To what extent was Martin Luther responsible for the ‘revolutionary’ Protestant reformation in Germany?
In this essay, I will attempt to assess the extent of Martin Luther’s role in the Protestant reformation that took place at the beginning of the sixteenth century in Germany. Luther’s name is synonymous with the religious Reformation of the sixteenth century, or the ‘evangelical movement’ as it is sometimes called, but the actual details of the Reformation itself are somewhat lesser known. Luther’s role in the Reformation is well publicised, but his contribution to other areas of religious life is often forgotten. Luther reinvented the German language, making his sermons and later, the bible, accessible to thousands of German citizens,
“He…converted it (the Bible) with a sensitive feeling for language and stylistic skill into a generally understandable German,”
Luther also made his religious sermons comprehensible by preaching in the vernacular, his pamphlets, and countless books, which he produced at an enormous rate, all struck a chord with the average Deutsch speaker simply because they were written in a language legible to the average German. The significance of Luther in the history of music is undisputed. He succeeded in transforming psalms into well-known songs, and captured the rhythm and intensity of the as yet disparate German nation with his own compositions, and his unique view of ‘word music’.
” With all my heart I would praise and laud this beautiful and artistic gift of God, the free art of music, for I find that the same hath much and great usefulness, and is therefore a splendid and noble art, so that I know not where to begin or cease to praise it.”
Unfortunately, however, this author is not intent on discussing the merits of Luther’s heart-warming music. Rather, I will discuss the fact that much of what Luther said, believed, and preached has, down through the centuries, been taken out of context. The further Luther receded from us in the course of the centuries, the greater became the temptation to celebrate him as the progenitor of ideas and theories that were neither his, nor related to his beliefs. Luther’s role, has I believe, throughout the centuries, taken on a slightly false significance which Luther himself would have abhorred, and his role in the protestant reformation can sometimes be exaggerated, or at best, over-emphasised. Luther’s views on the matter were definite
” I did nothing…the word did all.”
There were a great many factors that led to the Reformation and eventually, to reform of the Catholic Church and the recognition of the Lutheran religion. Luther’s theory, that ‘the just are saved by faith’, originally propounded by St.Paul, was not original, and one which a great many Germans were themselves most likely contemplating at the time,
“Pious Germans before the Reformation were reading, or having read to them, the Bible, in German, in numerous editions, and in print.”
His theories and newfound beliefs were enabled to influence a large majority of the population of ‘Christendom’ because of the hugely influential printing press, created some years before by Gutenberg. Luther’s large body of work remained up until 1546; the most widely read German language books in the country. His infamous ninety-five theses, which, as legend has it, were pinned to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, gained a wider audience with the onset of pamphlets and leaflets, the distribution of which was becoming more widespread. Indeed, it is questionable whether Luther would have come to the attention of Charles V at all if it had not been for Gutenberg’s momentous invention.
Luther reached in 1521, the pinnacle of his popularity. Described as a heretic by Charles V, and the papacy, Luther attained almost cult status when he was forced to go into hiding after the Diet of Worms in 1521. Over the next few months, the ‘evangelical movement’ took on an added impetus, and various sectors of the community manifested support.
Another important factor, which led to almost widespread support for the Reformation, was the controversy that surrounded the Catholic church of the day. People were angered by the flagrant abuses that persisted within the church.
” Corruption was also evident when the Catholic Church and its clergy set themselves superhuman standards and failed to live up to them.”
Although there was much respect for the papacy itself, latent within Luther up to a certain point as well, the preoccupation with money and materialistic objects led to a disconcerting level of distrust among the general population. In particular, the scandalous selling of Indulgences, originally only given to those who, in the Pope’s eyes, merited the prestigious awards, became commonplace at the end of the first decade in the sixteenth century. Indulgences supposedly guaranteed their purchasers a safe passage to heaven, and a shorter period of ‘repose’ in purgatory, that limbo place between heaven and hell.
” As soon as coin in coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”
Luther’s ninety-five theses gave a voice to the many people who held reservations about such practises. There was a feeling of indifference prevalent in pre-Reformation Germany, and it could be said that Luther capitalised on this. Peasants, shoemakers, blacksmiths, all awaited with baited breath for Luther to make his next move. However it had never been Luther’s intention to lead a revolution, he wished simply that the papacy would recognise that faith played a determining role in achieving eternal salvation.
Luther was not the only ‘heretic’ of the era. In 1522 Huldrych Zwingli, ” Correspondent of Erasmus and ‘people’s priest,'” challenged the Roman Catholic Church on ecclesiastical organisation and on doctrine. During the 1520s, radical preachers and sects proliferated in Germany. In 1534, Henry the Eight’s Act of Supremacy raised the King to be supreme head of the Church of England, thus cutting off all ties with Rome. Calvin, in 1541, took control of the Church in Geneva, and thus started a new branch of Protestantism, Calvinism. In 1537, Lutheranism became the official religion of Norway and Denmark. The Reformation was taking on an international front. And although many of these reformers might in some part credit Luther with their revolutionary ideas, each had a distinct set of values, in some ways unrecognisable from the original doctrine set forth by Luther.
