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History of Christianity in the Reformation Era

History of Christianity in the Reformation Era

Professor Brad S. Gregory Ph.D.
University of Notre Dame
Course No.  690
Course No.  690
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Course Overview

About This Course

36 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

We are the cultural descendants of the Reformation era, says Professor Brad S. Gregory in these 36 lectures on one of the most tumultuous and consequential periods in all of European history. Regardless of whether we ourselves are religious, says Professor Gregory, our modern preference for belief bolstered by doctrine is "a long-term legacy of the efforts to educate, to catechize, to indoctrinate, that began in a widespread way during the 16th century."

Understanding the Martyrs

But despite these ties, it still takes a major effort of historical imagination to enter the minds of those who were willing to suffer martyrdom or martyr others for what we would regard as minor doctrinal differences.

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We are the cultural descendants of the Reformation era, says Professor Brad S. Gregory in these 36 lectures on one of the most tumultuous and consequential periods in all of European history. Regardless of whether we ourselves are religious, says Professor Gregory, our modern preference for belief bolstered by doctrine is "a long-term legacy of the efforts to educate, to catechize, to indoctrinate, that began in a widespread way during the 16th century."

Understanding the Martyrs

But despite these ties, it still takes a major effort of historical imagination to enter the minds of those who were willing to suffer martyrdom or martyr others for what we would regard as minor doctrinal differences.

This course is designed to take you inside the minds of those who supported the Reformation and those who resisted it. It treats the three broad religious traditions that endured or arose during these years:

  • Roman Catholicism, both as it existed on the cusp of the Reformation and as it changed to meet the Protestant challenge.
  • Protestantism, meaning the forms approved by political authorities, such as Lutheranism, Calvinism, and Anglicanism.
  • "Radical" Protestantism, meaning the forms often at odds with political authorities, such as Anabaptism.

The goal is to understand historically the theological and devotional aspects of each of these three broad traditions on its own terms and to grasp the overall ramifications of religious conflict for the subsequent course of modern Western history.

Central Characters

The Reformation era produced many influential figures, including:

Erasmus (c. 1466-1536): The leading Christian humanist of the early 16th century, whose "philosophy of Christ" sought the gradual moral improvement of Christendom.

Martin Luther (1483-1546): An obscure monk and professor in 1517, but by the spring of 1521 he had defied both the pope and Holy Roman Emperor on behalf of his understanding of Christian faith and life. The reaction of the Church drove him to more and more radical positions.

Charles V (1500-1558): Holy Roman Emperor from 1519 until 1556, and staunch defender of Catholicism and opponent of Protestantism. In 1521, he issued the Edict of Worms condemning Luther.

Huldrych Zwingli (1484-1531): The reformer whose influence was responsible for the abolition of Catholicism and the adoption of Protestantism in the Swiss city of Zurich. His sharp disagreement with Luther over the nature of the Lord's Supper found dramatic expression in the Marburg Colloquy of 1529, preventing a political alliance between Zwinglian and Lutheran cities and setting the Lutheran and Reformed Protestant traditions on divergent paths.

Thomas Müntzer (c. 1490-1525): An apocalyptic reformer who preached violent revolution during the Peasants' War of 1525. Originally sympathetic to Luther, Müntzer progressively moved away from and ridiculed him as a panderer to princes. In 1525, he led several thousand underarmed peasants into battle at Frankenhausen, where they were slaughtered. Shortly thereafter, Müntzer was captured and executed.

Henry VIII (1491-1547): The English king at whose behest the country severed its longstanding institutional links to the Roman Catholic Church and created a separate national church under royal control.

Ignatius Loyola (1491?-1556): The founder of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), the most important Catholic religious order of the Reformation era.

Jan van Leiden (1509-1536): The self-proclaimed prophet-king and ruler of the Anabaptist Kingdom of Münster in 1534-1535. Under van Leiden, the "New Jerusalem" practiced communal ownership of goods and polygamy. A siege finally broke the regime in 1535, and Jan was executed.

John Calvin (1509-1564): The leading reformer and theologian in the second generation of the Protestant Reformation. Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion is the single most important Protestant theological work of the Reformation era. Calvinism became the most dynamic, influential form of Protestantism in Europe in the second half of the 16th century.

John Knox (c. 1514-1572): An impassioned, uncompromising Calvinist reformer who played a leading role in the Scottish Reformation.

Menno Simons (c. 1496-1561): The most influential Dutch Anabaptist leader in the wake of the ill-fated Anabaptist Kingdom of Münster.

