Five centuries on, Martin Luther should be feted as hero of liberty and free speech
The story of the German reformer who challenged the Catholic church has resonance today
In the English version of the Reformation, Martin Luther’s role amounts to little more than noises off. First, he attracted the hostility of Henry VIII, aided and abetted by Thomas More, as they flung barbs at “this venomous serpent” challenging the Catholic church’s stranglehold over Europe. Then, just over a decade later, the king exploited the breach in Rome’s defences that Luther had created to launch a national church.
But Henry was always keen to stress that he was no Lutheran, and the German reformer’s new take on Christianity did not survive intact when crossing the Channel. So the celebrations this year of the 500th anniversary of Luther issuing his 95 theses – the key text in his onslaught against the pope’s abuse of power and scripture – is set to largely pass us by.
The “joint fest for Jesus Christ”, organised by the Lutheran World Federation and the Vatican, is a remarkable act of togetherness after half a millennium of enmity and bloodshed. It will be getting into gear this Easter across continental Europe, but there is no party happening here. Which is mighty unfair on Luther.
When the new Protestantism – a word invented by Luther’s enemies at the Diet of Speyer in 1529 – did arrive on these shores once Henry had shut out Rome, it might not have been specifically Lutheran, but it would not have existed at all had it not been for Luther. Once he had argued that you could worship God by following the scriptures not the pope, others such as Zwingli and Calvin followed in his wake, setting up their own churches as Protestantism quickly fragmented.
We live today in secular, sceptical, scientific times, when religion itself is regularly branded irrelevant. So Luther, if considered at all, tends to be dismissed as dour, distant and two-dimensional, better suited to the dusty pages of history books than the 21st century. So much so that he is often confused with Martin Luther King, whose continuing importance is much more readily understood.
Yet as one of the makers of modern Europe, and a populist who rose to prominence on a wave of anti-establishment discontent among those who felt themselves shut out and forgotten (sound familiar?), his story has never had a more immediate resonance.
In his native Germany, at least, they still appreciate that. Some 30% of the population remains Lutheran, including the chancellor, Angela Merkel, daughter of a Lutheran pastor. Recently a Playmobil model of the Augustinian friar, clutching his quill pen and Bible, became the fastest-selling toy its makers have ever put on the market there, with 34,000 sold during its first 72 hours on the shelf.
A case of celebrating a local hero? That is part of it, but it is too narrow. Luther’s contemporary relevance for all of us lies in understanding how and why an obscure monk from a backwoods university, light years away from the corridors of power in Renaissance Rome, orchestrated a revolution so powerful that it brought a hitherto all-powerful Catholicism to its knees.
It certainly was not down to the originality of his theological arguments. Not a single one was new. All had been aired before, some by saints, many by those branded heretics by Rome for their trouble, their lives snuffed out on pyres in public squares as casually as the candles on its gilded altars.
What Luther did in the 95 theses – which, incidentally, were sent to his local archbishop, not nailed to a door, a fanciful exaggeration put about by his followers after his death – was to tap into a deep vein of alienation among the poor in a fragmented Germany. They were disillusioned not only with the excesses and corruption of their pope and church, but also with their own local rulers in the jigsaw of states that made up their country.
Luther struck a chord with a congregation that felt exploited and ignored: on the one hand, fleeced to pay for lavish basilicas in Rome by the sale of worthless pieces of parchment known as indulgences that “guaranteed” a berth in heaven for loved ones (or themselves); and on the other, in the secular world, seeing the age-old ways on which their livelihoods depended overturned by the rise of a money economy.
The 95 theses – and much of what Luther subsequently said in public as his message spread across the continent, right up to his excommunication in 1521 – were the work of a classic disrupter who, in today’s terms, wanted to drain the “Vatican swamp”.
Fluent in the language of the street, the undeniably charismatic Luther wrote most of his best-known and most inflammatory texts not in church Latin but in German, going on to produce in 1522 the first translation of the New Testament into everyday German, and in 1534 a translation of the whole Bible.
Those in the pews no longer had to rely on the word of priests and bishops instead of the word of God. He realised the force of appealing over the head of “experts” long before Michael Gove hit upon it in the Brexit push.
And in working with the owners of newfangled printing presses, he was among the first to spot the potential of what was the social media of its day as an alternative means of spreading his new anti-establishment gospel. Pamphlets of edited versions of his tracts spread like ripples through Germany, then Europe, Rome and even England. In an age of widespread illiteracy, he made sure he engaged those who could not read by including illustrations, using crude, often satirical woodcuts from the studio of his close friend and fellow Wittenberger, Lucas Cranach the Elder.
So when he stood before the Holy Roman Emperor and the princes and prelates of Germany at the Diet of Worms in 1521, defending his writings on pain of death, Luther had crowds outside on the streets rallying to his defence, stirred up by leaflets and posters saturating the town.
Much as they wanted to be rid of “this petty monk”, as pope Adrian VI labelled him, the establishment could not hand him over to his fate for fear of igniting an uprising. So Luther, unlike those earlier would-be reformers, lived to put his theories into practice.
All those who court popular support, though, inevitably one day lose it. For Luther, that moment came in 1525, when the long-brewing unhappiness among Germany’s poor boiled over in the Peasants’ War. Luther was forced to choose sides, and threw his lot in with thode princes who had embraced his Protestantism (and with some who hadn’t).
This was not a matter of self-preservation. His doctrine of the “two kingdoms” – leaving to the state earthly matters, and to the church those spiritual pursuits that were Luther’s lifeblood – was sincerely held, but his application of it was taken as a cruel betrayal by many among the rebels who had placed their hopes in him as their saviour.
Yet the consequences of Luther’s rebellion were not confined to a particular period, to Germany, or even to organised religion. His essential message was that, at the end of his or her life, each believer stood naked before God, awaiting eternal judgment, with only the Bible and their faith to protect them. The “good works” that Catholicism encouraged – earning brownie points by going to mass, making pilgrimages, praying to relics and contributing to the church coffers – were irrelevant in salvation.
He was thus challenging the entire late medieval way of doing things and the result was strikingly modern. For Luther championed conscience, informed by reading the scriptures, over the dictates of church rules and regulations. Read scripture and make your own mind up. This, in its turn, opened the door in the 17th and 18th centuries to Enlightenment notions of human liberty, free speech and even human rights, all of which today shape Europe. Our ability to read the word of God and reject it out of hand comes from Luther – an outcome he could not have foreseen and which would surely horrify him.
But if that sounds too abstract, there is one final aspect of Martin Luther that gives him a relevance and a three-dimensional appeal. For sheer, selfless courage, he is impossible to outdo. He may now be recalled, if at all, as a jowly friar from history, but for a thousand years before Luther came along, the Catholic church had been one of the great powers on earth, so powerful it even fixed the calendar the world still uses, taking as its pivot the birth of Jesus Christ. Until Martin Luther.
He had the courage to take on a monolithic church, in the full expectation that it would cost him his life, but he did it nonetheless, confronting the might of the first truly universal religion, in person and often alone, with an extraordinary passion, intensity and energy. And, most remarkable of all, not only did Luther survive, he triumphed, and we are all better off because of him.
What’s not to celebrate?