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Martin Luther: What Started It All

October 31 is a day which many children look forward to as a time to dress up and get candy. Yet October 31 is important for another reason usually overlooked. On that date in 1517, a little known monk who taught at a little known university in a small village changed the world. The movement, which he "accidentally" began, numbers today in the hundreds of millions of Christians known as "Protestants."

So what was this event and how did Martin Luther, of all people, come to play such a part? Luther was born in 1483 in Germany of working class parents. This was in the days before social security and retirement, so Lutherís father, Hans, wanted Luther to be a successful lawyer. This would be a good job for Luther, and give his parents a comfortable old age. So Luther set out to become a lawyer, eventually earning his masterís degree in May 1505.

The next month Luther was walking in a field when a storm swept in with tremendous lightening. Luther made a vow that he would become a monk if he could make it through the storm. He did make it safely through and, being a man of his vow, he quit his law studies and became a Catholic monk.

Luther joined the Augustinian order in September of 1505 (3 months later), and began his theological studies in 1507. In 1508 he was transferred to the newly founded University of Wittenberg where he began to teach.  At that point Wittenberg was a small town of 2000 people. Luther was sent to Rome on a trip on behalf of the Augustinian order in 1510 and later received his doctorate degree in 1512.

At the same time, Pope Leo X, who had spent much of the Catholic Churchís money, decided to raise money (in part for the building of St. Peterís Basilica) through the sale of indulgences. The indulgence he had in mind would allow people to pay money and receive a reduction in the time they would spend in purgatory. (To Catholics of Lutherís day, purgatory was where most Catholics went upon dying. After sufficient time there, one would go to Heaven.)

John Tetzel, was given the job of selling indulgences in Lutherís area. Luther (and others) became angry and indignant at the fundraising tactics of the Pope and wanted it stopped. Luther believed this could best be done in a public debate. So Luther wrote down his disagreements on the issue of selling indulgences. In the end he had a list of 95; these are known as "Theses." On October 31, 1517 he walked to the Wittenberg Cathedral and nailed his 95 Theses on the door of the church. He did not do this as an act of defiance, but because he knew a lot of people would see them there. Unknown to Luther, someone took them down, had them printed on the newly invented printing press (Gutenberg had printed the first book only 60 years before), and within two weeks everyone in that area who had could read had access to a copy. Many people believed that Luther was right, and so began the Protestant Reformation which would break from the Catholic Church and, eventually, birth Protestant denominations around the world.

©2005 Mark Nickens

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