The Legacy Of The Reformation: The Reform of Private Life

The Reformation had a much more far-reaching impact in shaping society and culture than simply changing our understanding of the Gospel.

With the Reformation, three key ideas changed. First, Protestants rejected the idea that celibacy was spiritually superior to marriage. This ended clerical celibacy, making marriage the new norm for everyone. Especially in the early years of the Reformation, pastors were pressured to marry to demonstrate their rejection of clerical celibacy.


The year 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. We will be seeing many articles and reflections on the movement and its impact on church and society, some overly positive and some overly critical. The evangelical public, if they know anything about the Reformation at all, know it as the recovery of the idea of justification by faith, which is at the root of their own understanding of Christianity.

Yet the Reformation had a much more far-reaching impact in shaping society and culture than simply changing our understanding of the Gospel. As a result, the Protestant Reformation has been interpreted in a variety of ways by historians, sociologists, and other scholars over the years. While on the surface it was a religious movement (or, more accurately, a sequence of interlocking religious movements), some scholars argue that the religious elements masked deeper, secular causes for the movement.

For example, some, such as Karl Marx, saw the Reformation as a bourgeois revolution marking the transition from Feudalism to Capitalism. Others saw it as the rise of an incipient form of nationalism over transnational institutions such as the Holy Roman Empire and the Roman Catholic Church. Still others saw it as the religious expression of Renaissance individualism and the emergence of new forms of private and privatized life.

These interpretations and others all contain a grain of truth, though as products of a secular culture they interpret the Reformation exactly backward: Rather than religious change being a product of more fundamental social, political, or economic developments, Protestant religious ideas produced these and other developments in society. In other words, the 16th-century Reformations were religious movements that created the modern world rather than being a result of modernizing secular forces. This series of articles on “The Legacy of the Reformation” will briefly survey some of the ways in which ideas derived from Protestantism and the broader Christian tradition shaped the modern Western world, starting with changes in private life.

Medieval Lifestyle Options

To understand the Reformation’s impact on private life, we need to look first at the medieval Catholic world. In Catholicism, people essentially had two options in life. They could marry and have a family, or they could join the clergy and be celibate (at least in principle—many priests, bishops, and even popes had concubines and illegitimate children).

Joining the clergy was considered the spiritually superior choice, though many who did so were forced into it as younger sons or, in the case of daughters, due to lack of funds for an adequate dowry for a suitable husband. The net result was that many people who were in the clergy either saw it as an easy way to make a living, a means of family advancement, or a de facto prison that they wanted to escape.

Those who entered the clergy received the sacrament of Holy Orders; those who didn’t would generally receive the sacrament of Matrimony. Marriage in the period was permanent; divorce was impossible, though under limited circumstances marriages could be annulled (that is, declared illegitimate: A divorce ends a marriage; an annulment declares that a genuine marriage had never actually taken place).

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