Half a millennium later the Reformation still shapes our world

Alone in northern Europe, Ireland remained Catholic following Luther’s revolution

It began 500 years ago this year. It shaped your life and mine, and that of billions of other people since. Yet few realise that anymore.

It led to creation of the United States of America, Europe as it is today, most of Africa, modern capitalism and its proliferation, the ascendancy of the individual, the existence of democracy as we now know it, and the evolution, geo-politically, of "the West".

More locally it has had profound implications for the inhabitants of this island, up to and including this day. It has defined our configuration as a people, our institutions, and many of our laws, north and south.

We are what we are because of the Reformation. You might say that in Ireland, even our current decade of commemorations is rooted in the Reformation.


When 33-year-old Augustinian friar Fr Martin Luther sent his Ninety-five Theses to the Archbishop of Mainz on October 31st 1517, he had no idea what he was starting. Professor of Theology at the University of Wittenberg, he later posted the theses on the door of All Saints Church there.

What he intended as the beginning of a theological dialogue set in train events that have shaped the world as it is today, half a millennium later.

The impact of his ideas was due primarily to a media innovation of his day – the printing press, invented by Johannes Gutenberg in Mainz the previous century. Assisting this was the translation of Luther’s Theses, the Bible, and sundry church documents into the German vernacular.


For the first time the mass of people had direct access to documents fundamental to their culture. They were no longer dependant on an elite, proficient in Latin and Greek, for knowledge of these or their interpretation. They had no further need of “experts”.

Of course Fr Luther's ideas also fell on fertile ground. Two years earlier, in 1515, Pope Leo X granted a plenary indulgence (removal of punishment for sins) to everyone who helped pay for the construction of St Peter's Basilica in Rome, that magnificent edifice which was to cost so much.

Those who made such offerings would escape purgatory on death and go straight to heaven. In his letter to Albert of Brandenburg, Archbishop of Mainz, Fr Luther questioned whether selling such indulgences was an abuse.

He would go on to preach that faith in Jesus alone was all that was necessary for salvation and then to challenge papal authority.

In January 1521 he was excommunicated by Pope Leo X. It was too late. Luther was soon the most widely read author of his time. His ideas took hold and would have an influence far beyond anything anyone anticipated.

It was not always good. Over 400 years later it would be claimed that almost every anti-Jewish book printed during Germany’s 20th century Third Reich era contained references to, and quotations from, Luther.

He described Jews as “the devil’s people” and “envenomed worms”. He said: “We are at fault in not slaying them.” Three days before his death in February 1546 he described Jews as “our public enemies . . . and if they could kill us all, they would gladly do so.”

Ireland an exception

What followed his death was mayhem and slaughter in Europe. Violent clashes between Protestants and Catholics in 16th and 17th century wars of religion were some of the longest-lasting and most destructive in history, with millions killed. Some estimates put the figure at 11.5 million.

The Roman Catholic Church initiated what became known as the Counter Reformation, reaffirming its teachings, reforming structures and disciplines, but, above all, condemning Protestantism. Central to this was the Council of Trent, which continued from 1545 to 1563. It put in place the Catholic Church as it would remain, more or less, up to the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s.

Europe's wars of religion, including within these islands, were as much political as religious, if not more political than religious in a way that would be familiar to most people on this island following the conflict in Northern Ireland.

In Europe they concluded with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 which reaffirmed an agreement that people would assume the denomination of their ruler, according to the principle “cuius regio, eius religio”(whose realm, his religion). In effect it meant that almost all of northern Europe, except Ireland, became Protestant.

By then the two primary movements within Protestantism were Lutheranism and the Reformed tradition which began in Geneva under John Calvin.

These Protestant churches emphasised an equality between laity and clergy absent in Roman Catholicism, while those in the Reformed denominations extended this to include laity in church governance.

Presbyterians, Baptists, Quakers, Methodists were soon organised along the lines of representative democracy.

A downside to this was the inevitability of Protestantism splintering. It seems the destiny of movements in which central authority is rejected. Splits and violence soon occurred among different Protestant groupings in post-Reformation Europe too.

Capitalism and the Protestant ‘work ethic’

It was why the Puritans left England in the 1620s for the New World in pursuit of a religious freedom which they saw as under threat from Anglicans/Church of England.

Those Protestants who founded the Plymouth Colony (1620) and the Massachusetts Bay Colony (1628) in America's New England believed that a democratic form of government was the will of God in its recognition of the rights and will of the individual.

Their thinking would find its way into the United States Declaration of Independence in 1776. Overtime, it would even influence the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights.

It takes little imagination to see how such ideas found their way back across the Atlantic as empires, monarchies and dictatorships dissolved in the 20th century and how they played a key role in the creation of today's democracies in Europe, but also in former colonies in South America, Africa, Asia and Australasia and in Canada.

And no country in the world is more closely associated with capitalism than the US. This is not entirely coincidental, if one accepts the thesis of German sociologist Max Weber. In his fascinating 1905 essay The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, he argued that the growth of capitalism was helped by particular Protestant values.

Worldly success/profit was interpreted by certain branches of Protestantism as evidence of God’s favour and so was deemed worthy of pursuit. This created what Weber termed “the Protestant work ethic”. He noted how countries with more Protestants were generally those with a more developed capitalist economy.

