The Lutheran Reformation


Reformation within Christianity was hardly a new idea in the sixteenth century. The idea of reform for the individual Christian is part of the essence of the religion. The sixteenth century reformation, however, marked significant social, political and cultural changes in Europe.


During the late Middle Ages, signs of disorder and corruption in the church were rampant. The humanists of Italy and of the Northern Renaissance had spoken out against corruption in the church. Machiavelli wrote “We Italians are irreligious and corrupt above other; because the Church and her representatives act as the worst example. Much of the criticism of churchmen took the form of sarcasm, as in the Canterbury Tales, or Boccacio’s Decameron


Critics of the church concentrated on three problems areas:




            An example of clerical ignorance; which infested the local poor, involved the phrase, hoc est mea corpus (“this is my body”) uttered during the administration of the Eucharist. Parish Priests often mumbled through the phrase, without any concept of its meaning—that the body of Christ was sacrificed for sin—and understood only that it had some mystical, perhaps magical qualities. It was a corruption of this phrase that led to the magical incantation, “Hocus Pocus.”



“Simony” received its name from Simon the Magician, who in the book of Acts, offered money to Simon Peter for his spiritual gifts, to which Peter replied, “thy money perish with thee.  Although considered a sin, at the time of the Renaissance, it was practiced in the church with abandon.


Many high church officials were Italian, but were appointed to benefices in England, Spain, or Germany, and paid from local church revenues. This practice, in addition to accusations of pluralism and absenteeism, aroused nationalist sentiment as well.


Many royal governments used this situation to their own advantage, by securing church appointments for civil servants. The rulers did not have sufficient revenue to reward a competent civil servant, so they had the pope appoint them to a church office, and they were then paid from church revenues. (The church at this tie possessed a substantial proportion of the wealth of Europe.) These individuals could then perform their civic duties and be paid large sums by the Church.


Two examples of this practice: Henry VIII, as noted above, had Thomas Wolsey, his Chancellor appointed Archbishop of York, and later Cardinal. He served in that position until he fell out of favor with Henry when he failed to secure a Papal annulment to Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Also, Cardinal Richelieu in France served as Louis XIII’s chief minister until his death, when he was succeeded by Cardinal Mazarin.


The popes of this period hardly set an example. Most lived as Renaissance princes rather than the Vicar of Christ. Many were wealthy when they acquired the office, and used that wealth to enrich their own families. The worst was Alexander VI born Rodrigo Borgia, (r 1492-1503) who raised his children publicly in the Vatican. Intrigue, sexual promiscuity, and poisonings were the trademark of the family, so much so that the name Borgia has become a synonym for moral corruption. Julius II (R. 1503-1513) who commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel put on military armor and led papal troops against French forces who had invaded Italy. Leo X, born Giovanni dé Medici, the son of Lorenzo dé Medici, commented when he was elected Pope, “God has given us the papacy; let us enjoy it. Leo was an avid hunter, and spent much of his time traveling from one hunting lodge to another; but never forgot his roots as a banker, and kept a close eye on sources of church revenue.


Throughout this period, however, most Europeans remained deeply religious, and concerned with salvation after death. Local villagers often participated in religious processions honoring a Saint’s Day, and many went on religious pilgrimages to Rome, to visit the tomb of St. Peter. The Crusades of the High Middle Ages were cast as a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and a means whereby one could absolve himself of sin. The travelers in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales were in fact on a pilgrimage to the tomb of Thomas á Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury who had been murdered in his own cathedral on the basis of a careless comment by King Henry IV.


Individuals and groups in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries worked quietly for reform. Notable among these was the Brethren of the Common Life, which began in Holland in the late 1300’s. The Brethren diligently carried out the admonition of the gospels to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the sick. They also taught in local schools with the aim of producing a more educated clergy. The Brethren’s most notable spokesman was Thomas á Kempis, who wrote The Imitation of Christ, in which he urged his readers to use the life of Christ as the perfect example of Christian living (sort of a medieval version of “what would Jesus do.”


