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Reformation

Calvin and the Spread of Protestantism

The message of the Reformation spread quickly throughout Europe (except Russia). The Scandinavian countries became firmly Protestant under Gustavus I of Sweden and Frederick I of Denmark and Norway; later attempts to win them back to Catholicism failed. Geneva had become in 1536 the headquarters of John Calvin, who is considered by many the greatest theologian of Protestantism. His Institutes of the Christian Religion, published at Basel in 1536, marked a new era in thought. He differed from Luther principally in the doctrine of predestination (the foregone choosing by God of the elect to be saved), in the austerity of the life of the godly, and in the emphasis on theocratic government (see Calvinism). His influence was immediate and enormous. France, which had hardly been touched by Lutheranism, was fired by Calvinist doctrine, and the Protestant minority, called the Huguenots, waged fierce battle against the Catholic majority in the Wars of Religion until toleration was won when the Huguenot leader Henry of Navarre turned Catholic, became King Henry IV, and issued (1598) the Edict of Nantes.

Calvinism superseded Lutheranism in the Netherlands, where the religious revolt was coupled with revulsion at the policies of Charles V and his successor, Philip II of Spain. Through bloody wars independence and Calvinism gained the upper hand in the N Low Countries. Calvinism conquered Scotland, too, through the victory of John Knox in his long duel with Mary Queen of Scots. It spread also to Hungary and Poland and took root in parts of Germany.

It proved quite impossible to reconcile the finely wrought theology of Calvinism with Lutheran doctrines, for Lutheranism rejected predestination and clung to part of the sacramental system (see Lord's Supper). Calvinist thought did greatly influence the course of the Reformation in the British Isles and the present United States. There was also a conflict of Lutheranism and Calvinism with the more radical and emotional groups, and the enthusiasm of preachers who interpreted Scripture in their own way met with a cool reception among the Calvinists.

The divisions within Protestantism were from the beginning sharp, and attempts to reconcile Calvinist, Lutheran, and other doctrine had only partial success. Moreover, in England the Reformation went its own course. It was there much more closely connected with the conflict of church and state than was the Reformation on the Continent. The conflict of King Henry VIII with Rome led to the Act of Supremacy (1534), which firmly rejected papal control and created a national church (see England, Church of). Currents of Calvinistic thought were, however, strong in England. The Reformation was begun with the creation of a state church and the dissolution of the monasteries. It was given Calvinist touches under Edward VI, suffered a complete reversal under Mary I, and reached a sort of balance under Elizabeth I with some persecution of both Catholics and Calvinists. The process was to work itself out slowly later in the English civil war, just as the fierce hatreds between Protestant and Protestant as well as between Catholic and Protestant were to be worked out later on the Continent.

The burning of Servetus was a sample of the internal strife within Protestantism itself. The divisions within the churches of the Reformation also served to forward the Counter Reformation within the Roman Catholic Church, which rewon Poland, Hungary, most of Bohemia, and part of Germany. The end of the Thirty Years War in the Peace of Westphalia (see Westphalia, Peace of) in 1648 brought some stabilization, but the force of the Reformation did not end then. It has continued to exert influence to the present day, with its emphasis on personal responsibility and individual freedom, its refusal to take authority for granted, and its ultimate influence in breaking the hold of the church on life and consequent secularization of life and attitudes.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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