On the eve of All Saints Day 1517, Augustinian monk Martin Luther posted a manifesto on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, igniting the Reformation. Behind this act lay widespread objection to clerical shortcomings and a dubious fundraising technique condoned for decades by the Catholic Church. Ideas that influenced Luther had been percolating for generations while the political conditions that enabled his success had been evolving for centuries.
The Lutheran Reformation
The 16th-century European upheaval known as the Reformation fragmented Western Christendom. Centered in Germany, the Lutheran Reformation sought to reduce the importance of the Catholic sacraments, rejected the Catholic belief that during the Eucharist priests transform bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood, elevated the Bible over the pope as the ultimate authority on faith and morals, and contended that humans could attain salvation neither through deeds nor virtue but only by faith, observes historian Will Durant in his book “The Reformation.”
Greed and depravity within the Catholic Church alienated Luther. The 15th-century Catholic Church was rife with the selling of ecclesiastical offices and the amassment of personal fortunes. Neglecting the works of charity that had once entitled them to public trust, many monasteries saw their members engrossed in vulgar pursuits, including fornication and gambling, according to Durant.
By the 15th century, the Catholic Church was granting indulgences -- the supposed remission of afterlife punishments warranted by sins -- not only to the living but also to the dead, notes Harold Grimm in his book “The Reformation Era.” Granted increasingly for money with little regard for actual repentance, indulgences became a conspicuously crass means of ecclesiastical fundraising. The practice enraged Luther, inspiring him to publish his 1517 manifesto.
In condemning ecclesiastical wealth, avarice and hypocrisy, English cleric and scholar John Wyclif (1320-84) anticipated nearly all the reform ideas of Luther. Influenced by Wyclif’s ideas, the Czech John Hus (1369-1415) attacked the theory of indulgences and founded a reformed church in Bohemia. Throughout the 15th century, many leading churchmen questioned papal authority and advocated use of church councils in decision making. Intellectual currents such as these, facilitated by the development of printing, would have inspired and bolstered Luther against the Catholic Church.
To secure ecclesiastical support in the 14th century, the English monarchy found it prudent to mute Wyclif’s heretical protests. In 16th-century Germany, by contrast, the central authority, the Holy Roman Emperor, lacked the power to control all the regional authorities within his territories. One of those authorities, Saxon Prince Frederick III, used his political influence to protect Luther against both the Catholic emperor and the pope. For German princes, moreover, backing the reformer often coincided with a compelling financial temptation — the seizure of Catholic wealth.
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