Eastern Europe During the Reformation

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  • 0:05 Reformation
  • 2:12 Reformation in Hungary
  • 4:34 Counter-Reformation in Hungary
  • 6:01 Reformation in Poland
  • 7:42 Counter-Refromation in Poland
  • 9:02 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will focus on the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation within Eastern Europe. As it highlights Hungary and Poland, it will explore the reasons why the Reformation did not last within these countries.

Definition of Reformation

If you talk to someone who loves to garden, they'll tell you flowers must have a strong root system in order to multiply and spread. Without this, they'll never survive nature's harsh conditions.

The same is true of cultural movements. Whether they are political or religious, they must establish deep roots in order to survive the opposition and have a lasting effect. One such movement was the Protestant Reformation, which changed the face of Western Europe but never thrived in Eastern Europe. In today's lesson, we'll focus on the countries of Hungary and Poland. Since these two countries cover a large part of Eastern Europe, we'll use them to discover why the Reformation never took root in Eastern Europe.

Location of Poland and Hungary in Europe
Poland Hungary Map

Before we dive into Eastern Europe, let's review the Protestant Reformation. The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century began as an attempt to reform the practices of the Catholic Church. It was sparked in the year 1517 by Martin Luther's 95 Theses. In these writings, Luther objected to the abuses he perceived within the Church. Soon, others joined the call for church reform.

Of course, these ideas didn't sit so well with the Pope. Before long, the efforts of the reformers led to a schism in Western Christianity. On one side were those who held to the doctrines of the Catholic Church. On the other were those who protested these doctrines.

Aptly so, these protesters became known as Protestants, or followers of Western Christianity separate from the Roman Catholic Church. Aided by its followers and the invention of the printing press, the Protestant message spread throughout Western Europe and forever changed countries like England and Germany. Unfortunately for the reformers, Eastern Europe was a different story. Although the Reformation made its way to Hungary and Poland, it couldn't weather the cultural climate of Eastern Europe.

Reformation in Hungary

Let's begin with a look at Hungary. The writings of Martin Luther found early welcome in Hungary. However, since Hungary was ruled by the staunchly Catholic Habsburg Dynasty, the Protestant reformers had their work cut out for them. However, the invasion of Hungary by the Ottoman Turks would give the reformers their best chance at winning converts.

In 1526, the Habsburg Dynasty and the Ottoman Turks met at the Battle of Mohacs. This clash ended in a major Turkish victory, in which almost the entire Hungarian army was destroyed. Making matters even worse, a large part of Western Hungary was taken by the Ottomans. Although this was disastrous for Hungary's Catholic rulers, it acted as a catalyst for the growth of Protestantism.

The 95 Theses by Luther triggered the Protestant Reformation
Martin Luther 95 Theses

To explain, since the foreign Turks posed a greater threat than Protestantism, the Catholic rulers of Hungary leaned toward tolerance when it came to the reformers. Without a doubt, the Catholic rulers would squelch Protestant reform whenever they had a chance. However, with the Turks knocking at their door, they usually had bigger fish to fry. Also, once parts of Hungary were taken by the Turks, Catholicism lost its center of power. This caused the Hungarians to lose faith in the Church's ability to protect them. With this, they looked for an alternative in which to put their trust. They found it in Protestantism. Under these conditions reform spread rapidly.

By 1531, the Reformation had reached such popularity in Hungary that a Protestant seminary was established. By the late 1540s, Calvinism had brought many into the reforming fold. Calvinism, named after the 16th century reformer John Calvin, holds that only God has complete authority over humanity, salvation and the church. In other words, the Pope is not the end-all authority. He, like the rest of humanity, is subject to God. The Hungarians, being disillusioned by their Catholic rulers, liked the sound of this anti-Church message - so much so that by the year 1600, 90% of the Hungarian population had embraced the Protestant faith.

Counter-Reformation in Hungary

With such numbers tilting against the church, Ferdinand II, ruler of Hungary, realized his precious Catholicism was on the verge of extinction. However, he was not willing to wave the white flag. Instead, the Counter-Reformation made its appearance among the Hungarians. The Counter-Reformation was the Catholic Church's reaction to the Reformation, in which they solidified the authority of the Pope and Church doctrine.

In a smart political move, Ferdinand II targeted the wealthy. Using money, intimidation and force, he persuaded the ruling families of Hungary to return to Catholicism. When they returned to the Catholic fold, their money went with them. As their money returned to the Catholic cause, the Counter-Reformation had the funding it needed to get its message heard.

Of course, the Church's gain was the reformers' loss. Without proper funding or support from the noble class, the reformed preachers were soon penniless, and their schools were bankrupt. By the 1670s, Protestant ministers still preaching the reform message were forced to stop or face persecution. Although Hungary started out well for the reformers, its roots were not deep enough to weather this Catholic storm. In the end, the Reformation withered away.

Reformer John Calvin believed only God has total authority over humanity
Reformer John Calvin

Reformation in Poland

Sadly for the reformers, things went the same way in Poland. In fact, Poland is an excellent example of the strength of the Counter-Reformation and the weakness of the Reformation.

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