Five hundred years ago, almost to the day, Martin Luther wrote his 95 theses. Even though five centuries divide us from the famous Reformer, historians, religious scholars, and even laypeople still talk about the impact his ideas had on Christian Europe. Unfortunately, few people know the whole story.
In a new book, A World Ablaze: The Rise of Martin Luther and the Birth of the Reformation, BYU history professor Craig Harline tells the story of the man who shook Christianity to its core. Harline’s book, published just recently, is refreshingly readable; he dives into the story and makes it interesting to non-historians. A must for anyone who likes a good storyline, the book’s pacing and suspense make it read like fiction.
FHSS commemorates the anniversary of the day Luther sent out his theses—October 31st—by sharing 95 interesting facts about his life and personality.
- Nailing or gluing theses to church doors was a common practice in the early 1500s, but there’s no historical record indicating whether Luther actually posted his own 95 theses on the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany.
- We do know that Luther sent his theses (written in Latin) to two local bishops and an archbishop. A few days later, he began sending copies to his friends, asking for their opinions.
- Luther’s theses spread as clergymen forwarded copies to each other. There were no laws against reprinting another person’s work, so someone eventually arranged to print more copies, and those made their way around the Holy Roman Empire.
- Printers began publishing German translations of Luther’s theses in early 1518. That allowed laypeople, not just scholars, to access his ideas.
- What exactly is a thesis? It’s a claim supporting a larger idea, often defended or attacked in a debate-like setting known as a disputation.
- Luther’s bishop discouraged him from holding a disputation, so Luther didn’t defend his theses in the usual forum in 1517 or 1518.
- The topic of Luther’s theses? The practice of the Catholic church that offered “indulgences,” or forgiveness of sins a person had committed in exchange for certain actions, such as a specified prayer, the visiting of a particular place, the performance of specific good works, or the giving of alms.
- In particular, he opposed the funding of the construction of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome and the paying-off of the debts of the Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz by alms gathered from indulgences.
- Luther wrote his 95 theses carefully, but many people interpreted them as attacks on the pope himself.
- Pope Leo X read Luther’s theses in early 1518. He sent word that Luther should keep silent on the subject of indulgences, but he didn’t do anything else… at first.
- Luther published an eight-page pamphlet, A Sermon on Indulgences and Grace, in March 1518 to clarify and expound on his ideas about indulgences.
- Luther’s Sermon, written in German, was even more popular than his theses. The pamphlet went through 14 printings in 1518.
- Luther spent much of 1518 writing papers to defend his theses, to refute his critics’ arguments, and to preach on other subjects. He was on his way to becoming one of the most prolific writers of his century.
- Luther also wrote a 170-page document called Explanations, which he sent to the pope to elaborate on his 95 theses.
- Luther rewrote some of his theses in Explanations, using stronger language against indulgences and saying that “the pope [was] only human and [could] err in matters of faith and morals.”
- After reading Explanations, the pope ordered Luther to come to Rome for a trial. Luther feared that a Roman trial would condemn him and keep him from ever returning to Germany.
- Prince Frederick, who ruled most of Saxony (including Wittenberg) and carried lots of political clout, intervened and changed the trial’s location from Rome to Augsburg, Germany.
- On the first day of the trial, Luther got into a yelling match with Cardinal Tomasso Cajetan, who led the trial.
- Johann von Staupitz, Luther’s superior in the Augustinian order of monks where he served, rushed to Augsburg after hearing about the disastrous first day. He convinced Luther to prepare a statement for the following days in court.
- In Luther’s written statement, he explained his position and included many scriptures, but Cajetan dismissed everything as “mere words.”
- The trial ended with Cajetan threatening Luther with excommunication and telling him not to return unless he was ready to recant.
- Rumors spread around Augsburg that Cajetan was going to order Luther’s arrest.
