The Spread of Reform

The Movement of the Reformation across Europe

Episode 3

Hello, I'm Wilson Pruitt, and you are listening to the History of Methodism Podcast. Today’s episode, the spread of Reform.

The medieval church was integrally connected to the medieval state. When Martin Luther began to challenge the church publicly and when his words spread wider than any reformer before him, others quickly moved to challenge the political order as well. In 1525, large areas around central Europe began to revolt against their magistrates. The Bauernkrieg, or Peasants’ War, was quickly crushed by the princes to Luther’s surprising delight. He agreed with the Spirit of reform but Luther abhorred the chaos of revolution and and leaned on the scriptural text of Romans 13 to justify his support of the existing state. We can see in Luther’s response to the Peasants' War, a precursor to John Wesley’s A Calm Address to our American Colonies, where he writes against the American revolution saying:

Ten times over, in different words, you “profess yourselves to be contending for liberty.” But it is a vain, empty profession: unless you mean by that threadbare word, a liberty from obeying your rightful Sovereign, and from keeping the fundamental laws of your country. And this undoubtedly it is, which the confederated Colonies are now contending for.

Wesley abhorred Chaos, like Luther, and quoted Romans 13 in his sermon of 1763 titled The Reformation of Manners:

It is true the Word of God is the chief ordinary means whereby God changes the hearts and lives of sinners; and he does this chiefly by the ministers of the gospel. But it is likewise true that the magistrate is 'the minister of God'; and that he is designed of God 'to be a terror to evil-doers', by executing human laws upon them.

Reform soon moved beyond the states that would later be Germany, into what would later be Switzerland, France, and across the North of Europe. Huldrych Zwingli, a priest in Zurich, became the first great leader of what would later be known as Reformed Protestantism, which already differed from those influenced by Lutheran Protestantism in a number of areas, especially with regards to the liturgy, images, and the Law. John Calvin, the most famous and influential Reformed leader was at this point still very young. His influence would become widespread across Europe, yet Calvin's influence on Wesley and the Methodists would come more from his heirs in Reformed theology than from the reformer himself. A future episode will be devoted to Reformed theology and the influence that the heirs of Calvin had upon Europe and the Methodist movement. With regards to Calvin himself,Wesley didn’t talk about him very much in his sermons or writings, in one instance, he remarked in the following way about Calvin’s reaction Michael Servetus.

Being in the Oxford library, I light on Mr. Calvin’s account of the case of Mechael Servetus, several of whose letters he occasionally inserts, wherein Servetus often declares in terms, ‘I believe the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God.’ Mr. Calvin, however, paints him such a monster he never was—an Arian, a blasphemer, and what not.”

At this point, John Calvin was functionally in charge of the city of Geneva which burned Servetus to death for heresy. Calvin wrote that he wasn’t the cause of Servetus’ death, though Wesley didn’t buy it. We see a glimpse of the contrast between Wesley and Calvin. Wesley is happy to call Servetus orthodox in his docrine of God, whereas Calvin cannot and finds Servetus a heretic of the most repugnant sort. This connection between religious and civic reform most directly impacted the Methodist movement when the torch of reform crossed the English channel.

The king of England, Henry VIII, had first responded to Luther harshly with a stern and swift written retort that even the Pope commended. However, a few years later, Henry was at odds with the Pope over a desire to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, who was the Aunt of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. Charles had already sacked Rome and so the Pope was far more afraid of Charles (who wanted the marriage to continue) than of Henry and refused to grant the annulment. In Henry’s mind, the annulment was obvious because of Catherine’s previous marriage to his brother, Arthur. It was also obvious because now Henry had met a person to whom he would rather be married who could bear him a son in Anne Boleyn, a woman whose family had deep Reformer sympathies.

Henry’s desire to be free of Papal authority allowed reform minded sympathizers in England to thrive and rise to power. Though this was the era of reform, it was also an era of execution. The politics of reform often shifted so quickly that a person would be in power one year and executed the next at a moment’s notice. One of the preeminent architects of England leaving the fold of Rome was Thomas Cromwell who was executed in 1540. William Tyndale was executed in 1536, after he had finished the first English version of the Bible in 150 years. The English Reformation under Henry accomplished a lot of things politically, including the appropriation of all church property to the state and the gifting those properties to political allies of the King. Yet it was not in the long reign of Henry VIII but in the brief reign of his son, Edward VI, that the English Reformation created the texts that would cement its lasting legacy in England and across the world: the Book of Common Prayer (including the Articles of Religion), and the Book of Homilies. These were the texts that marked and formed the liturgical life of the English Church for centuries to come and so for our next podcast, we are going to break away from historical narrative and look more closely at two books without which the priesthood in the English Church of John and Charles Wesley or their father and grandfather, would have never existed. Next time, on the History of Methodism.


John Wesley, A Calm Address to Our American Colonies

John Wesley, Sermons, ed. Albert Outler, vol. 2 of The Bicentennial Edition of the Works of John Wesley (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1976– )