Religious Expression

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Martin Luther’s 95 Theses are known as the catalyst for the Protestant Reformation. Luther’s writings consisted mostly of pamphlets, which were the primary method of debate during the Reformation. Luther translated the Bible into German and encouraged each individual to read the Bible and create his or her own interpretation. Luther saw major problems in the Catholic Church, mainly focused around his belief that the Church misinterpreted and sometimes blatantly ignored Scripture. Luther attacked the top of the Church hierarchy and believed in salvation by faith alone, reaching heaven not through indulgences or self-sacrifice but through pure belief and faith. Luther’s ideals spread quickly throughout Europe, aided by the printing press, and by 1521, Lutheranism was a powerful force that considered the Pope to be the antichrist and denounced the abuses and corruption of the clergy. The 95 Theses are considered the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

Before 1520, virtually every European Christian was a Catholic. Europeans were unified by a common religion, which included the central role of the priest and papal supremacy. Villages were centered around the Church, which meant that the religious upheavals of the Protestant Reformation were pivotal in the daily lives of Europeans. The relationship that most Early Modern Europeans had with the Church meant that religious literature was incredibly popular and widespread. One of the most important documents of the Protestant Reformation, the 95 Theses, spread across Europe in weeks because of the printing press, influencing both the speed of religious changes and the average citizen’s understanding of those changes. The individualism and religious doubt of the Protestant Reformation spread through pamphlets and literature, increasing the literate population’s access to these new ideas.

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The Gutenberg Bible was the first major text printed using movable type and the printing press. It was considered the beginning of the revolution of printed books, which increased the availability of major works in Europe and helped to increase literacy in Europe. The increased availability of printed books helped spread the ideas of the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation, and helped increase accessibility of the writings of Early Modern Europe to ordinary, literate citizens. The printing press helped spread Luther’s 95 Theses quickly and efficiently across Europe in 1517.


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John Calvin escaped from France to Switzerland at the height of conflicts between Protestants and Catholics and became incredibly radicalized. He believed in predestination, the idea that when a person is born, God has already decided if he or she will go to heaven or hell. By 1541, Calvin gained political control of Geneva, Switzerland, and set up a civic system in which religion was directly related to politics. Very strict religious rules governed the moral life of the city and were essentially related to Calvin’s belief in predestination: the pious were morally upstanding citizens, and the condemned needed to be controlled and prevented from doing bad deeds. Calvin exemplifies the rapid spread and re-interpretation of Luther’s ideas during the Protestant Reformation and the multiple factions that sprang up as a result of newfound religious awareness.


The Freedom of a Christian

An early writing of Martin Luther about the duty of a Christian. This is one of the main writings of the Protestant Reformation.