The Age of Exploration is loosely defined as the period between the fifteenth century and the eighteenth century, when Europeans began exploring the world through sea voyages and later made profound influences around the globe. The most significant type of encounter during the Age of Exploration, however, was not material. In the first half of the sixteenth century, a massive anti-Catholic revolution took place in major European states. This was the religious reform inspired and led by German religious leader Martin Luther. The emergence of Protestantism led directly to the shattering of the Roman Catholic church authority since the mid-fifteenth century. More importantly, the religious revolution inspired political and ideological reforms in Europe. It is no exaggeration that Protestantism is one of the major initiating factors for the Age of Exploration.
The direct consequence of the rise of Protestantism was the fall of the Roman Catholic authority. The Roman Catholic Church, which had the oppressive nature from abroad, pressed down on the European people like an invisible burden. In addition to levying heavy church taxes, it has also been issued many times, selling scams of indulgences. Since the early sixteenth century, “church authorities began to market indulgences aggressively,” (Bentley, 373). This added increasing financial burden on the people in addition to the ideological burden. Catholic churches were organized throughout Germany and other states, and it sucked the blood and sweat of the people through the spread of fear and ignorance, while maintaining the power within the few. The Catholic Church had also served a sacred aura to the secular rule. It was a powerful pillar on which the ruling systems depended. It was also the source of people’s ignorance and backwardness. Martin Luther’s voice was like a wake-up call for the people: “He that says gospel requires works for salvation, I say, flat and plain, is a liar.” (Andrea, 19). The Protestant revolution helped people see the depriving and greedy nature of the Catholic church, thus shattering the religious rule over European states.
The significance of Protestantism went beyond religion, as it contributed to forming the early political system of Europe in the Age of Exploration. In October 1517, Martin Luther publicly displayed his Ninety-five Thesis on the bulletin board of the Wittenberg City Cathedral. His argument soon evoked the common aspirations of the people due to their dissatisfaction with the papal rule, it immediately evolved into religious and political movements that swept all levels and shocked the entire Europe. What Luther may not have realized was that his religious reform did establish a new creed that fitted the monarchy system perfectly. “In the absence of effective imperial power, public affairs fell to the various regional states that had emerged during the middle ages.” (Bentley, 377). As a result, independent states grew stronger, yet not a single state was as powerful as the Catholic church before to unify the entire Europe. Despite the failure to build a large empire, the mode of independent states was probably the most effective form of power distribution, competition, and economic development for Europe. It was on this basis that modern European capitalist countries emerged as world powers.
Even more important than the political influences were the ideological transformations that resulted from the rise of Protestantism. Unlike the religious ruling class or religious leaders before him, Martin Luther proposed empowering the people through reading and education instead of brainwashing them with fear. At the same period, printing technologies were spread into Europe. Numerous printing shops opened in large European cities and towns by the mid-1500s (Andrea, 21). With the emphasis on the importance of the Bible, the education level and reading skills of the people was significantly elevated. Even the socially disadvantaged female group obtained more education opportunities. Reading and education broadened the view of the masses. Although all of these activities were driven by religious motivations originally, people’s view of the world changed unconsciously through the consumption of “works of both religious and secular themes.” (Bentley, 374). It was only nature for the sense of curiosity about the world and exploration emerge after people read more and thought more. “Early modern science challenged the traditional way of understanding the world.” (Bentley, 374). Unconsciously, Protestantism contributed to the ideological transformation of the early modern Europeans.
In conclusion, the religious reform movement led by Martin Luther did not seem to bring direct and significant consequences to Europe other than the collapse of the Catholic authority over European states. However, through close analysis, more profound political and ideological influences are evident. This particular historical partial anomaly was also caused by the continuous state of political division and the objective historical reasons such as the discovery of new geography, and the transfer of the world trade center. The extensive and profound influence of Lutheran religious reform has indeed brought incalculable long-term benefits to the European bourgeoisie in the liberation of social productive forces and the freedom of the mind from religious control. Protestantism is thus an important signpost for Europe’s transition from the Middle Ages to modern times, and major turning point in world history.
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