In England, John Wycliffe translated the Bible into English in 1382, and insisted the scriptures, not the pope, should have authority over the Christian church. He also attacked the sale of indulgences, certain Church doctrines, and the clergy’s immorality and privileges. After years of speaking out, he lost his position at Oxford. Although he died of natural causes, the Church Council of Constance ordered his writings and his bones burned in 1428.
In the early 1400s in Bohemia, Jan Hus preached that the Bible should be the authority for the Church, and spoke out against the pope’s use of indulgences. His protest lasted until 1415, when he was burned at the stake.
At the height of the Italian Renaissance, a monk named Savonarola stirred up the people of Florence, preaching Christian renewal, condemning vanities, and prophesying glory for the city-state. At the peak of the monk’s influence, Florentines expelled their rulers and threw their precious books and paintings onto bonfires, but in 1498, Savonarola himself was burned.
These three men, as well as many others, shared Martin Luther’s concern for a purified Church that wouldn’t contaminate God’s truth—but didn’t live to see it happen.
Martin Luther, too felt the heat of persecution at his heels. Why did he survive and found a reform movement that changed not only religion, but history, throughout Europe and beyond?
In real estate, location is everything, and Luther had the advantage of residing in German lands, far from the pope. More than that, he had an agile mind for theology and a publicist’s eye to use the recently-invented printing press to build support, and a protector (Frederick the Wise) who resisted the pope’s control of Frederick’s territory.
Luther’s success relied on more than the coincidence of chance factors, but that’s a topic for the future.
Why do you think Luther’s Reformation succeeded?
*Editor’s note: many contemporaries referred to these individuals as heroes, but this writer doesn’t endorse everything they said and did.