Eugenics: An Introduction

Eugenics. The science of improving the population by controlled breeding for desirable inherited traits. From the Greek eugenes, meaning well-born.

Animal Husbandry.  The science of breeding.

In 1883, Francis Galton, first cousin to Charles Darwin, coined “eugenics”, a pseudoscience that advocated controlled reproduction to ensure the healthy evolution of human societies.  Eugenics became increasingly popular in the early 20th century, solidifying racial hierarchies and categories of the unfit – criminals, the mentally ill, and the feebleminded.  Programs in various countries encouraged the “fit” to reproduce while discouraging the unfit through measures ranging from segregation to elimination.

Francis Galton (1822-1911) Francis Galton grew up in England and inherited a significant fortune after his father died.  His extensive travels to places like Africa reinforced his sense of a rigid hierarchy of human categories.  He was not alone in this thinking as racial and ethnic determinism pervaded Western thought during the 19th century.  Darwin’s publication of the Origin of Species (1859) further inspired Galton to pursue social betterment through selective breeding. Galton believed that humans evolved through the natural selection of inborn traits, and parents transmitted intellectual and moral qualities to their children. He acknowledged social factors but insisted that inherited talent (or lack of) persevered.  

Turn of the Century:  Eugenics takes off. Various factors played into eugenics growing popularity into the 20th century.  The “rediscovery” of Gregor Mendel’s claims of heredity as the dominant determinant in human life bolstered eugenic claims of biological determinism.  Visible signs of poverty, crime, and mental illness accompanied urban growth evoked concerns about societal “degeneration” – an oft-used term at the time.  As Diane B. Paul writes, “Middle-class people of every political persuasion – conservatives, liberals, and socialists, were alarmed by the apparent profligate breeding of what in Britain was called the “social residue.” (Paul, 235)

Alarmed by these developments and confident in their theories of selective reproduction, eugenics advocates began implementing practices to realize their visions.  Scholars have identified these practices as “positive” and “negative” eugenics. 

Positive Eugenics. Positive eugenics involved the promotion and practice of the selective breeding of the “fit.”  He pointed to the example of animal husbandry as a model to follow.  “If a twentieth part of the cost and pains,” he said, “were spent in measures for the improvement of the human race that is spent on the improvement of the breeding of horses and cattle, what a galaxy of geniuses might we create!  (Larson 180).

Negative Eugenics in Practice. The early focus on positive eugenics would give way to prohibitive measures in the twentieth century.  In the United States, Canada, and much of Northern Europe, as well as Britain, the central question was how best to discourage breeding by moral and mental defectives.” (Crook, 235)  The practice of eugenics ranged from segregation to extermination.  Practices also varied over time and from country to country.  Generally, the initial approach involved the segregation of male and female “defectives”. Some feared another option, sterilization, would promote images of extremism—however, institutional expenses coupled with improved sterilization technology made this alternative a more popular choice.  Accordingly, governments legalized the practice. Sterilization laws, for instance, had been passed in 30 American states and 3 Canadian provinces. (Paul, 236) 

Not surprisingly, the worst expression of eugenics occurred in Nazi Germany.  The Aktion T-4 programme and subsequent programs “euthanized” up to 200,000 of the country’s institutionalized mentally and physically disabled, some with the tacit consent of the families. (Paul, 236)  

Opposition.  Predicably, eugenics attracted virulent opposition from the Catholic Church, labour groups, liberal politicians, and scientific community members. The Catholic Church, already opposed to abortion and contraception, vehemently opposed sterilization. Labour groups spoke out against eugenics, knowing that many working and lower classes, especially immigrants, fell into eugenic categories of unfit.  Scientists readily challenged eugenic claims and the Mendelian foundation by highlighting the nurture side of the nature vs nurture debates of the time. 

Conclusion.  Blatant Nazi atrocities in the name of racial hygiene, coupled with scientific exposures of its falsities, undermined eugenic claims.  However, it did become one of the most influential and devastating of the broader social Darwinist movement.

This blog offers a rudimentary introduction to eugenics.  Future blogs will address more specific aspects of this topic.

