Counter Reformation

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Counter Reformation, today sometimes called the Catholic Reformation, persisted from about 1550 to 1620 or 1650. The term originated with the great German historian Leopold von Ranke and was first used by him in 1843 to denote the purposeful activities of the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) against the Protestants in order to regain the countries lost to them and to win their people back to the Church of Rome. It was, strictly speaking, a twofold activity: (1) a counter movement against the Protestants of all shades, a fight, and (2) an internal reform toward improving and lifting the standards of the church itself, by which reforms more permanent results were expected (as the previous decline of standards was generally blamed for the fateful split in Western Christianity). The medieval unity of the Western church was to be restored by all means, moral as well as political ones, by persuasion and if need be by force and compulsion. The attempts toward real internal reforms begin as early as 1534, but the Counter Reformation proper is usually reckoned between the pontificates of Paul IV (beginning 1555) and Sixtus V (died 1590). In Central Europe the climax of the Counter Reformation came between 1600 and 1620, fateful years for all non-Catholics but above all for the Anabaptists. Under the relentless impact of these church activities (aided naturally by the secular governments) the once powerful Anabaptist movement steadily declined until it almost disappeared in Catholic countries, save for a few remnants.

Traditionally three agencies are named as instrumental in carrying out the purposes of the Counter Reformation. They are: the Council of Trent (1545-1563), the Society of Jesus (S.J.), commonly called Jesuits (approved by the pope in 1540), and the renewed Inquisition together with the Index of prohibited books. On this list of forbidden books one finds, incidentally, also the works of Balthasar Hubmaier. Of these three agencies the Jesuits were by far most efficient, considering the achievement of their ends. They dominated both the schools (from the elementary grades up to the university) and the confessionals. Hence they dominated both the youth and the conscience of all participants. That the Counter Reformation had such tremendous success is at least partly due to the disunity of the Protestant parties and national churches and their unwillingness to cooperate among themselves. Since the Anabaptists were hated by both Protestants and Catholics, they naturally had to suffer most.

The Counter Reformation was at times very strong, indicating a revived spirit of crusading within the church, determined and not hesitating even before thrones. Inasmuch as the princes yielded to the church's demands (and ideas of toleration or liberty of conscience did not exist in effect during the 16th and 17th centuries), the "subjects" had little chance of resisting. First attacked were the lower masses of peasants and small craftsmen, then came the commercial middle classes, and eventually also the old nobility. Only in Hungary could conditions persevere for another hundred years; here the Counter Reformation did not become effective until the middle of the 18th century, the time of the Hutterite exodus to Russia.

The most thorough success of the Counter Reformation was achieved in Spain and Italy; even rudiments of Protestantism were made impossible in these countries, mainly due to the work of the Inquisition. Elsewhere, however, this Inquisition did not exist; hence the field was taken over by the Jesuits. Since Anabaptism flourished only in central and northwestern Europe (Netherlands), the present article restricts itself to a discussion of these countries. The Netherlands, to be sure, was the only country which managed to break away altogether from Roman influence, experiencing a total change and thus creating an island of free atmosphere where also Mennonites could unmolestedly develop.

Yet also in the Netherlands the influence of the Counter Reformation was clearly perceptible, especially after 1620. Though the Reformed Church was the state church in the Netherlands, and both the Catholic Church and Mennonites as well as Remonstrants were merely tolerated and could meet only in their hidden churches, the Jesuit missionaries worked secretly, but very actively. Particularly in Amsterdam they succeeded in winning many for their church including some Mennonites, among whom Joost van den Vondel, who had been a deacon of the Waterlander congregation, and joined the Catholic Church about 1641, is the most striking example of such "conversions."

Germany and Austria (the Habsburg domain) felt the impact of the Counter Reformation strongly, and in the 17th century also Poland, heretofore a refuge for all nonconformist church groups. In 1551 the Jesuits appeared for the first time in Vienna, Austria; here worked later the Father Canisius, the author of a famous Catholic catechism which came into wide use all over Europe. Another center was Munich, Bavaria, facetiously called the "second Rome," mainly under the Duke Albrecht V. Also the Rhineland bishoprics such as Mainz, Cologne, and Treves became centers of aggressive re-Catholization, and only Krefeld was able to retain a certain amount of independence and liberty. In Switzerland, Carl Borromeo, archbishop of Milan, became active in the seven Catholic cantons and even beyond, and his impact was heavily felt by the Swiss Brethren. In 1576 Jesuits were in Lucerne and in 1580 they were in Neuchâtel.

Very interesting are the conditions in the Habsburg countries (see Habsburg and Austria). While Ferdinand I was an ardent champion of Catholicism and a supporter of the Counter Reformation by all means, the Anabaptists could still carry on, at least in a clandestine way, in Tyrol, and in an open way in Moravia, which belonged to the kingdom of Bohemia. Then followed Emperor Maximilian II (1564-1576), of whom it is said that he himself leaned strongly toward Protestantism. Under him began the "golden age" of the Hutterites in Moravia, protected to be sure by the nobles of the land. Then with Emperor Rudolphus II (1576-1612) a radical change set in, the militant restoration of Catholicism everywhere. For instance, Nikolsburg and Olmütz (Olomouc) now become centers of Catholic aggression in Moravia. While up to this time the lords of Nikolsburg were fairly lenient toward the Hutterites (they needed them as workers), conditions changed within a few years under the Cardinal Franz Dietrichstein, who pressed the brethren so hard that the settlements declined very rapidly (around 1600).

The Thirty Years' War (1618-1648) represented finally the concluding battle between the two camps, ending in a tie and settling for the future the relation and distribution of the churches in Europe. At its beginning was the fateful battle of White Mountain (Weissenberg) near Prague in 1620, where Protestantism received one of its severest defeats. Bohemia and Moravia were now thoroughly made Catholic by often most brutal means, and in 1622 the Hutterites were finally and almost completely driven out from Moravia, only to settle down in adjoining Hungary.

In Poland conditions changed under Sigismund III (1587-1632), derisively called "the king of the Jesuits." Under him the former toleration ceased, and the golden days of the nonconformists were terminated. The Bohemian Brethren (now called Moravians) slowly declined, while the Socinians, the Little Polish Church, migrated to liberal Netherlands. Evangelical Anabaptism (of which a few groups had settled in Poland during the 16th century) had long before disappeared.

In the 18th century eventually also Hungary saw the working of the Jesuits. About 1700 the Turks had been driven out, and a stronger centralized bureaucracy receiving its orders from Vienna now supported the Jesuits. True, many nobles still remained Calvinists, but for the Anabaptists there remained no chance any longer, neither in Slovakia, where the newly converted Hutterites now came to be called "Habaner," nor in Transylvania where Lutherans were tolerated but no Anabaptists. The Jesuit Delpini worked successfully in Transylvania around 1750 to make life for the Brethren unbearable. The great trek to Walachia and then to Russia set in.

See Jesuits and Dietrichstein


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Author(s) Robert Friedmann
Nanne van der Zijpp
Date Published 1953

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Friedmann, Robert and Nanne van der Zijpp. "Counter Reformation." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1953. Web. 1 Aug 2021.

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Friedmann, Robert and Nanne van der Zijpp. (1953). Counter Reformation. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 1 August 2021, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, pp. 724-725. All rights reserved.

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