Lay Conflicts and Responses to the Protestant Reformation

Legend goes that on 31 October 1517, Martin Luther marched up to the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany and nailed his 95 Theses, otherwise known as the Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences, to the door and sparked the Reformation of the Catholic Church in sixteenth-century Europe, and the formation of the Protestant Church. In the Theses, Luther argues against the practice of Catholic clergy selling plenary indulgences (remissions to reduce the punishment in purgatory for sins committed by the purchasers), claiming that the forgiveness of sins requires inner spiritual repentance, rather than the corrupted Catholic church’s system of sacramental confession.

The Reformation movement quickly grew and spread throughout Europe; while Germany was dominated by Luther’s followers (‘Lutherans’), other reformers (often with views contrary to Luther) gained traction independently of Luther – most notably John Calvin in Geneva, whose ‘Calvinist’ movement was involved in frequent clashes with the Lutherans. These clashes frequently concerned religious icons and to what extent could they be considered as sacrilegious idol worship: John Calvin assumed a more extreme position than Luther, opposing musical instruments or images in religious worship altogether.

To understand how Protestant Christianity grew from an intellectual publication into an established, ‘lived’ religion by the sixteenth century, this article will concentrate on the immediate responses of the lay people (i.e. non-clerical members) during the late sixteenth century. Lay responses to the Reformation’s ideas involved a complex psychological process of adjusting to significant disruptions in social and religious life. These changes were met with varying levels of enthusiasm.

Visual culture was essential in bringing together new Protestant communities and dismantling Catholic religious traditions. In particular, there was a wave of popular iconoclasm (or the destruction of religiously ‘unacceptable’ images by lay crowds) in the decades following the growth of Protestant communities. This usually prompted violent clashes between Protestants and Catholics, or within different branches of Protestantism.

An understated part of the Reformation was the Lutheran-Calvinist conflict over images. While Lutherans were deeply attached to religious art, Calvinists were closely associated with iconoclasm due to John Calvin’s antagonism towards religious objects as a form of ‘un-Christian’ idol worship. Lay people often responded to this theological conflict with force, for instance, in Anhalt in 1596: facing a Calvinist Reformation, churchgoers boycotted communion and forcefully halted the removal of images. Crowds frequently participated in iconoclastic attacks; for example, France saw waves of iconoclasm towards Catholic statues or objects during the religious wars.

It has been suggested that iconoclasm was associated with a sense of liberation for the laity. Scholar Bridget Heal argues that lay iconoclasm destroyed a tradition of “voracious idols” that were consuming resources that ought to be spent on the poor, and a statement of freedom thus lay in this destruction.

Traditionally, Reformation scholars have overlooked the participation and agency of rural dwellers in the religious discussion since the reading and analysis of Christian theology was not available to illiterate peasantry and their overall limited understanding of doctrine was attributed to a lack of education. As such, the peasantry are stereotypically seen to passively accept and follow Christian doctrine and religious practices according to the teachings of ecclesiastical authorities.

However, later historiography revised this belief to argue that rural religion was ‘unorthodox’ as it would blend official church-sanctioned practices with popular community beliefs – consequently, what Reformation writers considered ‘ignorance’ was the product of differing religious priorities. Recent scholars conclude that Luther’s message was actively discussed in the rural communities – lay responses combined religious enthusiasm with socio-political grievances. Firstly, Luther’s publications were met with greatly increased demands for evangelical preachers in rural communities. Rural people were concerned with gaining direct access to the Gospels and the right to choose their own pastors. A common trend followed: within a few months, evangelical preachers gathered a popular following to present an agenda for reform to the local council. Often, reluctant local authorities had to face instances of lay violence. In 1521, Wittenberg saw a series of attacks on church property to forcefully remove images. Clearly, this pattern of lay petitioning and activism displays the capability and frequency of rural peasantry to take part in this conflict and demand reform according to Reformation ideals.

Often, attempts by Reformation clergy to educate newly Protestant laypeople on Christian doctrine were unsuccessful. After 1529, there was an extensive educational campaign, for example through catechisms (religious instruction through a question-and-answer format). But visitation records show that villagers did not regularly attend sermons or learn catechisms; in fact, some religious continuity was displayed by the laity, who clung to old traditions. For instance, in the Franconian countryside, popular social activities such as church fairs were denounced by pastors as ‘licentious’, but the laity were unwilling to abandon them. Some rural communities around Lake Lucerne, Switzerland, adopted elements from Protestantism and Catholicism; following old traditions but allowing parishes to appoint their own priests and restricting the power of the bishops. Andrew Pettegree rightly argues that rural religion was fundamentally built around a communal ‘culture of belonging’ through a familiar set of traditions. Their reluctant response to the strict practices of the Reformers was due to fundamentally different religious priorities. These examples dismantle the notion that reform was solely imposed from central authorities – but rather, religious continuity or change was adapted and customised by the rural laity in accordance with their view of religion.

Overall, lay responses to the Reformation demonstrate common trends. Protestants underwent a difficult process of adjusting to new lifestyles and forming new communal bonds; this resulted not just in furious violence against their old community, but also expressions of liberation. Simultaneously however, the Protestant community underwent internal disagreements over religious practices – the best example is the Lutheran-Calvinist conflict over images. These examples demonstrate that lay responses were centered around a defense for their respective communities, and their religious outlook was different to the religious authorities, yet never uninterested. This survey is by no means comprehensive – we must consider that lay responses to these disruptions were extremely diverse and depended on factors that are not considered here (such as varied religious beliefs and practices by geography) and it is inaccurate to simplify such variations into a definite statement on responses of the ‘Catholic’ or ‘Protestant’ laity.

Written by Nikita Nandanwad


Heal, Bridget. “Visual and Material Culture.” In The Oxford Handbook of the Protestant Reformations., edited by Ulinka Rublack, 601-620. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Kümin, Beat. “Rural Society.” In The Oxford Handbook of the Protestant Reformations, edited by Ublinka Rublack, 525-544. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Pettegree, Andrew. Reformation and the Culture of Persuasion. Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Stayer, James. “The German Peasants’ War and the Rural Reformation.” In The Reformation World, edited by Andrew Pettegree, 127-146. London: Routledge, 2000.

Strauss, Gerald. “Capturing Hearts and Minds in the German Reformation.” History Today 31 (1981): 21.

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