Reformation: Economic, Spiritual, and Political Motives

The revolt was spreading with incredible speed over central and N Germany and almost immediately extended beyond the German borders. All the elements of discontent and rebellion coalesced. The learned, such as Luther himself, Melanchthon, and Martin Bucer, saw the opportunity to express and expand their own views. The nobles were enabled to cast off allegiance to the Holy Roman emperor and to enrich themselves by seizing the immense landed estates of the church. Too much can be—and has been—made out of this economic motive, however, for many of the princes belonged to the intellectual group that had been stirred to critical rejection of church doctrines, and they were perhaps better aware than the common people of the venality and money-mindedness of many of the clergy. Many of the pious, increased in number by a spontaneous religious revival in the late 15th cent., drank the doctrine of a new spirituality with pleasure, for Luther's doctrine of justification (i.e., salvation) by faith alone and not by sacraments, good works, and the mediation of the church placed humans in open and direct communication with God. The new insistence on reading the word of God in the Bible placed a greater responsibility on the individual.

Those who were feeling the first and welcome experience of nationalism were anxious to shake off the hand of Rome. Absolutist rulers, particularly in Scandinavia, welcomed the opportunity to end the interference of the church in state affairs; by creating national churches they were able to escape outside influence. Merchants and capitalists found the air of individual freedom exhilarating. The peasants, chafing under the old restrictions of feudalism, lifted up their heads in hope that the new dispensation would take away their burdens.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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