Essay Questions About The Reformation


To say that the Protestant Reformation had a great effect on the world is a vast understatement. Kings, kingdoms, and even everyday people felt the sting—and the freedom—this new movement brought.

Your students will be writing opinions, stories, and more while exploring some of the issues and topics associated with the Reformation.

If you’d like your students to learn more about Martin Luther in an interesting biography, check out When Lightning Struck by Danika Cooley of Thinking Kids Press.

These prompts are appropriate for students in 5th – 12th grade.

Let’s dig in . . .



Reformation Prompts

1. Your opinion

Five hundred years ago, an educated man wanted to start a conversation about certain things he wanted to change in his church. He wrote out a copy of the points he wanted to discuss and sent it to his boss; he also may have hung a copy of his points on the door of his local church to announce his intentions to begin a discussion about them.

Follow this link for the rest of the prompt. >>


2. Your explanation

Read Martin Luther’s shocking Ninety-five Theses here or here. Then choose one of his 95 statements and explain what he meant by it.


3. Your personal story

When Martin Luther posted his Ninety-five Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Saxony (in what is now Germany), on October 31, 1517, he wanted to start a conversation with influential people about how salvation can be found in Christ alone, not in other acts or in the buying of indulgences (official papers from the Catholic Church).

What he did not foresee was the reaction he would get (his life was now in danger) and the movement he inadvertently would start, now called the Reformation.

Write about a time when you did or said something and then got a reaction you did not expect.


4. Your thoughts

Hundreds of Protestants were burned at the stake for their faith, both men and women, in the years during the Reformation. When the political climate changed with Protestant royalty on the throne, hundreds of Catholics were burned at the stake. You can read more about this in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. In more modern times, Christians have been tortured or beheaded for their faith.

If you were laughed at, marginalized, ridiculed, fired from a job, or otherwise punished for being a Christian, how do you think you would react? Write your ideas.



5. Your fictional story

“Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.”

This is what Martin Luther told his accusers while on trial before Emperor Charles V less than four years after he’d published his Ninety-five Theses. He would not recant (take back) what he said against the church selling indulgences, that people who bought them would have salvation. Thesis 32: “Those who believe that they can be certain of their salvation because they have indulgence letters will be eternally damned, together with their teachers.”

Luther knew he could be excommunicated, which he was, and he knew he could be killed, yet he did not change his mind or buckle beneath the pressure.

Create a character who is in trouble because he or she will not change a strongly held belief. Where is your character? What situation will you put him or her in? What will happen to your character?


Looking for fun middle school writing prompts? Look no further!

Engage your teen writer with these intriguing high school prompts.


Download a free sample of our popular middle school writing curriculum Jump Inhere.

Download a free sample of our updated and improved The Power in Your Hands: Writing Nonfiction in High School , 2nd Edition, with FREE Grading Grid samples here.

Download 2 free chapters of our unstuffy high school literature course Illuminating Literature: When Worlds Collidehere.

Looking for a captivating literature course for your 7th and 8th graders? Download a free lesson from Their Blood Tingledhere.

Do you have a story writer at home? Download a free sample of our elective Writing Fiction [in High School]here.

Copyright © 2016 by Sharon Watson.

Photo credit: Martyrs plaque in Maidenstone, Kent, Creative Commons. Wittenberg door by Pecold |
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Old Examination Questions

On this page are listed examination essay questions on the European Reformation period, 1300-1700, from earlier courses taught by J. B. Owens. While the examinations for the spring 1997 course RELIGIOUS REFORMATION AND CONFLICT will not have questions of this form, these questions may serve as a guide to significant interpretative problems that will be useful to current students as they formulate and do research for the course Project. The list has no organization, and as these were questions developed and used for many purposes over a number of years, there is much overlap and duplication.

Questions? Please put your name and e-mail address in the body of your message.

