Martin Luther and Reformation Day

     On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther performed one of the most courageous acts of a church man in the Sixteenth Century.  He nailed a protest, his 95 theses, to the door of the Wittenberg Church.  His act directly challenged Papal authority and the practices of indulgences.  Historically, it is often seen as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.


Martin Luther as a Monk with Tonsure

     Martin Luther was a Catholic priest and monk, who at the time of his act was a distinguished theologian in Wittenberg.  Born on November 10, 1883, Luther was almost 34, when he performed this daring act.  He was risking excommunication and execution by taking this stand.

     Luther took a pilgrimage to Rome in between 1505 and 1508.  He was appalled by some of the practices he saw particularly the granting of indulgences, written remissions of sin normally bought with money,  Luther did not believe the purchase of indulgences for yourself or relatives could grant absolution, the forgiveness of sins.  He felt only repentance to Christ could cause sins to be forgiven.

     In 1508, he traveled to the newly formed University of Wittenberg to teach theology.  He obtained his Doctor of Theology in 1512.  Luther was immersed in teaching his students and tending his parish in Wittenberg, when his parishioners began bringing him stories about purchasing indulgences.

     Pope Leo X wanted to renovate St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, so he sent clergy and laity out to sell indulgences as a way to raise the funds.  This practice called simony is banned by the Church today.  Johann Tetzel, a Dominican priest, came to Wittenberg in 1516.  Tetzel told poor believers that once the coin hit the coin box, the soul was released in heaven.


Painting of Martin Luther from 1523 – Courtesy of the Public Domain

     Luther soon learned of Tetzel’s aggressive sales technique.  His answer was the Ninety-Five Theses, a protest about indulgences initially addressed to his bishop, Albert of Mainz.  Pope Leo X soon found out about Luther’s protest and issued an interdict telling him to recant or face excommunication.  Luther refused and was ex-communicated.

     Pope Leo X using his influence with the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V summoned Luther to the Diet of Worms.  After a five day trial, Luther was declared an outlaw.  Any German citizen could murder him without penalty.  Charles V did not have him seized though because he was not powerful enough to command the German princes.  The Wittenberg prince Frederick III of Saxony made it clear Luther would not be harmed.

     Luther lived in exile in the Warburg Castle for the rest of 1521 and early 1522.  Once Pope Leo X died in December 1521, the furor died down and Luther returned to his duties at Wittenberg.  However, he could not be considered Catholic anymore.  Eventually, Luther and his followers would be called Lutherans.  It would become the dominant church in Germany and one of the first Protestant churches to form.

     Luther died at 62 years of age on February 18, 1546.  He was married and had six children.  His act of courage had unintended consequences, however.  Sola Scriptura or “Scripture alone” became one of the tenents of most Protestant Churches.  Without an authority to interpret Scripture, the Protestant Church continued to split into different factions.  Today, thousands of Protestant Churches exits.

     The Catholic Church went through its own reform and reinforced the ban on such practices as simony. However, after Luther was able to successfully challenge the authority of the Church, the Pandora’s Box was opened and led to many others falling away.

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