History of October 31: What’s Martin Luther got to do with it?

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North door of the Castle Church, Wittenberg

Fund Raising

Prince Albert of Brandenburg wanted the archbishopric of Mainz. (You may know the city of Mainz as the home of a goldsmith named Johann Gutenberg, who had developed the uniform-sized movable type printing press some 60–70 years earlier.) Because Albert was younger than 25 years old, and because holding multiple archbishoprics was forbidden, the office of archbishop required a dispensation that would cost him 23,000 ducats (about $500,000.) Pope Leo X, who was financing the building of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome (for $46 million) suggested that Albert borrow the money from the wealthy Fugger banking family. Albert was able to secure half the funds from the Fuggers, and for the rest he sold indulgences.

Indulgences

An indulgence was a document which freed the holder from the temporal penalty of sin. The sale of indulgences, originally introduced during the Crusades, remained a favored source of papal income. In exchange for a meritorious work — frequently, a contribution to a worthy cause or a pilgrimage to a shrine — the Roman church offered the sinner exemption from his acts of penance by drawing upon its “treasury of merits.” According to church doctrine, this consisted of the superabundance of grace accumulated by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and the meritorious deeds of the saints. This surplus could be used by sinners, dispensed by the Pope. In Castle Church at Wittenberg for example, it was believed that the relics (bones of saints or other articles from biblical characters) collected there were reckoned to earn a remission for pilgrims of 1,902,202 years and 270 days.

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Tetzel’s Indulgence

Reaction

To Martin Luther, the professor of biblical studies at the newly founded University of Wittenberg, Tetzel’s preaching was bad theology if not worse. His parishioners were not coming to confession, informing him that they’d already “paid” for their sin. Luther thought this practice was wholly unwarranted by Scripture, reason or tradition. He felt it encouraged not repentance but mere payment. Luther promptly drew up 95 propositions or theses in Latin, following university custom, for a call to theological debate. This was not what Luther originally intended, like hitting “reply all” and not being able to call it back. Among other things, the 95 Theses argued that indulgences cannot remove guilt, do not apply to purgatory, and are harmful because they induce a false sense of security in the donor. So, the 95 Theses were not a general call to break with the Roman Catholic Church. Rather he intended to begin his debate on the theses or “The Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” by discussing the sale of indulgences and the biblical limits of Papal power.

Printing Press

The irony is that his friends, to whom he had sent private copies, took the 95 Theses and translated them into German, the language of the common man. And with the aid of Gutenberg’s printing press copies were distributed to the masses: it went viral. This was the “spark” that ignited the Reformation. Consequently, many Protestant churches celebrate October 31 as “Reformation Day” and the closest Sunday to it as Reformation Sunday. For it was on that day that Luther sent his 95 Theses to his superior, the aforementioned Albert of Brandenburg, now the Archbishop of Mainz in whose name the indulgences were being sold, to humbly bring it to his attention. But Luther did not know about Albert’s investment in the indulgence sales as mentioned above.

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Speyer Cathedral

* Protestant

Of course, 1517 wasn’t the actual beginning of the use of the word Protestant. That didn’t occur until over a decade later. In 1526, the Diet of Speyer met concerning the previous Imperial Edict of Worms (1521) which had condemned Luther politically. The Diet held that “every State shall so live, rule, and believe as it may hope and trust to answer before God and his Imperial Majesty”. However, practically it turned out so that each German state (prince) took it to grant freedom to choose its own allegiance: “As goes the religion of the Prince, so goes the people.” In 1529 at the Second Diet of Speyer, the Edict of Worms condemnation was reaffirmed essentially re-condemning Lutheranism. Half a dozen Lutheran princes presented a formal “Letter of Protestation,” which was subsequently printed and made public, and so were called “Protestants.

Silicon Valley Tech Exec: Cloud, Data Storage, Automation. Author of fascinating articles about history, tech trends, andpop culture. Blog: http://billpetro.com

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