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The Reformation is remembered as a struggle over theology and the Bible. The doctrines of sola fide and sola gratia form the core of the message of the Reformers. We also remember the great figures of Protestant history, individuals such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Thomas Cranmer.
A feature often missing in the story, however, is the land. The Reformation, in fact, can best be conceived not in abstraction, but down in the dust of history. To understand the land is to understand the emergence of Protestantism and how individual nations or cities embraced or rejected the Reformation.
The first stop in a survey of Reformation geography is in the regions of Germany, known then as the Holy Roman Empire. The German political nation as we know it today did not exist, and it would not exist until the nineteenth century. In 1500, it was a patchwork of various principalities and regions, all fiercely nationalistic to their German roots, yet also serving under the rule of the Holy Roman emperor. Still, there were tensions in the relationship between imperial and local rulers—tensions that would eventually create resistance to the condemnation of Luther.
The Holy Roman Empire is remembered by students as neither Roman nor as particularly holy. The name, however, stretches back to the formation of the empire in the 800s under Charlemagne, who was seen then as heir to ancient Rome and its emperors. By 1500, the Holy Roman emperor had become an elected office, chosen by seven electors scattered throughout Germany. If the electors took their role seriously, they nevertheless seemed to be increasingly forced to submit to the claim of one family: the Habsburg dynasty. This dynasty had influenced or held the imperial title for centuries by Luther’s day—and they would continue to hold it until the time of Napoleon.
We could focus a lot of attention on the imperial court of Charles V, the man who would sit at the Diet of Worms to hear Luther’s trial. But the reality is that the Holy Roman Empire was often driven more by local or regional authorities. In Saxony, for example, there was Frederick—an elector who nevertheless blanched at the thought of bending the knee to imperial will. Frederick instead spent his days expanding his own influence. He even took a unique step to found a new university in Wittenberg and to pay for the transfer of German professors such as Luther to come there and teach. Frederick may have been part of the empire, but he viewed himself as no man’s toady.
These tensions help explain the unique and political way Luther’s reformation got off the ground. Luther was condemned at Worms during the imperial diet (a roving council). However, Frederick and, eventually, other German princes believed that the condemnation of Luther was unjust—either due to their own Protestant conversion or due to resistance to imperial heavy-handedness. In either case, Luther was protected, allowed to live another twenty-five years as leader of the Lutheran church rather than facing execution.
To the far south of the empire’s domain lay a checkerboard of cities and cantons we today know as Switzerland. Like Germany, the modern nation of Switzerland was not yet a reality in those days. The Swiss cities or regions were in many cases subject to the empire, though some, such as Geneva, were subject to other rulers. Ultimately, the Swiss regions were dominated by cities such as Bern and Zürich. This political separation is the key to understanding why a Reformer such as John Calvin came to be associated with one city, Geneva, rather than an entire nation.
The quirkiest adoption of the Reformation was in the Netherlands. The Netherlands during the sixteenth century were not the nation that we know today but rather were a group of seventeen provinces that correspond to the modern-day Low Countries. These lands had by the time of the Reformation come under the rule of Charles V. Like the Swiss cantons, this made the Netherlands essentially vassals to the empire. Also like their Swiss counterparts, the provinces of the Netherlands were loyal to their own national identity and strongly resisted the influence of foreign rulers.
The reason the Reformation in the Netherlands was quirky is due almost entirely to the political makeup of the region. There was no king or national assembly that could unilaterally support or suppress Protestantism. Almost immediately, therefore, the Netherlands began to look like a prism of every theological movement during the Reformation period.
This was not a bastion for religious freedom, however, but rather a chaotic jumble of voices in the early Reformation. Things came to a head in the Dutch Revolt (1568–1648), in which the northern provinces became unified under the banner of Calvinism, while the southern regions would remain largely Roman Catholic and would later form the nations of Belgium and Luxembourg.
