The Catholic World Fragments: The Protestant Reformation
Anger at the Catholic Church led to the Protestant Reformation, which split the Catholic Church and resulted in various new Protestant forms of Christianity across Europe.
By the 15th century, the Catholic Church had been the center of the Western European Christian world for nearly 12 hundred years. A German priest named Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) shattered that unity when he led a revolt against the Catholic Church. His rebellion launched the Protestant Reformation and reshaped Europe as Catholics and new Protestant Christian groups fought for influence and power across the continent.
The causes of the Protestant Reformation
Martin Luther’s reformation began in 1517 when he released a document called the 95 Theses, which criticized abuses and corruption within the Catholic Church. For speaking out, Pope Leo X excommunicated (removed) Luther from the Church in 1521. Luther and his followers then established a new Christian church named the Lutheran Church.
Before the Protestant Reformation
After the Protestant Reformation
The Catholic Church dominated religious life in Western Europe. Most people practiced Catholocism. Most monarchs aligned with the Pope and the Catholic Church.
New denominations of Christianity, such as Lutheranism, developed in Europe. In Northern and Western Europe, many people and some monarchs left the Catholic Church and began to identify with protestant Christianity.
Changing Religions: The Protestant Reformation
New beliefs about Christian practices: Luther also promoted different views on Christian beliefs and rituals. Many ideas Luther promoted were not originally his but borrowed from previous religious scholars and critics of Catholicism.
Entry to heaven had to come from following the rituals of the Catholic Church
Entry to heaven came from faith alone, not Catholic rituals
Priests and the clergy are needed to help the believer understand God, Jesus, and the Bible
The Bible is the only truth, priests and the clergy are not necessary
The Bible should only be written and read in Latin (the old Roman language)
The Bible should be translated into local languages so that Christians can read it for themselves
Prayer to God, Jesus, and Catholic saints
Prayer to God and Jesus only
Rulers wanted to increase their power: Some European monarchs used the Protestant Reformation to weaken the authority of the Pope and Church in their kingdoms by supporting and encouraging the spread of Protestantism. Rulers in places like the Netherlands, portions of Germany, and England converted to protestant Christianity and set up new Protestant churches in their kingdoms. Monarchs sometimes became the heads of these new churches, as was the case with King Henry VIII, who became the head of the new English Church.
Emerging social classes: The Protestant Reformation began in a period of rapid social change in Europe. The old feudal system that had allowed the wealthy landed aristocracy to exploit the labor of peasants and serfs on the large manors they owned was weakening as Europe became more commercialized. For some people supporting Protestantism was a way to break from the past and improve their social standing.
- Peasants: Many peasants supported Martin Luther because they believed he challenged the authority and privilege of the Church and aristocracy, who had worked together to keep them poor and in servitude.
- The middle classes: As Europe commercialized, economic growth increased the number of artisans, traders, and business owners. As their incomes grew, the taxes they paid to the Church increased. Breaking from the Church ended these tax payments. They also rejected Church views that loaning money for profit was a sin.
Impacts of the Protestant Reformation
Christianity Successfully Expanded Into the Americas
The most successful expansion of Christianity was into the Americas, where indigenous people and Africans were coerced into converting. Various new Christian traditions and practices that blended Christianity with native and African beliefs developed.
Christianity began a new period of expansion in the 16th century. Growth was most successful in the Americas, where European colonizers forced indigenous people and enslaved Africans to adopt the religion. Most early Christian expansion into the Americas was Catholicism and arrived with the Portuguese, Spanish, and French. Protestant Christians did not reach the Americas until the 17th century.
Catholicism spread throughout Portuguese and Spanish territories
With Catholicism losing followers to new Protestant Christian groups in Europe, the Catholic Church supported Portugal and Spain’s conquest of the Americas, which they hoped would bring new converts from the conquered territories into the Church—which it did. Before the arrival of Columbus in 1492, there were no Christians in the Americas. Within 150 years, there were millions—nearly all of them Catholics. Many American Christians arrived from Europe, but many came from communities of Africans and indigenous people forced to adopt Catholicism by colonial authorities.
