Western nations are now suffering from greater instability than they have experienced for many years. Failing economies, roaring inflation, debilitated institutions, shaky political alignments, and talk about world depression have created vast, gnawing uncertainties for ordinary people. The “good old days” now seem better than ever. They did in the early sixteenth century, too. Europe was then in the throes of a profound social upheaval that in the end was to be yoked, perhaps surprisingly, to the cause of the Protestant Reformation. The plowing of the old ways did not lead to disaster, as it might have done, but to a renewal of Christian and national life, the effects of which have endured to this day. The celebration of these events on Reformation Sunday this year should be a reminder to us that our present turmoil, far from driving out biblical faith, may provide just the right soil for it.

At the beginning of the sixteenth century Europe was seething with discontent; it was ripe for revolution on religious, economic, and social grounds. The saying often quoted by Catholics at this time was entirely wrong:

Had Luther never penned a book

Germany’d have remained a peaceful nook.

On the contrary, society in most of its aspects was at the point of disintegration. Massive changes would have taken place had Luther never been born, but the changes would have produced a secular revolution; with Luther they produced a religious reformation. In the course of fifty years, from 1520 to 1570, what had been built up over a thousand years was completely reshaped and revitalized along Christian lines. James I. Packer stated the matter well when he wrote:

Without Luther, nationalistic revolts against the Papacy and Empire would still have taken place; absolutism and capitalism would still have reshaped community life; the principle that the civil power determines the form of religion in its own territory … would still have been established in Western Europe, the Renaissance would still have run its course, secularizing culture and challenging all forms of authoritarianism; but the gospel would not have been recovered, nor would Christian faith and life have been renewed, nor would there have been any evangelical leaven to work in the upsurging life of the new national states. There would have been no Bucer, Tyndale, Cranmer, or Calvin, for all these were Luther’s disciples [“Luther,” in the papers of the Puritan and Reformed Studies Conference, London, 1965].

That the Reformation was essentially religious in nature is now generally conceded. Great as its impact was on sixteenth-century culture, it nevertheless began with a lonely monk’s anguished search for forgiveness, and it never lost this basically religious aspect.

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Despite earlier Catholic denigration of Luther as a syphilitic profligate, it is now commonly accepted that he really was a monk’s monk. Indeed, he was too conscientious. He tried to observe the rules, especially those relating to confession, with absolute faithfulness. The more sin he dredged up for confession, the more sin he found to confess; and the act of confessing rewarded him with neither comfort nor release. His wise guide and counselor, Staupitz, directed him to the study of Scripture, and here he found the gracious forgiveness that had formerly eluded him. The precise details are, however, obscure. Luther has left behind two accounts of this, but one was written many years after the event and with the passage of time may have lost some of its accuracy. At least it is clear that the new knowledge acted as a kind of leaven in his mind, traces of which are evident throughout his lectures on Psalms (1514), Romans (1515–16), and Galatians (1516–17). Long before his climactic posting of the ninety-five Theses, he had inwardly broken with the medieval theology in which he had been trained. October 31, 1517, saw the perfect coalition of thought and action, and this event, the posting of the theses, has been taken to mark the beginning of the Reformation.

John Calvin’s career as a Reformer began with a transforming encounter with Christ, too, as did Zwingli’s and for that matter Cranmer’s, but whereas the Reformation began in Germany with a symbolic act, in France it was marked by the appearance of Calvin’s Institutes in 1536 and in Switzerland by Zwingli’s preaching in the Zurich cathedral. Of Calvin’s conversion experience little is known. He was not inclined to bare his soul as was Luther. There was a touch of aristocratic blood in Calvin’s veins that was often misinterpreted as arrogant aloofness. In fact, his shyness obscured a warm and tender heart, as Stauffer showed in his study entitled The Humanness of John Calvin. Of his conversion he tells us only that at some time during his studies in France, “God, by a sudden conversion subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame.” When persecution of the “Lutherans” broke out in France, Calvin fled to Basel, and here, in 1536, the first edition of the Institutes appeared. It was an ardent and eloquent defense of the Christian community addressed to the French king and subsequently categorized as a gem in the Church’s apologetic literature.

