Great reformers of society, religion and politics. Biography
A selection of great reformers. People who have reformed existing parts of society, mainly in the field of politics and religion
Buddha (c 560BC – c 460BC) Siddhartha was a privileged Indian Prince , who gained spiritual enlightenment. The Buddha became a noted spiritual teacher offering a new direction for Indian and Asian spirituality. The Buddha’s approach overturned the caste distinction of Hinduism and moved religious practise away from the worship of Gods to focus more on the inner quest for self-enlightenment.
Confucius (551 BC – ) Chinese sage who was an influential philosopher and writer. Confucius advocated a revival of the ordered society of ancient China. He also encouraged a meritocracy where people gained their position by merit, rather birth. His writings helped to reform Chinese governance and provide support for a strong state governed by a set of codified laws and precepts.
Jesus Christ (0 AD – 32 AD) – During his lifetime, Jesus Christ was viewed as a radical spiritual teacher, who challenged many of the old religious customs and teachings. He sought to introduce new ideas and values, emphasising the importance of love, forgiveness and charity and away from a dry rigidity of old customs. Wether he intended to reform Judaism or start a new religion is perhaps not certain, but his teachings and personality created a very powerful new religious movement.
Muhammad (570-632) Muhammad was considered a prophet of God, who revealed revelations of God, though the Qu’ran. Through both religious teachings and strength of personality, he shaped Arab culture, religion and politics, leading to the demise of the old polytheistic religions and bringing in a new monotheistic religion, which was more effective in uniting Arabia in common purpose.
King Alfred (849 – 899) (King 871 – 899) Alfred was King of Wessex during a period of frequent Viking invasions. Previously England had struggled to defend against Viking attacks, but Alfred reorganised the military to put the national interest above smaller landlords. He also instituted a more efficient administration, which improved transport, communication and education. Through his military and civil reforms, he helped build national unity and strengthened the concept of England.
Guru Nanak (1469-1539) Spiritual Guru and founder of Sikhism. Nanak was born in a Hindu family but taught God was beyond religious distinction and sought to teach that God was in all.
Martin Luther (1483-1546) – Sought to reform the Roman Catholic Church which he felt had been corrupted and lost its original focus. Luther wrote 95 theses of complaints against the church. He hoped the Catholic church would reform, but when he was met with resistance, it led to the Reformation and development of Protestant Churches who reformed Christianity by emphasizing the primacy of religious texts.
A kbar (1542 – 1605) The Great Moghul Emperor who united India and became a beacon for religious tolerance. Akbar was a Muslim ruler who took great interest in all aspects of his government and introduced laws which were enlightened and progressive for his time. He abolished a tax on Hindus and encouraged religious tolerance. He also reformed government departments, encouraging the promotion of people on merit rather than patronage.
Peter the Great (1672 – 1725) Tsar of all Russia (1682 – 1721) and Emperor of All Russia (1721-1735). Through successful wars, Peter the Great, expanded the Russian empire and shaped modern Russia. He wished Russia to modernise and implement new western ideas. He led the reformation of the Russian state to encourage education, arts, literacy and greater openness with western Europe. He brought aspects of the Enlightenment to Russia and changed the direction of the country.
Catherine the Great (1729-1796) – One of the greatest political leaders of the Eighteenth Century. Catherine the Great was said to have played an important role in improving the welfare of the Russian serfs. In 1767 she attempted to introduce a new set of liberal laws which would modernise aspects of Russia. This was blocked, and earlier reforming spirit became more conservative as she grew older. But, she still oversaw a partial reform of Russian society, continuing the trend set by Peter the Great.
Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) Founding Father and principal author of The Declaration of Independence (1776). Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers wished to change the dominant form of political governance from monarchy to Republican democracy. The declaration of Independence gave a universal appeal to the local struggle for independence. Jefferson also introduced a law on religious tolerance in Virginia and attempted to curb the slave trade and the growth of slavery in the US.
Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) During the American civil war, Lincoln saw an opportunity to abolish slavery – an issue that had divided America. First, with the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, and later with the 13th Amendment (1865) Lincoln enabled the end of slavery in the US. His wartime leadership and speeches also helped give a renewed belief in American democracy and republican government.
Theodore Roosevelt (1858 – 1919) President (1901-09) Roosevelt was a leading political figure of the Progressive Era – fighting corruption and the power of monopoly trusts, such as Rockefeller. As President, he challenged corruption in local and national governments and took on the powerful trusts or monopolies. He also created the first American Natural Parks and pursued a more activist US foreign policy, building up the navy.
Mahatma Gandhi (1869 – 1948) – Indian nationalist and politician. Gandhi primarily strove for independence for India. He was also a reformer of Indian society, wishing to end discrimination against the untouchable caste and women – especially widows. Gandhi also strove to make India less dependent on foreign powers.
Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882 – 1945) – US President 1932 – 1945. The longest serving US President, Roosevelt came to power during the crisis of the 1932 recession. He expanded federal government to deal with the crisis and oversaw the US entry into the Second World War. The expansion of the federal government in the 1930s was never reversed, fundamentally changing the nature of US federal government.
Lyndon Johnson (1908 – 1973) – US President 1963-69. In 1963, Johnson took over from the assassinated JFK and sought to implement the reforms that JFK was considering. These included two landmark reforms for US society. Firstly civil rights legislation which sought to end legal discrimination and secondly an expansion of Federal welfare programmes such as poverty relief and access to health care.
Mikhail Gorbachev (1931 – ) As President of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev had the great power of being head of state in a dictatorship. However, he initiated reforms of the Communist system that he called glasnost and perestroika. These policies aimed at economic and politcal liberalisation and openess. He reduced barriers on freedom of speech and allowed the beginnings of market reforms. He also sought to reduce the number of nuclear arms and helped to end the Cold War. Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990.
Lech Walesa (1943-) Leader of Polish Solidarity Movement had helped to bring about the end of one-party Communist rule in Poland. Became the first non-Communist President in 1991. Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983.
Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “Great Reformers”, Oxford, UK. www.biographyonline.net Published 2 July 2019.
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