Henry IV (de Navarre) (1553-1610): The French king whose conversion from Calvinism to Catholicism in 1593 helped bring an end to the French Wars of Religion with the Edict of Nantes in 1598.

Questions to Ponder

Throughout, Professor Gregory raises questions that any student of the period must ponder. Here are a few:

  • Was the late medieval Church vigorous or, as Martin Luther and others came to insist, horribly corrupt?
  • How did Renaissance humanism shape such towering figures of the age as Luther, Huldrych Zwingli, John Calvin, and Ignatius Loyola?
  • What factors caused Protestantism to take hold in some places but not in others?
  • How did the Reformation produce not only Protestantism but also modern Catholicism?
  • How do the events of the Reformation reveal the shifting balance between religious and secular authorities?
  • Does it make sense to speak of a single Reformation, or were there several?
  • Did the Reformation(s) succeed or fail?

A Rewarding Scholar and Teacher

Professor Gregory received his Ph.D. from Princeton University. He is currently the Dorothy G. Griffin Associate Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Notre Dame. He has also taught at Stanford University, where, in 1998, he received the prestigious Walter J. Gores Award, Stanford's highest teaching honor. At Stanford he also received the Dean's Award for Distinguished Teaching in 2000.

His award-winning book, Salvation at Stake: Christian Martyrdom in Early Modern Europe (Harvard University Press, 1999), reflects many of the themes introduced in this course. In a review, The Times Literary Supplement (U.K.) wrote: "Salvation at Stake is a book which nobody working in the field of Reformation and early modern history can afford to pass over. And it is not just required reading; it is rewarding, too."

Thoughts on the Reformation

"This is an extraordinarily important period for understanding the modern world and its characteristic assumptions," says Professor Gregory. "Part of my goal is to show the ways in which this distant world has impinged on our own.

"The lectures will consider the three broad traditions of the Reformation—Catholicism, Protestantism, and 'radical' Protestantism. Until recent decades, the dominant way of approaching this period was through confessional or Church history, which in America and much of Europe tended to be written from a Protestant standpoint.

"In this course, by contrast, I will examine all three of these traditions equally and evenhandedly under the inclusive rubric of 'early modern Christianity.'

"The approach in this course, then, will be deliberately cross-confessional and comparative, attempting to understand the men and women in these traditions on their own terms, and in relationship and conflict with each other. This will enable us to grasp the significance of early modern Christianity as a whole in ways that I do not think are possible if we focus primarily one tradition, or if we favor one of the three traditions over the other two.

"The long-term payoff will be a better understanding of the relationship between the world of early modern Europe and our world, to which it gave rise."