Selected Bibliography

Cowan, Ruth Schwartz. Francis Galton and the Study of Heredity in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Garland, 1985.

Crook, Paul. Darwin’s Coat-Tails: Essays on Social Darwinism.  New York: Peter Lang Publishing Inc., 2007.

Larson, Edward J.  Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory.  New York: Modern Library, 2006. .

Paul, Diane B. “Darwin, Social Darwinism, and Eugenics.”  Jonathan Hodge and Gregory Radick eds.  The Cambridge Companion to Darwin.  New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009

Social Darwinism. An Introduction

 In 1859, Charles Darwin (1809-1882) published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.  In it, Darwin convincingly argued that all species evolved by adapting through an ongoing struggle for survival.   The book is considered one of the most influential in the natural sciences.  However, Darwin’s influence would go well beyond the biological.  Shortly after the Origin of Species publication, people began speculating on the social implication of Darwin’s theories.  

“Social Darwinism,” a term for various social theories allegedly based on Darwin’s work, described individuals and societies competing for limited resources where the fittest survived and reproduced.  These theories provided intellectual fodder for racism, imperialism, militarism, political and economic conservatism, and misguided public health practices.   

What is Natural Selection?  In other blogs, we go into more detail about Darwin’s theories.  For now, here is a 5-point synopsis of natural selection.   

  1. More species exist than their environments can sustain.
  2. As a consequence of 1, all species are in a perpetual struggle for survival.
  3. Individual members of each possess variations or traits. 
  4. Those with favourable traits survive and reproduce, passing on these traits.
  5. Over generations, as traits pass, species evolve to survive in their environment—those who don’t perish.  

Origin of Species focused on plants and animals and did not address human evolution.  However, social theorists enthusiastically applied Darwinian biological concepts to human society, identifying societies as individuals competing in a struggle leading to the evolution and improvement of nations, classes, and races.

Adam Smith, Thomas Malthus, Herbert Spencer. The notion of competition between individuals and groups as inevitable and necessary predated Darwin and increasingly pervaded the 19th century.  Adam Smith advocated an economic model based on competition and minimal state intervention in his seminal work The Wealth of Nations (1776).  In his Essay on the Principle of Population (1798),Thomas Malthus, a clergyman, argued that people competed as populations outstripped limited resources – food, land, wealth.  Some, of course, would fall, but the strongest would survive. This competition, he insisted, led to social betterment, so state or private efforts to alleviate poverty were against nature.  Perhaps the strongest advocate of Social Darwinism was Herbert Spencer, who coined “survival of the fittest” in his Principles of Biology (1864).  The term helped bring attention to Darwin’s work and led to more applications to human society, including race, politics, economics, and medical practice like eugenics and euthanasia.

Politics, Social Inequality, Economics. Conservatives, concerned with the rising population of lower classes, cited natural selection as justification for refraining from poor relief in towns and cities.   Malthus and Spencer, two vehement individualists, insisted that poverty arose from flawed character and that state support for the poor contradicted the rules of nature and weakened society.  Similarly, industrialists like John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie justified low wages and laissez-faire business practices that exploited weakness.  In The Gospel of Wealth (1900), Carnegie applauded “the concentration of business, industrial, and commercial, in the hands of a few and the competition to the progress of the race.” (4)

Race and Imperialism.Jacque Barzun writes that “The 19C was the heyday of physical anthropology, which divided mankind into three or more races” and “taken for an exact science in spite of its conflicting statements.” (577). Social Darwinism offered “scientific” support for racial categories that hardened in the latter part of the 19th century. Theorists applied Social Darwinist principles to nations.  Nationalists and imperialists appealed to social Darwinism to explain and justify colonial control of inferior ethnic groups and races, offering a rationale for displacement, unfair laws and even genocide.  For example, British naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace supported European expansion at the expense of the “savage” and “inferior” indigenous peoples in the Americas and other continents.  Karl Pearson argued that the higher state of civilization arose racial struggle and the resulting survival of the physical and mentally fittest race. (Perry, 594)

