Martin Luther and the Reformation

Just over five hundred years ago, on Oct. 31, 1517, the small-town monk Martin Luther marched up to the castle church in Wittenberg and nailed his 95 Theses to the door, thus lighting the flame of the Reformation — the split between the Catholic and Protestant churches.

So runs the story.  But, like most good stories, it’s probably not true.

The thought of Luther arming himself with a hammer and nails in a great act of defiance may be attractive, but it doesn’t really fit the facts.  The castle church door was simply the normal noticeboard of the university and pasting (not nailing) a paper there was simply what you did to make a formal publication.
Nowadays, he would probably have used Twitter.

Martin Luther was no calculating revolutionary who plotted to overthrow the old order.  He may have been wanting to reform the church, but the “Reformation” — the split with the Catholic Church — was never a part of his plan. Luther always thought of himself as a good Catholic.  The fact is that his ideas, in the modern idiom, “went viral” meant that what Luther had started not only spiralled beyond his dreams but also, probably entered into the realms of his nightmares too. Tolerance, liberal democracy, freedom of expression and scientific rationalism were never a part of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses.

The 95 Theses carried two major messages.

The Catholic Church was extremely powerful — and with extreme power comes the path to abuse of that power.  The “princes of the church” were not above raising an extra bob or two to spend on a lavish lifestyle and a handy source of income came from the sale of both holy relics (most of which had, at best, a very dubious provenance) and “indulgences”.

By purchasing an indulgence the church claimed, an individual could reduce the length and severity of punishment that heaven would require as payment for their sins.  Buy an indulgence for a loved one, and they would go to heaven and not burn in hell. Buy an indulgence for yourself, and you needn’t worry about that pesky affair you’d been having.

Luther argued that this was hogwash and, as the Church argued back, so he developed this theme into one of the major threads of the Reformation” — and a major cause of the split with the Catholic Church.

The second message of the Theses was that our faith depends only on the Word of God — and that is found in the Bible.  And this is where we come to our pulpit and the pews.  The Reformation of Luther sowed the seeds of Henry VIII’s split with the Pope and the arrival of the printing press enabled Bibles to be printed — and printed in a language that people could  understand, rather than the elitist Latin.

Despite breaking away from Rome, Henry VIII made few changes to the form of services.  It was after he died and the staunchly Protestant Edward VI took the throne in 1547 that much noticable change began to appear in ordinary churches.

With the rise of the importance of the Word of God in the Bible alongside a new English Book of Common Prayer, a relatively new concept of “the sermon” was born.  An exposition of that word of God that could (and did) often last for some considerable time.  This required physical changes.  A preacher needed to have somewhere he could stand and be seen and the congregation could no longer stand through the service.  The pulpit and pews began to make their appearance.  However old the church, you are very unlikely to find a pre-Reformation pulpit or any seating other than the misericords of the monks.