Church History:  The 1500s


What happened in this century?

  • Note:  to see a very detailed timeline of the Reformation, go here

  • At the beginning of the century, Europe has one Christian group:  Catholics.  At the end of the century, Europe has at least five:  Catholic, Lutheran, Anabaptist, Reformed (Calvinist), and Anglican (Church of England)

Contact Mark Nickens, Ph.D. in Church History, at  Questions, comments, and observations are welcome!


Go to Study Church History here.


2011 Mark Nickens

1501        Arthur of England and Catherine of Aragon married. 

1501        Erasmus has begun his climb to European prominence.  To read an excerpt from a book he wrote this year, "The Handbook of the Christian Soldier," go here.

1502        Michelangelo began sculpting "David."  He finished in 1504.

1502 also        Frederick the Wise founded the University of Wittenberg.  This is the school where Luther would one day teach and spend the rest of his life. 

1502 also        Arthur died.  This leaves Catherine of Aragon a widow. 

1503        Henry VIII, Arthur's little brother and heir to the throne after Arthur died, and Catherine were betrothed. 

1505        Michelangelo began sculpting "Moses."  He finished in 1508.

also        Luther's thunderstorm incident.  He had been attending school to become a lawyer.  He was caught in a field during a thunderstorm and said, "Help me, St. Anne, and I will become a monk."  [author's note:  Anne was the mother of Mary the mother of Jesus.]  He soon gave away his possessions, joined the Augustinian Order, and went to live in a monastery.

1506        Columbus died.

1506 also        Zwingli ordained as a priest. 

also        Pope Julius II laid the cornerstone of the Basilica of St. Peter.  The enormous cost of the cathedral would cause the next pope to raise money through a special indulgence.  This sale would cause Luther to post the 95 Theses on the church door in Wittenberg in order to debate the issue. 

Big Picture:  Indulgences

Indulgences are opportunities for a Catholic to reduce time in purgatory (or have sins forgiven, they both mean the same thing).  One example of an indulgence was to go on a Crusade.  Another example was to travel to see a relic at a church or monastery. (For a list of some of the relics available in the 1500s, click here.)  In the case of the special indulgence during Luther's time, the pope wanted to raise money for building St. Peter's Basilica and so issued a indulgence where people paid money for having sins forgiven/reduce time in purgatory.  Plus, at least one friar claimed that they reduced the time in Purgatory of people who had died and were already in Purgatory.  In many cases, part of the money of this special indulgence stayed with the local bishop and the other part went to the pope.

(1507        The first world map appeared in which the name "America" was used.)

1507        Luther began his theological studies and was ordained a priest.

1508        Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  He finished it in 1512.

1509        Henry VII died and Henry VIII became king of England.  Henry VIII married Catherine of Aragon.

1509 also        John Calvin born.

1510        Catherine of Aragon miscarried a daughter. 

1510 also        Luther sent to Rome on behalf of his Order.  When he saw Rome for the first time he fell to the ground and said, "How blessed are you, Holy Rome!"

1510 also        By this time, Erasmus is exceedingly popular in Europe as a scholar and author.

1511        Catherine of Aragon gives birth to a son named Henry.  He died 3 weeks later.

1512        Luther received his doctorate degree and was officially hired at the University of Wittenberg.

1513        Catherine of Aragon was pregnant again but miscarried.

1514        John Knox born.

1514 also        Catherine of Aragon was pregnant again but miscarried.

1515        In addition to his teaching responsibilities, Luther is placed in charge of 11 Augustinian monasteries.

1515        Catherine of Aragon was pregnant again but miscarried.

1516        Erasmus moved to the Netherlands and became a counselor to the future Emperor Charles V.

1516 also        The indulgence was issued which would raise money for the building of St. Peter's Basilica.

1516 also        Catherine of Aragon gave birth to a daughter, Mary.  She would one day become queen.

1516 also        Erasmus' Greek edition of the New Testament was published.  He did not write the New Testament in Greek, instead he gathered the best and oldest sources of the Greek New Testament and compiled them into the most accurate version of the NT available up to that point.  For example, the Vulgate (the Latin version used by the Catholic Church) rendered Matthew 4:17 as "do penance, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand," whereas Erasmus' version states "repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand."

1517        John Tetzel traveled near Wittenberg and preached on indulgences.  Frederick did not allow him to preach on indulgences in his territory. Tetzel's famous advertisement: "As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs!"  Some people in Wittenberg traveled to Tetzel in order to buy indulgences.  Luther was irate because the people were buying indulgences.


