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Religion and Spirituality

Perhaps the most prominent religious moment in Renaissance history was the Protestant Reformation, launched by Martin Luther in Germany. Believing that the Roman Catholic Church of his day had turned from a Biblical understanding of faith and salvation, particularly in its practice of selling indulgences, Luther posted his historic Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church in 1517, and thereby birthed religious revival across Europe. The Reformers (known as "Protestants") called Christians back to four main points: (1) Sola Scriptura, meaning "Scripture alone"; (2) Sola gratis, meaning salvation by "grace alone" apart from works; (3) Sola fides, meaning "faith alone"; and (4) The "priesthood of all believers," which contradicted the Catholic Church's belief in the pope as a human mediator between God and man. The Reformation ended in division and the establishment of new institutions, most importantly Lutheranism, the Reformed churches, and Anabaptists, a radical branch whose name means "those who baptize again".

During the Reformation, Catholic and Protestant leaders struggled to articulate the precise beliefs and practices which were believed necessary for salvation. In addition, Catholic authorities sought unsuccessfully to halt the circulation of the unauthorized Protestant translation of Scripture by William Tyndale, a translation which challenged doctrines and institutional structures central to the Catholic faith. These doctrines and structures, namely the interpretation of the ritual of the Eucharist (or the "Lord's Supper"), became contested with such intense fervor that the lives of martyrs such as Anne Askew and Robert Aske were sacrificed for their respective causes.

The Reformation also led to the Counter-Reformation within the Roman Catholic Church. Pope Paul III initiated the Council of Trent, a commission of cardinals tasked with institutional reform, such as corrupt bishops and priests, indulgences, and other financial abuses. The Council clearly repudiated specific Protestant positions and upheld the basic structure of the Medieval Church, its sacramental system, religious orders, and doctrine. It rejected all compromise with the Protestants, restating basic tenants of Roman Catholicism. The Council clearly upheld the dogma of salvation appropriated by faith and works. Transubstantiation, during which the consecrated bread and wine were held to become (substantially) the blood of Christ, was upheld, along with the Seven Sacraments. Other Catholic practices that drew the ire of liberal reformers within the Church, such as indulgences, pilgrimages, the veneration of saints and relics, and the veneration of the Virgin Mary were strongly reaffirmed as spiritually vital as well. The Council of Trent solidified the rift between Catholics and Protestants, a division which would lead to the break up of large European empires into the modern nation-state system.

The Renaissance era also birthed a number of denominations, including the Church of England, established by King Henry VIII of England after a split with the Roman Catholic Church in 1534; and the Jesuit Order of Roman Catholic Priests, founded by Ignatius Loyola. In 1534, Ignatius and six other students met in Montmartre outside Paris, and founded the Society of Jesus to "enter upon hospital and missionary work in Jerusalem, or to go without questioning wherever the pope might direct." In 1537, they were bestowed a commendation by Pope Paul III and ordained as priesst. The Jesuits, as they were later known, devoted themselves to preaching and charitable work in Italy, as the renewed war between the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, Venice, the pope and the Ottoman Empire rendered any journey to Jerusalem inadvisable. As the movement developed, the Jesuits concentrated on three activities. First, they founded superb schools throughout Europe. Jesuit teachers were rigorously trained in both classical studies and theology. The Jesuits' second mission was to convert non-Christians to Catholicism, so they developed and sent out missionaries. Their third goal was to stop Protestantism from spreading. The zeal of the Jesuits overcame the drift toward Protestantism in Poland and southern Germany.