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Reformation 500: What is the Protestant Reformation?

October 31, 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

The Reformation, or more fully, the Protestant Reformation was a political and social movement in the 1500s that shaped the course of Western history forever. Our Lutheran heritage is directly rooted in this movement by the prominent leader, Martin Luther.

At that time there was only one main Christian church– what we today call the Roman Catholic Church. Remember, that in that time there was no separation of church and state. The Church and the government were closely connected. The religion of the people was determined by the Kings, Queens, and princes of the land.  

The 1500’s brings us to a transition time in European history, a bridge between the Middle Ages to the Modern Era. The Protestant Reformation also closely aligns and overlaps with the Italian Renaissance and Age of Enlightenment.

People were starting to disagree with the practices of the Christian/ Roman Catholic Church. The was a lot of unrest about how the church (which again was closely intertwined with the government) used its power and wealth.

A monk named, Martin Luther, emerged as a leader, because he was one of the first to public make a stand against the Church. Legend has it that Martin Luther on October 31 nailed 95 theses, or statements, on how the Church should be reformed. The primary focus of the theses were on the practice of selling Indulgences. In order for the Church to build the Basilica of St Peter and Paul in Rome, they started selling certificates, called Indulgences. Common people, often the very poor, were persuaded to purchase the Indulgences in exchange for their deceased family members to be released from purgatory and allow them to go to heaven.

Martin Luther publicly challenged this practice and others by publishing the 95 Theses.

That act of openly posting theses was a common academic practice of the day. It was an invitation in academic circles for public debate, similar to publishing an op-ed in a newspaper. The news of the theses spread quickly throughout Germany and Europe with credit to the newly invented printing press.

Martin Luther soon went through a series of trails and became excommunicated from the Church. During this time he was housed by the aristocracy of Germany. While in hiding, he translated the New Testament into German, the language of the people. This was quite revolutionary because during this time the Bible was traditionally in Latin and the common person could not read it.

Martin Luther did not want to separate the church, rather he wanted to reform it. After some time though, it became clear that the Church was not going to reform, and Luther and others started creating their own churches. Interestingly enough, Luther did not want these new churches to be named after him. Today in the United States we call this branch of Christianity, Lutheranism, while in Germany they call it “Protestant” church.

In 2017, now 500 years later, we can trace our roots as a church back to this radical movement. We can study the past to learn how we too can shape the future.

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