I hate to see people being taken advantage of. I think there is something in all of us that cheers when the schoolyard bully finally “gets his” and we applaud the superhero fighting for the defenseless. History has its share of heroes who took on people or institutions because of something they believed and were willing to die for what they believed. Martin Luther was such a man.
Martin Luther never set out to take on the institution of the Catholic Church or to start a Reformation. Martin was just an ordinary guy from a large family. In his early twenties, Luther fulfilled a vow he made while caught in a terrible storm on horseback. He was terrified of death since he had not come to terms with what it held for him. The thought of divine judgment and hell was real to him in that moment. Lightning struck near him knocking him off his horse and he feared for his life. He made a vow to become a monk if he was spared.
To fulfill this vow, Luther left law school to enter a monastery. He spent his days in prayer and study, often fasting. Also, Luther was ever mindful that he needed to pay for what he had done wrong (sin). The Church taught that people could pay for their sins with money, or by suffering. They believed that by inflicting pain, their suffering brought forgiveness for their sins. If you had enough money or suffered enough painful acts, you could make sure that you or your loved ones got to heaven.
It was common to see people (including Luther) beating themselves with barbed whips, ripping their flesh or crawling on their bloody knees up and down the rough stone stairs of the church until they could no longer move. Or, they would take whatever money they could scrounge up to buy forgiveness in the form of something called Indulgences. These were your “get out of jail free card.” If you had enough of these you could earn your way to heaven.
Many clergy in the church of the day were selling these Indulgences to the people. They were taking advantage of the fact that people believed what the Church said. Martin Luther saw John Tetzel in the town square putting fear into people telling them they were condemned to hell unless they bought Indulgences.
Luther saw this and it made him mad! He thought this was truly wrong and sent complaints to the Bishop about what Tetzel was doing. The fact that Tetzel was sent by the Pope to raise money to build St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome did not help Luther. He was taking on the whole Church power structure. Nothing happened. The dispute between Luther, Tetzel and the Church grew. Luther became even more determined to put an end to the abuses he saw with the sale of Indulgences.He had read the Bible and come to the conclusion that the sale of Indulgences was just flat out wrong!
Luther discovered that forgiveness for sins in the Bible was a free gift. How could the church demand payment for something, the Bible said was free? Forgiveness and heaven could not be bought with money or earned by suffering, Luther proclaimed. Finally, Luther had enough with what he saw as abuse by the Church. He wrote out all that he thought was wrong and needed correcting. There were 95 items. He wrote the 95 Theses in 1517 and nailed them to the door of the church which served as the “community bulletin board” or “going viral” in his day.
Few dared to take on the Church; none had succeeded. People now had some access to the Bible thanks to the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press. They took note of what Luther said and found that the Bible really did say what he claimed. Despite immense pressure and threats, Luther would not back down.
The Reformation had begun. This changed everything! The infallibility of the Church was called into question. People read the Bible for themselves and found they could have an individual relationship with God through His Son, Jesus. They didn’t need priests or the Church to do it for them. The whole structure of the world was about to change.
People began to separate from The Church and started their own churches. Honest disagreement over what the Bible said, or how it was applied led to the formation of different denominations. Sometimes people had to leave one place and go to another to practice their faith as they understood it. This was the plight of the Pilgrims and Puritans about 100 years later when they left Europe to come to America for religious freedom. Another domino fell with Luther that contributed to the events leading to America and its eventual Revolution.