Half a millennium away: Martin Luther’s 95 theses 500 years on

On the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, Andrew Stone looks at the context in which Protestantism arose and the global impact it had.

Luther nails the ’95 theses’ to the church door in Wittenberg. Painting by Ferdinand Pauwels (1873). Source: WikiCommons

On 31 October 1517 an Augustinian monk nailed a list of complaints – known to posterity as the 95 Theses – to a church door in Wittenberg. This austere professor of theology was animated by opposition to a particularly money-grubbing scheme by Johann Tetzel, the Grand Commissioner for Indulgences in Germany, who was selling time out of purgatory for those willing to pay.

Within three years Martin Luther, the monk in question, was throwing a Papal Bull (a sacred command from the Pope) into a bonfire of books about the legal power of the Church. Protestantism was born. It would have a profound effect on European history – playing a significant role in, among much else, the German Peasants Revolt, the French Wars of Religion, the Dutch Revolt, the English Revolution. But its impact would touch all continents in the ideological support it often provided for colonisation, slavery and even the genocide of indigenous peoples, as well as articulating resistance to these crimes.

Luther was not the first to challenge the universal claims of the Catholic Church – the Eastern Orthodox church had broken away in 1054 – nor the first to encourage a popular religious movement – John Wycliffe’s Lollardy of the late 14th century was one of several to do likewise. But the ‘magnificent anarchy’ of theological questioning that followed combined elements of both reform from above and radicalism from below that contributed to the formations of a new schism within the dominant institutions of the early modern world.

Luther’s heresy only had time to take root because of a favourable conjunction of circumstances. While the Pope claimed spiritual hegemony over all western Christendom, his powers of enforcement varied according to the temporal power of each kingdom. Five hundred years ago German statelets were part of the vast Holy Roman Empire, but it exerted relatively weak central authority. Luther’s position was strengthened because one of the seven men responsible for electing the Emperor, Frederick the Wise, was also Luther’s sympathetic patron. Frederick also had a personal stake in discrediting Tetzel, whose indulgence scheme was undercutting the value of his own vast holy relic collection.

This came at a time of heightened millennial expectations. Though the half millennium of 1500 had passed relatively peacefully, 1524 marked the Great Conjunction of the Stars to coincide with the conjunction of all the Planets in Pisces. Whereas astrologers nowadays would probably say that this suggested Luther would have an unexpected opportunity with someone from his past, at the time it was said to herald the second coming of Christ.

Such prophecies seemed less farfetched when, in 1524, a massive revolt of German peasants over enclosures and the re-imposition of serfdom led to what some Marxists, such as Karl Kautsky, have seen as a form of proto-Communism. At the heart of this movement were the Anabaptists, whose central belief that adults should enter the church as a matter of personal commitment rather than through induction as infants was an affront to the universalist pretensions of both Catholicism and the emergent Lutheranism. The notion that there should be competing claims on a subject’s loyalty, and thus that there should be toleration outside of the state church, was one which neither Catholic nor Protestant monarch would happily accept. The ideas of some, that wealth should be redistributed, and communal living practiced, was complete anathema.

Leading this ‘radical reformation’ was preacher Thomas Muntzer, and the centre of what Kautsky considers the ‘Anabaptist revolution’ was the city of Munster, which was seized by the insurgents and attempted to hold out against a siege by a combination of Catholic and Protestant forces. It was eventually drowned in blood, as was the entire peasant uprising. Much to the disgust of many of those his resistance to Rome had inspired, this repression was egged on by Martin Luther. While he preached for a ‘priesthood of believers’, this signified spiritual but not social equality. When the rebels raised this prospect he wrote a pamphlet called Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants in which he urged that everyone who could should “smite, slay and stab [the rebels], secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful or devilish than a rebel.”

Luther thus unequivocally sided with the ‘magisterial reformation’, the elite-led process that encouraged some rulers to break from Rome to enhance their prestige, wealth and power. Henry VIII is an obvious example of the calculating aspect of this. Having previously been lauded by the Pope for a treatise against Luther, he ultimately broke with Rome after it resisted his prerogative to ensure the succession. His seizure of dynastic land was a brief boon to his imperial ambitions, before the wealth was squandered on continental warfare.

Why Protestantism emerged at this time, and to such dramatic effect, has been an issue of lively debate. Marxism has often been attributed with a rather crude characterisation that capitalism created Protestantism as a form of ideological legitimation. Neil Davidson argues in How Revolutionary were the Bourgeois Revolutions? that Marx never made this claim. Instead Davidson categorises three main types of ruling class Protestantism: 1) the initial Lutheran rule in the German principalities and Scandinavia 2) the Anglo-Catholicism of Henry VIII and Elizabeth’s High Anglicanism and 3) the so-called ‘Calvinist International’, based on the ‘justification by faith alone’ sermons of John Calvin, for example in the Dutch Republic.

Davidson insists that:

The relationship between Calvinism and the bourgeois revolutions is therefore a complex one. All bourgeois revolutionary movements down to and including the English Revolution involved Calvinism, but very few Calvinist movements down to and including the English Revolution led to bourgeois revolutions. Calvinism was a doctrine that gave support to those who wished to overthrow a state, but there were many different social forces seeking to overthrow states in mid-sixteenth-century Europe, very few of them remotely bourgeois in composition.

A purely religious explanation for the conflicts of the Early Modern period is inadequate. To give just two examples:

1) The Dutch grandees of the 1560s who attempted to broker a degree of religious toleration for the minority Calvinists against the Spanish Inquisition were, perhaps unexpectedly, overwhelmingly Catholic. To explain why they did so requires a much deeper appreciation of the fragmented political structure in the Netherlands, but also the pressures and opportunities created by a uniquely urbanised and developed market economy.

2) Oliver Cromwell was Puritan by conviction. He justified atrocities in Ireland on this basis, and at other times was plagued by religious introspection (for example when offered the crown). But even he was prepared to form an alliance with Catholic Spain while waging war with the Calvinist Netherlands, as the latter were by this time England’s key trade rival.

So social and economic analysis remains important to a holistic understanding of how Protestantism emerged, but we must remember the interplay with religion as the language in which people understood their worlds and their aspirations (in this life and the next), and how they went about securing these. Perhaps the key way this is illustrated is how the development of the productive forces of society and therefore the possibilities for rapid religious communication and conversion coalesced through the creation of the printing press. So in 1517 Luther’s 95 Theses was quickly translated from Latin into German, and within weeks was being published in its thousands. Another key text of the period was William Tyndale’s Book of Common Prayer, who saw his translation of sacred texts as “empowering through the vernacular, through the English language, every member of society down to the lowliest ploughboy”.

Conservative historian Niall Ferguson has dubbed this ‘the first age of networking’, drawing a comparison with modern social networks. The analogy has some traction, but only when combined with an awareness of the class resources and relationships that enabled rulers and ruled to propagate their ideas – and to back them up with the force of states or collective resistance to them.

No short article could adequately summarise how the Protestant Reformation affected the subsequent 500 years of history. But suffice to say, like all religion Protestantism is multifaceted – it is both the justification for the democratisation of the Levellers, and the butchery of Cromwell and William of Orange in Ireland. It justifies both the anti-choice bigotry of the Democratic Unionist Party and the civil rights leadership of Martin Luther King. Religion under capitalism can seem to provide comfort and amelioration in a world that requires much of both. It is not the enemy of those fighting for change, any more than football is, despite the existence of groups such as the Football Lads Alliance. Sometimes it is the voice of the voiceless and sometimes it tells us that there is ‘nothing more devilish than a rebel’. But the devil is in the detail.



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