- As the highest-ranking Augustinian in Augsburg, Staupitz knew that he could be ordered to arrest Luther, so Staupitz absolved Luther of his vow of obedience. This effectively divorced Luther from the Augustinian order.
- Staupitz then fled Augsburg before Cajetan could take further action.
- Luther remained in the city until October 20. He posted an appeal to the pope on the church door, then rode out of Augsburg on an unsaddled horse.
- Luther rode back into Wittenberg on October 31, 1518. It was the first anniversary of the fateful day he sent out his theses.
Luther’s Tenuous Status in Saxony
- Even though Luther was no longer an Augustinian friar, he was still a preacher and a professor at Prince Frederick’s university in Wittenberg. He spent most of the fall of 1518 worrying that he would have to suddenly flee the city to avoid arrest.
- Knowing that Luther relied on Prince Frederick’s protection, Cajetan wrote to the prince to say that Luther should be arrested, or at least thrown out of Saxony.
- Two months after receiving Cajetan’s letter, Prince Frederick wrote back to say that Luther wasn’t a heretic because he still hadn’t had a real trial and no one had actually forced him to recant.
- Enrollment at Prince Frederick’s university increased sharply (from about 400 to 552) in 1518, mainly because students wanted to be taught by the famous Luther. The spike in enrollment is one reason behind the prince’s protection.
- The prince might have privately agreed with Luther’s concerns. He was intelligent, and he usually believed expert opinions when he heard them.
- But for political reasons, Prince Frederick couldn’t show obvious support of Luther. Frederick feared attack from other German princes (who could use Luther’s “heresy” as a pretext to attack Frederick), the taking of his lands by his own family members, excommunication, and subsequent loss of political power.
- Luther’s next big publication hit the press in December 1518: Acta Augustana, his account of the Augsburg trial and his assertion that Cajetan had labelled him as a heretic before the trial even began.
- Pope Leo sent Karel von Miltitz, a Saxon nobleman who ran in the papal circles, to bargain with Prince Frederick over Luther’s fate. Miltitz, an inexperienced delegate, couldn’t convince the prince to arrest Luther, but he did secure a meeting with Luther himself.
- Miltitz and Luther met and reached a compromise, but Emperor Maximilian, of the Holy Roman Empire, died just days later. The pope wanted a particular person installed as the next emperor, and Prince Frederick was an elector who got to help choose the emperor, so the two parties shelved their discussion on Luther’s fate until the new emperor had been elected.
- Even with the conversation paused, the pope wrote to Luther and said that Miltitz had told him that Luther was willing to recant. Luther replied that Miltitz was mistaken and that he’d only recant if someone could prove he was wrong.
- In the meantime, Luther was appointed dean of Prince Frederick’s university.
Luther’s Long-Awaited Disputation
- In early 1519, a scholar named Johann Eck began preparing for a disputation that seemed to target Luther’s ideas, even though Eck only invited Luther’s friend and ally Karlstadt to participate. Luther wasn’t sure if he’d be invited to debate Eck or not, but he prepared just in case.
- The disputation was important to all of Christian Europe, and Luther knew how influential its outcome would be. That’s why he put so much effort into preparing, without even knowing if he could participate.
- While Luther was preparing for the disputation, his ideas became even more radical. He studied the topic of the pope’s authority and said he wasn’t sure “whether the pope is the Antichrist himself or whether he is his apostle.”
- In May 1519, Luther published a thesis hinting that the pope’s authority wasn’t supreme. Luther wrote that scriptures and church history and the church’s fathers all proved that the pope didn’t actually have as much authority as he claimed.
- Luther’s friends asked him to drop the subject of the pope’s authority, but Luther said he knew Christ was with him, or else he already would have been burned at the stake.
- With less than a week to go before the disputation, Eck still hadn’t invited Luther to participate, but Luther made the 50-mile trip to Leipzig (the disputation’s setting) anyway. About 200 Wittenberg students followed his wagon.
