Whether you’re Protestant, atheist or even Catholic, you owe much to Martin Luther and the Reformation. And as we mark the 500th anniversary of those 95 Theses on October 31, Protestants worldwide will celebrate their spiritual freedom. But all of us should note the political liberty the Reformation fostered as well.
When Luther was born on November 10, 1483, the Roman Church dominated Europe. Its clergy vied with kings and princes to rule the population. Political power always corrupts; the Church’s absolute power had corrupted it absolutely. No wonder Jesus Christ repeatedly warned His disciples against this potent enemy. Yet by Luther’s time, the bickering Church and State cooperated to tyrannize everyone else, a la today’s Democrats and Republicans.
Christ had also cautioned against idolizing wealth. No matter: “by the year 1050, [the Church] was the largest landholder in Europe. Some land came in the form of gifts from monarchs and wealthy lords. Some land was taken by force…” We call that “theft” when poor people do it.
Meanwhile, clergy and nobility luxuriated in compulsory tithes and taxes while their subjects languished in wretched poverty. Few folks could hope to better themselves — except through the Church: “…monasteries also provided townsmen with important sources of employment and demand for consumer goods,” thereby ingratiating themselves with their victims. And while modern Catholics might consider Francis the first communist pope, the Church had gone Marxist long before: in Luther’s day, it “charged its well-off adherents for salvation and redistributed a portion of the proceeds to the poor in the form of alms and other charity.” Just as Washington, D.C., suborns Americans with its freebies, so did Rome: “In some towns it has been estimated that as much as half of the populationwas dependent on Catholic assistance…” All this while sermons denigrated such mundane tasks as farming or cobbling shoes and exalted “religious” pursuits. Obviously, farmers and cobblers were worthless, too, fit only to obey their masters in the manors and monasteries.
The Church insisted that such was God’s will; questioning its presumptions was heresy. And heretics died publicly in unspeakable anguish — but only after the Church had excommunicated them. To 15th-century Europeans, excommunication was even more frightening than burning at the stake. Virtually everyone was at least a nominal Christian who hoped for Heaven. Yet clerics taught that Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection alone couldn’t redeem us; rather, salvation required Rome’s sacraments, too. Ergo, officially banning a man from mass condemned him to Hell. American governments today are dictatorial, but how much more so if they also claimed to control our eternal destiny?
From bilking parishioners into buying loved ones out of Purgatory to the clergy’s notoriously high living, the Church was drowning in debauchery. But its sale of “indulgences” particularly infuriated the new German monk, Martin Luther.
And so “out of love for the truth and the desire to bring it to light,” Luther listed 95 “propositions” for his fellow churchmen to “discuss.” The image of a lone iconoclast defiantly nailing those grievances to a church’s door is irresistibly romantic. But, in reality, such “door[s] functioned as a bulletin board for various announcements related to academic and church affairs;” notices regularly appeared on them. Furthermore, Brother Martin had written in Latin, which only the elite understood. Far from rallying commoners against oppression, Luther was instead appealing to the regime as “a faithful monk and priest who had been appointed professor of biblical theology at the University of Wittenberg, a small, virtually unknown institution in a small town.” And his “tone” was “remarkably humble and academic…, questioning rather than accusing.”
Still, however mild, Luther’s protest came atop those of earlier heroes such as Jan Hus and John Wyclif. Authorities had brooked no criticism then, nor did they now. Luther found protection with Prince Frederick the Wise, though others agitating for reform weren’t as blessed. The Church tortured and executed them.
But their convictions prevailed here and there in Europe, until some local governments forsook Rome. Henceforth, they ruled according to Luther’s precepts or those of another Reformer, John Calvin. And tragically, though these Protestants had suffered horrific persecution from Catholic rulers, they espoused the same bloodthirstiness: “Once [Luther’s] teaching became established as a state religion, all other forms of Christianity had to be eliminated… By 1525, he had forbidden the mass … in 1529 he went further still to deny ‘freedom of conscience’ … Two years later he agreed that Anabaptists and other Protestant extremists ‘should be done to death by the civil authority.’”
John Calvin reacted similarly: “The obvious answer to critics was to expel them from the city, following excommunication. If they attempted to remonstrate they were executed. But execution, Calvin found, was also useful to inspire terror and thus bring about compliance. … He was particularly severe with any who rebelled against his own rule.”
Yet these despotic Reformers planted seeds of freedom. For starters, they insisted that both boys and girls learn to read Scripture rather than accept the Church’s word for what it said. And they exploited that new development, the printing press, to provide numerous Bibles in the vernacular instead of only one Latin copy in the monastery. (How culpable are we who, not only literate but flush with Bibles in our own language, allow Progressives to pretend that homosexuality and abortion are moral? Ditto for the nonsense we tolerate from the Supreme Dorks regarding the Constitution.)
Holy Writ, with its revelation that each individual, whether layman or bishop, farmer or prince, is created in God’s image and supremely valuable, disproved for its legions of new readers the priests’ propaganda. So did the Biblical principles that all are equally guilty before the Almighty and that no fallen sinner should lord it over others.
These precepts saturated Protestant England, thanks to the Reformers’ zeal in restoring Scripture to its rightful centrality. And praise God that though Luther, Calvin, et al were as shamefully tyrannical as their Catholic counterparts, the Biblical truths they unleashed would one day ignite the American Revolution.
— Becky Akers