The Reformation

Radical changes in the Christian church

For some centuries there had been criticism of the way some supposed churchmen behaved.

More on criticism in literature: 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 Luther

Perhaps 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.

More on indulgences: There is a powerful re-enactment of Tetzel's speeches to the German crowds in John Osborne's play Luther published in 1961.


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.

More on selling indulgences: 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

Wittenberg All Saints' Church. The "Theses Doors"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.

More on reaction of Luther: Ironically, a year later in 1521, Henry VIII, who at that point still saw himself as a faithful member of the Roman Catholic Church, published his book defending the Church and its beliefs.


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.

More on Protestant views: Their views became more hardened as they formulated their own ideas, stressing, for example, that salvation could not come through good works but through faith in the grace of God.

An even more contentious issue, and one that divides Christians to this day, is the matter of transubstantiation. This is the question of whether the bread and wine, taken by believers at the service of Mass or Holy Communion:

  • physically turns, by a divine mystery, into the actual body and blood of Christ, as Roman Catholics believe


  • is to be viewed as a memorial of Christ's body, 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 Roman 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.
More on Bible translation: 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 Social/political context: 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 Social/political context: The 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.
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