The Context of the Protestant Reformation

A Gothic Cathedral in a Medieval City by Pieter Cornelis Dommersen, 1850.

The Protestant Reformation is significant to the founding of the United States because it greatly affected the religious and political views of the Europeans who immigrated to America in the 1600s.  It also influenced some of the European writers and philosophers who were read by early and founding-era Americans.

To understand the Reformation, it is important to consider the religious and political context of Europe prior to this movement.  Before and during the early 1500s, two powers ruled the world—church (pope) and empire (emperor).  The Roman Catholic Church was and had been, for centuries, the dominant organized form of the Christian church in the kingdoms of Europe.  The pope, the highest person in the hierarchical Catholic church, was considered the representative or vicar of Christ in the world.  The emperor, on the other hand, was the highest civil magistrate who ruled over the empire.  The civil magistrates’ power, however, was limited by church, oath, law, and other kings and nobles.

Over time, the pope gained more political and legal power, and the official church became the highest political authority in the kingdoms.  The emperor and kings were accountable to the church, but the pope was accountable only to God.  Since the pope was Christ’s vicar, as it was asserted, anyone’s attempt to judge the pope was acting contrary to God’s will.

In 1517, a series of events ignited a movement that would dramatically change the religious and political scene in Europe (as will be discussed in the next blog on “The Igniting of the Protestant Reformation.”

Contributed by AHEF and Angela E. Kamrath.

Source for more information:  Kamrath, Angela E.  The Miracle of America:  The Influence of the Bible on the Founding History and Principles of the United States of America for a People of Every Belief.  Second Edition, Third Edition.  Houston, TX:  American Heritage Education Foundation, 2014, 2015, 2020.  Third Edition 2020 is now available!

Related Blogs/Videos:
1.  The Igniting of the Protestant Reformation – Martin Luther’s 95 Theses
2.  The Key Tenets of the Protestant Reformation
3.  The Key Political Thinkers & Writings of the Reformation era
4.  The Reformation Led to the Translation and Printing of the Bible Into People’s Common Languages
5.  The Catholic Counter-Reformation
6.  Three P’s That Led to Freedom in the West:  Printing Press, Protestant Reformation, & Pilgrims



Activity:  Miracle of America High School Teacher Course Guide, Unit 1, Part 1, Activity 3:  Causes and Effects of the Reformation, pp. 56.  HS.

This unit is available to download from the Member Resources at

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