Reformation Biographies


Jon Hus

Bohemian reformer who adopted many of the doctrines of John Wycliff and broke with Rome. Was condemned to death at the Council of Constance, which ironically inspired the conciliar movement and hence weakened the papacy until the Fifth Lateran Council. His followers were called Hussites and this became a term of abuse which conservative Catholics threw at those who advocated reform.  Martin Luther was not directly influenced by Hus, but after receiving a copy of Hus' The Church in 1519 he declared himself a Hussite and within four months the process to excommunicate Luther had begun.

William of Ockham, c.1285-1347

Oxford-based Franciscan philosopher theologian from Ockham (Surrey) who became the best known exponent of Nominalism, a rejection of the theory of universals that divided late Medieval scholasticism. Theologically, he belonged to the via moderna school within nominalism, who emphasised that salvation derived from a pact that a human freely entered into with God. This position contrasts with the schola Augustianiana moderna who followed Augustine's Fifth Century pessimism about the possibilities of a human following God. This inner-nominalist debate had a crucial influence on the early Reformation, as Martin Luther was a via moderna advocate who rediscovered Augustinian pessimism about the human relationship with God.

William was caught up in Pope John XXII's campaign against the Spiritual Franciscans, a reforming movement that sought to bring the spirit of St Francis back into the movement that he founded. William was imprisoned in Avignon (then the papal capital) along with the Franciscan Governor General, Michael of Cesena. They were released and Ockham spent the rest of his life writing the radical political treatises that he had begun in prison under the protection of Emperor Lewis of Bavaria. He is, however, best remembered for his philosophical contributions which are commemorated negatively in the phrase Ockham's (or Occam's) Razor. Many of his works were printed in the decades before the Reformation, especially in Lyon.


Savanarola, Girolamo 1452-1498

Italian reformer, based in Florence.  Called for a general council to reform the abuses of the church.

Waldo (or Valdes), Peter

A wealthy Lyon businessman who renounced his wealth to lead a life of evangelical (i.e., derived from the Gospels) poverty.  A wandering preacher, he sought neither ordination nor membership of religious order, but focused on lay ministry, including translations of the Bible and the Church Fathers into the vernacular.   The 3rd Lateran Council  (1179) gave them permission to preach with the permission of the local clergy.  The following year at a Lyon Diocesan Council  Waldo was made to assent to an  orthodox profession of faith and repudiate extremists.  The Archbishop of Lyon was not happy and banned them from preaching, the Waldensians refused and were expelled from the Lyon region.  This forced a move towards the Italian Alps, where they became more radical and survived to the Reformation era.

John Wycliff c.1330-1380
Oxford-based Greek and Hebrew scholar who in turn inspired Jan Hus.  His most famous slogan was "The Bible in the ploughman's hand," displaying a view of working class literacy as naive as that which led to the over-valuation of printing in the Protestant Reformation.  His followers in England became known as the Lollards and a major part of the debate over the English populace's reception of Protestantism centres on the question of whether the Lollards supported it.  Wycliff's views were condemned at the Council of Constance (1415) largely because of Jon Hus' use of them.

Jacobus Arminius 1559-1609
Dutch Protestant theologian who argued against predestination and sparked a theological split in Dutch Calvinism.  His followers became known as Arminians and after his death they lost the debate at the Synod of Dort.(1618-1619).


Martin Bucer 1491-1551
Strasbourg Protestant reformer who became the main conciliator in the wake of the failure of the Colloquy of Marburg to bring together Lutheranism and Zwinglianism.  After opposing the Augsburg Interim he moved in 1549 to become Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge, where he had an influence on Cranmer's liturgical reforms.


Thomas Cranmer
Archbishop of Canterbury who implemented Henry VIII's limited reforms and under Edward VI gained the freedom to develop his liturgical reforms while inviting leading reformers such as Ochino and Bucer.  Everything changed with Edward's early death and Mary I's recatholicising policy.  Cranmer was deposed and replaced with Reginald Pole, who had been deposed by Henry VIII for his Catholicism.  Cranmer was sent to the Tower of London, where he recanted his Protestant "error," but famously put the hand that signed the recantation into the flames first when he was burnt at the stake in Oxford.