Even the papacy made some efforts toward reform, however church bureaucracy had become some cumbersome, that meaningful reform was almost impossible. There was an innate feeling that reform was necessary, but insufficient motivation to bring it about.


Martin Luther and the Protestant Movement


Martin Luther (1483-1546) is typical of his time in that he expressed the need for reform of the church, and a deep yearning for salvation. He was born in Saxony, the son of a copper miner and self made man. His father had hoped he would become a lawyer, and had earned a Master’s degree by age 21. However, while walking home from school one afternoon, he was caught in a violent thunderstorm, and narrowly missed a lightning strike. He prayed to St. Anne, the patron saint of miners, and vowed to become a monk if saved from the storm. He kept his word and entered a monastery without consulting his father, and was ordained a priest in 1507  He later earned a doctorate in theology, and became Professor of Scriptures at Wittenberg University where he was immensely popular with his students.


Luther was the “extreme” friar, following routine to the letter, but even his strict adherence did not relieve him from anxiety about sin. In attempt to alleviate Luther’s anxiety, his confessor, John Staupitz, told him to study the apostles of Paul in the New Testament. Luther’s study led him to a new understanding of the New Testament, especially the words of Paul in Romans 1:17: “the just shall live by faith.” (This remark from Paul actually originated in the Old Testament in Habakkuk 2:4.) Luther thus concluded that salvation did not come from penance or external observations, but through simple faith in Christ.


The Problem of Indulgences and the Ninety-five Theses:  Indulgences originated in the thirteenth century when theologians promulgated the theory of a “treasury of merit.” The Church had always maintained that “good works” were an essential part of salvation. One must perform some good work as an atonement for sin. This good work might consist of reciting the rosary, or making a pilgrimage. The “treasury of merit” was the idea that Jesus during his life on earth, as well as the saints and disciples, had been better than they needed to be to achieve salvation. Their “excess merit” accumulated, but could be redistributed by Christ’s emissary on earth, the Pope, to those who needed it. One could literally borrow (or buy) the goodness of another. Indulgences were first used during the Crusades, when those who went on Crusade were promised a reward in heaven should they die fighting for the cause. Later, indulgences were sold as a method of shortening one’s time in Purgatory (where sins were purged, thus enabling one to go to heaven.) The doctrine soon devolved to the point where one could purchase indulgences for the dead, thereby shortening their time in purgatory, and perhaps even buying their way into heaven. After all, what self respecting person wouldn’t want to help grandma get on to her just deserts?


The sale of indulgences soon became an important source of revenue for the church, and a cesspool of corruption. So called “pardoners’ often peddled religious relics, etc. with all the zeal of a modern day used car salesman, complete with sales pitch. A classic example of the abuse of sale of indulgences is contained in the Prologue to the Pardoner’s Tale in the Canterbury Tales:


"Masters," quoth he, "in churches, when I preach,

  I am at pains that all shall hear my speech,

  And ring it out as roundly as a bell,

  For I know all by heart the thing I tell.

  My theme is always one, and ever was:

  'Radix malorum est cupiditas.'

The last phrase translates roughly, “money is the root of all evil.” The pardoner then boasts of how he slyly separates those who hear his sermon from their dirty money. If you have never read the tale, do yourself a favor, including the Host’s response to the Pardoner. Your English teacher will love you, and your history teacher might (just might) find it in his heart to grant extra credit.)

Luther’s challenge to the sale of Indulgences arose from a complicated transaction. Wittenberg, where he taught, was under the jurisdiction of the Archdiocese of Magdeburg. The Archbishop of Magdeburg, one Albert (all of twenty seven years old) also wanted to be appointed archbishop of Mainz. This was pluralism at its most blatant, and he needed a papal dispensation to get it. The Pope, Leo X, needed money to complete the building of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, and sold the dispensation to Albert for an enormous sum. Albert borrowed the money from the Fugger banking family of Germany, and Leo authorized Albert to sell indulgences to repay the loan. This was a real sweetheart deal; so much so that the details were kept secret from all but a trusted few.

