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Why was Luther able to challenge the Catholic Church so successfully in the years 1517-1525?
Various reasons contributed to Martin Luther’s success in challenging the Catholic Church from the years 1517-25. The five key reasons behind Luther’s success were his protection by Frederick the Wise, the fact his ideas were appealing and popular, his passion and determination, the failures of the Church itself and finally, the timing of his challenge. Some of these factors also affected each other and these links provide the strength which allowed Luther’s revolt to be so successful. This is because one of these factors alone would not have been sufficient in preventing Luther gaining the same fate as those who attempted a reformation before him. Conversely, some reasons can also be considered as having a larger and more widespread effect than others, meaning they were more significant in contributing to the final outcome.
Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony and founder of the University of Wittenberg was the most powerful early defender of Luther. He played a large role in helping Luther keep his message spreading and on several occasions used his authority to benefit Luther’s revolt. For example, The Papal Bull of Excommunication was never carried out in Saxony and neither were the terms of the Edict of The Worms. Also, Frederick persuaded Charles V to carry out the Diet of Worms in German, instead of Rome, so that Luther could defend himself safely. Another way Frederick defended Luther was in 1521 when he had him ‘kidnapped’ on his way back from Worms and taken to the Wartburg for his safety.
The significance of Frederick the Wise’s protection is that he ultimately prevented Luther from being killed or persecuted by those who disagreed with his motives. This in turn allowed his message to carry on spreading and to be developed. Therefore, Frederick the Wise had a fundamental effect on the Lutheran movement because although he never converted to the religion, he contributed to its development and influence over Saxony. The main reason Wise supported Luther was because Luther was a teacher at his University and Wise did not want it to gain a bad reputation. However, other reasons can also be considered such as the fact that Luther’s ideas proved popular and therefore Frederick was happy to support him.
Essentially, Luther’s success relied upon his ideas being popular and the reason for this was due to the fact his ideas appealed to people of all classes. He addressed his message differently to both the princes, in Address to the Christian Nobility, and the peasants, by creating sermons and woodcuts. This allowed his message to spread among everyone. His ideas appealed to the different classes; peasants interpreted his message of ‘priesthood of all believers’ as supporting social equality and used it as a basis for the Peasants War in 1525 thus showing they supported Luther up until this point.
The nobility also joined the reform movement as they believed it would strengthen their political position and remove papal influence in their territories. His popularity is shown by the fact his publications were of the most popular at the time. The fact his ideas were popular were vital to his success as his argument had to be seen as valid for him to gain support. Moreover, the fact he had support from a variety of everyday Germans was crucial for keeping his message spreading. A significant reason for his ideas proving popular is due to the church’s failures which at the time was becoming increasingly less tolerated and gave a clear example of the faults he was trying to highlight.
The lack of tolerance towards the church was due to the fact that many Germans saw the Pope as a foreigner who did little to benefit Catholics, despite the high papal taxes they had to pay to him. These taxes were used to pay for the rebuilding of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome thus not being advantageous to the Germans who were paying the tax. However the intolerance was not only towards the papacy but also parish priests who were not fulfilling their pastoral duties. Many also committed clerical abuses such as pluralism and simony.
As a result, people generally had the growing feeling they were being exploited for their money and faith. This feeling over anticlericalism was further developed from Luther’s ideas. It is also a reason for the fact Luther’s ideas were popular, because they could be related too and agreed with. Failures of the Church were not a directly significant reason for Luther’s success, it allowed him to gain more support but only because his ideas were popular. Anticlericalism had been around for a long time, and only enhanced the popularity of his message as it coincided with a time when intolerance towards church failures was increasing.
Another reason for Luther’s ideas proving popular was due to his personality and passion for making a change. This passion is seen through his obsession with finding salvation. In addition, he was fearless in putting his point across regardless of consequences such as in 1519 in his debate with Johann Eck where he argued his ideas confidently and 1521 at the Diet of Worms, where he claimed that by recanting, he would be promoting tyranny and his conscience would not allow him to do so, therefore he would not be silenced.
Luther’s determination also relates to why his ideas proved popular, he had the power to make people believe and support him. This determination meant he was the catalyst for the reformation in Europe. He not only believed there was corruption in the Catholic Church, but spoke out publicly about his ideas that salvation would be found through faith alone. It also links to Frederick’s choice to defend him because his passion earned him the role as a lecturer at Wittenberg University which meant Frederick was more willing to support him. Luther’s personality was important for his success, he was determined to change the system of the Church and this prevented him from giving up, and instead keeping his message extending across the Empire.
The final factor that can be considered and linked to the others is the timing of Luther’s movement. It coincided with the return of the Renaissance era which invited new thinking about education and society that came from ancient Greek and Roman teachings. These secular, humanist ideas believed that the Church should not rule civic matter but only give guidance in spiritual matters, which Luther also emphasised in his teachings. In other words, he agreed with the Renaissance way of thinking, focusing on the present, and seeing that change was desperately needed in the Catholic Church. This was significant as it ran parallel to his beliefs and helped in the development of his own ideas, as well as making them more relatable to everyday Germans, therefore having a similar effect to that of intolerance towards anticlericalism.
In addition, his ideas were spread quicker by the invention of the printing press. His Ninety Five Theses was printed, meaning his word was spread rapidly. Previous to the printing press, people with ideas had no effective way to spread them. Therefore, the printing press also links to the fact his ideas were seen as popular because they could be seen by many. On the contrary, the fact that less than 10% of the population could read or write was a limiting factor to the spread of his message. Therefore, the fact his revolt began at a time when society and technology was also changing means it was carried along with the flow of new, revolutionary ideas, which helped his message to be heard by more people.
In conclusion, many of these factors link together to produce the same outcome – that Luther’s revolt was a successful one. However, the most important factor was that his ideas proved popular. This was because they, to an extent, were radical, new and well-liked. Martin Luther was one of the first to think outside of what the church taught him. He began to question the church’s authority and what was going on inside the Church – what he found was corruption, greed and malpractice. But this alone would not have made him so successful. His personality played a role by making him determined to speak up about it and therefore gain more support, making his ideas even more popular.
Without these two factors working together, he never would have gained strong enough support to form a fully fledged reformation. However, more importantly than his personality was the protection he acquired from Frederick the Wise; this kept him from Harm’s way and allowed his message to carry on spreading. Additionally, to this was the significance of the timing of his actions. It turned what would have been a small rebellion into a national reorganization of the Church, due to the printing press and Renaissance era.
Finally, but with less slightly less importance, was the Church’s own failures. On one hand it was important to his success because it emphasised the corruption he was describing, making it more relatable. On the other hand, anticlericalism had been around for a long time, it only emphasised his message but did not contribute to its successfulness. In summary, all five factors played an important role however the most important were that his ideas proved popular , due to his personality, and his protection by Frederick the Wise. The other elements played lesser roles but were still important in helping his message spread to a wider audience.