No other anniversary in our lifetimes can tell us more about our turbulent world today than the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s explosive religious revolution.
How deeply did this action in Europe affect us all? Start by asking yourself: Why do individual Americans so firmly believe that we each have a god-given right to express and act on our personal opinions? You can thank the Reformation for that assumption about divine rights. In fact, historians argue that the social-media revolution transforming our world is really the legacy of moveable-type printing presses and widespread pamphleteering that were invented in Europe five centuries ago—and that fueled the Reformation.
Yale historian Carlos Eire writes, in his new 900-page history, Reformations: “What Martin Luther set in motion in 1517 not only changed the world as it was then; it still continues to shape our world today and to define who we are in the West.”
To kick off this historic year, we invite author and columnist Benjamin Pratt to stir our reflections on the Reformation by describing his own recent visit to Luther’s home …
Martin Luther 2017:
500 years of Reformation
By BENJAMIN PRATT
Does anyone still post theses on a door?
Yes, students from the city of Wittenberg, Germany, have blended creativity and artistic skills to create their own theses of hope for change on doors that line the walking street at the center of the ol’ town. Take a stroll down this lovely street and soak in the challenges and energy of these provocative students.
They have taken their inspiration from Martin Luther himself. Popular accounts say that Luther tacked his Ninety-Five Theses against the misuse of indulgences on the door of Wittenberg’s Castle Church on October 31, 1517. In Luther’s time, his action was the equivalent of sending an email or social media message to fellow faculty members. His goal was to start a discussion. The door was the community bulletin board.
The spark that lit the fires of the Reformation was Luther’s outrage over the “trade in souls,” indulgences granted in exchange for money. The Grand Commissioner for Indulgences, sanctioned by the Pope, was Dominican monk Johann Tetzel. Tetzel is credited with a little ditty to seduce those concerned about their deceased loved ones’ souls:
As soon as the coin in the coffer rings,
A soul from Purgatory springs.
Tetzel was very creative in luring contributors to his Indulgence Chest (which can be seen near the high altar at Magdeburg Cathedral). Tetzel even sold forgiveness for sins not yet committed. One tale is that a rich donor went to Tetzel with a request to buy full forgiveness for his future sin of murder. He didn’t reveal that his intended victim was Tetzel himself!
Posting on the Castle Church door was an innocent beginning that launched a global movement. This action sparked change in Germany as well as the rest of Europe and America, making a mark around the world. It birthed the Lutheran Church and the continuing religious and theological splinters of Protestantism: Anglican, Wesleyan, Baptist, Presbyterian, to name only a few. The Reformation was not limited to religion and theology; it impacted music, art, the economy and social order, language and law. There is hardly an aspect of our lives, today, that was unaffected by the Reformation.
Martin Luther joined a few friends to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the “destruction of the indulgences” on November 1, 1527. The November 1st commemoration has been celebrated as Reformation Day, along with All Souls/All Saints Day, for centuries. The 500th Anniversary of the posting of the Ninety-Five Theses will occur on October 31, 2017 in Wittenberg, Germany. This quiet, charming university city on the Elbe River is bracing for 300,000 visitors that day. If Pope Francis accepts the invitation extended to him, I suspect the numbers will swell. The Pope is among religious leaders from many other traditions invited to attend.
The Luther House (Lutherhaus) in Wittenberg was the primary place Martin Luther lived and worked for almost 35 years. He continued to live in this monastery house called the “Black Cloister” from 1525 when he married Katharina von Bora, This lively house, which she remodeled and painted white, was home to their six children as well as Luther’s six nieces and nephews. The Luther House, the world’s largest Reformation museum, covers the life, work and effect of Luther and his courageous wife. Wittenberg is a treasure trove of memorable sites including the Castle Church with its world famous Theses Door and the graves of Luther and his colleague Philip Melanchthon, as well as the newly renovated Town Church with its impressive Cranach altarpiece.
If you are planning a pilgrimage to celebrate this 500th anniversary, you might want to plan well and early. Don’t limit your pilgrimage to Wittenberg. Many cities in eastern Germany are connected to the life and vitality of Martin Luther. Consider Eisenach, where Luther lived in Wartburg Castle’s protective custody from the Pope’s death threats, and assumed the name of Junker Jörg. He grew his hair and beard and wore secular clothing. During this period, he completed what many consider his most important work, the translation of the New Testament.
Luther was born on November 10, 1483, in Eisleben and baptized the next day in the nearby Church of St. Peter and Paul. On February 18, 1546, the cycle of Luther’s life ended in his birthplace. Luther had spent the last three weeks of his life in Eisleben engaged in reconciling differences between two lords of the region. The houses where he was born and died are now open for visits.
Erfurt is considered the spiritual home of Martin Luther. On July 17, 1505, Luther requested admission into the Erfurt monastery, home to the Augustinian hermits, an order famous for its scholarship. It was here that he was ordained a priest in 1507. The Augustinian Monastery pays great tribute to Luther with a permanent exhibit of his cell and The Library of the Evangelical Ministry. Overnight accommodations are available at the conference center.
Luther preached at the Augustinian monastery church on June 24, 1524. The crowd was so huge that he preached the same sermon two nights later at St. John’s Church. His thesis about true and false righteousness was so well received that by July 17th, nearly every church in Magdeburg had converted to the Protestant faith.
Katharina von Bora, Luther’s wife, died in 1552 in Torgau. Her grave in the Town Church of St. Mary and the Katharina Luther memorial in her last home are dedicated to her courageous life and work.
Plan your pilgrimage now! There are so many excellent sites and events that will enable you to celebrate the life and impact of Martin Luther.
Care to read more?
- GETTING THE HISTORY ‘RIGHT‘—Earlier, ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm collaborated with Berlin-based correspondent Maria-Paz Lopez in publishing this guide for media people who plan to write about the Reformation this year.
- THE 1st ReadTheSpirit COLUMN—In 2007, a decade ago, our first words to readers in this online magazine were: “We haven’t seen times like these in 500 years!” Care to go back a decade and read that “first” prophetic column?
- KICKING OFF THE ANNIVERSARY—Read about how the Lutheran World Federation began this 500-year anniversary on October 31, 2016, including a visit by Pope Francis.
- EVANGELICAL CHURCH IN GERMANY—Keep up with religious themes and insights and events from this homepage for the anniversary.
- GERMAN TRAVEL HUB—Luther2017.de/en/ gets you to this very useful website sponsored by the German government.
- OTHER HELPFUL TRAVEL SITES—The following are travel resources recommended by Maria-Paz Lopez, a correspondent who reports from Berlin … Reformation Summer overview of events, Luther Trails within the main German tourism website, Hiking in Luther Country for additional ideas you may want to include in your travels.