Name: Martin O Regan Student No. 108595062 Tutor: Geraldine Kidd To what extent was the reformation successful?

The success of the reformation depends on how you define it. The reformers themselves believed that they were failing. So the reformation as the reformers conceived it was not success. The reformation was further undermined by the impractical educational methods. The reformers high-minded educational philosophy didn t help the matters. Catholics were more successful because they didn t expect people to assimilate a completely new theology. Repeated changes of religion worked against both sides and undermined the reformation aim of restoring the Christian culture. The protestant side had success in that they completely changed Christianity but not in the manner they intended. Both Catholics and Protestants became interested in purging out the accretions. The reformers themselves believed that the reformation had failed. Johann Aurifaber an associate of Luther believed that reformation was losing momentum. God s word has seldom tarred in one place longer than forty years he claimed, for [Luther s] teachings are now every-where despised and so many men so many men have lost interest in them that his very name is held in contempt i. The reformers were confirmed in their pessimism when they read the reports of the visitations in ordinary parishes. English dioceses reported that few children could answer catechism questions. English parishioners were regularly excluded from communion because they didn t know the catechism ii. English reformers believed that the world abounded with atheists, epicures, libertines, worldings, neuters that are of no religion iii. The reformers themselves believed the reformation was a failing. The reformation in action was not living up the ideals that the reformers were aiming for. But we must take into account the mind set of the reformers. They believed that the end of the world was approaching. Their theology predisposed them to be pessimistic. Any sign of moral decay confirmed their theology. At first they were too optimistic. They proclaimed that error was in retreat, the gospel was triumphing: It is now time [ ] the night is past iv. Taking into account the bi-polar nature of the reformers language it is still apparent that the reformation in action was not living up to reformation ideals. They had been too optimistic. At the beginning of the reformation the reformers were confident that they could spread a form of Christianity purified of the perceived accretions of Catholicism. They wanted to spread the Protestant gospel by education. At first they believed that they had achieved this goal. [N]owadays Luther boasted a girl or boy of fifteen knows more about Christian doctrine than did all the theologians of the great Universities in the old days v. They were trying to create a Christianity in which the knowledge of God s word was not out sourced to a learned elite. The educational philosophy of the time held that the every person could learn the basics of reading and writing. Believing this they translated the bible and a reformed liturgy into the vernacular. Education at the time was more learning by rote less training to think. The catechisms of the time reflect this. They were written in a question and answer format. These were then to be learnt off by heart. The vernacular bible and the catechism were methods of spreading the

pure Christian doctrine. But they proved to be too idealistic. Visitations were made on parishes in order in test in religious knowledge. The results were disappointing. The visitation reports paint a picture of a general irreligion. People didn t appear to be able to absorb the instruction being given to them. As well as this they preferred to go fishing rather than go to service vi. The reformers over estimated the ability of the lay people to assimilate the their new theology. The Protestant had an overly optimistic view of the people s ability to assimilate new theology. The Catholic Church on the other hand had relative success compared to the Protestants. In the German speaking areas Protestants were exasperated that in the average rural parish most people were not interested in religion. But they were interested in magic and charms. In Catholic areas there appears to have been a better reception of the counter-reformation. In Toledo the inquisition found that the percentage of people of reciting the catechism in satisfactory manner rose from 40% in 1555 to 80% in 1575 vii. This success for the Catholic side can be attributed to a natural conservatism of people regarding religion. The Catholic counter-reformation preserved the traditional practices. Popular aspects of religion success such as saint s day s confraternities, pilgrimages were refocused on their Christian meaning. In response to protestant criticisms Catholic clerics tried to teach people the Christian meaning of a ritual and discouraged the superstitious understanding of the practice. For example the spiritual exercises of St Ignatius Loyola contained late medieval piety but they focused on heartfelt devotion rather than cursory practice. Protestants were disadvantaged because they were introducing an entirely new religious practice. Hence lay people were confused and exasperated by a changing religion. But the reformers were successful in that their ideals changed the course of Christianity. They wanted to restore Christianity to a purer form. They believed that Christian culture had been corrupted. The reformers solution to the problem was that everyone would have a heartfelt faith. Luther hoped Europeans would be again a group of real Christians whereas at present we (Europeans) we are almost pagan and only Christian in name . viii This intuition, that Christianity could be practiced in a more sincere manner, was shared by the various protestant groups and by counter-reformation Catholicism. The theology of the Eucharist illustrates this. Luther, a moderate reformer, believed that Christ was still present in the elements together with the substance of bread and wine. Zwingli believed, a radical reformer, believed that the Eucharist was purely symbolic. Zwingli believed that Catholic theology was idol worship. Catholic beliefs, such as the Mass, caused people to engage in outward practice without a heartfelt faith. Both Luther and Zwingli wanted sincere faith only differing in the stridency of their anti-Catholicism. Similarly the Catholic Church removed what it believed were corruptions and than re-educated people so they could have a more sincere faith. Tabernacles were built so that the laity could adore the presence of Christ. Confessionals were also built signifying a new focus on orthodox morality. The reformers were successful because they identified the problems that were answered by everyone in western Christendom albeit in different ways.

