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Martin Luther & the Protestant Reformation

A Monk Named Martin


In the 1500s, quite a few people had been griping about how corrupt the Church had become. Corrupt priests would sometimes threaten ignorant peasants with eternal hell if they did not make a special contribution (eh hem, donation) to the church.

Certain higher-ups like Bishops and Cardinals (and most certainly the pope himself) were living a life of fabulous luxury. The rich and powerful clergymen lived in private palaces fully stocked with servants and a cellar full of expensive wines.


While the clergy was flaunting their wealth and power the poor lived in poverty so severe that feeding their families was a daily struggle. All of this flew in the face of the teachings of Christ; blessed are the poor in spirit and meek and some early reformers were not afraid to speak up.


As if all of this wealth wasn't bad enough certain bishops even went so far as to have mistresses (priests were supposed to be celibate after all) and openly visited prostitutes.

Those who openly complained of such abuses were often labeled as being heretics (enemies of the church). Those who complained really loudly were killed in some pretty nasty ways like being burned alive.


Then in the 1500's, during the height of the Renaissance, in comes Martin Luther, a simple German monk who preached in the German state of Saxony. Luther came from humble origins. His father was a peasant miner but worked his way up to own a few small mines himself. With this extra income, Luther's father sent young Martin to school.



In 1501, his father packed Martin up and shipped him off to attend the University of Erfurt, one of the few universities that also taught humanist ideas. Luther's only real options were law or religion. His father chose law, Luther chose religion. His father wasn't fond of priests and you might say that he was less than thrilled when he heard of his son's decision to drop out of law school and become a monk. His father was probably even less thrilled to learn the reason behind Martin's decision. Luther had been caught in a violent thunderstorm and was so scared of dying that he made a promise to become a monk if he survived. He did and so he did.

However, Luther, like many other simple priests began to have some doubts about the teachings of the Catholic Church. Especially the whole salvation through good works part. The Catholic Church taught that people could get to heaven by doing good works like charity, helping the sick, or making a donation to the church. Luther thought this was just a way to scare poor people out of his money and so he turned to the Bible to support his beliefs.

The more Luther read the Bible the more he became convinced that salvation came not from visiting relics, but from faith in Christ and God. One particular Bible verse, Romans 1:17 seemed to jump out at him.


"For it is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, 'The just shall live through faith."


To Luther, the Bible was clear. Only faith would buy you a ticket to heaven. The rest of what the Church taught was wrong. This new view became known as justification through faith.

Christianity in the year 1500
Pope's Behaving Badly
Pope Benedict IX
There are a number of really bad pope's in history. Benedict is one of the worst. Not only did his use the church treaury as his personal slush fund he had his enemies tortured, flayed alive, and burnt.
St. Damian once called him "a demon from hell in the disguise of a priest."
"The Church needs a reformation. And this cannot be the work either of a single man, as the pope - but it must be that of the whole world"
- Martin Luther 


The 95 Theses

On October 31, 1517. Luther spent his Halloween hunched over his writing desk drafting a simple list of his 95 favorite objections against the Catholic Church-and nailing them to the door of the university church in Wittenberg (a large town not far from where Luther lived).

It would take a really long time going through all of them, so we'll give you the Cliff Notes version of the 95 Theses instead:

  1. There's nothing in the Bible about indulgences
  2. Indulgences cant save your soul
  3. Even if an indulgence could save your soul the Pope shouldn't be charging people for it.
  4. The Pope needs to give everyone a refund who bought an indulgence for a dead relative.

Just as a side note. To a modern reader nailing messages to the door of a public building might sound like a really revolutionary act. Imagine if we went around nailing our objections on the door of Congress (on second thought it might get their attention). But, in Luther's day, this was a rather common way to call a public debate. Luther was not trying to take on the Pope or the power of the Church; his aim was just to get a little discussion going. As a final touch, Luther mailed a copy to the Archbishop of Mainz and even posted a copy to the Pope himself.



What Luther had come to realize was that everything the Church taught was built on people needing priests to interpret the Bible for them. Luther believed that people could find God and salivation just by reading the Bible. The only problem was, most people couldn't read Latin (much less than own language) nor could they understand what was being said aside from a few memorized prayers that they had been reciting all of their lives. Luther used the power of the printing press, which had become available to Europeans in 1450 thanks to another German named Johann Gutenberg. After posting his 95 theses to the cathedral door in Wittenberg his friends raced to the printing presses to spread his message.

Before the printing press, the Church would have been able to quickly and quietly get rid of these heretic teachings. In fact, they probably would have been totally ignored had his 95 Theses not been translated into German and printed for everyone to read.

Luther was passionate about spreading the Bible to the common person. One of his reforms suggested that the Bible be translated from Latin to the language of the local people. Luther set out to do just that: be the first person to translate the Bible into German.


Now that the protestant cat was out of the bag, there was no turning back. The power of the printing press made certain that everyone had heard about Luther's challenge to the Catholic Church. What Luther hoped for was to bring about a few changes and end the practice of indulgences. What he got was a showdown with the Pope and all of the powers of Europe


A Penny for Your Soul

Luther's biggest beef with the Catholic Church was the practice of selling indulgences. The way an indulgence worked was similar to "a get out of jail free" card in a game of Monopoly. 

After a person dies their eternal soul either went to Heaven (if you were really good) Hell (if you were really bad) or Purgatory (if you were somewhere in between). Most people fell into this third category where your soul waited in purgatory until your sins had been fully wiped away and you were ready to enter the Pearly Gates.


