Christianity Comes Home-Part II: A Short History of the Protestant Reformation

Larry Pearce

Return to Part I: Our Families’ Faith Journey
Skip to Part III: A Summary of our Recent Anabaptist Heritage Tour
Skip to Part IV: Our American Amish

John Hus (1369-1415), Prague, Czech Republic


This article on our families’ faith journey reveals, we hope and believe, one answer to a research question formulated in 2014, during a family trip to Central Europe, and further refined this year while on a heritage tour of Germany, Switzerland, and France. Where do our associated families fit into the evolution of the Christian faith? My wife and I, as we described in Part I, have moved easily among three main Protestant denominations: German Lutheran, Scots-Irish Presbyterianism, and English Methodism, although Susan’s maternal grandfather, a Lutheran, married a young Amish woman of the Swiss Anabaptist tradition. In writing this history of our own personal faith journey, some of the similarities between that quest and the great Protestant Reformation have been realized.

The stirrings of dissatisfaction with the power and authority of the Roman Catholic Church were seemingly always present, although probably the questions and teachings of Saints Augustine (354-450 AD), Jerome (342-420 AD), and Francis (1181-1226) on personal salvation and divine grace kept it in the front of clerical consciousness over the centuries. As Christianity spread in all directions from Jerusalem after Pentecost, what are now called Eastern Orthodox churches took hold, the Greek during the first century and the Russian as late as 988 AD, for example. The popes and bishops were continually trying to settle differences among believers with Councils and Synods. In 325 AD, after Constantine became the first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity, attributing his miraculous civil war victories to the faith, he called the Council of Nicea to clarify certain beliefs. He built a new church-state capital in Constantinople, now known as Istanbul, Turkey. With the death of his successor in 395 AD, a portion of the Church again was ruled from Rome. By 451 AD the Oriental Orthodox Church, which includes a half-dozen bodies including the North African  Coptics, formally split with the rest. In 1054 AD the Roman and Eastern Orthodox Churches ex-communicated each other, and the main division in Christianity became permanent. The bottom line is that the institutional Christian Church has always been in turmoil.

In 1376, Oxford professor and theologian John Wycliffe (c.1320-1384) felt called to answer  questions of faith through his attacks on the privileges of the clergy and luxury and pomp of local parishes. His basis was his understanding and eventual translation of scripture into the Middle English vernacular for all the learned to read. By 1378, as many as three popes vied for power in the Church, which substantiated the question the early protestors had in the authority of that office. Wycliffe’s followers, the Lollards, which is Flemish for “mutterers,” promoted a set of beliefs called “The 12 Conclusions” in 1395, which instigated a rebellion in 1414. They were responsible for what would later be called Puritanism, a movement calling for personal piety and a righteous life in public service. They are best known for their sailing to and settling in America in 1620. The sect spread to what today is Moravia and Bohemia in the Czech Republic. There, John Hus (1369-1415), taught Philosophy at Charles University in Prague. He is considered the next great reformer after Wycliffe and his writings influenced all who came after. The Catholic authorities had him burned at the stake in 1415. What today is known as the Moravian Church was then called the Bohemian Brethren or Hussites and were inspired by the ideas of Hus around 1457, over a half-century before Martin Luther’s crusades.

Another early sect inspired by the Anabaptists of Moravia were the Huttites, led by Jacob Hutter (c.1500-1536), an Italian hat maker from Tyrol, Italy, who settled in the North in 1533, but returned to Italy two years later only to be arrested and sentenced to death. He was burned at the stake in Innsbruck in 1536. These, indeed, were dangerous times.