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In England the Reformation did not become a movement of the people until after Henry VIII’s death. Initially it was an answer only to the needs of his shabby love life. The separation of the Church of England from Rome enabled him to dispense with his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and marry his second, Anne Boleyn. The so-called First Reformation Parliament (1529–36) did set itself the task of renovating the church but nevertheless denied any intention of varying from “the congregation of Christ’s Church in any things concerning the very articles of the Catholic faith of Christendom.” And it needs to be remembered that earlier Henry had defended the faith against Luther, arguing at one point that the “greedy wolf of hell” had devoured the German reformer and that it was from the belly of this wolf that he belched out “these foul inveighings” disdained and abhorred by the true flock. Luther replied that Henry was nothing but a crowned ass, which reveals the chasm that divided the English king from the Protestant faith. This chasm was never really bridged.

The Reformation on its theological and spiritual side, therefore, did not really begin as a popular movement until the reign of Henry VIII’s sickly son, Edward VI, and some have argued that it did not reach its peak until the reign of Cromwell, fully a century later. The English Reformation was far more complex and drawn out, but not less popularly based, than that in Europe.

Had the sixteenth-century Reformation followed the pattern of modern-day revivals, it would have remained an exclusively religious affair. As it was, the influence of reforming ideas began to percolate through all the layers of European society. This was perhaps not surprising inasmuch as no one then viewed religion as we do now. The Peace of Westphalia, which finally allowed each prince to choose for his subjects whether they would be Protestant or Catholic, perpetrated no injustice on common expectations. It was universally assumed that there would be an alliance between the faith chosen and the institutional and political environment in which it lived. Religious toleration was a much later development. The sixteenth century may seem brutally intolerant judged by contemporary standards. Men of this time would resort to persecution, however, because they were deeply concerned that the faith itself might be at risk. Judged by sixteenth-century standards, the present appears foolishly tolerant precisely because our age is no longer gripped by the ideas that reshaped Europe. Churches can rarely bring themselves to discipline even the most flagrant offenders. Today one’s religious experience is treated as if it were as private and personal as a toothache, and if our secular society should find some interest in it, it is the kind of interest that attaches to the aberrations of any eccentric.

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Christian faith, the Reformers believed, was far broader than the simple experience of being saved; its teaching was to be implemented socially, culturally, and politically. In attempting to do this they exposed themselves to criticism both at the time and subsequently. Calvin was charged with being a petty demagogue who ruled Geneva with an iron fist against the will of its citizens. Luther was denounced as an untrustworthy agitator who first of all sympathized with the grievances of the peasants and then when they revolted in 1525 capitulated and urged the princes to crush them by force. Zwingli is faulted for precipitating a civil war in which he and thousands of other Protestants were slaughtered. Knox is remembered without affection by some romanticists for the way in which he publicly berated one queen and sounded forth against another in The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women.

Undoubtedly the Reformers, like everyone else, made their mistakes. But the critics frequently overlook the fact that the Reformation was essentially a democratic movement. It was a people’s reform quite as much as a magistrate’s reform, and where the Reformers moved outside the jaws of popular consensus, they were repudiated. Calvin, for example, accepted the role of leadership in Geneva in 1536; two years later he was an exile in Strasbourg precisely because there was insufficient popular support in Geneva for his reforms. When this support grew, he returned to Geneva and built on it to implement his ideas. There was always opposition to what he carried out, but this is the genius and nature of every democracy; the minority must bow to the majority, but the common good is served not by its feeble acquiescence but by its unremitting complaints and criticism.

Likewise Luther took the utmost pains to see that practical reform never ran too far ahead of the common ability to accept it. While he was interned in Wartburg Castle, for example, his followers in Wittenberg almost fanatically began to dismantle Catholic religion. Luther was so disturbed that at great personal peril he reemerged and took charge of the situation. The Mass, he had said earlier, is an “evil,” but he now reminded some of the frenzied Wittenbergers that love is neither harsh nor coercive. Change can be no swifter than the common people can endure. What was needed was more education. To this end he himself wrote a treatise every two weeks for most of his life. The collected works of Luther, in the standard Weimar edition, fill ninety-four volumes and total approximately 70,000 pages.

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Chief among the Reformers’ critics in the sixteenth century were the Anabaptists. The term “Anabaptist” covered a wide diversity of belief, ranging from hot-eyed millenarianists to sober pietists, from reckless revolutionaries to quiet pacifists. Yet they were agreed not only in their views on believer’s baptism but also in their repudiation of the Reformers’ use of the state to implement Christian ideas. By appealing to magistrates, they said, the Reformers had compromised their faith and perhaps even extended the reign of the Antichrist. The Anabaptists also had their dreams for a purified society, but these dreams did not include any reliance on the state for their implementation.

