Martin Luther’s 95 Theses: How a single document started a religious revolution
These days, Martin Luther is known as the Father of the Protestant Movement, the most significant religious reformation in the history of Europe. The influence of his movement was so significant that Protestantism is now the second-largest branch of Christianity in the whole world. Not bad for one fed-up religious guy to pull off, right? However, many people don’t know exactly how the Protestant movement began, or how one simple document tacked on the door of the Catholic Church started a revolution. So, how did Martin Luther’s 95 theses alter the history of Christianity?
The evolution of Martin Luther’s life
If you took a look back at Martin Luther‘s childhood, you wouldn’t pin him as a likely candidate for becoming the most influential (and controversial) figure in the history of Christianity. Born to a poor miner, his father wanted to ensure his son would have a rich and successful life, and he commanded him to become a lawyer. At the ripe age of 13, Luther was sent to study at a school in Magdeburg. There, they focused on personal piety and accountability for one’s own exploration of their faith. It was this early experienced that sparked his interest in becoming a monk. However, his father was unwilling to let Luther pursue a religious career that would require him to live paycheck to paycheck. He withdrew Luther from the early learning institute and dropped him in a university to study topics that could help him exceed in law. Unsurprisingly, the unconventional Luther frequently thought of this experience as a living Hell. While he suffered through school and received a Master’s degree, a terrifying thunderstorm shifted his entire perspective on life.
When he was caught in an awful storm and nearly struck by a bolt of lightning, Luther raised his voice to the sky and screamed, “Save me, St. Anne, and I’ll become a monk!” The patron saint of miners seemed to have spared Luther, who lived through the storm, and, as promised, dedicated his life to God. It took him a while to experience the enlightenment he was searching for, but once he did, he became overwhelmed with the urge to engage with religion full-force. Instead of kicking his studies aside, he used his educational experience to study religion and teach biblical studies, which were imperative to the religious philosophy he would develop and present to the Catholic Church further down the line. What would eventually become his 95 theses first began as a personal criticism of how the Catholic Church was functioning in Europe.
Learning to criticize the Catholic Church
In the early 16th century, as biblical texts became more available and a growing population had access to the teachings of the church, Luther and other intellectuals began to second-guess the church. They were particularly concerned with how the Catholic Church was perverting the Bible from its original state in order to raise money for the church. At this time, the controversial practice of selling “indulgences” was also popular, which were highly condemned by Protestants. Indulgences were donations that the Catholic Church sought out from everyday citizens that would supposedly cleanse them of their sins and restore them in the eyes of God. In reality, the Catholic Church was manipulating poor Christians into forking over their hard-earned cash to build themselves shiny new churches, pay for their groceries, and other selfish acts. Philosophers such as Martin Luther came to believe that no matter how a human being acted, they could not earn divinity through their behavior. Only God could assign salvation to the people that he deemed were worthy.
With this new knowledge in mind, Luther began to craft what would come to be known as his 95 Theses. Luther was a strong opponent to the vile behavior of swindling innocent Christians out of their money by selling them nonexistent salvation through indulgences. He was also highly assured that only God could provide divinity and freedom to sinners, and that salvation could not be earned, no matter how well-behaved anyone might be. With these theories in mind, Luther began to construct his 95 Theses, a list of debatable questions, proposed theories on religion, and criticisms of the Catholic Church. In a controversial move in 1517, Martin Luther boldly marched up to the Wittenburg Castle church, tacked his 95 Theses on the door, and walked away. And thus, the Protestant Movement was born.
The outrage and outpour for his 95 Theses
With a single article, Luther had sparked the beginning of the Reformation. People all across Europe got their hands on his famous document, from England to Germany to Rome. The academic document was respectful, formal, and non-accusatory in tone, yet his writings still enraged the Catholic Church and those in power who he was challenging. Since the church gained a majority of their funds through indulgences, Luther’s outcry against them pissed some pretty high-up people off a considerable amount. After the 95 Theses were widely distributed, those at the head of the Catholic Church had no choice but to engage with Martin Luther and try to level with the disruptive Protestant leader.
Twice, Luther was called before an assembly, including the highly-regarded imperial council Diet of Worms. After he refused to recant his words in the first trial and was even more headstrong in the second, the Pope threatened Luther with excommunication. Luther snapped back with a fiery comeback, declaring that it was impractical to assume that the Pope could be the only person to interpret scripture in all of the church. This earned Luther a ticket straight out of the Catholic Church when the Pope officially excommunicated the religious rebel in 1521 and ordered his texts to be burned. Although he was given other chances to recant his claims in the 95 Theses, he held strong to his word (and came up with plenty of other controversial criticisms) until he died in 1546.