The origins, causes and importance of the English Reformation

The fight for religious liberty is one that continues today, but many of its roots lie in the English Reformation – indeed it was central to what reformers sought to achieve.

The Christian Institute’s Autumn Lecture series on the English Reformation concluded with a consideration of what drove reform.

Today, some say that reform was imposed by the state, but in his lecture Revd Dr Richard Turnbull argued it was driven by popular demand.

The ‘top down’ theory has also been rightly criticised by the scholar Sir Diarmaid MacCulloch.


The Black Death hit Europe in the mid 14th century, wiping out around half of the population. With death so common, people were confronted by the realities of heaven and hell.

Many clung to the idea of purgatory, which encouraged people to pray for the dead. Its acceptance reinforced the idea of salvation by works.

The Church encouraged this, with pilgrimages and relics to make prayer ‘more effective’. When it granted forgiveness of sins, donations were offered in thankfulness. Inevitably, this quickly became payment for salvation.


But during this period humanism began to develop – not secular humanism, but a thirst for knowledge, and particularly a desire to return to original source material.

This drove the Dutchman Erasmus to publish a Greek manuscript of the New Testament, using the original texts rather than the Latin Vulgate.

The impact of the printing press cannot be overstated. Slowly but surely, copies of Bibles and other texts became more accessible to the general public, enabling them to challenge the false teachings of the established Church.

Breaking the stranglehold

It is difficult today to comprehend how the papacy dominated every aspect of life during the Middle Ages.

But the English Reformation broke its dominion this side of the channel and established important foundations for religious liberty here.

It allowed for the development of individual conscience, and opened the door to radical reformers. It also emphasised adiaphora – the concept that there are some matters not essential to salvation that faithful Christians can disagree on.

Crucially, the English Reformation transformed the face of spiritual life in Britain by empowering the laity – something which should live long in our corporate memory, and that is central to the freedoms we enjoy today.