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, one in which radical change could take place.

One thing that helped to lay the groundwork for the Reformation was the Renaissance. This had begun earlier in Italy as a literary movement, resulting from a revival of interest in the writings of ancient Greece and Rome. By its very nature, however, it had much wider effects than its origins would suggest. For one thing, it stimulated a desire for learning as men sought the wisdom of the ancients, and this in turn led to an increased emphasis upon the need for education generally. In northwestern Europe, where the ancient classical influences were not so strong, the Italian example stimulated men to a greater interest in the study of the Bible in the original languages. The result was the production of vernacular translations along with commentaries, which, with the help of the newly invented printing press, spread biblical knowledge even more widely and encouraged questioning and discussion among the common people.

Article continues below

Partly as a result of this, and partly from sheer practical necessity, men also began to take a more practical interest in the world around them. In the techniques of warfare, mining, navigation, and ship-building as well as in commerce and banking, men of the sixteenth century were making important advances. The discoveries of both the old world of the east and the new world of the west summed up the achievements of the period. Intellectually and technologically, the people of Europe, particularly in the northwest, were developing apace.

But the medieval Church was not keeping up with them. To most of the faithful, the Church was largely incomprehensible. Services were conducted in Latin, usually without regular preaching or systematic instruction in the common tongue, and so many people were largely ignorant of the Church’s teaching. In addition, the moral condition of the clergy and of the whole ecclesiastical establishment hardly invited trust or confidence. The church did not speak to the needs of the day, particularly those of the newly developing social classes.

Although we speak of “new” social classes, they were in fact old classes that were coming to new prominence and power in European society. On the one hand, since 1450 in France, the Netherlands, England, Scotland, Germany, and Scandinavia, merchants, industrialists, and bankers had been increasing in numbers and wealth. Practical and hard-headed, they were taking an increasingly important place in society as economic activity accelerated. On the other hand, the lower nobility in the same countries were feeling the pinch of the burgeoning inflation, which they could not counter either by increasing rents or by purchasing profitable political and ecclesiastical offices, usually the perquisites of the great nobles and churchmen. And with the increasing use of mercenary armies, they were unable to gain employment on the old feudal basis under the crown. In this situation they tended of necessity to ally themselves with the wealthy and expanding urban middle class, from whom they borrowed money or with whom they intermarried. In this way a whole new social pattern was developing in northwestern Europe.

Since these social groupings differed in many ways from the old medieval class-types, however, they did not fit into the traditional social structure. The hustling merchant or banker of Antwerp and London, the businesslike squire of Norfolk, Brabant, or Poitou, and the independent woolen weaver of Gloucestershire, Flanders, or Picardy found themselves out of step with traditional society. Like Don Quixote of Cervantes’ famous sixteenth-century story, they were out of place, but for opposite reasons. He wished to stay with the old past; they sought to push on into the new future. For them the result was conflict with and alienation from the society of which the Roman Catholic Church formed the very soul.

Article continues below

These groups did not fade away as a result of their incompatibility with the society of their day. After all, they formed the new up-and-coming element in society. But they did raise fundamental questions about both their own present status and their eternal future. What was their position in society? Who were they in their own world? True, they were bourgeoisie or burgesses, squires or knechts, but what did that mean in 1500? The old medieval society had never really made room for their individualistic type of activity. Furthermore, in view of their alienation from the central point of society’s existence, the Church, what was their position to be ultimately? Church doctrine held out very dim hopes for the eternal destiny of the merchant and none at all for the money-lending banker. The search for their own identity had thus become of the utmost importance.

In bygone days, people had had various means of determining personal identity. Mysticism and asceticism were old favorites, going back to the third and fourth centuries. More recently, magic, witchcraft, and astrology had become the “in” thing, despite their discouragement by church authorities. Probably the most common avenue followed, however, had always been that of renewed dedication to the Roman church with an ever greater emphasis upon acts of devotion to the saints and particularly to the Virgin Mary. At the same time the craft guilds or regulated trading societies, always church-oriented, provided economic and social status. But by none of these means were the newly developing social groups able to establish their identity religiously or socially.

