The Age of the Great Religious Controversies

The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were the age of religious controversy.

If you will notice you will find that almost everybody around you is forever "talking economics" and discussing wages and hours of labor and strikes in their relation to the life of the community, for that is the main topic of interest of our own time.
The Inquisition

The poor little children of the year 1600 or 1650 fared worse. They never heard anything but "religion." Their heads were filled with "predestination," "transubstantition," "free will," and a hundred other exotic words, expressing obscure points of "the true faith," whether Catholic or Protestant. According to the desire of their parents, they were baptised Catholics or Lutherans or Calvinists or Zwinglians or Anabaptists. They learned their theology from the Augsburg catechism, composed by Luther, or from the "institutes of Christianity," written by Calvin, or they mumbled the Thirty-Nine Articles of Faith which were printed in the English Book of Common Prayer, and they were told that these alone represented the "True Faith."

They heard of the wholesale theft of church property perpetrated by King Henry VIII, the much-married monarch of England, who made himself the supreme head of the English church, and assumed the old papal rights of appointing bishops and priests. They had a nightmare whenever some one mentioned the Holy Inquisition, with its dungeons and its many torture chambers, and they were treated to equally horrible stories of how a mob of outraged Dutch Protestants had got hold of a dozen defenseless old priests and hanged them for the sheer pleasure of killing those who professed a different faith. It was unfortunate that the two contending parties were so equally matched. Otherwise the struggle would have come to a quick solution. Now it dragged on for eight generations, and it grew so complicated that I can only tell you the most important details, and must ask you to get the rest from one of the many histories of the Reformation.

The great reform movement of the Protestants had been followed by a thoroughgoing reform within the bosom of the Church. Those popes who had been merely amateur humanists and dealers in Roman and Greek antiquities, disappeared from the scene and their place was taken by serious men who spent twenty hours a day administering those holy duties which had been placed in their hands.

The long and rather disgraceful happiness of the monasteries came to an end. Monks and nuns were forced to be up at sunrise, to study the Church Fathers, to tend the sick and console the dying. The Holy Inquisition watched day and night that no dangerous doctrines should be spread by way of the printing press. Here it is customary to mention poor Galileo, who was locked up because he had been a little too indiscreet in explaining the heavens with his funny little telescope and had muttered certain opinions about the behaviour of the planets which were entirely opposed to the official views of the church. But in all fairness to the Pope, the clergy and the Inquisition, it ought to be stated that the Protestants were quite as much the enemies of science and medicine as the Catholics and with equal manifestations of ignorance and intolerance regarded the men who investigated things for themselves as the most dangerous enemies of humankind.

And Calvin, the great French reformer and the tyrant (both political and spiritual) of Geneva, not only assisted the French authorities when they tried to hang Michael Servetus (the Spanish theologian and physician who had become famous as the assistant of Vesalius, the first great anatomist), but when Servetus had managed to escape from his French jail and had fled to Geneva, Calvin threw this brilliant man into prison and after a prolonged trial, allowed him to be burned at the stake on account of his heresies, totally indifferent to his fame as a scientist.

And so it went. We have few reliable statistics upon the subject, but on the whole, the Protestants tired of this game long before the Catholics, and the greater part of honest men and women who were burned and hanged and decapitated on account of their religious beliefs fell as victims of the very energetic but also very drastic church of Rome.

For tolerance (and please remember this when you grow older), is of very recent origin and even the people of our own so-called "modern world" are apt to be tolerant only upon such matters as do not interest them very much. They are tolerant towards a native of Africa, and do not care whether he becomes a Buddhist or a Muslim, because neither Buddhism nor Muslimism means anything to them. But when they hear that their neighbor who was a Republican and believed in a high protective tariff, has joined the Socialist party and now wants to repeal all tariff laws, their tolerance ceases and they use almost the same words as those employed by a kindly Catholic (or Protestant) of the seventeenth century, who was informed that his best friend whom he had always respected and loved had fallen a victim to the terrible heresies of the Protestant (or Catholic) church.

"Heresy" until a very short time ago was regarded as a disease. Nowadays when we see a person neglecting the personal cleanliness of their body and their home and exposing themselves and their children to the dangers of typhoid fever or another preventable disease, we send for the board-of-health and the health officer calls upon the police to aid them in removing this person who is a danger to the safety of the entire community. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a heretic, a man or a woman who openly doubted the fundamental principles upon which his Protestant or Catholic religion had been founded, was considered a more terrible menace than a typhoid carrier. Typhoid fever might (very likely would) destroy the body. But heresy, according to them, would positively destroy the immortal soul. It was therefore the duty of all good and logical citizens to warn the police against the enemies of the established order of things and those who failed to do so were as culpable as a modern person who does not telephone to the nearest doctor when discovering that their fellow-tenants are suffering from cholera or smallpox.

