Jesus is called the Prince of Peace. The night he was born, angels sang about “peace on earth.” Yet Jesus himself warned that he came to bring, not peace, but a sword (Matthew 10:34). The Reformation of the Church triggered violence and warfare in Europe. Fighting between different versions of the Christian faith threatened to destroy the Church; it also seriously undermined the message of the Church, the Good News about Jesus Christ.
Some violence that was already happening attempted to seize hold of the Reformation. Since the Black Death, peasants in Europe had sensed their greater economic power; since fewer of them survived to do the work, the workers were more valuable. They made demands of lords and kings and nobility. Some demands were granted, but some were refused. Sometimes the two sides negotiated; sometimes they fought. Luther’s Reformation gave the peasants an ideological weapon. Pointing to abuses in the Church and connecting them to abuses in secular politics, they called more loudly for change or for revolt. Because Luther’s interests were purely spiritual, he could see the truth of both sides in the conflict. He urged worldly rulers to listen to the peasants and to correct injustices. He also insisted that revolution was ungodly. Luther advised the peasants to state their case but to accept resistance and hardship as part of life in a sinful world. While urging leaders to hear the peasants’ complaints, he also urged them to forbid revolution, to meet violence with violence. When peasants rioted, the riots were handled with violence from the government. Luther acknowledged that the nobility had gone too far in its response. Both sides were disappointed in Luther, sometimes even feeling betrayed by the Reformer. They could not perceive that he was dealing with ideas that matter more than political and economic justice at the present time.
Emperor Charles was slow to respond to the Reformation. His land was threatened by the Ottoman Empire; he was also at war with France. Eventually, Charles followed through with his words spoken at Worms; he called military power to overthrow the Reformation by invading lands where the Roman Church had been removed and Lutheran ideas prevailed. His troops even reached Wittenberg after Luther had died. Some of the Emperor’s soldiers wanted to remove Luther’s body from the grave and punish the remains of the heretic, but Charles said that he was fighting the living, not the dead. Luther’s grave remained undisturbed. Eventually, fighting in the Holy Roman Empire was ended through a compromise agreement. The head of state in each part of the Empire could declare the religion of that part, choosing between Roman Catholic or Lutheran. People who disagreed with the choice of their ruler had permission to move. While this settlement satisfied no one, it managed to provide an uncomfortable time of peace and stability.
Meanwhile, France descended into turmoil. Most of the French Protestants were Calvinist, although they bore the label Huguenot. Sometimes the French government tried to shut down the Huguenot movement; other times it was willing to tolerate the Huguenots. At times, it appeared that the Huguenots might gain the upper hand and seize control of the French government. Street riots, massacres, and assassinations were common. Three grandsons of King Francis held the throne, one after another, but the family line was failing. At one point, three men named Henry battled for the throne, each with a powerful army personally loyal to himself. In the end, Henry of Navarre—the Huguenot candidate—accepted a compromise which permitted him to seize the throne, provided he embraced the Roman Catholic faith. “The crown of France is worth a mass,” he is reported to have said. But his rise to power, which began the Bourbon line of kings in France, included an edict of toleration for the Huguenots and all Protestants in France, an edict that held more than a century before it was repudiated by Henry’s grandson, King Louis XIV.
Spain was less troubled by Protestant resistance to power, in part because of the (unexpected) power of the Inquisition, which added Protestants to the list of undesirables in Spain, a list that already included Jews, Muslims, and heretics. The son of Emperor Charles, King Philip, resolved to battle the Reformation in the Netherlands (under Spanish rule, but home to many Protestants) and in the British Isles. The famous Spanish Armada arrived intact at the Netherlands but faltered on its way to England. In large part, the failure of the Armada happened because of unfavorable weather, although clever English strategy also played a part. The Spanish Armada ranks with the Persian army that failed to conquer Greece and the Chinese invasion under Kublai Khan that failed to conquer Japan. Each of these failures was seen by the opposition as a national point of pride, an indication that they were on the side of what is right and true, and the beginning of growth toward greater achievement in the world.
King Henry declared the Church of England independent of the Pope in Rome. His son Edward affirmed the Reformation in England, but when Edward died, Mary tried to move England back toward Rome. Instead, she was replaced by her sister Elizabeth, who stabilized the Church of England while tolerating more diversity than many European governments. Mary’s son James became King of Scotland, but only on the condition that he remain Protestant. He also became the heir of Elizabeth; when she died, King James became the first monarch of the United Kingdom. James also authorized the English translation of the Bible which bears his name. Charles, son of James, appeared less likely to hold the course. An opposition group called Puritans managed through elections to gain control of Parliament; under Oliver Cromwell, they arrested, condemned, and executed King Charles and declared a Republic. The Puritan Revolution outlived Cromwell, but only by a few years. A moderating group won the next set of elections, placing Charles II (the son of King Charles) on the throne. The Puritans proceeded to pay more attention to their colony in Massachusetts rather than trying to regain control of the United Kingdom.
Meanwhile, the unstable peace of the Holy Roman Empire eventually disintegrated into violence, a time known as the Thirty Years War. This aptly-named violence can be compared to the American Civil War of the 1860s—both were fought over ideas, both divided communities and families, both led to devastating death and injury and widespread destruction of property. But the Thirty Years War extended several times as long as the American War Between the States. It appeared at one point that the Roman Catholic forces would prevail and Lutheranism would be stamped out of the Empire. But when times were darkest for the Reformation, King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden brought his army onto the battlefield. An alliance of German-speaking Lutherans, the Lutheran Swedes, and the Roman Catholic forces from France (under King Louis XIII and his advisor, Cardinal Richelieu, fought the Emperor’s forces to a standstill. In 1648, a treaty was negotiated at Westphalia. It was much like the agreement from a century earlier, acknowledging the right of each local ruler to choose the religion of that land. The biggest difference was that Calvinism was now on the menu along with Lutheranism and Roman Catholicism.
With that agreement, the time of Reformation came to an end. Europe, weary of religious conflict and wars, was ready to enter the modern era. J.