Desiderius Erasmus

According to accounts attributed to Desiderius Erasmus, he was born 12 October 1466, the illegitimate son of Gerhard (or Geert, last name unknown) and a woman named Margaret.

Desiderius Erasmus’s early religious education in Holland was with the Brothers of the Common Life (a lay religious order) where he learned that to love God was more important than to know God, and this would guide his later thinking on religion. He enrolled in Paris among the Poor Students at the College of Montaigu. After graduating from Paris with a degree in theology, Erasmus traveled to England and met Thomas More and Dean Colet who both mentored him toward a path of serious religious study.

(The painting here of Erasmus, Portrait of Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam with Renaissance Pilaster, is by Hans Holbein the Younger. Click to enlarge)

The Greatest Scholar

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John Calvin – a summary

John Calvin, the French theologian and pastor during the Protestant Reformation, was born 10 July 1509 in the cathedral city of Noyon, in north-eastern France. His family was on good terms with the city’s bishop, and it was this contact that gave Calvin the opportunity to associate with a family or two of nobility, and through these connections, develop his own sophistication and aristocratic tastes. It is thought that Calvin’s father steered him, from a very young age, through theological training toward what he hoped would be a career as an episcopal official with a lucrative income.

John CalvinWhen he was fourteen years old, Calvin was sent to Paris for an additional five years of studies that culminated with a Bachelor of Arts degree earned at the Collège de Montaigu which was notorious for its excessive moral and academic rigor. Here he ruined his health with an immersion in studies which included the learning of Greek and the intense reading of both the Greek and Latin Church Fathers.  But it became clear to John Calvin’s father he could no longer be assured that Church dignitaries would secure an important position for his son and he decided to send him to Orléans to pursue a career in law.

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Martin Luther – a summary

Martin Luther was born 10 November 1483 of peasant stock, and lived among the untutored folk of the remote woods and mines around the East German town of Eisleben. His mother and father, Hans and Margaretta Luther, were both devout and prayerful, and yet superstitious and believing in spirits that inhabited the forests, winds and water.

Devils, witches and ill-tempered spirits roamed this world among the church spires and bell towers in towns where Luther learned his psalms and marched in religious processions.  Both parents were very strict with him, and Luther later told about how their whipping of him had drawn his blood as well as making him very fearful of his father.

Caught in a thunderstorm

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The Reformation: History in an Hour

REFORMATIONFrom the time of St. Peter to 1521 AD, the Roman Catholic Church was the only “official” Christian church in Western Europe. It provided the only means through which a person could expect to have access to God and gain entry into Heaven. The Church however was not immune to corruption, and there had been several attempts to rein in Church leaders who were often distracted from their pastoral duties with more earth-bound interests such as the gathering of power and wealth. Yet, the one Church remained intact and unchanged in its ways throughout the Middle Ages into the Renaissance and up to the Reformation.

In the sixteenth century, Martin Luther began his feverish quest for salvation and church reform, and started an evangelical movement which spread beyond the borders of sixteenth-century Germany. This movement is the first of three distinct developments of the Protestant Reformation.  Luther’s (and others’)  evangelical revolution evolved into personal causes for rulers and monarchs, who sought to impose their religious will upon their subjects, and signified a second phase, the reformation “from above”.  During the Reformation’s third, confessional (religious wars) period, in which princes, territories and national churches conducted wars of belief, Protestants migrated to and colonized new settlements, and created their own methods of preserving the faith.

The era of the Protestant Reformation begins in 1517 and, by 1648, becomes fully shaped in Europe as a movement embodying several new independent churches, revolutionized systems of belief, and geopolitical changes that affected monarchs and their subjects throughout the region.  By the mid-17th century, the original one Church had become several different churches without any hope of reuniting.

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  • Origins of the Protestant Reformation
  • 131 Years of the Reformation
  • The Sacraments, Heaven and Hell
  • “The Third Place”: Purgatory
  • “Shortening a Stay in Purgatory”
  • Early Sixteenth-Century Efforts at Reform
  • Martin Luther
  • Luther’s Interpretation of St. Paul
  • The Renaissance Papacy
  • The Birth of Classical Protestantism
  • The Diet of Worms
  • One Man Alone
  • “Infallible Donkey” and “Upstart Heretics”
  • “Preaching God’s Word Purely”
  • Zwingli vs Luther on the Eucharist
  • Zwingli’s Death
  • The Creation of Sects
  • John Calvin and His “Reformed Church”
  • Anti-Tolerance of Anti-Trinitarianism
  • Hunted Heretic
  • The Spread of Protestantism
  • The End of Choices: The Territorial Churches
  • Protestantism on a European-Political Basis
  • The Reformation After 1550
  • The French Wars of Religion (1562-1593)
  • The Low Countries
  • The Calvinist Diaspora to New France
  • New England Diaspora
  • How the Protestant Reformation Ended

Readers’ reviews:

“This book offers a highly readable account of a confusing time. The author accomplished this by by giving a short synopsis in an understandable manner. He does not get involved in deep theological discussion, but instead focuses on the main points. This is a VERY good introduction to the Reformation. Money and time well spent.”

