Five hundred years ago a theses was printed which forever altered the path of western culture. The theses was the '95' and was written by Martin Luther, Priest, and Professor of Theology at Wittenberg University. The pamphlet set off the Reformation which changed the religious and political landscape of Europe.
The world inhabited by Luther was one of change. The Renaissance movement which had started in the previous century had encouraged a new breed of intellectualism. New continents were discovered, the feudal system was fading and scientific advances had dragged Europe out of the cultural murkiness of the middle ages. Although the scholars and artists looked back to the classical world to influence their value systems, it was a time of rebirth. It was into this world that Martin Luther was able to step.
Luther was horrified by some of the practices of the Roman Catholic church. Priests would sell indulgences to their parishioners in exchange for redemption. In Wittenberg, Francis III had banned the sale of indulgences but people would travel to other areas to buy them. Luther discovered to his great sadness that people believed that indulgences would free them not only from the sin for which it had been written but also from the guilt of the sin. Even more corruptly, indulgences could also be bought for the dead who for a price would be promised a swift exit from purgatory. The deceitful practice led him to write the '95'.
Whether you believe that Martin Luther dramatically nailed a copy of the theses to the church door in Wittenberg or like most scholars believe this was an exaggerated version of events, what is true is that the 95 was a seminal theses. Later in his life, Luther suggested that he never intended to cause controversy. It is difficult to imagine such a learned man being so naïve as to think the 95 would do anything other than tip the first domino of descent.
On October 31st, 1517 Luther sent a letter along with a copy of the 95 to the Archbishop of Mainz. The Archbishop had to raise a considerable amount of money in Germany to help pay for the rebuilding of the Basilica of St Peter in Rome. To help raise the funds he received permission from Pope Leo X to sell special indulgences. Alongside the Archbishop was a friar called Tetzal who had been sent to Germany to raise money from the sale of indulgences again to fund the work to St Peter's. Luther's letter set out a series of scholarly questions about the need for indulgences even going as far as to ask why the pope didn't just pay for the building work himself?
As the Archbishop mulled over Luther's words, the theses slowly spread across Germany. The Gutenberg printing press allowed the pamphlet to be disseminated more quickly than at any other point in history to that date. Within a year copies were found in England and other parts of the world. People began to question the authority of the Roman Catholic church and so was born the Reformation.
Luther was excommunicated and branded as an outlaw. The sentence was that any man could kill him and be free of consequences. He escaped this fate thanks to Francis III who arranged for Luther to be kidnapped and taken to Wartberg castle in Eisenach. During his lengthy stay at the castle, he translated the Latin Bible into German. It was this act that marks Luther as one of German history's, great men because it was through this translation that the German language as we know it today came about. Prior to his translation German was a series of dialects rather than one single language. Martin Luther listened to the common folk and created a bible which could be understood by all Germans. This alone would have been enough to grant Luther a place in the historical halls of fame.
He died of natural causes in 1546. He was a man who believed that each man's salvation depended upon the private relationship between himself and God, he believed that salvation could not be bought. Through his words, the Protestant Reformation swept across Europe. He even touched Henry VIII with his ideas although Henry wrote a response denouncing Luther's words. Martin Luther tried to build a relationship with the English King but was ignored most likely on the advice of Cardinal Wolsey. It was a move that Henry VIII may well have regretted as Luther did not support him a few years later when he sought a divorce. In 1533 Henry VIII broke with Rome which kick-started the English Reformation. One must wonder whether the Lutheran pamphlet Henry had read made that decision an easier one to undertake?
Luther existed at the perfect time to make a change. The printing press allowed him to spread the word at a gentle pace giving it time to gain momentum. The ideas took root and became unstoppable. The Reformation changed the Christian religion yet more than that it freed men. It allowed people to worship in their own way free from the shackles of Rome. Politics had always been intertwined with the church until the reformation. Without Martin Luther, the pilgrim fathers would never have existed. Without Martin Luther, Protestant clergy would not be able to marry. Without Martin Luther, the German language may have been quite different. The ripples of Luther's 95 theses have echoed throughout history.
The Cause & Results of the Reformation – Dr Jack Arnold
Henry VIII Defence of the Seven Sacraments
Martin Luther Catholic Dissident – Peter Stanford