  • Why were the new mendicant orders of the thirteenth century able to obtain such a significant position in Europe's intellectual and religious life?
  • What impact did the Black Death have on the culture, politics, society, and economy of Europe?
  • What factors contributed to the fourteenth century crisis of western civilization?
  • Why were there such high levels of social violence in the 14th century compared with the situation two centuries earlier?
  • Why did Marsilius of Padua (died ca. 1348) stress the "human legislator" as the source of power in the community?
  • Why did the concept of the "human legislator" as developed by Marsilius of Padua (died ca. 1348) have an important impact on the thought and institutions of western civilization?
  • Why did the so-called "Babylonian Captivity" of the 14th century do such serious damage to the spiritual reputation of the Church?
  • Why did significant new heretical movements (associated with Wiclif and Hus) emerge in the second half of the fourteenth century?
  • Why did Langland mention St. Francis of Assisi in his poem "Piers Plowman"?
  • What factors motivated the formation of the Brethren of the Common Life?
  • Why did the Imitation of Christ become such an important book in the late Middle Ages?
  • Why was the Conciliar Movement ultimately a failure?
  • Why did Erasmus become the most influential intellectual of his time?
  • Why did Erasmus attach so much importance to the study of foreign languages?
  • Why was the invention of printing from moveable type so important for the development of western civilization?
  • Why had the Renaissance Church (1450-1535) become so corrupt that by the early 16th century all Christians felt the need for reform?
  • Why did Martin Luther and John Calvin attack the principles and institutions of the medieval Latin-Rite Church? Discuss particularly Luther's essays "Address to the Christian Nobility" and "On Christian Liberty," and Calvin's "Institutes of the Christian Religion."
  • What were the major differences between the thought of Martin Luther and the ideas of the medieval Latin-Rite tradition?
  • Why did Luther argue in his essay "On Christian Liberty" that no works could justify a person for salvation?
  • Why was Martin Luther's insistence that only Scripture carried religious authority so significant for the Reformation period?
  • Why did Calvin stress that, contrary to the principles of monasticism, Christians may enjoy the material goods of this world?
  • What were the differences between the ideas of the medieval Latin-Rite church and those of the 16th century Anabaptists?
  • Why were the Lutheran, Calvinist, and Radical Protestants unable to develop a unified movement?
  • Why was the doctrine of the "human legislator", as developed by Marsilius of Padua (died ca. 1348), so important to the Conciliar and Calvinist movements?
  • Why did Erasmus break with Luther's assault on the abuses of power by ecclesiastical leaders?
  • Why was the Roman Catholic Church able to meet the Protestant challenge (1500-1650) and deny the new churches control over most of Europe?
  • Why was the order founded by Ignatius of Loyola such an important part of the Catholic Reformation?
  • In what ways was the Roman Catholic Church able to reform itself in the 16th century?
  • Why did Catholic reform leaders believe that the key to improving the Church was the improvement of the performance of bishops?
  • Why did Loyola attach such importance to obedience?
  • Why were the religious divisions of the Reformation period so important for the development of western civilization?
  • Why did the Protestant Reformation have a major impact on the development of western civilization in the sixteenth century?
  • Why were all regions of Europe subjected to the "chronic violence" of rebellion in the early modern period (1500-1700)? In your essay, discuss particularly the views of George Huppert?
  • Why did Michel de Montaigne [1533-1592] develop skeptical and relativistic positions in his essays?
  • Why was it possible for materialistic views of Nature to become popular in the Reformation period? In your essay, discuss particularly George Huppert's views on the relationship between popular culture and the religious movements of the period.
  • Why did the Catholic Church become concerned in the early seventeenth century with theories used in the investigation of nature?
  • How were the Dutch able to revolt successfully against their Habsburg ruler?
  • What were the major sources of conflict among European states throughout the world in the period 1490 to 1650?
  • Why were the 1640s a period of rebellion and political disorder throughout much of Europe?
  • Why did Jean Bodin argue that supreme power or sovereignty must be absolute and undivided in a well-ordered commonwealth?
  • Why did Thomas Hobbes employ the mechanistic view of the Scientific Revolution to justify the idea of an absolute sovereign as essential in human society?
  • Why did the Church resist all forms of secular autonomy in the Late Middle Ages?
  • Why was religious controversy so intense in the fourteenth century?
  • Why was Thomas Aquinas' appreciation of the physical world and the epistemological role of the senses so great?
  • Why did William of Ockham reject the independent existence of universal concepts?
  • Why did religious anti-intellectualism form such an important part of the late medieval spiritual tradition?
  • Why did lay religious movements in the Middle Ages so often follow monastic models?
  • Why did the Beguine movement become so popular?
  • Why was there so much religious experimentation in the Late Middle Ages?