Conversion of the American natives: The Spanish viewed their successful conquests of civilizations like the Aztecs and Inca as evidence that God supported their expansion. Various Catholic religious orders (Dominicans, Jesuits, and the Franciscans) sent missionaries to Spanish America to aid in converting natives.
Because Europeans claimed Christianity as the one truth, they were unwilling to coexist alongside native religious practices. As a result, colonizers worked to destroy native beliefs, practices, traditions, and holy sites.
- Both peaceful and forced conversion: Some Spanish missionaries patiently and peacefully converted natives, while others used violence to destroy old traditions. Spanish authorities often shamed people into converting by urinating on native religious statues and holding trials for those who continued to practice the old ways. Resistors were also paraded through the streets and openly humiliated.
- The destruction of holy sites: Colonizers destroyed indigenous religious sites by converting them into Christian churches, monasteries, or shrines. In former Inca lands, extirpation movements (removal movements) periodically destroyed traditional native religious images and statues. Corricancha was the most sacred temple in the Inca empire—the Spanish converted it into the Catholic convent of Santo Domingo. Sites that did not get converted were usually desecrated and destroyed. In 1535, the Catholic Bishop of Mexico claimed to have destroyed 500 native shrines and 20,000 native religious statues.
Syncretic (blended) religious beliefs developed in the Americas
Catholicism in the Americas was not an exact copy of European Catholicism. Across Catholic America, indigenous and African traditions blended with Catholicism to create Christian worship practices unique to the Americas.
Indigenous traditions mixed with Christain practice included:
- Combining indigenous beliefs and practices with Catholicism: Inca women sometimes offered lama blood to local churches to strengthen those churches and their worship communities. Women in the Andes mountains dressed statues of indigenous gods and the Virgin Mary in the same materials. Many Mexican Christians continued to take part in rituals from the past. These included saying spells and charms to gods to bring good luck, ritual bleeding, offerings to the sun, and using hallucinogenic drugs in religious ceremonies.
- The Church created American religious icons: The first American saint was Saint Rose of Lima. The Church made her a saint in 1671 for her charity and conversion works in the conquered Inca territories. Over time, Catholic saints filed the roles indigenous gods had previously held. The Virgin of Guadalupe (the Mexican version of Mary, the mother of Jesus) is Mexico’s most recognizable Catholic symbol. She replaced the Aztec concept of mother goddesses known as Tonantzin. The Church claims she made five appearances at the same site of a former temple to Tonantzin that the Spanish destroyed.
Click below to explore how ancient Aztec symbols and Spanish Catholicism blended to form the story and imagery of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
Syncretic religious beliefs in African Christianity
In areas with large African populations, unique forms of Christianity developed that borrowed heavily from African spiritual practices.
- Vodun “Vodou” In Haiti: Haitian Vodou developed from West African Vodun beliefs about spirits that govern the Earth. These spirits range from major deities that rule the forces of nature and human society to the more minor spirits of individual streams, trees, and rocks. These spirits are the center of the Vodun religious life. Followers believe that they speak with and report to God for the living, similar to the role angels play in Catholicism. Many Haitians practice both Roman Catholicism and Vodou.
- Santeria in Cuba: Santeria developed in Cuba in the late 19th century and combined ideas and practices of the traditional Yoruba religion of West Africa with Catholicism. Like Haitian Vodou, Santeria is often practiced side by side with Catholicism. Santeria is polytheistic and revolves around deities called orisha sent to guide humanity. Followers often equate different orishas with Roman Catholic saints. Followers also believe each human has a personal link to a particular orisha who influences their personality.
Protestant groups colonized portions of North America
Protestant Christians did not establish colonies in the Americas until the early 17th century—120 years after Catholicism. Most of these early colonies were in the English and Dutch areas along the East Coast of North America.
The Puritans: The Protestant Puritans were the earliest successful colonists in Britain’s North American territories. They arrived from England, a Protestant kingdom that had converted from Catholicism in the 1530s under King Henry VIII (1491 – 1547). However, the Church of England viewed the Puritans as fanatics who challenged their authority and began to limit their activities. Puritan leaders decided they could best grow their movement in the Americas away from English church leaders. The first groups of Puritans sailed across the Atlantic and arrived in modern-day Plymouth, Massachusetts, in November 1620.