Undoubtedly the Anabaptists were placed in jeopardy by the kind of hand-in-glove relation that the Reformers formed with the state. While Anabaptists in certain areas had substantial local support, this was largely ephemeral, and they were never more than a small minority. Minorities always argue for freedom; this is the sine qua non of their existence. When the Reformers were but lonely dissidents in a Catholic world, they too pleaded for freedom from a “coercive” state in league with Rome. Had the Reformers continued in this peripheral position and the Anabaptists won popular support, there is little doubt that they too would have used the state and the Reformers would have been drowned instead.

The Anabaptist vision of a renewed society was so utopian that it could never have been anything but a dream. The choice in the sixteenth century was between those visionaries who lived on society’s periphery with no hope of translating their visions into practice and those who, like the Protestant Reformers, worked within the system for smaller and less spectacular gains, who sometimes made mistakes, but in the end saw the leaven of evangelical faith work throughout society.

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Given the new power alignments in American religion today, the Reformation takes on an entirely new significance. It now seems indisputable that evangelicalism is beginning to assume a dominance on the American religious scene that it has not had previously in this century. It epitomizes, better than the other theological options, the deepest aspirations and the most enduring traditions that religious America feels. Now it must reckon with an acceptability that is quite new. This acceptability is at once disquieting and pregnant with opportunity. Evangelicals could find themselves drawn almost irresistibly into a shabby alliance with the status quo, at the most adding a touch of fervor to our widely practiced civil religion. On the other hand, the new opportunity we have for national, cultural, and social influence could open the way to the transformation of our nation. Like the Reformers, we have moved from the position of beleaguered dissidents in our society to something approaching the role of its religious representatives. What awaits to be seen is whether we, like them, utilize this rare moment, not to bask in the fading pleasures of acceptability, but to change what needs to be changed. To do this we will need all of Luther’s courage, all of Calvin’s insight, and all of Cranmer’s sophistication.


I was eighteen that summer, and working as companion-housekeeper to a retired schoolteacher at her cottage on an island six miles out from the shore of northern Georgian Bay. She was interested in nature and fairly well-versed in its lore. She had a habit, however, of referring to birds and other wild things as if I knew all about them. City bred, and never having had the privilege of wilderness vacations, although I was fascinated and thrilled by the beauty and wonder around me, I knew almost nothing about it.

The one thing that stands out in my mind from that long-ago golden summer is that I learned the call of the Maryland yellowthroat. “Witchety, witchety, witchety,” my companion would exult every so often, “there’s the Maryland yellowthroat!” It never seemed to occur to her, however, to take me to the thickets where the tiny, sprightly elves lived close to the water’s edge and to show me a yellowthroat, or to give me any concrete information about it. I had no idea of the origin of that witchety little song that rang out so often on that northern island, nor was I aware of the wonders of the yellowthroat’s nesting habits, or the migratory flights that carried it from its breeding grounds in northern Canada to its winter home in the Caribbean and back again every year. How easily my interest could have been aroused! But my mistress never thought of sharing with me her joy in birdlife.

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Nearly thirty-five years were to pass before I caught my glimpse of that elfin warbler with his brilliant yellow throat and saucy black mask flitting busily and restlessly about in a low thicket at the edge of a stream; and then someone pointed him out to me. I was utterly captivated. From that moment I took up birdwatching, and life assumed a new and very meaningful dimension.

But oh, the wasted years! Life is too short to wait so long to discover the rich rewards that such a study can bring—joys that were all about me all those years but unrecognized, unheeded. Why didn’t someone introduce me to the warbler that long-ago summer instead of just referring casually to its song?

All too often, is not this how we Christians communicate Jesus Christ to our friends? We speak of him in passing, we acknowledge his presence, but do we actually introduce him to them? “Show us the Father,” said Philip, “and that will be enough for us.” Do our lives show Jesus Christ, in all his winsome beauty, to those around us?

“Behold the Lamb of God!” exclaimed John the Identifier, pointing out the Lord Jesus to two of his own followers. And the two disciples heard him, and followed Jesus. Are others compelled to look at Jesus Christ because of what they see of him in our lives?—E. Margaret Clarkson, teacher and author, Willowdale, Ontario.

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