Faith

10 Lesser-Known Reformation Figures You Need to Remember on Martin Luther's 500th Anniversary

A statue of John Wycliffe translating the Bible, as part of the Luther Monument in Worms, Germany. Released into public domain by Immanuel Giel.

Tuesday marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing the 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. While Martin Luther deserves special recognition on this Reformation Day, the Protestant Reformation involved many more great pastors and thinkers. It would be unfair to them to focus all attention on Luther.

Below is PJ Media’s list of ten lesser-known but vitally important Reformation figures. There are hundreds of men and women who led the charge to return to a Bible-based Christianity following the five “Solas” (Sola Fide or Faith Alone, Sola Scriptura or the Bible Alone, Sola Gratia or Grace Alone, Sola Christe or Christ Alone, and Soli Deo Gloria or to the Glory of God Alone).

(For more resources beyond this list, check out Foxe’s Book of Martyrs or Desiring God’s powerful tour de force through 31 different Reformation figures entitled “Here We Stand.”)

The ten below are listed in chronological order, from the date of their birth.

1. John Wycliffe (1320-1384).

A bronze statue of an old man reading the Bible.

A statue of John Wycliffe translating the Bible, as part of the Luther Monument in Worms, Germany. Released into public domain by Immanuel Giel.

This Oxford professor led a translation of the Bible into English, which he completed in 1384. He personally translated the gospels (and perhaps the rest of the New Testament), while his associates translated the Old Testament.

Wycliffe attacked the privileged status, the luxury, and the pomp of the Roman Catholic clergy, who were particularly powerful in England. His followers, the Lollards, taught predestination and iconoclasm, attacking the veneration of the saint, sacraments, requiem masses, transubstantiation, monasticism, and the very existence of the Papacy.

Notably, the Council of Constance condemned Wycliffe as a heretic in 1415. They banned his writings, burned his books, and later dug up his corpse and burned it.

Wycliffe has been hailed as the “Morning Star of the Reformation,” and his translation of the Bible is the inspiration for Wycliffe Bible Translators, an international ministry spreading the Word of God.

2. Jan Hus (c. 1369-1415).

a Statue with Jan Hus praying

Jan Hus monument, released into public domain by author Rudolf Kukačkla.

This Czech priest and dean at Charles University in Prague led an early reformation in Bohemia, and is considered the second great reformer after John Wycliffe.

Jan Hus translated Wycliffe’s works and adopted many of his teachings, such as consubstantiation instead of the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. Hus condemned the abuse of papal authority and declared it was not ultimate.

Lured to the Council of Constance on promises of safety, Hus was imprisoned for six months, given a mock trial, asked to recant, and then burnt at the stake, while his works burned next to him. All the while, he reportedly prayed for his enemies.

After his execution in 1415, Hus’ followers — the Hussites — rebelled against their Catholic rulers and defeated five papal crusades between 1420 and 1431, in what became known as the Hussite Wars.

There are few Protestants in the Czech Republic today, due to the conquest of Bohemia by the Catholic Hapsburgs, restrictions on faith under Communism, and ongoing secularization. Even so, in December 1999, Pope John Paul II apologized, expressing “deep regret for the cruel death” of Jan Hus.

3. Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531).

Stained glass window of Ulrich Zwingli with a sword and Bible and Martin Luther with a Bible.

A stained glass window from a church in Zurich, featuring Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli. Author Lena.Gujara released it into the public domain.

Zwingli was a Swiss pastor who began to preach reform inside the Catholic Church in Zurich. He attacked the custom of fasting during Lent in 1522, and later went on to attack corruption among church leaders, promote clerical marriage, and attack the use of images in worship. He created an alternate liturgy to the Catholic Mass in 1525. 

This Swiss pastor created an alliance of Reformed cantons, and barely averted a war between them and Catholic cantons in 1529. Later that year, Zwingli met Luther and other reformers at the Marburg Colloquy, but they could not agree on the doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

After an attempted food blockade against the Catholic cantons, Zwingli was killed in battle. Zwingli had a short career, but a very consequential one, and he is remembered as the third most important figure in the Reformation, behind Martin Luther and John Calvin.

4. Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556).

Man in white and black robes with a Bible and book of common prayer.

Portrait of Thomas Cranmer. Painted by Gerlach Flicke, 1545.

Did Henry VIII really found the Anglican Church? This premise has been the butt of many jokes, but it is false — Thomas Cranmer is the real founder of the Anglican Church.

Cranmer served as Archbishop of Canterbury under three monarchs: Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Mary I. He helped build the case for the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, which was a central cause for the separation between England and the Roman Catholic Church.

Cranmer wrote the first doctrinal and liturgical structures of the reformed Church of England. Under King Edward VI, he promoted major reforms, publishing the first two editions of the Book of Common Prayer. He changed doctrine in areas such as the Eucharist, clerical celibacy, the role of images in worship, and veneration of the saints.

Mary I, a Roman Catholic monarch, put Cranmer on trial for treason and heresy. Imprisoned for over two years, he made several recantations. On the day of his execution, however, he withdrew his recantations and died a martyr for the English Reformation. He was immortalized in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs and his legacy lives on in the Book of Common Prayer and The Thirty-Nine Articles, the Anglican statement of faith adopted from his works.

5. William Tyndale (c. 1494-c. 1536).

Old drawing of William Tyndale burnt at the stake and strangled, praying for the King of England as a crowd looks on.

William Tyndale is burnt at the stake in Belgium; he cries, “Lord ope the king of England’s eies.” From an Elizabethan edition of Foxe’s Martyrs. Public domain.

This English scholar had one life-consuming goal, to translate the Bible from the original Hebrew and Greek texts, and to get the Bible into the hands of the common man.

Tyndale, in exile in Germany, told King Henry VIII that if the king gave his official endorsement for a vernacular Bible, Tyndale would return to England. The king did not relent, and Tyndale’s translation cost him his life.

In 1536, he was convicted of heresy and strangled, with his body later burnt at the stake. His dying prayer was that King Henry VIII’s eyes were opened, and that prayer seemed fulfilled when Henry authorized the Great Bible for the Church of England in 1538 — largely using Tyndale’s own translation!

The compilers of the King James Bible looked to Tyndale for inspiration in 1611, and one estimate found that the King James New Testament took 83 percent of its material from Tyndale, while the Old Testament took 76 percent. Tyndale also provided the inspiration for Tyndale House Publishers, a major Christian publishing house.

6. Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560).

A portrait of Philip Melanchthon, public domain.

The first systematic theologian of the Protestant Reformation, Melanchthon stands next to Luther and Calvin as a key founder of Protestant Christianity. Historians consider him the intellectual leader of Lutheranism.

Melanchthon denounced the cult of the saints, championed justification by faith alone, and denounced the Catholic sacrament of penance. He also joined Luther in rejecting transubstantiation, and emphasized the difference between law (God’s requirements) and gospel (the free gift of grace through faith in Jesus Christ), the central formula of Lutheranism.

If Luther laid the impetus for the Lutheran Church, Melanchthon formulated its theology.

7. Katharina Von Bora (1499-1552).

old painting of less attractive woman

Public domain. Portrait of Katharina von Bora

In 1525, two people who had taken vows of celibacy in monastic institutions would make the ultimate endorsement of clerical marriage — they would have a wedding! Martin Luther’s wedding served as a powerful symbol against the Roman Catholic idea that priests should not take wives. More than that, it may have literally saved Luther’s life.

For the last 20 years of Martin Luther’s life, “Katie kept him alive: mentally, physically, and fiscally alive,” Ruth Tucker, author of Katie Luther: First Lady of the Reformation, told PJ Media. “I do not believe we’d be celebrating 500 years of Protestantism without Katie Luther.”

Luther was a force of nature, but he also got sick frequently, had trouble managing his finances, and needed his wife’s excellent beer to sustain him. Tucker called Katharina von Bora “a Proverbs 31 woman on steroids,” and said “she had her irons in the fire more than any other woman I’ve studied.”

