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.