An Infamous Legacy. Social Darwinism extended into the 20th century carrying its flawed reasoning and destructive implications with it.  Eugenics, founded by Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton, inspired the sterilization and euthanizing of people deemed “unfit” – the mentally ill, criminals, developmental delayed, and people of colour – in countries like Canada, the United States, and especially Germany.  Marvin Perry contends that “The Social Darwinist notion of the struggle of the races for survival became a core doctrine of the Nazi Party after World War 1 and provided the scientific and ethical justification for genocide.  (596). Social Darwinist theories began to wane by the middle of the 20th century, mainly as Nazi atrocities realized many of the morbid implications of Social Darwinist thinking, including sterilization and, of course, the Holocaust. 

Selected Bibliography

Barzun, Jacques.  From Dawn to Decadence, 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life.  New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2000.

Carnegie, Andrew.  The Gospel of Wealth. New York: Century, 1900. 

Hofstader, Richard. Social Darwinism in American Thought. 1955.

Koch, H.W. ed.  The Origins of the First World War. New York: Taplinger, 1972. 

Olson, Richard, ed., Science as Metaphor.  Belmont, California: Wadsworth, 1971. 

Perry, Marvin. Ed. Western Civilization: Ideas, Politics, and Society. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000.

The Enlightenment: An Introduction.

Dare to Know. Immanuel Kant

The consent of the people is the sole basis of a government’s authority.  Jean-Jacques Rousseau

The Enlightenment occurred during the “long 18th century”, between the 1690s to the 1810s.  Some historians describe it as the foundation of the modern world.  Others argue that such claims exaggerate the movement’s impact while understating the influence of previous periods such as the Renaissance.  What is the Enlightenment?  How is it distinct from other periods?  What impact did it have on Europe and other parts of the world?  Here we offer a brief overview of the period.  We will discuss various elements of the Enlightenment in other blogs. 

What is the Enlightenment?  Defining the Enlightenment is a formidable challenge.  As Anthony Pagden points out, for all the mass historical industry that has grown up around the Enlightenment, we are still far from certain what all this means.” (16)  Essentially, the Enlightenment was a cultural movement that espoused reason and observation (rather than tradition, superstition and religion) as the means of uncovering the rules of nature and society.  Enlightenment thinkers addressed issues around psychology, government, economics, religions and much more. 

 We should not, however, interpret “a cultural movement” as a coherent one. Enlightenment thinkers came from various nationalities and social classes and often disagreed on critical problems around politics, religion and various social matters.  Accordingly, historians such as J.G.A. Pocock argue for various “Enlightenments” of unique character rather than one broader movement or, as J.M. Roberts writes, “the advance of a united army of the enlightened.” (635). Even with this diversity in mind, we can say that Englightenment thinkers promoted reason and observation as the primary (and sometimes only) means of interpreting and organizing nature and human society. 

 Why this turn to reason and empiricism?  What were the preconditions that encouraged the Enlightenment(s)?  Here, two broad developments come into play – the Scientific Revolution and religious division and conflict of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. 

The Scientific Revolution.  During the 17th century’s “Scientific Revolution,” breakthroughs from scientists (known as natural philosophers at the time) like Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton encouraged the Enlightenment in two ways.  First, their discoveries discredited many of the traditional Christian explanations of natural phenomena.  Secondly, the Scientific Revolution demonstrated how reason, observation, and experiment could reveal the workings of nature.  From this, writes Norman Davies, “grew the conviction that reason could uncover the rules that underlay the apparent chaos of both the human and material world and hence of natural religion, of natural morality, and natural law.” (597).

This exaltation of rational thinking came at a time when various forces undermined Catholicism’s authority. 

Religious Division and Conflict.  “No single thread,” writes Marvin Perry, “had united Western culture more powerfully than Christianity.” (434). The Catholics church stood as the supreme authority on all matters, and this remained true until the Protestant Revolution (1517) undermined Catholic theology and doctrine that offered a unified world vision.  Soon, other sects like Calvinism and Anabaptism arose, offering competing visions and feeding skepticism.  More options appeared as Europeans travelled and mingled with other civilizations’ belief systems such as Confucianism and Buddhism. 