- Just three days before the disputation, a fight broke out between the students who supported Luther and the students who supported Eck. Luther’s side took the heat for the encounter, so Leipzig officials stationed 34 guards near the Wittenberg group’s lodgings.
- On June 27, the first day of the disputation, Eck finally asked Luther to debate him after he’d finished his disputation with Karlstadt. Luther agreed.
- The first round of the disputation (between Eck and Karlstadt) lasted days, but Luther called it “wretched.” The two men only debated free will, not indulgences, papal authority, or any of Luther’s other favorite subjects.
- Luther kept a couple of good-luck charms nearby during his own portion of the disputation: roses and a silver ring that probably contained an amulet in a capsule.
- During the disputation, Luther argued that scriptures—not church fathers—were the most authoritative source of doctrine. He also explained that scriptures like Matthew 16 (“you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church”) had always been misinterpreted.
- Eck discredited Luther by comparing him to notorious and widely-feared heretic Jan Hus. Luther fell into the trap and responded that some of Hus’s teachings weren’t so bad, so Eck immediately attacked him for that. From then on, Luther’s critics often compared him to Hus.
- Luther left Leipzig as soon as the disputation was over, departing before he could even find out who would judge the winner, let alone who would be declared winner.
- It took months to declare the winner; the university scholars appointed to judge the disputation didn’t want to touch such a controversial topic. Eventually, other scholars from the Universities of Cologne and Leuven condemned Luther’s writing.
- The pope finally put a commission together to draft a bull, or decree, threatening Luther with excommunication. Shortly afterward, the pope invited Luther’s rival, Eck, to join the commission.
- The bull named forty-one of Luther’s teachings as evidence against him. It said he had sixty days, from the time the bull was posted in Wittenberg, to recant, or else he’d be officially labelled as a notorious heretic.
- Two men, Eck and a church official named Aleandro took the bull into German lands. Aleandro met the brand-new emperor in the Netherlands and convinced him to proclaim the bull, as well as order burnings of Luther’s books.
- Eck had a much harder time convincing Germans to post the bull in their cities, and he feared for his safety as he did so. In the end, he paid militiamen from Leipzig to take the bull into several Saxon cities, including Wittenberg.
- The university rector in Wittenberg refused to post the bull, but he showed it to Luther right away, marking the beginning of the 60-day grace period.
- Wittenberg University’s enrollment immediately dropped. A quarter of the students left, fearing that they would be condemned alongside Luther if they didn’t get out right away.
- Even after reading the bull, Luther remained firm. He wrote to a friend that he would never be reconciled to Rome and that he’d burn their books if they were burning his.
- Throughout 1520, Luther called for drastic reform within the church, even before he read the bull against him. He published a book calling on German nobles to lead the church, which many Germans viewed as a call for greater independence from Rome.
- In early October, Luther published a book that criticized the church’s sacraments and openly called the pope the Antichrist.
- On the day that Luther’s 60-day grace period expired, he organized a book burning, in which he personally threw the pope’s bull into the fire.
- Luther was excommunicated in another bull dated January 3, 1521. But Aleandro feared certain political consequences and didn’t publish it until October, so no one knew about it until then.
- Luther was a prolific writer whose books and pamphlets brought good business to printers. Publishing exploded in German lands during the 1520s, in large part thanks to Luther.
- Between 1520 and 1526, Luther’s writings accounted for 20 percent of the pamphlets published in German lands.
- Most scholars refused to write at a level that laypeople could understand, but Luther didn’t mind doing so. He had always preached simply, and he adopted the same style in his writing.
- Luther didn’t just publish works that attacked the pope or church practices. He also wrote pastoral works for laypeople on topics like prayer, good works, and the Ten Commandments.
- Luther’s writings were popular because he seemed to give answers to real-world problems, including political, social and economic issues.
- Luther was meticulous about the way his books and pamphlets looked: he insisted that his printers use good fonts, and he preferred interesting cover designs.
