Martin Luther: A Reluctant Rebel Who Changed the World

An old engraving of Martin Luther

Martin Luther posted his Ninety-five Theses on the door of a Roman Catholic Church in Wittenberg, Germany on October 31, 1517, launching the Protestant Reformation.
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Martin Luther was born in 1483, coming into a world where the Roman Catholic Church reigned both spiritually and politically in Western Europe. No one knew that the baby born to a smelting master in Eisleben, Saxony would not just challenge the church, but alter history forever.

A Stormy Twist of Fate

The birth of great ideas is often described as a “lightbulb moment,” and for Luther, the flash that sparked his religious ideas was quite literal. During the summer of 1505, a violent thunderstorm interrupted his walk home from law school. The sudden turn in weather was understood as the devil’s work, and Luther prayed to Saint Anne for protection from the heavenly fury. The storm so terrified him that he swore he’d become a monk should his life be spared. Although a bolt of lightning nearly struck him, Luther survived the storm and kept his promise, abandoning his study of law and joining an Augustinian monastery on July 17, 1505.

During this period in the early 16th century, Luther became increasingly attracted to the teachings of Augustine, who emphasized that authority comes from the bible, not church officials, and that only the divine grace of God bestowed salvation, not just good works. Indeed, Luther took the position that both good works and faith were intimately connected, but good works alone were useless without the guiding light of faith. Luther particularly objected to the church's sale of indulgences in exchange for forgiveness. This practice inspired him to write “Ninety-five Theses" and to nail his list of questions regarding authority and grace to the door of a church in 1517.

Questioning of Authority

These humbly-written documents would become the basis of the Protestant Reformation, and although their tone was not accusing, they were incredibly provocative. Readers were introduced to Luther’s radical central idea, that faith alone could save believers, and many began questioning not only the use of indulgences, but the authority of the church as a whole.

Luther’s works quickly spread throughout Germany and eventually made their way to Rome. In 1518, he was asked to defend his ideas before an assembly in the southern German town of Augsburg. After three days of debate, the church defended its use of indulgences, and Luther returned to Wittenberg, refusing to recant.

His writing were condemned by the pope as conflicting with the church’s teachings, and Luther was excommunicated from the Catholic Church by Pope Leo in 1521.

A statue of Martin Luther at the Dresden Frauenkirche in Germany

The work of Martin Luther forever changed the religious landscape of Europe.
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Once unleashed, however, Luther's message could not be stopped. As the Peasants’ War was fought across Germany, communities inspired by his religious reforms fought for social and economic reforms of their own. Poor people embraced Luther's elevation of the value of the individual, and although Luther himself called for the extinguishing of the revolts, it was led largely by those preaching his lessons.

One year before Luther’s death, the Roman Catholic Church’s Council of Trent convened in Northern Italy to respond to Luther’s issues. After 25 sessions, the council reaffirmed the idea of salvation through good works and that indulgences could shorten a sinner’s stay in Purgatory. This directly contradicted Luther’s teachings and solidified the schism between the Roman Catholic Church and what would become the Protestant faith.

Luther’s novel interpretation of the Word of God and his ideas about church authority and divine nature profoundly changed the European religious landscape. His work created and summarizes an age, casting a long shadow still visible today in the millions of Protestants who base their faith on his ideas.