Luther and Reformatory Ideas: National and International Contexts

During the Middle Ages in Western Europe, no single church covered all countries. For Martin Luther there was only one church, but he did not believe it needed to be identical everywhere. What was most important was that the gospel was preached, and that people were christened and took Holy Communion. But because Luther considered it important that people heard about Christianity in their own language rather than Latin, the Reformation also came to support national cultures.

Even though the Reformation started in the small German town of Wittenberg, it spread rapidly and Wittenberg soon became an international centre. The new printing press ensured the rapid distribution of reformatory writings.

Students from throughout Northern Europe travelled to Wittenberg to listen to lectures by Lutheran scholars, including Luther and Melanchthon. They took what they learned home with them, and influenced the countries they came from. Some of these students came from Denmark, Norway and Sweden. The Reformation became an international movement. Luther and Melanchthon corresponded closely with other Protestant countries, where they also advised kings and other influential figures. This close contact between Protestant countries continued in the centuries after the Reformation. Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, which retained an extended, international structure, reformatory churches were largely organised as national churches or churches tied to specific areas (territorial churches). This contributed to the development of the distinctive character of Lutheran Christianity in different countries, which can still be seen today. 

In Germany it was the princes of each principality who came to protect and promote the Reformation in practise. In Denmark, the king played a central role. The Lutheran understanding of people entering mutually binding relationships with their superiors and subordinates underpinned the role of the prince or king as a unifying figure.