The Protestant Reformation

The Protestant Reformation

The Protestant Reformation that began with Martin Luther in 1517 played a key role in the development of the North American colonies and the eventual United States.


3, 5, 7, 9 - 12


Religion, Social Studies, Civics, U.S. History, World History


Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms 1521

Martin Luther, a German teacher and a monk, brought about the Protestant Reformation when he challenged the Catholic Church's teachings starting in 1517.

Photograph of painting by World History Archive/Alamy Stock Photo
Martin Luther, a German teacher and a monk, brought about the Protestant Reformation when he challenged the Catholic Church's teachings starting in 1517.
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The Protestant Reformation was a religious reform movement. It happened in Europe in the 1500s. People start a reform movement when they want to change things. A reform movement tries to make people's lives better.

The Protestant Reformation made a new kind of Christian religion. It is called Protestantism. It includes many religious groups that separated from the Roman Catholic Church. The groups left the Catholic Church because of differences in their beliefs.

Challenging the Catholic Church

The Protestant Reformation began in Germany. It started on October 31, 1517. Martin Luther was a teacher and a monk. He started the movement. He wrote the Disputation on the Power of Indulgences. The document was also called 95 Theses. It was a list of 95 ideas about Christianity. These ideas went against the Catholic Church's teachings. Some people did not like that.

Luther thought people should have a direct relationship with God. He thought believers should depend less on the Catholic Church's pope and priests. The church was also allowing people to pay indulgences. An indulgence meant someone paid to have their sins forgiven. Luther thought this was wrong. Only God could forgive people's sins. The Protestants wanted people to have a direct relationship with God.

King Henry VIII's Divorce Shakes Up England

In England, Protestant reform began with King Henry VIII in 1534. He wanted to get a divorce, but the pope would not let him. So, he created his own church. It was called the Church of England. It had some Catholic beliefs and some Protestant ideas.

Over time, some English people did not believe England was Protestant enough. These people fell into two groups. The first group was the separatists. They believed the English church could not be trusted. They decided they had to leave England and start a new church.

In 1620, some of them went to New England on the Mayflower. New England was a part of North America that England had colonized. They landed near Plymouth in Massachusetts. They became known as the Pilgrims.

Puritans Found Massachusetts Colony

The other group who wanted more reform were called nonseparatists. They became known as the Puritans. They did not want to leave the Church of England. They just wanted to get rid of the parts of Catholicism that remained in it.

Some of the Puritans realized it would be hard to change the Church of England. In 1630, they moved to New England instead. They started the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It was in Boston.

The Pilgrims and Puritans did not agree with each other. They both wanted religious freedom, though. Their ideas helped shape the United States. To this day, the U.S. government cannot have an official religion. It also cannot stop people from following their own religions. This is written in the U.S. Constitution. The idea goes all the way back to the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s.

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Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
Freddie Wilkinson
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Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
Jeanna Sullivan, National Geographic Society
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Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
Clint Parks
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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