In the years to come you will hear a great deal about preventive medicine. Preventive medicine simply means that our doctors do not wait until their patients are sick, then step forward and cure them. On the contrary, they study the patient and the conditions under which he lives when he (the patient) is perfectly well and they remove every possible cause of illness by cleaning up rubbish, by teaching him what to eat and what to avoid, and by giving him a few simple ideas of personal hygiene. They go even further than that, and these good doctors enter the schools and teach the children how to use tooth-brushes and how to avoid catching colds.

But the Catholics did not lag behind. They too devoted much time and thought to education. The Church, in this matter, found an invaluable friend and ally in the newly-founded order of the Society of Jesus. The founder of this remarkable organization was a Spanish soldier who after a life of unholy adventures had been converted and thereupon felt himself bound to serve the church just as many former sinners, who have been shown the errors of their way by the Salvation Army, devote the remaining years of their lives to the task of aiding and consoling those who are less fortunate.

The name of this Spaniard was Ignatius de Loyola. He was born in the year before the discovery of America. He had been wounded and disabled for life and while he was in the hospital he had seen a vision of the Holy Virgin and her Son, who bade him give up the wickedness of his former life. He decided to go to the Holy Land and finish the task of the Crusades. But a visit to Jerusalem had shown him the impossibility of the task and he returned west to help in the warfare upon the heresies of the Lutherans.

In the year 1534 he was studying in Paris at the Sorbonne. Together with seven other students he founded a fraternity. The eight men promised each other that they would lead holy lives, that they would not strive after riches but after righteousness, and would devote themselves, body and soul, to the service of the Church. A few years later this small fraternity had grown into a regular organization and was recognized by Pope Paul III as the Society of Jesus.

Loyola had been a military man. He believed in discipline, and absolute obedience to the orders of the superior dignitaries became one of the main causes for the enormous success of the Jesuits. They specialised in education. They gave their teachers a most thorough-going education before they allowed them to talk to a single pupil. They lived with their students and they entered into their games. They watched them with tender care. And as a result they raised a new generation of faithful Catholics who took their religious duties as seriously as the people of the early Middle Ages.

The shrewd Jesuits, however, did not waste all their efforts upon the education of the poor. They entered the palaces of the mighty and became the private tutors of future emperors and kings. And what this meant you will see for yourself when I tell you about the Thirty Years War. But before this terrible and final outbreak of religious fanaticism, a great many other things had happened.

Charles V was dead. Germany and Austria had been left to his brother Ferdinand. All his other possessions, Spain and the Netherlands and the Indies and America had gone to his son Philip. Philip was the son of Charles and a Portuguese princess who had been first cousin to her own husband. The children that are born of such a union are prone to health issues. The son of Philip, the unfortunate Don Carlos, (murdered afterwards with his own father's consent,) was crazy. Philip was not quite crazy, but his zeal for the Church bordered closely upon religious insanity. He believed that Heaven had appointed him as one of the saviours of humankind. Therefore, whosoever was obstinate and refused to share his Majesty's views, proclaimed himself an enemy of the human race and must be exterminated lest his example corrupt the souls of his pious neighbors.
The Night of Saint Bartholomew

Spain, of course, was a very rich country. All the gold and silver of the new world flowed into the Castilian and Aragonian treasuries. But Spain suffered from a curious economic disease. Her peasants were hard working men and even harder working women. But the better classes maintained a supreme contempt for any form of labor, outside of employment in the army or navy or the civil service. As for the Moors, who had been very industrious artisans, they had been driven out of the country long before. As a result, Spain, the treasure chest of the world, remained a poor country because all her money had to be sent abroad in exchange for the wheat and the other necessities of life which the Spaniards neglected to raise for themselves.

Philip, ruler of the most powerful nation of the sixteenth century, depended for his revenue upon the taxes which were gathered in the busy commercial beehive of the Netherlands. But these Flemings and Dutchmen were devoted followers of the doctrines of Luther and Calvin and they had cleansed their churches of all images and holy paintings and they had informed the Pope that they no longer regarded him as their shepherd but intended to follow the dictates of their consciences and the commands of their newly translated Bible.

This placed the king in a very difficult position. He could not possibly tolerate the heresies of his Dutch subjects, but he needed their money. If he allowed them to be Protestants and took no measures to save their souls he was deficient in his duty toward God. If he sent the Inquisition to the Netherlands and burned his subjects at the stake, he would lose the greater part of his income.