 Incessant sectarian violence during the 16th and 17th centuries, epitomized by the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), further undermined confidence in religion as the bedrock of European society.  Not surprisingly, some people embraced alternative options of reason and observation to bring order back to their lives. 

How did Enlightenment ideas spread?  Most Europeans remained illiterate, and those who could read would be hard-pressed to understand the complexities of Galilei’s discoveries or Newtonian theory of falling bodies. These theories had to be translated to non-experts.  Accordingly, many Enlightened thinkers devoted their efforts to popularize the ideas of the Scientific Revolution.  Thinkers like Bernard de Fontenelle (1657-1757) – presented scientific ideas in accessible ways.  In one work, de Fontenelle shows a man explaining Newtonian theories to a woman.  Denis Diderot’s twenty-eight volume Encyclopedia, published between 1751 and 1765, included entries on various topics by luminaries such as Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Such efforts to spread Enlightenment ideas benefitted from a rapidly growing print culture – books, pamphlets, newspapers –  and a more gradual rise in literacy offered growing opportunities for these ideas to reach more people.  Ideas also spread via social gatherings as people like Parisian Marie-Therese de Geoffrin organized meetings to discuss science and the ideas inspired by these discoveries.   

Pervasive Critique.  Enlightenment thinkers applied reason and observation to all aspects of life – natural philosophy(science), politics, religion and an array of social matters.  Whether through writings or conversation, very few assumptions, traditions, or institutions escaped the critical gaze of Enlightenment thinkers.  Religion and politics certainly attracted the Enlightenment gaze.   

A Critique of Religion.  Religion had always attracted critics.  Desiderius Erasmus, for instance, pointed out the different versions of the Bible that evolved from transcribers.   But as Marvin Perry writes, the Enlightenment “produced the first widely read, and systematic assault on Christianity launched from with the realm of the educated. (Perry, 434) These challenges happened during an era of Christian disunity fomented by the Protestant Revolution (1517) and the subsequent proliferation of Christian sects that, along with the Scientific Revolution, facilitated alternative ways of thinking about the world.     

 Debate continues regarding the extent of this assault.  Isaac Krammick, for instance, identifies religion as the “principal villain of the Enlightenment.” (xii). Indeed, thinkers such as Claude Helveta, Denis Diderot, and Baron d’Holbach adopted atheistic stances and identified religion as an obstacle to knowledge and progress.    Scottish philosopher David Hume dismissed religion as founded on superstition and fear.  Peter Bayle, a Protestant clergyman, suggested that Christian dogma be rejected if not according to rational thinking.

Atheism, however, was the exception as most Enlightenment figures believed in God.  Newton himself wrote on religious matters and described God as a clockmaker who created the world and its natural laws that humans could interpret and observe.  Europeans, in general, remained faithful.  Also, numerous religious revivals occurred during the 18th century along with a missionary zeal that accompanied and, to some extent, inspired European expansionism.  Secularism did not dominate the 18th century, but the Enlightenment did encourage its growth into the 19th and 20th centuries. 

Politics. Enlightenment thinkers devoted much attention to politics, particularly royal absolutism and the checking of monarchial power.   Kingdoms across northern Europe had appealed to the Divine Right of Kings, believing that God granted the monarchy exclusive right to rule and any breach of this as sacrilegious.  Thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean Jacques Rousseau espoused different assumptions about human nature but agreed on the need to curb or even abolish royal absolutism. 

Their ideas encouraged the revolutions of the time.  Many factors played into Britain’s Glorious Revolution (1688), but it is reasonable to say that the political thought of Hobbes, Locke and others encouraged replacing a Divine Right of Kings with a parliamentary-based monarchy.  Inspired by writings such as Rousseau’s The Social Contract, the French Revolution also ended religious-based authority and dissolved the traditional feudal system.  Across the Atlantic, the new nation, the United States, created a constitution in 1776 and Bill of Rights inspired by Enlightenment thinker John Locke and Baron de Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws (1748) that called for a limited monarchy with a division of power among an executive, parliament and judiciary.

