Born in 1483, Martin Luther was led by his father, a successful businessman, to pursue a formal, legal education. He followed this path until his early twenties when, as he was returning home to visit his parents, a terrible thunderstorm intercepted him. At this time, Martin Luther was struck with the knowledge-and fear-that he could die without warning. He prayed to St. Anne, asking for protection, and he vowed that, if she did indeed spare his life, he would devote himself to religion. After surviving the storm, he kept his promise and abandoned his education to join a monastery.
Though many scholars believe that Martin Luther had entertained thoughts pertaining to religion and his own inner turmoil prior to the storm, still others embrace the idea that the Protestant Reformation began that night in 1505 with that thunderstorm.
Best known for his defiant act of nailing his “95 theses” to the doors of the Catholic Church, Martin Luther is regarded as a primary figure in the transformation of the Catholic faith. He has therefore become one of the most notorious and controversial figures in Christian history.
Contributing Factors of the Protestant Reformation
Martin Luther was not the only individual to find fault with the 16th century Catholic church. The role of the church had become increasingly complex with interwoven social and political ties that exceeded its intended function as a religious and spiritual institution. The preceding centuries witnessed a rise in the church’s wealth and power, which in turn resulted in the depletion of spiritual trust among the people and an increase of corruption within the church, as well.
A commonly-cited cause for the reformation is the practice of selling indulgences. The idea behind indulgences was simply the more a person sinned in life, the worse their punishment would be in the afterlife. Indulgences relied heavily on the concept of purgatory , which was developed in the Middle Ages. Purgatory was believed to be a temporary place for sinners to be cleansed of their sins through the receipt of appropriate punishment. With this belief, the church then took to selling indulgences as a method for sinners to lessen the required penance in purgatory. Pope Urban II introduced the indulgence system in 1095, and initially, it served to entice Christians to volunteer for the Crusades in an effort to erase their sins. Over time, individuals began to wonder if there were other ways they could atone on Earth, and thus the practice of buying indulgences from the church came about. At times, the indulgence system was used by the church to secretly pay off debts or fund projects, resulting in increased incentive to sell more indulgences. Some individuals, like Martin Luther, took issue with the indulgence system, believing it to be corrupt, abusive, and built on greed.
Another contributing factor of the reformation was the cultural impact of the Black Plague. This fatal disease reached Eastern Europe in the 1350s and quickly spread to the remainder of the continent. During this time, it became evident that the church’s leaders were little more than ordinary men who could succumb to disease and death just as easily as any other individual, and when priests died, the church posted inexperienced clergy to their positions, resulting in ineffective and incomplete teachings that discredited the church’s reputation. Prior to this point, many people looked to the church for direction and guidance, but when the church leaders could not offer insight into the cause of the plague and had no cure available, the people began to believe that the plague was a punishment from God . Not only did the Catholic church lose many of its members to the plague, it also witnessed a large number of its followers losing their faith and rejecting the church’s authority.
Growing distrust in the authority, power, and intentions of the church, combined with a rising desire for more personal religious experiences, contributed to the Protestant Reformation which ultimately led to the creation of Protestantism, one of three primary branches of modern Christianity.
Martin Luther’s 95 Theses
While Martin Luther is not the only individual to have challenged the Catholic church, he is perhaps one of the most notorious, alongside John Calvin. Compared to other dissenters of the time, Martin Luther focused on the theological side of the arguments rather than dwelling on the corruption of the church as an institution. Some of his arguments centered around the idea that the Roman Catholic church had deviated from scripture and that its focus should be on using Jesus Christ as a moral guide.
It was a complicated series of events and revelations that led to Martin Luther’s composition of his 95 theses. While studying the scripture and preparing lectures, Martin Luther came to the conclusion that the path to salvation was not through guilt and a preoccupation with the consequences of sin but instead through simple faith in God and forgiveness.
The indulgence system was one of many aspects of the Roman Catholic church that prompted Martin Luther to invoke change. He believed it was exploitative and un-Christian. Fueled by his own faith and vision of the church, Martin Luther wrote a scathing critique of the church , focusing largely on the sale of indulgences, and nailed a copy of his notes to the doors of the church, expecting his voice to be heard and his ideas to be considered.
He had not intended to distribute his theses to the public, but the advent of printing technology allowed his theses to circulate. Some translated his notes from Latin to German to increase exposure, and in time, his theses became a sort of manifesto, criticizing the church’s practices and demanding reform.
While Martin Luther had no intention of withdrawing from the church and simply wanted to see changes within the institution, he was excommunicated in 1521 after publicly claiming two years prior that the pope did not have the sole authority to interpret the Bible. Following his separation from the church and during his unwitting seclusion, Martin Luther devoted time to translating the New Testament to German so that the people could have equal access to the scripture and autonomy in their faith.
Toward the end of his life, Martin Luther began writing about more extremist views, notably challenging the idea of clerical celibacy, endorsing polygamy, referring to the pope as the Antichrist, and condemning people of the Jewish faith . Martin Luther served as a pinnacle figure for the Protestant Reformation and ultimately served as the namesake for the Lutheran church. However, not all of his beliefs were commonly accepted, and even the ones that were agreeable to the people resulted in his ostracization and excommunication. Still, his criticism of the Catholic church did spark reform and increase independence among Christians, and history will not soon forget his legendary act of defiance and faith.