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36 Lectures
  • 1
    Early Modern Christianity—A Larger View
    From 1500 to 1650, modern Christian pluralism took shape in Western Europe. Catholicism persisted and was renewed; various forms of Protestantism grew, including some radical strains. We will seek a contextual understanding of each tradition, in both its own terms and as it affected and was affected by the others. x
  • 2
    The Landscape of Late Medieval Life
    To grasp the Christianity of the era, we must learn the broad demographic, material, social, and political contours of the time. x
  • 3
    Late Medieval Christendom—Beliefs, Practices, Institutions I
    In this lecture and the next, we map the complex interrelationships among basic Christian beliefs, institutions, and practices in the Europe of 1500. This lecture discusses the official beliefs, particularly in God's providence and the sacraments, which shaped religious life. x
  • 4
    Late Medieval Christendom—Beliefs, Practices, Institutions II
    The basic institutions and practices of late medieval Christianity are inseparable from its beliefs. The understanding of time was liturgical, with Christian beliefs and worship structuring the days, weeks, and the year as a whole. x
  • 5
    Vigorous or Corrupt? Christianity on the Eve of the Reformation
    The church c. 1500 displayed both problems and signs of renewal, including strong lay piety and widespread efforts at reform. The perceived corruption and the urge to reform go together: The Reformation emerges not from spiritual indifference, but from widespread concern and intense religiosity. x
  • 6
    Christian Humanism—Erudition, Education, Reform
    A key intellectual force, especially in the north, was Christian humanism. Led by Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536), humanists pointed back to the Hebrew and Greek Bible and the Church Fathers in order to draw fresh lessons for religious and moral reform. Both Protestants and Counter-Reformation Catholics would learn much from this movement. x
  • 7
    Martin Luther's Road to Reformation
    In 1517, Luther was an obscure monk and academic. Four years later, he was defying both pope and emperor on behalf of his understanding of Christian faith and life. What were the factors that helped him succeed and become one of the most influential figures in history? x
  • 8
    The Theology of Martin Luther
    What are the three core ideas of Luther's theology? What made them so subversive of numerous late medieval Christian beliefs, practices, and institutions? How do these ideas differ from the common misconceptions about them that persist even today? What role did they play in the debate between Erasmus and Luther that came to a head in 1524-25? x
  • 9
    Huldrych Zwingli—The Early Reformation in Switzerland
    Deeply influenced by Christian humanism and Swiss urban values, Zwingli spearheaded the early Reformation in Zurich during the 1520s. His ideas differed from Luther's in interesting and significant ways that would set Lutheranism and Reformed Protestantism on distinct paths. x
  • 10
    Profile of a Protest Movement—The Early Reformation in Germany
    In the early 1520s, the evangelical movement became a force in southwest Germany. Outstripping the control of Luther or Zwingli, this was an impatient, zealous urban protest movement directed against many traditional Catholic practices. x
  • 11
    The Peasants' War of 1524-1525
    This bloody and failed revolt in the German lands was the largest mass movement in European history prior to 1789. How did the early evangelical movement interact with existing religious, political, and social tensions to produce this explosion? How did it shape the Reformation. x
  • 12
    The Emergence of Early Anabaptism
    "Anabaptism" is a general name for radical Protestant groups that rejected infant in favor of adult baptism. First arising near Zurich around the time of the Peasants' War, these groups suffered severe persecution in its wake. They endured, but in more self-consciously separatist and circumscribed forms. x
  • 13
    The Spread of Early Protestantism—France, the Low Countries, and England
    In the 1520s and early 1530s, Protestant ideas spread north and west, but the Reformation was not yet a widespread movement outside German-speaking lands, and local conditions shaped small Protestant communities in different ways. x
  • 14
    The Henrician Reformation in England
    Anti-Roman yet not Protestant, the Reformation that Henry VIII launched in England was a series of political acts, beginning in 1532, that subjugated the church to the Crown. Rooted in Henry's dynastic concerns, the early English Reformation displays the growth of secular power. x
  • 15
    Defending the Traditional Order—Early Catholic Response
    Both ecclesiastical and secular authorities defended Catholicism, attacking the Reformation as another in a long line of medieval heresies. What arguments and methods did they deploy against Reformation views? x
  • 16
    The Rise and Fall of the Kingdom of Münster
    The sudden rise and fall of the Anabaptist Kingdom of Münster (1534-35) in north Germany is one of the Reformation's wildest episodes. The armed destruction of the increasingly radical and apocalyptic reign of prophet-king Jan van Leiden left peaceful Anabaptists laboring under intense official suspicion. x
  • 17
    John Calvin and the Reformation in Geneva
    Calvin (1509-64) towers over second-generation Protestantism. Shaped by humanism, legal study, and exile, his theology stresses God's sovereignty and majesty, providence, predestination, and Christian activism in the world. x
  • 18
    Catholic Renewal and Reform in Italy
