It happens every year on the last Sunday of October and is quietly commemorated by Lutheran churches all over the world. It’s called Reformation Sunday.
To Lutherans, it’s a special day because it celebrates the anniversary of church reformist Martin Luther (1483-1546) nailing his 95 Theses, or discussion points, on the stately wooden doors of the Roman Catholic church in Wittenberg, Germany, on Oct. 31, 1517.
Typically, a Lutheran pastor at any church will give a special sermon that highlights the significance of the Reformation with a few anecdotes about Luther’s life thrown in. The organist will accompany the congregation as they gleefully sing “A Mighty Fortress (Is Our God),” a hymn well-known in many faiths, that was composed by Luther himself.
A potluck usually follows the service, where Lutherans will chat about their kids or grandkids, or discuss which pesticide works best to kill crab grass.
What a lot of people outside the Lutheran faith don’t know is the firestorm Luther sparked on that fateful day 500 years ago, with his simple act of rebellion against the authoritarian Catholic hierarchy, is one of the most significant events in world history — ranking right up there with Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the Americas, astronomer and mathematician Nicolaus Copernicus’ formulation of a model of the universe that placed the sun, rather than the Earth, at the center of the universe, the Apollo 11 moon landing and both world wars.
In U.S. history, the most conspicuous civil rights leader of all time, Martin Luther King Jr., was named by his father after the great Protestant reformer. Both King Jr. and his father originally had the first name Michael. But after traveling to Germany, King Sr. was so impressed with Luther’s remarkable life that he legally changed his name and his young son’s to Martin Luther.
This year, Protestants across the globe — along with many Roman Catholics — will commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, which not only freed much of northern Europe from the iron fist of Papacy in Rome, but also led to political and social reforms that continue even to this day.
Last October, Pope Francis traveled to Sweden, the modern epicenter of the Lutheran faith, to kick off a yearlong series of events to celebrate the quincentenary. The pope appealed to Catholics and Lutherans to “mend” history and look with honesty at the past, “recognizing error and seeking forgiveness.”
The bloody decades of wars spawned by the Reformation — in which one third of Germany’s population was killed — divided Lutherans and Catholics for centuries. But last year in a joint statement, the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation said that both partners “are no longer strangers” and that their joint goal was to bring members of the two churches together at the Eucharistic table.
Closer to home, a prayer service was held April 2 in Las Cruces with Catholic Bishop Oscar Cantú of the Las Cruces Diocese and his Lutheran counterpart, Bishop Jim Gonia of the Rocky Mountain Synod, leading the service.
Establishing a new church and changing the destiny of the European continent was the farthest thing from Luther’s mind. Luther was a devout Catholic and only wanted to advance reforms in the Catholic church.
An Augustinian monk with a college education, Luther saw a huge disconnect between the Bible’s messages of humility and caring for the poor and the lavish lifestyles of the clergy and the political power of the Roman church.
In particular, Luther railed against the practice of indulgences, in which someone could buy a piece of paper that acted as a coupon to barter away one’s sins. Indulgences were transferable, so let’s say you believed that your recently deceased Aunt Bessie had to spend 4,000 years in purgatory, a place halfway between heaven and hell, before she could get into heaven. You could reduce her sentence by a couple hundred years or so by transferring your indulgence to her beloved soul.
Luther asserted that there was no mention of a place called purgatory — where you could “purge” your sins after years and years of suffering — in the Bible. He also said that according to the Bible, salvation could not be bought.
Luther also believed that the Bible should be read and preached in simple, everyday language and not in Greek or Latin, which could only be understood by the elite. He translated the Bible from Greek to the vernacular German. In doing so, Luther codified the German language, much like the King James Version did for the English language several decades later.
Though Luther wrote his 95 Theses in Latin, the language of scholars, it didn’t take long for them to be translated to German and spread throughout that region of Europe like an untreatable rash.
The 95 Theses, which would later become the foundation of the Protestant Reformation, were written in a remarkably humble and academic tone, questioning rather than accusing. The overall thrust of the document was nonetheless quite provocative. The first two of the theses contained Luther’s central idea, that God intended believers to seek repentance and that faith alone, not deeds, would lead to salvation. The other 93 theses, a number of them directly criticizing the practice of indulgences, supported these first two.
Luther quickly gained “rock star” status and took his preachings to the masses.
While Luther’s beliefs are widely accepted by modern Christians, in days of yore, they were branded heretical by the church establishment. After refusing to recant his sermons at the Wittenberg church, Luther was excommunicated by the pope. Without the protection of the church, Luther could be killed by anyone.
Why Luther’s reformation worked
Although there had been significant earlier attempts to reform the Roman Catholic Church before Luther, they were squashed by the church and the instigators were usually executed.
While Luther was leading the Reformation in Germany, John Calvin, a Frenchman, led a reformation in Geneva, Switzerland. Luther had a collaborator, Philip Melanchthon, who was the intellectual leader of the Reformation (in contrast to Luther’s more simplistic views) and an influential designer of educational systems.
There were two primary reasons why Luther succeeded over his predecessors.
Luther gained the protection of Prince Frederick III after he was placed under imperial ban in 1521.
Frederick and other princes and lords of the numerous German fiefdoms were growing weary of sending large chunks of money to Rome and wanted to keep more for themselves. They saw the Reformation as a way to gain political currency and pull away from the overreaching power of the Holy Roman Empire.