Perhaps Germany’s greatest rival during the Reformation was France. The king of France during this time was Francis I, a man of intellectual talent, though he was far too aggressive in his campaigns against the empire. In terms of religion, Francis considered himself a humanist and in favor of general reform, though not of the Reformation itself. This humanist world nurtured Calvin in his early years, though it did not last long. In 1534, a band of reform-minded men placed placards throughout Paris—one even on the king’s bedchamber door—mocking the Mass and the veneration of Mary. Francis was livid, and he launched a campaign against reform, sweeping Calvin and others out of France and down into the Swiss regions.
England during the Reformation was a hereditary monarchy ruled by a usurping family, the Tudors. Much as history has loved the Tudors—for their style no less than the world that gave us Shakespeare—the Tudors had little legal claim to the throne when Henry VII took the crown from the corpse of Richard III after the Battle of Bosworth Field. As such, they looked to the pope to secure the authority of the regime. They also allied themselves with leading English leaders in the church, ultimately making England dry soil for Protestantism. Indeed, if we were to select one kingdom as the least likely to embrace the Reformation, it would be England. Were it not for Henry VIII’s need for an heir, jolly old England might never have become a Protestant nation.
Henry VIII is the hinge on which the early English Reformation turned. He sanctioned moves to root out Protestants in small enclaves such as Cambridge, and he even wrote a tract against Luther in 1521 (the same year as the Diet of Worms). Still, the Tudors needed heirs, and given the weakness of their dynasty, male heirs were ideal to secure later generations. In time, after numerous miscarriages with Catherine of Aragon, Henry convinced himself he never should have married his brother’s wife. He sought to divorce her, but the Roman Catholic Church blocked him. So, he plunged England into the Reformation, opening the door for Thomas Cranmer and others to provide leadership. Still, given England’s original Roman Catholic fervor, it was not for two generations that lasting Protestant fruit would grow from the Church of England.
England’s longtime rival to the north was Scotland. At the start of the Reformation, Scotland’s closest ally was France. Scotland was also fiercely Roman Catholic, both in terms of church vitality and support from the crown. Indeed, John Knox, the man who would later spearhead the Scottish Reformation, spent most of his early ministry in exile in northern England.
A generation later, Scotland began to feel the effects of the Reformation in its lands. Knox had been further exiled from England under Mary Tudor, and he had experienced the Reformed faith of greater Europe. Geneva especially stood out in his mind as a model for godly reform. Scotland herself was wracked by turmoil over whether to embrace Protestantism, and the Scots needed loyal pastors to aid them. By some point in the 1560s, Knox had resolved to return to his native Scotland to preach in favor of Protestantism.
Like so many stories in the Reformation, the political rulers held all the power in Scotland. The roadblock in Knox’s way was Mary, Queen of Scots. Knox and others opposed her Roman Catholic faith and preached against it, leading to a stalemate, with Knox and others calling for reform as Mary resisted their efforts.
In the end, Mary sabotaged her own regime through a series of personal and political blunders. For reasons not entirely clear, she complied in the murder of her husband, Lord Darnley. She then allowed the conspirators to blow up the castle and claim Darnley had been strangled, before running off herself and marrying the man suspected of murder. Now sought for treason, Mary fled to England, where Elizabeth I had her arrested and later sentenced to death.
The path was now paved for reform in Scotland. Mary’s son would later become King James VI and I, ruler of Scotland and England, who supported the great English Bible translation that bears his name. At the time of his father’s death, however, he was only a child. Knox and other Reformers therefore set about to raise the child in the Protestant faith, and Scotland’s parliament began to pass legislation that embraced the Reformation. By Knox’s death in 1572, the framework of Presbyterianism had been established in Scotland.
The geography of the Reformation reveals the verve of the story of early Protestantism. Far from clouding the picture with stories of kings, city councils, and other political side stories, the geography reveals the physical space of the Reformation. Each of these contexts in their own way shaped the story of the Protestant churches that would come to live in these lands.