The Protestant ReformationEdit
The occasion of the outbreak of the Reformation was the sale of indulgences in Germany. It had always been a tenet of the Catholic Church that indulgences remit penalties due to sin after severe repentance and aid of the sacrament of penance. Leo X, in 15l3, being desirous to complete the great temple of Saint Peter's, which Julius II had commenced, granted an indulgence to those who would contribute financial aid for that purpose. A certain Johann Tetzel, to whom the archbishop of Magdeburg had delegated the power of dispensing indulgences in Saxony, was a well-known figure of the realm. He had been inquisitor general of Poland and was also associated with the Dominican monastery at Leipzig, but he carried out his commission in such a way that wrong ideas about the effect of indulgences began to spread among the ignorant and credulous, and many intelligent Christians opposed his methods. Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk and teacher of theology at the University of Wittenberg, was foremost among those who denounced Tetzel, and as this preacher of indulgences appeared at Juterbog in the vicinity of Wittenberg just at the time of the celebration of a yearly festival, when it was customary to post on the church doors bulletins of general interest to the parish, Luther accordingly nailed to the door ninety-five theses, on October 31, 1517, warning the people against such persons as Tetzel and emphasizing the necessity of a penitent heart and a loving spirit in making gifts to the Church. Copies of these theses were widely dessiminated, and all the continent was soon plunged into a tumult of controversy. Luther, meanwhile, devoted himself to further study of the Bible, Church history and canon law, in order to defend the position he had taken, and he drifted further and further from the Church. His public utterances and writings became bolder, and he was soon attacking the entire system and body of teachings of the Church of Rome. He maintained that contrition, confession and absolution were not necessary to secure salvation, denied the infallibility of the councils of the Church and asserted that the Bible was the only foundation of faith and that bishops, priests and formal ritual were wholly unnecessary. Owing to his wide reputation for learning and piety, his opinions on these subjects influenced a great many people.
At first the pope, Adrian VI, did not regard the matter as of serious import; but at length, being convinced that Luther's influence was becoming dangerous, he urged the Diet of Nuremberg to institute determined action against him. The Diet, however, felt powerless to carry out the desire of the pope, because of the popularity of Luther with a number of the German princes. Frederick the Elector became his great patron. His writings were, however, condemned as heretical, and he himself, if he did not recant his errors in sixty days, was to be seized and sent to Rome to be tried for heresy. Luther publicly burned this communication. In 1521 Luther was summoned by emperor Charles V to appear before the Diet of Worms and was called upon to recant his errors. Refusing to do so, he was conveyed privately to the Wartburg Castle by Frederick, elector of Saxony, where he lived in seclusion for a time and busied himself with the translation of the New Testament into German. In 1524 William Tyndale driven from England for his reformation views sought haven in Germany while translating the New Testament into English. On May 4, 1526, an alliance of the reform-minded princes was formed at Torgau, under the leadership of John (Frederick), the elector of Saxony, and Philip, the landgrave of Hesse. The Catholics formed a counter-alliance at Dessau, which emphasized a disunion that was destined to exercise an influence in every part of the world. The followers of Luther having become so numerous, Philip of Hesse convened a synod at Homburg in October, 1526, to systematize the doctrines and establish a rule of faith. A constitution was there formed which gave an individual congregation power to decide its own ecclesiastical rules. This was adopted in the several Lutheran states, in each of which the chief, or head, of the government was to be supreme in relation to the Church. In addition to John (Frederick) of Saxony and Philip of Hesse the dissenting electors included George of Brandenburg, princes Ernest and Francis of Brunswick-Luneburg, and Wolfgang, prince of Anhalt, together with fourteen imperial cities, the chief of which were Strassburg, Nuremberg, Ulm, and Constance.
Martin Luther had a keen interest in the education of the youth. Included in his ideas about local school systems was the establishment of elementary schools for the instruction of girls. To educate the younger element of the people, Luther wrote a small catechism of a doctrinal character in 1529, which was extensively circulated. The invention of the printing press spread the written works of Luther broadly over Europe and contributed to the rapidity of change. Because of the Islamic threat from Turkish incursions in southern Europe and a desire to allay, if possible, the dissensions which had arisen in relation to questions of an ecclesiastical nature, a diet was held on April 19, 1529, at Spires. The Catholics submitted what they regarded as moderate claims. The state sponsors of Luther’s revolt held out against papal supremacy. A decree was issued from Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire that the religious tolerance instituted in 1526 would be reversed. This led to vigorous protest by the followers of Luther, which was the origin of the name Protestant, referring to states or territories in the religio-political sense. That name has since been applied to Lutherans and other Christian denominations who differ with the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church.
Return to Protestant churches page