No conversation can begin with the word or phrase religious reformation, protestant, peasant rebellion, crusades, or even holocaust without owing a debt to one man, that man’s name is Martin Luther. The ideas of this one man began to change the religious, political and social norms of the 16th century and continue to unto this vary day. He may be the singular most important figure in Western religious culture to this day. Unlike many historical figures that came from prosperous families or nobility which then rose to power themselves, Martin Luther was proud of having been born to a low income family.
He was once quoted as proudly calling himself “the son of a peasant. ” He was also fond of writing in his earthly German even though his Latin was also very powerful. (1) This would become a focal point of Luther’s career. No matter to what elevation he would raise to, he never considered himself a reformer but a man of the people. Hence most of his writing was written in German to gain a wider audience. Also unlike many peasants of his time Luther would go on to be college educated. In 1505 he would graduate from Erfurt College with a degree in liberal arts.
On his way back to Erfurt he was caught in a thunderstorm and vowed to St. Anne (Patron saint of miners) that if she saved him he would become a monk. Despite his father’s opposition, Luther joined the Augustine friars, an elite order both socially and intellectually. (2) During his time with the monks Luther became obsessed with the delusion that he was jaded in the eyes of God. No form of penance was too extreme and he rigorously sought after every form of spiritual discipline and purity, all to no avail.
No matter how persistent he was in his endeavors, he never felt justified in Gods eyes. Always the sinner and never the saint Luther began to search the Bible and the Church rigorously for answers. In 1510 Luther embarked on a journey to Rome with another of the friars regarding business of the order. Much like pilgrims to this day, he ascended the Scala Sancta to free his grandfather from purgatory. Luther’s later reflections of Rome were not that of an enraptured saint but of a devout but disgusted religious man.
Not only was the city riddled with prostitutes, debauchery, and abundant vanity but it was also a very spiritual devoid place for him. Even the Italian priests would change the words of the mass to mock the transubstantiation in Latin. (3) Luther would eventually take his Doctorate on October 19th, 1512. He received the fifty gulden from Elector Frederick the Wise with the condition that he would remain as professor of biblical studies for the rest of his life. (4) During his subsequent years as an instructor he wrote several lectures on books of the bible including The Psalms, Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews.
During this time he also began to solidify what would later become his core beliefs of religious matters such as “Sola Scriptura” as it would later come to be known. Luther’s first real difficulties began with his defiance to the sale of indulgences. The Catholic Church would sell special parchments that allowed for the remission of past, present or even future sins. Luther and his followers would later come to label this the “sale” of indulgences while the Catholic priests would label it as the “granting” of indulgences. Here in lied a fundamental difference between Luther and the powerful institution of the Catholic Church.
The Church had come to rely on tradition and Luther believed that the Church should be subject to the scriptures. Hence, his theory that scripture should interpret scripture and the Church should not interpret scripture was born. This would become the battle cry of the soon to come Protestant Church. On October 31st, 1517, Luther first came onto the scene that would inevitably thrust him into a world of controversy. In his first attack on the Catholic Churches policies, he nailed his 95 thesis to the door of the castle church at Wittenberg.
He would write that it was to “preach human doctrines” to claim that a soul flew from purgatory at the moment a coin fell into the coffer. (5) His cry was not new per say but was just recently brought to light. His action, as such, was neither unprecedented nor revolutionary; but coming when it did, it raised ultimate and unavoidable questions as to the character and meaning of the Christian religion, and so led to that crisis which released the pent-up forces of reform. (6) Of course the Catholic Church would not let this offense pass by unanswered.
They would soon send Johann Eck, a professor of Theology and the most gifted controversialist of the day to answer Luther’s criticisms. Eck was brilliant in his investigation with Luther and made him ultimately voice his convictions aloud as Luther confesses “A simple layman armed with Scripture is to be believed above a pope or council without it. . . For the sake of Scripture we should reject pope and councils. ” Prior to Luther confession, Scripture alone had never been advocated. This was the hallmark of what would become the Protestant reformation.
Luther became more and more emboldened as he gained support of the common man and nobility within his native land of Germany. The Catholic Church became so infuriated with his behavior that in June of 1520, they decreed a papal bull that condemned forty-one of Luther’s propositions as heretical and ordered the faithful to burn all his books and pamphlets. Luther himself was given two months to recant or be excommunicated. Luther’s support in Germany had grown so strong by this point that Eck found it difficult to print the bull in Germany.
Luther’s response to the papal bull was public and well-staged. Luther ceremoniously burned the books of canon law, papal decretals, and a copy of the papal bull on a bonfire in the meadow that ran to the river Elbe from the walls of Wittenberg. He watched them turn into ashes and walked away. (7) Soon after a Swiss printer, (Johann Froben) wrote to Luther reporting heavy demand for his books from Spain, France and Italy. His books would soon spread all across Europe. Luther was not alone in his fight however.
