Catholics vs. Protestants in Europe and the New World

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  • 0:08 The Protestant Reformation
  • 1:51 In Europe
  • 4:47 In the New World
  • 6:45 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will learn about how Catholicism and Protestantism influenced various regions of Europe and the New World. We will identify locations where Catholicism thrived, and those where Protestantism thrived, in addition to highlighting important themes.

The Protestant Reformation & the Counter-Reformation

If you've watched some of my other lessons in this unit, you've heard me talk about the importance of the Protestant Reformation. If you haven't seen any other lessons, that's okay, too, because I'm going to review. So, the Protestant Reformation was a watershed event in world history. When Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany in 1517, he set in motion events that would alter the course of history. Ultimately, the Reformation would help lead to individualism, democracy, capitalism, and much that we associate with modern life.

The Catholic Church responded to the Protestant Reformation with what historians call the Counter-Reformation. You know, 'counter' in this context means 'opposite.' So, the Counter-Reformation basically tried to undo everything brought about by the Protestant Reformation. Between 1545 and 1648, the Catholic Church developed policies and practices that led to spiritual renewal and a resurgence of Catholic influence.

So, now the stage was set. Western Christianity was divided into two branches. Tension between Protestants and Catholics was widespread and often erupted into war. The German Peasants' War in 1524-1525 is just one example. Which brand of Christianity would dominate? Which would spread to the New World? These were questions everyone was asking.

Protestants vs. Catholics in Europe

So, we need to understand that neither branch totally dominated the other. Instead, what happened is Protestantism became prevalent in certain geographic areas, while Catholicism became prevalent in others. So, the Protestant Reformation began in Germany, so it only makes sense that Germany became heavily Protestant. Protestantism was also strong in Switzerland. Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) emerged as the leader of what is sometimes called the 'Swiss Reformation.' Zwingli and Luther had much in common, although they did not agree on every single point. Most importantly, though, they were both decidedly anti-Catholic and committed to spreading Protestant influence. Geneva, Switzerland became the unofficial capital of Protestantism in Europe, thanks to the efforts of theologian John Calvin and others.

John Calvin was French, and he was instrumental in popularizing Protestantism in France. Protestantism in France was significant, but it also brought about bitter religious wars. 'Huguenot' became a nickname for French Protestants during this time. Over the years, Huguenots were often persecuted. One of the most brutal incidents was St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, in which thousands of Huguenots were slain by Catholics on August 23-24, 1572.

England became strongly Protestant. I'm sure you've heard of the Church of England, or the Anglican Church. The Church of England is the official church denomination of England. It basically declared independence from the Roman Catholic Church in 1534. Because of this, England has a long tradition of Protestantism. Remember the Church of England: we will be coming back to it shortly when we talk about the New World.

Protestantism did not take root in Spain the way it did in Germany, England, and other places in Central Europe. Spain had a long Catholic tradition, and the Spanish government made sure Protestantism had no room to thrive by implementing harsh persecution. The same was basically true in Italy. That makes sense; I mean after all, the Catholic Church was based in Italy.

Protestantism also took root in the Netherlands, the Scandinavian countries, and portions of Central Europe, like Hungary, for example. Now, please understand, this is a little bit of a generalization, but it might be helpful to think of it in this way: Protestantism was primarily popular in Northern Europe, while Catholicism remained entrenched in Southern Europe. I mean, this wasn't always the case, but as a general rule, it was true.

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