The Big Picture:  Indulgences

An indulgence was a partial or full pardon for sins.  In the case of Tetzel, the pope needed to raise money to rebuild St. Peter's Basilica in Rome and decided to allow people to buy a special indulgence.  This meant that a person would give Tetzel (or other papal representatives, Tetzel was not the only one) money and he received a document which stated the type of indulgence to be given.  This indulgence usually involved reducing the time one spent in Purgatory.  Indulgences could be awarded for many things, such as service to the Church, going on a Crusade, or making a pilgrimage to see a relic and donating for the upkeep of the church or monastery where the relic was held.

1517 also        October 31:  Luther nailed "95 Thesis" on the church door in Wittenberg.  This was meant to encourage a debate with Luther on the validate of the indulgence; they were printed in Latin.  The next year (January) someone or some people translated them into German, had it printed, and spread it around.  In this way many people learned of Luther's ideas, and many agreed with him.  To learn more, go here.

1517 also        Erasmus wrote to Pope Leo X and said, "If ever there was a golden age, then there is good hope that ours will be one."  He was unaware of Luther's actions.  

1518        Heidelberg Disputation.  This was held by Luther's Order, the Augustinian Order, in order to give him a chance to elaborate on his ideas;  Bucer wrote in a letter concerning Luther:  "What Erasmus insinuates he speaks openly and freely."

1518 also        The Pope called Luther to Rome for examination, but Frederick the Wise has the location changed to Augsburg.  The pope was not present at the Diet of Augsburg but Cardinal Cajetan was; Luther did not change his position and had to flee back to Wittenberg.  Frederick continued to protect Luther.

1518 also        The Pope wrote a new decree on indulgences in which he states his right to issue indulgences.  Now, if Luther argues against indulgences he is arguing against the pope.

1518 also        Catherine of Aragon gave birth to another daughter; the daughter died soon afterward.

1518 also        Zwingli became the chief preacher in Zurich; he will remain in this position until his death.

1519        Luther and John Eck, the pope's representative, debated at the Leipzig Debate. Eck later calls Luther a heretic.  This is important because, if proven, Luther would probably be killed.

1520        Frederick was visited by a papal ambassador who encouraged Frederick to send Luther to Rome.  This would have been a death sentence. 

1520 also        Luther received an offer of the protection of 100 knights.  This shows the extent to which people were increasingly growing upset against the Catholic Church.

1520 also        In June, the Pope issues a bull (name given to an official papal pronouncement) which instructed Luther to recant in 60 days.  Luther publicly burned this bull in December.

1520 also        Luther writes  3 of his greatest books:  "Address to the Christian Nobility," "On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church," and "On the Freedom of the Christian."  Taken together, these three encourage Catholics to deny many of the Catholic Church's teachings. 

(1521        Cortes conquered Tenochtitlan (Mexico City))

1521        Henry VIII was named "Defender of the Faith" by the pope for his opposition to Luther.  Henry had written a book against Luther called "The Defense of the Seven Sacraments" in 1521.  To see an excerpt, go here.  [author's note:  Although Henry VIII broke from the Catholic Church, he still used the title "Defender of the Faith."  And today it is one of the titles of the monarch of England.]  To learn more about Henry and how he started the Church of England, go here.

1521 also        Luther attended the Diet of Worms.  At first he believed that he was going there to debate his ideas.  Once there he found out otherwise.  Apr 17:  Luther came to the Diet at 4 in the afternoon; present were Charles, the seven electors, Spanish troops, princes, bishops, etc.; in their midst was a table piled with books.  He was asked if he had written these books and if he would recant.  He replied that he had written those books plus more.  He wanted time to think about the second question.  Apr 18:  Luther was not called into the Diet until night.  He stated that he could not recant and then added "Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me! Amen." [There is some doubt as to whether or not he said these lines.]  Luther was subsequently given 21 days to travel to Wittenberg and then he would be under the ban; any town or individual helping him after 21 days would also be under the ban.  (This meant that they would be outside the protection of the law.)  Luther was certain that he would soon be killed.  He traveled to the region where he grew up with some friends.  Along the way some horsemen rode up and took Luther away.  His friends thought he was going to be killed, but the horsemen were actually working for Frederick.  They secretly took Luther to one of Frederick's castles, Wartburg, for safekeeping.  Luther wrote many works attacking the papacy and doctrines in the Catholic Church while there.  He also translated the New Testament into German; the Catholic Church forbid any translation into any language. 

1521 also        By this time Zwingli began teaching Grebel and some of his other priests.  One of his instructions was the importance of reading the Bible for oneself.  Grebel and others began to do this and will reach conclusions which eventually cause them to begin the Anabaptist faith. 