Albert hired a Dominican Friar, Johan Tetzel, to sell the indulgences. Tetzel had all the talent of a modern day televangelist; begging, shaming and shouting all at once. He had devised his own little jingle:

               As soon as a coin in the coffer rings.
               Another soul from purgatory rings.

Tetzel even had a chart showing a particular price for the indulgence of a particular sin. Here again, think of poor old grandma burning in purgatory—and just a few coins in the old tin cup will get her outta there; wouldn’t you sleep better at night?

Luther’s problem with this system was that it appeared to be “salvation for sale.” One need do nothing other than pay the price to obtain forgiveness. Repentance was not part of the package. The church had no established doctrine on indulgences, which to Luther meant that it was a proper subject for debate. He therefore wrote a letter to Archbishop Albert (who was profiting from Tetzel’s work) and in it enclosed in Latin his “Ninety Five Theses on the Power of Indulgences.” In it he argued that the sale of indulgences undermined the seriousness of penance, a sacrament; and interfered with preaching the Gospel. By December, 1517, Luther’s theses had been translated into German and were widely read throughout the Holy Roman Empire.

After Luther’s death, his disciple, Philipp Melanchthon, claimed that Luther had nailed the theses to the door of the Church in Wittenberg as an invitation to debate on October 31, 1517. There is substantial argument that this never happened.

Luther’s argument was that there was no biblical basis for indulgences. This was a challenge to the Pope’s authority to issue indulgences. In a debate in Leipzig with a papal legate, Luther denied that the Pope’s authority and that church councils were infallible. To add insult to injury, he said the decision of the Council of Constance to burn John Hus had been a mistake.

Pope Leo X responded by condemning Luther’s work, and ordering his books to be burned. Leo issued a Papal Bull, Exsurge Domine (Arise, Lord) which gave Luther two months to recant, or be excommunicated. Luther publicly burned the letter delivering the Pope’s decision as an act of defiance.

By this point, the issue had become larger than Luther ever dreamed. It became an issue of German nationalism. Luther’s students supported him unreservedly. He gained much sympathy from the followers of Hus (Hussites) because in his sympathy for Hus. The Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, was a devoted Catholic, but many of the princes who controlled the myriad principalities of Germany supported Luther. (Luther’s position gave them freedom from the authority of the Pope). Charles needed the support of the princes to raise an army, as the French were invading the empire on the West, and the Ottoman Turks on the East.

The Pope issued a Bull of Excommunication, Decet Romanum Pontificem (“It is fitting that the Pope” and expected Charles V to carry out the order. Charles waffled, and instead called a special Diet (an assembly of the estates of the Holy Roman Empire) to meet at Worms at which Luther was summoned. Luther was ordered to recant at the Diet, but responded in words that rang throughout Europe:

   Unless I am convinced by the evidence of the scripture or by plain reason—for I do not accept the authority of the Pope or the councils alone, since it is established that they have often erred and contradicted themselves—I am bound to the Scriptures I have cited and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. God help me. Amen.

Charles declared Luther an outlaw, but another German prince, Duke Frederick of Saxony, protected him.

It is impossible to underestimate the role of the printing press in Luther’s revolution. His ideas were disseminated throughout Germany, in Latin and German. There were few educated people who were not familiar with his ideas. It is doubtful at best if Luther’s reformation would have succeeded so fully were it not for the influence of the press.

Between 1520 and 1530, Luther wrote a number of books and treatises outlining his basic theology, which became known as Protestant.  The term originated from a small group of German Princes at the Diet of Speyer, which “protested” the decisions of the Catholic majority.)

§         The Catholic Church had maintained that salvation came from faith and good works. Luther said that salvation came from faith alone. God, not people, initiated salvation.

§         The Catholic church held that religious authority rested in the Bible and the traditional teachings of the Church. The Pope, as the Vicar of Christ, was virtually infallible in matters of doctrine. Luther said that the Bible alone was the sole authority, and should be interpreted by one’s conscience.

§         The Catholic church was based on a defined hierarchy with the Pope at the head. Luther spoke of the “priesthood of all believers” in which all were equal before God and all could approach God without the need for a priest or confessor to intervene.

