Five hundred years ago, on 31 October, Martin Luther nailed a list of ninety-five theses onto the door of a church in Wittenberg, sparking a reformation not only in his native Germany but within the whole of Christendom. The theses themselves were primarily concerned with the extravagances undertaken by bishops and monks, and the over-exalted position given to the Pope – topics well observed by Luther as he was once an Augustinian monk himself.
he described himself as having lost touch with Christ himself
During that period however, he described himself as having lost touch with Christ himself, and made Jesus “the jailer and hangman of (his) poor soul.” He began to notice discrepancies between the teachings of the Bible and the operations of the then-dominant Catholic Church, namely with the giving and receiving of indulgences. Indulgences were, to save a verbose explanation, a ‘pay-your-way-into-Heaven’ fast track ticket where money and gifts were showered upon the Church in order to gain forgiveness for sins. Luther condemned the faux Christianity practiced by those who would walk by the suffering poor yet give to religious institutions that had plenty, and those whose faith was within the Church rather than within Christ. He claimed that there was no fast track to heaven through good deeds and papal indulgences, but rather through faith in Christ alone. He even dared to criticize the Pope, who at the time was an almost Messianic figure.
He even dared to criticize the Pope, who at the time was an almost Messianic figure
Luther was excommunicated and his theses banned by the Catholic Church in 1521 – yet with notoriety he gained followers. As his speeches gained traction, Luther’s proclamations grew more fervent – declaring the expulsion of Jews from the Holy Roman Empire, and culminating in calling the Pope the Antichrist. Students came from across Germany to hear him speak, and by the following year he and his followers had translated the Bible into German for the public. Luther managed to combine the primary dialects in Germany at the time, Upper and Lower German, and craft a version of the Bible everybody could understand. Theologians today claim Luther helped invent the modern German language – translating the Bible using colloquial turns of phrase, where Jesus spoke as a carpenter speaking to a common fisherman rather than the highbrow Latin that acted as a barrier for the uneducated masses.
Luther wanted every German to be able to access his newly translated Bible, and literacy was heavily promoted so that Germans could read the word of God. This proved to be one of the most effective arguments for reading and literacy levels skyrocketed from the 1520s onwards. Even a modern Germany, especially the formerly Communist (and thus, atheist) East, that has undergone decades of secularisation, is still very much Luther’s Germany. Luther frowned upon gaudy decorations and statues in churches but praised music as a way of bringing Christians together in worship and today Germany has a whopping 130 public orchestras – more than any other country. His adherence to order and discipline is seen in the German work ethic, from the workplace to how religiously separate their recycling.
But it was not just Germany that was affected by Luther. Closer to home, in 1532, Henry VIII separated England from the Catholic Church for personal reasons (read: he wanted a divorce). This English Reformation led to the razing of monasteries and the seizing of treasures that had formerly belonged to monks, as well as Henry declaring himself and every subsequent monarch as head of the English Church. However, apart from moving aside the monks and frowning upon relics here and there, English Protestantism was not much different from the Catholicism it suddenly shunned. With the exception of the short regime of Puritan rulers like Cromwell, Anglicanism still maintained a hierarchal structure with bishops and a head of the church, like Catholicism. Where one would find bare churches with minimal decor in the United States, Anglican churches in the UK are similar to their Catholic predecessors, with ornate decorations and carvings, and even the liturgy and order of service given are similar. The reason for Anglicanism being a watered down, somewhat Lutherised Catholicism lies in Henry VIII’s insistence on a church he could control, as well as subsequent monarchs’ unwillingness to perform too drastic a revolution.
This English Reformation led to the razing of monasteries and the seizing of treasures
Protestantism was properly done in the newly founded United States however, with the majority of the immigrant Pilgrims being strict Puritans. As a result most early settlements revolved around churches and religion and consequently the United States, though secular on paper, relied heavily on the churches. Whilst the Church of England does not interfere too much in politics and sticks to religious matters, religion is still a major way of life in the United States. 65 per cent of Americans say that religion is important to them and no Presidential address goes by without the Commander-in-Chief asking God to bless America. What’s more, Luther’s ideals of hard work can be seen in the early settlers’ intense work ethic. His beliefs about not earning money without working for it later become evident in America’s worship of capitalism, and his emphasis on faith showing in the country’s unwillingness to modernise laws that go against the Bible.
Luther poses a more problematic and complex figure than his legacy might suggest
However Luther poses a more problematic and complex figure than his legacy might suggest. Luther was notoriously vicious about the Jewish population. He demanded “first, set fire to their synagogues or schools … This is to be done in honor of our Lord and of Christendom…”, and proposed “putting a flail, an ax, a hoe, a spade, a distaff, or a spindle into the hands of young, strong Jews and Jewesses and letting them earn their bread in the sweat of their brow” and several other vitriolic proclamations that would have looked more at home in the mouth of Adolf Hitler rather than the spark that started a new branch of Christianity. Indeed, some claim that Hitler’s own opinions as well as the willingness of the German populace to follow such antisemitism was influenced by Luther’s principles. Reinhold Lewin wrote that “whoever wrote against the Jews for whatever reason believed he had the right to justify himself by triumphantly referring to Luther”, and indeed, using religion as a crutch for hate often leaves the listener to believe that what they believe has no counter.
Yet other scholars, such as Roland Bainton assert that Luther’s position was “entirely religious and in no respect racial” in regards to the Jewish population, whilst others claim that one man’s prejudice from four centuries ago should not be held to blame for atrocities that took place in the 20th century. It is also argued that Luther’s criticism of the Jewish people was based purely on their religion’s reliance on the Old Testament and refusal to accept Christ as a savior, quite different to the racial purity theories used by the Nazis. However, radical Protestantism, not necessarily what Luther had intended, and the fervent German culture of the 1940s shared a similar fear of corruption and Others in their pure and clean religion, homeland and race. Whether or not Luther himself had a direct impact on the Nazis and their deeds, it is arguable that his thoughts on non-Christians only solidified xenophobia in the country, influencing the turn from religious to racial hatred.
Five hundred years on, Protestantism is the primary religion of both the United States and the United Kingdom
Despite these stains on his legacy, statues of Luther today are depicted as hale, strong men with large bellies and of tremendous size. A world away from frail Catholic martyrs, statues of Luther show him as living, a man and a hero rather than a ghost to be worshipped like a saint. Five hundred years on, Protestantism is the primary religion of both the United States and the United Kingdom – with even that being split into several denominations such as the Pentecostals, the Evangelicals, the Methodists, and several dozen more, all sharing the same reliance on faith for final justification, and rejection of indulgences given to churches.
It is remarkable that Luther’s proclamations on a door in Wittenberg had such an effect on a country that did not even exist at that time. Germany was shaped by that event 500 years ago, for better and for worse. And so the world with it. As Protestants across the globe remember the reformation today, they reflect on how the son of a copper miner came to revolutionise the way we see the world.