The Facts of the Reformation


Every time I re-watch The Tudors, various thoughts swirl around in my head: how much I hate Henry VIII, how much compassion I have for his wives, and my anguish over how the Reformation was “enforced” in England. People talk about it as if it was a great moment in history. Protestants especially think it carries significance. I have heard Anne Boleyn praised for being the catalyst that introduced the “true” faith to England. That shocks me most of all, that we want to credit an adulterous relationship with spreading Christianity. The end doesn’t justify the means, even if the end is good. Unfortunately, the end of this movement was just as bad as the immorality that spread it.

Thanking Anne Boleyn for the Reformation, or thinking that it made a positive impact on England, is a superficial assessment of an event that cost millions of people their lives, led to hundreds of years of religious persecution, and was never really about faith in the first place. Henry VIII was not a Reformist. He adopted the Reformation because it granted him divine moral authority and made it so no religious establishment on earth could hold him accountable for his actions. Since Henry was embroiled in a bitter fight with the Pope at the time over the right to divorce Katharine of Aragon, the idea of being able to abandon his Catholic roots appealed to him mightily. This way, he could merely declare his marriage invalid and get on with the business of officially impregnating Anne Boleyn. It had nothing to do with religious fervor, and everything to do with opportunistic power. Henry was, to his last, a cultural Catholic (loyal in practice, but not in morals) who likely would have executed his final wife for her radical Protestantism, had he not kicked the bucket. And, his stance on it is not the last such case: even the famous King James, praised by many for sanctioning the King James Bible, primarily did it to solidify his hold on the throne and remind people that monarchs are accountable to no one except God.


Martin Luther’s idea for the Reformation was a good one; he wanted scripture in the hands of the people, and an emphasis on the true message of salvation, part of which is Jesus’ message on compassion and love. His message was good, but the Reformation itself was not about love; it was about the utter destruction of the Catholic Church, and murdering millions of innocent people on both sides. Many took the idea of Reform, and twisted it into a means of enacting revenge on Catholicism and vindicating brutal behavior. They burned monasteries and nunneries to the ground, murdering or raping its inhabitants, destroyed libraries, and sanctioned theft (because to steal from a Catholic is not true theft). Religious division caused wars in France, Germany, and England, leading to mass slaughter, burning people at the stake, and the “persecution” that eventually caused the Colonization of America. Better to starve, drown, or die from an Indian attack than face imprisonment, torture, mutilation, and death in England.

Henry’s adoption of the role of the “Head” of the Church of England caused no end of devastating aftermath; ever after, warring factions fought over who would come to the throne next. They wanted a monarch of their beliefs, knowing that one of opposing religious beliefs would indoctrinate the masses to their brand of faith – either Catholic or Protestant. One shift in religious power and everyone at court might be executed for heresy. None of it was genuinely driven through faith, but through ambition, fear, and hatred. This persecution went on for generations – Queen Mary persecuted Reformists, Queen Elizabeth persecuted Puritans, King James persecuted the Pilgrims.


Protestantism has its roots in Martin Luther, but rapidly became a secular political movement rather than a religious belief; from almost the moment of its conception, once it branched out beyond Luther’s control, it abandoned faith and became just as corrupt as the medieval Catholic Church. Burning people alive, boiling them in oil, forcing them to join your religion or die – none of these are the teachings of Christ. Protestantism came to England not as a long-standing force for good, but as an enforced rule of law shoved down people’s throats under pain of death. When religion is enforced, it changes no souls, it affects no lives, and its morality is invalid, because no one embraces it.

The Reformation arriving in England is nothing to celebrate, since it did far more harm than good; its greatest accomplishment is the desensitization of the European masses toward evangelism. The nations touched by the Reformation and its brutal aftermath are religious in name, but not in practice; their faith is inherited and cultural rather than based on individual belief. As a result, they are far harder to evangelize than nations never touched by the Reformation. Had the Reformation happened naturally, it would have had longer-lasting power and impact, because it would genuinely have changed souls. Had Henry truly Reformed, he wouldn’t be the most notorious wife-killer in history, with the largest record of executions to date. Had his daughters embraced the teachings of Christ rather than religious trappings, England could have avoided further persecution. The Reformation was not the best thing to happen to England – it was one of the worst.