§         The Catholic Church had taught that there were seven sacraments. (an act which demonstrated the visible means of God’s grace: Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Holy Orders, Matrimony, Penance, and Last Rites. Luther said there were only three: Baptism, Penance, and the Eucharist.

§         The significance of the Eucharist was also a matter of debate. The Church taught a doctrine of transubstantiation, derived from the scholastics adaptation of Aristotle. Transubstantiation held that the bread and wine of the Eucharist were transformed into the actual blood and body of Christ. Luther taught Consubstantiation: Christ was present at the Eucharist, but the bread and wine were not transformed.

Other Church reformers had different views of the Eucharist. Ulrich Zwingli, a Swiss reformer, said that the Last Supper was a memorial of the Last Supper of Jesus with his disciples, but no change took place in any form. John Calvin taught that the body and blood of Jesus were spiritually but not physically present. Zwingli and Calvin are discussed later.

 Social Impact of the Lutheran Reformation:  Two factors present since medieval times created fertile ground for Luther’s ideas:

             1. City governments had long resented the privileges and immunities enjoyed by churchmen. They paid no taxes, and were exempt from military service, even in time of war; yet they tended to be immensely wealthy. An example is the city of Zurich, Switzerland, where religious orders held one third the city’s taxable property, but paid no tax.

2.  Sermons were typically poor quality, a fact which offended townspeople who, with the Renaissance, had become more informed and educated. A number of wealthy burghers (leading citizens) established “preacherships” in their towns. Those who held these positions, “preachers,” were educated men who were required to deliver one hundred sermons per year, each roughly 45 minutes in length. Preachers became important protestant leaders, and encouraged Protestant worship in which the sermon, not the Eucharist, became the central focus of worship.

Luther was also popular in rural areas, because he had himself come from peasant stock. The peasants also responded to his defiance to church authority. In a treatise entitled On Christian Liberty, Luther commented that “A Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none.” His words significantly contributed to peasant unrest.

Educated people and humanists were attracted to Luther’s call for a simpler, more personal form of religion. The reforms he had called for echoed the reforms urged by the Northern Humanists. Luther reached a broader audience because of the printing press, and because of his skill with languages. His German translation of the New Testament in 1523 led to the acceptance of his German dialect (haupt deutsch) as the standard version of German.

Women were also affected by Luther’s movement, but not to the extent that men were. Protestant schools were established where girls learned the Bible and Catechism. Protestantism also abandoned the idea of celibacy. Luther once wrote to a young man:

Dear lad, by not ashamed that you desire a girl, nor you my maid, the boy. Just let it lead into matrimony and not into promiscuity, and it is no more cause for shame than eating or drinking

Luther led the way himself by marrying a former nun, Katherine von Bora, whom he called his “dear Katie.” After his marriage, he wrote

Next to God’s Word, there is no more precious treasure than holy matrimony; God’s highest gift on earth is a pious, cheerful, God fearing home- keeping wife, with whom you may live peacefully to whom you may entrust your goods and body and life.

Still, Luther believed that a woman’s place was in the home, and should be devoted exclusively to her children. The husband should rule the household, but the wife should control household expenses and manage the home. Luther fathered several children by her, and delighted in his children. 

Luther and the Peasants' War:  A number of violent peasant revolts broke out in 1523. The most violent was the "German Peasants' War (1524-1526). Peasant insurrection had become almost traditional. The peasants had been exploited ruthlessly by clerical and noble landlords. They were often forced to sell to the landlord at unfairly low prices, and local customs were often violated with abandon. As landlords sought to centralize their power, local custom was replaced with Roman law. In some areas, there were attempts to re-bind the peasants to the land, a revival of medieval serfdom Ironically, Astrologers had long predicted that 1524 was to be a year of disaster. There was a popular saying: "He who does not die in 1523, does not drown in 1524, and is not killed in 1525 can only speak of miracles."

Luther's emphasis on the "priesthood of all believers" lent itself to the position of the peasants. Many believed this was an invitation for them to take over control of their own lives. Many villages insisted on the right to elect their own clergy. Peasants justified their demands on the basis of traditional law and also in terms of scripture. Those involved in the rebellion often used slogans speaking of “God’s righteousness,” and “the Word of God.” In short, the peasants believed they were obeying God’s will by rebelling against their landlords.