Accumulating wealth

Encouraged to work with zeal, to be frugal and avoid luxuries, wealth soon accumulated among austere Protestants who, in turn, invested it "so that the profits rise quicker and quicker", Weber said, quoting from ethical writings of Puritan and US founding father Benjamin Franklin.

Red in tooth and claw capitalism may also have its roots in such Protestantism. Where it was concerned “donation of money to the poor or to charity was generally frowned on as it was seen as furthering beggary. This social condition was perceived as laziness, burdening their fellow man, and an affront to God; by not working, one failed to glorify God,” Weber said.

He believed, however, that the religious underpinnings of the Protestant work ethic had largely disappeared by the time he wrote his essay.

There are those who would argue that the Protestant work ethic never really caught on in Ireland either except, that is, for the Protestant industrial north- east part around Belfast.

As with most things then, the Reformation was late in coming to Ireland, and for the usual reasons – location and language. An island off an island in the most westerly part of Europe, Ireland was difficult to get to, and the people spoke a language unfamiliar to most everyone else.

For instance, it was 1603 before the first translation of the New Testament in Irish was published: 86 years after Luther posted his Theses. By 1521 Luther had translated the New Testament into German. The first New Testament in English, by William Tyndale, was published in 1526.

Protestantism was well-established in England, Wales, and Scotland by the end of the 16th century. This was not the case in Ireland. Alone among the countries of northern Europe it remained stubbornly resistant to this new version of Christianity.

Rejected the Reformation

The vast majority of Ireland’s population at the time rejected the Reformation as an outside imposition. Meanwhile the Counter Reformation had been gaining ground in Europe and growing numbers of Irish Catholic priests and scholars began to arrive in continental university cities.

In the 16th and 17th century Irish colleges sprang up in Spain and Flanders, then France, Rome and central Europe. By the middle of the 17th century there were more than 40 such colleges stretching from Prague to Lisbon and Leuven to Rome.

This resistance to Protestantism in Ireland was met by London with savage force, religious persecution, confiscations, plantations, and penal laws.

These latter were described by 18th century Dublin-born MP Edmund Burke as "a machine of wise and elaborate contrivance, as well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment and degradation of a people, and the debasement in them of human nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man".

From 1607 these laws forbade Catholics, Presbyterians, and others who did not belong to the Church of Ireland (Anglicans) state religion, any education "publicly or in private houses". They had no vote and were not allowed become MPs or hold any public office.

They were banned from the legal profession, from attending Trinity College Dublin, from securing a foreign education, from joining the army or holding firearms. They had to pay a tithe to support the Church of Ireland and non-attendance at its services was punishable by fines.

Mixed marriages were banned and children who converted to Protestantism inherited almost all the father’s property. No Catholic could inherit Protestant land or own a horse valued at over £5.

A convert from Protestantism to Roman Catholicism forfeited all rights to their property. Catholic priests could be executed on sight.

It has been argued that the penal laws were applied unevenly, both over time and geographically, and that they had little effect beyond the Pale.

However it was in this period too that Catholic primate and Archbishop of Armagh St Oliver Plunkett was hanged, drawn, and quartered at Tyburn in London on July 1st 1681 "for promoting the Roman faith".

Continuing conflict

And in 1992 Pope John Paul beatified 17 Irish Catholic martyrs (mostly priests from all over Ireland) executed between 1579 and 1654 because of their faith.

The purpose of the penal laws was simple – to reduce Irish Catholics and other non-Anglicans to a barbarous level of poverty and ignorance. They operated from 1607 until, at least de jure, Catholic Emancipation in 1829, though some were not finally abolished until the 1920 Government of Ireland Act.

They failed to make Ireland Protestant. Over that same period however, and mainly through plantations, a quarter of the island's population did become Protestant. These were mainly Scots Presbyterians planted in Ulster in the 1640s as well as the 10 per cent Anglican/Church of Ireland elite who ruled the island.

Catholic Emancipation in 1829 marked the beginning of the rise of the Catholic Church in Ireland while 1869 marked a watershed in the downward direction of the Church of Ireland, with its disestablishment as State church and the dropping of a requirement on all to pay tithes for its support.

Opposition to the Irish Church Act of 1869, which brought this about, also led to the creation of one of the longest non-scientific words in the English language: antidisestablishmentarianism.

Church division in Ireland, rooted in the Reformation, continued to have a baleful effect on the island throughout the 20th century with the creation of two states, one Protestant, one Catholic. The twain rarely met. Then there was that prolonged period of violence which began in the late 1960s. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement allowed for something more consensual to emerge.

In Ireland today it would be fair to say that relations between all its churches, Protestant and the majority Roman Catholic Church in particular, have never been quite as good since the Reformation 500 years ago.

However a forthcoming commemoration could put it to the test. The 150th anniversary of the Irish Church Act – which disestablished the Church of Ireland – is in 2019.

We shall see then whether our churches can rise above their continuing divisions to mark this event without reigniting old bitternesses which have been more characteristic of their relationships over the past five centuries.

We shall see then whether unintended consequences of Martin Luther’s actions 500 years ago still represent a threat to peace in Ireland.

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry is a contributor to The Irish Times