Conclusion. As difficult as defining the Enlightenment, it is equally challenging to discern the nature and extent of its impact.  Historians nonetheless offer their opinions on the movement’s fallout.  Anthony Pagden argues that the Enlightenment had a “far greater and more lasting impact on the formation of the modern world than any of the intellectual convulsions that preceded it. (Pagden, ix)  “Enlightened thought, contends Marvin Perry,  “culminated a trend begun by Renaissance humanists who attacked medieval otherworldliness and gave value to individual achievement and the worldly life. (Perry, 459) 

Although historical assessment varies, it is reasonable to say the Immanuel Kant’s call for contemporaries to “Dare to know” reflected confidence in the human capacity to understand society and the natural world without deference to traditions or clerical authority.

Selected Bibliography.

Cassirer, Ernst. The Philosophy of the Enlightenment. Princeton, N.J. Princeton University Press, 1951. 

Davies, Norman.  Europe: A History.  London: Random House, 1997

Dupre, Louis. The Enlightenment and the Intellectual Foundations of Modern Culture.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004

Edelstein, Dan.  The Enlightenment: A Genealogy.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.

Elian-Feldon, Miriam et al., eds.  The Origins of Racism in the West.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. 

Gay Peter. The Enlightenment: An Interpretation. New York: Knopf, 1966.

Goodman, Dena and Kathleen Wellman, eds, The Enlightenment. New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2004.

Israel, Jonathan.  Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man, 1670-1752.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Jacob, Margaret.  The Enlightenment. A Reader. (1999).

Kramnick, Isaac. ed.  The Portable Enlightenment Reader. New York: Penguin Books, 1995.

Outram, Dorinda. The Enlightenment.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Perry, Marvin et al.  Western Civilization: Ideas, Politics, and Society.  New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000. 

Spielvogel, Jackson J.  Western Civilization.  Volume B: 1300-1815.  Boston: Wadsworth, 2012.

The Printing Press

William Manchester describes it as an “epochal invention” and “one of the great movements in the history of Western civilization. (95). “One of the most important technological innovations of Western civilization”, writes Jackson J. Spielvogel.   James McClellan and Harold Dorn write that this invention incited a “communications revolution” that  “altered the cultural landscape of early modern Europe.” (224)

 In 1453, craftsman Johannes Gutenberg (1398-1468) invented the printing press, which led to the mass production of printed works and incited massive change in Europe and the world.   How did Gutenberg achieve this?  What were some of the immediate and long-term effects of one of the most seminal inventions in human history? 

Before Gutenberg. For centuries, Europeans copied written works by hand, spending months transcribing works such as the Bible.  China, the inventors of paper, used more advanced copying technologies.  Printers began carving pages of text into woodblocks (woodblock printing) in the eighth or ninth century.  According to one Jesuit priest who lived in China in the late 16th century, this process could make 1500 copies per day – a much faster process than transcribing! (Headrick, 84).

Around 1045, Chinese inventor Phi Sheng created moveable (also known as interchangeable) type, using wax to attach individual ceramic characters to an iron frame. (Headrick 85)  Sheng’s invention allowed printers to rearrange symbols to create different texts. Woodblock printing, however, remained more practical, efficient, and cheaper than movable type printing. Chinese writing includes thousands of pictograph characters, which made arranging individual ceramic symbols an extremely time-consuming task. (143)

Movable-type, however, could be effective if applied to a writing system with a manageable number of symbols.

How did Gutenberg do it? Gutenberg allegedly created the printing press independent of Asian influence. There is some debate around this view.  We know, however, he used and modified recent inventions while adding his innovations.   Oil-based ink, already used to decorate textiles, offered a stable alternative for paper printing.  Gutenberg’s unique contribution is his development of moveable metal type.  He created steel signatures for each number, letter, and punctuation mark, then attached these symbols to a lead base and assembled them in a type tray. ( Parker, 580)  Next, he spread ink on the letters, lay a sheet of paper (or other material) over the letters, then used the press (adapted from the screw press used with wine presses and other applications) to impress the arranged symbols on the sheet. Symbols could be rearranged, reused and easily replaced, making for a relatively inexpensive process.  (Parker, 580) The twenty-six character Phoenician alphabet made movable-type more practical than the more elaborate Chinese lettering system. 

