Martin Luther and the Reformation

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 3, 2012

Martin Luther

Martin Luther was born in 1483 in the German state of Saxony. He became a theological scholar and a professor of scripture at Wittenberg University. A devout Catholic, Luther was outraged by the notion that salvation could be bought and sold. His Ninety-Five Theses, which appeared in 1517, were propositions for debate that questioned and criticized many aspects of the Catholic Church, including a prominent and harsh reference to the sale of indulgences. The Ninety-Five Theses were printed and widely circulated, and many people were convinced by Luther’s arguments. The pope ordered Luther to recant his criticisms of the Church on pain of excommunication; Luther refused.

At this time in history, the German city-states of north-central Europe were bound in a loose alliance known as the Holy Roman Empire. Each state had its own prince, with one emperor ruling over all. The rulers of the provinces were called electors because the emperor was chosen by election. Over time, the election had become purely ceremonial; since 1440, the title had been passed down in the ruling Hapsburg (spelled “Habsburg” in some sources) family in the same manner as any hereditary monarchy in Europe. In 1519, Charles I of Spain was crowned Holy Roman emperor, succeeding his grandfather Maximilian I. He would rule as Emperor Charles V.

In 1521, Charles called all his princes together for a diet—an official assembly—at the town of Worms. Summoned to appear before the diet, Luther refused to recant his statements. Ordered to leave the empire, he instead accepted an offer of protection from the elector of Saxony. Luther continued to write and publish and, to his own astonishment, soon realized that instead of bringing about reform in the Catholic Church, he had founded a new denomination.

The most important idea behind Lutheranism is the notion that salvation depends on faith. Each believer must read, study, and understand scripture for himself or herself—in effect, each soul would serve as his or her own priest, instead of relying exclusively on an ordained priest to interpret the word of God. Part of what made this possible was, of course, the technology of printing, which before long brought a Bible into every household. Luther’s German translation of the Bible appeared in 1534. For the first time, Germans could read the Bible in their own language rather than having to learn Hebrew, Latin, or Greek.

Luther advocated a simple worship service, arguing that the communion between the individual and God took place in the individual’s heart and mind. The elaborate ceremony of the Catholic mass, to Luther, was merely an out- ward show that had no spiritual significance. Luther also argued that worship services should be conducted in the language of the people, so that they could understand exactly what was being said and think about it for themselves. These ideas and reforms appealed to thousands of Germans.

Several of the German princes became enthusiastic Lutherans as well. When Lutheranism became the state religion, the Church’s vast wealth and property passed from the pope’s control into the hands of the prince. This was a powerful practical reason for adopting Lutheranism, above and beyond questions of spirituality. However, many princes remained devoutly Catholic.

At first, Charles V tolerated Lutheranism, but as it spread, various groups began using it as a basis for social and political revolt. In 1529, the emperor decreed a ban on Lutheranism. It was during this period that the term protestant first came into use, describing the Lutheran princes and people who protested against the emperor’s decree. War eventually broke out between the German states over this issue. In 1555, the Peace of Augsburg settled the matter by declaring that each German prince could determine the religion of his own state.

Lutheranism took firm hold in Germany and also spread north to the Scandinavian countries. Meanwhile, a rather different form of Protestant Christianity developed in Switzerland.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

The Reformation in Europe Practice Test

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