Does this sound inflammatory to you?
"Out of love for the truth and from desire to elucidate it,
the Reverend Father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and
Sacred Theology, and ordinary lecturer therein at
Wittenberg, intends to defend the following statements
and to dispute on them in that place. Therefore he asks
that those who cannot be present and dispute with him
orally shall do so in their absence by letter. In the name
of our Lord Jesus Christ, Amen."
That was the introduction Martin Luther attached to "On
the Power of Indulgences" in 1483, as he sounded the first
notes of a call for reformation in the Church with 95
"theses" — statements to discuss, argue, dispute, and decide.
When the smoke cleared, Protestantism had been
When Luther wrote that letter to his superiors and
published it by (maybe) tacking it to a local "bulletin
board," it was just a few days before his birthday.
His 95 Theses — about issues he believed should be
discussed and debated, centering on the selling of papal
indulgences — may or may not have been displayed on
the door of Wittenberg, Germany's, Palace Church on
the Eve of All Souls' Day, just ten days before he turned
34 years old on November 10, 1517.
Whether he actually posted them in that way, or simply
delivered a letter asking to have some misunderstandings
cleared up and some excesses stopped, this mendicant
Augustinian monk, professor, and priest was unleashing
swirling controversy such as has seldom been seen,
especially in church venues.
His life had begun quietly. He was born into a large
family named Luder (he changed his surname later;
"Luther" actually comes from Germanic words meaning
"famous" and "army"). He had a strict disciplinarian
mother and a father who moved the family, shortly after
young Martin's birth, to exchange the life of a farmer for
copper-mining interests; he was successful, and the
Luders became a respected mercantile family.
Martin, a quiet, reserved, yet talented student, was sent
to the Latin school (Lateinschule), where he had to
contend with its intimidating teaching methods, which
were strict and even barbaric, left over from the Middle
Ages, as it were. From there, he went to University, and
having studied the "Seven Liberal Arts": grammar,
rhetoric, mathematics/logic, arithmetic, geometry,
music, and astronomy, he went on to pursue studies in
law, then — possibly because of a storied thunderstorm —
caused epiphany — switched to theology.
By the time of his death at 63, he had lived through a
different kind of maelstrom, and his life — and those of
millions of other believers — had been radically changed,
all starting with those 95 theses. Some birthday present!
Even if he'd realized what was going to happen, though,
he would almost certainly not have shrunk from it.
In his mind, what was at stake was no less than whether
the offer of salvation God made to humankind was to be
accepted at face value or diminished by acts of men; and
whether the members of his flock were going to be able
to understand God's free offer, or be confused by for-profit
dispensations. He saw that financial manipulation by
certain men of the cloth — "indulgence merchants" who
substituted monies changing hands (bribes, essentially)
for true spiritual contrition and repentance — was
blinding his parishioners to the true spiritual nature
of God's gift of love.
Luther was also not thrilled with the reputed "Peter
Indulgence": indulgence money used to finish building
St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, that had been started by
Pope Julius II in 1507.
The story goes that it had been while engaged in an act
of penance himself — painfully climbing stairs on his
knees — that he had suddenly realized it was not man's
actions but God's holy love that led to finding peace and
joy. (Well, joy, yes; but always tempered with plenty of
remorse and humility.)
In asserting that the Bible should be the sole authority
for followers of Christ, he was seen as denying the
sovereign supremacy of the pope. He was therefore tried
for heresy, threatened with excommunication, and
banned by a papal bull.
He responded, on December 10, 1520, by burning the
paper the bull was written on. There is a spot in
Wittenberg, marked by an oak tree, which is said to
be where he built his fire.
A legend has it that an old grandmother, hearing what
Luther had done, angrily rammed her walking stick into
the ground at that spot, saying her granddaughter would
not be allowed to marry her sweetheart — an admirer of
Luther — until the walking stick turned green. The
sweetheart crept back and replaced the stick with an oak
seedling, and some time later was able to report that the
"miracle" had occurred, and claim his bride.
(The original "Luther Oak" was cut down for fuel during
the Napoleonic Wars. A replacement was planted in
1830, and still lives, although damaged by pollution and
personal attack by an unknown assailant.)
In 1521 Martin Luther was called to appear at Worms,
where he refused to recant what he had written, saying,
"Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason. .
. my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I do not
accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they
have contradicted each other — my conscience is captive
to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant
anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor
safe. God help me. Amen."
So he was outlawed, and all but named a heretic.
With a safe conduct for his journey home, he allowed
himself to be diverted and placed out of sight for a time,
while matters cooled off — somewhat. This was good,
because by this time he had been named outlaw, and
could have been killed by anyone without penalty.
Luther undertook to translate the Bible, beginning with
the New Testament. He believed the devil would come
at night to pester him, and the stories say that he even
threw an ink bottle at him. The expression that he
"drove the devil away with ink," however, is usually
ascribed to his translation of Scriptures.
He returned to Wittenberg, and in 1525 he married
Katherine von Bora, one of nine nuns who had left the
convent to pursue "justification by faith alone." In 1534,
he published the entire Bible, translated into German.
He died February 18, 1546, near his birthplace at
Want to read the 95 Theses? Here they are: all 95
This page has links to lots of material — much of it
Lutheran — including the portrait of Luther from which
his likeness is often taken: lots about Luther
Here's an online tour of the Castle Church: the place where it began
Thanks for joining me at "Saints and Sinners" — a
mercurial place, where you will sometimes find good
and even saintly personages, sometimes encounter
scoundrels and worse, and sometimes meet some of
both. Whether your taste runs to documented historical
fact or the stuff of which legend is made, please come
back soon, tune in, and enjoy. . .