By modern standards, this seems like a tedious process.  Gutenberg, however, took a big step in mechanizing a process that enabled mass production of printed materials.  In doing so, he facilitated significant change in Europe and the world.     

Decentralizing Knowledge: The Spread of Ideas and Vernacular Languages. What were some of these changes? In practical terms, the printing press allowed people to mass-produce duplicate copies of written documents.  It offered a more accurate process than transcribing simple human errors.  Now, people could create identical copies of written materials such as pamphlets, posters, books, and sermons. 

Some lauded the invention as a victory for the spread of literacy and ideas.  Others feared it as a means of fomenting division.  The Holy Roman Empire, the overseer of a united Christendom, saw the rampant spread of printing as a threat to Christian unity.  As William Manchester points out, “Until late in the fifteenth century, most books and nearly all education had been controlled by the Church.” (Manchester, 95)   In part, this control entailed the exclusive use of Latin while discouraging and even outlawing vernacular languages such as German.  

The diffusion of knowledge, however, could not be controlled.  The production of printed material for the time is staggering.  By 1500 more than two hundred towns had print shops, and “almost 40,000 recorded editions of books had been published in 14 European languages, with Germany and Italy accounting for two-thirds. (Manchester, 92).  The Giolito Press in Italy, for instance, published numerous plays, poems and other works in Italian. 

These numbers increased exponentially in the following centuries.  Printing also made it easier to circulate ideas and opinions, including those that challenged traditional authority. Martin Luther’s famous 95 Theses (1521), criticizing the Catholic Churches sale of indulgences, were printed in German and widely circulated, driving the Protestant Revolution and Christian. 

Classical Literature and the Renaissance. Written works increasingly included a mix of religious and secular topics.  Gutenberg’s Bible sold well, as did Latin and Greek classics.  Printers noticed the growing appetite for classical works and strove to feed it.  Aldus Manutius, for instance, “set up the Aldine Press in Venice in 1495 to specialize in Greek, Latin, and early Italian classics.” (Parker 220) Aldus also published Greek dictionaries and grammar books. Historians identify an increasingly literate Europe with greater access to these classics leading to the classically inspired Renaissance.

Conclusion. Gutenberg’s printing press fostered a communications revolution that profoundly impacted Europe and the world.  More people learned to read and had greater access to a wider variety of ideas.  This diffusion of information – religious documents, philosophy, children’s books, science, classical texts – encouraged diversity while undermining the continent’s unity based on one language (Latin) and Catholicism’s pervasive belief system.  Printing also enabled papermaking, print shops, typefounding, publishing, writing, and other print-related industries.   

Gutenberg’s printing press certainly ranks among the top developments in the history of communications and, for some historians, it stands as one of the most outstanding achievements of all time. 

Selected Bibliography.

Cahill, Thomas.  Heretics and Heroes: How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Created Our World.  New York: Anchor Books, 2014.

Headrick, Daniel R.  Technology: A World History.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2009

Manchester, William.  A World Lit Only By Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance.  New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1993.

McClellan, James and Dorn, Harold.  Science and Technology in World History: An Introduction.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015.  

Newman, Garfield.  Echoes from the Past: World History to the 16th Century. McGraw-Hill Ryerson Limited, 2001. 

Parker, Philip. World History: From the Ancient World to the Information Age. New York: Penguin Random House, 2017.

Spielvogel, Jackson J.  Western Civilization, Volume B: 1300-1815. Eight Edition. Boston: Wadsworth, 2012

Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation

 For we hold that a man is justified by faith alone, apart from the works of manMartin Luther

Historians are clear about the far-reaching impact of what came to be known as the Protestant Revolution that began in the 16th century CE.  J.M. Roberts describes it as “the great crisis which shook western Christianity and destroyed the old medieval unity of the faith in the early sixteenth century forever.” (538). At one point, the Catholic Church, headed by the Holy Roman Empire, offered a unified vision of the world and the afterlife.  This consensus changed with the Protestant Reformation lead by the determined and articulate Martin Luther (1483-1546).    

