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31 October is not just a day for dark things that go bump in the night. 500 years ago today Martin Luther famously nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg, an action which started the Protestant Reformation movement that swept across Western Europe. 

Who was Martin Luther?

Martin Luther was marked by his father for a career in law and started his education at the University of Erfurt at the age of 17. During his undergraduate studies at the university, Luther developed a deep love and interest in philosophy and theology, in particular the works of Aristotle, William of Ockham and Gabriel Biel. It was hardly surprising that within a couple of weeks of starting law school as per his father’s wishes, that Luther dropped out to further pursue theology over his increasingly grave concerns about God and Scripture. 

Luther attributed his decision to drop out of university to an event on 2 July 1505, when he was making his way back to the university during a thunderstorm. He said that a lightning bolt struck near him and in his sudden fright he called out “Help! Saint Anna, I will become a monk!”

From that day forward Luther dedicated himself to the Augustian order and went on to teach and study theology, receiving his Doctorate of Theology in 1512.

How did he come up with the 95 Theses?

Luther had grown increasingly concerned with the corruption of the Church during his studies. However, his biggest concern and greatest frustration was the practice of buying indulgences. Indulgences were a way to reduce the amount of punishment one has to undergo for sin. The owner of an indulgence was forgiven for all past and future sins, often leading to further sin. Many religious men across Europe were promoting them at this time because all funds were going to rebuilding St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

On 31 October 1517, Luther wrote to his bishop, Albrecht von Brandenburg, to protest the sales of indulgences, including a copy of his 95 Theses. It is also believed he nailed a copy to the door of All Saints Church, which was a common practice amongst scholars who had just written a scholarly piece.

The bishop did not respond to Luther’s letter but checked it for heresy and in December 1517 forwarded it to Rome.

The aftermath

Pope Leo X spent the next three years sending papal theologians and envoys to entreat with Luther, but this only served to harden his belief. He was summoned to various trials and tribunes where religious and secular monarchs deliberated over Luther’s fate. Finally on 15 June 1520, Luther was excommunicated by the Catholic Church and in May 1521 secular leaders declared him an outlaw in the Edict of Worms. This made it a crime for anyone to read his works, to give him food or shelter, and permitted anyone to kill him without legal consequence.

Prince Fredrick II, Elector of Saxony, protected Luther and encouraged him to translate the bible from Latin into German, where it was spread throughout Europe and translated into French and English.

The rest of his life was spent laying out the foundations of a new church that had been coined Protestantism by the Church. Within this new church he laid out a new form of worship service, translated Mass into German, and set out new standards of penance.

The spread of Protestantism

Martin Luther died peacefully in 1546. It is debatable if he knew what exactly he had started and how his simple act on 31 October would change the course of history. By all accounts, he believed his thoughts did not depart from Catholicism, it was merely a way to stop the corruption he saw in the Papal church. He also kept his works to Saxony, believing they would not be acceptable elsewhere.

Of course, as reflectors on history we know this went on to influence the next 500 years of history. From Henry VIII and the proclamation the monarch was head of the Church, to the English Civil War, Protestantism has played a key role in much of Britain’s history, let alone the wars in Spain and France.

Today the occasion is being marked with a series of events across the UK and other Protestant countries, including a service at Westminster Abbey at midday today.
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