Frederick even staged a “fake kidnapping” in which Luther, for his own protection, was nabbed while traveling. Luther was whisked away to a castle in Wartburg, Germany, where he grew a beard and pretended to be a knight. Luther lived at Wartburg for about a year, where he translated the Bible from Greek to German.
Another big reason Luther succeeded was his shrewdness in exploiting the best technology of his time, the Gutenberg press, which was invented around 1440 by Johannes Gutenberg. Luther was a prolific writer, and with the Gutenberg’s movable type, he could have his pamphlets quickly and cheaply printed for distribution throughout Germany. If Luther were alive today, he would probably tweet on Twitter more often than President Trump.
Additionally, Luther lured the talents of illustrator Lucas Cranach, whose woodcuts were sort of like political cartoons. Luther realized that many Germans were still illiterate and could not read his pamphlets. But if Cranach produced an illustration of the pope as a donkey, they would get Luther’s point from the picture.
Luther’s wife was his equal
Luther married Katharina von Bora, a former nun. The couple had six children and raised several orphans. Luther had many discussions at the kitchen table in his home with contemporary theologians and scholars. His wife was included in those discussions, and she is considered one of the most important participants of the Reformation because of her role in helping define the Protestant family and setting the tone for clergy marriages.
Luther’s dark side
Modern Protestants have had to own up to the fact that Luther did have a dark side — he was anti-semitic.
Luther took his messages of Christian reform to the Jews, thinking they would convert to Christianity. But the Jews rejected his ideologies and this angered Luther. In his later years, Luther wrote a treatise called “On the Jews and Their Lies.”
As the Reformation began to steamroll, the peasants who worked the farmlands in the German fiefdoms thought this gave them free license to rise up against their wealthy landowners with rakes, pitchforks and shovels.
Luther wanted to maintain the social order, so he sided with the landowners and thousands of peasants were killed.
Life for peasants in medieval Europe was bleak. There were no “golden years” to look forward to — they merely did what they could to survive.
If a peasant worker came down with a serious illness, he was as good as dead and he and his family were kicked out of their meager home by the rich landowner.
Luther, however, was sympathetic to these dire conditions and is credited with helping set up an early form of Social Security, or a community chest, said Larry Sydow, a retired Lutheran pastor who lives in Roswell.
The Reformation and the Renaissance
The Reformation converged with another important movement in Europe, the Renaissance, which is regarded as a cultural bridge between the Middle Ages and the modern age.
During the Renaissance there was a rediscovery of classical Greek philosophy, including “humanism,” in which “Man is the measure of all things.” This new thinking became manifest in art, architecture, politics, science and literature.
The most famous figure of the Renaissance is the Italian, Leonardo da Vinci, who lived about the same time as Luther. Most known for his oil paintings, da Vinci also was a scientist and inventor.
Local clergy comment on the Reformation
Father Joe Pacquing, administrator of Assumption Catholic Church, said the original intention of the Reformation was muddled by the political part of the movement.
He said reforms have been made within the Catholic church, while still holding onto traditional beliefs.
Pacquing said the Reformation continues today, but it is more about bringing unity between Catholics and Protestants than the bloody conflicts of the past.
Rev. Steven Cholak, pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Roswell, said the Reformation is still relevant in today’s world because of it’s focus on Christ.
“The Reformation in particular was about Christ and his life shining through,” Cholak said. “We have so many individual truths now, when it is all about Jesus and an absolute truth.”
Larry Sydow, a retired Lutheran pastor who lives in Roswell, said the Reformation began to undermine the whole idea of the feudal system.
“When you talk about the Reformation, you are talking about education being totally changed, the German language being consolidated into a language where he (Luther) could translate the first printed Bible into German.
“Luther and (John) Calvin set the stage with a number of other reformers for an intellectual view of the church because up to that point if you wanted to become a bishop and you had the money to do it, you could buy a position.”
Book after book has been written about the Reformation and there is a wealth of information on the internet for those who wish to learn more on the movement. The sources for this article are listed below.
This article will conclude with one of Luther’s most well-known quotes, written in 1521.
“Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly, for he is victorious over sin, death and the world.”
Sources: BBC website, Evangelical Lutheran Church of America website, Lutheran Church Missouri Synod website, Wikipedia, History Channel website and the DVD, “Luther and the Reformation,” by Rick Steves, host of the PBS program “Rick Steves’ Europe.”
Community News reporter Timothy P. Howsare can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 311, or email@example.com.
Reformation events at both Lutheran churches in Roswell on Oct. 29
St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church — ELCA
2911 N. Main St.
Service at 10:15 a.m. based on Luther’s German Mass (in English). Communion service with singing and chanting, using resources from Luther’s day to our own. Lunch at noon followed by skits based on Luther’s life at 1 p.m.
At 2 p.m. is a panel discussion with representatives from a number of Christian traditions about the Reformation.
At 3 p.m. is a concert and hymn fest with a choir, bell choir, organ solos, organ and piano duets, with hymns from Luther, Charles Wesley and others. The day of events concludes at 4 p.m. with a Holden Evening Prayer service.
Immanuel Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod
405 N. Sycamore Ave.
Service at 9 a.m. Vespers (evening prayer) at 5 p.m. with a dinner following.