The Reformation with a capital "R," also called the
Protestant reformation, is commonly thought to have started on
October 31, 1517 when Martin Luther posted his
95 theses on the door of the Castle
Church in Wittenberg Germany. There are a group of men
collectively known as the reformers that figured in the movements that
followed. I say movements because the Reformation did not remain
politically or theologically unified.
Just as the movements failed at unity in the end so the starting point was not actually a point. As with all "events" in history closer examination finds that the event was probably not a single action but a whole series of interrelated actions by many that finally produced the tipping point. That "tipping point," in Germany at least, was likely the events that surrounded Martin Luther; what the Roman Catholic Church refers to as Luther's Rebellion. It should also be noted that the Roman Catholic Church had made many informal attempts at reform before and after Luther.
There were, to be sure, theological matters at issue for the reformers and that will be my primary focus of these pages but the reformation cannot be considered without also looking at the politics of the day. These of course had their root in much earlier events so it is difficult to know where to start. We note at this point that religion and politics have always mixed, mostly uncomfortably.
For centuries official state cults and tribal religions of one form or another were the rule rather than the exception. The purely secular state is a modern notion that is actually impossible to achieve as societies are organized around some set of core values and those values are usually carried by their religion. Into a world divided by cults tied to ethnicity, locality or the ruler of the day, Christianity came appealing to a broad range of the population irrespective of the state-cult or ethnic group. The appeal of Christianity, especially to the under-classes in the Roman Empire is thought by some to be the reason for Rome's persecution of Christianity. (As a side note, in Roman times, Christians were often accused of being atheists because they would not say "Caesar is Lord.")
By tradition, the Roman Emperor had control of of religion in his dominion; among his titles was pontifex maximus (Chief Priest). When Constantine (272-337) was converted and recognized Christianity (313), that set the stage for an official state Christianity to develop. In these times of state Christianity, there were more than a few political converts, following what must have been a long tradition of subscribing to the religion of those that were in power. This was also true in the other lands where Christianity spread. Political conversions do not generally produce devout adherents and so the spread of Christianity produced some uncomfortable hybrids on it way, but that is another story. Whenever the prince was converted the people followed suit. On Constantine's death the Empire was divided. East and West split politically and eventually the Church split as well. (Constantine died in 337, the schism in the Church between East and West was in 1054 and was to do in large measure with the increasing power claimed by the Pope, the Bishop of Rome.)
The Church in the West went through the trials we are about to consider while
The Church in the East actually had a front row seat for the rise of Islam (beginning about 622). That is why it is often said that the Eastern Church is the Church of the martyrs. In general Eastern Orthodoxy has survived as a minority religion in many times not so friendly states. But that too is another quite worthy story.
Charlemagne (742-814) became king of the Franks and eventually held the title Roman Emperor, except for the fact that it was a much smaller empire than what Constantine had at his peak. (We also note that these were the days of the Umayyad Caliphate (661-750) the Greatest Islamic Empire that was knocking on the door of Europe.) Charlemagne was crowned Emperor by Pope Leo III and that marked the beginning of what is now called the Holy Roman Empire. In the West much political power was held by the Church, at least the Church, at times, had the power to make Emperors and Princes. The power to make a prince gave the Pope a certain power over that prince. To further muddle things the Holy Roman Emperor could, at times, select the Pope.
There were also conflicts between the Churchman and the Princes as to the appointment of Bishops. Sometimes bishops were appointed by the monarch, sometimes the Pope and sometimes by popular election with variously laity and clergy participating in the election. There was great variation in the quality and ecclesiastical qualifications of these bishops. With some of the clergy being little more than political appointees, there were calls from inside the Roman Catholic Church for reformation and that the clergy should live that were better examples to their flocks.
There was conflict between the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor as to which of them was the leader of Christendom in secular matters. The success of the early crusades (1095-1270) added greatly to the prestige of the Popes as secular leaders of Christendom, with monarchs like the Kings of England, France, and even the Emperor merely acting as Marshals for the Popes and leading "their" armies. By the early 14th century, however, the papacy was well past the prime of its secular rule – its importance having peaked during the reign of Pope Innocent III (1198-1216).
All this to say that when Luther posted his theses he got a political storm as well as a theological debate. Indeed, Luther himself had to distance himself from peasant revolts and general rebellions against civil authorities. Luther was not the first to try to open this theological and lifestyle discussion. Many in the church, including many Popes had been trying to get Christians, both clergy and laity, to live like Christians for years. Something that for which we still strive today.