October 31st, Martin Luther, and the Protestant Reformation

Eight German states observe October 31st, Reformation Day, as a public holiday. But what was the Protestant Reformation and why is it celebrated? Growing up in the Lutheran Church we heard the story about how Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to a church door, setting off the Protestant Reformation, and starting the Lutheran Church. Clearly, that’s the extremely short version of the story. The Protestant Reformation was about more than nails and debates. (As a child, I thought Luther was in trouble for nailing things to a church door… I know my pastor would have been fairly upset about marring the wood). This act, was merely the first step in a movement, a reforming and re-forming of the Church, that lasted almost 150 years, and included the horrific Thirty Years War that killed as much as 50% of the German population in some areas. That act still reverberates today for Catholics and Protestants in Germany.

It’s a big topic, so for now, let’s just take on the beginnings. What was the Protestant Reformation, and what is Reformation Day?

Lucas Cranach d.Ä. - Martin Luther, 1528 (Veste Coburg)
Lucas Cranach painting of Martin Luther, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

What was the Protestant Reformation ?

In 1517, a young Augustinian monk named Martin Luther caused a stir in the Catholic church when he attached a list of 95 Theses, or debate topics, called the Disputation on the Power of Indulgences,  to the church door in Wittenberg. Luther chose October 31st, because he knew the church would be filled with people on November 1st to observe All Saints Day. (And not to worry, the church door commonly got used as a community bulletin board.)

Until 1517, the Catholic Church WAS the western Christian Church (the word Catholic means “whole”), and the Pope was it’s infallible leader. Luther’s debate topics included questions about the power of clergy, but most importantly, he posed questions about the key to Salvation. How does one get to heaven? Is it through Faith and Good Works, as the Church taught… or though Faith alone, as Luther interpreted from his reading of the Bible.

Martin Luther may not have set out to create a new church, but his desire for reforms in the Catholic church generated protests, and ultimately, a split in the western Christian church into Catholic and Protestant.

Who was Martin Luther?

Born in 1483, Martin Luther grew up in a reasonably well of family in Mansfeld where his father, owned a copper refinery. As a child he attended the Latin school, then headed off to University in Erfurt. His father hoped that his son would study Law, but Martin only stuck with it for a few weeks before switching to theology and entering the Order of Hermits of St Augustine in 1505. He completed his doctorate in Theology, and transferred to the Monastery at Wittenberg in 1508, and lectured at the University there.  At one point he was sent to Rome as an observer for the Order, where he became discouraged with the lack of spirituality he witnessed at the higher levels.

At the University, Martin Luther’s charismatic lectures made him popular with students. He frequently handed out long lists of questions for discussion and lively debate. The famous 95 Theses stand out, because of their core topic, indulgences and the question of what gives man salvation.


Why did Martin Luther Seek Reform?

The 95 Theses struck a nerve with the Albrecht of Brandenburg (also known as Albert) and Pope Leo X (the man who hired Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel). At only 23 years of age Albrecht was already named Archbishop of Magdeburg and administrator of the Diocese of Halberstadt, and although there were laws against holding a third seat, he also wanted the seat of the Archbishop of Mainz. The cost to let this all happen… 10,000 Ducats, but Albrecht was short on cash, so he struck a deal with Pope Leo X. They would create and sell Indulgences, and split the profits. Pope Leo X needed money to rebuild St Peter’s in Rome…Albrecht would gain his third important seat.

reformation day

So, what are indulgences… Think of them as a get-out-of-Purgatory-Free card. When people died, the church taught that they didn’t always go straight to heaven. Sometimes, souls had to work off a few sins before heading upstairs. (These weren’t sins bad enough to go to hell). An indulgence, signed by the Pope, could be purchased to forgive sins, both past and future, and shorten your stay in purgatory. Not only that, you could also buy them to free up family members who died years before, but who might be stuck in the heavenly anti-chamber. The chief indulgence salesman, John Tetzel, even created a cute jingle “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs”. An incredible amount of money was being generated this way.

Naturally, the selling of indulgences “troubled” Martin Luther. He began to question the Treasury of Merit (the idea that salvation could be paid for with money or deeds), and so he wrote those 95 Theses.  As he understood it, (From Theses #62) “The True treasure of the Church is the most Holy Gospel of Glory and the Grace of God”.

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BUT! To insure that his concerns were seen, he also sent a copy to Albrecht of Brandenburg.  Within two weeks, the German translation of the Theses spread across Germany. And that’s when the trouble started.

Martin Luther basically challenged 1500 years of Christianity. He was labeled a heretic (generally a death sentence) and excommunicated (thrown out of the church). Fortunately, he found shelter in the Wartburg Castle in Thuringia, where he spent his time translating the Bible from Latin to German. His message, based on (Ephesians 2:8–9) “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast”. Faith is how you get to heaven. It is the Bible that is the source of Christian Faith, not the church leaders, and Luther believed anyone capable of understanding the message.

luther wartburg

Martin Luther’s Cell in the Wartburg, where he did his translations.

By 1524, his call for reform spread across northern Europe. The power of Church and State were threatened by peasant uprisings. Other Protestant leaders splintered off from the Church… the Anabaptists, Calvinists, and by 1530, Lutherans. In England, the Henry the 8th became head of the new Anglican Church. The upheaval tore Europe apart, and ultimately led to the Thirty Years war 1618-1648, which killed millions and ended with the Peace of Westphalia. (The negotiations took 4 years in Münster and Osnabruck, and the Friedensaal where they met is worth a visit). After this Europe was essentially divided into Catholic south and Protestant north. And the right of German kingdoms to make their own decision… Catholic or Protestant….was established. Still, while the weapons may have been put down, as a child of a Catholic and a Lutheran, I can assure you there is still division.

Where and how is Reformation Day celebrated?

Since 1567, Reformation Sunday is on the Lutheran Liturgical calendar as the last Sunday in October. In Germany, several predominantly Protestant States (Brandenburg, Hamburg, Bremen, Saxony, Thuringia, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Schleswig Holstein, and Saxony-Anhalt) treat October 31st, Reformation DAY as a public holiday. Banks and Post Offices are closed.

Protestant churches hold special services on October 31, that always include the singing of “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”, a hymn written by Martin Luther. After the service, participants can enjoy munching on Luther Bread, a sweet bread loaded with raisins, invented by Luther’s wife Katherine von Bora and Reformation Rolls. Or you can enjoy Luther Cookies… cookies stamped with the Luther Rose crest.


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2 thoughts on “October 31st, Martin Luther, and the Protestant Reformation

    1. Honestly, I have fun researching and sharing. I’m glad you like it.

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