The Quakers: In the mid to late 17th century, English Quakers began moving to North America to escape religious persecution in England. Like the Puritans, Quakers believed that the English Protestant Church was too Catholic. Quakers rejected elaborate church ceremonies and the luxurious life of wealthy English Church elites. In the 1680s, King Charles II gave Quaker William Penn an enormous land grant to pay off a debt owed to Penn’s family. Penn founded the state of Pennsylvania, and many Quakers began emigrating there from England.
Resistance to the spread of Christianity
People resisted forced conversion to Christianity. Early conversions to Christianity were often not total conversions. People might process to be Christian but privately practice their traditional beliefs. The various syncretic religions described above are examples of resistance to complete Christian conversion. Organized anti-Christian movements also developed.
Taki Onqoy movement: Taki Onqoy was an indigenous movement in the Peruvian Andes between 1564 and 1572 in opposition to the recent Spanish arrival. The movement’s leaders traveled around dancing and making predictions about the overthrow of the Spanish and the Christian God by the native God Huaca. The Spanish suppressed the revolt by fining the men who participated and imprisoning female participants in Catholic convents.
The Spread of Christianity in Asia Was Less Successful
Asian powers were able to resist the efforts of Christian missionaries to convert their populations
Christianity in the Philippines: The Philippines was one of the few areas Christianity successfully spread throughout Asia.
- Like in the Americas, when the Europeans arrived, the Philippines had a fragmented society of various tribes. The island lacked a strong central government. The Spanish made strategic alliances with rival tribes to engage in warfare and take territory. Eventually, the Spanish pushed their allies aside and conquered their lands too.
Native religions in the Philippines suffered a similar fate as the Americas. Today, the Philippines ranks as the 5th largest Christian-majority country in 2010, with about 93% of the population identifying as Christian. As of 2019, it was the third-largest Catholic country in the world (the first two being Brazil and Mexico) and one of two predominantly Catholic nations in Asia.
Christianity in China: Christian missionaries first arrived in Eastern China through maritime trade networks in the 16th century. After 250 years of missionary activity, only 200,000 to 300,000 people converted to Christianity—out of a population of 300 million.
China already had multiple belief systems: China had a long multi-faith history. Most Chinese had practiced Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism together for thousands of years. Many local communities also had regional deities that they worshipped. The Chinese rejected the Christian belief that it was the one true and correct faith. Many educated elites viewed Christianity as superstition and were disturbed by the holy communion in which Catholics believe they eat and drink the body and blood of Christ.
The power to resist: Until their defeat in the Opium Wars in the 19th century, China was a political and military power easily able to defend itself against the Europeans. The Chinese government saw how missionaries had converted the Philippines and were suspicious of Christian missionaries and their motives. After Pope Clement XI (1649 – 1721) issued a rule preventing Catholic missionaries from rituals paying respect to Confucious or the ancestors of the Emperors of China, Emperor Yongzheng (1678 – 1735) banned Christianity in China. His edict (rule) required nearly all missionaries to leave most Chinese territory. Only missionary scholars who also worked in the fields of math and science were allowed to stay in the capital of Beijing to continue providing service to the emperor.
Missionaries in the Americas
Missionaries in China
Tried to convert the masses
Tried to convert the elite
Rejected natives traditional values and belief systems
Became familiar with Confucian values and texts
Forced conversion was common
Missionaries dressed like Confucian scholars
Indigenous beliefs viewed as untrue superstitions
Confucianism not viewed a religion but as a secular governing philosophy
Differences between indigenous religions and Christianity emphasized
Similarities between Christianity and Confucianism emphasized
The image below is from the Chinese translation of Euclid’s Elements, published in 1607. On the left is the Catholic Jesuit missionary scholar Matteo Ricci. On the right is the Confucian scholar and government minister Xu Guangqi. Click below to explore how early Catholic missionaries attempted to convert native Chinese elites.