Editor's note: This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, and this is one in a series of columns to describe the origins, nature and impact of the events and personalities of the Reformation. Previous articles are online at deseretnews.com/faith.
As we’ve seen in our columns over the past few months, the flood unleashed by the Reformation flowed into many different rivers. Among the most important, especially for the English-speaking world, was Anglicanism, also known as the Church of England, the Anglican Communion and Episcopalianism.
Most branches of Protestantism began with theological debates involving charismatic preachers. They acquired widespread followings that won princely conversion and support and eventually developed into formal denominations.
Anglicanism reversed this process, beginning by royal decree and developing its theology, practices and organization only in the following decades. While many Christians in England had been influenced by Reformation thought, Anglicanism began with a political crisis. Henry VIII (reigned 1509-1547) was married to Catherine of Aragon (queen 1509-1533), a princess of the royal Spanish house. However, this marriage produced no royal heir. This fact, combined with the king’s perpetual philandering and numerous mistresses, led Henry to demand the annulment of his marriage. The Pope, an ally of the emperor Charles of Spain (1519-1556), refused to authorize an annulment, disallowing Henry’s lust for Anne Boleyn and throwing the succession to the English throne into disarray.
Henry turned to the humanist theologian and diplomat Thomas Cranmer, who worked tirelessly for annulment. Influenced by Reformation ideas, Henry and Cranmer declared that, as king of England, Henry was also head of the “Church of England.” This enabled Henry to annul his marriage on his own authority, and Cranmer was eventually rewarded by being appointed Archbishop of Canterbury (1533-1555), the day-to-day leader of the church.
In practical terms, this initially made Henry head of the Catholic church in England, but matters quickly evolved into the English Reformation. Many English Catholics supported the pope’s authority, rejecting Henry’s claims, thereby causing a great deal of controversy — most famously with the execution of Thomas More in 1535. Many other Englishmen felt that the Church of England should go further toward a full reformation according to the teachings of Calvin and Luther.
However, Henry’s creation of the Church of England was fundamentally a matter of state power. In an age where church and state were intimately intertwined, a monarch’s claim to be the official head of the church gave him extraordinary power and wealth.
And Henry wasn’t the type of monarch to show restraint in the exercise of his power. From 1536-1541, he undertook the “Dissolution of the Monasteries” — the closure and destruction of nearly 1,500 monasteries and convents in England and Ireland. (Their ruins can still be seen scattered throughout the country.)
In part, this was intended to close major centers of Catholic opposition to Henry’s usurpation of papal authority. But Henry also reaped great wealth by confiscating the land and wealth of the closed monasteries. Religious libraries of the monasteries were often destroyed as heretical, and religious art was smashed as false icons. Much of the cultural heritage of medieval Catholic England was thus lost, notably with the destruction of the tomb of St. Thomas Becket at Canterbury — the greatest pilgrimage center in England.
Henry’s daughter Mary (reigned 1553-1558), a devout Catholic who despised her father for his treatment of her mother Catherine, eventually succeeded him. After marrying Philip II of Spain (1556-1598), Mary worked to restore Catholicism as the official state religion, causing even more social and religious disturbances.
Known as “Bloody Mary” for her persecution of Protestants, in her short reign she failed to reverse the direction of the Reformation in England, which by then had dominated the country for a generation. When Elizabeth ascended the throne (1558-1603), Anglican Protestantism became firmly established in England, although Elizabeth still faced many Catholic-inspired conspiracies, including assassination plots.
Thomas Cranmer and Matthew Parker were the fathers of Anglican theology. Eventually codified in the “Thirty-Nine Articles,” it is a mixture of Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed and uniquely English ideas and practices.
The “Book of Common Prayer” of 1549 was designed to give all Christians in England a shared theology and ritual — but also to limit heterodox prayers and hymns in official Anglican settings. During the Reformation, hymns were probably the most common way ordinary people learned theology. In its many editions, it is often considered one of the most significant literary works of the English Renaissance.
Anglicanism remains one of the major Protestant denominations, with 85 million members worldwide, historically associated with British colonialism. However, many other important Reformation denominations — such as Presbyterianism (Scottish Calvinism), Puritanism and, later, Methodism — also arose in the British Isles.
Daniel Peterson founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is the author of several books on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.