European Exploration, or the Age of Exploration, was a period from the early 15th century to the early 17th century, during which Europeans extensively explored distant lands.

On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther sent his “95 Theses” to the Archbishop of Mainz and likely nailed it on the door of the All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany kicking off the Protestant Reformation.

Both these events are seminal events of the Renaissance. But how did the Reformation influence European exploration? What is the connection between these events?

Let’s explore!

How did the Reformation influence European Exploration?

The Protestant Reformation and European Exploration stem from the same set of societal changes that took place at the end of the Middle Ages and the start of the Renaissance. So the two events are connected because they share the same antecedents.

These antecedents include the rejection of religious dogma and the support of Humanism. The Reformation have monarchs the opportunity to loosen or even sever bonds with the Catholic Church. For instance, northern German kingdoms like Prussia made Lutheranism their official religion.

In England, the Renaissance ideas reached late. At first, Henry VIII, raised a devout Catholic, resisted the idea of change. But when the Pope wouldn’t permit him to divorce Catherine of Aragon so that he could marry his mistress Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII split from the Catholic Church.

Let’s now analyze these antecedents and try to understand the influence of the Reformation on European Exploration.

How the Rejection of Religious Dogma led to Exploration

A key tenet of the Reformation was the rejection of religious dogma and blind faith. Reformists wanted to be free of the intense religious control that had been exercised over society through the Middle Ages.

This led to a rise in scientific thought, experimentation, and questioning of the world around them, which suddenly became possible during the Renaissance. This questioning of how and why the world worked kindled a desire to travel and explore this world.

How did the Reformation influence European exploration
Martin Luther – A key proponent of the Protestant Reformation
(Image Source)

In this way Reformation, through a change in thinking and attitude influenced European exploration. But, ironically, one of the effects of European exploration was the export of Christianity and its imposition on colonized people at the same time that Europe was experiencing its greatest liberty from religion.

How Renaissance Humanism led to Exploration

The underlying philosophy of the Renaissance was Humanism. Humanism was a reaction against the Church-mandated scholasticism and its dogma-heavy approach to learning. Key reformists like Martin Luther and John Calvin were humanists.

Instead, Renaissance Humanism advocated a revival of classical learning and education based on developing knowledge through empirical observation, questioning ideas, and discovering how things really worked.

This attitude of discovery, of seeking out how the world works on your own terms, was a key driver behind the European exploration of distant lands.

How the Religious Race led to Exploration

One of the most fundamental ways in which the Renaissance impacted the Catholic Church was through the Protestant Reformation and the splitting of Christianity. This schism set off a religious race – at least in the mind of the Roman Catholic Church – to spread the religion around the world.

Missionaries who accompanied explorers set up religious orders like the Jesuits and Dominicans. These orders spread the Church’s teachings and worked on converting people to Christianity.

Monarchs were equally supportive of exploration for different reasons, including spreading Christianity on the coattails of European Exploration. For instance, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, dubbed the “Catholic monarchs” by their peers, openly supported the missionaries and their mission to spread Catholicism around the world.

In this way, Reformation indirectly drove the Catholic Church (and monarchs) to back European Exploration.

How the Need for New Trade Routes and Markets Led to Exploration

This was also a time of intense competition between European nations. With the opening of new trade routes, these nations sought to gain an economic advantage through exploration and colonization. The race to the new world was on.

The discovery of North America by Christopher Columbus, for instance, opened up the possibility of establishing new trading posts, with access to lucrative markets. The desire to be first in gaining a foothold in these new markets drove the impetus for exploration.

Spain would send explorers to both Americas and would eventually set up trading posts and establish new colonies in the Caribbean, Central America and South America. the French, English and Dutch would grab lands in North America. In New England, English protestants – the puritans – would make settlements.

Just as the race for the new world in the West heated up the old riches of the East also beckoned European explorers and monarchs alike.

In the year 1600, Queen Elizabeth I of England signed the charter setting up what would begin the British East India Company. Its original intent was to challenge Spanish dominance of the seas and trading routes as well as break Holland’s monopoly on the spice trade. The British East India Company would later be instrumental in securing the British Empire in India.

In this way, Reformation indirectly drove the Catholic Church (and monarchs) to back European Exploration.


The Reformation and European exploration can be seen as parallel events emanating from the same set of societal changes triggered by the Renaissance. Yet one influenced the other. So, how did the Reformation influence European exploration?

We answered this question by reviewing three points of intersection between these events. First, we saw how Reformation led to the rejection of religious dogma and a rise in scientific thought, experimentation, and questioning. In turn, this led to a curiosity about the world and then its exploration.

Next, we saw how the Reformation based on the philosophy of Humanism revived classical learning and education and created an environment that fostered European exploration. Finally, we saw how the schism between Catholicism and Protestantism set off a religious race to spread their respective religions around the world.