On All Hallow’s Eve, 1517, local teacher, professor of theology, and Augustinian monk, Martin Luther posted a proposal for a public debate on the door of Wittenberg castle’s church regarding the sale of indulgences by traveling Dominican friars. In 1517, indulgences were certificates guaranteed by the Pope that the bearer would not have to spend time in Purgatory for their earthly sins. Luther had drawn up a list of 95 theses which were his concerns, not specifically against indulgences themselves, but with their sale without any true contrition. He wanted to provoke debate, something he was very good at, and reform the Church, not break with it.
There is no evidence of Luther actually “nailing his theses to the door”. However, that day Luther did send copies of his 95 theses to Albrecht the archbishop of Mainz and Jerome the Bishop of Brandenburg, who forwarded them to the Pope. The bishops then let the matter drop. Stymied by his chain of command’s inaction, Luther sent his 95 theses to several friends throughout Germany. These friends promptly had many more copies made on one of the newest inventions of the Renaissance, the printing press. Luther gained a following and the Dominicans’ revenue from indulgences dropped. At the powerful Dominican order’s request, Pope Leo X issued a decree demanding the following of the Dominican practice of indulgences, which Luther and his adherents ignored. He wouldn’t give in without his debate.
Prominent German theologian John Eck took up Luther’s gauntlet. In July 1519, the two debated in Leipzig. Eck got the best of Luther, but only because Eck slandered him by pointing out that a century before, Jan Hus also thought indulgences were sacrilegious. This bit of sophistry horrified Luther, who had accepted Jan Hus and his failed Hussite rebellion in Bohemia in 1414, as the height of heresy. There were quicker ways to get burnt at the stake than by being called a “Hussite”, but not many.
Luther dug into Hus’ teachings to refute Eck. However, he found that he was actually fully in agreement with Hus, and speaking to his followers, said, “We are all Hussites without realizing it.” Luther began a proper campaign of book and pamphlet writing espousing and clarifying his thoughts on the Church, which due to the printing press, spread rapidly throughout Europe. It was at this point that Luther began calling for a break with the Church of Rome.
At several points in those formative years of the Protestant churches, Luther could have easily been declared heretical and burned at the stake. However, Luther had a powerful benefactor, the Elector Frederick of Saxony, who did not want his star orator and teacher, and Saxony’s most famous subject, harmed. When Luther was summoned to Rome to explain his views (where he would have almost certainly been killed), Frederick convinced the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximillian, to allow Luther to debate the Dominicans in Augsburg. The ailing Maximillian, who needed Frederick’s vote to get his grandson Charles elected as the next Emperor, was only too glad to accommodate Luther.
After Charles was elected Emperor, the politics of the Holy Roman Empire continued to be more important than the “Monk’s Quarrel”. Under Frederick’s protection, “Lutheranism” spread throughout Europe. In 1521, Luther was at the height of his popularity, and Charles requested that he explain himself at the Diet of Worms, fully expecting Luther to recant. But Luther did no such thing, and many of the members of the Diet called for his immediate execution. However, Charles honored his promise of Luther’s safe conduct. The Diet was called because Charles needed funds to fight the Turks, who had just recently captured Belgrade, which opened up the Hungarian Plain to Turkish raids and incursions. Frederick was by far the richest elector in the Empire, and Charles needed his support.
After securing Frederick’s support, Charles did outlaw Lutheranism, but by then it was too late. Luther translated the New Testament from Latin to German, so that “every man can be his own priest”, which broke the power of the clergy and “democratized salvation”. Due to Luther’s superior rhetorical skills, prolific book writing and pamphleteering, which was compounded by the printing press, Lutheranism could no longer be contained. It had spread throughout Germany, France, the Low Countries, and even England.
The Protestant Reformation would eventually set Europe on fire. It would take over a hundred years of bitter and bloody internecine warfare before most Catholics and Protestants realized religion wasn’t worth killing each other over.