For one thing, the old ways and beliefs did not satisfy the intellectual needs of the seekers. With the growing economic prosperity among the middle classes, their level of education had risen. Moreover, because they were enterprising men who had to think carefully and concretely for themselves, the time-honored approaches did not meet their intellectual needs or satisfy the deepest longings of their hearts. Although they were conscious of sin and corruption within, for them the old methods of obtaining remission of sin by penance and Purgatory smacked too much of the merchant’s ways of doing business on the Antwerp exchange. The result was a spiritual and mental vacuum that showed itself frequently in contemporary literature.

Article continues below

During the latter part of the fifteenth century and the early years of the sixteenth, there arose signs of a new phenomenon among these elements of society: Bible-study groups. The Waldenses, the Lollards, and the Hussites had all stressed reading the Bible in the vernacular, but in the days of hand-copied volumes Scripture was expensive and hard to obtain. With the founding of the Brethren of the Common Life in the Netherlands at the end of the fourteenth century, a new chapter opened. Although somewhat mystical, the Brethren also stressed the importance of studying the Bible, and since they were acceptable to the Church, their teaching exerted a great influence throughout the Netherlands and Germany. When, with the invention of printing, Bibles became cheap and various vernacular translations appeared, Bible study became increasingly common, despite the opposition of some church authorities. Individually and in inchoate, unorganized groups scattered in homes, monasteries, and even universities, people seem to have been delving into the Scriptures before October 31, 1517, when Luther first made public his Ninety-five Theses.

The great need of these Bible-studying groups and individuals was some crystallization of thought to give them direction. The first man to provide this was Martin Luther, with his early tracts and pamphlets, culminating in the Augsburg Confession (1531). As his influence spilled over into other countries—Holland, Denmark, France, England, Scotland—other leaders began to appear, one of the most important being a young Frenchman, John Calvin, who with his little seven-chapter Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536) gave even more systematic guidance. These men and others like them spoke to a ready-made audience at the grass-roots level.

The result was the expansion of the Reformation. In Germany and Scandinavia and other areas where the princes, very often for their own economic or political advantage, supported Protestantism, the small group was neither necessary nor popular and probably faded away. But in lands where the government opposed the movement, it formed the heart and core of the Reformation. The cell group seems to have become characteristic of the Reformation wherever Calvinism or Anabaptism had its influence. In small groups meeting secretly for Bible study, prayer, and the singing of psalms, the real work went on. Here was the place of revival and evangelism. Indeed, it was probably in one of these meetings in Paris that Calvin first heard the Gospel and believed.

Article continues below

But who were the people involved? Certainly they were not the rulers, nor usually the great nobles. Rather, those who met together were of the “middling sort” of people: the merchants, the shopkeepers, the skilled artisans, the small nobles. They read the Bible, prayed, heard the tracts of Luther, Calvin, and other writers discussed—and, if caught, frequently died at the stake together. These were the people who made the Reformation possible, for in these meetings they came to identify themselves as Christ’s servants in this world and in the world to come, members of “the communion of saints.” In this way they found the identity for which they had sought.

That this should have been the pattern is not strange, even though in most accounts of the Reformation the grass-roots element has been largely ignored. After the Reformation the same pattern was seen in the various eighteenth-century revivals in Germany, Britain, Switzerland, and America. Most significant of all, however, the New Testament Church began in this way, as we are told in the early chapters of Acts. Small groups meeting to study, pray, and have fellowship throughout history usually formed the basis of the Church’s renewal.

Many people today are praying and looking for a revival of the Church and most of them are waiting for another Luther, Calvin, Wesley, or Edwards to appear. But this does not seem to be God’s usual way of renewal and reformation. If new life is to be effectively injected into the Church, it seems likely that it will come at the grass-roots level. It will speak to people alienated from contemporary society, including the Church, and will come in small groups, such as those that are meeting in many different corners of the continent and the world today. History seems to suggest that only when this happens will there be a truly effective and powerful reformation.

For you see your calling, brothers, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many powerful, not many well-born, but the foolish things of the world, has God chosen that he might shame the wise, and the weakly things of the world has God chosen that he might shame the strong, and the common things of the world and the despised things has God chosen, the things that are nothing, that he might make nothing of the things that are … [1 Cor. 1:26–28].

W. Stanford Reid is professor of history at the University of Guelph in Ontario. He received the M.A. from McGill University, the Th.M. from Westminster Seminary, and the Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.