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Martin Luther (1483-1546) was a German priest whose criticism of the Roman Catholic Church initiated the Reformation, which led to the rise of Protestantism.

As professor of Biblical Exegesis at the University of Wittenburg he compiled a list of Ninety-Five Theses which attacked the Church for selling indulgences (promises of God's forgiveness in return for money), and argued that faith alone is sufficient for salvation. He denied the authority of the pope and other aspects of Catholic doctrine, including transubstantiation, and wrote many books and pamphlets. In 1517 Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to a church door, and thus the revolution began. Widespread discontent with the state of the church was set alight by Luther's criticisms.

In 1521 the Diet of Worms took place. It was a meeting called by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at Worms, Germany, to interrogate Luther and encourage him to withdraw his views. Luther, who had already been excommunicated by the pope, refused to retract, saying: 'Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me.' The Diet banned his works.

The Reformation was the key event of the century. From Germany it spread throughout northern Europe. New Protestant churches sprang up, inspired not only by Luther, but by the Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli, French theologian John Calvin, and others. They aimed to follow only the teachings of the Bible, getting rid of church traditions. Several powerful kings and princes supported them. Zwingli's views were more extreme than Luther's. In 1524 he banned Catholic mass in Zurich. This led to a civil war in which Zwingli was killed. Zwingli was followed by Calvin, who completed the Reformation in Switzerland and influenced John Knox who took the Reformation to Scotland.

Both Catholics and Protestants used illustrated pamphlets and books to promote their views. New techniques of printing spread their ideas. The reformers, who wanted the Bible to be available to everyone, produced new translations of it and boosted overall literacy. (In 1526, William Tyndale, the English theologian, translated the New Testament into English.) Luther's German Bible and, later, the Authorized Version in England were so influential that they helped to shape the development of the German and English languages.

Although the Catholic church responded by introducing reforms from within, beginning with the Roman Catholic Council of Trent (1545-63) which met to organize the programme of reform, violent conflict between Catholics and the reformers (called Protestants) followed. The Catholic reform movement was called the Counter-Reformation.

Christians in Europe split into violent rival groups. War often broke out as each country struggled with the new religious alliances.

Spanish nobleman Ignatius de Loyola founded the Society of Jesus, or the Jesuits, as the missionaries of the Catholic Counter-Reformation. From 1550, Jesuits were in action all over Europe, and soon they began converting the peoples of the Americas to Christianity. Wherever traders went, Jesuits followed.

In 1571 an alliance of European sea powers led by the Pope defeated the Ottoman fleet at the Battle of Lepanto, Greece. The battle ended Turkish threats to Europe by sea, and allowed Catholics to turn to their struggles with European Protestants.

In England, Henry VIII took the helm of the English church because the Pope would not let him divorce his first wife. He dissolved the monasteries and took over their property, but allowed church services to continue in their old form. During the reign of his son Edward VI (1537-53), a Protestant government brought the Reformation to England. Church services were changed and church decoration was simplified. After Edward's death his half-sister Mary, a devout Catholic, tried to restore her church's authority in England, executing many Protestants in the process. After "Bloody" Mary's death in 1558, Elizabeth I backed a moderate form of Protestantism against both Catholics and radical Protestants, such as the Puritans, for whom the Church of England was not reformed enough.

Philip II of Spain was the most powerful Catholic monarch in Europe. When Queen Elizabeth I executed Mary Queen of Scots, he organized a fleet (the Spanish Armada) to invade England and restore Catholic rule. It set sail in July 1588. The Spanish had 130 ships; the English had less than 100. In August 1588 the English fleet defeated Philip's massive invasion fleet. The victory was a triumph for Protestantism.

On 24 August 1572, the Catholic queen regent of France, Catherine de Medici, secretly ordered the massacre of thousands of French Protestants (Huguenots). This St Bartholomew's Day Massacre was meant to destroy the Huguenots; instead it reopened hostilities between Huguenots and Catholics.

In 1593, the Protestant Henry of Navarre became a Catholic in order to be confirmed as Henry IV of France. His law, the Edict of Nantes, ended France's religious wars by allowing Protestants to worship.

In 1605, a Catholic plot to murder James I of England was discovered. Guy Fawkes was planning to light gunpowder in the cellars of Parliament while James was giving an address; he was caught and executed after torture. The discovery of the Gunpowder Plot led to greater persecution of English Catholics.

Rival groups of Protestants sometimes persecuted each other. In 1620, a group of Puritans called the Pilgrim Fathers set sail from Plymouth, England, to North America in search of religious freedom.

The Lutheran Church today is a Protestant denomination with a large following in Germany and Scandinavia. It accepts Luther's teachings and stresses the importance of 'justification' (being made righteous) by God's grace, which is received through faith alone. The Church is non-hierarchical and grants autonomy to each individual congregation.

Lutherans are known for their choral and organ music. J. S. Bach wrote much of his music for Lutheran worship.

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