Daily Archives: September 17, 2009

The background of the Protestant Reformation

Dr. Dan Petty, chair of Biblical Studies at Florida College, gave me permission to post some of his information about the Reformation Movement on the blog. Dan has some other material on church history at Lessons on Line. The following section, without indentation, is by Dr. Petty.


The Protestant Reformation began in 1517, when Martin Luther posted his Ninety-five Theses in Wittenberg, Germany. The background of the movement is complex. The movement was conditioned by political, social, economic, moral and intellectual factors. But it was above all a religious movement led by men interested in a genuine reform of Christianity.

The Decline of Papal Power
The rise of national monarchies in the thirteenth through the fifteenth centuries came at the expense of the power of the papacy. This fact is illustrated by Pope Boniface VIII’s struggle with the king of France, which resulted in the pope’s humiliation and untimely death in 1303. The papacy was subsequently located in Avignon, France for an approximately seventy-year period known in history as the Avignon Papacy or the Babylonian Captivity of the Papacy (1303-77). During that time the papacy was dominated by the French monarchy. Efforts to restore the papacy to Rome at first only resulted in a division, known as the Great Schism. Rival popes claimed legitimacy until the situation was finally resolved in 1417.

Such scandalous affairs in the highest leadership of the Roman Catholic Church led to increasing corruption and a loss of confidence in the church. Many questioned the absolute authority claimed for the pope. Others increasingly called for a reform of the church in “head and members.”

Moral Corruption in the Leadership of the Church
The years leading up to the Protestant Reformation were also plagued by moral corruption and abuse of position in the Roman Catholic Church. The priesthood was guilty of several abuses of privilege and responsibility, including simony (using one’s wealth or influence to purchase an ecclesiastical office), pluralism (holding multiple offices simultaneously) and absenteeism (the failure to reside in the parish where they were supposed to minister). The practice of celibacy which was imposed by the church on  the priesthood was often abused or ignored, leading to immoral conduct on the part of the clergy. Secular-minded, ignorant priests corrupted their position by neglect or abuse of power.

During the fifteenth century the worldliness and corruption in the church reached its worst. The problem of corruption reached all the way to the papacy.

Among those who spoke out for a reform of the church was the Dominican Giralamo Savonarola (1452-1498) of Florence, Italy. This fiery preacher spoke out against the corrupt morals of the city’s leaders and the abuses of the papacy. The people were won over to Savonarola’s cause in Florence, but because of religious rivalries and political circumstances, the movement was short-lived. Savonarola was hanged and burned for heresy in 1498.


Here is a photo of the Piazza della Signoria in Florence, Italy. This is where Savonarola preached and died. In the next post we will show a photo of the plaque marking the place where Savonarola was martyred in 1498.

Piazza della Signoria in Florence, Italy. Photo by Ferrell Jenkins.

Piazza della Signoria in Florence, Italy. Photo by Ferrell Jenkins.