When we started this month’s theme, I wrote about a couple of “reformers” before Martin Luther and before 1517. Today’s post looks beyond Luther and briefly introduces some other reformers. In Luther’s biography, we noted that he didn’t always get along with other reformers very well, but each of these historical figures influenced the arrival or strengthening of Protestant faith in his own region or country – whether or not Luther knew about, liked, or even fully agreed with them.
Martin Luther had an important impact on religious and world history, but in my opinion he’s not the only reformer we should remember. Zwingli, Tyndale Calvin, and Knox, along with many others, all made significant contributions to beliefs and history.
Zwingli (1484-1531) led the reformation movement in Switzerland. College educated and a Catholic priest, he was influenced by renaissance humanists and in 1519 began teaching through the Gospel of Matthew, rather than reading liturgy. Zwingli preached against moral corruption, veneration of saints, some elements of infant baptism, and indulgences. His theology may have been influenced by Luther and Erasmus, but he claimed it was based on his study of Scripture alone.
In the early 1520’s, Zwingli’s bishop started a series “disputations” (kind of a public debate) which brought more attention to Zwingli and his beliefs. Later, Zwingli reformed church services and church ornamentation and got into conflict with the Anabaptists over the question of baptism. He strongly led the reformation in the Swiss cantons but also became involved in the political situation and wars; he was killed defending Zurich – his home city.
Best known for finishing and publishing a complete translation of the Bible in the English language, William Tyndale (1494? – 1536) was gifted in theological studies and linguistics. He eventually became a tutor to Sir John Walsh’s children and shortly thereafter was summoned by a chancellor to answer for his religious beliefs. Beginning in 1523, Tyndale worked to translate the Bible into English, eventually leaving England and conducting his work in Germany. By 1526, English New Testaments were smuggled into Britain and these books were publicly denounced and burned by bishops. Tyndale stayed in Germany and continued translating.
England’s king – Henry VIII – was trying to get rid of his first wife – Catherine of Aragon – so he could marry Anne Boleyn. Tyndale wrote a treatise explaining that the king’s actions in this affair were wrong according to the Bible. That made Henry VIII mad, and he asked other European rulers to help him capture Tyndale. In 1535, Tyndale was betrayed, captured, and imprisoned in Antwerp; the following year he was condemned of hersey, strangled, and burned at the stake for his religious beliefs. Ironically, when Henry VIII issued his own official version of the Bible, the translation of the king’s Bible was based on William Tyndales original translations.
French reformer John Calvin (1509-1564) was trained as a humanist lawyer, and in 1530 separated from the Catholic Church, eventually fleeing to Switzerland for safety after attacks against Protestants in France. He preached in Geneva and guided the reformation movement in that city, even after he was expelled by the city authorities. Calvin wrote extensively and further developed aspects of Protestant theology that influenced different denominations and is still debated by some in the modern era. Some of his core theological points were predestination and the complete sovereignty of God.
Later in his life, Calvin was hailed as a defender of Christianity against “libertines” and seen as a reformer who wasn’t initially influenced in his theology by Luther. In the 1540’s, he returned to Geneva and helped create the religious community and government in that city; he stayed and preached over two thousand sermons in the city during a nine year period and was known for his detailed teaching through the Bible. Calvin became involved in political and governmental questions as his leadership and influence grew. For many in his era, he was the second well known reformer – second to Luther. He guided the reformation preachers and congregation in Switzerland and France and when he died in 1564, so many people came to pay their respects that the Protestant ministers worried about the formation of a “saint cult” and buried Calvin in an unmarked grave.
John Knox (1513? – 1572) led the Protestant Reformation in Scotland and founded the Presbyterian Church. His life was an adventurous struggle for truth, from priesthood to preaching justification by faith alone to nineteen month as a French galley slave (after a religious/political escapade) to exile in England and a journey to Switzerland to visit John Calvin. When he returned to Scotland, Knox rallied the Protestants; after the Treaty of Edinburgh and the withdrawn of English and French troops from Scotland (ending a rather complicated dispute), the Scottish Reformation formally began in 1560 with a drafting of a confession of faith and the organization of a reformed kirk (church).
In 1561, Mary Queen of Scots returned and immediately proclaimed that there would be no religious change from Catholicism in her country. That started a conflict between Knox and the queen, complete with sermons and interrogations. Embroiled in the political and religious conflicts of his country, Knox still found opportunity to preach, write, and guide the reformed kirk. By the time he died in 1572, the quest for religious freedom in Scotland had begun and would continue for decades on the foundation Knox helped to build.
There were many other leaders of reformation movements across Europe. The religious reformation caused political and military turmoil in Europe; reformers and counter-reformers persecuted each other and eventually different sects of protestants persecuted one another. (Remember, the Separatists? We usually call them Pilgrims and celebrate their arrived in America and that first thanksgiving feast.)
The Reformation shaped world history in distinct ways. Clearly, it changed the religious landscape of Europe. It laid foundations of political changes. And it even influenced the settlers (or refugees) who colonized the land which became the United States.
Martin Luther’s hammer, Zwingli’s political and religious quest, Tyndale’s translations, Calvin’s theology, and Knox’s thunderous sermons are just a few examples of how men with faith change history, build churches, and alter the course of nations.