History #15: Protestant Reformation

In the early 16th century, there was one church in Western Europe – the Roman Catholic Church. Then came Martin Luther and the protestant reformation. Like the name suggests, Luther spoke out against the church and sought change. Protest and reform.

Eventually, the Roman Catholic Church split, then split again, and again. Today, there are uncountable Protestant denominations – Baptist, Anabaptist, Methodist, Calvinist, Anglican, Quaker, Lutheran, Apostolic Lutheran, Reformed Lutheran, Free Lutheran, etc. But this idea of protest and reform wasn’t limited to the spiritual, much of the modern world has been shaped by it. The civil rights movement was primarily led by protestant clergy, including Martin Luther King Jr who was named after Martin Luther. The American revolution was a protest for individual rights. The scientific revolution was a protest for new ways of understanding the world. At each step in humanity’s progress, old ideas need to be reevaluated and reformed.

If we buy into this idea of progress, then we owe a lot to one man in the 1500s who broke a church’s 1000 year monopoly on politics and spirituality.

Setting the stage

Before the reformation, the Roman Catholic Church (The Church going forward) dominated European civilization. The Church was the caretaker of everyone’s soul – parish priests would baptize, marry, hear confessions, provide last rights, convey scripture, etc. The Pope basically held the key to salvation which was pretty important to people.

The Church also owned a third of all land in Europe which made it the dominant economic and political force on the continent. It provided education, orphanages, handouts to the poor, and most other social services.

In 1517, Pope Leo X, with all this power, had the idea to rebuild the Church of Saint Peter’s. Saint Peter was thought to be charged by Christ himself with leading the church, making him the first pope, so this was kind of a big deal for Pope Leo. The budget was somewhere in the range of a whole lot of money and an obscene amount of money.

To raise this money, Pope Leo X sent his agents around the continent to sell indulgences – pieces of paper that said you could skip purgatory and go straight to heaven. Indulgences were usually reserved as a reward for good works, but someone eventually realized you could make money off them.

The Church argued that there was no conflict, since the money was still going to a good work – building a church, but other people didn’t see it this way. Some thought it was just a way to buy entry into heaven.

It made matters worse when one of these indulgence salesmen, Johann Tetzel, arrived at Wittenberg with a catchy sales pitch:

As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.

This irritated one monk in particular, Martin Luther.

Martin Luther

Martin Luther was born in Germany and baptized Catholic. He originally went to law school, but later withdrew and joined an Augustinian monastery. In 1505, Luther was sent to Rome where he saw the corruption that plagued the city first hand. He spoke out, but the priests of Rome didn’t enjoy Luther’s holier than thou stick, so they went him to Wittenberg to teach scripture.

During this time, Luther had been struggling with his own sins – constantly seeking confession and fearing that he would not be able to gain salvation. Luther found an answer to these struggles in Saint Paul’s Apostles:

The just shall live by faith.

Luther interpreted this to mean that salvation comes through faith alone and not through good works. Basically, Luther thought that we could never be good enough for salvation through our actions, only through our faith.

So when Johann Tetzel showed up down the street selling salvation, Luther took issue. On October 31, 1517, Luther wrote 95 thesis or disputations of indulgences and nailed them to the church door (maybe). This sparked a debate among the clergy over indulgences.

But Luther took this debate further. Expanding on his idea that Christians could only be saved through faith and the grace of god, Luther argued that the church had no power to save anyone. In fact, he argued that the church and the Pope were human inventions that had no spiritual power whatsoever.

Luther published these ideas in books and distributed them widely. Luckily for him, the printing press had been recently invented. In the past, people who disagreed with the church, and there were many, didn’t gain much traction, but Luther had a megaphone.

The Church didn’t like any of this.

The Diet of Worms

In 1521, Luther was called before the Holy Roman Emperor to defend his ideas. The Emperor pointed out that Luther was going against 1000 years of Christian orthodoxy which probably made him wrong. The Emperor demanded that Luther disavow his writings and repent.

Luther didn’t and was declared a heretic. Possession of his writings was deemed illegal and it was clear he would be arrested and burned at the stake. But something else happened. At the time, local rulers were getting tired of ceding power to the Pope and they saw Luther’s ideas as an opportunity to claim that power for themselves. One such ruler, the Prince of Saxony, kidnapped Luther and hid him away where he would be safe. Luther quickly got to work translating and publishing the Bible in German.


For the first time, non-priests could read the Bible for themselves. Luther believed that once everyone had read the truth, they would come around to his way of thinking. However, it turns out that when you tell a bunch of people that their interpretations of the Bible are just as valid as the Pope’s, people start having different interpretations.

Religious spinoffs quickly multiplied – Lutherans, Calvinists, Anglicans, etc. Each new spinoff claimed to know the one true way of worshiping god and that everyone else was going to hell. This led to a lot of fighting.

What started as an issue with indulgences turned into a full-scale social revolution. Peasants took Luther’s ideas and argued that serfdom was invented by man and had no basis in scripture. They rioted, pillaged, and attempted to overthrow the local monarchies.

When faced with chaos, Luther sided with stability. He argued that kings and princes were put in place by god and that the destruction of the social order probably wasn’t a good idea. After years of bloody battles and many deaths, the peasant uprising was suppressed and the kings of Europe solidified their power.

In fact, monarchies came out of this period pretty well. They used Luther’s ideas to grab land and power from the Church, eventually replacing them as the center of European society. This situation would last for centuries.


How did the Roman Catholic Church respond to all of this? Well, Luther was obviously excommunicated from the church. In 1545, the Church felt the need to reconcile with the Protestants and held the Council of Trent to debate how. Reconciliation was quickly determined to be impossible, and instead the Church reaffirmed their doctrines.

The Church basically doubled down on everything that Luther took issue with. They argued that scripture and faith alone was not enough for salvation and that people needed the teachings of the Church. The Roman inquisition was formed to stamp out heretics, certain books were banned, and the Jesuit Order was established to fight Protestantism around the world.

Each side saw the other side as the Anti-Christ. This divide can still be seen today. The southern states of Europe are predominantly Catholic and the northern states are predominantly Protestant. In Ireland, the two groups were engaged in a bloody clash for most of the 20th century.


The Protestant Reformation can be boiled down to one idea: an individual’s conscience is more important than any single authority. This idea would inspire the scientific revolution, the American revolution, the French revolution… This idea would inspire Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr, Henry David Thoreau… This idea would shape the modern world.



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