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Colonial America | Religion | European Reformation

The Protestant Reformation in Europe indirectly spurred the early settlement of Colonial America. The Reformation created geopolitical, social, and religious forces that pushed English explorers, colonists, and migrants toward North America.

Painting of Martin Luther

Read a biography of Martin
Luther,
which also includes
Luther trivia and quiz.

In 1517 in the German city of Wittenberg, a monk named Martin Luther nailed a paper bearing "95 Theses," or grievances, to a church door. He questioned several doctrines and practices of the Roman Catholic Church. Called to account by the Holy Roman Emperor (King Charles I of Spain), Luther denied the authority of the Pope to determine true religion. Instead, he believed that one's own individual faith guarantees acceptance by God, and with it, salvation.

In a remarkably short time (and aided by the invention of the printing press), large parts of northern Europe supported Luther's reforms. Many parts of Europe, including Scandinavia, Scotland, and Switzerland, became Protestant. Luther was condemned as a religious dissenter by the Pope and forced to live in hiding for a year.

Learn more about the
Spanish Inquisition.

In Spain, the powerful monarchy stood by Rome and used the Spanish Inquisition, a religious court designed to persecute Muslims and Jews, on suspected Protestants. In England, King Henry VIII also remained loyal to Catholicism. He is believed to have written a condemnation of Lutheran beliefs called the "Defense of the Seven Sacraments." For his service, the Pope honored Henry as "Defender of the Faith."

In 1527, however, Henry broke with the Pope. The king wanted a Papal annulment of his marriage to a Spanish princess, Catherine of Aragon. Henry's marriage to Catherine had not produced any male children, and he did not want to leave the throne without a male heir. Furthermore, he was in love with a woman named Anne Boleyn, who in turn wanted to marry Henry.

The Pope had already given Henry a papal dispensation in order to marry Catherine, and he was not inclined to give him another one. Additionally, he had been captured by King Charles V during an invasion of Rome and was essentially being held prisoner. The Pope repeatedly refused the annulment, which led Henry's advisers to recommend separating the English Church from the Roman Church. This action would make the king the religious leader of the new church and allow him to grant his own annulment.

Read a biography of
King Henry VIII.

In 1531 Henry was recognized as the head of the new Church of England. The English Parliament passed a law that gave Henry control over the clergy. However, very little actually changed. Henry's reforms had little effect on the daily lives and Sunday worship of the English people. But in defying the ancient and powerful authority of Rome, Henry liberated a spirit of religious debate and innovation in England, and a true Protestantism grew within the English Church.

Henry married Anne Boleyn in 1533, and she gave birth to another daughter, Elizabeth. Henry's third wife, Jane Seymour, eventually had a son, Edward VI, who became king when he was a teenager in 1547. Edward extended Protestant power in England, but he was ill much of the time and died in 1553 after only a 6-year reign.

Edward was succeeded by his older half-sister, Mary Tudor, who was Catherine of Aragon's daughter. Mary was a devout Catholic who became England's first queen. In 1554 she married Prince Philip of Spain, one of Europe's leading Catholics, who became known as King Philip II. Together they moved England into a period of counter-Reformation, intending to return the country to the Roman Church. The queen exposed Protestants in her Court and persecuted them among the common people. Many were executed, earning the queen the unflattering nickname of "Bloody Mary."

Queen Elizabeth I

Learn more about the reign of
Queen Elizabeth I.

Had Mary lived longer and had a child, England might have returned to the Roman Church. Like her brother, however, Mary reigned for a short time. She died in 1558, and her half-sister Elizabeth I took the throne.

As the Elizabethan Era dawned, few people knew that Elizabeth would emerge as one of the great rulers of England. She managed to appease both Catholics and Protestants by giving each what they wanted and by governing in a spirit of compromise. Her reign led to a flowering of British culture that ultimately led to explorations of the New World.

In the meantime, many Protestants who had fled England spent their exiles in Geneva, Switzerland. There they honed their religious views under the most radical of the Protestant reformers, John Calvin. Their movement became known as Calvinism, from which the Puritans were descended. Puritans desired to "purify" the Church of England of its Catholic practices. By the time James I took the throne in 1603, England was a mixture of traditional Catholic and various Protestant groups. Some of those Protestants would soon be looking overseas toward a land where they could practice religious freedom without interference from the Church or government.

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