Christians Who Changed Their World

The Reformation and Politics 4: Divisions and Religious Warfare


Glenn Sunshine

As we have seen in the previous articles in this series, the Reformation had a profound and positive impact on many aspects of the Western political tradition, including the development of new ways of understanding church/state relations and the first modern articulation of covenant-based political theory. At the same time, it must be acknowledged that there was a dark side to the Reformation as well.


To defend themselves against Catholic challenges, Protestants typically argued that wherever the Word is rightly preached and the sacraments rightly administered, you have the true church. Both of these excluded the Catholic Church on both grounds, at least according to Protestants. (For their part, the Catholic Church responded with a much longer list of “marks of the true church” that pointed to itself and demonstrated that Protestant churches did not qualify.)

Protestant insistence on sola scriptura—that is, Scripture alone as our authority in theological matters—meant that how you understand the marks of the church had to be based on proper interpretation of Scripture. But what if theologians disagreed about how to interpret Scripture? In a non-essential matter, it might not be that important, but what if the disagreement involves one of the essential marks of the true church?

For example, Luther and Zwingli disagreed over how to interpret the Lord’s Supper. They tried to resolve their differences, but neither side could accept the other’s position. Yet can you rightly celebrate the sacrament if you don’t understand it correctly? Neither Luther nor Zwingli believed you could, and so they split with each other over the issue.

Even though the mainstream Protestant churches agreed on the basics of the Gospel, they rapidly fragmented because of their understanding of the marks of the church and their disagreements over the sacraments. Other theological issues came up later as well, but the sacraments were the major issue separating Protestants in the Reformation. This is the prime illustration of the problem raised by sola scriptura: In the absence of an external teaching authority that can give definitive interpretations of Scripture, fragmentation or a complete loss of theological integrity (and orthodoxy) was inevitable.


With Catholics and various Protestant groups refusing to recognize each other as true churches, it was a small step to attacking not just institutions, but also people. Catholics considered Protestants heretics, and Protestants saw Catholics as superstitious idolaters. Old habits die hard, and these labels led to persecution. Johann Esch and Heinrich Voes were burned at the stake in Brussels in 1523, the first Lutheran martyrs. Catholics burned Protestants, Zwinglians drowned Anabaptists, and Calvin’s Geneva burned Michael Servetus.

In England, Henry VIII killed at least 63 Protestants, with his good friend Thomas More—now celebrated as a champion of freedom of conscience—overseeing the torture and execution of a few of these. Of course, after granting himself a divorce from Catherine of Aragon, Henry also persecuted Catholics who disagreed with him, executing thousands—including Thomas More. His heir Edward VI, a Protestant, executed a few radical Protestants, with an additional 5500 Catholics massacred in Cornwall during the Prayer Book Rebellion. Mary Tudor killed 284 Protestants, and Elizabeth killed well over 1000 Catholics in England and Ireland.

In France, the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacres of 1572 slaughtered tens of thousands of Protestants in the space of a few weeks, all across the kingdom. And when the Pope heard about it, he ordered a celebratory hymn to be sung.

The atrocities committed by all sides are legion. And they were responsible for only a fraction of the deaths caused by religious division in 16th– and 17th-century Europe.

Wars of Religion

As if persecution and massacres were not bad enough, for over a century Europe was wracked with a series of Wars of Religion, pitting Catholics against Protestants: t he First and Second Schmalkaldic Wars, fought by the Holy Roman Emperor to force the Protestant princes of the Empire back to Catholicism; the Dutch Revolt, which involved both nationalism and Protestantism in a revolt against Catholic Spain; the French Wars of Religion, a civil war pitting the Protestants against the Crown and/or the Catholic League, an ultra-Catholic faction in France; the Thirty Years’ War, the most devastating war ever fought in Germany (including the World Wars); the English Civil War. And this list does not include the Peasant War in the Holy Roman Empire, which had religious overtones, or numerous other small wars fought over religious differences.

It is an unspeakable tragedy that people went to war over which of them were true followers of the Prince of Peace. At the same time, as the above list shows, most of these wars were not fought solely over religion. Political and dynastic rivalries, economic issues, and incipient nationalism also played a role, as did resistance to the rising trend of absolutism on the part of kings and emperors.

Emerging Secularism

In the end, the devastation caused by these wars led to a reassessment of the role of religion in politics. Just as had happened in commercial societies that had adopted policies of religious tolerance, the wars of religion helped trigger a rediscovery of old ideas against religious coercion and thus against religious warfare.

In continental Europe, the last of the wars of religion was the 30 Years’ War, ending in 1648; in England, it was the English Civil War (1642-1651); even the Restoration was accomplished peacefully (1660), though dissenters against the Church of England continued to be persecuted for a time. (The Glorious Revolution of 1688 was a coup motivated by anti-Catholic sentiment, but it was accomplished with little loss of life.) Huguenots in France were persecuted into the 18th century as well. Nonetheless, religious wars had ceased, and overall there was a gradual growth in religious liberty and toleration as time went on.

The lasting legacy of the wars of religion, however, was the increasing secularization of the European continent. Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment rationalists see in the wars of religion a definitive argument against allowing religion any role in public life, arguing that to do so will invite renewed religious warfare.

This fear of religion and the secularization that accompanies that fear have even led the European Parliament to remove any reference to the historic role of Christianity in shaping European society from the prologue to the EU Constitution. Not only does this omission amount to a lie about Europe’s past, but it also cuts Europe off from the source of values and ideas that made European civilization what it is today. The role of Christianity in establishing ideas of human rights, for example, has even been acknowledged by Jurgen Habermas, an atheist and one of the leading public intellectuals in Europe:

For the normative self-understanding of modernity, Christianity has functioned as more than just a precursor or catalyst. Universalistic egalitarianism, from which sprang the ideals of freedom and a collective life in solidarity, the autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, the individual morality of conscience, human rights and democracy, is the direct legacy of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of a continual critical reappropriation and reinterpretation. Up to this very day there is no alternative to it. And in light of the current challenges of a post-national constellation, we must draw sustenance now, as in the past, from this substance. Everything else is idle postmodern talk.

Thus, many of the things the European Union wants to preserve and promote have their roots in Christianity. While Habermas believes that secularists can appropriate these ideas and develop new rationales for them, without the biblical ideas of the image of God and the spiritual and moral equality of all people, there is no foundation left for them, and commitment to these ideals has deteriorated and will continue to do so.

In this series, we have surveyed some of the ways that Christianity, and particularly Protestantism, has contributed to European and American success, and there are many other examples that could be listed. For now, we can sum it up by saying that although it does not have an unblemished history, Christianity in general and the Protestant Reformation in particular created the modern world and all of the things we most value in it. We lose sight of that at our  peril.

For Further Reading

Richard Dunn, “The Age of Religious Wars 1559-1715” (W. W. Norton & Company, 1979 edition).

Jurgen Habermas, “Time of Transitions” (Polity, 2014).

Carter Lindberg, “The European Reformations” (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009 edition).

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Glenn Sunshine is a professor of early modern European history specializing in the Reformation at Central Connecticut State University and a senior fellow of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.

Articles on the BreakPoint website are the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the opinions of BreakPoint. Outside links are for informational purposes and do not necessarily imply endorsement of their content.


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