    Why is it useful to distinguish between Catholic Reform and the Counter-Reformation? What do seminal events such as the founding of the Jesuits and moves toward a general council tell us about the Church in the 1530s and 40s? x
  • 19
    The Growth and Embattlement of Protestantism
    Protestantism faced shifting prospects in England, France, and the Low Countries, including the Emperor Charles V's defeat of the Schmalkaldic League in 1547. Why, despite such setbacks, did the Protestant movement continue to grow? x
  • 20
    Calvinism in France and the Low Countries
    In the 11 years after 1555, first in France and then in the Low Countries, Calvinism saw growth—and growing conflict. Earlier Protestant counsels on passive disobedience began to give way to ideas of active resistance. x
  • 21
    John Knox and the Scottish Reformation
    Here you study the emergence of Scottish Protestantism, focusing on the crucial role of the fiery preacher and radical John Knox in promoting Calvinism and shifting Scotland's allegiance from France to England. x
  • 22
    Menno Simons and the Dutch Mennonites
    After Münster, ex-priest Menno Simons became the leader of the largest Dutch Anabaptist group. Despite the reinforcement of persecution, his theology of biblical literalism, personal regeneration in Christ, and discipleship in a pure community of like-minded Christians could not bar the way to schisms. x
  • 23
    The Council of Trent
    What makes Trent (1545-63), the most important ecumenical council between the Fourth Lateran in 1215 and Vatican II in the 1960s? How did Trent manage to blend Counter-Reformation and Catholic Reform themes in a way that would reshape Roman Catholicism for centuries to come? x
  • 24
    Roman Catholicism after Trent
    How did popes, bishops, clergy, religious orders, and laypeople use Trent's decrees to accomplish the educational, pastoral, and spiritual renewal whose fruits were becoming highly visible as the 16th century waned? x
  • 25
    Going Global—Catholic Missions
    Catholicism became a planetary faith in the 16th and 17th centuries, thanks to missionaries who went with Iberian merchants and colonizers. What differences typically marked missionary efforts in Asia as over against the Americas? What accounts for these? x
  • 26
    The French Wars of Religion
    Punctuated by massacres and assassinations, these religio-political struggles between Catholics and Huguenots lasted from 1562 almost through the end of the century. x
  • 27
    Religion and Politics in the Dutch Revolt
    After the Iconoclastic Fury, Philip II of Spain sent the Duke of Alva to punish its perpetrators. The fighting left the south Catholic and Spanish-ruled, while the north declared itself the United Provinces of the Netherlands and made Calvinism its official religion. x
  • 28
    Elizabethan England—Protestants, Puritans, and Catholics
    From the outset, Elizabeth wanted to re-establish a Protestant Church of England with minimal socio-political unrest. By the end of Elizabeth's long reign, Catholics had become a small minority. But the more radical Protestants—called Puritans—remained a threat to the Anglican settlement. x
  • 29
    Confessionalization in Germany
    This term refers to the long-term efforts by states and churches to form distinct Christian traditions, whether Lutheran, Calvinist, or Catholic, in German lands. Similar processes were at work in other countries. Divisions were hardening, even though the process remained incomplete and subject to local variations and institutional limitations. x
  • 30
    France and the Low Countries in the 1600s
    What were the different ways in which the southern Netherlands, the United Provinces, and France, respectively, resolved the problems posed by Christian pluralism? How did each country's chosen solution work? x
  • 31
    The Thirty Years' War—Religion and Politics
    The Thirty Years' War (1618-48) was the most destructive of all the early modern European wars of religion. It finally closed with the Peace of Westphalia, which set the basic religio-political contours of modern Europe. x
  • 32
    Revolution and Restoration in England
    What made the mid-17th century a time of such political and religious turmoil in England? What fed the exceptional religious dissent and radicalism of the period? How were the monarchy and the established church restored after Cromwell? x
  • 33
    The Impact of the Reformations—Changes in Society and Culture
    Here you survey the deep, long-term influence of the Reformation era on many aspects of European life, including marriage and the family, religious art and architecture, and literacy and education. x
  • 34
    Were the Reformations a Success?
    What standard or standards should we use to define success? Should we cast our sight broadly, or according to more carefully parsed criteria? Does "success" mean something different depending on one's level of analysis? x
  • 35
    Reflections on Religious Change and Conflict
    What are the three large changes that set Reformation-era Christianity—whether Catholic or Protestant—apart from the Christianity of late-medieval times? What accounts for the explosive nature of religious disagreements during this era? What is the biggest challenge we face in trying to grasp early-modern Christianity as a whole? x
  • 36
    Expectations and Ironies
    The several Reformations bore fruit that would have surprised and dismayed the originators: None, for instance, wanted to "disestablish" Christianity from official status and power. Yet at the same time, neither Christianity nor religion in general has been overthrown or disproved by modern thought or institutions. How then do we describe the situation that the Reformations have left to us? x