Back to pre-Reformation Germany, and the year 1525, the year of the Peasant Revolt.
” The greatest popular revolt in German history, the 1525 Peasant Revolt was gathering momentum.”
According to R.W Scribner
” We can certainly speak of the German Peasants War as an evangelical-social movement.”
This movement was gathering momentum and it is generally accepted that this ‘war’ led to the acceptance, and eventually the introduction by many provincial leaders, of the Lutheran religion. How were these leaders, who were ultimately answerable to Charles V, enabled to introduce such radical changes into their cities and towns. It certainly wasn’t simply the influence of Luther, for though he had various supporters in different provinces and a wealthy, powerful ‘protector’ in Frederick the Wise, the Elector of Saxony, Luther did not hold much influence over other leaders.
Many of these ‘Electors’ became firmly convinced of the principle that faith, and faith alone, ultimately led to salvation, and saw themselves as ‘interpreters of the faith’. They wanted their people to gain salvation, and so it is with this in mind that my argument arises. The Reformation, although largely associated with one man alone, could never, and ought never to have been the work of one man alone, for if so, it would never have gained acceptance on such a large scale.
The Reformation gained momentum in 1521 when, on the third of January, Luther was excommunicated. This spurred him on to create a concrete doctrine, which was presented in 1930 to the Diet of Augsburg by Philip Melanchthon. This had a direct appeal to the princes and leaders of the various provinces, and in the 1530s, many states, such as Anhalt, Brunswick, Prussia, Electoral and Ducal Saxony, Hesse, and Wurttemberg changed hands, so to speak, and became ‘Lutheran’. The reason for this general acceptance and low level of resistance to the Reformation was due in part to the appeal of Luther’s doctrine to the rulers and princes of the time.
” Lutheranism appealed directly to independent-minded princes-it confirmed the legitimacy of their rule whilst maintaining the existing social order.”
Many historians have pointed to the fact that, upon converting to Lutheranism, a lot of the Church’s’ property was confiscated and eventually accrued to the princes and rulers of the region in question, however this was hardly motivation enough to undertake such a radical change as that of conversion to an almost entirely new religion. Luther himself felt that a minority of princes agreed with his reforms in part because they benefited in some way the individual prince.
Luther had an inherent respect for authority, evident in his addresses to Charles V and the Pope prior to his excommunication. This made a favourable impact with the rulers of the provinces which converted to Lutheranism. However, it may have lost him a large proportion of his ‘peasantry’ following after the Peasants War. Many of these people were looking for some kind of revolution or revolutionary reformer at the least. They were disillusioned with their ‘lot’, and felt Luther, himself from an impoverished background, was their saviour.
They could identify with him, and his extraordinary gift of preaching was lauded throughout the provinces. However, Luther never appeared to harbour any intention of leading a peasant revolution, and so through his disassociation with it, he, in my view, succeeded in partly disassociating himself from the populace. Thus, the revolution took on an extraordinary impetus of its own accord, the speed of which most probably came as a surprise to the, by most accounts, modest Luther.
The ‘evangelical movement’ began to spread across provinces, and as I have already discussed, took on an international dimension. The movement began in towns, led, surprisingly, by disaffected members of the established clergy, and held great appeal for urban dwellers. However, the ‘movement’, only took on significant proportions with the support of the rural community, and therein became a “Genuinely mass movement.”
Initially the movement was a spontaneous one, but with the backing of government elites, including officials, magistrates and princes, it gained the political skill needed to survive. Luther could not have drummed this up alone, and this is partly the reason why Luther alone was not responsible for the Reformation.
Luther died in 1483, and never gained that solace that most of us aspire to. He died a broken man, sick with fever and shook with the thought that instead of unifying Germany, as a certain Prussian Junker succeeded in doing so many years later, he left behind a Germany riddled with petty wars and differences. A disharmonious state. He died before he could see the fruits of his labour realised in 1555 with the Peace of Augsburg. This declared that the individual ruler of the province in question would decide upon which religion to adopt, and the inhabitants of the region were therefore forced to adopt it too. This perhaps in part explains why, by the second half of the sixteenth century, almost seventy per cent of the population had converted; many of these ‘converts’ were involuntary Protestants. Unfortunately the Reformation and the new religion created as a result of it, could not sustain this momentum.
The impact of the Reformation and its legacy is undoubtedly legion. Many traditional religious ceremonies and customs were abolished as a result of it. Religious worship was radically reshaped, the mass became the celebration of the Lord’ Supper, conducted in the vernacular by a priest in a black gown. Many of these changes and alterations transcended the Lutheran religion and came to be adopted by the Roman Catholics and Orthodox religions. The Reformation largely succeeded in forcing the Catholic Church to abandon their dated, mercenary ways, and to reform.
Undoubtedly, Luther was to some extent responsible for the revolutionary Reformation, but many other factors dictated it’s direction.