On October 31, 1517, the German priest Martin Luther (1483-1546) sent an angry letter to his Bishop, Albrecht von Brandenburg. The letter, known as the Ninety-Five Theses, was a stark criticism of what Luther regarded as corruption in the Catholic Church. Today, it is considered the beginning of a civil war in Western Christianity called the Reformation.
You may have heard his name before because the civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr. was named after him. The original Luther was a far more controversial figure and was excommunicated by the pope for his criticism of the Church. Luther was born to parents of modest means, but he was a prodigy and could attend university.
He found school boring and rejected a career in law. Instead, he immersed himself in philosophy, studying Aristotle and William of Ockham. Their thinking profoundly influenced him, but at the same time, he felt that there was not enough room for God’s love and therefore rejected Aristotle’s strong focus on reason. He turned to theology and became a priest instead.
As a priest, he found himself not liking Church doctrine much either. Eventually, he concluded that the way to salvation was not through good deeds but faith alone. Salvation was a gift from God, and all one needed to do was to accept it. Although Luther rejected reason in theology, he was also significantly influenced by Aristotle’s philosophy and saw the individual as central.
He rejected the Church and its tradition and saints and proclaimed that the Bible alone was the only source of truth revealed from God. Therefore, he translated the Bible from Latin to German so that ordinary people could read it. Later it was also translated to many other languages, such as English. Every individual had to understand the word of God and have a direct and personal relationship with Jesus without any middlemen. His movement became known as Protestantism.
Until Luther, most people did not have much need for learning to read, but the promise of studying and understanding God’s word directly without it having to be filtered through authorities motivated many to take up reading. Consequently, literacy rose sharply and steadily in the centuries after Luther.
Thirty Year’s War
The Reformation led to a split in Western Christianity between the Catholic Church and the Protestants. At times, the conflict was violent. From 1618 to 1648, a religious civil war raged within the Holy Roman Empire, which historians jokingly say was neither Holy, Roman, nor an Empire. It was one of the bloodiest wars of Europe, where between 4.5 million and eight million people were killed. It became known as the Thirty Year’s War.
Protestants came victorious out of the war, and today most Northern European countries are protestant. However, the Catholic Church launched a counter-reformation and was able to survive. Today, Catholicism is still the world’s largest religion, with 1.3 billion baptized Catholics worldwide.