October 31, 1517, is considered the birth date of the Protestant Reformation. It was definitely the first major step.
Martin Luther created his list of 95 arguments against the Roman church’s practice of selling indulgences. Luther arranged to have copies printed for distribution, and hung one up on the Castle Church door, which served as the town's bulletin board. The document was an invitation to debate the issues raised in the theses.
Did he really post them on October 31? It's hard to know for sure. It wasn't announced. He would have been just another person posting another notice on the church door.
If it did happen on the 31st, it wasn't a random date. The following day was All Souls Day. Frederick the Wise's vast collection of religious relics would be available for viewing by thousands of pilgrims. Pilgrims also paid for masses and candles, all to gain indulgences to hasten their time through purgatory. According to one source, in 1517, nine thousand masses were said at the castle church, and forty thousand candles were lit. Things would have been much the same at the nearby town church.
Money raised from selling indulgences historically went to local leaders to pay for church construction. It had only been recently that Rome started issuing indulgences to raise money to build St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.
Martin Luther's document listed many specific arguments against selling indulgences to absolve sin. Mostly, however, he was arguing that the Bible was the central religious authority, and that humans may reach salvation only by their faith and not by their deeds.
He wasn't the first to present these ideas, but his timing was impeccable.
The field of humanism was growing which meant that people were more questioning about the power of individuals rather than God. Germany's rulers were seeing money leave the country and go instead to Rome. And buyers were discontented. They had been buying indulgences for 30 years, did they really need to buy more?
Indulgences had been on Luther's mind during much of the year. He had preached that indulgences taught people to fear punishment more than sin. He had questioned if indulgences could ensure passage to heaven, and for him the answer was no.
The 95 Theses document was a risky move for Luther. Frederick the Wise had prohibited Rome's indulgences from being sold in his territory, because they took money out of the area. But he was a huge collector of religious relics, and he profited from making them available for public view. As one of the Electors of the Holy Roman Emperor, he needed to stay in good standing with the Catholic church.
Frederick could have brought a quick end to the whole issue, but he chose not to. Although he didn't always support Luther's teachings, Frederick was a life-long protector of Martin Luther. His two brothers, both advocates of the Reformation, continued protection for Luther after Frederick's death.
Copies of the 95 Theses were sent to Luther's friends and circulated by them. A copy eventually made its way to Rome, leading to eventual charges of heresy against Luther. The document was intended to be a foundation for scholarly debate in Wittenberg, but it was also widely printed in Leipzig, Basel and Nuremberg. The issue was no longer in the hands of a monk in the small town of Wittenberg.
The scholarly debate specifically on the 95 Theses never happened, though there were broader theological debates over the years. But Johann Tetzel, who was responsible for selling indulgences in the nearby territory of Magdeburg, quickly responded in print to Luther's criticisms. In March 1518 Luther responded to Tetzel. Luther would spend the next 28 years of his life writing and defending his writings and teachings about God, faith, man and the Bible.
Luther didn't set out to start a new religious denomination. He loved being a monk. But he did want to see changes in the church hierarchy. He did want a discussion about the authority of the pope. He did want a discussion about faith and the Bible.
These were not new topics for discussion. These discussions had been happening for over a century, starting most notably with John Wycliffe and Jan Hus. But this time, the issues came up when the surrounding community was largely ready for the discussion, and the printing industry existed to facilitate the broad dissemination of information.
There have been dozens of lengthy, detailed, and well-researched books about Martin Luther and the Reformation. They'll give you much more information than has been provided in these few brief articles. But, this has hopefully provided a bit of history about what led to the Reformation.
I'm not done, because the Reformation spread from Germany and had tremendous effect on language, business, education and charity.
- Ann Warner