The Holy Roman Empire and Catholic Reform. The Holy Roman Empire arose from a desire to create a Christian version of the Roman Empire in the West and a counterweight to the Byzantine Empire in the East. Ultimate authority resided with the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor, who often vied for supreme power.  Together they faced many threats to Catholic unity – the rise of nation-states, nationalism from Germany and other states, religious wars, debt, and an increasingly evident corruption among clerical ranks- that encouraged dissent and calls for reform. 

Calls for reform did not begin with Martin Luther.  As J.M. Roberts writes, “The fifteenth century had been marked by a deep, uneasy devotional swell: there had been a sense of looking for new answers to spiritual questions, and of looking for the outside the limits laid down by ecclesiastical authority. (536)  Peasant revolts against clerical authority erupted in various parts of Europe.  Jan Hus (1372-1415) and other religious reformers spoke against church corruption and control over spiritual practices.  Devout Catholic and Christian humanist Desiderius Erasmus criticized clerical corruption and called for more inward Catholic worship and abandoning Catholic traditions such as confessions and sacraments.  He also criticized clerical corruption. 

Rome, of course, did not welcome criticism and censored public opinion – a task increasingly difficult with the advent of the printing press in c 1440.  In 1501, Rome issued a papal bull ordering the burning of all books questioning church authority.   Rome also forbid the printing of books without church approval. Criticism of the papacy could lead to Imprisonment and execution.  After being excommunicated and receiving a Papal Bull, Rome executed an unrepentant Jan Huss for refusing to recant his calls for reform.  Speaking out against the Roman Catholic Church required courage and conviction.  Martin Luther, a relatively unknown scholar in Wittenberg, Germany, had an abundance of both qualities. 

Martin Luther (1483-1546). Martin Luther became a monk in 1505, then professor of Theology at Wittenberg, Germany. Rigorous biblical studies lead him to interpretations that differed from accepted Catholic beliefs, especially around salvation. Catholic doctrine advocated that salvation could be gained through faith and good works, particularly the Catholic practice of sacraments.  Luther disagreed.  Salvation, he insisted, could only be granted by God. Efforts to achieve his grace through penance and good works were misguided and futile.  Human actions could not persuade God. 

As a devout Catholic, Luther did not want to split the Church.  His conviction challenged the penitential system fundamental to Catholic belief and practice and undermined Rome’s long-reaching authority. As it stood, he kept his challenge relatively private.  It would take, writes Thomas Cahill, “the prompting of an unusually shameless and aggressive display of ecclesiastical corruption to prompt Luther into the public challenge.  (147).   

Rome offered such a display. 

A Prompting. In 1515, Pope Leo X authorized the sale of indulgences, paper certificates granting salvation.  Roman officials travelled Europe collecting funds from those wanting to avoid purgatory. They found many buyers, and indulgences became a significant source of revenue for a papacy under financial strain from ongoing wars, patronage, and building projects, most notably St. Peter’s Basilica.

For Luther, the sale of indulgences itself was misguided.  How officials, in particular Johann Tetzel, sold them intensified his ire.  Tetzel, a German Dominican monk, sold Indulgences in Germany with zeal and style, using the slogan “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”  William Manchester describes the monk as “a sort of medieval P.T Barnum.” (134). Disgusted, Luther set about writing a series of theses criticizing the sale of indulgences and set in motion a series of events that would Christendom in Europe.

95 Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences In 1517, some historians alleged, Luther posted his 95 Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences on the church wall in Wittenberg. Others like Thomas Cahill maintain that Luther sent his theses, accompanied by a very respectable letter to Archbishop Albrecht, who passed it along to Rome.  (p?)  Either way, Luther directly challenged Catholic doctrine and the Pope himself.  Luther did take direct aim at Pope Leo X, saying if the Pope could grant salvation, he could offer it for free or even give indulgence revenues to the poor.  It was a direct challenge to papal authority and a condemnation of a vital income stream for a debt-ridden Rome. 

