Sample Research Paper on Religion: The Protestant Reformation

Research PaperHistory
Apr 17, 2022

The main purpose of a research paper is to advance an idea, claim, or argument using facts and evidence. The structure of this coursework is similar to that of an essay. This sample research paper discusses the causes of the Protestant Reformation that spread through Europe beginning in the 16th century. 

History is filled with events and movements that profoundly impacted society. Among these are the rise and fall of empires, wars and power struggles, artistic flowerings, and technological explosions. But among the numerous historical moments that shaped the world, few can rival the Protestant Revolution in its effect on not only Western history but the history of the world at large. Along with the Renaissance Period that came before the Reformation and the French Revolution that succeeded it, this movement changed almost every aspect of life among Europeans and helped usher in modern history. To assume that the Reformation was uniform or that it spontaneously occurred in the early 16 th century would be incorrect. Not only did the specific events of the Reformation vary among regions but the causes of this event had been in place centuries before. The Reformation was brought about by long-standing political rivalries, the decline of the Catholic Church’s power and reputation, and the flowering of humanism during the Renaissance. Meanwhile, local developments in various states guaranteed the survival of the Reformation even as most of Europe was thrown into turmoil by the ensuing religious wars.

Power Struggles: The Holy Roman Empire

The 31st of October 1517 is widely regarded as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. This was the date when Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 Theses  on the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany. But the events that contributed to it existed long before Luther was born. Indeed, the circumstances that gave rise to this movement had been happening for centuries, and one of these was the ongoing power struggle between the Church and the Holy Roman Empire as well as other political entities.

The Holy Roman Empire was officially established in 962 with the coronation of Otto I as Holy Roman Emperor by Pope John II, though many historians also consider the coronation of Charlemagne in 800 as the true beginning of the empire. While the empire was legitimized by the Roman Catholic Church, which saw it as the successor of the Western Roman Empire that collapsed in the 5 th century, the relationship between the two entities was far from harmonious (Stollber-Rilinger, 2021). Many times the emperor and the pope clashed due to conflicting interests, especially as emperors refused to consider themselves subordinate to the popes. For instance, Emperor Henry IV who ruled from 1084 to 1105 was for a time at odds with Pope Gregory VII. Similarly, Emperor Frederick I who ruled from 1155 to 1190 clashed with Pope Alexander III and supported a number of antipopes to undermine the pontiff (Whaley, 2018). Ultimately, the emergence of nationalist sentiment among the Germanic states comprised the empire. By now, the Germanic rulers were starting to see themselves as distinct from the Italians in Rome (Wilson, 2011). The history of conflicts between emperors and popes along with the burgeoning nationalist sentiment and the view that the Church interfered with and undermined the empire’s affairs helped paved the way for the coming of the Reformation. With the Church no longer as powerful or as popular as when the Holy Roman Empire was first created, the Germanic states became a fertile ground for the flowering of the Protestantism that was yet to come.

Corruption in the Church

Apart from the power struggles that prepared the Holy Roman Empire as the conducive backdrop for the Reformation, the Church was also increasingly under fire due to corruption. Many saw the Church as a greedy entity that used its authority to enrich the clergy. For instance, donations to the Church burgeoned, allowing the clergy to amass massive amounts of wealth, land, influence, and political clout. The clergy became so powerful that laws had to be passed to curb the growth of their riches. For instance, in England, the Statutes of Mortmain (1279 and 1290) were passed by Edward I to prevent the transfer of lands to the Church, since such transfer effectively prevented the king from gaining taxes from such lands. Meanwhile, Edward III passed the Statute of Provisors (1350), which prevented the Church in Rome from gaining possession of English lands (Field et al., 2010). The English theologian and philosopher John Wycliffe, who lived in the 14 th century, also criticized the Church for selling positions in the clergy, relics, and indulgences. Indulgences were guarantees issued by the Church that promised to reduce punishment for sins that had been committed by a person. Wycliffe and other critics considered this a corrupt practice from which the Church profited immensely. Furthermore, it was viewed as an affront to God as it put a monetary price on forgiveness that is for God alone to grant (Marshall, 2009). The sale of indulgences was also attacked by Bohemian theologian and philosopher Jan Hus, who was executed by the Church in 1415 for heresy (Irvin, 2017). Meanwhile, the late 15 th and early 16th centuries saw the rise of Pope Alexander VI, whom many considered one of the most corrupt popes in history. Alexander VI openly practiced nepotism, selling high-ranking positions within the clergy and supporting his son Cesare’s wars in central Italy in an attempt to establish a new state for their dynasty (DeSilva, 2019). Like the power struggles with the Holy Roman Empire, the blatant corruption of the Church tarnished its reputation and weakened its credibility, thus ultimately undermining its authority as the arbiter of spiritual matters. Indeed, it was also the issue of indulgences that compelled Martin Luther to publish his 95 Theses. In a way, this event can be regarded as just the final straw in a series of cracks that undermined the Church’s hold on public and important sectors of the clergy.

