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Luther, the monk who changed the world

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FIVE hundred years ago this weekend, Martin Luther took the defiant stand that led to one of the most momentous events in history – the Protestant Reformation.   

On April 17, 1521, the cleric was summoned before the Diet – the imperial assembly overseen by the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V – in the German city of Worms near Heidelberg, and asked to recant his writings about abuses and corruption in the Roman Catholic Church.   

Luther, a 38-year-old theology professor and Augustinian monk, asked for time to consider his answer and the session was adjourned until the next day.  

When he reappeared before the Diet on April 18, his decision was clear – unless convinced of error by Scripture or by reason, he would not recant. Luther is said to have declared: ‘Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.’   

He had already been excommunicated by Pope Leo X, and now the Emperor declared him an outlaw and a heretic. Luther was spirited away into hiding by his supporters and escaped more drastic retribution. 

His ideas quickly spread throughout Germany and wider afield, fuelling the Reformation, the religious, political and social earthquake that broke 1,200 years of Christian adherence to the Church of Rome in Western Europe and helped shaped the course of the modern world. 

The split came some 500 years after the schism between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Church caused by theological and political differences. But the rise of Protestantism was much more radical and far-reaching.

Luther’s remonstrances in his writings were mainly centred on the sale of ‘indulgences’ by the Church. These were ‘get out of jail cards’ that the faithful could buy to reduce the punishment for their sins and lessen the time they would have to spend in Purgatory.    

Luther compiled his thoughts on this and other matters into 95 theses, or subjects for academic debate. On October 31, 1517, he nailed them to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg, the town between Leipzig and Potsdam where he was the university’s professor of moral theology.   

The Pope tried to persuade Luther to change his views about the Church by getting other clerics to join the discussion on the theses, but the rebel refused to moderate his teachings, which were gaining popularity. 

As well as condemning the sale of indulgences, he developed arguments that struck at the heart of Catholic doctrine. He said the Bible was the sole religious authority, not open to interpretation by the Church, and salvation was by faith alone, not deed. He also asserted ‘the priesthood of the faithful’, saying all have access to God through Christ without the intercession of priests.   

These were damaging blows to the Church, where the ordained clergy were almost a separate species from the laity and whose dominance covered virtually every aspect of spiritual and temporal life. 

Finally, in 1520, Leo X issued a Papal Bull, a document declaring Luther a heretic and excommunicating him, ordering that the books he had written should be burned. When the bull reached him in October, Luther publicly burned it in Wittenberg.   

After his refusal to recant at the Diet of Worms, his life was in danger. But in a staged ‘kidnapping’, his protector Frederick III, Elector of Saxony, whisked him to safety at Wartburg Castle near Leipzig. There he continued his writings, translating the Bible from Latin into German. With the help of the printing press, his fame spread – and the Reformation became ever stronger. 

However, Luther’s teachings were given short shrift in England, where Henry VIII was on the throne. Having read the rebel monk’s writings, he published in 1521 an anti-Reformation tract entitled The Defence of the Seven Sacraments that earned him the title Defender of the Faith from the Pope. 

But in 1534, after failing to obtain papal approval to divorce Catherine of Aragon, Henry made his own break with Rome to declare himself Head of the Church in England via the Act of Supremacy. However, he was not a Protestant in the Lutheran sense and generally maintained the rites and ceremonies of the Catholics. 

By then, Europe was already deeply divided between the old and new ideas of Christian worship. With the launch of the Counter-Reformation in 1545, intermittent religious war racked parts of the continent, particularly Germany. The Thirty Years War, from 1618 to 1648, is said to have cost up to eight million lives. 

While the Catholic Church held to its orthodoxy, Protestantism split into scores of different denominations – possibly the most influential being Calvinism, based on the theologies of French-born John Calvin.

In England, the Anglican Church became the established church and Catholicism was proscribed in varying degrees. But Protestant dissenters were a growing force and in the 1640s following the Civil War, England experienced the extremes of religious rule with the reign of the Puritans under Cromwell.  

Half a millennium on from Luther’s refusal to recant, the debate over the Reformation and its consequences continues. It’s too vast a subject for an article such as this. But some historians see it as the driver behind the subsequent economic success of European cities or states, their people infused with the so-called Protestant, or Calvinist, work ethic.

The contention is that freedom from the confines of Catholic doctrines boosted enterprise, education, literacy, intellectual and cultural life, and capitalism.    

Today, there are estimated to be around 900million Protestants worldwide and some 1.3billion Catholics, and in the modern era there have been hopes that the Christian schism will one day be healed.   

That remains to be seen. For now, the stand that Martin Luther made 500 years ago seems as firm as ever. 

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Henry Getley
Henry Getley is a freelance journalist.

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