John (Jean) Calvin 1509-1564
The main figure in the Protestant Reformation's "second generation," i.e., those who were not leaders in the early days.  A French Protestant, he fled to Basle in the face of increasing persecution where he wrote the first edition of his Institution of Christian Religion (1536), which was to become the most important text of the Protestant reformation.  That same year Guillame Farel invited him to help out in effecting a state sponsored reformation in Geneva.  In 1538, Calvin and Farel both had to flee, with Calvin going to Strasbourg where he came under Bucer's moderating influence.  Calvin was invited back to Geneva in 1541 and spent the rest of his life building a Christian state that had echoed Zwingli's efforts in Zurich rather than Luther's accommodation with the princes.  Calvin's version of Reformed Protestantism quickly became the dominant form and eclipsed Lutheranism, which was largely restricted to the Holy Roman Empire and Scandinavia.

Martin Luther 1483-1546


The key figure of the Reformation era whose writings in support of his stance against indulgences and papal authority inspired others to similar efforts at reform.  He remained reasonably mainstream as is evidenced in his opposition to the views of both Karlstadt and Zwingli.  It was probably this inherent conservatism that enabled Luther to succeed in keeping powerful secular rulers on his side.


Andreas Karlstadt 1480-1541
Luther's early lieutenant in Wittenberg.  They fell out after Luther returned to Wittenberg to find that Karlstadt had instituted radical reforms of the liturgy.  Karlstadt's views of the creation of a Christian social order, his support for the Peasants' War and his views on infant baptism made him appear Anabaptist., although after the Peasants' War he found a pastorate in Zwingli's Zurich, which was not a city that welcomed thorough-going Anabaptism.  He ended his life as a professor of Biblical Theology at Basle.


John Knox
Scottish reformer who used national sentiment to lead to the victory of Presbyterianism over both Catholicism and Anglicanism.


Jan Matthys d.1534
Dutch millenarian Anabaptist who was forced to flee the Netherlands and came to Munster where he led an attempt to create an Anabaptist city state.  He died leading an attack against the city's besiegers.


Philipp Melancthon 1497-1560
Luther's younger companion who became his primary lieutenant after the breach with Karlstadt.  More moderate than Luther he was convinced of the importance of compromise, but with the Reformed tradition (he took a leading role at the Colloquy of Marburg) and with Catholics (he backed the Augsburg Interim after the defeat of the Protestant Princes in the Schmalkaldic War).  In his latter years his support for the principle of adiaphora split Lutheranism, but paved the way for the 17th century policy of Catholic-Lutheran toleration.


Thomas Munzter, 1491-1525
Radical German reformer who had been involved in the early Wittenberg reformation.  There is only scant information about his life and teachings, but he became a major influence on Anabaptism, subsequent to his execution for leading a rebel army during the Peasants' War.


Bernardino Ochino 1487-1564
An Italian Protestant reformer who spent time in practically every reformation during the period..  Originally a senior Franciscan, he joined the reformist Capuchin Franciscans, becoming their vicar-general.  After supporting Luther's doctrine of justification he was forced to flee to (Reformed) Geneva, before becoming pastor to the Italian congregation in (Lutheran) Augsburg.  Later he moved to England where among other things he wrote against Calvin's doctrine of predestination.  He took a pastorate in (Reformed) Zurich, but was forced into exile because his views were increasingly becoming closer to the Radical reformation.


Johannes Oecolampadius 1482-1531
Basle reformer who took part in the Baden disputation (1526), who wrote against Luther's view of the eucharist (1527) and later supported Zwingli's memorialist position at the Colloquy of Marburg (1529).


Menno Simons c.1496-1561
Dutch Anabaptist leader who dissented from the Melchiorites' opposition to the secular power and radical views on marriage and developed a quietist and more moderate form of Anabaptism.  His supporters became known as Mennonites, who survive to this day. and are depicted as moderates in the Harrison Ford film, Witness.


Huldrych  Zwingli 1483-1531
The first major figure of Reformed Protestantism, who developed reforming ideas independently of Luther, but was inspired by Luther's example.  Later, he would find Luther too traditional and developed the Reformed emphasis on reconstructing Christian doctrine on what the Bible said, as opposed to the Lutheran approach of leaving untouched what the Bible did not condemn.  Zwingli was killed in battle, which is often used by his detractors as evidence against his Reformed stance, but the reality is that he was a chaplain (as he had been before going to Zurich) with troops who were attacked by the forces of Catholic cantons who resented the political power of Zurich and Bern (which had come over to Protestantism under Zwingli's influence).

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Catholic Reformers

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Secular Rulers