Rise of Humanism and the Renaissance

The flowering of humanism was also an important factor that contributed to the Reformation. When the Western Roman Empire collapsed in the 5th century, much of Western and Central Europe entered a period now known as the Dark Ages. Much of the knowledge produced by the Greco-Roman cultures was lost and the Catholic Church rose to become the predominant political and spiritual power in Europe. And because monarchs derived their right to rule from the divine and the divine was represented by the Church, both state and Church had a virtual monopoly over knowledge (Paulus, 2001). However, a number of developments led to the emergence of new ways of thinking. First, the Black Death challenged the hegemony of the Church. The bubonic plague raged through much of Europe in the mid-14th century, resulting in the death of around a quarter to a third of the population. Huppert (1998) theorizes that this event weakened the Church’s hold on society. With the Church powerless to stop the massive loss of life and the cataclysmic consequences of the plague, the credibility and therefore the authority of the Church declined. People had become disillusioned by all the death and loss. The weakened trust in the Church, in turn, made people more open to new ideas and ways of thinking. The second event was the resurgence of secular arts. The Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, who reigned from 1220 to 1250, was a great lover of knowledge and patron of the arts. He supported artists and writers, thus allowing culture to flourish like never before (Hillerbrand, 1968). Finally, the rediscovery of classical works from the Greco-Roman period shifted philosophical views. While Europe was embroiled in the destructive conflicts of the Dark Ages, the Byzantine Empire and the Islamic caliphates experienced a golden age of art, culture, and science thanks to their preservation and study of ancient knowledge from the Greeks and Romans. This knowledge gradually found its way back to Italy, where they challenged the centuries-old dominance of Catholic doctrine with humanist philosophies. Artists and writers began to think outside of the philosophical frameworks offered by the Catholic Church (Paulus, 2001). Art and literature became more secular, the sciences thrived, and the age-old doctrines of the Church were questioned with greater fervency. These developments came to be known as the Renaissance Period, and these created an atmosphere that loosened the grip of the Church.

National Movements

While power struggles with the Holy Roman Empire, corruption among the clergy, and the flowering of humanism weakened the Church’s position in Italy and Central Europe, it can still be argued that the Reformation could have been stamped out by the religious wars that ensued following Luther’s protests. But the developments in various states guaranteed its survival. For one, Protestantism extended beyond the borders of the Holy Roman Empire and arrived in the Scandinavian kingdoms where it found a warm welcome. Following at the heels of his predecessors, Christian II and Frederick I, who tolerated Protestantism, King Christian III of Denmark and Norway officially legalized Protestantism and stripped the Catholic bishops of their power in 1536 (Sawyer, 1993). He then invited Luther’s friend Johannes Bugenhagen to organize the new faith. Meanwhile, in Sweden, King Gustav I supported the adoption of Lutheranism as the state religion (Anjou, 2006).