Martin Luther
German Protestant Reformer

Martin Luther, (1483-1546) an Augustinian monk and lecturer at Wittenberg College, in Germany, rejected many of the teaching and practices of his Church, particularly the selling of “indulgences,” the exchange of money for forgiveness. In 1517, in an act of defiance and a call for dialogue, Luther nailed a list of complaints, know today as the “95 Theses,” to the door of the Wittenberg chapel, a place where public notices and wedding bans where normally found. In the next decade, he published more theological pamphlets than all the other reformers combined, taking advantage of the relatively new German invention, the printing press. He was called to account and excommunicated by the Church in 1521. Our tour spent a night across from the cathedral at Worms where Luther famously pleaded, “Here I stand, God help me, I can do no other.” After the trials, Frederich, the Elector of Saxony, hid him away in his castle while he continued to publish and completed the translation of scriptures into German. Luther was adamant that his followers not think of him in naming the Reformation:
I ask that my name be left silent and people not call themselves Lutheran, but rather Christians. Who is Luther? The doctrine is not mine. I have been crucified for no one. St. Paul in 1 Cor. 3:4-5 would not suffer that the Christians should call themselves of Paul or of Peter, but Christian.

Nevertheless, Lutheranism would become the state religion throughout much of Germany, Scandinavia and the Baltics. In Germany, the writings of Luther, especially his doctrine of “the priesthood of all believers,” inspired the Peasants’ Revolt, which began in 1524, after the Hussite War, the ideals of which were supported by the Anabaptists. With “The Peace of Augsburg” 1n 1555, local rulers could choose either Roman Catholicism or Lutheranism. Finally, peaceful coexistence was possible. It was understood, “He who has the Kingdom chooses the religion.” The real peace among religions came a century later with the “Treaty of Westphalia” when even the Calvinists were included. More on John Calvin later.

Grossmunster “Great ministry” Zurich, CH

Simultaneously to Luther, in Zurich, Switzerland in 1519, Catholic priest Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) inspired a reformation there with his ideas and practices among the zealous Swiss Brethren who would come to be known as Anabaptists, or those “re-baptised,” a cynical term describing their belief that, even though many before 1525  had been christened by the church-state as infants, it was necessary to be baptized as adults after a conscious profession of faith. Zwingli parted ways with Anabaptist leader Conrad Grebel over several points of belief, including infant baptism, church-state relationships, and participation in war. You’ll learn more about the Swiss and American Brethren and the Mennonites in the next part of this article as you travel with my wife and I on our recent Anabaptist heritage tour of Germany, Switzerland, and France.

In 1530, Jan Volkertsz formed an Anabaptist congregation in Amsterdam. Some of these adherents have been described as “violent revolutionaries,” but the more peaceful believers soon prevailed, and by 1574, the last execution was carried out. The movement spread quickly, and was known by the preaching and writing of Menno Simmons from Freisland Providence. Although constantly on the run from authorities, he studied scripture and ministered to congregations as far away as Germany and Poland.

Back in England, in 1534, King Henry VIII (1491-1547) broke ties with the Vatican when Pope Clement refused an annulment with wife Catherine of Aragon, declaring that the British sovereign alone should rule the Church there. Actually, Henry was seeking a male heir that even his six wives could not provide. But the Anglican break was complete. Within two years the wealth of the Catholic parishes there were moved to the king’s coffers and every church owned an English Bible. Unfortunately, the official Church of the throne went back and forth between Canterbury and Rome with rulers who followed for the next century, despite the call from Elizabeth I (1533-1603 for “The Middle Way,” her hope for a church with the best of both confessions. “The Act of Uniformity” in 1662 finally established the British monarchy over the Anglican Church. Persons with any other belief, such as my Pearces who came after, were considered “non-conformists.” Since the late 18th century, they had followed John Wesley (1703-1791), who like Wycliffe, was an Oxford theologian and professor, in what later came to be called the Methodist movement, a major Protestant denomination on the American frontier. The term “Methodist” was originally a scoffing description of Wesley’s methodical attention to performing good works. As Luther, Wesley did not wish his name to be credited with this movement to reform the Church.

