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Martin Luther


Luther and the Protestant reform
Luther and the Protestant reform

Martin Luther, one of the most important figures in all of German history, was a monk and theology professor at the University of Wittenberg. Through his studies, he gradually developed an alternate interpretation of how Christians obtained salvation. In his interpretation, an individual could be saved only through faith, not through good works, as the Catholic Church taught. His famous posting of the Ninety-five Theses on the door of the Wittenberg cathedral in 1517 was a call for reforming certain abuses within the Catholic Church, such as the selling of indulgences, remissions of sin granted by the Church. By 1520, however, Luther had decided that his interpretation of Christianity was incompatible with that of the existing church.

Within six months, he published three significant pamphlets that stated his belief in salvation by faith alone, described how the Roman church had deviated from the Scriptures, and called on the German princes to take a more active role in governing the church within their territories. Pope Leo X issued a papal bull, an official statement giving Luther until the end of 1520 to recant or face excommunication; the reformer replied by publicly burning the bull and all the books of canon (church) law. The following year Emperor Charles V summoned Luther to defend himself at the imperial diet in Worms. When Luther attended and refused to bend before the assembled heads of Germany, he was outlawed. Fortunately, his powerful patron Frederick the Wise, elector of Saxony, ignored the ban and instead installed Luther at Wartburg castle, where Luther began to translate the New Testament into German.

Diversity of the Early Reformation


Luther’s evangelical ideas found fertile soil in diverse parts of German society. The imperial knights Ulrich von Hutten and Franz von Sickingen took up Luther’s appeals to the German nobility to rid their land of Roman Catholic influences. In 1522 they launched an armed offensive against church lands that was crushed within a year.

Calvin and Luther
Calvin and Luther

In 1524 a much larger and more destructive revolt, known as the Peasants’ War, spread from southwestern Germany up the Rhine to the heart of the empire. By 1525 more than 500,000 peasants had taken up arms, making a variety of demands on their feudal lords. These peasants often mingled Luther’s language and ideas with their own complaints about taxation and the loss of traditional feudal rights, such as the use of common lands..

Luther, however, claimed that the rebelling peasants had misunderstood him, and that spiritual equality before God was not the same as social or political equality in the world. He urged the princes to strike down those who upset the social order intended by God. The princes did just that, massacring as many as 100,000 peasants. The largest peasant revolt in German history was crushed, as were the hopes of all those seeking a radical social reformation.

From the mid-1520s on, the German Reformation entered an urban phase, in which city magistrates assumed importance. Throughout the empire, local reformers persuaded the leaders of all but 5 of the 60 imperial cities to embrace Luther’s reforms. The resulting religious reform ordinances varied. Some cities thoroughly revised all church rituals; others stressed reform of morals and public decency.

Most allowed priests to marry and transferred control over all church property and offices to the municipal government. Meanwhile, some Swiss cantons had come under the influence of theologian Huldreich Zwingli, who developed the Reformed Christian movement. Zwingli disagreed with Luther on some important questions of doctrine and favored a more thoroughly integrated theocracy, with almost no division between church and state. This religious tradition continued through the work of Heinrich Bullinger in Zürich and John Calvin in Geneva.

There were many other interpretations of Luther’s evangelical message, and many who disagreed were persecuted by Lutherans and Catholics alike. The Anabaptists were a universal target of persecution. These small groups of believers, who called themselves Brethren or simply Christians, accepted Luther’s emphasis on faith and Scriptures but also believed in the extremely unpopular practice of adult baptism. Because all of the people of the time had already been baptized as infants, baptizing adults was considered double baptism, a capital offense since the late Roman Empire. Most Anabaptists were also pacifists (see Pacifism) and thus easy prey for persecution. The one major exception was the Anabaptist citizenry of the city of Münster, whose leader, Jan of Leyden, declared a theocratic kingdom in 1534. Few issues so united the Protestant and Catholic princes of Germany, who raised a huge siege against the city, breaking through in 1535 and executing hundreds. From this period on, the Anabaptist movement remained exclusively pacifistic, as is evident in the followers of Menno Simons, founder in the 16th century of the Mennonites, and in the 17th-century Amish. "Germany" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia

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