Radical changes in the Christian church

Until the Sixteenth Century, the Church in England meant the Catholic church, ruled over by the Pope who was based in Rome.  Catholic beliefs and practices influenced every aspect of society. (See Impact of the Bible: A history of the church in England.)

However, for some centuries there had been criticism of the way some supposed churchmen behaved. Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales was written towards the end of the fourteenth century. As Chaucer introduces each new character, he makes increasingly scathing attacks on corruption within the Church, contrasting the greed, pride, deceit and sexual immorality of some churchmen with the Christian ideals and practices of the Poor Parson.

Martin Luther

Moral outrage

Martin LutherPerhaps the most famous reformer of the Church was Martin Luther (1483-1546). He was a German friar, who, on a visit to Rome, was appalled at the luxurious way of life and sexual immorality of the Pope and cardinals. Luther returned to Germany, where he lectured at the University of Wittenberg.

He was then even more appalled by the arrival in Germany of the Pope's representative Tetzel, who had come to sell indulgences. Indulgences were documents issued by the Pope and on sale to the public. They were a way of raising money. Pope Leo X (who had become Pope in 1513) hoped to rebuild the Church of Saint Peter in Rome.

Instead of stressing the need for penitence, the Pope was suggesting that, if people paid for Indulgences, he could lessen the time sinners – or even their dead relatives – needed to spend in Purgatory. The sale of such documents had been condemned as corrupt for many years (Chaucer's Pardoner (i.e. a man who sells Pardons or Indulgences) is the vilest character in The Canterbury Tales).

The Wittenberg Theses

Luther was outraged at the idea that the effects of sin could be removed by paying money. He wrote out ninety-five theses, or reasons, why the sale of Indulgences should be stopped, and nailed them to the door of the main church in Wittenberg.

As a result, in 1520 Luther was excommunicated by the Pope. This placed his life in danger, but he was protected by one of the most powerful Princes of Germany.


Those who accepted the ideas of Luther and other reformers of the Church, and protested against its current state and practices, were known as Protestants.

Gradually Protestants formulated their ideas in more detail, stressing, for example, that salvation could not come through good works but through faith in the grace of God. Another issue, which still divides Christians, is whether the bread and wine, taken by believers at the service of Mass or Holy Communion:


  • Is to be viewed as a memorial of Christ's body and is therefore symbolic, as Protestants believe.

The Bible in English

Reproduction of the Bible

  • As part of the growing movement against the Roman Catholic church and the power of the Pope, reformers had begun translating the Bible into their own languages.

  • However, the translation of the Bible into English by John Wycliffe (1330-84) for example, was seen as an attack upon the authority of the Catholic church, whose copies of the Bible, prayer books and services were all in Latin. This gave the priests considerable control over the beliefs of the uneducated people who could not read them.

  • In 1516 the famous scholar Erasmus, who had already published an attack on church corruption in his book In Praise of Folly (1511), also published a fresh translation of the New Testament. Ideas inherent in his version challenged some of the key doctrines of Roman Catholicism. By this time, of course, printing enabled his work to be much more widely read.

English translations

During the sixteenth century, as England under Henry VIII, Edward VI and then Elizabeth I became a Protestant country (see also Protestant versus Catholic), various translations of the Bible into English (from its original Hebrew and Greek) had been produced. One of the most significant was by William Tyndale, a Protestant scholar, which was published in 1526.

The King James Bible

James I of England (who was also James VI of Scotland) had been brought up as a Protestant even though his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, was a Catholic. (See also Stuart monarchy.)

  • At the Hampton Court Conference on religious matters held in 1604, it was suggested to James I that a new translation of the Bible should be made.

  • James was very keen on the idea, and commissioned various committees to undertake the work, and to look at existing translations. A large proportion of their final material was based on Tyndale's work.

  • The result of their collaborations, published in 1611, was the version now known (since it had been authorised by King James) as the Authorised Version – or sometimes the King James Version of the Bible. It is still used in many English churches today, though there have since been many more recent translations.

By this time the ideas of the Reformation had become firmly established in the majority of English society.

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