Before 1500, the Roman Catholic Church was arguably the most powerful organization in Europe. It was the avenue for wealth, prosperity and spiritual contentment in most parts of the continent. This authority of the church made Catholic priests very powerful in the society. The masses believed that the Catholic Church was the passport to heaven. They practiced spiritual purification through confession of their sins to the priest among other practices that were mandatory for anyone that wanted to go to heaven. The Catholic Church collected money from the people through the sale of indulgences that allegedly signified the rebirth of an individual in holiness. In 1517, however, a German professor at the newly established University of Wittenberg began questioning the teachings and doctrines of the Catholic Church. His name was Martin Luther. In the same year, he produced a list of 95 items for which he oppugned the Catholic Church and the Papacy. The items, which came to be known as the 95 theses, marked the start of continent-wide transformation of the Church in Europe. It marked a dramatic shift from the Middle Ages to the era of Reformation. Numerous anti-Catholic denominations emerged whose teachings reflected a change in the traditional doctrines of the Church. The denominations became to be known as the Protestants, and were widely spread through Europe and North America. Because the Catholic Church had influenced the political structure of European countries, the Reformation came along with drastic changes in the leadership and politics of many countries. Protestant churches, and especially Lutheran, rallied for separation of secular and religious powers. In other words, there was a strong association between Protestantism and democracy as it will be shown in this paper. Although many European authorities vehemently rejected Protestantism, the newly formed protestant churches influenced the politics of the states in which they were accepted, strongly pulling religious matters away from the state matters.
The best discussion on reformation can only be given after adequate consideration of the pre-15th Century European religious makeup. Most of European countries were ruled through successive monarchies that were passed down through royal bloodlines. In the period of Reformation, Ireland, for example, was ruled by a Catholic Queen Mary 1 who resisted change in the Catholic doctrines. The Catholic Church, popularly known as the Church, influenced almost all the decisions made by the authorities. Due to the excessive influence of the Church, some scholars and liberal thinkers were agitated and started campaigning for disentanglement of the Church and the state. They expressed distaste in the manner by which the governments were religiously organized. In Germany, Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli called for an end to the Churchs dominion of state affair. Zwingli was a forerunner of Luther, although his stand was more radical than that of Luther. Unlike Luther, Zwingli was incorporative to humanism (Marshall 18). These Reformist publicized Protestantism in Germany and beyond. In France, John Calvin propelled Reformation by publishing articles that rallied support for Protestantism while rebuking the Catholic doctrines and their power over the French monarchy. In England, King Henry VIII declared himself the supreme leader of the Church of England after the papacy failed to join him in matrimony for the sixth time (Marshall 34). In the kingdom of Bohemia, Jan Hus mounted a strong resistance against foreign overlordship (sic) and Roman jurisdiction (Marshal 4). Hus established a Reformist movement that later turned to be a protestant church. During the end of the Thirty Years War, the Hussite church in Bohemia alongside its new pastors and converts were expelled from the Kingdom (Marshal 38). But what inspired Protestant Reformation?
Christianity was the main driver of Reformation. Most reformists drew motivation from the biblical teachings about Christianity. They faulted the Churchs interpretation of the Scriptures, and thought that a clear and accurate interpretation was a true reflection of Christian teachings. For instance, Martin Luther found no biblical reference to selling indulgences or the doctrine of purgatory. As Marshall writes, the main purpose of Reformation was to return to the pure sources of Christianity after a long time when the stream was polluted by man-made laws (Marshall 2). Additionally, reformation reinstalled the Bible as the word of God and the ultimate arbiter of human beings (Marshal 2). Catholicism had completely deviated from the Christian teachings arguably due to selfish interests of power-thirsty clergy. Practice of Protestantism was also exported to English colonies in North America. Rodger Williams, one of the English Puritans in North America noted that the original purpose of God when issuing the Ten Commandments to man was to distinguish his relationship with men from the relationship between men. As Kloppenburg writes, Williams posited that the commandments were written in two separate tablets, with the first four tablets outlining the nature of God while the rest outlining the relationship between men (Kloppenburg 65).
