Christianity: 1500 to 1600AD

Political Milestones: 1500AD to 1600AD

With the recent discovery of the Americas in 1492AD and the explosion of new ideas in mathematics, business, culture, art, science and religion arising from the Renaissance, Europe’s place in the global pecking order was changing forever. This was the century that ushered in the modern world as we know it, dominated by “Western Civilization”. Unfortunately, it also involved the enslavement of much of the rest of the world.

The Portuguese took full advantage of their newfound discoveries to quickly take control of trading posts on the coasts of India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Zanzibar, Mozambique, Timor, Sri Lanka, China, Japan, Burma and Brazil. By 1522AD the Portuguese had also circumnavigated the world. In direct competition with the Portuguese were the Spanish. In short order they ruthlessly subdued most of South America and Mexico, utterly destroying the Aztec Empire by 1525AD, and the Inca Empire by 1536AD. Unlike the Portuguese, the Spanish took absolute control of all the lands they discovered. Thus we find that by 1550AD the Spanish were in total control of virtually all the Americas, Cuba and the Philippines.

The tragic legacy on indigenous peoples of this first wave of imperialism is best summarised by death tolls. Before the arrival of Europeans in the Americas, it is estimated that there were 50-70 million people there. By 1650AD there were only 5-10 million people left. Most had succumbed to new diseases, war, enslavement or democide. Mexico never recovered its population until the 20th Century. Their cultures were stripped of their dignity and have never recovered to this day. To add insult to injury, both the Portuguese and Spanish forced all their new subjects to superficially convert en masse to the religion of their conquerors, a tactic the Catholics had learned from the Muslim conquests in their home countries. Christianity had stooped to a new low.

The Spanish immediately started recreating their own economy in the Americas, which was a feudal system based on extraction from those they ruled. Thus they plundered the New World to finance an empire and military machine that would terrorise Western Europe for the entire century. Unlike the rising wealth of the Dutch, English the Italian city states that was created through business, Spanish wealth was stolen from others and was quickly squandered under its Hapsburg rulers. They saw themselves as the European defenders of Catholicism. The 200 tonnes of gold and 16,000 tonnes of silver taken from South America, combined with the heaviest domestic tax burden in Europe and their unique entitlement to most of the national 10% church tax, was used to finance armies because the Spanish Empire was still feudal and ruled by despots. Their continental-wide reign of greed also resulted in the looting of the Italian city states, finishing off capitalism in Genoa, Milan and Florence.

Their plunder of the insubordinate semi-Protestant Dutch morphed into an 80 year war that led to independence in 1581AD. The Spanish quest to put a stop to English support for the Dutch led to an attempted invasion of England in 1588AD to dispose of Queen Elizabeth the Frist, arrest the rise of Protestantism, and force England back to the Catholic fold. The Spanish Armada was destroyed by superior English, technology, tactics and bad weather. England was now free to begin its own era of imperial expansion.

On the other side of Europe the Ottoman Turks were advancing ever deeper into the Orthodox and Catholic world. Hungary fell quickly in 1526AD after it had been weakened by a peasant revolt and shockingly poor leadership. By 1529AD the Ottoman armies were within sight of Vienna. However, heavy rains ruined the Ottoman campaign. The overland advance of yet another Muslim empire into the heart of Europe had been checked. To the south of the Mediterranean, the Turks were more successful. By 1517AD they had conquered Syria, Egypt and Mecca. They then pushed across North Africa in their second attempt to control Europe via control of the Mediterranean. They also advanced south into Ethiopia where they killed 20% of the mainly Christian population. In 1571AD their quest to control the Mediterranean suffered a crippling blow at the battle of Lepanto against the combined naval forces of Venice, Genoa and Spain. Their imperial dream of subjugating Christian Europe was again shattered. For the first time, superior European technology was now pulling ahead of ceaseless Islamic imperialism.

Over in India, a Central Asian warlord named Babur, conquered the north Indian plains and set up another Muslim empire, one that finally sought to peacefully rule the Hindu majority. The economic success of his rule laid the foundations of three centuries of stable and prosperous Moghul empire-building in India, which lasted until the arrival of the British.

In Russia, the Rule of Ivan The Terrible saw vast expansion of the Russian empire to the east, consuming many more lands of the Mongols and cementing Russia’s place as a great power in the modern era.

Spiritual Milestones: 1500AD to 1600AD

The great spiritually significant event of the century, and indeed for the millennium, started in 1517AD, when an Augustinian monk, named Martin Luther, nailed his 95 objections to Catholic theological and political error to the door of his church in Wittenberg, Germany. The timing was perfect thanks to the newly invented printing press and seething resentment to Catholic oppression across Europe. The result changed Europe and the world forever.

Within a few short years Northern Europe was ablaze with rebellion on many fronts against Catholic rule and corruption. However, Luther’s revolution was not just political. It was also centred on a Biblically correct view of a person’s relationship with Jesus, one that had been suppressed by the Papacy for a thousand years. Luther’s ideas were eagerly embraced by fellow Germans and in the Baltic states, especially after he finished translating the Bible into German in 1534AD. 

