Everyone should read my unpublished essay on Reformations, which is found at
Some questions we will be discussing in class – I list them in no particular order:
In popular culture and thought today, how is the Reformation remembered? When people suggest, for instance, that Islam urgently needs a “reformation” of its own, what are they implying about the shape such a phenomenon might take?
In what ways does this image run against the historical truth, in terms of the Reformation being based on democracy or popular consent?
Was the Reformation primarily devoted to encouraging ideas of individualism and human rights? If not, what were its principal ideas?
Why were the ideas of the Reformation so sweeping, and so subversive? Who supported them? Who opposed them? Just what was at stake in these conflicts?
How did secular regimes respond to the Reformation crisis? Who stood to gain or lose from the outcome?
Why did Reformation ideas – especially Calvinism – prove so immensely attractive to vast numbers of people? What was their appeal?
Yet for all the attention historians pay to the Reformation, the Catholic Church survived and flourished, and at various times in the seventeenth century came close to being able to destroy Protestantism altogether. What does this suggest about the appeal or power of Protestantism? Do historians pay too much attention to the Reformation, to the expense of Catholic and Orthodox Christianity?
The Reformation was a revolutionary movement in many ways. How did it confront the problem faced by all revolutionaries, namely how to stop a revolution going too far? How might groups or individuals take Reformation ideas and carry them to extremes – as some certainly did. Who were the most feared radicals and extremists of the day? And why did changes in religious thought have such dramatic political consequences?
Building on this last question: given the individual emphasis of Protestantism, does this kind of Christianity have built into it the potential for skepticism, doubt and heresy? In a sense, weren’t the early Catholic critics of Luther and Calvin correct in their attacks?
In what senses was the Reformation a media revolution? How did changing uses of media transform social and religious sensibilities?
In the 16th and 17th centuries, people in Protestant countries suddenly gained easy access to the Bible in their own languages. for social relations and hierarchies, for education, for individualism …How did access to the vernacular Bible transform society, as much as religion?
How did Reformation ideas transform the household and family?
How did Reformation ideas transform the appearance of church buildings, and the process of worship? What older kinds of practice or devotion faded in Protestantism, while which newer ones boomed? How did these changes reflect different appeals to different senses?
How did the Reformation affect ideas of ministry and priesthood?
Why did different ideas of the Eucharist or mass play such a central role in religious and political conflict between the sixteenth and the eighteenth centuries? What were people fighting about, and why did the issues appear so important? How did changing ideas in this area reflect radical new concepts of what the church was?
Remember the four key questions I suggested, that ultimately run through most or all debates within Christian communities:
*What is the Church?
*By what authority do you say or do this?
*What must I do to be saved?
*And – as Jesus asked – “Who do men say that I am?”
Reformation debates dramatically changed the familiar answers to some or all of these questions. How and why?
What effect did the Reformation have on ideas of politics and government?
Several aspects of life and practice that the reformation affected profoundly included attitudes towards the Virgin Mary; and to the feasts, fasts and other events that made up the church year. How did these changes affect the ordinary lives of everyday people? Who lost or gained most from these changes?
In summary – does Luther deserve his reputation as such a key figure in Western history, and religious thought?
You can find wonderful resources and documents on this era at http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/modsbook02.html . I particularly draw your attention to the account of Luther’s Tower Experience, at http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1519luther-tower.html ; and the selections from Calvin on predestination, at http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/calvin-predest.html . For Luther’s really dark side, see his obnoxious writings against the Jews, at http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/luther-jews.html .