Who was Martin Luther and what did he do?

In the 16th century, the reformation or Protestant Reformation led to the ultimate assault upon the monopolistic power of the universal church. This great religious turmoil not only witnessed a great religious change, but also announced the beginning of a new era. It was initiated by John Wycliffe, Jan Hus, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and other early Protestants and precipitated by some great events such as Black Death, which eroded the faith of the people in Catholic Church. It was sparked by the 1517 posting of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses.

The Protestants protested the doctrines, rituals, leadership, and ecclesiastical structure of the Roman Catholic Church and the Papacy that governed it. This, as well as many other factors, such as spread of Renaissance ideas, the spread of the printing press, and the fall of the Eastern Roman Empire, contributed to the creation of Protestantism. Abuse and sale of indulgences was another catalyst for reformation.

An indulgence was a promise of remission in part or in entirely of the penalty after death on account of sin. However, the sinner had to repent and do some form of penance. A part of the penance might be in the form of donating money for worthy ecclesiastical purposes.

The reformation began in Germany

The reformation began in Germany mainly because most of the Germans were not good Roman Catholics, either by temperament or by training. They were far away from Rome, and this distance made communication difficult. Also, there was no strongly centralised government in Germany to aid the church in carrying out its decrees. Germany was home of Martin Luther also.

Martin Luther

Martin Luther (1483-1546) was a fearless and dynamic critic of the church and a critic of the idea of eternal salvation. In 1517, he published his 95 Theses in an attempt to get the Roman Catholic Church to stop selling indulgences, or ‘get out of hell free’ cards. Luther did not think the Church had the authority to grant such indulgences, especially not for money. Luther believed that salvation could be achieved through faith alone. The Church responded by labeling Luther a heretic, forbidding the reading or publication of his 95 Theses, and threatening Luther with excommunication. Luther refused to recant his beliefs.

The next year, in 1521, Luther was summoned to appear at the Diet of Worms, where the leaders of the Holy Roman Empire would decide his fate. When Luther once again refused to recant his positions, the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, ordered his arrest. Luther’s supporters hid Luther in Wartburg castle, where he completed a translation of the Bible into German, as well as publishing a variety of treatises against the Church. By the time Luther returned from his exile, Germany was in the grip of a Peasant Revolt, as peasants burned and destroyed all things Catholic. Luther calmed the revolt in his hometown of Wittenberg and established his own Lutheran Church in 1526.

We note here that Luther held the Bible as the highest authority, higher even than the papacy. He realized that so long as people could not read the Bible, they would continue to fall for the lies and deceptions of Catholic ideology. Luther’s supporters smuggled his translation out, and soon printing presses across Germany were cranking out copies of Luther’s Bible. The publication had the desired effect. All across Germany, people started reading the Bible and began challenging the authority of the Church.

In the coming years, a war broke out between Roman Catholics and Protestants. The war ended with a Peace of Augsburg (1555) which established that the German states could choose their religion between Lutheranism or Catholicism. Thus, Lutheranism was recognised and its rights were defined. Luther’s influence reached beyond the territorial limits of Germany. He appealed to individualism in religion and the spirit of individualism appealing doctrine in his justification by faith. Lutheranism spread into other countries especially to the Scandinavian states, where it was more generally accepted than in the Germany.

The Temporary nature of Peace of Augsburg

The Peace of Augsburg (1555) was a temporary peace between the Roman Catholicism and the Lutheranism. But it could not resolve the underlying religious conflict, which was made yet more complex by the spread of Calvinism throughout Germany in the years that followed. Addition of Calvinism implied that there would be a third major faith to the region, whose position was not recognized in by the Augsburg terms, to which only Catholicism and Lutheranism were parties. This was one of the main reasons behind the thirty years war that followed in the next century and which eventually evolved into modern state system in Europe.