The “Reformator”
Martin Luther, a former Augustinian monk and theology professor, began the Protestant Reformation by nailing his “Ninety-Five Theses” to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany in 1517. Or did he?


Martin Luther by Lucas Cranach
From a 1533 painting of Martin Luther by
Lucas Cranach.

Although his original intent was only to reform the Roman Catholic Church, Luther’s actions led to a split in the Church, dividing it into the Protestant and Catholic branches. Today’s Lutheran Church (of which there are now several divisions, or “synods”) bears the name of the great Reformer (Reformatorin German). Most of the countries of northern Europe soon became Protestant. Germany itself is today about evenly divided between Catholics and Protestants.

Besides his religious reforms, Luther also had an impact on standardizing the German language through his translation of the Bible into German. He was a leader in translating the Bible into the language of the people, rather than the traditional Latin.

Luther’s Early Life
Martin Luther was born on November 10, 1483 in the town of Eisleben in what is now the German federal state of Saxony-Anhalt (in East Germany before 1990). He was the son of Hans Luder (Luther), a farmer, and his wife, Margaretha née Lindemann. Hans would later prosper in a copper mining boom in nearby Mansfeld.


In 1484 the family moved to Mansfeld, where Hans became a well-to-do businessman and a member of the city council. An ambitious man, Hans wanted his son to become a lawyer. In 1501, the 19-year-old Martin went to Erfurt to study at the university there. After receiving his master’s degree in 1505, Luther began his law studies, but soon decided he did not want to pursue that profession. He dropped out of the university to become an Augustinian monk in Erfurt, a move that greatly displeased his father.

One explanation for this career change is probably apocryphal: While returning from home to the university on horseback in 1505, a bolt of lightning struck close to him. Terrified, he cried out, “Help! Saint Anna, if you let me live, I will become a monk!” (“Heilige Anna, hilf! Lässt du mich leben, so will ich ein Mönch werden.”)


Martin Luther statue in Dresden, Germany
This statue of Martin Luther stands near the restored Frauenkirche in Dresden, Germany. More: Dresden Photos
PHOTO: Hyde Flippo

Whatever the reason, Luther did become a monk, but he was soon unhappy, and a superior suggested he study theology. Luther went to Wittenberg to study. In 1512 he was awarded his doctorate in theology and Biblical studies – and became a professor at the University of Wittenberg. Only five years later, Luther would take the first steps towards breaking up the church he grew up in and worked for.

Luther’s Protest
In October 1517, Luther wrote a letter to the Archbishop of Mainz and Magdeburg, in which he protested the sale of indulgences (Ablassbriefe in German) by Johann Tetzel, the pope’s German agent – a practice whereby the pope could raise money by blessing those who donated money for the reconstruction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. In his letter he enclosed a copy of “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” – which would later be known as “The 95 Theses.” Among other things, Luther asked why the pope, “whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Croesus,” wanted to build the basilica with money from the poor rather than with his own money.

It was not the first time Luther had protested the sale of indulgences. He had done so publicly a year before his letter to the archbishop. However, the moral and financial aspects of the indulgences were not really Luther’s main worry. They were for him a symptom of greater problems in the Catholic Church. He actually wanted to reform the Church from head to toe (“an Haupt und Gliedern”). “The 95 Theses” were but a first step to that goal.

Whether Luther actually posted his “95 Theses” on the church door in Wittenberg himself is doubtful, but his letter questioning indulgences was soon translated from Latin into German, and widely distributed (aided by the recent invention of the printing press). The seeds of the Reformation were now spreading across Germany and Europe.

Luther’s Excommunication
Over the next three years the Church took various steps to counter Luther’s challenge, but Luther refused to recant. In June 1520, the pope issued a papal bull (Bannbulle) that threatened to excommunicate Luther. After Luther publicly burned the pope’s edict in December, he was excommunicated in January 1521.

Luther’s name was becoming well known throughout Germany and Europe. By the end of 1520, he had published at least 81 pamphlets calling not only for religious reforms, but also for more political and social justice. Translated into many languages, Luther’s words found resonance with people who were suffering under the unjust social and econonomic conditions of the time. There was also growing tension between the various principalities and the central powers of Europe.