According to popular tradition it was at 2 in the afternoon on Oct.31, 1517, when a relatively unknown monk named Dr. Martin Luther decided to take on the entire known world — the Roman Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire; and nailed a “list of questions and propositions for debate” on the front door of the Wittenberg Castle church.
Luther was born on Nov. 10, 1483. In October 1517 he was a 33-year-old Catholic priest who had earned his Doctorate of Theology on Oct. 29, 1512, from the University of Wittenberg, located on the River Elbe, in what we know today as the state of Saxony-Anhalt in northeast Germany.
In 1508, Luther had begun working as a professor of biblical theology at the University of Wittenberg, which at the time, was essentially an unheard of 6-year-old institution of higher learning; in a very small town of approximately 2,000 citizens, far from the center of the known world at the time; Rome.
The list of complaints nailed to the door had the working title of the “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.” It is known today as “The 95 Theses.” Although it is well-accepted that Luther actually wrote a “letter of complaint” to his church superiors on Oct. 31, 1517; historians and theologians argue to this day as to whether he actually nailed his notice to the school bulletin board, the north door of the Castle Church.
For additional context, please know that in feudal Europe at the time, it was a commonly accepted practice to attach forms of public communication on the church doors, which were the equivalent to a central public bulletin board.
Some historians insist that he had merely posted a notice for a proposed academic debate and the whole thing got blown out of proportion when the social media of the day, the printing press, got hold of it and distributed it widely to promote sales.
By 1517, the Catholic Church was being challenged on multiple fronts by many individuals. The appearance of Luther in the debate became the “perfect storm.” The results of the Black Death — the Plague — had killed as many as 200 million people in Europe and Asia and the “governance” of the Holy Roman Empire was fragmenting into what could be best described as “chaos theory.” Luther was in the right place at the right time to throw gasoline on a smoldering fuse.
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The “fuse,” so to speak, was the use of the printing press that Johannes Gutenberg had developed around 1440 in Mainz, Germany, and was beginning to be perfected in the early 1500s after decades of lawsuits had been settled. The printing press was the social media agent of change that allowed the “95 Theses” to be mass produced and widely distributed — a totally new form of communication. By one account, “Initial copies migrated from Germany to Spain only 10 days after he had penned them.”
According to several historic accounts, in 1517 Luther was particularly upset over the “papal practice of asking payment — called ‘indulgences’ — for the forgiveness of sins.”
In 1515 Pope Leo X began a “major fundraising campaign in Germany to finance the renovation of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome,” according to History.com. “Though Prince Frederick III the Wise had banned the sale of indulgences in Wittenberg, many church members traveled to purchase them. When they returned, they showed the pardons they had bought to Luther, claiming they no longer had to repent for their sins.”
Bear in mind that it was not until 1530 that playing bingo was developed as a fundraiser from an Italian lottery called “Lo Giuoco del Lotto D'Italia.” Indeed, bingo was not popularized until the French discovered it in the late 1770s. So, in 1515, church officials decided to raise money by selling favors and divine grace.
The church leaders quickly became annoyed that Luther was interfering with the church’s fundraising campaign. His 1517 protest letter led to a trial at the Diet (Court) of Worms in 1521. He would not recant the “95 Theses” and was excommunicated and sentenced to death.
The term, Lutheran was actually first used by Luther’s critics, in 1519. Ten years later, in the late 1520s, Luther’s followers were called Protestants because of their protests about the church.
Today, it is widely accepted that Luther’s “95 Theses” started the Lutheran Church and the Protestant Reformation, which lasted until the Treaty of Westphalia was signed in 1648. Today, Oct. 31, is celebrated as Reformation Day.