A Simple Act that Changed the Course of History

Martin Luther never considered himself all that important.  He was the first to admit his shock that, in the words of scholar Susan Lynn Peterson, “a straight-forward stand of conscience had turned him into one of the most-talked-about people of his time..who started an ecclesiastical shock wave that changed the course of Western history.”

What was it about that simple act of nailing parchment to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany, on October 31, 1517, that thrust this humble monk into the eye of the storm? 

Martin Luther was born in 1483, in Eiselben, Germany, the son of peasants who instilled in him a strong work ethic but struggled to provide in his early years.  As his family’s finances improved, he attended various schools in Magdeburg and then Erfurt, receiving a Master’s Degree at age 21.  But on July 2, 1505, while a law student at the University of Erfurt, Luther found himself caught in a deadly thunderstorm.  He prayed to St. Anne, the patron saint of minors (men he knew growing up) that, if he survived, he would become a monk.  That same month he joined the Augustinian Hermits at the Black Monastery in Erfurt.

Fighting Paper with Paper

After a trip to Rome in 1510, Luther became further acquainted with the practice of selling indulgences. 

These slips of paper, like the one above, essentially granted forgiveness for sins (and thus entrance into heaven) to those who bought them.  The money, Luther discovered, was being used to cover the costs of building St. Peter’s Church in Rome.  The most infamous seller of these indulgences was Johannes Tetzel (signature above), a man Luther came to believe was frightening the poor into paying money for indulgences that should have been spent on food.  Even the Pope, Luther would dare to say, could not assure salvation through these pieces of paper, which were based on money and not genuine acts of contrition.

Angered by what he saw as an abuse of Church authority and the deceiving of honest citizens, Luther did what was a fairly common practice in his day.  On October 31, 1517, while on the faculty at the University of Wittenburg, he put a posting on what served as a sort of notice board for the community, the Castle Church door.

What was remarkable was the nature of his posting.  A list.  95 theses, or statements, all circling in and around one unmistakable theme:  the practice of indulgences, rather than bringing people closer to God, was distancing them from true Christianity, substituting paper and coins for true acts of good will.  Occasionally, one thesis appears to be the crux, such as

37. Every true Christian, whether living or dead, has part in all the blessings of Christ and the Church; and this is granted him by God, even without letters of pardon.


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.

But no one statement carries the combined weight of the whole.  To read the 95 Theses is to be swept up in the methodical, often legalistic workings of Luther’s mind.  The reader, rather than having a single “aha!” moment, feels the combined effect of 95 thoughts, 95 voices pouring down, engulfing him and demanding to be considered.  Luther was challenging his opposition to dispute not one argument, but 95 carefully constructed, heartfelt, relentless arguments against what he saw as the great injustice of his day.  In Wittenberg, Martin Luther began a public conversation that would forever change the face of Christianity and the world.

A Modern Day Sequel

Our hopes are not quite so grand.  What we do hope, in the spirit of Martin Luther’s great challenge, is to start a conversation with today’s leadership in which ordinary people begin the debate.  At a time when the incumbent party is meeting in New York to debate its platform, when the eyes of the nation will be on our city, the people of this city will have a platform on which their views can be heard.  Martin Luther saw a problem of his day and did something about it.  Today 95 New Yorkers are doing something about problems they see in their community and in the world: they’re speaking up.  Time will tell if the leadership will take up their challenge. 


 The 95 Theses: http://home.cvc.org/95.htm

 The Life of Martin Luther: http://www.susanlynnpeterson.com/luther/home.html


 Photographs of Wittenberg: http://www.galenfrysinger.com/wittenberg.htm