1522        Loyola decides to dedicate himself to prayer; he exchanges clothes with a beggar. 

1522 also        Luther returns to Wittenberg to stay.

1523        Two Augustinian monks who followed Luther's teachings were burned at the stake.  They were the first martyrs of the Protestant Reformation. 

1523 also        Zwingli had his own 67 Theses which he defended in Zurich.

1523 also        John Calvin is 14 years old and most likely moves to the University of Paris.

1524        Zwingli married, even though he was a priest.  Also, he wrote a letter in which he defended a symbolic view of the Lord's Supper.

1525        Luther married Katharina von Bora.  

1525 also:  Jan 21        A number of men gather at the home of Felix Manz; Grebel baptized George Blaurock by pouring water on his head from a pitcher.  This was the first Believer's Baptism of the Reformation period and begins the Anabaptist movement.  Grebel proceeds to preach in the area and to baptize many people.  The first known Anabaptist martyrdom takes place this year when Eberli Bolt is burned at the stake.  To learn more about the beginnings of the Anabaptists, go here.

1526        Luther's books were burned in England.

1526 also       William Tyndale published the first English-language translation of the New Testament.

More info:  To read about Tyndale's life and his other contributions (he coined the word "Passover"), go here

1527        Felix Manz was drowned in Zurich for rebaptizing other people.  Zwingli coined the word "Anabaptist" because he believed that they were being "re-baptized."  "Anabaptist" comes from the Greek:  "ana" means "again."

1527 also        Michael Sattler wrote the Schleitheim Confession.  This document gives the basic beliefs of Anabaptists.  It is used by Amish today.  Later in the year he will be tortured and then burned at the stake.  His wife will be drowned a week later.

1527 also        Henry VIII moved on his plans to divorce Catherine by secretly gathering bishops and lawyers so they could sign a declaration that Henry and Catherine's marriage was invalid on the grounds that she was had been married to Henry's brother, Arthur.  N.b., Henry believed that Catherine had failed to give birth to a son because of the condemnation addressed in Leviticus 20:21:  "If a man marries his brother's wife, it is an act of impurity; he has dishonored his brother.  They will be childless."  Henry understood "childless" as "sonless."  Yet another Bible verse seemed to substantiate Henry's marriage, Deuteronomy 25:5:  "If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son, his widow must not marry outside the family.  Her husband's brother shall take her and marry her and fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to her."  Nevertheless, Henry used the Leviticus passage as proof for the divorce.

1527 also        The plague came to Wittenberg.  Luther and Katie stayed and helped those who were sick.  Luther wrote "A Mighty Fortress is Our God."  To learn more, go here.

1529        The term "Protestant" is first used.

1529 also        George Blaurock, the first person baptized as a believer in the Protestant era, was burned at the stake.

1529 also        The Colloquy of Marburg.  The followers of Luther and Zwingli come together to see if they could find common ground.  They agreed on all points except for Communion.  Zwingli said it was symbolic; Luther said that it was more than that.  To read more, go here.

1531        Zwingli died.  He was a chaplain in the army and died in battle. 

1532        Henry VIII married Anne Boleyn in secret.

1533        Henry VIII married Anne Boleyn in public; 4 months later Anne Boleyn gave birth to Elizabeth.  She would one day become queen.  Pope Clement VII excommunicated Henry VIII.

1534        Luther finished his translation of the Old Testament into German.  His German Bible is printed.

1534 also        The Act of Succession is passed by Parliament in England. Everyone must swear allegiance to Henry VIII as the head of the Church of England.

1535        Thomas More is beheaded because he did not approve of Henry VIII's actions. 

1535 also      Miles Coverdale finished translating the Bible into English.

1535 also        Geneva, where Calvin will end up living, became more Protestant when they abolished the Catholic Mass.  [author's note:  This means that they rejected the transubstantiation view of Communion, which means that the bread and wine turn into the Body and Blood of Christ.]

1536        Henry VIII has Anne Boleyn beheaded and married Jane Seymour.  Catherine of Aragon died of natural causes.

1536 also        John Calvin completed the first copy of the Institutes.  While traveling, he passed through Geneva.  He is persuaded to stay and help complete the Reformation movement there. 

1536 also        Erasmus died.

1537        Jane Seymour gave birth to Edward.  He would one day become king.  Seymour died about 2 weeks later.

1538        After a series of disagreements, Calvin left Geneva.

1540        Pope Paul III approved of Ignatius Loyola's Order, the Society of Jesus (Jesuits).  Loyola wrote a manual to help instruct his followers called "Spiritual Exercises."  To read an excerpt, go here.

