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The Protestant Reformation: Not just Luther

While Martin Luther is forever linked to the Protestant Reformation (that movement which birthed or contributed to all denominations today), others also played a part. In addition, Luther’s movement (the Lutheran Reformation) was but one of five different movements under the umbrella term "Protestant Reformation."

As the old saying goes, we all stand on the shoulders of those who went before us. So with Luther. He most likely could not have done what he did if it were not for John Wycliffe, John Huss, and Erasmus.


John Wycliffe (1330-1384) lived in England and is called the "Morning Star of the Reformation" because he wrote about ideas that were standard during the Reformation; for example, using only the Bible for an understanding of God. John Huss (1372-1415) developed Wycliffe’s ideas on the other side of Europe, in present-day Czech Republic. While both men lived 100 or more years before Luther, their ideas were still around in Luther’s day, making Luther’s break from the Catholic Church easier. As a matter of fact, when Luther first started the Reformation he was accused of being a "Hussite", a follower of John Huss. He initially denied it, but later embraced the title.

Erasmus (1469-1536) traveled widely in western and southern Europe. One saying has become popular about Erasmus: "Erasmus laid the egg which Luther hatched." Erasmus attacked many Catholic ideas and pointed out many discrepancies within the Catholic religious system, but he never left the Catholic Church. He believed in reforming the Catholic Church from within and not from without. While he was quite perceptive in understanding theology, he was not so much in understanding the Catholic Church because they were not going to change.


Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, and Henry VIII laid the groundwork for the Protestant Reformation. These men led four of the branches of the Protestant Reformation; the Catholic or Counter Reformation completed the five branches of the Reformation.

1. Martin Luther (1483-1546) of Germany broke from the Catholic Church with a belief in "salvation by faith and not by works," (among other ideas) and provided the impetus for others to follow. His initial break was over the idea of indulgences, the idea that you could pay money to the Catholic Church in return for reduced time in purgatory. His reform ideas and movement eventually grew to attacking many other ideas within the Catholic Church.

2. The Swiss Reform. Initially led by Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) of Zurich, he developed ideas similar to Luther but in northern Switzerland. He died at a relatively young age and did not found a movement, which is why there are no "Zwinglian" churches. A small number of his followers took his reforming ideas and added adult baptism (Catholics, Lutherans, and Zwingli practiced infant baptism). These people became known as "Anabaptists" because the first converts had all been baptized as infants and were now being re-baptized ("ana" is Greek for "again" or "re-").

3. John Calvin (1509-1564), famous for his predestination ideas which he fully developed in Geneva. Calvin also developed a high expectation of learning in his movement and began a college, called the Academy, in Geneva. People from all over Europe flocked to his Academy, including a man named John Knox from Scotland. Eventually Knox returned to Scotland and helped found the Presbyterian denomination.

4. The English Reformation, led by Henry VIII (1491-1547) who broke from the Catholic Church and formed the Church of England (also known as the Anglican Communion or Episcopalian Church in the USA). Henry did not break from the Catholic Church because of theological ideas and wanted to change the thinking or worship style in the churches, but because he wanted a divorce from his wife. For this reason the Episcopalian Church is the closest in form to the Catholic Church. For example, the Church of England denomination is the only Protestant denomination which has monks and nuns.

The last Reform movement involved the Catholic Church itself and is not technically part of the Protestant Reformation. The Catholic, or Counter, Reformation occurred when the Catholics decided to react to the above movements. This centered on the Council of Trent, a series of three meetings, from 1545-1563, which solidified the Catholic’s beliefs and provided a springboard for recuperating from the wounds caused by the departing Protestants. Basically, the Catholic Church spent 18 years reviewing all their doctrines in order to see if any were wrong, and reached the conclusion that none of them were wrong.

So, the Protestant Reformation was not one movement started solely by Luther but was aided by people who had lived up to 200 years before Luther. And the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s was not just Luther acting, but five (six if you count the Anabaptists separately) movements occurring at the same time. And all Protestant groups can draw their lineage from one of these first four groups.

©2006 Mark Nickens All Rights Reserved