Luther sympathized with the peasants, but was opposed to violence by peasant or noble. He believed that social and economic differences should be addressed peacefully and in an atmosphere of Christian love. When the peasants refused to lay down there arms, Luther became convinced that the devil was at work among them. He feared that rebellion would lead to anarchy and the end of civilized government. He therefore wrote a tract, Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of the Peasants, in which he said, “let everyone who can smite, slay, and stab [the peasants] secretly and openly, for nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful or devilish than a rebel. The nobles crushed the revolt harshly. An estimated 75,000 peasants died. A number of peasants felt betrayed by Luther, and returned to Catholicism.

As Luther grew older, he railed against anyone who disagreed with his views. In 1545, he published a pamphlet against the Pope, entitled Against the Papacy at Rome Founded by the Devil. When Pope Paul III opened a council to reform the church at Trent, Luther dismissed it as "too little too late." He was wrong.

Luther and the Jews: Luther was a workaholic most of his life, and as he aged, he suffered fluctuating mood swings. As he aged, he grew more and more troubled that not everyone agreed with his teachings. As he grew older, he increasingly compared himself with Paul of Tarsus, his biblical hero, as he believed God had revealed His greatest mysteries to him; but people were so steeped in pride and sin that they refused to accept the truth.

Luther suffered immensely when his 14 year old daughter, Magdalena, died in 1542. Shortly after her death, he exclaimed, : "I wish that I and all my children were dead. He was convinced that the Last Judgment was at hand, and that the world would be destroyed for its sin.

Luther had always defended the Jews, although he also believed that they were "money grubbers." Partly out of sorrow and partly from rage, he lashed out at the Jews in pamphlets that reeked with vitriol. In Against the Jews and Their Lies (1542). In it he urged authorities to burn synagogues and books, expel Jews from German cities, and refuse to do business with them if they did not convert to Christianity. On February 15, 1546, in his last sermon, he preached that "the Jews are our enemies, who do not cease to defame Christ and would gladly kill us all if they could." However, he preached, "we want to practice Christian love toward them and pray that they convert.

In a sad irony, Luther's words were used in Nazi Germany by Hitler and other propagandists against the Jews in promoting their annihilation during the holocaust.

Political Impact of the Lutheran Revolution: Germany at the time of the Reformation was a loose confederation of independent principalities, duchies, etc. Because there was no centralized government, a substantial amount of wealth flowed from Germany to Rome Individual states were under the umbrella of the Holy Roman Empire, but the Emperor exercised little local control, other than military leadership. He was elected to the post by seven Electors. Religion was very much a political matter. Any religion different from that practiced by the majority of citizens was considered dangerous.

Luther’s opposition to the financial practices of the Catholic Church fell on welcome ears. His treatises and sermons were distinctly German, promoting a strong nationalist sentiment.  A number of local authorities realized soon enough that by divesting themselves—and thereby their communities—of Catholicism, they could seize Church property and avoid payment of church taxes. Many therefore converted to Lutheranism and adopted Luther’s doctrines. They used the religion issue to declare their political and financial independence.

Against this wholesale departure from the established Church sat the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, a staunch Catholic. There was little Charles could do to stop the Lutheran movement. When he went to war against the King of France in the Hapsburg-Valois Wars, (1521-1555) during which most of the fighting occurred on German soil, the French King supported the Lutheran princes. 

The end result is that Germany, which might have been politically united into a single state, remained fragmented by religion. In 1555, Charles V signed the Peace of Augsburg, which officially recognized Lutheranism and allowed the local prince to determine the religion of his area.  Most of the northern and central German states became Lutheran, while the South remained Roman Catholic. The primary churches in modern Germany are Roman Catholic, and "Protestant," meaning Lutheran. Lutheranism also found a home in Denmark, and Sweden, although not without a struggle. It is the leading Protestant denomination today in Scandinavia. Some areas, such as Finland, are almost exclusively Lutheran.