On October 31, 1517 (now: Reformation Day), world history was written in the small town of Wittenberg, southwest of Berlin. Whether it was Martin Luther himself or one of his associates who hung up the famous 95 theses on the church door, scholars argue. But they were written by the rebellious monk. His critique of the papacy became a torch that eventually divided Christian Europe in the main directions Protestants and Catholics. The split sparked bloody religious wars.
- Who was the reformer Martin Luther?
- What did he stand for? What did he want?
- What effects did the Reformation have?
- What traces of Luther can we see today?
Martin Luther was born on November 10, 1483 in Eisleben , a small village near Wittenberg. The father ran a silver and copper mine, and the family was prosperous. Martin was appointed to take over from his father and was to become a lawyer. He was given a strict upbringing, where the whip was used diligently – something that characterized him for life.
Even as a very young man, it was clear that Marine Luther was uniquely gifted . As a 19-year-old, he was enrolled at the University of Erfurt , one of the leading educational institutions in the German Empire . There he made a lightning career in theology, language, history and philosophy. But his father had decided his career, and in 1505 Martin Luther began his studies in law. But this summer something happened that changed everything:
On the way back to Erfurt after a visit to his parents, Martin Luther was surprised by a violent lightning and thunderstorm. In fear of death, he shouted, “Help me, Santa Anna. I want to be a monk ». And when he returned to the university, he sold the law books and everything he owned and went to a convent.
What Luther experienced in the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt contributed greatly to his critical attitude towards the papacy. “It was a competition in piety and self-pain, with a lot of envy and flattery,” he writes. His stay led him into an abysmal life crisis, where he experienced his place in the church as increasingly meaningless.
2: Faith and grace
A central concept in Luther’s time was purgatory , an “intermediate station” between death and heaven, where people had to make amends for their sins before they could meet God. This was a theological performance with roots dating back to the 5th century, but in the 15th century the church developed a system of ” indulgences “. There the believer could shorten the time in purgatory by paying money to the church, ie buying himself for salvation and forgiveness of sins.
The papacy claimed that when Christ died to save people, he left a treasure, which the church administered. Thus, the church believed that it had the right to “sell salvation” to the believers. But Luther found no evidence for this in the Bible, and he branded indulgences as fraud .
According to the warring monk, only God himself could save a human being. “It does not help to pray, sacrifice, do good deeds or buy indulgences,” he said. And he formulated the most important sentence in his theology, what we today call Protestantism: Sola grazie – sola fide . Only by the grace of God and by faith can one be saved.
3: Wittenberg – the 95 thesene
In 1508, Martin Luther moved to Wittenberg, a village of only about 200 souls. But it grew rapidly. For the Elector of Saxony, Fredrik the Wise , wanted to create a church center and a university town here. Fredrik was the most powerful prince in the German Empire, and he was to gain enormous importance as a supporter of the man who would soon start a revolution.
Fredrik’s closest associate was the great theologian, Johannes von Staupitz , a man who shared Luther’s critical views on developments within the papacy. Staupitz had the task of getting leading intellectuals to move to Wittenberg, and he asked Luther to become a priest in the village. The two became close associates, and Luther was given a special assignment: to travel to the pope’s city, Rome, and speak to the pope.
At this time Luther believed that the indulgence trade was something that was being conducted behind the pope’s back, and he hoped to meet His holiness – the mighty Renaissance pope Julius 2. But his stay in Rome was a disappointment. “I met many ‘believers,’ but little faith,” Luther later wrote. And the pope saw nothing.
His stay in Rome confirmed Martin Luther’s view that the church was on the wrong track, and his criticism became increasingly harsh. He was now 28 years old and rose rapidly in the ranks in Wittenberg. There he became a professor at the university and was already an unusually charismatic and popular preacher, who preached often and happily.
Still, it seemed hopeless to change the papacy. With means of power such as large estates and a lot of money, the ability to ban and the Inquisition seemed invulnerable. Even emperors and kings had felt the power of the pope, and thousands had paid with their lives. One of them was the reformer Jan Hus, who had been burned at the stake in Prague a hundred years earlier. Luther hated the Inquisitors’ henchmen, calling them “pious murderers.”
It was thus a life-threatening enemy Martin Luther opposed, when in October 1517 he wrote 95 so-called theses , which were hung on the door (discussed) of the city’s largest church, the Castle Church. The document was mainly a critique of the indulgence trade, but also of the church’s activities in general. Luther also sent the theses to a number of church leaders.
4: The reception of the theses
The first reaction from the church was silence. But soon the hatred ran out. “Luther’s theses are pure heresy .” declared the indulgent and inquisitor Johann Tetzel , saying that he longed to “see Luther in a heretic hat ascend to heaven.” Luther himself was convinced that he would be burned at the stake.
But at the same time, the theses spread like wildfire among ordinary people in Germany. Several publishers printed the text, and many rejoiced that some named the abuse of God and the church’s abuse of power. In fact, in some places, indulgences began to decline. Luther was given the choice: to deny his opinions, or to be burned at the stake.
The big question is how Luther could survive a battle against such powerful enemies, after thousands had been burned at the stake for far less serious attacks on the papacy.
5: European power game
According to TOPSCHOOLSOFLAW, Europe’s two most powerful men at this time were the pope of Rome and the emperor of the German-Roman Empire. The emperor’s ( Charles 5 ) most important power base was the German Empire, which at this time was a patchwork of large and small principalities . It was the princes who chose the emperor, and some of them were so powerful that even the pope in Rome could not touch them.
The most powerful was Frederick the Wise of Saxony . He supported Luther’s criticism of the papacy and used his power to protect him. When it came to cunning and power play, even the pope and his men had to give in to the prince of Wittenberg.
In October 1518, the Reichstag began in Augsburg , where both the emperor and the pope’s leading representatives were present. The intention was to get Martin Luther to withdraw his criticism of the church, but he refused to bow. Nevertheless, he was allowed to return to Wittenberg, after Fredrik the Wise had received guarantees for his safety from the emperor himself.