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Five hundred years ago today, in the German university town of Wittenberg, a document was nailed to a church door which would drastically alter western civilisation and bring about the birth of Protestantism.

Nailing his “95 Theses” to the door of the Castle Church for everyone to read was priest and professor of moral theology at the University of Wittenberg, Martin Luther. The document was a damning condemnation of what he saw as excesses and corruption within the all-powerful Roman Catholic Church, of which he was a part.

As well as ‘publishing’ his 95 Theses on the church door on October 31st, 1517, Luther also sent a copy to the Archbishop of Mainz, putting his views formally on the record. The date is now considered the start of the ‘Reformation’ ­– a deep schism in the Catholic Church which would reverberate across Europe for centuries to come and is commemorated as ‘Reformation Day’.

Luther was objecting in particular to the widespread practise of priests taking payment for ‘indulgences’. These were written pardons for sins committed either by the person paying the cash, or by their loved ones who had died and were thought to be in purgatory until their mortal sins were pardoned.  

At that time the Archbishop of Mainz, on the orders of Pope Leo X, had launched a major fundraising campaign in Germany to pay for the renovation of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Priests were being encouraged to sell ‘indulgences’ to parishioners in return for cash to swell the church coffers.

Luther believed this was an abuse of the church’s powers and argued in his 95 Theses that true and heartfelt repentance was needed for sins to be forgiven, not a handful of cash exchanged for a piece of paper. He also condemned other church practices which he believed were corrupt and pushed for the church to reform and return to its true spiritual values.

Luther was not alone in holding such view and his carefully-worded document resonated with public feeling, especially after his 95 Theses were translated from Latin, printed and distributed throughout Germany and Europe. Rather than accepting his theses as subjects for theological debate (as Luther had intended), the Catholic Church rallied against them and challenged Luther to retract.

A war of words ensued, with other priests and academics fanning the flames by publishing their own pamphlets, both for and against Luther. A growing band of followers, demanding reformation of corrupt church practices, soon became known as Lutherans, although Luther himself had no ambition to be a religious leader.

After refusing several times to keep silent or recant his writings, Luther was formally excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church by Pope Leo in 1521, but it didn’t end there. Later that same year, when Luther again refused to back down, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V of Germany issued his famous “Edict of Worms” (Worms being the city in the Upper Rhineland where the edict was issued).

It declared Luther an outlaw and a notorious heretic and gave anyone permission to kill him without facing any consequences for their action. Luckily for Luther, the rulers of each German state could choose whether or not to enforce the edict in their territory and several were among his supporters. He was protected by the ruler of Saxony, Prince Frederick III (known as Frederick the Wise), who took him in and set him to work producing a German translation of The Bible – a job that took 10 years to complete.

In 1529, Charles V – still determined to see Luther punished – revoked the provision allowing rulers not to enforce his Edict of Worms. Rather than just accept this, several princes and other influential Lutherans issued a formal protest, declaring that their allegiance to the emperor was overruled by their allegiance to God. This protest earned them the name ‘Protestants’, a term which was soon applied to all who believed the Roman Catholic Church required reformation.

By the time of Luther’s death from natural causes in 1546 (at the age of 62) his beliefs had formed the basis of the Protestant Reformation. Over the next three centuries and beyond, the growing divide and hostility between Catholics and Protestants would shape history across much of the western world.

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