In 1520 when the papal bull was issued that excommunicated Luther and called for the authorities of the land to arrest him they failed to act. The Churches demands had proven to fall upon deaf ears. When the local authorities failed to respond to the papal bull the edict went out to put Luther under the ban of the Empire. The elector of the University and the princes of Germany failed to do anything to implement it. When Frederick (University Elector) passed away in 1524, his brother John, who continued to protect Luther also ignored the papal bull.
In 1530, when the Diet of Augsberg ordered a restoration of the traditional Church throughout the Empire and threatened all who refused to obey with force, the Elector John refused to obey the order and joined with other princes in the formation of what was in effect a league of Protestant rulers. Thus, Luther’s religious work was supported by the political rulers who were themselves asserting their own independence from the authority of the Church and the Empire. (8) Luther would prove to only be popular with the ruling nobility but also with the peasants as well.
Often times his literature was mistaken for other purposes. During the early reformation the biggest revolt was not the Knights war but the Peasants rebellion. Luther wrote “Authority of Princes” with the intent of showing that the scriptures limited the power of Monarchs but it was not used for this purpose. The rebellion was directed against attempts by money-poor lords, lay and ecclesiastical, to increase manorial dues. It lacked coordination and effective military organization and was cruelly put down. It’s estimated that as many as one hundred thousand peasants were killed during the revolt.
The rebellion centered not in the East where serfdom was most complete but occurred in the south and southwest, where the peasantries were beginning to become free landowning farmers. (9)This may have been why Luther chose to side with the princes and vehemently condemned the uprising. Luther’s trip to Rome would have a lasting effect on pilgrimages to various holy sites as well which would affect the income of the Church. While he was there he asked “Is it true? ” “It” meant not the promise of God in the gospel but the whole ordered system of the Western church as dispenser or withholder of grace. 10) Although the reformation took a toll on this lucrative trade it did far more damage on indulgences. The imaginary pilgrimages showed no sign of dying. (11) Luther’s lasting influence can be greatly felt throughout several larger incidents in history however. The repercussions of his anti-Semitism are still felt unto this very day. Luther knew very few Jews personally, for few Jews remained in Germany to be known. A successive wave of persecution in the German lands had driven Jews towards the east. Persecution was especially high in the wake of the Black Death, when Jews were accused of poisoning wells to spread the disease.
At the onset Luther implemented a campaign to convert all Jews to Christians, when he failed to do so; he became very embittered towards them. His fury culminated in his vicious book in 1543 entitled, On the Jews and Their Lies. After dozens of pages of attacking the Jews he made a recommendation of how to deal with them, “Their synagogues should be burned down; their books should be taken from them, not leaving them one leaf; they should be forbidden on pain of death to praise God within our hearing. ” All of this from a man who’s books were recently condemned to the fire as well.
He went on to say that Christians for three hundred years after the crucifixion of Christ are guilty of not having “striking them to death” for their offense. (12) These cries would reverberate through the first crusades and the holocaust. During the first crusades many of the “Soldiers” were mere peasant farmers who were too poor to buy the necessary gear for war that many knights owned. However, the appeal of their sins being washed away for fighting in the name of God proved to be irresistible to many. Many of these farmers set out for the holy land with farm implement in hand but never arrived at their destination.
When they lacked the resources to support their militaristic endeavors and maintain their small estates they were often forced to return to their homes. Often times killing Jews who did not share the same religious views would seem just as appropriate as killing Muslims in Jesus name to these would be crusaders. Hence on their way home many peasants killed masses of Jews along their return routes. Essentially taking Luther’s advice and disposing of those who refused to convert. Due to the rapid advance of Luther’s new doctrine the Roman inquisition was implemented in 1542 by Pope John Paul III.
This new inquisition was initiated in order to dull the rise of Protestantism and return believers to the Catholic Church. The true architect of the papal bull behind this new inquisition was Cardinal Giovanni Pietro Carafa. For his efforts he was later elevated to Pope John Paul IV. This inquisition forced Jews of Rome to wear special colors, sent hundreds of convicted heretics to the stake, discontinued Michelangelo’s pension and even caught up Galileo in the process. The inquisition reached to a variety of aspects or religious and daily life that may never be fully realized. 13) Martin Luther’s most ghastly contribution in history would prove to be his unknowing contribution to the holocaust of the twentieth century. Although he was not an active participant his writings and ideas helped sow the seeds of anti-Semitism in Germany that would later be fanned to justify the extermination of the Jews. Hundreds of years after his death, Luther was still being quoted as a reliable source for the promotion of the persecution of this people group. Hitler himself was frequently known for quoting Luther in his speeches as a religious authority of the evils the Jews caused.
