The word ‘Reformation’ refers to the events that began in 1517 and which led to radical new thinking about church and theology and caused enormous socio-political changes. The term also refers to leaders such as Martin Luther, Zwingli, Melanchthon and others whose thoughts were so new and profound that it led to a break with the Medieval Roman Catholic Church. Although the Reformation was primarily a religious movement, its influence on ordinary people’s lives as well as the economy and the state was overwhelming. Indeed, the reform of 1517 was not the first in church history, but nothing else caused such a stir in the world of that time.

It almost came to nothing

In 1546 the Reformation nearly came to a halt because Luther died in the early hours of the 18th February far from his place of residence, Wittenberg, in an inn in his hometown of Eisleben. With him was his old friend and the pastor of Halle, Justus Jonas, who assisted him in his last hours. When everything was over at three o’clock in the morning of the 18th February, Justus Jonas began writing a number of letters. One was directed to Philippus Melanchthon, friend, co-founder and colleague of Luther in Wittenberg and Jonas sent this letter by fast mail. It reached Melanchthon only early in the morning of the nineteenth February while he was busy with a lecture on the letter to the Romans. Sadness overwhelmed him and he kept repeating Elisha’s words in 2 Kings 2:12 when Elijah disappeared before him: “My father, my father, you were the chariot of Israel with his horsemen” (Oberman 1987:18).

Melanchthon’s words expressed the immediate dilemma: the leader was dead and how could they continue. In these words of Melanchton something of the immediate troubles of that moment can be heard: the leader is dead and how could they proceed without him. Luther started everything, managed the process and led it to great heights, but at his deathbed everything began to tilt. His death caused great disruption and there was no guarantee that the Reformation would survive. Luther’s death was not only the end of one person’s life, but the Reformation’s survival suddenly hung on a line.

The Counter-Reformation

In addition to Luther’s death and all the problems it caused to the “inner group” in Wittenberg, there was also the “outside group” that can be called the Counter-Reformation. However, we have to deal carefully with the word ‘Counter-Reformation’ because church historians only began using it after 1870 to describe the resistance to the Reformation of 1517. However, the Counter-Reformation was more than a mere resistance movement because long before 1517 there were already attempts to reform the Catholic Church and instead of ‘Counter-Reformation’ we could also talk about “Catholic Reformation” or “Restoration.” nevertheless, much has been done to stifle the Reformation and many wondered whether the Reformation would survive Luther’s death.

One of the forces that restrained the progress of the Reformation was the success of Ignatius of Loyola’s ministry. He was a Spanish nobleman who was seriously wounded in a war and was then converted to Christianity and sold all his possessions in order to become a priest. In 1540, with the approval of Pope Paul III, he established the Jesuit Order and one of its goals was to curb the influence of the Reformation. This order was already active in the early years of the Reformation and its ideal was to regain lost territory for the Catholic Church. Each member of the order had to make a vow of chastity, poverty and a willingness to missionary work, and their work consisted of preaching, pastoral care, charity, teaching and confession. At the time of Luther’s death, this group has already achieved a great deal and has expanded and established the Catholic faith with great success (Denzler & Andressen 1988: 283-285).

A few weeks after Luther’s death in 1546 the pope decided on a conference, which was later called the Council of Trente or the ‘Concilium Tridentinum’ and its aim was to reconfirm the Catholic doctrine. Among other things, it was decided to treat the church tradition with the same reverance as Scripture and that the church would decide on the meaning of Scripture. These and other decisions became extremely important and have put pressure on the Reformation’s view of Scripture and church (Obermann 1988:20-21).

A few months after Luther’s death a civil war broke out in the German Empire in July 1546 which impacted negatively on the Reformation. Reformed cities were degraded and had to become Catholic again. Wittenberg, Luther’s city, as well as cities like Constanz were downgraded and became Catholic again in 1547 (Oberman 1988:22-30).

However, in 1555 religious peace was made in Augsburg, which enabled the Reformed churches to survive in the sixteenth century. And at the end of the Thirty Years Civil War in 1648 conditions were created for the Reformation to flourish and advance.

