit idly by as the prices of manufactured goods rose rapidly, and blamed merchants and bankers-also affected by a greedy atmosphere. Those who owned small plots of land were in even worse shape and were often forced to sell their land, especially free imperial knights. These knights owed allegiance to the emperor, but often only held less than one square mile of land. The knights were also being forced out of work due to a new reliance on infantry and artillery, rather than cavalry. All these people were becoming increasingly disapproving of the church and were desperate for a new means of worship and religious power in Germany.
The political situation in Germany during that time was also favorable for those desiring a religious revolution. Germany was not a centralized monarchy, but “a collection of semi-independent territories loosely combined into a political unit called the Holy Roman Empire” (Wiesner, p.301). Each of these cities were ruled by different people: some by nobles such as dukes or princes, some were independent, some ruled by bishops or other religious powers, and some ruled by imperial free knights. Each territory was at odds with the others and all were against a single, centralized power. These factors worked in favor of Martin Luther’s campaign, because the emperor was unable to enforce the laws that the English king had inflicted upon Hus and Wyclif. Because of this, each territory was completely independent of the others concerning religious principles. Adding to the discontent with the government was the fact that the emperor’s lack of power prevented him from placing limits on taxes and charges for indulgences by the pope. This turned the Germans against all powers of the time and led them to search for a new means of satisfaction.
With a discontented society and a lack of empirical power, Germany was left open for military attacks and invasion. In the early sixteenth century, the Turks, a Muslim society, began a campaign to take over the west. After taking Constantinople in 1453, German rulers became very fearful. The combination of social unrest, lack of political power, and the threat of invasion made western Europeans fear that the end of the world was near, leading them to search for one who could solve their problems, or at least give them hope for the future-and along came Martin Luther (Wiesner, p.302).
Despite the fact that eastern Europeans were ready and willing to hear Luther’s message, most would not have been able to if it were not for the widespread use of the printing press. During the time of Hus and Wyclif, only the wealthy were able to obtain books and/or pamphlets-even the poor that were literate could not afford to purchase the literature. Thanks to the invention of the printing press, the prices of paper and publication went down and literacy spread throughout Eastern Europe. With this advancement, almost anyone could get their hands on a Bible in their own language, and therefore were able to see for themselves that Luther was, in fact, preaching the gospel.
All of these factors made the early sixteenth century a perfect time for a religious reformation, and Martin Luther’s means of spreading God’s word was remarkably successful. The spread of Luther’s teaching could easily be called the world’s first multimedia campaign (Wiesner, p. 303). Not only did Luther travel throughout Eastern Europe spreading the word of God, he also printed books and pamphlets, and for those who could not read, created hymns and woodcarvings. Luther’s sermons were so popular that churches could not hold all the people that came to hear him. The hymns written by Luther, including “A Mighty Fortress is our God”, spread quickly and are sung in churches even today. Woodcarvings were sold throughout Europe depicting the pope as Satan, showing monks and other catholic leaders being led to hell with Protestants standing in heaven, etc. Quintessentially, Luther was able to reach almost each and every European and tell them of God’s love, showing them that the “good works” they were being forced to perform by the pope were not necessary.
In his sermons, Luther spoke of the wrongdoings of the clergy, and taught Europeans that, despite the orders of the pope, they need not perform “good deeds” or pay indulgences to get to heaven. He recognized the fact that “every person likes to think that he will be saved and attain to eternal salvation” (Sermon Preached be Martin Luther in Erfurt, 1521:Wiesner, p. 305), and showed believers that they simply had to believe that God would save them and He would. This message was accepted with open arms, as most were searching for salvation believing that the end of the world was near. Europeans were obliged to hear that salvation was easy, and quickly turned against those who told them otherwise. Some were so ecstatic to hear the good news of Christ that they began to form new ideas based on Luther’s teaching and created their own factions of reform, turning Luther’s campaign into a multifaceted movement-something that could have never happened in the movements of Hus or Wyclif.
Through the amazing influence of Luther, people began reforming not only the church, but also the political, social, and economic situations of the time. Luther’s ideas allowed Christians to justify their additional rebellions against their leaders (Wiesner, p.322). Luther’s reforms lead Christians to call for “good pastors” and demand that their spiritual needs be met. Many German states abolished the Catholic religion altogether, while some allowed rulers to choose between Catholicism and Lutheran Protestantism (thanks to the Peace of Augsburg in 1555) and gave them further power to enforce unity in their respective territories.
Thanks to the methods and tactics of the protestant revolution, we have learned how to fight back against crooked leaders and Christianity has become one of the largest religions in the world. The Protestant Reformation may have even given Europeans the courage to travel to America in times of spiritual crisis in the late seventeenth century, because they knew that such a reform had been successful in the past. Even today, multifaceted media campaigns influence our culture greatly in times of unrest. Martin Luther originated the idea of a campaign that would reach so many people at one time and we still use his tactics today.
Martin Luther 1483-1546, http://www.educ.msu.edu/homepages/laurence/reformation/Luther/Luther.htm
plus links: “Portrait of Martin Luther”, etc.