Halloween is Tuesday, but do you know what else is being celebrated on Oct. 31?
It has been 500 years since a revolutionary radical changed the Western world in just about every way. The birth of his protests is roughly twice the age of the American Revolution, and they’re intricately connected.
History.com explained, “On [Oct. 31,] 1517, the priest and scholar Martin Luther approaches the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, and nails a piece of paper to it containing the 95 revolutionary opinions that would begin the Protestant Reformation.”
In my opinion, it was more than a reformation. It was a revolution. True, 33-year-old Martin Luther didn’t intend to create a new movement outside of Catholicism, but rather to reform the Church from within. Nevertheless, his revolt certainly morphed into far more than a protest. He might not have forcibly overthrown the papacy, but his 95 revolutionary opinions rival the passion and impact of our own Declaration of Independence. Check out all of Luther’s statements here.
Copies of Martin’s 95 theses were made by the printer, John Gruenenberg, with the help of the new printing press – first used in Germany about 1450, just a decade after its invention by Johannes Gutenberg. Copies were given to some of Luther’s friends, bishops, other Church officials, etc. They spread like wildfire from city to city. Luther’s opposition to the Church became headline news, and he was catapulted into being a leader of a radical reformation.
Luther was a son of a copper mining family. His relatively simple roots, passion for Scripture and love for people prompted him to ignite a populous movement. He opposed corruption, especially in the ecclesiastical hierarchy. He debated the proud, and he spoke up for the downtrodden. He was also an advocate for education for all boys and girls, not just for the elite or wealthy. And he believed in the intricate relation between literacy, education and empowerment.
Just five years after nailing his 95 theses on the Wittenberg Church door, Luther had translated the New Testament into the German language for all to read. People were no longer dependent upon priests to read or interpret the Bible. In 1519, Luther publicly declared that “a simple layman armed with the Scriptures” was superior to both pope and councils without them. (Luther also popularized the singing of hymns.)
Luther, like so many revolutionaries, was also a black sheep of sorts and a wild horse at times. At the same time his popularity grew, he amassed profound critics. One Catholic called him a “demon in the appearance of a man.”
Dr. Lyndal Roper, Regius professor of modern history at the University of Oxford, explained in her new book, “Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet,” that Luther had a unique personality that elevated him as a renegade among his colleagues and even the reformers. For example, when celibacy was no longer required, Luther had no problem separating from other priests by marrying a former nun in 1525.
Martin Luther and the other reformers (like John Wycliffe, William Tyndale, Huldrych Zwingli, Jan Hus, etc.) spawned the Protestant Reformation, which in turn gave birth to the legacy and ancestry of many Americans through the Pilgrims, Puritans, Huguenots, Quakers and other Protestants who were either fleeing persecution in Europe and/or were lured here with dreams and goals of building a New Jerusalem.
Dr. Cameron Addis, Ph.D., professor of history at Texas A&M University, described Protestantism’s intricate connection to the history of Western civilization and even America itself, when he wrote: “the Reformation’s challenge to Catholic doctrine reinforced the Scientific Revolution. Moreover, it provided ideological justification for modern banking and capitalism and Western notions of representative government and equality. In short, it’s impossible to unravel America’s Revolution, culture, or economy without taking Protestant doctrine into account. If these fundamentals aren’t enough to warrant investigation, there is religion itself. The Reformation gave rise to all forms of Protestant Christianity outside the established Church – or what we now call the Roman Catholic Church – including Lutheran, Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, United Church of Christ, Reformed, [and] all forms of evangelical fundamentalism …”
Peter Smith at the Pittsburg Post-Gazette, posed, “Just try to imagine Pennsylvania today without its patchwork of Lutherans and Presbyterians, Quakers and Moravians, Amish and Mennonites, Pentecostals and non-denominational megachurch-goers – all Luther’s descendants one way or another.”
America’s founders were steeped in Protestantism. The Encyclopedia Britannica documents their faiths: “[T]he Founders came from similar religious backgrounds. Most were Protestants. The largest number were raised in the three largest Christian traditions of colonial America – Anglicanism (as in the cases of John Jay, George Washington, and Edward Rutledge), Presbyterianism (as in the cases of Richard Stockton and the Rev. John Witherspoon), and Congregationalism (as in the cases of John Adams and Samuel Adams). Other Protestant groups included the Society of Friends (Quakers), the Lutherans, and the Dutch Reformed. Three Founders – Charles Carroll and Daniel Carroll of Maryland and Thomas Fitzsimmons of Pennsylvania – were of Roman Catholic heritage.”
In a very real sense, Martin Luther lit the spark that not only led to the Protestant Reformation but also two centuries later to the American Revolution. Indeed, it is difficult to even imagine an America without its Protestant roots in Europe.
Happy 500th birthday, Protestant Reformation! America is so glad you were born!