Spreading The Word. Luther’s protests spread quickly.  Printers (without Luther’s permission) circulated thousands of copies of his theses, including many in German. Most people could not read, but those who could verbally spread his critique of indulgences, striking a nerve with people already resentful of Rome’s extensive authority and blatant corruption.  Some saw opportunities.  For German princes, a reduced papal presence in German lands meant more independence and even access to Church lands.   

 Luther followed up his theses with three pamphlets that further criticized the system of sacraments. He also argued that priests should marry and encouraged translating the Bible into languages like German to allow people a more direct relationship with sole authority.   Luther was on a roll. 

Rome Responds. His protests reached Rome, who demanded he recants his statements.  When Luther refused, they charged Luther with heresy.  Pope Leo X considered summoning Luther to Rome, but Frederick the III intervened.  Knowing Luther might not return from Rome, Frederick convinced the Pope to have Luther state his case in front of the Diet of Worms (a deliberative assembly of the Holy Roman Empire), presided over by the Holy Roman Emperor himself Charles V.  

Why did Frederick III protect Luther?  How could he persuade Leo X to allow Luther to present his case in Worms? Some historians have pointed to the growing anti-papal sentiment among Germans who sought more self-determination and less Roman taxes and political meddling.  Handing over Luther to Rome would be a sign of weakness and compliance.  Moreover, Frederick himself found Tetzel’s actions offensive and yet another example of Rome extracting money from his territory.  Ruling an increasingly nationalist and ani-Papal Saxony and holding an upcoming vote for the Holy Roman Emperor gave Frederick some clout.  Leo X conceded. 

Luther Answers to Rome. In 1521 Martin Luther presented his case in front of the Diet of Worms. Luther stood his ground, identifying the Bible as the only authority and defying officials to demonstrate contradictions between his theses and the Holy book.  A frustrated Charles V proclaimed him a heretic and forbade citizens to promote Luther’s ideas. Knowing Luther was in danger, Frederick III lobbied for Luther’s safe passage to Wittenberg hid him in Germany. 

Conclusion Luther avoided execution, and Rome could not stem the tide of protestant revolt.  Farmers, in particular, acted out violently.  Luther condemned these protests as going beyond the laity’s boundaries of obedience.  The demise of Christian unity also opened the way for new sects such as Calvinism, Anglicanism, and Anabaptism.  Rome actively implemented many reforms – collectively known as the Catholic Reformation- but would not regain Christian unity in Europe.  A series of religious wars during the last half of the 16th century hardened divisions throughout Christendom.  Eventually, religious pluralism became the norm in most countries.    

The Protestant Reformation is a convenient term for religious upheavals that were neither coordinated nor mutually supportive.  Moreover, it is difficult to pinpoint its origins.  As religious scholar Karen Armstrong points out, “we don’t know exactly why ‘the Reformation’ happened.  Many factors mingled together- nationalism in cities (especially Germany), the printing press, clerical corruption, a greater sense of individualism, and of course, Luther himself – to foment a movement that brought fundamental changes to Europe and the World. 

Selected Bibliography

Armstrong, Karen.  A History of God: The 4000 Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  New York: Ballantine Books, 1993. 

Boorstin, Daniel J. The Seekers: The Story of Man’s Continuing Quest to Understand His World.  New York: Vintage Books, 1999. 

Cahill, Thomas.  Heretics and Heroes: How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Created Our World.  New York: Anchor Books, 2013

Cooke, Tim. ed.  National Geographic Concise History of World Religions.  Washington D.C. National Geographic, 2011. 

Gonzalez, Justo L.  The Story of Christianity.  Volume 2.  New York: HarperCollins, 2017

Manchester, William. A World Only Lit By Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance.  New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1992. 

Roberts, J.M. The Penguin History of the World. London: Penguin Books, 1988

Spielvogel, Jackson J.  Western Civilization. Volume B: 1300-1815.  Boston: Wadsworth, 2012. 

Stearns, Peter L. World Civilization: The Global Experience. New York: Addison-Wesley Education Publishers, 2001.