A parallel reform movement emerged in Central and Western Europe under John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli. These men believed that all social institutions, be they legal, religious, political, instructive or commercial, could be reformed along Biblical principles. Scotland, England, France, Switzerland and Hungary came under Calvin’s growing influence and it was Calvin, even more than Luther, who has given us the blueprint for the separation of church and state, universal democracy, the belief in the sanctity of work, integrity in office and a purely voluntary faith commitment. The best expression of Calvin’s teachings, however, would not be in Europe at all, but in the America’s. Calvin’s ideas laid the early cultural foundation stones of the United States.

Sadly though, the reformers did not restructure their new church communities along New Testament lines. They were people of their time and could not fathom a community of believers radically different to what they understood inside their culture at their point in history. They fought hard to reform doctrine and theology, but not the corrupt structure of the church. Consequently, they kept far too many of the Catholic Church’s cultural habits. The centrality of the Eucharist was simply replaced with the centrality of the sermon. Priests simply became pastors, but were allowed to marry and received a far better education. Common people could take communion and singing was introduced. The building was kept, with different decorations. The liturgy was also kept but was now in the language of the people. Most importantly though, the pulpit became the throne of the pastor and tertiary theological education, rather than maturity and depth in a leader’s walk with Jesus, was seen as the bridge to ministry. These two faults still haunt Western Protestant church practice today. 

We cannot leave the topic of the failings of the Reformation without addressing the intolerance of the dominant Protestant groups to smaller groups. Luther gave his stamp of approval for the execution of thousands of Anabaptists, for-runners of today’s Brethren, Mennonites and Amish. In Switzerland, Calvin and Zwingli had many dissenters executed because of their theology. Execution and mutilation of religious rebels was common place in England as well. The physical violence and extreme intolerance of the monopolistic Catholic Church of the previous 1,000 years would take another two centuries to be rooted out of mindset the Protestants, even in the United States. The church was still a long way from the New Testament model.

It is an understatement to say that the Papacy did not take the destruction of their power base well! First, they tried to have Luther executed. When that failed, they created severe penalties for anyone caught supporting him. That also failed. Intermittent war then broke with the German princes out until the Pease of Augsburg was signed in 1555AD.

When the Papacy realised they could not force this powerful spiritual reform movement into submission, the Catholic Church itself was forced to examine its own systemic corruption. Some positive reforms to come out of this process were made at the Council of Trent in 1545AD. They included the establishment of seminaries for the proper training of village priests, the reform of religious life by returning many corrupt orders and senior positions to their spiritual foundations, the establishment of the Jesuits, consolidating the doctrines that define Catholicism to this day, the placing new emphasis on global Catholic missions. They were so efficient in this last reform that by 1600AD some 7-10 million people in South America, Mexico, India, the Philippines, Japan, Malaysia and Indonesia called themselves Catholic. The Jesuits became the church’s intellectual battering ram of the Counter-Reformation. They were so successful that they completely destroyed the uniquely tolerant Protestant civilization in the Czech Republic.

Unlike the German princes, the staunchly Catholic French Crown hated the Protestants and late in the century decided to exterminate them. Both the French and Spanish monarchs stuck tightly to the Catholic Church simply because both had been granted lucrative financial privileges by Rome, a financial windfall they did not want to lose under any circumstances. French Protestants were known as the Huguenots and their number peaked at some two million in 1562AD. Then the massacres began. The ensuing Wars of Religion would tragically cost France between 2 and 4 million lives, most of which were Biblically faithful Protestant Christians. Peace between the warring factions was finally achieved in 1598AD under the Edict of Nantes.

Over in England the Reformation took a different route. Beginning in 1534AD King Henry Vlll took advantage of continental turmoil and by royal decree created the Church of England out of all Catholic possessions in his realm. He opposed the Reformation, but he hated the Papacy even more so. After his death a severe and cruel persecution of Protestants broke out under the rule of his Catholic daughter, Mary. It was short lived and her demise secured the infant Reformation on English soil. 

The explosion of Bible reading in this century that accompanied the Reformation saw a little known but unfortunate development take place in Biblical scholarship. 1551AD verses were added to the Bible for the first time by Robert Stephanus, while he was travelling on horseback from Paris to Lyon. The unfortunate innovation stuck and has traumatised Biblical scholarship ever since by allowing a reader to ignore the meaning of the original writings in favour of proof-texting their pet doctrines. The result has been an explosion of competing doctrines and denominations over the last 300 years.

The century ended with the world’s population having passed the half billion for the first time. Catholic Christianity was growing rapidly all over the world and finally spiritual renewal was entrenched inside Europe. However, it was a terribly bloody century for the true church with some 4 million losing their lives in Catholic wars of retaliation. For the first time in history, Christians were not dying at the hands of Muslim or Mongols, Romans, or Goths, but at the hands of their Catholic brothers on home soil.