Being a man of uncertain willpower he hesitated a long time. He tried kindness and sternness and promises and threats. The Hollanders remained obstinate, and continued to sing psalms and listen to the sermons of their Lutheran and Calvinist preachers. Philip in his despair sent his "man of iron," the Duke of Alba, to bring these hardened sinners to terms. Alba began by decapitating those leaders who had not wisely left the country before his arrival. In the year 1572 (the same year that the French Protestant leaders were all killed during the terrible night of Saint Bartholomew), he attacked a number of Dutch cities and massacred the inhabitants as an example for the others. The next year he laid siege to the town of Leyden, the manufacturing center of Holland.
Leyden Delivered by the Cutting of the Dikes

Meanwhile, the seven small provinces of the northern Netherlands had formed a defensive union, the so-called union of Utrecht, and had recognized William of Orange, a German prince who had been the private secretary of the Emperor Charles V, as the leader of their army and as commander of their freebooting sailors, who were known as the Beggars of the Sea. William, to save Leyden, cut the dikes, created a shallow inland sea, and delivered the town with the help of a strangely equipped navy consisting of scows and flat-bottomed barges which were rowed and pushed and pulled through the mud until they reached the city walls.

It was the first time that an army of the invincible Spanish king had suffered such a humiliating defeat. It surprised the world just as the Japanese victory of Mukden, in the Russian-Japanese war, surprised our own generation. The Protestant powers took fresh courage and Philip devised new means for the purpose of conquering his rebellious subjects. He hired a poor half-witted fanatic to go and murder William of Orange. But the sight of their dead leader did not bring the Seven Provinces to their knees. On the contrary it made them furiously angry. In the year 1581, the Estates General (the meeting of the representatives of the Seven Provinces) came together at the Hague and most solemnly abjured their "wicked king Philip" and themselves assumed the burden of sovereignty which thus far had been invested in their "King by the Grace of God."

This is a very important event in the history of the great struggle for political liberty. It was a step which reached much further than the uprising of the nobles which ended with the signing of the Magna Carta. These good burghers said "Between a king and his subjects there is a silent understanding that both sides shall perform certain services and shall recognize certain definite duties. If either party fails to live up to this contract, the other has the right to consider it terminated." The American subjects of King George III in the year 1776 came to a similar conclusion. But they had three thousand miles of ocean between themselves and their ruler and the Estates General took their decision (which meant a slow death in case of defeat) within hearing of the Spanish guns and although in constant fear of an avenging Spanish fleet.


Study the lesson for one week.

Over the week:

  • Read and/or listen to the lesson.
  • Review the synopsis.
  • Study the vocabulary terms.
  • Complete the enrichment activities.
  • Answer the review questions.


After the Reformation, the Roman Catholics and Protestants showed intolerance for one another and continued to quarrel. Religions also persecuted scientists that dared challenge church doctrine with their scientific findings. For example, the Catholic Church punished Galileo (who said the Earth revolves around the Sun) and Michael Servetus. The Roman Catholic Inquisition sought out and executed so-called heretics, including Protestants. The religious division posed a problem for King Philip, a zealous Catholic, who ruled over the rich but Protestant nation of the Netherlands. King Philip sent the Duke of Alba, his 'iron man,' to the Netherlands to force them to renounce their Protestant faith. The people of the Netherlands fought back and defeated the Spanish forces, preserving their religious freedom.


Holy Inquisition: A tribunal of the Roman Catholic Church set up to investigate and suppress heresy.
Heresy: A doctrine held by a member of a religion at variance with established religious beliefs, especially dissension from Roman Catholic dogma.
Typhoid: An illness caused by the bacterium serovar Salmonella Typhi.
Jesuits: An order of Roman Catholic clergy, the Society of Jesus, having a tradition of education, theological scholarship, and missionary work; formed during the 16th century.


Activity 1: Narrate the Lesson

  • After you read the lesson, narrate the lesson aloud using your own words.

Activity 2: Study the Lesson Picture(s)

  • Study the lesson picture(s) and describe how they relate to the lesson.

Activity 3: Map the Lesson

  • Find Spain and the Netherlands on the map of Europe.

Activity 4: Complete Copywork, Narration, Dictation, and Coloring   

Click the crayon above. Complete page 27 of 'World History Activities for Fourth Grade.'


Question 1

What was the goal of the Catholic Inquisition?
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Answer 1

The Catholic Inquisition sought to find and eliminate heretical texts and people.
1 / 3

Question 2

Why did the Netherlands pose a problem for King Philip?
2 / 3

Answer 2

King Philip was a zealous Catholic, and the Netherlands were Protestant. However, the Netherlands made King Philip a lot of money.
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Question 3

Did the Netherlands renounce their Protestant faith and become Catholics?
3 / 3

Answer 3

No, the Netherlands defeated King Philip's Spanish forces and won their religious freedom.
3 / 3

  1. What was the goal of the Catholic Inquisition? The Catholic Inquisition sought to find and eliminate heretical texts and people.
  2. Why did the Netherlands pose a problem for King Philip? King Philip was a zealous Catholic, and the Netherlands were Protestant. However, the Netherlands made King Philip a lot of money.
  3. Did the Netherlands renounce their Protestant faith and become Catholics? No, the Netherlands defeated King Philip's Spanish forces and won their religious freedom.