The Protestant Reformation and The Lead-Up to Our Constitution’s First Amendment

Reformer Martin Luther

In the early 16th century, Martin Luther was concerned about the sale of indulgences by the Roman Catholic Church.  Indulgences were financial contributions made by individuals to the Church. Upon receipt of these contributions, the Pope said he would pray for their deceased relatives to move from Purgatory to Heaven.  Purgatory was a part of Hell where it was believed that many souls went who were not good enough to get into Heaven but were not so bad they were eternally condemned to Hell.  Once in Purgatory, the relatives and/or friends of those souls who were still alive on Earth could pray for their advancement into Heaven, which prayers would at some point be accepted by God and admission granted. Anyone could pray at any time for this.  However, in this case, the head of the Roman Catholic Church, the Pope, would intercede on their behalf.  Martin Luther posted his 95 objections to this practice on the door of the Church at Witttenberg in Germany in 1517.  Luther was a monk and a theology professor.  Because of the printing press, some students in Witttenberg were able to widely distribute this document.  It was widely read. At that point, Luther did not want to break away from the Catholic Church.

Over time, however, his criticisms of the Church and disputes with other established men of learning within the Church became more extensive, and eventually he published Bondage of the Will where he described how God’s grace had the power to release the individual from his or her sins DIRECTLY, that is, without the mediation of the Roman Catholic Church. The individual had direct access to Almighty God, and did not need a vast church hierarchy to connect him or her with God.

He was called up on charges by the Catholic Church and had to appear before a tribunal of high officials of the Church, where he affirmed his various differences with the Church.  From that time on he was on the run from the RC Church which excommunicated him (meaning he could not participate in the sacraments of the Church, and thus would be excluded forever from Heaven, that is, he would go to hell).  Germany was not yet a nation-state, but was divided into many territories each ruled over by a prince.  Some of the princes became followers of Luther (Luther) and others remained Catholic. He would be given safe haven in those territories where the princes had converted to Luther’s religious ideas and would live there under their protection.

Meanwhile, other people, including the French lawyer John Calvin, read Luther’s writings and, although there were differences on various points, accepted his idea of salvation independent of the Roman Catholic Church. Calvin had to flee France and moved to Switzerland where he was convinced by William Farel that God had called him to be a leader of the anti-Roman Catholic Church in Switzerland. He worked out of Switzerland in Geneva which, along with the Swiss cities of Berne, Basel, Neuchatel, and Zurich, became home to many Protestant leaders.  Missionaries were sent to France to convert French Catholics to the new way of thinking and worshipping.

This split, called a schism, led to many wars. The Netherlands (Holland) which embraced Protestant beliefs fought with Catholic Spain which had control over the Netherlands.  There were six major wars between Catholics and Protestants in France. However, by the end of the 16th century, King Henry IV of France allowed Protestants to have control over certain French territories, and even maintain armies there. But, after a century of unrest with this arrangement, King Louis XIII of France expelled the Protestants from France in 1685 under the Edict of Nantes. Many of those Protestants fled to New York and to South Carolina, while others disbursed to other parts of Europe.

Meanwhile, the Church of England also had split from the Roman Catholic Church.  There, the split was not mainly over theological beliefs. The King of England had a disagreement with the Pope over his right to divorce one of his wives. The Pope forbade the divorce, so the King separated from the Catholic Church and declared himself the head of the Church of England.  He established different rules about the government of the church and the officials of the church and formed the Church of England (Anglican).

The Church of England being the official Church of England used tax moneys to support the Church. Other Protestant groups gradually formed and disagreed with the beliefs of the Church of England. These were called “Non-Conformists” (they did not conform to the Church of England) or Independent churches. Most of them were Calvinist in orientation. Many were fired from their posts as ministers in the Church of England if they did not tow the line and preach, teach, and observe the values, beliefs, Bible interpretations, or practices required by the Church of England.  Many were mocked by the Church of England adherents, and were called “Puritans” (mocking at their claims to be the purest form of Bible-believing Christianity).

Some of the Puritans (Pilgrims) left England for North America in the early 17th century, and as we know they landed in Massachusetts.  Other Puritans followed and founded the colonies of Connecticut and Rhode Island in addition to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. For these settlers there was no separation between their social, political, and economic life and their religious life.  At the same time, other English (members of the Church of England) were settling in Virginia, and after that in the Carolinas. They were more commercially oriented than the New England Puritans, but Protestant religion was still uppermost in their minds as they not only built forts and homes, but also, as a first order of business, built churches.

Back in England, the non-Church-of-England Protestants found themselves in heightened confrontations both with English Catholics and with the Church of England.  The Kings and Queens of England were supportive of the Catholic or Church of England belief systems.  For the independent churches, the Church of England, though independent of the Catholic Church, was still too much like the Catholic Church.  Increasingly, the independent churches became more identified with and supported by Parliament.  Thus, the political struggle between Parliament and the Kings or Queens became intertwined with the religious differences.

The Parliament insisted on more religious liberty which became the cornerstone of individual freedom. Their rights to free speech, free assembly, freedom of the press, went hand in hand with opposition to the establishment of religion by the King or Queen (which establishment was either Church of England or Catholic).  This is ultimately why the First Amendment of our U.S. Bill of Rights in our Constitution is there. The U.S. Constitution wanted to protect the independent Protestant churches from being compelled by a state established church. That was to be the cornerstone of American liberty.  Religious freedom and individual freedom were inseparable.  And religious freedom meant to practice Calvinist-inspired or, later, Baptist protestant religion. However, practice of the Catholic, Quaker, Mennonite, and Jewish religions were tolerated under the principle of freedom of conscience in response to the restrictions that were perceived as burdensome by the early Protestant settlers. There were not many German immigrants to the USA until the 19th century, which is why the Lutheran Church was not yet significant in the American colonialist context.  Nevertheless, despite certain limited differences with Lutheran doctrines, American Protestants still were in debt to Luther for unlocking the Protestant movement and opening the door to other Protestant variations.

Jeffrey Ludwig

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About the Author

Jeffrey Ludwig
Jeffrey Ludwig is a semi-retired Pastor of Bible Christian Church who serves as a guest preacher in local churches and teaches philosophy part-time at a university. He is the author of four  books available on amazon.com and has published over 275 articles online. He has been married for 28 years and he and his wife are proud parents of a grown daughter. Email: philprof2@gmail.com