On 31st October, 1517, Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg, by which he opened the floodgates for the many new religious movements which came to be known as the Reformation. This transformed the theological, ecclesiastical and social landscape of Europe in the decades and centuries to come.
The Reformation of the sixteenth century had had precursors. At the Diet of Worms in 1521, Luther was accused of reviving two heresies: that of John Wycliffe (ca1324-1384) and that of Jan Hus (ca 1370-1415). Wycliffe was a priest and theologian whose ideas and impulses foreshadowed those of Luther and the other reformers. He helped to make a translation of the Bible from the Latin Vulgate into English and believed that the Bible was the only source of authority, in contrast to the Church’s doctrine that the tradition of the church carried its own authority. Perhaps more remarkable than his teaching was the social and religious movement, Lollardy, which sprang from his inspiration. It persisted independently until it was absorbed into the British Reformation. The Lollards opposed the corruption of the Church, and they celebrated the ideals of a priesthood of all believers and of a literate laity. The Lollards did this in the face of persecution: for about 100 years, private possession of an English Bible was punishable by death.
We know that Jan Hus, founder of the movement to reform the church in Bohemia was inspired by Wycliffe’s teachings; Luther in turn was inspired by Hus. The new consciousness that gave birth to the Reformation, which gave ever more weight to the inner voice and conscience of each Christian, found its first powerful expression in the English language. The beginnings of the settlement of North America by Europeans are also part of the unfolding story of protest and reform; the Pilgrim Fathers embodied the Lollard spirit of answering to one’s own conscience alone. A historic shift in consciousness, such as the one embodied by the Reformation, is prepared by many human beings in many places; freedom of conscience and belief, which many of us take for granted today, had to be fought for by human beings of conscience and courage.
In the September-November 2017 issue, there are a number of articles on aspects of the Reformation. For more details, see this page.