The Reformation is commonly thought to have been the work of a few outstanding leaders who through their “charismata” succeeded in bringing about a religious revolution in sixteenth-century Europe. Even the word reformation immediately calls to mind Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Knox, Cranmer, and others. As one reads histories of the movement, one finds that to most historians it seems to have been primarily the work of theologians. In the long discussions of doctrinal ideas and issues found in such works, the writers give the impression that it was the “new” theology that made the Reformation a success, while the importance of the common people’s faith in and commitment to Jesus Christ all but disappears from view.

Yet we must remember that earlier attempts at reform in the Church had brought forth no little “new” theological thinking and writing. The names of Waldo, Wycliffe, Hus, Gerson, and Groot all carry us back to medieval efforts to renew the Church in both morals and doctrine. With few exceptions, however, the movements begun by these men petered out. Wycliffe’s Lollards, for instance, were so persecuted that they practically disappeared from sight. Even those groups that survived either did so as persecuted minorities, such as the Waldenses, or turned into nationalistic movements, such as the Czech Hussites, with little influence outside their own borders. Thus though some succeeded in maintaining themselves, they never gained widespread support.

The reason for their failure to obtain general acceptance would seem to be that in the providence of God, socially, economically, politically, and intellectually the time was not ripe for reform. The early years of the sixteenth century, however, saw a new situation developing, ...

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