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Expert Answer Forum

by Catherine Frakas 19 Apr 2002

Reformation QUESTION from Mr. M. Sponer Sept. 15, 1999 Welcome Mrs. Fortin to the History Forum. My question is in reference to the Reformation. What non-Catholic groups were killing people for their faith (Catholics and non-Catholics)? Thank you.
ANSWER by Mrs. Suzanne Fortin on September 20, 1999 During the Reformation (and I am limiting myself here mostly to the sixteenth century), it was generally the secular authorities who killed those of a different faith, though religious riots did occur. The penalities for religious non-conformity varied somewhat from region to region. Not all regions proposed death as a punishment. For instance, Lutheran Sweden banned all Catholics from the country in 1617, although two Catholics who were found were executed in 1624. The Netherlands imposed fines for baptizing and marrying in the Catholic Church. Imposing harsher penalities would have been difficult. The bulk of the population (80-90%) was Catholic, while the elites were Calvinist Protestants (members of the Dutch Reformed Church). They would have had to imprison and execute most of their countrymen!
Of course, this does not mean that Protestant jurisdictions did not punish dissenters with death. The Protestant group that was most universally targeted for persecution (by Catholics and Protestants alike) was the Anabaptists. They were reviled because a number of them tried to bring about the Kingdom of God by force in the German town of Munster in 1525. They were also hated because they preached against infant baptism and taught that only people who could understand the Gospel could be baptized. A number of Anabaptists renounced violent means, but secular authorities did not make any distinctions: they were all persecuted. The Netherlands (known then as the United Provinces) executed a couple of thousand Anabaptists. The city of Zurich declared that all Anabaptists were to be killed by drowning. Other Swiss Cantons also had harsh measures.
Another group that almost universally persecuted was the Unitarians, known in those days as Socinians. They made their home in Poland, before it was won back to the faith in the Counter-Reformation, and in Transylvania. Their numbers were quite small, but when they were found out, they were executed for blasphemy. One famous case of Unitarian martyrdom was that of Michael Servetus, who was burned in Calvinist Geneva in 1553. This gesture was widely applauded by Catholics and Protestants alike all over Europe.
Calvinists and Lutherans, the two largest Protestant groups of the sixteenth century, were less intolerant toward one another than towards other groups. But not completely tolerant. In 1569, Lutheran Denmark required that Protestants seeking refuge from persecution from other parts of Europe to adhere to the Augsburg Confession (Lutheran Statement of Faith) under pain of death. The threat against Lutheran orthodoxy was perceived to come mostly from foreigners: Calvinist Protestants from other countries had tried to seek refuge in Denmark, and it was feared they would spread their beliefs.Denmark also required that its clergy and theologians subscribe to the Augsburg confession under pain of death.
Last but not least, Anglican England prosecuted many Catholics who did not attend Anglican services, because it was felt that they would aid their Spanish enemy (Phillip II of Spain wanted to conquer England for the faith). Some Congregationalists were also executed. Anyone who did not accept the Church structure was suspect.
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