The development of printing in the 1450s made possible the more widespread distribution of the written word including the Bible. This went hand-in-hand with the translation of the Bible into the vernacular languages which was one of the most important principles of the Reformation. Printing and translation facilitated the spread of Protestantism in Western Europe; the New Testament is now the world’s most translated book.
Opposition to the corruption within the Catholic Church, to the unlimited authority of the Papacy, and to the heavy burden of taxation was mounting. Radical reform was demanded to confirm that only the Holy Scriptures were binding and that salvation may be attained not only through deeds but through faith. The Church and particularly the Papacy pervaded political life in Western Europe. It was involved in political manoeuvres and the power and wealth of the Church was increasing. Indulgences proliferated; holy relics were for sale as well as all church appointments. Dispensation of indulgences, the sale of holy relics, dishonesty and scandalous behaviour among clergy were the cause of much unrest. Indulgence was absolution for confessed sins awarded in return for a pious deed or penalty, such as donating money to build a cathedral or university. These practices brought about widespread corruption both in the way the amassed money was spent and in the administration of the Church. At the Council of Trent (1545-1563), donations and money transactions for any sort of indulgence were prohibited. Martin Luther (1483-1546) was the prime mover of the Reformation, maintaining that salvation through church doctrine found no place in the Gospels, that the source of prayer, learning and redemption was reached through the Holy Bible, (the primacy of Scripture). Because Catholic preaching was wide-ranging and moralistic, it strayed far beyond Biblical texts. Also the superstitious practices of the laity needed to be reformed. Although the Reformationists disagreed with each other on many points, they were in agreement on the importance of the primacy of scripture. Protestant preaching is always inspired by the Bible, and services are conducted in the language spoken by the congregation. Simplicity is the keynote of worship. Protestant clergy dress more plainly and their churches are not lavishly ornate, so as not to distract the attention of the congregation from the Word of God during worship, and there are fewer statues or pictures in the churches.
Those who identified with the principles of the Reformation were originally named the Reform or Evangelic Church. Later, disputes on various subjects including that of the sacrament of communion broke out, resulting in the founding of many different Churches. Calvin, Knox and Zwingli, besides Luther, were important in establishing these. In 1534, King Henry VIII broke with the Pope and declared himself the sole supreme head of the Church of England. Later Book of Common Prayer, written in English, became the official prayer book to be used in services. Greatly inspired by Calvin, John Knox was the pioneer of the Presbyterian Church, which became the official Church of Scotland. Lutheranism established its authority in Germany and northern Europe and today, Calvinism continues to make its presence felt in France and Scandinavia as Reform and Presbyterian Churches. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Protestant communities who opposed the established State Churches, such as Church of England were known as Nonconformists, among them Methodists, Baptists, Unitarians, Congregationalists and Quakers. Spain and Italy became the centres of the movement known as the Counter-Reformation. To prevent Roman Catholics from defecting to the newly-established Protestant Churches, radical reforms were implemented, and the Society or Army of Jesus, was modelled on the old military orders, the head of the society, to whom absolute obedience was due, was to be called the General. The Jesuits, was formed by Ignatius Loyola and was elected the order’s first general. Loyola was born in 1491 into a noble Basque family. Compulsory fasting, prayers of repentance, chanting by the choir, wearing uniform habit and other medieval practices were done away with. However, the decision was taken to exclude women from the Order. Ignatius believed strongly in the value of education, founding first the Roman College, then a string of schools and colleges all over Europe. He also organised missionary expeditions much further afield. The Society of Jesus was well-known internationally by the time of Ignatius Loyola’s death. He died in 1556 and was canonized in 1622.
Upholding the Papacy, and as champions of the Counter-Reformation, the Jesuits carried out work as educationists and missionaries and played a very important part in the regeneration of the Roman Catholic Church.