Catholicism became exceedingly unpopular in the wake of the 16th century. Major reformists were utterly angered by how princes ruled with direct influence of the Catholic Church. Catholicism was considered a radical and irrational movement because of how it was designed by its advocates. In the 95 theses, Martin Luther decried the senseless Catholic doctrines that were apparently exaggerated to instill fear among masses while forcing compulsory allegiance to it. Although Marshall thinks that Reformation was an ordinary historical era that was marked by sweeping political and social changes (Marshal 9), its evident that Catholicism played a significant role in the Reformation, especially in instigating religious radicalism among the key reformists. Protestantism can be viewed as both the cause and effect of Reformation. The emergence of Lutheranism and Calvinism was due to the desire of the people to exercise true Christianity that deviated from the long standing Catholic practices. This desire, as embodied by Zwingli, Luther and Calvin was transmitted to the masses who accepted it with varying degrees. So, did Reformation contribute to establishment of democratic governments?
Among the outcomes of the Protestant Reformation was the separation of religion and state. The Church advocated for control of state matters from a Catholic perspective. However, this perspective was biased, and consequently the governance. There was widespread totalitarianism in all the kingdoms in Europe. Therefore, it was mandatory for all citizens to do what the Catholic Church dictated. The people had little or absolutely no say over the leadership. Reformation sought to bring an end to this governance by establishing more accommodative governments. In other words, the reformists advocated for secular democratic governments. Democracy could only be achieved after eliminating parallel leadership offered by the Church. According to Dahl, Democracy encompasses five tenets. These are inclusion of the adults, power to vote, ultimate control over national agenda, right of participation and enlightened understanding (Dahl 38). Although modern democracy began about 200 ago in Greece and Rome (Dahl 10), its evident that democratic governments came into place immediately after reformation. As shown below, the principles of democracy outlined above characterized post-Reformation Europe and North America.
English colonists in North America assembled in 1641 to work out a plan which would see that all the people in the oversea territories participated in the maters of the government. However, unlike the democracy in continental Europe that involved denouncement of monarchs or Princes, English colonists still pledged their allegiance to Charles I (Kloppenburg 62). The English colonists declaration that was masterminded by William Dyer also entailed election of representatives that acted as the custodians of just laws ratified by all the people. The laws not only governed the English colonists but also the native Indian communities living in America. Implementing these laws was not easy. Therefore, people looked upon God to help them live peacefully with one another. As Kloppenburg writes, the New Englanders led completely different lives from the ones they were leading in England (Kloppenburg 61). Another Puritan English colonist, Rodgers Williams, advocated for equality of all tribes in the English colonies. He thus condemned forceful occupation of Indian lands. He exemplified his quest for equality by purchasing a piece of land on which he built the Providence church.
Dahl depicts democracy as a system of government in which the masses are enlightened (Dahl 38). It can be argued that the course and aftermath of Reformation enlightened the people in a great way. In Germany and the Netherlands, Reformation movements were spearheaded by peasants who had been subjected to serfdom for a long period of time. Marshal writes that early pamphlets that popularized Reformation in Germany had a picture of a peasant called Karsthans, who out-argued priests and university dons (Marshal 20). Karsthans symbolized the hunger for a change in an oppressive government that subjected people to poverty and economic dependence. The fact that Reformation in Europe was a collaborative effort between elites and peasants signified equality in pursuit of common goals, which in itself is a tenet of democracy.
In England, however, reformation did not result in democracy. King Henry VIII renounced allegiance to the papacy but still maintained control over the Church of England. The church was still tightly bound to the state, and it influenced much of the political matters in England. The rise of Puritans in the 16th and 17th century was a move to cleanse the Church of England of its Catholic practices (Dahl 100). By mid-17th century, tension between the kingdom and the parliament had exacerbated until the English civil war broke out. The war was partially caused by the differences in opinion regarding the separation of Church and state. On one hand, the King maintained the traditional entanglement of church and state, while the Parliament opposed this ideology (Dahl 100). Therefore, in as much as reformation brought about the practice of democracy in many states, England was left behind in the implementation of democratic laws, which in bigger part was exemplified by separation of secular and religious powers.
Dahl, Robert A and Ian Shapiro. On democracy. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015.
Kloppenberg, James T. Toward Democracy: The Struggle for Self-Rule in European and American Thought. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.
Marshall, Peter. The Reformation: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
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