Martin Luther statue

500 Years Later – 1517 to 2017

In honor of the 500th Anniversary of the start of the Reformation, I am pausing from the post-Harvey blogs to reflect on the significance of that globe-changing movement that began October 31, 1517.

Today we may rant and rail against political, religious, and business injustices and inequities, but at least we are we are free to do so. Five hundred years ago people in Europe were controlled by a complex system of royalty and religious leaders. Between them, they owned nearly all the land and dictated every detail of daily life. Many of our ancestors lived under very restricted conditions in Europe prior to the mass migrations that began in the 1600’s,

A Church in Need of Reform

Corruption abounded. The royalty and the church took rather than gave to the peasants. The church blessed the royalty to reign over political affairs. The Monarchy blessed the church to dictate daily life. There was only one Holy Catholic Church in Europe prior to the Reformation. That one church was engaged in a massive building campaign to expand St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican in Rome. The funds for this massive building campaign came out of the pockets of the poor. Greedy religious leaders were sent into towns and villages all over Europe to extract money from people. This they did by selling indulgences – pieces of paper that gave the Pope motivation to free their deceased loved ones from purgatory. Purgatory was thought to be a place between heaven and hell where a deceased soul had to wait to be made clean enough to enter heaven.

Martin Luther’s Righteous Indignation

Young monk Martin Luther was particularly incensed when Friar Johann Tetzel sold these indulgences to desperately poor people. Tetzel is credited with insisting, “As soon as the gold in the casket rings; the rescued soul to heaven springs.”

Such ideas may seem foolish to us now, but they struck horror into the hearts and minds of our fifteenth and sixteenth century ancestors. So they paid up.

Luther was appalled at the abuses he saw all around. He wanted to know why, if the Pope could release the dearly departed for money, he didn’t just free everyone right away. Luther wanted others to debate this and other issues. So he did what anyone wanting to have a debate in his century would do. He posted 95 topics, or theses, he wanted to discuss on the Wittenberg village church door. That was the 1500’s equivalent of posting a topic for discussion on Facebook. The date was October 31, 1517.

The Debate That Changed the World

Many of the things Luther wanted to address were a direct attack on the Pope and his network of religious leaders who were hurting rather than helping people. Guttenberg had just invented the printing press, which made circulating print copies of Luther’s radical ideas and challenges possible. That launched the Reformation, which was the beginning of a century of various groups protesting the abuses and offenses of the church of their day. The Protestants and the Catholics fought with deadly consequences all over Europe. This launched a wave of Protestant immigrants into the New World to establish new colonies where they could be free of the clutches of the church back in Europe.

Our ancestors from the 1500’s would scarcely recognize the world in which we live today. The Catholic Church has undergone radical internal re-forming of its priorities and policies. The European monarchy no longer wields the power and influence it did a few centuries ago.

The 500th Anniversary of young monk Luther’s invitation to his peers to discuss the wrongs of their era has been marked with global events. Events have celebrated changes in the political and religious power structures since then. It has also served as a time to again debate how to best reform the many fractures in the Christian community.

Martin Luther gets credit for launching the Reformation and forming a denomination named after him with an estimated 80 million members worldwide. However, he was not alone in his protests against the wrongs of his day. Nor did he intend to start a new church; he wanted to reform the existing one.

 Today’s Need for Reform

Injustices and corruption are like weeds. Left unattended they multiply and choke out the good plants or people. Keeping them in check requires the efforts of many people who must overcome much resistance when they try to bring about change.

The Reformation begun in 1517 was a movement that re-formed the way people work, worship, and live in radical ways that are still unfolding today. As we pause to observe the 500th Anniversary of Luther posting those 95 talking points on the church door in Wittenberg, we might do well to also observe what wrongs need to be addressed in our own time. Society is never fully reformed. We are always reforming the ways in which we do life together.

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