Martin Luther is often perceived as the founder of the Protestant Reformation.
Martin Luther is often perceived as the founder of the Protestant Reformation.

In 1517, religious reformer and monk Martin Luther posted a document called the Ninety-Five Theses on the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany. This statement passionately criticized what Luther perceived as the Roman Catholic Church's abuses. Thanks to the printing press, Luther's document of protestation quickly began to be printed and circulated throughout Germany. The Ninety-Five Theses sparked the Protestant Reformation, which led to the formation of Lutheranism, a term originally coined as a derogatory term during the Leipzig Disputation of 1519 -- a public debate between Luther and his opponents.

Indulgences

Lutheranism's beginnings are rooted in the Ninety-Five Theses, specifically, with the document's critique of the Roman Catholic Church's selling of indulgences. Indulgences, which in Latin translates as tenderness or kindness, were remissions of temporal punishments -- not divine forgiveness of the sins themselves -- that the Church gave to lay members. However, due to the growing financial constraints that the Catholic Church experienced, indulgences began to be sold more frequently. This outraged many Catholics, including Martin Luther and other clergy members.

The Diet of Worms

In 1521, the Diet (assembly) of Worms took place in Worms, Germany. By this time, the Catholic Church had excommunicated Martin Luther for his beliefs. Although he could have been executed, German prince Frederick III the Wise (1463-1525) came to his aid and brought him to Worms for questioning by the assembly. Martin Luther never recanted his beliefs and as a result, the assembly of leaders was divided on what to do with him. Eventually, a smaller diet in Worms released the Edict of Worms, which officially outlawed Luther and his work. Many German leaders ignored the Edict and made Lutheranism the official religion of their principalities.

The Diet of Speyer

At the Diet of Speyer in 1529, the emperor of Germany, Charles V, nullified the provision that allowed governmental administrators to choose whether to enforce the Edict of Worms. However, many German cities rejected the emperor's action: Six German princes stated that his decision was non-binding, since the princes had never agreed to it. This protest against Charles V and the Catholic Church further solidified the region's allegiance to Luther and Lutheranism.

The Spread of Lutheranism

After Lutheranism became established throughout Germany, many cities throughout Sweden and other Scandinavian countries adopted this new Protestant denomination. Its ideas would eventually spread to North America in the mid-17th century by way of Dutch, German and Scandinavian settlers. By the 1620s, Lutheran settlements became established throughout New York and New Jersey, and by the19th century, about 20 Lutheran churches in the U.S. merged to become the American Lutheran Church. Today, Lutheranism has many different branches. In the U.S., the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is the largest Lutheran denomination. ELCA was formally constituted in 1988 through the merging of the Lutheran Church in America, the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches and the American Lutheran Church. The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod and the United Lutheran Church in America are also large denominations in the U.S.