This helped the crime seem more believable to the people of Germany. (14) However, not all of Luther’s lasting legacies are of evil. His followers which came to be known as the “Lutherans” recanted his later works including those of an anti-Semitic nature. They went on to found some of the largest denominations in the world on many continents. In the United States alone there are eight varying Lutheran denominations which contribute to the well-being of people all around the world. (15) These are only the denominations which affiliate hemselves with being directly linked to the views of Martin Luther. However, it would prove to be a daunting task to attempt to trace, or count all of the denominations across the world that have been effected by Luther’s religious ideas or the Protestant reformation. Not only has religion been affected, the formulation of politics, allegiances, and the founding of countries such as our own have been effected due to his actions. Without the arrival of Martin Luther and his boldness much of the Western world may have remained Catholic and the world may have been a much different place.
End Notes 1. Moynahan, Brian. “”By Faith Alone”: Printing and Protestants. ” The Faith: A History of Christianity. New York: Doubleday, 2002. 347. Print. 2. Winks, Robin W. “The Protestant Reformation. ” A History of Civilization: Prehistory to the Present. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1988. 314. Print. 3. Kling, David William. “”The Righteous Will Live by Faith”: Luther’s Search for a Gracious God. ” The Bible in History: How the Texts Have shaped the times. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004. 129. Print. 4. Marius, Richard. “Rome and Wittenberg. Martin Luther: The Christian between God and Death. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard UP, 1999. 84. Print. 5. Moynahan, Brian. “”By Faith Alone”: Printing and Protestants. ” The Faith: A History of Christianity. New York: Doubleday, 2002. 349. Print. 6. Whale, J. S. “Chapter 1 The Historical Problem. ” The Protestant Tradition; an Essay in Interpretation,. Cambridge [Eng. : University, 1955. 3. Print. 7. Moynahan, Brian. “”By Faith Alone”: Printing and Protestants. ” The Faith: A History of Christianity. New York: Doubleday, 2002. 351. Print. 8. Dunstan, J.
Leslie. “Chapter 2. ” Protestantism, Great Religions of the World. New York: Washington Square, 1961. 38. Print. 9. Winks, Robin W. “The Protestant Reformation. ” A History of Civilization: Prehistory to the Present. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1988. 319. Print. 10. Marty, Martin E. “Chapter 5. ” The Christian World: A Global History. New York: Modern Library, 2007. 114. Print. 11. Sumption, Jonathan. “Chapter 16. ” The Age of Pilgrimage: The Medieval Journey to God. Mahwah, NJ: Hidden Spring, 2010. 437. Print. 12. Marius, Richard. “Chapter 22. Martin Luther: The Christian between God and Death. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard UP, 1999. 378. Print. 13. Murphy, Cullen. “Chapter 4. ” God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012. 103-42. Print. 14. Walker, Jim. “Martin Luther’s Dirty Little Book. ” Martin Luther’s Dirty Little Book. Nobeliefs. com, 7th Aug. 1996. Web. 09 Mar. 2013. 15. Mead, Frank S. , Samuel S. Hill, and Craig D. Atwood. “Lutheran Churches. ” Handbook of Denominations in the United States. Nashville: Abingdon, 2001. 203-13. Print.
Dunstan, J. Leslie. “Chapter 2.” Protestantism, Great Religions of the World. New York: Washington Square, 1961. Print. Kling, David William. “”The Righteous Will Live by Faith”: Luther’s Search for a Gracious God.” The Bible in History: How the Texts Have Shaped the times. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004. Print. Marius, Richard. “Chapter 22.” Martin Luther: The Christian between God and Death. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard UP, 1999. Print. Marty, Martin E. “Chapter 5.” The Christian World: A Global History. New York: Modern Library, 2007. Print. Mead, Frank S., Samuel S. Hill, and Craig D. Atwood. “Lutheran Churches.” Handbook of Denominations in the United States. Nashville: Abingdon, 2001. Print. Moynahan, Brian. “”By Faith Alone”: Printing and Protestants.” The Faith: A History of Christianity. New York: Doubleday, 2002. Print. Murphy, Cullen. “Chapter 4.” God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012. Print. Sumption, Jonathan. “Chapter 16.” The Age of Pilgrimage: The Medieval Journey to God. Mahwah, NJ: HiddenSpring, 2010. Print. Walker, Jim. “Martin Luther’s Dirty Little Book.” Martin Luther’s Dirty Little Book. Nobeliefs.com, 7th Aug. 1996. Web. 09 Mar. 2013. Whale, J. S. “Chapter 1 The Historical Problem.” The Protestant Tradition; an Essay in Interpretation,. Cambridge [Eng.: University, 1955. Print.