But another Protestant denomination was experiencing birthing pangs during the reign of King James of England, and its children have been a large part of the settling of the colonies. In fact, there may be as many independent Baptist congregations in America as all other churches combined. All Baptists are usually thought of as coming from either England or Germany, having the “Believer’s Baptism” in common, or baptism as a sign of the personal acceptance of God’s salvation plan as an adult. However, the German Baptists are more commonly known as originating with the Anabaptist Brethren and Pietists of the 18th century and spawning many more-conservative congregations in the Swiss-German tradition here in America. The English Baptist movement began with the early 17th century Puritan-Separatist clash with the Church of England. English Baptists came then in two flavors: 1. “General” (1608), who, under the leadership of John Smyth, believed that all are saved and simply need to acknowledge this and be baptized; and 2. “Particular” (1630), who insides on complete immersion and other distinctions. By 1644, most such non-conformists in the British Isles were simply known as “Baptists,” but preferred to be called “Brethren of the Baptized Way.” In America today, aside from the large Southern and National Baptist Conventions, there are dozens of independent, self governing churches.

John Calvin (1509-1564) French-Swiss Protestant Reformer

If Wycliffe and Henry VIII represented the early English reformations, Hus the Czech, Luther the German, and Grebel the Swiss, of whom we’ll hear about in the next part, then John Calvin (1509-1564) solidified the French contribution when he was exiled to Geneva in 1541. There, he established what could be euphemistically called “a civic theocracy,” where pastors enforce Biblical moral standards often using Old Testament punishments literally. Calvin’s New Testament idea established a highly democratic form of governance, “Presbyterianism,” which is often credited as the basis of the Constitution for the new republic in America over two centuries later. His treatise, “Institutes of the Christian Religion,” suggests a return to the principles of a 1st century “godly city.” Unfortunately, this powerful preacher and writer has become associated with a misunderstanding of the concept of “predestination,” that seems to go against man’s free will: If God knows and ordains all, then he must command how everything will turn out. Calvin’s early followers are often called “Huguenots,” and even the 16th century “Reformed Church of France.” With his exile and death and harsh restrictions of the Holy Roman Empire, they emigrated to countries all over Europe.

In 1556, John Knox (c.1513-1572), a Scottish minister, escaped the condemnation of Catholic Queen Mary I to study under Calvin in Geneva only to return to his homeland to establish the Church of Scotland. First crowned King James VI of Scotland, he became King James I of England and Ireland when the countries joined in 1603. Though he eventually ruled the Anglican Church, many in the kingdom, that eventually included America, remained true to John Knox. They were known as Covenanters, a more conservative form of Presbyterianism, which many of my ancestors claimed.

As America became the ethnic melting pot for the world, so too it has become an amalgamation for all religions today, not just Christianity. In this portion of our article I have looked at the Protestant Reformation through my wife and my experiences as Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Methodists. We’ve only mentioned the Brethren-Mennonite-Anabaptist influence here, but we’ll provide more detail in the final two parts. As we concluded in the last section, it seems that reformation in any manner happens in a “push-pull” fashion. It begins with certain objections to the status quo and ends with the attraction to new ideas and practices. In the next section, we return to the Protestant Reformation as it began in Switzerland around 1525. As we said, many of my wife’s maternal and some of her fraternal ancestors were Anabaptists, specifically Amish of Berks, Somerset, and other Pennsylvania counties. We’ll tell their story in the context of our recent heritage tour to Europe this year.

(all by Larry Pearce unless otherwise indicated)

“Exodus from Germany” by Matthew C. Pearce with “Commentary” by Larry Pearce

“Background on the Scots-Irish”

“Some Scottish Symbols & Traditions”

“Faith of our Fathers (and mothers): Part I-before 1820”

“Faith of our Fathers (and mothers): Part II-1820 til now”

“A Journey between two Passages: The “Mom” & “Pop” Krause family
from the National Road to the Lincoln Highway”

“A Letter From England Re: Austens”

“Beard: Our Quaker Beginnings”

“Borger/Burger: From an Historical Sketch of Longswamp Reformed Church”

“A Vacation Back to the Future: From Michigan to Iowa”


“The Reformation.”

“The Reformation.”

R.C. Sproul. “History of the Reformation.” Ligonier Ministries.

“Reformation Overview.”


“Reformation.” Wikipediaorg.

“History of the Reformation.”

“Moravian Church.”

“Hans Hut.”

Move to Part III: A Summary of our Recent Anabaptist Heritage Tour

Last revised: 3/30/21

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