Genuine faith spreads through passion and changed lives. It spreads through kindness and love, not mass murder, civil war, and discrimination. It changes an empire by changing one heart at a time.

12 thoughts on “The Facts of the Reformation

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  1. As I’ve been taking this class, Baptist Heritage, I learned that Queen Elizabeth was not the Protestant I’d always taken her for; instead, she was a middle-of-the road kind of person. And yes, what people do in the name of religion is often awful and nothing like true faith.

    1. Elizabeth has always been my favorite queen, so it distressed me a bit to realize when I was still idealistic that she was just as human as the rest of the monarchs!

      Talking about the pros and cons of the reformation reminds me of this: much of what was written about previous queens was written by their successors or contemporaries who either hated them or adored them. I suspect that Mary Tudor’s reign was vilified by Elizabeth’s anti-Catholic contemporaries, both in an attempt to paint Elizabeth in a good light and denounce Catholic monarchs. Similarly, we can’t accurately judge Elizabeth all the time, because other than the facts (many of which we can no longer prove!), we can’t trust the sources!

  2. I am often very disbelieving of the blindness that historians portray when they share their “view” of history–I often wonder if it’s just thoughtless repetition. For, as you said, many many bad things happened, and often enough history does not put things in context. It proves the truth that “the victors tell the story”, and only what one wants to remember of history, is. The full picture is never realized. I remember feeling that way even with my Christian history books. I knew certain things had happened, had read up myself on certain subjects (I’m a voracious reader, with enormous curiosity) and I felt that even some Christian point of views had lost their essence. They were but a shell, without use. But the Reformation, for me, points out a truth–that Christianity itself, when twisted, is the strongest weapon for evil. No wonder so many people doubt. When compared to the normal, honest things some missionary groups I know, you see the difference–the real, GOOD difference. These people had hope. Those swept up in the Reformation–what would their voices say?

    1. Everyone has a bias. It’s impossible NOT to have a bias, unless you simply state the facts. But most historians don’t do that; they pass judgment on the facts, or infer things, or imply things. That’s one reason I don’t enjoy reading David Starkey. I respect his facts, but not the fact that he infuses the entire book with totally non-subtle bias for and against certain of Henry’s wives, based on his contempt for their religious views.

      It’s easy to judge others’ actions based on modern standards and beliefs, but when put in context to the period, place, and moral values of the time, things become a lot less black and white. It doesn’t make the actions of others right, but it explains where they come from.

  3. Hi Charity, I am glad you posted this. I have become a Catholic, last year in fact. I know that some parts of the church have made mistakes in history, but I’m glad you acknowledge the mistakes of the Reformation as well. Some people think the Church is so flawed, that Protestants have the only answers. I wish there wasn’t this much division.

    I know you haven’t heard from me in a while, but I’m still writing. =]

    1. Everyone makes mistakes. The ideals of the Reformation were good; the way other people warped them for their own purpose were bad.

      Sadly, after several hundred years of fighting, with such radically different views and biases, I doubt that Catholics and Protestants can ever fully overcome their division — but I wish they would.

  4. An astute reflection on the Tudors and the effects of the Reformation – I have always been interested in this period of history.

    I’m inclined to agree that, once all the persecutions were over, the Reformation had the effect of reducing the Church in England to a dry set of doctrines and rules which had more to do with supporting Crown and State than with spirituality.
    I recognise that there are many individual religious communities in the UK which are not like this, (both within the official Church of England and in the many non-conformist churches which arose after the Act of Uniformity in 1662), the fact is that many people in the UK have turned away from a state religion which seemingly is of little relevance to their lives.

    This was the unsatisfying nature of the Church of England experienced by both my father and myself. However, as spiritually-minded INFX types (Dad is an INFP, while I’m an INFJ), we both independently chose to look elsewhere for meaning in our lives.

