The Reform of Private Life


The year 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. We will be seeing many articles and reflections on the movement and its impact on church and society, some overly positive and some overly critical. The evangelical public, if they know anything about the Reformation at all, know it as the recovery of the idea of justification by faith, which is at the root of their own understanding of Christianity.

Yet the Reformation had a much more far-reaching impact in shaping society and culture than simply changing our understanding of the Gospel. As a result, the Protestant Reformation has been interpreted in a variety of ways by historians, sociologists, and other scholars over the years. While on the surface it was a religious movement (or, more accurately, a sequence of interlocking religious movements), some scholars argue that the religious elements masked deeper, secular causes for the movement.

For example, some, such as Karl Marx, saw the Reformation as a bourgeois revolution marking the transition from Feudalism to Capitalism. Others saw it as the rise of an incipient form of nationalism over transnational institutions such as the Holy Roman Empire and the Roman Catholic Church. Still others saw it as the religious expression of Renaissance individualism and the emergence of new forms of private and privatized life.

These interpretations and others all contain a grain of truth, though as products of a secular culture they interpret the Reformation exactly backward: Rather than religious change being a product of more fundamental social, political, or economic developments, Protestant religious ideas produced these and other developments in society. In other words, the 16th-century Reformations were religious movements that created the modern world rather than being a result of modernizing secular forces. This series of articles on “The Legacy of the Reformation” will briefly survey some of the ways in which ideas derived from Protestantism and the broader Christian tradition shaped the modern Western world, starting with changes in private life.

Medieval Lifestyle Options

To understand the Reformation’s impact on private life, we need to look first at the medieval Catholic world. In Catholicism, people essentially had two options in life. They could marry and have a family, or they could join the clergy and be celibate (at least in principle—many priests, bishops, and even popes had concubines and illegitimate children).

Joining the clergy was considered the spiritually superior choice, though many who did so were forced into it as younger sons or, in the case of daughters, due to lack of funds for an adequate dowry for a suitable husband. The net result was that many people who were in the clergy either saw it as an easy way to make a living, a means of family advancement, or a de facto prison that they wanted to escape.

Those who entered the clergy received the sacrament of Holy Orders; those who didn’t would generally receive the sacrament of Matrimony. Marriage in the period was permanent; divorce was impossible, though under limited circumstances marriages could be annulled (that is, declared illegitimate: A divorce ends a marriage; an annulment declares that a genuine marriage had never actually taken place).

Among married couples, the husband was supposed to be the head of the family, but in sufficiently affluent households there was another man outside the family unit who also had a great deal of influence in family affairs: the priest who acted as a confessor to members of the household, especially the wife. Confessors could exert at least an indirect influence on the family, particularly if the husband was devout and thought highly of his wife’s confessor. Also, if the husband was behaving inappropriately toward his wife (or if the wife’s brothers or father were behaving inappropriately about the dowry), the priest could intervene. This does not seem to have occurred often, but it was at least a possibility in particularly egregious situations.

Ending Clerical Celibacy

With the Reformation, three key ideas changed. First, Protestants rejected the idea that celibacy was spiritually superior to marriage. This ended clerical celibacy, making marriage the new norm for everyone. Especially in the early years of the Reformation, pastors were pressured to marry to demonstrate their rejection of clerical celibacy.

For example, when John Calvin became a pastor in Strasbourg, Martin Bucer, the head of the city’s church, told him he had to marry. Calvin objected, but Bucer told him that by remaining single, Calvin gave the impression that he supported clerical celibacy; this sent the wrong message to the congregation. When he realized that he had no choice, Calvin told Bucer that since he was too busy to go courting, he would prepare a list of qualifications he thought necessary in a wife, Bucer and the other pastors could screen some candidates, and he would pick one. There were actually two lists: the public list specifying that she had to be a godly woman and a good household manager, and the private list, which specified that Calvin had to be able to get along with her and she had to “take some care” of his deteriorating health.

In the end, Calvin ignored the list Bucer and the pastors prepared for him and married Idelette de Bure, the widow of an Anabaptist who had converted to Reformed Protestantism in Strasbourg and had joined Calvin’s congregation. The marriage was surprisingly happy, though short. Idelette became pregnant, and after a very hard labor, gave birth to a boy, who died shortly thereafter; the labor ruined her health and she died a few years later herself. Calvin never remarried because he never stopped mourning the loss of his Idelette.

Marriage for All

Pastors were not the only people who were effectively obligated to marry. While men might be able to get away with being single, particularly in the wealthy commercial classes where they tended to marry later anyway, women had no socially acceptable alternatives to marriage. The end of monasticism meant entering a convent was no longer possible for women who did not want to marry or could not afford a dowry for a suitable husband. While this had been a problem even in the Middle Ages, it became much more acute with Protestantism. Women in this position had very few options. They could live with relatives, usually a brother, where they were frequently either resented or treated like a servant or both, or they could try to make a living on their own, generally by doing relatively low-skilled and low-paying labor such as spinning yarn, leading to the description of such women “spinsters.” The end of clerical celibacy thus had an indirect and not always welcome impact on women, with effects that continued in Protestant countries for centuries.

We will look at the other two changes introduced by Protestantism—the desacramentalization of marriage and with it, the reform of marriage laws; and the impact of the Protestant concept of the priesthood of all believers—in the next article in this series.


Joel F. Harrington, “Reordering Marriage and Society in Reformation Germany” (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

William J. Petersen, “Idelette: John Calvin’s Search for the Right Wife,” Christian History Institute, Issue 12, 1986.

Merry E. Wiesner, “Gender, Church and State in Early Modern Germany” (London and New York: Longman, 1998).

Image courtesy of Französisch-Reformierte Gemeinde in Potsdam.

Glenn Sunshine is a professor of early modern European history specializing in the Reformation at Central Connecticut State University and a senior fellow of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.

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