Interestingly, little is known about Katharina von Bora, and Tucker suggested she would be a “nominal Christian” by today’s evangelical Protestant standards. Even so, Katie Luther was absolutely central to the Reformation, in many important ways.

8. Wibrandis Rosenblatt (1504-1564).

A German woman in a white hat and scarf.

Portrait of Wibrandis Rosenblatt from the 16th century.

Wib — who? “The bride of the Reformation,” Wibrandis Rosenblatt would be married no less than four times, to three major reformers.

In 1524, Rosenblatt married Ludwig Keller, who died in 1526. In 1528, she married Johannes Oecolampadius, a cathedral preacher who taught similar theology to Luther and Calvin, and like both of them bucked the Catholic Church by getting married. Oecolampadius died in 1531, however, leaving Rosenblatt again a widow — now with four children.

Interestingly, the German reformer Martin Bucer arranged a marriage between Rosenblatt and Wolfgang Capito in 1532. Capito was the pastor of New St. Peter’s Church in Strasbourg, and he tried to unite Luther’s and Zwingli’s theology. He had five more children with Rosenblatt, bringing her total to nine. Like Katie Luther, Rosenblatt balanced Capito’s budget and kept his household in order. This pastor, like the previous one, left Rosenblatt a widow — in 1540.

Bucer himself married her in 1542. Like Capito, Bucer attempted to reconcile Luther and Zwingli, but he also tried to unite German Protestants and Catholics as well — to create a German national church separate from Rome. He failed, however, and the Schmalkaldic War led to the defeat of Protestantism in the Holy Roman Empire. Bucer was exiled to England in 1549, where he influenced the second revision of the Book of Common Prayer.

He died in 1551, leaving Rosenblatt a widow once again. Like Katie Luther, Wibrandis Rosenblatt served as a living example of Reformation theology as the wife of pastors, but she also sustained many leaders of the Reformation.

9. John Knox (c. 1513-1572).

A stone frieze of John Knox in Geneva.

John Knox Frieze in Geneva. Image Credit Histoire, Wikimedia Commons

Scotland’s great reformer, John Knox was a minister and theologian who founded the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. In 1547, Knox — then a notary — joined a group of reformers living in the castle at St. Andrews, and they forced him to preach. Knox was captured during a French siege, and became a galley slave for a year and a half.

Between 1549 and 1553, Knox served as a pastor while in exile in England. When Mary I became Queen of England, he fled to Europe, where he lived a nomadic existence until 1559, spending time in Geneva and Frankfurt am Main. He married Englishwoman Marjorie Bowes.

He returned to Scotland in 1559 and led the Reformation there for thirteen years. Knox famously confronted the Roman Catholic Mary Queen of Scots multiple times, and fearlessly chided her as her faithful subject. Later, however, he openly called for her execution when she was imprisoned for allegedly murdering her husband Lord Darnley.

Knox left a powerful impact on Scotland, and his house in Edinburgh remains a popular tourist destination and museum for the Reformation.

10. Lady Jane Grey (c. 1537-1554).

old-fashioned engraving of Lady Jane Grey, who was queen for nine days.

Vintage engraving of Lady Jane Grey (1536/1537 to 12 February 1554). [Getty Images.]

Lady Jane Grey was de facto Queen of England and Ireland for a total of nine days: from July 10 to July 19, 1553. She was a first cousin once removed of the former King Edward VI. Edward named Jane Grey his successor because his half-sister Mary was Roman Catholic, while Jane was Protestant. He named both Mary and Elizabeth illegitimate.

The Privy Council turned on Jane Grey on July 19, deposing her. Queen Mary I saved her life, but when her father Henry Grey became part of Wyatt’s Rebellion, she reversed course. Both Jane and her husband were executed on February 12, 1554.

While Jane was condemned to die, Mary sent her seasoned priest John Feckenham to bring her back to Rome before her death. He pushed justification by faith and works, she stood on sola fide. She remained rooted in her faith, and went to her death a martyr.