Apart from Sweden, the Reformation movement also found a home in Switzerland. In fact, there was already a call for changes in Switzerland around the same time that Luther was protesting the excesses of the church. In 1518, the Swiss preacher Huldrych Zwingli condemned the sale of indulgences by the Church. His sermons feature scathing denunciations of abuses by the clergy. Like Luther and other preachers of the time, he argued that the Bible should be considered the sole authority over the doctrines and morals of the Church. By the 1520s, Zwingli’s influence had become significant enough to initiate major changes in the city of Zurich. Many Catholic traditions like lavish ceremonies, veneration of sacred relics, and adoration of images were abolished (Greengrass & Gordon, 2002). However, the decentralized government system in the cantons of Switzerland meant that the spread of Protestantism was not uniform. Major cities like Zurich, Basel, and Bern embraced Protestantism, but the smaller towns and villages remained Catholic. Following a series of violent encounters, Switzerland ultimately permitted each locality to determine its own religion (Greengrass & Gordon, 2002). Although the Reformation in Switzerland varied in success, the religious tolerance that followed the conflicts provided a legal foothold from which it could spread.

On the other hand, France remained staunchly Catholic. Like Switzerland, there were already reformists in France that lived around the same time as Luther. One of them was Jacques Lefevre d’Etaples, who questioned the doctrines of the Catholic Church. He also translated the Bible to French, thus allowing more people to read the Bible in the vernacular (Diefendorf, 2010). However, France would brutally quash the movement, and d’Etaples were forced to seek refuge elsewhere. The French Protestants, called the Huguenots, would eventually be persecuted as well, with many of them massacred in the bloody religious wars that took place in the 16 th and 17th centuries.

The Netherlands was also a region where Protestantism found success. The Dutch were highly educated, militarily powerful, and vastly wealthy due to trade. It was also a center of learning, having experienced their own iteration of the Renaissance. Known as the Northern Renaissance , this period was characterized by the flowering of the arts and sciences. Protestantism, particularly Calvinism, was embraced by the Dutch when it arrived, especially since this break from the Catholic Church was aligned with their desire to break away from Spain. At the time, Spain and the Netherlands were under the rule of the Habsburg dynasty, but the Netherlands resented this and was in the process of asserting its independence from the Habsburgs. Things came to a head when the Dutch revolted in 1568, setting off a conflict that lasted for decades until the Netherlands was granted independence, turning it into a predominantly Protestant state in the mid-17 th century (Paulus, 2001).

Finally, England also became a largely Protestant country, but for reasons different from those in continental Europe. Unlike in Europe where the works of preachers were the main catalyst of the reforms, in England, it was King Henry VIII’s desire to divorce his wife Catherine of Aragon and marry his mistress Anne Boleyn that fueled the split. Catherine had failed to provide Henry with a male heir. Desiring to marry Anne so that he could have an heir, Henry filed for divorce but was turned down by the Pope. But Henry disregarded the Pope’s decision and instead chose to completely break away from the Church in Rome. He declared himself and his heirs as the head of the church in England, dissolved the monasteries, and seized the Church’s possessions, ultimately establishing the Anglican Church. This represented a complete break from the Roman Catholic Church, although some practices and traditions were retained. Henry’s daughter by Catherine of Aragon, Mary I, attempted to reinstate Catholicism but was ultimately successful as Elizabeth I, daughter of Anne Boleyn, upheld Protestantism in England (Willis, 2016).


As the discussion above shows, the Protestant Reformation was a watershed moment that forever changed the course of modern history. But while Luther’s nailing of his 95 Theses  is generally considered as the start of the Reformation, this point was merely the culmination of events and developments that were already in motion for many years. The many power struggles between the Church and the Holy Roman Empire turned the Germanic states into a place where reform was welcome. The excesses of and corruption in the clergy also led to the decline of its credibility and authority, thus preparing a disillusioned society for the changes that Protestantism offered. The flowering of humanism during the Renaissance was also a factor that contributed to the acceptance of Protestantism. In the end, Europe was ripe for a monumental shift, and when it came nations were more than ready to welcome the changes it offered.

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DeSilva, J. M. (2019). The Borgia family: Rumor and representation. Routledge.

Diefendorf, B. (2010). The Reformation and Wars of Religion in France: Oxford bibliographies online research guide . Oxford University Press.

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Irvin, D. T. (2017). The Protestant Reformation and world Christianity . Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing.

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Willis, J. (2016). Sin and salvation in Reformation England. Routledge.

Wilson, P. H. (2011). The Holy Roman Empire 1495-1806. Macmillan International Higher Education.

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