On October 31, 1517, an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther nailed to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany 95 propositions or theses and marked the beginning of the Reformation. Of course, the Reformation began long before that, but this date proves to be a convenient coat hanger for historians to mark the beginning of Protestantism.* However, the 95 Theses were not intended as a call to reformation and it is the story behind this event that proves so fascinating, and shows the real purpose of the 95 Theses.
Prince Albert of Brandenburg wanted the archbishopric of Mainz. (You may know the city of Mainz as the home of a goldsmith named Johann Gutenberg, who had developed the uniform-sized movable type printing press some 60 years earlier.) Because Albert was younger than 25 years old, the office of archbishop required a dispensation that would cost him 10,00 ducats (about $500,000.) Pope Leo X, who was financing the building of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome (for $46 million) suggested that Albert borrow the money from the wealthy Fugger banking family. Albert was able to secure half the funds from the Fuggers, and for the rest he sold indulgences. An indulgence was a document which freed the holder from the temporal penalty of sin. The sale of indulgences, introduced during the Crusades, remained a favored source of papal income. In exchange for a meritorious work – frequently, a contribution to a worthy cause or a pilgrimage to a shrine – the church offered the sinner exemption from his acts of penance by drawing upon its “treasury of merits.” This consisted of the grace accumulated by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and the meritorious deeds of the saints. In Castle Church at Wittenberg for example, it was believed that the relics (bones of saints, etc.) were reckoned to earn a remission for pilgrims of 1,902,202 years and 270 days.
When the Dominican friar John Tetzel came preaching through much of Germany on behalf of Albert, he boasted that for a contribution he would provide donors with an indulgence that would even apply beyond the grave and free souls from purgatory. “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings,” went his jingle, “quickly the soul from purgatory springs”.
To Martin Luther, the professor of biblical studies at the newly founded University of Wittenberg, Tetzel’s preaching was bad theology if not worse. Luther thought this practice was wholly unwarranted by Scripture, reason or tradition. He felt it encouraged not repentance but mere payment. Luther promptly drew up 95 propositions or theses in Latin, following university custom, for a call to theological debate. Among other things, they argued that indulgences cannot remove guilt, do not apply to purgatory, and are harmful because they induce a false sense of security in the donor. So, the 95 Theses were not a general call to break with the Roman Catholic Church. The irony is that someone took the 95 Theses and translated them into German, the language of the common man. And with the aid of Gutenberg’s printing press copies were distributed to the masses. This was the spark that ignited the Reformation. Consequently, many Protestant churches celebrate October 31 as Reformation Day, and the closest Sunday to it as Reformation Sunday.
* Of course, 1517 wasn’t the actual beginning of the use of the word Protestant. That didn’t occur until over a decade later. In 1526, the Diet of Speyer met concerning the previous Imperial Edict of Worms (1521) which had condemned Luther politically. The Diet held that “every State shall so live, rule, and believe as it may hope and trust to answer before God and his imperial Majesty”. However, practically it turned out so that each German state (prince) took it to grant freedom to choose its own allegiance: “As goes the religion of the Prince, so goes the people.” In 1529 at the Second Diet of Speyer, the Edict of Worms condemnation was reaffirmed essentially re-condemning Lutheranism. Half a dozen Lutheran princes presented a formal “Letter of Protestation,” which was subsequently printed and made public, and so were called “Protestants.”
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian