500 Years Later: Why Did the Protestant Reformation Happen?

A deep, thoughtful dive into the fundamental historical event that changed the face of Europe is far more than an idle exercise

We can ask this question about any historical event, of course, but it’s especially apropos given the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

In posing this question, I am not siding with either Catholics or Protestants, but following an illuminating inquiry that should help all Christians to have a deeper understanding of human choice and history.

Let’s begin with this interesting fact: Martin Luther never intended to become a monk. Rather, he was being trained in the law. On July 2, 1505, 22-year-old Martin Luther was on his way back to the University of Erfurt when he was caught in a violent storm and knocked to the ground by a thunderclap.

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In his own retrospective words, “Suddenly surrounded by the terror and agony of death, I felt constrained to make a vow.” And so he cried out, “Help me, St. Anne; I will become a monk!” He entered the Order of the Hermits of St. Augustine in Erfurt on July 17 that same year.

Luther did not want to become a monk, and it was in great part his struggle to follow the order’s call to live a life of extraordinary holiness that brought him to reject any human effort to work toward salvation. To accept that salvation was by faith alone — sola fide — eliminated that struggle, and also, soon enough, Luther’s stint in the monastery.

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But what if there had not been a thunderstorm that fateful day, or if Luther had traveled to Erfurt a day earlier or later? We can be fairly certain he would have continued on to Erfurt and become a lawyer, not chief of the Protestant reformers.

Or, what if the Order of the Hermits of St. Augustine had responded with prudent and pastoral skepticism to Luther’s rash vow? Or failing that, put him through a three-year program of discernment before allowing him to take a formal vow? Again, not caught in an unwanted religious vocation, Luther’s great religious struggle with works that ignited the Reformation would likely not have happened.

Does that mean the Reformation would not have occurred? That puts too much weight on one man and ignores the larger fact that the corruption of the papacy was all too evident to everyone. Calls to reform had been echoing throughout Europe for well over half a century.

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One of the most strident of those voices was that of the Dominican monk Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498). In a sermon of 1495, Savonarola proclaimed, “All of Italy must be turned upside down” because of its sins. “Rome as well, and then the Church must be renewed,” he said. Using a poignant scriptural metaphor about the barren fig tree (Mark 11:12-25), he declared:

This fig tree is the tree of the Church, which, though in the beginning it bore an abundance of fruit and no leaves, nevertheless is at the point today where it bears no fruit at all, but only leaves, that is, ceremonies and shows and superfluities whereby it overshadows the other plants of the earth — which means that the prelates of the Church because of their bad example are responsible for other men falling into very many sins. The gardener will come, that is, Christ, and will cut down this fig tree which is fruitless. Therefore, the Church will renew itself.

What if all of Italy, and the hierarchy of the church in particular, had harkened to Savonarola’s fiery call for deep reform over 20 years before Luther’s? As historian Roberto Ridolfi has said, “Perhaps beyond the Alps Luther would not have arisen, or his influence would have been less; and Reform, of which every Christian heart-felt the need, would then have been born in the very bosom of the Church of Rome.”

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But the pope at the time, the notoriously corrupt Alexander VI, did not heed the call for reform. Instead, he excommunicated Savonarola in 1497, and the Dominican friar was executed the following year. The corruption continued.

Or what if a truly holy pope had ascended the chair of St. Peter in the mid-1400s, and started a deep reform over a half-century before the Reformation? This is certainly not inconceivable, as there had been great reforming popes in the past, such as Gregory the Great (590-604) and Gregory VII (1073-1085), and there were great popes in the Church’s future, such as John Paul II. Instead, the time leading up to the Reformation was filled with a string of really awful popes, such as the aforementioned Alexander VI.

Luther thought little about what effect the Reformation might have beyond his time.

What if Muslim forces hadn’t conquered Constantinople in 1453, and threatened to overrun Europe in the early 1500s? This very real threat had two important effects. First, it diverted Catholic Holy Roman Emperor Charles V from taking care of the problem with Luther in Germany (or reform of the papacy in Rome, for that matter). Second, it gave Luther (and others) an imprudent sense of urgency.

All of Christian Europe felt that the Muslim threat signaled that the end times were coming, the times prophesied in the book of Revelation. For Luther, it meant that the pope must be the Antichrist (not a good stance for reconciliation).

Moreover, since Luther felt he was living in the end times, he took little thought about what effect the Reformation might have beyond his own time.

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Or, if we might take a glance at the situation in England. What if Henry VIII hadn’t had such an insatiable sexual appetite, but instead remained faithful to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon? Would Henry not have split from Rome over his attempt to get an annulment of his marriage? What if Catherine had provided Henry with the much-desired male heir, rather than suffering a series of miscarriages and children who died soon after birth? Or, to descend to the scurrilous, what if Anne of Boleyn, with whom Henry became infatuated while still married to Catherine, had agreed to remain the king’s mistress, rather than demand to become queen?

There are many more “what ifs” in regard to the Reformation, or any other great historical event, for that matter. Pondering them is not an idle endeavor; it’s a way for us all to take the measure of our actions more deeply, not knowing what effects they might have — and to understand that history is not some kind of predetermined scheme but the theater of real human choices.

Benjamin Wiker is professor of political science and senior fellow of the Veritas Center at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio. His newest book is “The Reformation 500 Years Later: 12 Things You Need To Know” (Regnery History). His website is  

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