The thought of being stuck in purgatory for hundreds of years was almost as scary as being sent straight to Hell. However, the Church had a solution. You could visit relics or buy a piece of paper called an indulgence to knock off a few years that one of your dead relatives had to spend in limbo.

To Luther and others who agreed with him, the Pope was peddling snake oil. Luther could find no mention of indulgences in the Bible and therefore, criticized the Church for selling them to naïve people. The worst abuser of the indulgence system was a man named Johann Tetzel- an experienced salesman and member of the clergy. Teztel really got on Luther's bad side when he came around to Luther's church trying to sell indulgences. Luther drove him off but Teztel set up shop in a town nearby.


With catchy slogans like "As soon as a coin in the coffer rings / the soul from purgatory springs", Tetzel really knew how to work the  crowd. He would have made a great door-to-door salesman had he been born today. Tetzel preyed on the people's fear for the souls of their dead loved ones and the gold coins came pouring in. Where did all this money go? The building of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, a project the Pope was eager to see completed.


The Showdown Begins 

Pope Leo X (the 10th) probably should have paid more attention to what was going down in Germany. Instead, he was busy overseeing the construction of his pet project, St. Peter's Basilica to take much notice of the complaints of a simple priest.

Meanwhile, Martin  Luther was just getting warmed up. A debate on justification through faith might seem like a real snore-fest but Luther was a dynamic speaker who touched a topic close to the hearts of many Germans, the abuses of the Catholic Church.


The debate lasted 18 days (talk about overtime) and Luther argued with Church scholars on everything from the sale of indulgences, to the existence of purgatory, to the authority of the Pope himself. Luther's main argument was that salvation lay with the Bible, not the Pope.  Luther became very popular throughout Renaissance Germany.

In June 1520, Pope Leo X had had enough and issued a Papal Bull ( a formal decree) criticizing Luther and condemning him as a heretic. Luther was stripped of his title as a Catholic priest and excommunicated from the Church. In those days being excommunicated meant that you were an outlaw (literally not in communication) of the Church. Without being able to receive the sacraments or confession your soul was as good as damned. The Pope ordered that Luther's writings be collected (as many as he could find anyhow and publicly burned). Not to be outdone, Luther publicly burned the Pope's, Papal Bull.


In April of 1520, Luther was summoned to appear before the Diet of Worms-- which has nothing to do with a gross method of weight loss. A Diet is an assembly of government and Worms (pronounced Vurms... those Germans), a city in southwestern Germany.

The Heat Is On

But this was no university debate- Luther had been called before the Holy Roman Emperor himself- Charles V (also known as Charles I). The Emperor may have only been nineteen but the message could not have been clearer- Luther was big trouble. At first, Luther considered not going. But really, what choice did he have. The Emperor promised him safe passage both to and from the meeting. However, it should be said that in 1415 a Czech priest named Joan Hus had been called before the Holy Roman Emperor to answer similar charges of heresy that Luther faced. However, Hus never made it back. The emperor reneged on his promise and he was burned at the stake.


Luther reluctantly agreed. Not that he had much of a choice. At the meeting, in front of the powerful government and religious leaders of his time, Luther was asked just two questions:

1.Did he acknowledge that he had written heresy
2.Would he recant (take back) what he had written)

Luther looked at his accusers (who clearly had already had decided that he was guilty of heresy) and said: "I need 24 hours to think about it."

Surprisingly, the Emperor agrees. The next day, Luther is asked the same two questions. This time he gives a speech, slamming the Church and its corruption. He finished with one of the most famous lines of the Reformation:

"Your Imperial Majesty and Your Lordships demand a simple answer. Here it is, plain and unvarnished. Unless I am convicted [convinced] of error by the testimony of Scripture or (since I put no trust in the unsupported authority of Pope or councils, since it is plain that they have often erred and often contradicted themselves) by manifest reasoning, I stand convicted [convinced] by the Scriptures to which I have appealed, and my conscience is taken captive by God's word, I cannot and will not recant anything, for to act against our conscience is neither safe for us, nor open to us. On this, I take my stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen."

Charles V immediately declares him an outlaw but agrees to uphold his deal of giving Luther safe passage back to Saxony. On the way, Luther is kidnapped and hauled away. Most of Luther's supporters believe that he has been secretly executed. However, Luther is alive and well in Saxony. The kidnapping was staged by his patron, The Prince of Saxony, in an effort to confuse the Emperor and buy a little time.


Luther is kept locked up in the prince's castle where he spends his days translating the New Testament from Latin (the language of the Church) into German. 

Indulgence of Jeronimus Munghofer

Luther vs Leo

The Smackdown of the (Fifteenth) Century


Against the Roman Church, you warned, lying teachers are rising, introducing ruinous sects, and drawing upon themselves speedy doom. Their tongues are fire, a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
...the Pope is the very Antichrist, who has exalted himself above, and opposed himself against Christ because he will not permit Christians to be saved without his power
Have you seen our fine collection of saints' skulls?

Another way to save your soul was to pay to visit holy relics (such as piece of the True Cross, the blood of Christ or the holy grail of all relics- The Holy Grail.  This was a major source of income for most Churches and Lords in medieval Europe. Pilgrims came from all over Europe to visit and pray in front of these holy objects. Doing so was said to knock off a few of your sins.
The problem (said the reformers) was that most of the holy relics were fakes. People in those days were very superstitious and believed that holy relics held special powers (akin to magic)
that would bring blessings on people who touched them.

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