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Causes of the Reformation

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 3, 2012

Causes of the Reformation

The rise of Protestantism had multiple causes. They included a growing realization that the Church was not as powerful as it had claimed, a rise in secular political power, and the perfection of the printing process stimulating a rise in literacy. The spark that finally pushed people into widespread, open rebellion against the Church was the trade of indulgences for financial contributions to the Church.

The Catholic Church functioned on a system of the forgiveness of sins. A person sinned, repented, confessed to a priest, and received absolution in exchange for some form of penance. This might involve repeating a certain number of prayers or doing good work in the community. A sinner who was granted an indulgence did not have to go through such a penance; an indulgence was an official promise that the Church forgave earthly punishment for sins already committed. The first indulgences were granted to soldiers who had fought in the Crusades, as forgiveness for sins committed in the course of war. Of course, God might still choose to punish sins after death; the Church could only forgive earthly punishment.

The practice of granting indulgences quickly became corrupt. Both the Church and its agents, most notably Johann Tetzel in Germany, grew greedy for money and began offering indulgences in exchange for financial donations. People were assured that if they donated money, their sins would be forgiven, not only on earth but also after death. They were also told that they could purchase heavenly forgiveness for family members who were already dead. The idea that one could buy forgiveness for sins with money, or that the Church could preempt God’s power to forgive sin after death, deeply offended many devout Catholics. The most notable of these was Martin Luther.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

The Reformation in Europe Practice Test

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