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Impact on Daily Life

The centerpiece of worship now became the sermon. All pastors and deacons had henceforward to preach, and all laypeople had to attend church. Pews were increasingly installed to hold them bodily in place and direct their faces to the expositor of Holy Writ, the Truth of God.

In the late medieval and early modern Catholic world, Christians were surrounded by reminders of their faith. Crucifixes and images of the Virgin and the many other saints were everywhere: in churches, outside shrines, city walls, on fountains, and in the houses of people who could afford them. Clergy and nuns were numerous, and their houses dotted both urban and rural landscapes. People of means reckoned on sending excess children into religious orders, where those offspring would prosper their family members’ chances of salvation. Church bells resounded throughout the day, reminding of midday and evening prayers, of masses, and of funerals. The calendar revolved around the feast days of saints, and the vocabulary of liturgy and such sermons as there were found echoes in patterns of speech: goodbye means “God be with you.” European Christians had internalized the directive of the Fourth Lateran Council of 1214, which required that every adult confess at least once a year to an authorized priest and receive Communion. They fulfilled their obligation precisely at Eastertime and hardly ever more often.

With the Reformation, many of these either ceased or were radically diminished. Within Lutheranism, works of sacred art could remain in place, provided they were consonant with Holy Scripture. Crucifixes hung in every sanctuary as a reminder of that crucial doctrine, the atonement. Unauthorized saints’ images and all usages deemed superstitious were gradually eradicated—with the notable exception that the great majority of unlettered people could not simply jettison their entire cultural milieu. Even Katharina von Bora, Martin Luther’s wife, invoked the Virgin in the dining room one day; she had been conditioned to do so as a nun. Her husband mildly criticized her. The centerpiece of worship now became the sermon. All pastors and deacons had henceforward to preach, and all laypeople had to attend church. Pews were increasingly installed to hold them bodily in place and direct their faces to the expositor of Holy Writ, the Truth of God.

A new poem: how the clergy and certain craftsmen complain about Luther

A new poem: how the clergy and certain craftsmen complain about Luther, 1524

Within institutional Lutheranism, a myriad means of indoctrination were brought to bear on the Christian. Services were in German and were interspersed with and reinforced by Bible readings and hymns, also in the vernacular. Parishioners were supposed to sing along, which a number were initially reluctant to do. The first hymnbook appeared in 1524. Evangelicals retained oral confession to a minister, who inquired into a person’s knowledge of the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and the Creed before administering absolution. Luther’s two catechisms of 1529, one short and one long, served as textbooks of essential belief for little-trained country parsons as well as children and ignorant adults.

Within Zurich and Geneva, Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin in turn cleansed the sanctuaries of every image, even bare crosses. Zwingli eliminated music, whereas Calvin condoned unaccompanied metric Psalms. Services of worship were designed to stress communal membership in the church as the bride of Christ. Confession was collective rather than individual. Previously private rituals, such as baptism and marriage, were now performed in the presence of the gathered congregation. Dancing in the latter case was not allowed, which altered social customs. Bells could only be rung, briefly, to summon the people to a funeral. Calvin perfected the institution of the consistory in Geneva to compel residents to conform to his definitions of right belief and practice; an estimated 7% of the population appeared before that consistory every year. The populace was watched over by designated elders who were simultaneously members of Geneva’s three city councils; these men had to live in proximity to those whom they observed.

A greater degree of oversight by a more tightly fashioned and specialized bureaucracy meant that it became more difficult to avoid detection in case a citizen of Strasbourg were sympathetic to an Anabaptist preacher such as Melchior Hoffman or a Spiritualist such as Kaspar Schwenckfeld. Both church and state were determined to make the people obey their increasing dicta.

With the Reformation, an expanding body of devotional literature became available to the literate. The expansion of the publishing industry indicates that a sizable market for such works existed. At the same time, much of the population remained illiterate, as well as too poor to make elective purchases. But books were loaned out to relations and neighbors by their owners, and they were read aloud in public places. The combination of communicative media, the application of pressure by rulers and clergy, and the reconditioning of people over two to three generations altered the religious culture in which Protestants lived.

To cite text: 

Karant-Nunn, Susan, & Lotz-Heumann, Ute (2017). Confessional Conflict. After 500 Years: Print and Propaganda in the Protestant Reformation. University of Arizona Libraries.

Selected titles from University of Arizona Special Collections:

Martin Luther (1483-1546). An die Ratherren, Wittemberg, 1524

Gebet am Morgens zu sprechen, ca.1690

Martin Luther (1483-1546). Pastorale Lutheri, Eisleben, 1586