Lecture Titles

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Brad S. Gregory
Ph.D. Brad S. Gregory
University of Notre Dame

Dr. Brad S. Gregory is Dorothy G. Griffin Associate Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Notre Dame. He earned a B.S. in History from Utah State University; a B.A. and Licentiate degree in Philosophy from the Institute of Philosophy of the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium; an M.A. in History from the University of Arizona; and a Ph.D. in History from Princeton University. Before taking his position at Notre Dame, he was Assistant Professor of History at Stanford University and a Junior Fellow in the Harvard Society of Fellows. Professor Gregory has received several awards and fellowships, including the Walter J. Gores Award, Stanford's highest teaching honor, and the Dean's Award for Distinguished Teaching in the School of Humanities and Sciences at Stanford. Dr. Gregory is the author of many scholarly articles. His book Salvation at Stake: Christian Martyrdom in Early Modern Europe won six awards, including the 1999 Thomas J. Wilson Prize as the best first book published by the Harvard University Press and the California Book Award Silver Medal for Nonfiction.

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Reviews

Rated 4.5 out of 5 by 50 reviewers.
Rated 4 out of 5 by A Key Period in Christian history Audio Review: Dr. Gregory presents a well researched, well organized and detailed history of Christianity during the Reformation Era. His focus is on the century and a half between 1500 and 1650 though he introduces the subject with a discussion of medieval life and religious practice starting at the end of the Black Plague ca. 1450. For those like myself with only a cursory understanding of the European history and religion of this timeframe, this course is an enlightening experience. Dr. Gregory does a very good job of providing historical context for the Reformation Era and explains all of the competing attempts to reform the Christian church. He eloquently establishes that this was indeed a reform movement that was not intended to create various Christian denominations, but rather on reforming the practices and corruptions of the church. He not only takes the student through the movements of key reformists such as Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Knox and Menno but goes into some detail about the reform responses within the Catholic church. The story of the reformers is adeptly interlaced with the monarchical changes in each state as he covers the unique situations of France, England, the Low Countries, Sweden and the Holy Roman Empire (and its feudal states) as they each have their own interconnections of church and state. Dr. Gregory is a very capable lecturer who speaks with inflection and moves a pace consistent with maintaining one's attention. With the exception of one short period where he talked about various woodcut art used to mock corrupt priests, relying solely on audio for this course was sufficient. My learning goals for this course were to understand better how the religious practice, reforms, tolerance or lack thereof, persecution and wars affected my European ancestors who left the Rhine region in the early 18th century for Colonial America. The course more than met this objective. Dr. Gregory clearly had an objective in this course of presenting the people, the church, and the church reformers of this time as reasoned people who were doing what made sense for the context of their time. Even though he made the point repeatedly that the bulk of the people were illiterate, he characterizes them as people of deep faith who practiced religion as a major part of their lives to make sense of the world, even as there were disagreements as to the nature of that practice and differences regarding the importance of practice versus beliefs. Throughout the course he does a great job of reminding us to keep the context of the times in mind in examining events. However, in the last lecture he goes off script a bit as he talks about the divergence of Christianity into multiple denominations and sects leading to the rise of secular and/or state power (what about the medieval divine right of Kings?) and when he talks about the subsequent enlightenment and the scientific revolution not providing a triumphal alternative to the reliance on religious faith and practices during the Reformation Era. This invokes an intellectual bias that detracts from the scholarly and balanced approach he used throughout the rest of the course. I would recommend this course to anyone who seeks to understand the history and impact of religious reform during an important period in modern history. However, I would recommend that the student take the very last lecture with a grain of salt as it has elements that are more opinion than fact, unlike the rest of a fine course. October 31, 2014
Rated 2 out of 5 by Merely a Veneer of Historical Objectivity This was not one of my better course purchases. In my opinion, it is an unabashedly Roman Catholic perspective that merely gives a facade of scholarly objectivity while subtly attempting to dilute the theological and societal wrongs of what had become an apostate system. Professor Gregory talks about the Pope being the Vicar of Christ and of getting this status from Peter as though it is an incontrovertible fact. I think Protestant theologians know differently. The whole Papacy concept and institution are heretical and cannot be substantiated by anything but the poorest Biblical hermeneutics. In my view Professor Gregory attempts the history of Christianity in the Reformation Era not sufficiently from the perspective of scholarly historical objectivity, but too much from the perspective of Roman Catholic theology, a theology which the Protestant Reformers successfully challenged. This course is not much more than a subtly disguised apologetic for Roman Catholicism. The course gives a variety of important historical details most of which are interpreted in what seems to be a self-serving manner aimed at diluting the arrogance, avarice, and decadence of a religious system founded substantially on human philosophy rather than sound Biblical theology. This, of course, does not abrogate the fact that there were numerous true saints in the leadership, clergy, and laity of the Roman Catholic Church both before and after the Protestant Reformation. Additionally, it does not mean that the Protestant movement was devoid of both political and economic opportunism, as well as theological struggles. November 16, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Historically Thorough & Well Balanced Scope This course is a comprehensive study of relevant factors that preceded, enabled and arose during the Reformation Era (1500 -1650). The material lays out the social & demographic factors of this period such that comprehension of the driving factors of the Reformation period have a context for understanding. I observed that the course was not judgmental but rather a relevant history of this critical period in Christianity. I found that reading each chapter summary 'before' the lecture better suited my learning style. This is not a 'fly by' overview of the Reformation movement. Living in the 'Bible Belt' I wanted to better understand the evolutionary factors that led to the current factions within Christianity. I suggest that this Course is a building block in that pursuit. November 12, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Wonderful History The course was a wonderful description of the complexities of the reformation. Though each event of the time period was discussed briefly, it did show the progressive nature of the historical events. Like watching Dominos fall. Very informitive and fun presentation to listen to. November 6, 2014
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