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.