“This was an excellent synopsis of a complicated subject. There was information and people that I had not heard of before involved at various levels.”

I love the history in an hour series, they enable a quick overview and give basic relevant facts. It was sufficient for me to see areas that I might want to then further explore in more depth.”

Neat summary provides good background for further reading. I’ve seen and read so many versions of the period that, for me, it’s good to get some objective facts and proper historical context.”

I would recommend this to any reader who is trying to get some basic info without reading 300 pages.”

Well written and enlightening to those interested in the beginning of religion in as we know it today.”

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Huldreich Zwingli – a summary

On 11 October 1531, the radical Protestant reformer, Huldreich Zwingli, was killed while attending the wounded and dying in battle. Edward A Gosselin summarizes his life.

Huldreich Zwingli was born in 1484 in the eastern Swiss village of Wildhaus to a family of Alpine shepherds. Zwingli remained proud of his peasant origins throughout his life, and, from a young age, maintained an ardent patriotism and fondness for his fellow Swiss which only increased with his humanist education. In 1500, aged sixteen, Zwingli began his classical studies in Vienna where his circle of friends included other future reformers, some of whom would later become his opponents.

Zwingli returned to Switzerland in 1502 to the University of Basel where he continued his humanist studies. Here he also embarked on a serious study of the Bible under the tutelage of Thomas Wyttenbach of Biel. Wyttenbach impressed Zwingli with his criticisms of scholarly ‘trifling’, Church abuses and the papal doctrine of indulgences. Zwingli attributed to Wyttenbach his interest in becoming a village pastor in the town of Glarus, south-east of Zurich. He continued his humanist studies, and began to learn Greek so that he might better understand the New Testament and to study the Greek Fathers in addition to the Latin Church Fathers.

Zwingli and Erasmus

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Purgatory – the Third Place

Insuring your salvation from an eternity in Hell was as important to a believer in the sixteenth century (whether king or commoner) as getting a good crop or transporting your wool to market. According to the Roman Catholic Church, there could be no entrance into Heaven without the Church and its exclusive sacraments which purified the soul.

Take, for example, King Henry IV of France who on May 14, 1610, was stopped in his carriage on a street in Paris, and was stabbed in the chest by an assassin monk. His companions, although sure he was already dead, covered his wounds as he was rushed backed to the palace. Laid out on his bed, a priest put his ear to the king’s mouth in order to hear a possible last confession but no sound came from the dead monarch’s mouth. The sacrament of Last Rites could not be performed and one could assume poor King Henry never made it to Heaven.

“The Third Place”: Purgatory

Salvation should have been easy for all sixteenth-century Roman Catholics as long as they received their sacraments. However, as in the case of Henry IV, death might be sudden leaving sins unconfessed. If you died with unconfessed mortal sins (for example, murder, robbery), you certainly wound up in Hell for eternity. God’s judgment upon your death with unconfessed venial (lesser) sins sent you to Purgatory, the “Third Place,” as Martin Luther called it.

Purgatory was not an eternal abode, but a place where your soul spent an unknown period of time, undergoing a purging of venial sins such as theft, lying, or some minor church offense. Such purgation through fire could last anywhere from a day to millions of years, and God never gave clues as to how long a soul would stay in Purgatory. Pictured, An Angel, Freeing the Souls from Purgatory by Ludovico Carracci, c1612.

The existence of Purgatory became carefully defined through the authority of the thirteenth-century Roman Catholic theologians such as Thomas Aquinas. At the Council of Lyons (1439), the Roman Catholic Church decreed Purgatory, and believers saw it as a densely populated place which was nearly impossible to avoid.

We can now see why a real crisis of salvation existed in the early sixteenth century. Christians (and all Christians were Roman Catholics in Western Europe) had to keep careful track of all their sins so that they could give an accurate accounting of them at the confessional. It seemed certain that all Christians were sentenced to Hell or Purgatory while only Church martyrs and saints gained immediate entry into Heaven because of their sinless state. But how long were those who were going to be eventually saved have to stay in Purgatory? What’s notable about all of this is the notion that humans had some sort of control over the length of time they would have to stay there.

“Shortening a Stay in Purgatory”

The Church created the indulgence as a hedge against too long a stay in Purgatory (pictured). Christians could, depending on how much money they paid for these indulgences, shorten their own souls or the souls of their relatives’ duration in Purgatory and hasten entry into Heaven by a year, ten years, several hundred or however much they could afford. However, if the uncertain Christian had not paid enough; the poor soul still might have another several million years to spend in Purgatory or, conversely, he may have overpaid. Proceeds from the purchase of indulgences were used for rebuilding the ancient St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. It was a win-win solution for the Church and an uncertain one for the buyer of the indulgences.

Edward A Gosselin
See also Martin LutherJohn Calvin, Erasmus and Huldreich Zwingli

Read more in The Reformation: History In An Hour published by Harper Press and available in various digital formats.