- With an overall literacy rate of 5 percent in German lands (30 percent in towns), most people didn’t learn about Luther’s ideas by reading them. Instead, preachers read Luther’s books aloud, or people heard Luther’s ideas through word of mouth.
- Luther’s writings made good money for printers, but the author himself never took a cent of the money.
The End of Luther’s Story
- In spring 1521, Luther finally had a hearing in front of the emperor. He apologized for the tone of some of his writings, but he refused to recant.
- On May 5, 1521, Luther was on his way back to Wittenberg when two horsemen kidnapped him and took him to Wartburg.
- The catch? Prince Frederick owned a remote, little-used castle in Wartburg. Knowing he needed to protect his citizen from harm, Frederick cooked up the plan and let Luther in on the secret before he set out for Wittenberg.
- Luther remained in hiding at Wartburg Castle for months. He went by “Knight George” during his sojourn there, and barely anyone was even aware that someone was staying there. Only five men knew his true identity.
- Luther continued to write during his time at Wartburg. He sent his manuscripts to print through the men who knew his real identity.
- During that time, Luther wrote out against monastic vows, and the response was immediate: many monks and friars quit their offices for good.
- While hiding at Wartburg Castle, Luther translated the New Testament into German. It wasn’t the first German translation to hit the press, but Luther translated it into everyday, idiomatic German.
- Quiet Wittenberg became a hotspot of religious reform during Luther’s absence. Preachers made major changes to the Mass, even though Prince Frederick asked them to keep their reforms in check.
- Prince Frederick wanted Luther to remain in hiding, but Luther returned to Wittenberg on his own, determined to be the shepherd the city needed.
- Although Luther advocated for reform, he wanted change to take place slowly and peacefully. He wanted to make sure that his followers’ hearts changed before their religious practices did.
- Luther quickly restored order to Wittenberg, then gradually reformed Mass and other religious practices.
- Throughout Luther’s career as a preacher, he gave 4,000 sermons (more than 100 per year). Today, we have records of about 2,300 of them.
- Luther wrote and published an average of 1,800 pages per year.
- Luther also translated the Old Testament into understandable German, and his translation was eventually published in the same volume as his earlier translation of the New Testament.
- He married a former nun in 1525 and had six children with her (four of whom survived to adulthood).
- He died in 1546 after years of suffering from bad health.
Luther’s Character and Personality
- Luther originally planned to study law, but he dropped out to become a friar because, as he told everyone, “God gave him no choice.”
- He was highly critical of himself, especially in his early years as a friar. He often punished himself for sinning.
- Luther was fairly timid and humble when he first sent out his famous 95 theses, telling Archbishop Albrecht that he knew he was just a “speck of dust.”
- Luther became bolder as he wrote and spoke against church practices. He wrote what he thought and didn’t care about the consequences, believing that he was doing God’s will and that nothing else mattered.
- He was stubborn and often ignored Prince Frederick’s advice, even knowing that he needed Frederick’s protection.
- Luther was a highly skilled preacher and writer, always teaching people on a level they could understand.
- Luther said he married his wife for three reasons: to please his father, to spite the pope, and to practice what he preached about marriage. It was not a romantic union.
- Luther’s temper had never been good, but it worsened toward the end of his life. He wrote out caustically against Catholics and Jews; even if he didn’t believe in killing Jews, like many of his contemporaries did, he thought they should be deported and their synagogues burned.
- The last words Luther ever wrote were, “We are beggars. That is true.” Those simple phrases characterized his religious beliefs and attitudes well.
We’ve done our best to share Luther’s story concisely, but the truth is that it’s almost impossible to do it justice in 95 bullet points. (And given his love for writing and commitment to churning out dozens of publications a year, Luther himself would probably agree.)
We highly recommend A World Ablaze; in fact, we guarantee that it’ll be the best nonfiction you read this year.
The book is available from Oxford University Press, on Amazon, BarnesandNoble.com, Christianbook.com, and eBay.