This is the day that Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses on the church door at Wittenburg in 1517, and, let it be said, nailed his colours to the mast at the same time!
Every one of those 95 arguments – for that’s what they were – was aimed against the infamous doctrine of “indulgences”, and he even expected Papal support for his crusade against this unholy traffic (Documents of the Christian Church, page 260). Instead the wrath of Rome descended upon him.
Reformation Day – “The most momentous day, as yet, in the history of Europe” is how Basil Atkinson describes it (Valiant in Fight, page 128).
Pope Leo X had sent Johann Tetzel to Germany to raise money for the rebuilding of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. To do that Tetzel marched through the streets with his entourage – a drummer calling the people to come and hear this amazing ditty:
Once the coin in the coffer rings
A soul from purgatory heavenward springs.
Official indulgence certificates were sold – authorised by the Pope himself – declaring that the purchaser could go immediately to Heaven at death, bypassing purgatory on the way. Or an indulgence could be bought for a departed loved one, thus delivering them from purgatorial fires.
Luther’s protest included such sallies as the following:
No. 21: “Those preachers of indulgences are in error who allege that through the indulgence of the Pope, a man is freed from every penalty.”
No. 27: “Those who assert that a soul straightway flies out (of purgatory) as a coin tinkles in the collection box are preaching an invention of man.”
No. 37: “Any true Christian living or dead partakes of all the benefits of Christ and the Church, which is the gift of God, even without letters of pardon.”
No. 52: “Confidence in salvation through letters of indulgence is vain … even if the Pope himself should pledge his soul as a guarantee.”
No. 66: “The treasures of indulgences are nets, with which they now fish for the riches of men.”
No. 86: “The Pope’s riches at this day far exceed the wealth of the richest millionaires, cannot he therefore build one single basilica of St Peter out of his own money, rather than out of the money of the faithful poor?”
And so the die was cast. The Church of Rome took action. Luther remained adamant. The Protestant Reformation was under way.
And many a Protestant church (though alas, not as many as should) will give thanks to God this day for the brave stand taken by Martin Luther.
The Roman Church still teaches the value of indulgences to enable one to bypass the torments of purgatory, though not, let it be confessed, as blatantly as Tetzel propagated the doctrine.
This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at www.donaldprout.com. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History, which I previously considered to be a little stuffy and of little practical value. I find in the process of updating Don’s Christian Diary that I am being constantly refreshed, illuminated or challenged by the lives of those who have gone before.