Martin Luther, when he posted his 95 Theses on the door of the Castle church in Wittenberg, Germany in 1517, could not have known the impact his actions would have. This, along with the invention of the Gutenberg printing press which allowed him to spread his ideas through pampleteering and later on, his translation of the Bible from Latin to German, set in motion what would become the Protestant Reformation. What started out as a religious movement would eventually become a political one as people started to rebel against the power of the Catholic Church.
When a peasants revolt of 300,000 people broke out in 1525, Luther sided with royalty, purportedly to keep order but also because he was dependent on them for church support. The revolt was crushed and royalty began to side with the Protestants, one of the first among them was Grand Master Albert Hohenzollern, a Teutonic knight who controlled eastern Prussia. Luther convinced Albert to transform his Prussian holdings into a hereditary duchy under King Sigismund I of Poland, allowing for a continuation of Protestant rule in that country. Albert formed the Duchy of Prussia and the first Lutheran Church.
Some of the tenets of the Lutheran Church were and still are:
- Man shall live by “faith alone” (sola fide). Actions cannot atone for sin. You are saved by the grace of God alone.
- Infant baptism is not mandated by the Bible.
- Man can reach God through Scripture and does not need an intermediary, such as a priest.
- Although the Lords Supper is upheld, the bread and wine do not literally change into the body and blood of Christ.
- The sacraments were meant as an aid to the spirituality of the person receiving them.
- All believers may be redeemed through Christ.
- The Scriptures are the only guide to life. If it is not in the Bible it is not true.
- Altars and vestments are to be maintained but there is no set order to liturgical service.
The interior of the church was somewhat austere with emphasis on the pulpit, people stood rather than sat.
European aristocracy did not take long to realize that breaking with the Roman church would have great benefit to them. They would be able to seize church land, of which the Catholic church owned at least one-third in Europe and of course, the great wealth contained within the monasteries. They would also be able to collect the church taxes. This in turn would make them more powerful in war. In fact, Max Weber, in his book “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” claims this as the start of modern capitalism.
Whatever, the outcome, Protestantism broke Europe up into many different kingdoms under Christianity. There were many “spin-offs” to Lutheranism, including Calvinism which became dominant in France These differentiations became a source of trouble in themselves. At the extreme were the Anabaptists (Mennonites) who were for many years persecuted. For now, we will concern ourselves with Calvinism and see how it came to France and affected my ancestors.