1540 also        Calvin married.  He also received an invitation from Geneva to return.

1541        Calvin returned to Geneva to complete the Reformation movement there.

1542        Pope Paul III reinstituted the Inquisition.

1545        The Council of Trent began.  This was a series of meetings from 1545 to 1563.  The Catholic Church, realizing that they were hemorrhaging members, decided to meet and discuss all their doctrines.  Basically the Council determined that their doctrines were correct  and that Protestants were excommunicated. 

1546        Luther died.  In his pocket was a piece of paper which said (in part):  "We are all beggers."  To read about his last hours, go here.  His body was buried in the main church in Wittenberg where he had preached so many times.  During his life, he was so exceedingly popular that people who ate with him later wrote down what he said.  Some of these were collected into a book called Luther's Table Talk or Table Talk.  To read excerpts, go here.

1547        Henry VIII died and Edward VI became king.  Edward was 9 years old when he became king and he died at age 15.

1549        Jesuit Francis Xavier arrived in Japan and began missionary work.

1551        Robert Stephanus, a printer, divided the New Testament into verses.  This was available for the first time in his newly published NT which came out in this year.  His system was adopted.  To see when the chapters were added, click here

1552        Francis Xavier died.  He was a Jesuit and traveled as far as Japan.  He died en route to China.  To read more of his story, go here.

1553        Edward VI died.  Mary (daughter of Catherine of Aragon, a Catholic) became queen.  She reverted England back to a Catholic nation.  Many English Protestants died and many left England.

1556        Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), died.

1557        The Index was created.  It consisted of books which the Catholic Church had banned.

1558        The Academy began in Geneva.  Many Protestants will attend Calvin's school. 

1558 also        Mary, Queen of England, died.  Elizabeth became Queen.  She revert the faith of England back to the Church of England.

1559        The last edition of Calvin's Institutes was published. 

1560        Jacob Arminius born.

1563        The Council of Trent ended

1564        Born:  William Shakespeare & Galileo        Died:  Michelangelo & John Calvin

1583        Jesuit Matteo Ricci arrived in China and began missionary work.

1588        Arminius became a pastor in Amsterdam

Primary Sources

"We have in this little book, gentle reader, clearly demonstrated, I hope, how absurdly and impiously Luther has handled the holy sacraments. For though we have not touched all things contained in his book, yet so far as was necessary to defend the sacraments (which was our only design), I suppose I have treated, though not so sufficiently as might have been done, yet more than is even necessary. . . .
But that others may understand how false and wicked his doctrine is, lest they might be so far deceived as to have a good opinion of him, I doubt not but in all parts there are very learned men . . who have much more clearly discovered the same, than can be shown by me. And if there be any who desire to know this strange work of his, I think I have sufficiently made it apparent to them. For seeing by what has been said, it is evident to all men what sacrilegious opinions he has of the sacrament of our Lord's Body, from which the sanctity of all the other sacraments flow: who would have doubted, if I had said nothing else, how unworthily, without scruple, he treats all the rest of the sacraments? Which, as you have seen, he has handled in such sort that he abolishes and destroys them all, except Baptism alone. . . .
What everybody believes, he alone by his vain reason laughs at, denouncing himself to admit nothing but clear and evident Scriptures. And these, too, if alleged by any against him, he either evades by some private exposition of his own, or else denies them to belong to their own authors. None of the Doctors are so ancient, none so holy, none of so great authority in treating of Holy Writ, but this new doctor, this little saint, this man of learning, rejects with great authority.
Seeing, therefore, he despiseth all men and believes none, he ought not to take it ill if everybody discredit him again. I am so far from holding any further dispute with him that I almost repent myself of what I have already argued against him. For what avails it to dispute against one who disagrees with everyone, even with himself? Who affirms in one place what he denies in another, denying what he presently affirms? Who, if you object faith, combats by reason; if you touch him with reason, pretends faith? If you allege philosophers, he flies to Scripture; if you propound Scripture, he trifles with sophistry. Who is ashamed of nothing, fears none, and thinks himself under no law. Who contemns the ancient Doctors of the church, and derides the new ones in the highest degree; loads with reproaches the Chief Bishop of the church. Finally, he so undervalues customs, doctrine, manners, laws, decrees and faith of the church (yea, the whole church itself) that he almost denies there is any such thing as a church, except perhaps such a one as himself makes up of two or three heretics, of whom himself is chief. . . ."  taken from on 28 Dec 11.  To go back to the timeline, click here.