Let’s Go To Theology Class: The Thirty Years War

The following summary is from my most recent class in pursuit of my master’s degree in theology at Colorado Christian University.

The Thirty Years’ War (1618-48) was the last of the European religious wars and one of Europe’s bloodiest conflicts. Due to casualties, disease, and all other horrors of war, the population of the Holy Roman Empire dropped by 7.5 million during that period. To appreciate the religious significance of the war, discuss both the beginning and ending of the conflict.

Specifically, answer these questions:

  • What were the contributions to the war effort made by Lutherans, Calvinists, and Roman Catholics (address all three groups)?
  • What were the results of the war for Lutherans, Calvinists, and Roman Catholics (again, all three groups)?
  • Who would you say won the war?

How it Began

The impetus for the Thirty Years War was the Holy Roman Emperor’s attempts to reestablish Catholic hegemony over Protestant regions. The teaching style of seventeenth and eighteenth theologians began to morph into something that was no longer based entirely on Scripture. Justo L. Gonzalez believes the approach of many church leaders became increasingly rigid, cold, and academic. No doubt this militant and dogmatic style provided a momentum during the period leading up to the Thirty Years War that was nearly impossible to stop. Gonzalez notes, “Dogma was often substituted for faith, and orthodoxy for love”(1).

Prior to the War, the Peace of Nuremberg (1532) permitted Protestants to practice their faith but prohibited spreading Protestantism. Gonzalez says, “The Peace of Augsburg, which put an end to religious wars in Germany in the sixteenth century, could not last”(2). This was true in part because freedom of religion was granted only to the rulers. Further, regions ruled by bishops often remained Catholic even if their bishops became Protestant (3).

Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, and Calvinism each vied for dominance in Europe. Rebellion spread quickly. Charles V (for Catholicism) and Frederick the Wise (for Protestantism) saw “[N]o higher interest than the cause of God’s truth as they saw it, and subordinated their political and personal ambitions to that cause” (4) (italics mine). Gonzalez: “[T]he peace achieved at Augsburg was at best an armistice that would hold only as long as each side felt unable to take military action against the other” (5).

The Lutherans

The war began in Bohemia after the Defenestration of Prague. Much had been happening on the fringes regarding Protestantism. Skirmishes did little to settle the matter of “official” religious beliefs in the nation-states. Books on Protestantism began to circulate following invention of the printing press. Martin Luther’s Reformation caused a division among German princes within the Holy Roman Empire. Moreover, these rulers began using religion to further their political ambition. Lutherans objected violently when Ferdinand closed one Protestant church and destroyed another. Many historians claim the Thirty Years War cost the lives of nearly half of Germany’s population. No doubt true believers were growing wary of Catholic orthodoxy.

Bohemian Protestants waged was against Ferdinand, but they were defeated. Ferdinand reasserted his control over Bohemia and was also named emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Gonzalez indicates that Catholics, Lutherans, Reformed, and Anglicans assumed that a nation-state must have a single religion to which all its subjects must adhere. Not only is this idea a factor in the Thirty Years War, it is an impetus for eventual colonization of America in the name of freedom from this very situation. According to Gonzalez, Philip of Hesse took the duchy of Wurttemberg for himself. The population of the duchy swung toward Protestantism. Gonzalez also reminds us that peace in Europe was only attained by deciding that some states would be Lutheran and some Catholic: This is the application of the concept cuju regis eius religio (“whose realm, his religion”). Lutheranism was born out of Martin Luther’s push for reform in the Roman Catholic Church. A precursor to the War was failure of the Inquistion to quell what Gonzalez calls the “Lutheran contagion.” Luther would not back down, even in the face of official opposition from the papacy.

The Calvinists

According to Tom Richey, “Calvinism, which was not established as a legal religion in the Empire by the Peace of Augsburg, spread throughout the Empire despite its prohibition, as Calvinists did not care whether their religion was legal or not. The spread of Calvinism threatened the tranquility of the Empire, as did places like Bohemia, where the ruler’s religion was different from most of the population” (6).