  • Why did temporal affairs come increasingly to be appreciated in their own right in the Late Middle Ages?
  • Why was the issue of Franciscan poverty so important in the fourteenth century?
  • Why did Marsilius of Padua challenge papal power?
  • Why did the Conciliar Movement become so important?
  • Why were there signs of discontent with traditional Christianity in the fifteenth century?
  • Why were arduous penitential measures like fasting, pilgrimage, flogging or imprisonment increasingly replaced in the late Middle Ages by indulgences?
  • Why did public celebrations like the Carnival feasts become more prominent in the devotional life of some European regions rather than others prior to the Reformation?
  • Why were public confession and penance increasingly replaced by private forms in the late Middle Ages?
  • Why did the Ten Commandments replace the seven deadly sins as the focus of Christian moral instruction?
  • Why were "satisfaction" theories of salvation, like that of St. Anselm of Canterbury, so appealing to medieval Christians?
  • Given the medieval obsession with Christ's humanity, why did the Christmas feast only start to become important in the later Middle Ages?
  • Why did a devotion to the Holy Family develop in the late Middle Ages?
  • Why were saints so extensively portrayed by visual artists in the late Middle Ages?
  • Why was clerical involvement in establishing marriage alliances becoming much more prominent in the late Middle Ages?
  • Why did the mass for the dead become the great vehicle of Christian feelings by the fifteenth century?
  • Why did the doctrine of purgatory become so important in the late Middle Ages?
  • Why was "anger" so central to the moral teachings of the late Middle Ages?
  • Why did confession of sins become an increasingly private affair in the late Middle Ages?
  • Why were those who practiced extreme asceticism, like St. Bernard of Clairvaux or St. Francis of Assisi, so widely admired in the late Middle Ages?
  • Why did late medieval believers consider charity to be the principal end of Christian life?
  • Why did religious fraternities become such an important part of Christian devotional life?
  • Why did fifteenth-century Christians come to see witches as part of a general conspiracy to overthrow Christendom rather than simply as enemies of individual Christians?
  • Why were Jews so hated by late medieval Christians?
  • Why did the views of John Wyclif and Jan Hus have such an appeal in the late Middle Ages?
  • Why did the established Church in the late Middle Ages appear so vulnerable to major heretical movements like those associated with John Wyclif (Lollards) and Jan Hus (Hussites)?
  • Why were the monarchs of the late fifteenth century better able to control affairs in their kingdoms than their predecessors?
  • Why were theological issues of such general concern in the early sixteenth century?
  • Why did the sacrament of penance become so controversial in the fifteenth century?
  • In the Late Middle Ages, why was there increasing criticism of the concept of clerical superiority in religious affairs?
  • Why was the sacrament of Baptism so central to early sixteenth-century religious conflict?
  • Why did Renaissance Humanism become such an important part of European culture between 1400 and 1600?
  • Why did Martin Luther adopt his particular conception of Christianity?
  • Why did Luther's Theology become the focus of a widespread challenge to the traditional church?
  • Why did Luther move to a position of theological innovation and religious disobedience?
  • Why did Martin Luther develop a doctrine of justification by faith as the central point of his theology?
  • Why did Pelagianism become the heretical tendency which most concerned Luther?
  • If a person were justified only by a faith which could be obtained only by God's grace, as Martin Luther claimed, why was he so concerned with undermining the authority of the papacy and the Latin-Rite Church?
  • Why did Luther's reform movement gain such broad support in the Holy Roman Empire?
  • Why did the Lutheran Reformation entail a shrinking of the late medieval expansion of women's opportunities for administrative and spiritual leadership in philanthropic and religious activities?
  • Why was Luther reluctant to advocate the overthrow of political authorities who did not support true religion?
  • Why was there a major uprising of German-speaking peasants in 1524-1525?
  • Why was Erasmus unable to support Luther's reform movement?
  • Why did Luther proclaim Scripture the only source of religious authority?
  • Why did Conrad Grebel break with Zwingli's reform movement?
  • Why were the Lutherans and Zwinglians so hostile to the Anabaptists and Spiritualists?
  • Why did the political authorities fear a pacifist group like the Anabaptists?
  • Why did the doctrine of the "gathered Church," that of the saints on earth, develop in the early sixteenth century?
  • Why was the doctrine of the Holy Ghost or Holy Spirit as preached by Thomas Muntzer and Caspar von Schwenckfeld so appealing to certain early sixteenth-century believers?
  • Why did Luther oppose those opponents of the papacy, like Thomas Muntzer, who wished to follow the commandments of the Holy Spirit?
  • Why did the Spiritualists develop mystical ideas of religious authority?
  • Why did the sixteenth-century Protestant radicals break with the main Lutheran-Zwinglian-Calvinist tradition?
  • Why were liturgy and the territorial church so important to reformers like Luther and Zwingli who did not believe such concerns were related to salvation?
  • Why was sacramental theology such a divisive issue among the Protestant reformers (both magisterial and radical)?