    I guess our personality types influenced our choices here: Dad turned to his Ne function to explore alternate doctrines. Consequently, our family became involved with many different religions during my childhood, including Methodism and the Mormon Church. (I was actually baptised as a teenager in the main Mormon Temple in London, but I soon found my growing interest in science to be at odds with many of the beliefs espoused by the Mormons, so we politely went our separate ways). For many years, Dad continued to explore just about every alternate faith and fringe belief system that he could find, before his strong dominant Fi finally concluded that “they are all cults”, and he decided to make up his own mind about God.

    In contrast, my Ni and Ti functions led me to study science as a way of making sense of the universe. Science is a wonderful tool, but it opened up as many questions as it answered. Intuiting that there was more “out there”, my ever-curious mind led me over the years to explore, among other things, psychology, personality typologies, NLP, “New Age” spirituality, neuroscience, history, psychic phenomena and self-development philosophies.

    Despite all this, I still consider myself to be a Christian at heart. Although I don’t attend church regularly, I recognise that many places of worship have a certain special atmosphere and sense of sanctity that is generally lacking in our modern secular world. I have been fortunate enough to travel extensively overseas, and have found a similar sort of special “sacred” energy to be present at many ancient holy sites, including stone circles in the British Isles, the ruins of Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley of the Incas in Peru, the Mayan cities in the Yucatan peninsula, Maori sacred sites in New Zealand and Hindu temples in India.

    My first encounters with the glorious Catholic churches in continental Europe were a revelation as well. Whatever one may think about the rights and wrongs of Catholicism as a religion, the exquisite decoration, iconography and artwork in their churches and cathedrals speaks to the soul.

    “Genuine faith spreads through passion and changed lives. It spreads through kindness and love, not mass murder, civil war, and discrimination. It changes an empire by changing one heart at a time.”

    This is so true!


    1. Me, too. I spent like three years obsessing over the period and everyone involved.

      Unfortunately, there is a general apathy in American churches as well. Some thrive, but many are dying out as the younger generation no longer finds them relevant. As a family, we have struggled mightily to find churches that are excited about faith, who are interested in doing something in their community, and that haven’t drowned under a tide of traditionalism. We have attended many different Christian denominations, and reached the conclusion that we agree in part with most of them (about salvation through Christ) but don’t agree entirely with any of them. We are too conservative for some denominations and too liberal for others! Nor do we believe any one denomination can be right about anything.

      On a different note, there really is gloriousness in cathedrals. Catholicism, as you said, had its faults, but I don’t think anyone could see Notre Dame and not find it beautiful. My aunt went on a trip to Israel a few years ago, and she found the medieval Catholic Churches all over Jerusalem to be “garish and overdone,” while all I could think was, “But… they’re so beautiful, and reverent!” God is just as present in a field of flowers, or in the dry beauty of the Sahara, as He is in a cathedral… but I don’t think there is anything wrong in wanting to reflect that beauty up at Him through a beautiful church.

      1. You must have read my mind – Notre Dame is the principal example I was thinking about when I referred to the beauty of Catholic churches. I am returning to the UK in August for a long holiday, and have literally just booked a side-trip to visit Paris for a few days. Notre Dame is one of the places I am planning to see again whilst I am there!

        1. Ooh, that’ll be a lovely trip! It really is a gorgeous church.

          I’m glad Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame helped restore it, since I understand the church was very neglected before his book prompted tourism.

  5. It’s bothersome when we as Christians try to justify or cover up the Church’s mistakes in history. Do I agree with Luther’s message that faith, not works, is what makes a person right with God? Yes. But that doesn’t mean I have to accept the ugly actions of people who called themselves Christians but failed to live out what the Bible teaches. The Reformation as a movement was largely political — even Luther admitted that it failed to produce a wide-spread change in the spiritual lives of Europeans. And you’re right: Protestants became just as bloody as Catholics in their fervent attempt to “convert” others to their cause.

    But I think we can only come to terms with the Church’s historical sins when we recognize that Christianity is Christ, not the body of broken and sinful people who seek to follow Him.

    1. I agree, it’s important to distinguish between Christ and His fallible, sinful followers.

      It’s also important to remember that the Reformation was not necessarily a good thing. It’s troubling that Protestants in particular place so much emphasis on it as a point of positive change in history. Their beliefs are misinformed and as such, they are unknowingly condoning a great deal of ungodly behavior.

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