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When, in October 1517, the German monk named Martin Luther posted his 95 theses to the door of a Catholic Church in Wittenberg, little did he realise that within a few decades the entire religious make-up of Western Europe would have changed forever. While discontent with the Catholic Church had been rising for a long time prior to this event, it is generally agreed that Martin Luther's actions in the early 16th century were the major trigger for the European Reformation. This is because they sparked a series of protest movements against the Roman Catholic Church, which gradually spread from Germany to other parts of Europe. Together, these protest movements formed the Protestant Reformation. The followers of the movement became known as the Protestants.

For the rest of the 16th century, Europe became increasingly split between Catholicism and this new branch of Christianity - Protestantism. This chapter explores how the Protestant movement spread from Germany across Europe and also looks at the various types of Protestantism that emerged in different places.

Martin Luther sparks a wave of protests

Martin Luther has been remembered in history as the man who set the wheels in motion for the Protestant Reformation in Europe. He was a young monk who, on ';All Saint's Eve' in 1917, wrote 95 controversial statements challenging the Catholic Church and stuck them to the door of a Church in Germany. Within weeks of Luther presenting his 95 theses, pamphlets outlining his statements were copied, printed and distributed across Germany. Eventually these pamphlets also reached people in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, France, Scotland and England (refer to Topic three, Chapter two).

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When the Pope ordered that Luther either recant (take back) his statements, or face excommunication (have his membership to the Church taken away), Luther became even more determined to challenge the Church. He stood by his word, but was eventually forced to flee Germany and seek refuge in Saxony. When supporters of Luther heard he had been excommunicated, people all across Germany began protesting. Many had read the pamphlets outlining his 95 theses and shared his criticisms of certain aspects of the Church.

Other factors leading to the Protestant Reformation

While Martin Luther and his 95 theses are generally accepted as the major trigger for the start of Europe's Protestant Reformation, the movement can not be not be attributed to the actions of one man alone. Discontent with the Catholic Church had been rising within the European population for a long time. The poor were unhappy at the wealth of the Church and the way that having more money meant that people could essentially buy their way into being deemed a ';better' Catholic. The rich were jealous of the power and influence that the Pope and clergy held in society.

In addition to this, people from all levels of society liked Luther's position on human justification and salvation. They liked the way Luther argued that salvation could be achieved through having faith in God alone, because this was more respectful of individual will than Catholicism. By supporting Luther, people therefore felt dignified and empowered.

Protestantism branches out from Lutheranism

The Protestant Reformation in Europe formed one of the most significant periods of European history because it broke the almighty power of the Catholic Church and split the continent into two religious camps: the Catholics and the Protestants (or the non-Catholics). Although there were now two distinct sides, however, the non-Catholics were not part of a united movement.

The Lutheran Church (also known as Lutheranism) is the branch of Protestantism that was inspired by the vision and teachings of Martin Luther. When Protestantism spread to other parts of Europe, however, it was often modified by other religious leaders. While all Protestants were in some way discontent with Catholicism, they did not all agree on exactly what needed to be changed. This is why a number of different churches emerged in Europe during the Protestant Reformation; examples being the Anabaptist, Anglican, Calvinist and Presbyterian churches.

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Different experiences of the Reformation in Europe

While the Protestant Reformation was felt across almost all of Western Europe, the movement was most definitely at its strongest in the North. The southern countries of Spain, Italy and Portugal remained predominantly Catholic and Catholicism is still the dominant religion of these regions today.

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The Scandinavian kingdoms of Denmark (at that stage united with Norway) and Sweden took to Protestantism quickly, embracing Lutheranism without much modification. By the turn of the 16th century, the Lutheran Church had become the official religion of these northern societies.

In countries where Lutheranism in its exact form did not take hold, but the general reform movement did, other branches of Protestantism emerged. One such example began in Switzerland under the leadership of a Frenchman named John Calvin. Calvin was a theologian who, based in Geneva, led the branch of Protestantism known as Calvinism.

Calvinism differed from Lutheranism because it taught that people were predestined to enter heaven or hell after they died. According to Calvinists, people could do nothing to alter the course of their destinies, which the all-mighty God bestowed upon them from birth. Most Protestants in France, the Netherlands and Scotland followed the teachings of Calvinism instead of Lutheranism.

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The non-Lutheran Protestants and churches that were established in different places were given different names. In Scotland, for example, Protestants became known as Presbyterians. This is where the Presbyterian Church originated. In France, the Calvinist Protestants were called Huguenots.

In England, Protestantism took many forms because the churches of Anglicanism, Lutheranism and Calvinism all gained popular support. Eventually, the English Monarchy adopted an official religion for the State. This is where the Church of England originated.

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