This Day in History (31-Oct-1517) – Martin Luther Inadvertently Launches the Protestant Reformation with The Ninety-Five Theses

Fifteen centuries after the death of Christ, the Catholic Church had grown to become the most influential organization in Western Europe. A theology professor and Augustinian monk at the University of Wittenberg, Martin Luther, was disillusionised with the abuses of the 16th century Roman Catholic Church. In Luther’s era, indulgences were being sold by the Church to raise money for refurbishing the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome. However Luther firmly believed that salvation is by faith alone. He shifted the course of Christianity with a letter, “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” in Latin, to Archbishop Albert of Mainz on October 31, 1517. The accompanying questions would go on to be known as The Ninety-Five Theses, the seminal document in the Protestant Reformation that fractured the continent along religious lines. Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses brought to light serious issues regarding the nature of belief in Christ. Much of his writing amounts to theological questions about specific practices that seemed to ignore or even counteract the Bible. Fueled by the printing press and a translation into common German by his friends early in 1518, Luther’s ideas had soon made it to towns all over Europe. At the same time, Ulrich Zwingli began attacking the rituals associated with mass from his pulpit in Switzerland.

In early January 1521, Luther was officially excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church. Condemned as a heretic and declared a criminal on May 25th, the court decided to ban Luther’s writings and officially absolved anyone who might kill him of any guilt. Frederick III of Saxony, a friendly leader of the province near the center of the Holy Roman Empire provided protection to Luther. Hiding the monk away in Wartburg Castle, Frederick allowed Luther to continue writing — and the wanted man produced a series of forceful attacks on the practices of the Catholic Church and translated the Bible’s New Testament from its original Greek into German. When he returned to Wittenberg in March 1522, Luther was at the head of a rebellion — alongside John Calvin and Zwingli — that would take centuries to solve and cost countless lives in civil wars and persecution throughout the continent.



This Day in History (5-Mar-1616) – Nicolaus Copernicus’ De revolutionibus orbium coelestium is banned by the Catholic Church

Nicolaus Copernicus was a priest in Poland who developed interest in Astronomy.  In 1508, at the age of 35, he had begun developing his own celestial model, a heliocentric planetary system. Ptolemy had previously invented a geometric planetary model, which was inconsistent with Aristotle’s idea that celestial bodies moved in a circular motion at different speeds around a fixed point, the earth. In an attempt to reconcile such inconsistencies, Copernicus’s heliocentric solar system named the sun, rather than the earth, as the center of the solar system. Subsequently, Copernicus believed that the size of each planet’s orbit depended on its distance from the sun. He went on to design and apply a complex mathematical system for proving his theory. In 1513, his dedication prompted him to build his own modest observatory so that he could view the planets in action at any given time.

He documented his great work in De Revolutionibus orbium coelestium libri sex (Six books on the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres). De Revolutionibus is divided into six sections, or “books”. The first of these books sets out Copernicus’ heliocentric theory as the basis for his cosmology and ongoing calculations; the second book uses trigonometry to solve various motions of heavenly bodies in the sky; book three looks at the motion of the Earth; book four, the motion of the Moon; and books five and six, the motions of the planets. When it  was published in 1543, just before Copernicus’s death, religious leader Martin Luther voiced his opposition to the heliocentric solar system model.

Interestingly, although apparently contradicting the Bible, the book avoided serious censorship until 1616, seventy three years after first publication, when it was placed on the Catholic Church’s Index of Prohibited Books. The ban was lifted at the end of 17th century. The book has been described as a “monument of scientific genius” and marks a huge and important stride forward in human understanding of the natural world.