10 Things You Should Know About the Protestant Reformation in England

When Luther nailed his 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Castle church, four church traditions were sparked: Lutheran, Calvinistic, Anabaptist, and English Reformed.

The reformation in England differed from that on the continent in three ways: 1) The English reformation was dominated by political events. 2) There was no one figure who stood out in the way Luther, Calvin, or Zwingli did in Europe. 3) The struggle in England focused less on theological issues of grace and the authority of Scripture and more on the nature, function and worship of the church.

 

With the English Reformation we come to the fourth major tradition to emerge from the events of Oct. 31st, 1517 (Lutheran, Reformed [Calvinistic], and Anabaptist being the other three). The reformation in England differed from that on the continent in three ways: 1) The English reformation was dominated by political events. 2) There was no one figure who stood out in the way Luther, Calvin, or Zwingli did in Europe. 3) The struggle in England focused less on theological issues of grace and the authority of Scripture and more on the nature, function and worship of the church.

So here are 10 things it is important that we know about the reformation in England.

(1) There were several influential precedents to the reformation in England, among which are the following. The Lollards were the English followers of John Wycliffe (1329-1384). By 1395 they were an organized sect and continued, despite persecution, to exert considerable influence in England. Their emphasis on the sole authority of Scripture provided a ripe atmosphere for the entrance of Reformation thought.

Several scholars exerted an important influence as well. John Colet (1466-1519) and Sir Thomas More (1478-1535), together with Erasmus, were among the so-called “Oxford Reformers”. Certain intellectuals at Cambridge regularly met at the White Horse Inn, a pub which acquired the name “Little Germany” where they discussed the latest Reformation intelligence fresh from the continent. Among those who gathered were Thomas Bilney, Robert Barnes, and Hugh Latimer. Others present in Cambridge at this time were William Tyndale, Thomas Cranmer, Nicholas Ridley, and Miles Coverdale, all of whom would prove to be significant contributors to the reformation in England. The Cambridge movement, however, was suppressed in 1525. Barnes and Bilney were both burned at the stake for heresy.

We must also point to the fact that Luther’s works were widely circulated in England, in spite of the papal decree in 1521 that his writings be burned. Finally, through the work of William Tyndale (1494-1536) and Miles Coverdale (1488-1569), the Bible was made available in the English language. Tyndale published two editions of 3,000 copies of an English NT in 1525. Coverdale provided the world with the first English translation of the entire Bible in 1535.

(2) The English Reformation must begin with King Henry VIII and the many women/wives in his life. On April 21, 1509, Henry succeeded his father, Henry VII, as king of England. He was just shy of his eighteenth birthday. Henry was a well-educated and scholarly man, a competent theologian and musician, who spoke Latin, French, Spanish and English. Henry’s father had arranged for Henry’s brother, Arthur, to marry Catherine of Aragon (daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain). But Arthur died, forcing the elder Henry to press his younger son to marry Catherine. Pope Julius II first had to set aside Arthur’s marriage to Catherine lest Henry be guilty of incest. He did so reluctantly. Henry and Catherine had one child, a girl named Mary (Catherine suffered numerous miscarriages, still births, and infant deaths). By 1525 Catherine was forty and had gone seven years without a pregnancy. Henry’s desire for a son, plus his growing attraction for Anne Boleyn (with whose sister, Mary, Henry had already had an affair), led him to divorce Catherine (he appealed to Lev. 20:21), an action denounced by the Pope. The Pope had come under the influence of the emperor Charles V, Catherine’s nephew!

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