The Reformation: an accidental revolution

On Tuesday Protestantism marks 500 years as a distinct strand of Christianity

Opening up the Bible to the laity: a page of a 1642 edition of Martin Luther’s translation into German of the Bible. Photograph: Sean Gallup/Getty

Protestantism will have much to celebrate next Tuesday as it marks its 500-year anniversary as a distinct strand of Christianity. From small beginnings in Wittenberg in Germany in 1517, it has become the world's second largest Christian grouping, with 900 million adherents. While its early heartlands were chiefly in northern Europe and then in English-speaking colonies, it is now also firmly implanted in the global south, in countries whose demographic vigour could offer it a more secure future.

For all its success, Protestantism was an accidental revolution. When the Augustinian monk Martin Luther published his 95 Theses he was not seeking to start a new religion. Rather he hoped to initiate a discussion through which his complaints about clerical practice, and particularly the flagrant abuse of the sale of indulgences to raise money to rebuild St Peter's in Rome, would be accepted by the Catholic Church. The church, however, treated his challenge as a test of its authority and moved to bring him to heel. In this it misjudged its man. Luther began to elaborate the chief tenets of what became Protestantism: the centrality of faith rather than good works in securing salvation; the assertion of the primacy of scriptural authority; the opening up of the Bible to the laity; and the clipping of the wings of the clergy.

In England Protestantism arguably facilitated an early psychological withdrawal from the European mainstream – what has been called the first Brexit

Luther's stand strengthened the prestige of the individual conscience in the western tradition, but perhaps not all Protestantism's traits were equally benign. Its more extreme forms led to the destruction of much sacred art. Where it was politically dominant, as in Ireland, it often regarded the old religion as merely a collection of superstitions to be expunged, while in England it arguably facilitated an early psychological withdrawal from the European mainstream – what has been called the first Brexit. In the future, however, with the bitterness that accrued from divisions in Christianity almost completely dissipated, it seems likely that the churches will see more value in working together to promote spiritual values and social solidarity in societies which have become more materialistic and narcissistic.