The reformation was impeded by the very fact that it was controversial. Where the reformation was resisted it ran into problems. But it was successful where the state and church were united in reforming the religion. Sweden is one of the few examples of this. By the 17 th century it had a level of religious education only found in large cities such as Amsterdam. Religious knowledge became so good that those who couldn t read scripture were forbidden to marry. The reformation was a success in Sweden because the state was continuously Protestant. The people were not exasperated by many changes of religion. The Church and state were united in their aims. Swedes were able to focus on the devotions rather than polemics. Most parts of Europe were focused on polemics, Episcopalians against Presbyterians in Scotland or Arminism against Calvinism in England for example. More polemics than devotionals were being published in most of Europe. Cardinal Monone summed the problem, since everyone is allowed to believe what he wishes, not only in areas where the princes are contaminated [where heresy] but also in those where they are Catholic, the people are so confused that they do not know which opinion they should adhere to ix. The Reformation was undermined by its own novelty. Theological debates were not helpful for engendering piety. The reformation was not at first a success as the reformers defined it. They were overly confident that a pure Christianity would be popular. The literate cul ture needed for a bible-based religion stripped of superstition did not exist in the first years of the reformation. Catholics were able to compromise between popular religion and doctrinal orthodoxy in a manner that the reformers couldn t. The constant debates and changes to religion during the reformation only caused people to become disillusioned with religion in general. But the reformers did have success in that their central idea that a more Christian culture could be created by encouraging every person to have a more heartfelt religion. They were attempting to refocus Christianity on it s own sources. The reformers were successful insofar as they defined the debate. They were not success insofar as they achieved their ideal Christianity.


Gerald Stauss, Success and failure of the German Reformation, Past and Present 67 (1975): 31 ii Christopher Haigh, Success and failure in the English Reformation, Past and Present 173 (2001) 41-47 iii Ibid, 29 iv Ibid, 29 v Ibid, 30 vi Ibid, 49 vii Geoffrey Parker, Success and failure during the first century of the reformation, Past and Present 136 (1975): 73 viii Scott Hendrix, Rerooting the Faith: The Reformation as Re-Christianization, Church History 69 (2000): 562


Parker, Success and failure, 79

Bibliography Christopher Haigh, Success and failure in the English Reformation, Past and Present 173 (2001): 28 Scott Hendrix, Success and failure during the first century of the Reformation, Past and Present 136 (1975): 558 Geoffrey Parker, Success and failure during the first century of the reformation, Past and Present (1975): 558 Diarmaid MacCulloch, A History of Christianity: The first three Thousand Years (London: Allen Lane, 2009) Gerald Strauss, Success and failure of the German Reformation, Past and Present 30 (1975): 30

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