Sunday, December 25, 2005

Compare and Contrast - Martin Luther and King Henry VIII

NOTE: I get a lot of hits on this essay - the research and writing is original to me...please either cite the works cited or me ;-) Remember the rules...thanks - I'd appreciate it if you left a comment (along with the reason for the search; which school, etc...thanks a lot! I'm really curious.)


December 12, 2005

Martin Luther and England’s King Henry VIII lived at the same time, yet lived very different lives and had very different goals. In many ways, their lives show some interesting parallels.

Martin Luther was born in Eisleben, Germany on November 10, 1483. Scholars can say little about his childhood other than the angry, strict character of his father made life difficult for a young boy. He entered the monastery in 1505. His religious life was no less difficult than his childhood. Luther was excommunicated from the Roman church in1520, but continued to wear his monks’ habit 1525. He died in 1546.

Henry VIII was born in eight years later, June 28, 1491 in Greenwich Palace in London. Like Luther, little is known on Henry’s childhood; a second son, few expected him to become king. His reign began in1509, four years after Luther entered the monastery. Henry VIII died in 1547, only one year after Luther.

For both of these men, their lives had everything to do with their motives in changing the church. Luther’s motivation appears to be the need for acceptance by God and his urge to see things made right. Henry’s motives seem to be driven by his very real need for an heir.

Luther didn’t want a fight with the church; he was in a battle for the church. His original approach was one of academia; he didn’t start out wanting to be a revolutionary. When he nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the door of the University of Wittenberg, he only followed the custom of religious scholars who wanted to debate a topic. It is reasonable to assume that his goal in posting his Ninety-five Theses was either reasoned debate or reformation of the Roman Catholic Church, not to overthrow the church.

Henry, far from a simple monk, had married his brother’s widow, Catherine of Aragon. This was considered incest, nearly the same as marrying a sibling. Thus, Henry had needed a special papal dispensation to marry, which he had received. As Henry’s queen, Catherine was not providing him the heir that he needed; out of 5 pregnancies, 2 were sons that died in infancy. Catherine was six years older than Henry; in 1526 Catherine was 42 and no longer able to conceive. At that time, Henry fell in love with Anne Boleyn, the sister of one of his mistresses. Henry read in the Old Testament of the Bible that if a man takes his brother’s wife, they shall be childless. Henry didn’t need just any child, he needed a son and so he didn’t count Mary, his only daughter by Catherine, as a child. With this mindset, he petitioned the pope for an annulment. This would mean that his marriage to Catherine would be invalid and his daughter, Mary would be considered illegitimate.

Henry was at a disadvantage with the pope for two reasons. First, when the pope gave the papal dispensation to marry his brother’s wife, he was declaring that the kinship was not an issue. To now grant an annulment on the grounds that it was an issue would be an admission that he had made a mistake in the first place. That was unlikely.

Second, the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, had recently invaded Rome and captured the pope. The pope remained in office, but as a virtual prisoner. Charles was also Catherine’s nephew, so to side with Henry against Catherine would have been risky at best.
This struggle was political as well as religious and continued for six long years and came to a head when Anne Boleyn became pregnant.

By contrast, things of this earth did not concern Luther as much as things eternal did. He had entered the monastery searching for peace, but didn’t find it. Fear of a righteous and holy God, impossible to please, led him to works: fasts, constant confessions, prayers and pilgrimages. The more he tried to please God with his works, the more impossible it seemed. Luther’s superior, Johann von Staupitz, decided that Luther needed distraction (more work) and encouraged him to leave the monastery to pursue an academic career. In 1508, Luther began teaching at the University of Wittenberg and in 1512 he achieved a Doctorate of Theology.

Luther new duties served to drive him deeper into Scripture. As the culture affects the church, so the Renaissance affected Luther. Humanism’s appeal to ad fonts (to the sources) led him to study Scripture and the writings of the early church fathers. Before long, Luther became convinced that the Roman Catholic Church had fallen away from several key truths of the Bible and had perverted others.