  • Why was Calvinism able to become an international religious movement while other challenges to Catholicism were contained?
  • Why did the spread of Calvinism outside of Switzerland so often lead to violence? Be sure to discuss specific cases.
  • Why did Calvin insist on the importance of discipline in Christian communities?
  • Why was Calvin, who taught the predestined justification by Faith and the irresistibility of Grace, so concerned with Christian discipline?
  • Why did Genevans accept a French immigrant as their religious leader?
  • Why was the marriage of clergymen and nuns such an important issue in the Reformation period?
  • Why did the major Protestant leaders find it so difficult to develop theoretical justifications for resistance to tyranny?
  • Why was the Catholic Church able to retain its religious authority in a significant part of Europe?
  • Why did it take several decades after the outbreak of the Protestant reformation for a Catholic reform movement to become a general feature of the traditional Latin-Rite Church?
  • Why were the Jesuits so important to the Catholic Reformation?
  • Why did Ignatius Loyola insist that the monks of his new Jesuit order respond to their superiors with blind obedience (defined as an "abdication of will and judgment" which looks not to the qualities of the superior)?
  • Why did mysticism emerge as a prominent element of the Catholic Reformation?
  • Why were bishops and cardinals able to lead the movement for Catholic reform after the mid-sixteenth century when these offices had been the source of so much corruption in the Church?
  • Why were women able to play a much more active part in the leadership of the Catholic reform movement than were their sisters in the magisterial Protestant reform?
  • Why was there so much dispute among English Protestants during the reign of Elizabeth I? Be sure to discuss the views of Field and Wilcox in their Admonition and of Hooker.
  • Why did religious instruction (catechism) take on increasing importance in the sixteenth century for the clergy of all branches of Christianity?
  • Why did an emphasis on the Christian family become more pronounced in the 16th century?
  • In the face of efforts by both Protestant and Catholic reformers to assert patriarchal authority, why were some Dutch, English, and French women able to find ways to define the meaning of their own lives? Be sure to discuss the views of Marshall (on the Netherlands), Willen (on England), and Weaver (on France).
  • In what decisive ways was printing responsible for the cultural transformation of Europe between 1450 and 1650?
  • Why were the personality and skill of the monarch important for maintaining peace within Europe's various kingdoms during the Reformation period?
  • Why did the Spanish Inquisition shift from being an institution designed to deal with heretical doctrine to one concerned with people of certain ethnic backgrounds?
  • Why was the thought of Domenico Scandella, or Menocchio, so materialistic?
  • Why were the materialistic ideas of Domenico Scandella, or Menocchio, of such concern to his judges?
  • Why would important Roman Catholic authorities be concerned about a miller from an isolated Friulian hill town like Montereale?
  • Why were the painters of the Netherlands so much better known throughout Europe than those of Spain in the seventeenth century?
  • Why was late sixteenth-century France torn apart by civil wars?
  • Why was the region's ruler confronted by a serious and partially successful revolt in the Netherlands?
  • Why was the Spanish Monarch Philip II the major political arm of the Counter-Reformation?
  • Why were the Spanish Habsburg rulers the major political arm of the Counter-Reformation?
  • Why was Sweden able to play the role of a great power in the seventeenth century?
  • Why were the military and political initiatives of the Emperor Ferdinand II so successful in the 1620s?
  • Why did an ideological conflict present for at least a hundred years finally lead to a general European war only in the 17th century?
  • Why did the political and religious issues which polarized Europeans in the period after 1500 lose their ability to motivate violent conflicts by about 1650?
  • Why did Europeans become so obsessed with the malevolent influence of witches during the Reformation period?
  • Why did a view of the world as a machine supplant in popularity among 17th century scientists its conception as Aristotelian organism or as Hermetic mystery?
  • Why did the Hermetic and similar occult theories become the center of so much speculation about the natural world during the Reformation?
  • Why did the conception of the world as a machine become the dominant form of scientific thought in the seventeenth century?
  • What was the relationship between Ottoman military ambitions and the revolt in the Netherlands? Be specific about the events you discuss.
  • Why were Europeans able to achieve a dominant position in the global economic system which was developing in the sixteenth century?
  • John Bossy argues that in the Middle Ages, the most emphasized of the seven deadly sins were pride, envy, anger, and avarice. In our time, people appear much more concerned with lechery, gluttony, and sloth. Why has such a shift occurred? Concentrate your attention on factors associated with the Reformation.
  • Why was there a change in the concept of "discipline"?
  • Why was there a change in the concept of "charity"?
  • Why was there a "transition from an ethics of solidarity to one of civility" from the fifteenth to the seventeenth century?
  • Why did the meaning of "Christianity" shift from meaning a body of people to meaning a body of beliefs?

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