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 in Europe. It happened in the 1500s. A reform movement tries to change society in order to improve it. The Protestant Reformation led to a new kind of Christian religion called Protestantism. It refers to the many religious groups that separated from the Roman Catholic Church. These groups split from the Catholic Church due to differences in their beliefs.

Martin Luther's Writings

The Protestant Reformation began in Wittenberg, Germany. It started on October 31, 1517. Martin Luther, a teacher and a monk, started the movement. He published writings he called Disputation on the Power of Indulgences, or 95 Theses. The writings were a series of 95 ideas about Christianity. These ideas caused a great deal of debate because they directly went against the Catholic Church's teachings.

The Catholic Church saw itself as the link between people and God. Luther challenged that. He specifically challenged the indulgence system. The indulgence system allowed people to buy a pardon for their sins. If they did something bad, they could just pay money to the church. That money was supposed to buy God's forgiveness through the church. Luther argued against this practice. He believed that God forgives people, not the church.

Protestantism's Core Idea

Luther's problems with the indulgence system led to other challenges to Catholic beliefs. Most of the challenges to the Catholic Church were based on one core idea. The idea was that believers should depend less on the Catholic Church's pope and priests. Instead, Protestants believed people should have a direct relationship with God. They believed people should refer to the Bible, which is the Christian holy book, themselves for worship and wisdom.

In England, Protestant reform began with Henry VIII in 1534. The pope would not allow him to end his marriage. That led King Henry to stop following the pope and create the Church of England instead. It was a mixed-belief church that combined 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, known as separatists, believed the English church could not be trusted. They decided their only choice was to leave England, separate from the church, and start a new church. They called this the English Separatist Church.

Religious Differences Helps To Populate New England

In 1620, some members of the English Separatist Church set sail aboard the Mayflower for New England. This was a part of North America that England had colonized. The Separatists landed near Plymouth, Massachusetts. They would, over time, become known as the Pilgrims.

The other group of English people who wanted more reform were called nonseparatists. They wanted to reform the Church of England by getting rid of the parts of Catholicism that remained within it. They did not leave the Church of England. Over time, though, they would be called Puritans.

Some of the Puritans realized it would be hard to change the Church of England. In 1630, a decade after the Pilgrims made their journey, the first Puritans, too, traveled to the New World. They established the Massachusetts Bay Colony in Boston, Massachusetts.

The Separatists and nonseparatists disagreed about whether to cut ties to the Church of England. Both groups of early North American colonists were unhappy with the church, though. They both wanted to start a church more in line with their beliefs. This freedom to practice religion according to one's beliefs led many new churches and beliefs to be created in the colonies. This wide range of ideas also led to disagreements.

Freedom of Religion

This freedom of religion has become a core value of the United States. The first 10 amendments to the United States Constitution are called the Bill of Rights. It specifically says that the U.S. government cannot have an official religion and it also cannot stop people from following their own religious practices. This idea goes all the way back to the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s. It has become an important part of the American mindset.

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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
Program Specialists
Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
Clint Parks
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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