Despite unfavourable circumstances, early Reformation survived, and with the addition of the Calvinists and other groups, it became a formidable force, which exerted a powerful influence on society. The Reformation turned the sixteenth and subsequent centuries upside down and even today we still feel the impact of this movement in the world we are living. We only mention two examples: the rise of the individual and the formation of capitalism.

The rise of the individual

Luther and his Reformation led to the re-discovery of the individual. This was quite a revolutionary thought because instead of the ‘collective’ (the church as an institute) the individual became important. According to this view everyone is free to determine his/her own destiny. Salvation was no more dependent on the church, but the individual’s relationship with God determined everything. In 1520, Luther wrote a book (‘De libertate christiana’) about the freedom of the Christian, saying that the believer is a free person, the lord of his own life and nobody’s servant. And that emphasis on the individual exercised great influence in later years.

A few years ago a former Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende said that the Reformation made the Netherlands an open and free society and shaped a kind of individual who created his/her own life through his/her choices and actions and were only accountable to God. This emphasis on self-responsibility also assumes critical thinking: ‘The emphasis on self-responsibility has over the centuries also determined the investigative and critical nature of Calvinism. Responsibility requires people to think critically’ (-my italics). The rise of the individual, taking responsibility for his/her own life and critical thinking belong together and are the contemporary products of the Reformation.


Another example is the enormous contribution of the Reformation to the formation of capitalism. The result of Luther and the sixteenth century theology was a totally different way of thinking about man and labour. Occupational work has become a calling of God and had to be practiced in this life, this world. It was not obligatory for a Christian to go into ascetic isolation in order to serve God because faith had to be practiced in this world and in the way we do our work (Weber 1920a163).

And it was especially the Puritans who demonstrated with great force the dynamics of this labour ethics (Weber 1920a: 163). They emphasized hard work, faithfulness, saving money, dislike of worldly pleasures as well as keeping the Sabbath. And the harder they worked the more affluent they became and their financial successes were as a sign of God’s good favour.

This again led to even more work and greater wealth. For a withdrawal from this world there was no place, and all that remained was “innerweltliche Askese” that had to be practiced by everybody in the world (Weber 1920a: 118-119). This was an ascetic lifestyle (sobriety, hard work, sense of saving) that was shaped by hard work, creativity and entrepreneurship. In short: the Calvinist and Puritan could read their ‘certitudo salutis’ from their economic activities and could find peace of mind in capital increase (Weber 1920a: 104, 108, 130).

In short

Protestants do not know the sixteenth century Reformation and are unaware of the socio-political-economic powers, which changed the Late Medieval world. Usually it is referred to as ‘Calvinism’ or ‘Reformed’ and is often ridiculed. Such a view shows enormous ignorance of the primary sources, social forces and social consequences of that movement that has changed our world since the late Middle Ages. It remains worthwhile to study the Reformation and in the following article more about the Late Medieval context of the Reformation.

 Short bibliography

  • Bakhuizen van den Brink, J N 1966. Ecclesia, II, ‘S-Gravenhage: Martinus Nijhoff, 1966, 29.
  • De Knijff, H W 1980. Sleutel en slot. Kampen: Kok.
  • Denzler, G & Andresse, C 1988. Wörterbuch der Kirchengeschichte. München: DTV.
  • Parsons, T 1966. Introduction, in Weber, M, Sociology of religion, xix-lxvii. London: Methuen & Co Ltd.
  • Shils, E A 1949. Foreword, in Weber, M, The methodology of the social sciences iii-x. New York: The Free Press.
  • Weber, M 1920a. Die protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus, in Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Religionssoziologie I, 17-206. Tübingen: J C B Mohr (Paul Siebeck). (Digitale Bibliothek Band 58: Max Weber. Berlin: Direct Publishing)
  • Weber, M 1920b. Die protestantischen Sekten und der Geist des Kapitalismus, in Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Religionssoziologie I, 207-236. Tübingen: J C B Mohr (Paul Siebeck). (Digitale Bibliothek Band 58: Max Weber. Berlin: Direct Publishing)
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