This Day In History: Martin Luther Nails His 95 Theses To A Church Door (1517)

On this date in history  in 1517, the German monk and scholar Martin Luther changed  the world by simply nailing a document to a church door. Luther went to a local castle’s church in Wittenberg in Eastern Germany and nailed a piece of paper to the wooden door on this date in 1517. The paper contained 95 theses  that challenged the authority and doctrine of the Catholic Church. Luther by nailing the theses to the door had just started a religious revolution.

In the document Luther, a member of the Augustinian Order denounced the corruption of the Catholic Church. In particular,  he denounced the practice of the selling of indulgences. These had been sanctioned by the Pope to help him pay for his ambitious building projects in Rome. Luther condemned the selling of indulgences as not only corrupt but as contrary to Church teaching. If a person bought an indulgence for themselves or for someone else their sins would be forgiven by the Pope . This was very important, at this time, because it was universally believed that  if one died without one’s sins being forgiven your immortal soul could be sent to hell for eternity.  Luther argued that the sale of indulgences were wrong and they did not accord to the Word of God as written in the Bible. He believed that only those practices and beliefs that are sanctioned by the Bible were true. In this way, he implicitly challenged the authority of the Papacy, who authority was largely based on tradition.  The local Prince, Frederick the Wise, like many other Germans had been outraged by the selling of Indulgences which they believed to be immoral and wrong.

The selling of indulgences c 1500

Luther had long been a student of the Bible and he had found many discrepancies between the Gospels and the beliefs and actions of the Pope.  The controversy over the Indulgences spurred him to make his ideas better known. The nailing of the Theses caused a sensation in Germany and many Germans sympathized with the assertions in the document.  There had been growing anger among Germans of all classes about the corruption in the Church.

The Pope upon hearing of Luther’s actions and views immediately excommunicated him. This meant that Luther was outside of the Church and no Christian could help or even shelter him. Luther’s excommunication would be lifted if he recanted and withdrew the theses. Luther defied the Pope and this led the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V to declare Luther an outlaw who could be killed on sight. In the Edict of Worms, the Emperor Charles eventually forbade anyone to give Luther any form of support. Many German Princes were sympathetic to Luther and they rejected  the Edict of Worms which they saw as the Emperor interfering in their own internal affairs. Soon the ideas of Luther were spreading like wildfire over much of Germany and many Princes began to establish their own churches outside of the Catholic Church. This  process came to be known as the Reformation and was to lead to a schism in the Church and eventually led to the emergence of Protestant Churches all over Northern Europe.