When the Council of Trent ended in 1565, the Catholic Church had tightened its discipline on the proper celebration of sacraments, and it clarified sacramental theology with a series of universal teachings on the meaning and celebration of sacraments that would be incorporated into its official books, such as the Roman Catechism, the Code of Canon Law, the official Mass Missal and sacramental rites, and the manuals for confessors. By contrast, although we use the word “Protestant” as a generic, Protestantism was no monolith. Martin Luther’s goal was a reform of the Catholic Church, radical as his proposals might be. He maintained belief in Transubstantiation, i.e., the change of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ during the Mass.
Successive waves of the Reformation produced John Calvin, who held that God had predestined individuals for salvation or damnation in advance; while preaching from the Gospel was frequent and church attendance mandatory, and carefully scrutinized by religious elders, Calvin’s thought had no room for a complicated sacramental theology, since the issue of salvation was already resolved in the mind of God. Calvin, incidentally, held the belief that good works and worthy personal conduct were signs that an individual was likely one of the “elect,” who numbered 144,000 in Calvinist theology in an obvious reference to Biblical writing.
The third wave came to be called the Anabaptists. Both the history and modern day scholarship about this diverse movement are too complicated to describe here, but in actuality it can be said that the Anabaptists rejected outside church authority, either by a clergyman or a king. Very strict fundamental readers of the Bible, the Anabaptists could find no evidence for infant baptism, and thus denied the validity of such baptisms. Only mature adults could become candidates for baptism. The name Anabaptist translates roughly into “baptized again,” since their converts had been previously baptized in infancy in both Roman Catholic and the other Protestant churches.
There is a significant school of thought in multiple disciplines that the Anabaptist movement made a major contribution to the development of Western thought, particularly in the United States. Anabaptist responsibility for baptism rested upon the belief of the individual, without coercion of church (Catholic, Lutheran) or state (Calvinist or Reformed.) This is a true religious freedom of conscience, or at least the first time the idea was formulated in a potent fashion.
Anabaptists were severely persecuted later in both Protestant and Catholic countries as religious and civil threats to order and discipline. It is no surprise that many sought refuge in North America. Though limited in number—the Amish and the Mennonites are direct descendants—the idea of freedom from church interference in making critical personal religious determination would eventually morph into the question of the potency and necessity of religions in general, and then to the evolution of the “secular citizen” and the secular state. This trend of thinking was adopted by the Colonial Fathers in writing our seminal documents in the late 1700’s. The United States was founded without an established religion and on the principle of personal conscience and determination—in contrast to other major countries like Catholic France or Anglican England.
Getting back to the specific matter of sacraments and worship, the divisions between religious groups and their sacraments was much more nuanced than I just made it sound. Anabaptists certainly worshipped differently from, say, Roman Catholics, but in much of Europe clear cut differences between the churches on worship and practice was not always evident. England is a familiar example: Henry VIII was an ostensibly practicing Catholic. As I seem to recall, he went to Mass on weekdays when he hunted, for there was a strong popular belief that death would not befall someone who gazed upon a newly consecrated host on that day. Henry’s flash point, so to speak, involved the Sacrament of Marriage, but for multiple reasons, the foremost being his failure to conceive a son (and successor to his throne) with his valid wife, Catherine of Aragon.
Henry petitioned Rome for an annulment; Rome was reluctant to grant it in view of the fact that Catherine was the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, a powerful ally supportive of the papacy. Henry then announced that he, and not the pope, would be the final arbiter of matters religious in England, and a majority of English bishops did his bidding (except the famous martyred bishop, St. John Fischer.) This evolution of events began a century of contention and bloodshed over English religion that produced such characters as “Bloody Mary” and Oliver Cromwell.
It is hard to say what Henry VIII intended his Church of England to look like liturgically, or whether he even gave it much thought. What we can say is that having broken from Rome, there was significant disagreement among bishops and laymen about the style of worship that continues, I believe, to the present day. One block favors retention of most of the Roman Catholic rites, a style called “high church” because of its pageantry. Another block favored the turn to worship austerity similar to the practice of Calvin and his Reformed movement in Geneva, Switzerland. At some point in my first years of priesthood I was invited to preach at the local Episcopal cathedral during the Sunday Mass for some occasion that escapes me now. Anglican-Episcopal Cathedrals are high church in design and liturgy, and I felt like I was being carried back to the 1950’s high church style of the post-Tridentine Catholic Mass.
Reformers from Luther forward would be surprised at the depth of popular affection and attachment to Catholic practices where Protestant leadership and worship were in the ascendancy. People loved their churches whatever their other religious dispositions might be. Sadly, there were countless episodes—some spontaneous, some sponsored by religious leaders and civil authorities—of iconoclasm, the smashing and destruction of statues, pictures, sacred vessels, vestments, and any other vestige of Catholic sacraments. The historian Carlos N.E. Eire reports that during one such incident of mob violence, children were heard to cry out “no more baked God.” [The reference is to Real Presence in the Eucharist.]
Sacramental theology in the century or so after the Reformation was indeed a dangerous business.