The Impact of Changes to Religious Infrastructure in Early-Modern Europe

D. A. Berg

The University of North Carolina at Greensboro

August 17, 2019


Religious change during the early-modern period in Europe not only held drastic effects upon existing social norms, but also assisted in the development and reformation of political infrastructures. The first and foremost prominent religious change is that of the Protestant Reformation. This particular change in religious norms began in a multitude of fashions by a multitude of people. This paper will begin firstly with Martin Luther, the proclaimed hero of the protestant movement, and will subsequently identify the political and social changes that rippled across Europe as Luther’s doctrine spread. Following the discussion of Luther, this paper will turn to identify specific political changes within Europe; namely in England, Germany, and Switzerland.

Martin Luther

Martin Luther was born in 1483 to a copper miner in Saxony, Germany. (167)1 During his later years while intending to study law, was struck by a thunderstorm at sea. The storm was significant enough for Luther to pledge his life to St. Anne. Following the storm, Luther kept to his pledge and transitioned from studying law to becoming a monk. However, Luther eventually identified wrong-doings and corruption by the hierarchy of the Catholic church. In response to the corruption, Luther laid out his argument against indulgences in a letter to the Archbishop Albert. Utilizing his vast understanding of the effectiveness of the print, Luther authorized that his works be published. This publication of Luther’s works played a vital role in spreading Luther’s doctrine. (169)1 Luther’s letters publicly challenged the hierarchy of the Catholic church and spread through a populace that had already begun to identify the corruption that Luther had confirmed. With the populace ready to embrace change, the Protestant Reformation was able to rapidly gain footing and spread across Europe. However, it is important to note that Luther was not the only or even the first to seek religious reformation. Many others, including Ulrich Zwingli of Switzerland, and John Wyclif and Jan Hus of England. (167-169)1

The Impact of Change

It is not simply convenient and coincidental timing that people across Europe were seeking to reform religion. Repeated violations against persons within Europe had created an environment conducive for Luther and other reformers to ignite change. The church had established itself within the social hierarchy and often enforced collections similar to taxation, and sought out those whom neglected attending church. The Protestant Reformation allowed individuals to seek religion without conforming to the hierarchy and corruption of the Catholic church.

Within political establishments, the Catholic church had established itself upon a seat of power than often rivaled and swayed the political leadership. In other words, the Catholic hierarchy had ability to invoke their political desires as “the word of God”. However, multiple states had begun to seek to shift political authority back under their own sovereignty. England, for example, experienced drastic change in religious norms due to the efforts of King Henry VIII. (172-174)1 During the period of King Henry’s reign, Luther’s doctrine had spread by publication and by individuals who have claimed to the Protestant calling. Due to the aforementioned unsatisfied nature of the general will with Catholicism, change was in high-demand. In 1533, King Henry was excommunicated by the pope, and shortly thereafter declared that all public offices within England will agree that he was the “supreme head of the Church of England” (Shortly to be renamed by Queen Elizabeth I as “supreme governor of the Church of England). (173)1 This is an important event due to the fact that previously royalty was a God-determined label that was reaffirmed by the Catholic Hierarchy.

During a similar period, 1530, Emperor Charles V called an “Imperial Diet” in Augsburg, Germany. Charles sought to cease the rapidly growing religious divide between Protestants and Catholics, and ordered that all Protestants return to Catholicism. However, this failed and ended with various “princedoms” creating military alliances otherwise known as the Schmalkaldic League. (181)1 Utilizing papal troops, Charles was initially successful in forcing the princedoms back into submission. However, this success was immediately challenged by the pope who feared that Charles may become powerful enough to challenge papal authority. The pope then recalled the papal troops and Charles was forced to return to attempting negotiations to settle the disputes. The negotiations resulted in only a temporary hiatus from fighting, during which the Protestants allied with the French. This alliance resulted in the Lutherans gaining security and any land that was taken before 1552. However, and perhaps more importantly, the territories were allowed to claim the religion of their choosing and citizens within were allowed to leave should they choose the alternative.


An additional point worth noting involves the specific sect of Protestantism produced by John Calvin (1509-1574), otherwise known as Calvinism. (183-186)1 Calvinism claims its origin shortly following Calvin’s fleeing to Geneva, Switzerland. It is in Geneva that Calvin published his works titled Institutes of the Christian Religion. Much of the substance of Calvin’s writings reflects Luther’s, excluding that Calvin identified what is now known as “predestination”. Calvin claimed that those who are saved has already been determined by God in his infinite wisdom, and man should instead be focused on cultivating God’s will in the world. This held immediate impacts upon the political infrastructure of Geneva, who took to his work with such a liking that they incorporated him into establishing a religiously guided community. (184)1 This is important due to Calvin’s belief that the church should have sovereign authority within the state. In other words, Calvinism aimed to replace the Catholic church’s hierarchy with his own. He was able to establish an academy within Geneva to train young men as clergy. However, the utility of the academy served far more than the traditional sense of academia. Calvin’s academy served not only as a function to produce clergy, but also to serve as the hub of recruiting efforts in spreading Calvin’s doctrine. Clergy were often sent to a wide-array of locations across Europe to cultivate and spread their beliefs.


Religious reformation held direct impacts upon the political and social infrastructures throughout Europe. While the origin of the reformation may be attributed to a few named individuals, it was ultimately the violations being taken upon the average citizen by the church hierarchy that paved the way for Luther and others to spread their alternatives. Reformations often coincided and inflamed or initiated political change within a given country. These changes in social norms and political establishments were not simply events within history. Instead they are what gave way in order for everything people in the 21st century have come to claim as the norm. Political and social norms would be entirely different had religious reformation not sparked the change leading toward the semi-removal of the church hierarchy.


  1. Wiesner-Hanks, Merry E. Early Modern Europe 1450-1789. Cambridge University Press, 2016.