On Oct. 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed a list of grievances against the Catholic Church onto the door of a chapel in Wittenberg, Germany; his “Ninety-five Theses” became the catalyst for the Protestant Reformation.
The Ninety-Five Theses
Martin Luther was a Catholic monk in the German state of Saxony who became disillusioned with the corruption and greed he saw within the Church, and began to lose faith that the Church would lead him to salvation. In his study of the Bible, he determined “that it is not the Church, but his own individual faith that will guarantee his salvation,” says PBS.
He took offense to the Church’s sale of indulgences, which became common in the 1510s, as the Church, under the leadership of Pope Leo X, needed money to fund the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica.
Indulgences granted the buyer temporal remission from the punishment of sin. However, as the Church’s need for money grew, the sellers of indulgences began promising that they absolved the buyers of sin and ensured that they would be released from purgatory. Luther was not the only man who objected to indulgences; Frederick, the elector of Saxony, forbade the sale of indulgences within the state, but many people went to nearby Juterbog and Thuringia to buy them.
In 1517, Johann Tetzel, a Dominican friar serving under Archbishop Albert of Mainz, began selling indulgences in Juterbog while purportedly promising, “As soon as the gold in the casket rings, The rescued soul to heaven springs.” Tetzel’s actions angered Luther, who began writing his grievances in a letter to the archbishop.
Luther wrote a list of 95 propositions that he wished to discuss and, according to most accounts, nailed it to the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral. “Luther clearly intended the Ninety-five Theses to be subservient to the church and the pope, and their overall tone is accordingly searching rather than doctrinaire,” states Encyclopedia Britannica. “Nevertheless, there is a detectable undercurrent of ‘reforming’ sentiment in the work.”
The Internet Christian Library provides Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses in English and Latin. It also has Luther’s letter to the archbishop, and the archbishop’s letter to the pope.
Biography: Martin Luther
One day, as a young man studying law at the local university, Luther found himself caught in a terrible thunderstorm and, fearing that he was going to die, made a promise that he would become a monk if he survived.
In 1505, Luther entered the Augustinian monastery and became a priest two years later. In 1510, he was sent to Rome. Glimpses of Christian History notes that “Luther was disenchanted with the ritualism and dead faith he found in the papal city. … He seemed so cut off from God, and nowhere could he find a cure for his malady.”
Luther by that time had become well versed in scholastic theology and scripture, especially in the epistles of Saint Paul. According to Lewis Spitz, author of “Luther and German Humanism,” in Paul’s letters, “Luther found that his teachings diverged increasingly from the traditional beliefs of the Roman church. His studies had led him to the conclusion that Christ was the sole mediator between God and man and that forgiveness of sin and salvation are effected by God’s Grace alone and are received by faith alone on the part of man.”
The Protestant Reformation
Sources in this Story
- PBS: About Martin Luther
- Macrohistory and World Report: Martin Luther's Revolution, to 1530
- Encyclopedia Britannica: Martin Luther
- Glimpses of Christian History: Luther Posted His 95 Theses
- Believe: Martin Luther
- Luther.de: Luther at the Imperial Diet of Worms (1521)
- PBS: What was Luther's message?
- Encyclopedia Britannica: Reformation
- Western New England College: Martin Luther and the Reformation
Luther’s philosophies continued to evolve over the next several years. He “reached a new understanding of the pivotal Christian notion of salvation, or reconciliation with God,” according to Encyclopedia Britannica, determining that “humans can contribute nothing to their salvation: salvation is, fully and completely, a work of divine grace.”
In 1520, Pope Leo X issued a bull condemning 41 sentences in Luther’s writings, but Luther refused to recant. He was called before a Diet in the city of Worms, where he was declared a heretic. Luther faced possible torture or execution, but Frederick III allowed him into a castle and hid him for the next several years.
Luther used the printing press, which had been invented in the previous century, to spread his ideas through pamphlets and other publications. “Luther would have just been one more reformer in a small area if it had not been for the printing press. … He mastered this new medium; he used it to spread and turn what would have been a local affair into an international movement,” says Mark Edwards Jr., president of St. Olaf College.
Luther’s defiance toward the Church inspired others, such as Thomas Muntzer, Huldrych Zwingli, Martin Bucer and John Calvin, to preach their own philosophy. Their various religious movements spread throughout the Holy Roman Empire and gained converts primarily from the peasant class.
Luther himself did not approve of many of these movements. He opposed the revolt by peasants against German princes and Catholic clergy in 1525, even though many held his ideas responsible for inciting the revolt. The revolt was put down and the “savage reprisals alienated the peasantry from Luther and the decline of Lutheranism in southern Germany dates from the crushing defeat of the Revolt,” according to John New, author of “The Renaissance and the Reformation: A Short History.”
The Catholic Church launched a Counter-Reformation in the 1540s to restore Catholicism in lands where Protestantism had taken hold. The Counter-Reformation efforts helped preserve the influence of the Church in Italy, Spain and France, but Protestantism became the dominant religion in much of Central Europe, Britain and Scandinavia.