Gonzalez remarks that medieval foundations (the empire, the papacy, and tradition) were weakening. Calvinism, which was not established as a legal religion in the Empire by the Peace of Augsburg, spread throughout the Empire despite being prohibited. Calvinists didn’t care whether their religion was legal or not. As Calvinism continued to spread, it threatened the tranquility of the Empire. Social and political unrest was rapidly becoming the norm. Luther and Calvin were determined to see the church return to the Word of God, thereby reforming Catholicism. Calvin discovered the freedom of justification through the unmerited grace of God, which resulted in his hallmark doctrine of predestination. Gonzalez relates Poland’s distrust and disdain for the Germans, causing Lutheranism there to grow at a snail’s pace. He wrote, “It was when Calvinism made its way into the country that Protestantism began making headway” (7). Anti-Trinitarian heresies took root there. This may well have led to Poland becoming one of the most Catholic nation-states in Europe (see Gonzalez, 160).

The Roman Catholics

The Holy Roman Empire was a fragmented collection of largely independent states. The Reformation caused division between Catholic and Protestant rule. The origins of the conflict and goals of the participants were complex. Initially, the war was fought largely as a religious conflict between Protestants and Catholics in the Holy Roman Empire. Mary Tudor and other notable nobles were committed to restoring Roman Catholicism in England. She became known as “Bloody Mary” because of her increasingly repressive and violent acts against Protestants. Gonzalez notes England’s official return to obedience to the pope in late 1554—Protestants were now persecuted as a matter of policy.

St. Ignatius of Loyola emerged as the new face of Catholic “reformation.” In 1540, as a response to burgeoning Protestantism, the Society of Jesus (the “Jesuits”) came to be quite a force for defeating the Protestants. The papacy put their resources to task. These early Jesuits operated under a quasi-military structure. Also, “[F]or generations the tendency within Roman Catholicism had been toward greater centralization in Rome, after the model of a monarchical government” (8). Protestantism was not similarly organized.

How it Ended

The Peace of Westphalia (comprised of a series of “cease-fire” treaties) recognized sovereign equality—the balance of power and non-intervention in affairs of the nation-states—established a variety of political kingdoms in Europe. Several earlier events caused the War to start slowing down—e.g., the Peace of Prague signed in 1634 ended Saxony’s participation. The Spain’s military fizzled out in 1640. Tom Richey said Westphalia set a “normative” state—a standard applicable to all territories—which fixed the control of churches, the right to public worship, and the so-called “confessional status” of each territory to the state it had been in as of January 1, 1624. Richey wrote, “By establishing a standard applicable to all, it also represented a convenient means of avoiding the conflicts of honour [sic] inherent in early-modern negotiations in which princes were asked to make concessions” (9). The Peace of Westphalia established an order of conditional sovereignty.

Catholic France and Protestant England emerged as the two most powerful European states. The rulers of the European nation-states could now choose their official religions. Catholics and Protestants were now decidedly equal under the law. Also, Calvinism lost its heretical or dogmatic stigma and was given legal recognition. The Thirty Years War came to an end in 1648. Obviously, both sides suffered greatly, seeming to have exhausted their military personnel and armaments. Spain began to collapse during the Thirty Years War, which seems to have continued after the Peace of Westphalia. Catholicism in France faired well as a result of War, but to no true detriment to Protestantism there. This was no small feat, and it involved France conscientiously rising above religious bigotry and hatred. In this regard, although Catholicism did not vanish in France, the Protestants were able to establish a strong religious presence as well. Yet I feel Protestantism won the day. They rose above what could have been total annihilation. Then again, the gospel has progressed over the centuries in exactly the manner God determined.


(1) Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Vol. II (New York: HarperOne, 2010), Gonzalez, 174.

(2) 177.

(3) 177.

(4) 173.

(5) 177.

(6) Tom Richey, “The Thirty Years War (AP Euro Lecture Notes),” The Blog @ Tom Richey.net (09/26/2016), URL: https://www.tomrichey.net/blog/the-thirty-years-war-ap-euro-lecture-notes

(7) Gonzalez, 159.

(8) 453.

(9) Tom Richey, “The Thirty Years War (AP Euro Lecture Notes),” The Blog @ Tom Richey.net

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