October 31, 1517. The day wasn’t known as “Halloween” then but by the more formal “All Hallow’s Eve,” and it wasn’t a day for carved pumpkins and gathering candy door to door. On that day, 500 Halloweens ago, in a little known university town called Wittenburg in what was then Saxony, a mostly unknown monk with some reservations about Holy Mother Church’s way of doing business wanted to start a debate on some issues within the Church. In that pre-Twitter time, debates and discussions took place in the open air or in a lecture hall and if one wanted to debate something or other, he (and back then it was ALWAYS “he”) would post an announcement on the cathedral door with the proposed topic for debate and a time for the debate to take place. Following the custom of the day, that little known monk tacked a list of 95 topics or theses onto the door and waited to see what would come of it.
He couldn’t have known at the time, but the little known monk, Martin Luther, just tossed a pebble down a rocky slope and began a landslide we know today as the Protestant Reformation.
It’s important to note the name we’ve come to call this movement — The Reformation. Luther was a monk and quite an accomplished one. He loved the Church and the last thing he wanted to do was tear her down. Still, some aspects of the status quo were too egregious in his mind to ignore. He didn’t want to destroy the church; he wanted to “reform” it. His biggest complaint and the subject of much of his 95 Theses was the way the Catholic Church treated something called indulgences. Basically, indulgences worked like this: at that time, the Church held pretty much everyone who died went not to Heaven but to a middle state called Purgatory. A soul would stay in Purgatory until it had worn away the sins carried into death. Left to progress naturally, this process could take many centuries. It might be thousands of years before dear mother entered the Pearly Gates.
Enter the indulgence. The Church taught that for a price, one could purchase “merit” which could be applied to the soul of one’s choice in Purgatory. This merit would then be applied to said soul’s account and the application of merit would speed the soul’s journey on to Heaven. Instead of thousands of years, the purchase of indulgences could decrease mother’s heavenly journey to weeks or, for enough money, even days.
What this basically means is the Church taught and people believed one could basically “buy” one’s way into Heaven. This was a racket that would make today’s TV hucksters like Joel Osteen turn green with envy. It wasn’t even subtle. Poor people would spend their life’s savings to buy a piece of paper that assured they wouldn’t have to spend long in Purgatory but could count on a smooth, quick trip to Heaven. In the mystical game of Catholic Monopoly, the indulgence was a “Get out of Purgatory Free” card.
Martin Luther called schwachsinn on the whole racket. He claimed he’d read the Bible cover to cover and he couldn’t find ANY mention of the ability of the Church to even GRANT indulgences, much less SELL them. His radical idea was that the only possible way to Heaven was through faith in Jesus Christ alone. Sola Fide.
The Church authorities were less than pleased with Luther.
Turns out Luther had a whole plethora of ideas about how to change Holy Mother Church. The whole idea of clergymen being celibate? Forget that! Nothing in the Bible said a priest couldn’t marry and Martin Luther based everything he proposed or taught in the earliest days of the Reformation on Scripture alone. Sola Scriptura.
In a moment of sublime serendipity, Luther was having all these newfangled ideas at the same time as a brand new contraption called the “printing press” was beginning to catch on. That meant Luther didn’t have to write individual letters to get his message out. The printing press at Whittenberg turned out pamphlets Luther wrote by the thousands. Soon, Luther’s ideas about reforming the Church spread all across Europe and other towns began seizing the banner of the Reformation.
Now the Church authorities were REALLY pissed.
At this time, Luther was still a monk. Remember, he never set out to tear down the Church. He just wanted changes to bring her more in line with the Bible. Since he was a monk, he was ordered to attend a religious council called the Diet of Worms and defend his ideas before the authorities. He went to Worms even though he knew it could mean his arrest and if he was arrested he would probably be burned at the stake as a heretic.
For two days, Martin Luther defended his positions before hundreds of churchmen. He always appealed to the Bible. Finally, the head of the council had heard enough. He pointed towards the stack of pamphlets and books Luther had written before him on the table and told him he had one last chance — recant these heretical views or face the dire consequences.
Turning to the head of the council, Martin Luther gave the reply which has rang down the centuries and which ushered in the era of the Reformation to which almost any denomination of Christian not Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox owes its existence. He replied, “I cannot and will not recant anything. My conscience is captive to the Word of God and to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here. I. Stand. I can do no other. So help me God, Amen.”
He escaped Worms with the help of some powerful friends, but he would be excommunicated from the church and branded an outlaw for the rest of his life. It mattered little, though. The pebble tossed by the 95 Theses quickly became a full on landslide sweeping 1500 years of Catholic tradition before it. The Reformation had begun in earnest.
Love y’all and keep your feet clean.