Luther was a professor; he was also confessor and preacher at the Castle Church. Rome was renovating St. Peter’s Basilica and was falling short of money. Johann Tetzel toured Germany selling indulgences – an assurance by the Roman church of the remission of temporal punishment of sin – with a saying, “as soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” Luther could foresee the effect this abuse could have on his congregation – dependence on the purchase of forgiveness, rather than sincere confession and good works – and it was the last straw. He preached three sermons condemning indulgences and on October 31, 1517 he nailed his famous Ninety-five Theses to the Wittenberg door.

In a nutshell, the Roman Catholic Church had problems, and Luther wanted to see them fixed. Henry, on the other hand, had problems and he wanted to see the church fix them. These two men had very different motives, yet each of them started a movement that would change the church forever.

Henry, torn between a kingdom with no heir and a pregnant woman he loved, ousted the pope’s man, Cardinal Wolsey and appointed laymen to important church offices. In 1533 Henry appointed Thomas Cranmer to the office of Archbishop of Canterbury. On January 25, Cranmer participated in the wedding of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. In May he officially voided Henry’s marriage to Catherine and then declared his marriage to Anne valid. In 1934, the “Act of Supremacy” was passed, making the king of England the “supreme head of the Church of England”. With this act, the king had “full power and authority from time to time to visit, repress, redress, reform, order, correct, restrain and amend all such errors, heresies, abuses, offences, contempts and enormities, whatsoever they be, which by any manner spiritual authority or jurisdiction ought or may lawfully be reformed, repressed, ordered, redressed corrected, restrained or amended”. In short, in order to solve his personal problem Henry had parliament make him the functional pope of a new church, the “Church of England”. Henry embraced the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church – in fact, he had been given the title “Defender of the Faith” by the pope in 1521 for writing a treatise condemning Martin Luther. The Church of England closely mirrored the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church, except that this would be a church sponsored and ruled by the state. There would be no pope and king keeping each other balanced.

Martin Luther, on the other hand, had no desire to leave the Roman Catholic Church. His deepest desire was to see the church return to the early teachings and to leave behind the abuses that had developed. When he posts his theses on the university door, he also sent a copy to the pope. While some of the theses directly questioned papal authority, they were put forward as debate topics, not open rebellion.

From 1517 until he was excommunicated in 1522, Luther defended himself and his beliefs within the Roman Catholic Church, before Roman Catholic authorities. Again and again he said that he would recant (say that he was wrong) if only the church could show him in the Bible where the Roman doctrines were right.

In 1521, Luther was summoned to appear before the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V (nephew of King Henry VIII) at the Diet of Worms. Charles was a devout Roman Catholic, yet recognized that he own kingdom would be stronger if the pope was weakened. He vehemently opposed Luther’s views, and issued the “Edict of Worms”, stating that Luther was a heretic and an outlaw, yet promised, "The word which I pledged him and the promised safe-conduct he will receive. Be assured, he will return unmolested whence he came." However, it was understood that once, home, he was fair game. In route, Luther was “kidnapped” by friends and went into hiding for nearly a year. During this period Luther wrote a series of pamphlets attacking Roman Catholic doctrine and began to translate the Bible into the vernacular, German.

After that year, Luther married and had children; he also organized many evangelical churches (with the support of princes) throughout much of northern Europe. He died knowing that, although the Roman Catholic Church had not changed, many people had followed him out of that church to follow what he believed was the right path.
Henry died without a male heir, knowing that he had left what he believed was the right path in order to pursue his own earthly goals.

Henry VIII and Martin Luther lived at the same time, but had very different challenges and they handled those challenges in very different ways.

Both men were driven from the Roman Catholic Church - Henry for earthly reasons, Luther for eternal reasons.

Both men laid the foundation for entirely new denominations - Henry did so willingly, because the church refused to solve his problem, Luther did so reluctantly, because the church refused to solve its own problem.

The denominations of these two men – the Church of England and the Lutheran Church both survive today. The Church of England remains largely as it was then, with the Monarch of England as its head. The Lutheran Church largely holds to Luther’s teachings, although variations in doctrine have splintered the denomination.

In the end, Henry’s goal for the Roman Catholic Church (to divide it) succeeded, but his goal for his personal life (an heir) did not. Conversely, Luther’s goal for the Roman Catholic Church (reform from the abuses) failed, but his personal goal (to see the common people released from the abuses of the Roman Catholic Church) did succeed.

