On 31 October 1517, my birthday as a matter of fact, a disgruntled professor of theology posted 95 theses on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg. And thus began the Reformation. The Holy Roman Empire was shaken to its core and the Christian Church split in two. Protestantism was born.
The original door burnt down and was replaced in the mid-1800s. What we can see today is a reproduction of the theses in bronze, at the very same castle church in Wittenberg.
The Luther memorials are considered among the important sites to preserve for the future. In addition to the castle church, the World Heritage site includes the house of Philipp Melanchthon (Luther’s co-reformer), Luther’s rooms, and the local church; all are easy to find on a stroll through Wittenberg’s Old Town.
Also part of the site is the house where Luther was born and the one where he died in Eisleben, 111 km away. But we’ll focus on Wittenberg today.
So, what was the deal with that Luther?
His main grievance with the Catholic Church was the buying and selling of pardons or indulgences. His theses were a response to Johann Tetzel, the Grand Commissioner of Indulgences, chief pardons dealer in Germany. Tetzel is rumoured to have said:
As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul into heaven springs.
Martin Luther’s 95 theses
What an idea – you’re let off the hook just so long as you pay. Why, only the rich could afford to sin. MArtin would have none of it. Here’s what he had to say about it in thesis 43:
Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better work than buying pardons.
and in thesis 45:
Christians are to be taught that he who sees a man in need, and passes him by, and gives [his money] for pardons, purchases not the indulgences of the pope, but the indignation of God.
Imagine the Pope’s reaction to thesis 51:
Christians are to be taught that it would be the pope’s wish, as it is his duty, to give of his own money to very many of those from whom certain hawkers of pardons cajole money, even though the church of St. Peter might have to be sold.
and to thesis 86:
Why does not the pope, whose wealth is to-day greater than the riches of the richest, build just this one church of St. Peter with his own money, rather than with the money of poor believers?
Martin Luther: it’s complicated
It’s difficult not to be ambivalent towards Martin Luther. On the one hand, it’s easy to agree with his views on pardons. Speaking out against the Holy Roman Empire meant putting his life at risk. Courageous and admirable, to be sure.
On the other hand, his views on other faiths were, well, intolerant, to say the least, even for the times. Not only was the Catholic Church antichrist itself, but Islam was the ‘scourge of God’, and Jews, it seems, were the worst of all: Christ-murderers and liars. He wrote treatises against Moslems (Vom Kriege wider die Türken – On War against the Turk) and against Jews (Von den Juden und Ihren Lügen – On Jews and their Lies).
Like him or not, though, our lives – in the Western world, at least – might have been very different were it not for Martin Luther.
Luther Memorials in Eisleben and Wittenberg is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Here are more UNESCO World Heritage sites I have visited around the world.