Both men worked toward a goal, neither one achieved it. In the end, the actions of both men worked to break the stranglehold the Roman Catholic Church had on Europe, bringing about a greater freedom of religion that Europe had not seen in many, many years.



James Swan said...

"Luther’s goal for the Roman Catholic Church (reform from the abuses) failed, but his personal goal (to see the common people released from the abuses of the Roman Catholic Church) did succeed."

If I could play "devil's advocate" for a minute Ellen:

The council of Trent did attempt to stop abuses, and succeeded on a certian level. There actually was such a thing as the "Catholic counter-reformation."


Anonymous said...

The way we were "taught" - there was a Catholic reformation (that started before the "Reformation" - that was where a lot of the abuses (meaning behavior) began to be dealt with.

Our professor taught that the Council of Trent was the "counter-reformation" that upheld all of the Catholic doctrine, but further dealt with the immoral behavior of the priests.

So (according to my professor), the Catholic reformation began before Luther.

Honestly, My goal (and knowing this professor) was to get an "A" and I played to that. (I'm a little competitive and I wanted the "A" - this extra credit did it)

;-) my current gpa is 3.79

James Swan said...

Just curious- and you don't have to answer if you do want to- are going to a theologial school- if so where?

Currently i take classes via Westminster Seminary, probably at a pace slower than a snail.

Your prof is right kinda- In the 5th Lateran Council (1512-17)- The church missed its last big chance for reform. The council called for an inner spiritual reform that would be reflected in outward improvement. It failed, obviously.

Anonymous said...

hi in the 13th paragraph it saysIn *1934*, the “Act of Supremacy” was passed, making the king of England the “supreme head of the Church of England”

i think that it was 1534...

and thank you for this article, it really helped me on my homework!

Anonymous said...


This is great! Good for you and thanks for all of your work. I found your summary cogent, interesting, accurate and informative. Just what I was looking for.

Sincerest Regards,

Moonshadow said...

Henry died without a male heir

Henry's son by Jane Seymour succeeded him, Edward VI. I often think that's why the "Medicine Woman" actress took that stage name! She was the one he loved.

As a child, eating up the scheming that is English royal history, I always thought how neat it would have been, had England had a "King Arthur!"

jaycee said...

Thanks for posting this!
It really helped me out with my AP European History essay!
(I'm in Homewood, Alabama, in case you want to know how far your knowledge reaches)

Michael said...

Very helpful! This gave the main points and details without typing a whole freaking textbook! Very helpful in summarizing what I am looking for (I have to write an essay about Luther and King Henry's motives for religious reform). Thanks!

Anonymous said...

The reason why you're getting allot of hits is because of practicly everyone in AP European History is looking for help on writing this for the location you can download an app and it will tell you where people are vewing your blog from...THANKS

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for giving me another comparison for Luther and Henry's actions! It is much appreciated. Hopefully this helps in my AP European History class! (Kentucky is the location. You don't just reach Alabama!)

Anonymous said...

Goood Essay! it sure did help me on mine.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much! This helped me tons on my AP European History essay. And I'm from Plano, Texas :)

Sabrina said...

Wonderful essay, really helpful. I was looking for some basic knowledge on each man and what they did because I have to pick one to debate about, and this was just what I needed.

Two errors I noticed while reading this:
In paragraph 10 (after "By contrast, things of this earth...") it should be Luther's new duties. (You're missing the 's)
In paragraph 16 (starting with "In 1512..." ) in the second sentence, it should be "yet recognized that his kingdom..." (You have he instead of his)

Super helpful, good job! (I'm in Marietta GA in care you're wondering)

Deborah Magdalene said...

I was preaching on Martin Luther today and thinking about the similarities between him and Henry the VIII. I googled the two and your blog post showed up as first choice. I sent the link along to my friends at the "Companions of Mary the Apostle" since they wrote an interesting essay on Martin Luther today. Here's their link on Facebook:

thanks! Deborah Magdalene, rector Zion Episcopal Church Wappingers Falls, NY (

Anonymous said...

Thank you this is one of the more helpful sites i have visited for my research, tres bien.

Anonymous said...

PVHS, helped with essay writing

Anonymous said...

wow honestly so well said. You dont even know how much easier this reading this made my life. Thank you so much.214