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The Protestant reformation (more accurately known as the Lutheran upheaval) is the product of the observance of a ridiculous amount of corruption amongst the highest ranking officials within the Catholic Church. Yet despite its origins, its events, people and publications left a lasting impact on Europe that is still felt to this day. The words of Martin Luther still resonate with many Christians- not just in Europe but around the globe. His teachings and publications also inspire an extraordinary amount of controversy in modern historians. Regardless of how Martin Luther is perceived, his words- in particular, his earliest reform-driven works- helped shape the future of Modern civilization in Europe.
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In the early 1500, the Catholic Church was led by a number of extremely corrupted individuals. Pope Alexander was the first of these, said to have bribed 17 of the 22 cardinal votes that got him elected to public office. In addition to these misgivings, he had many mistresses and 12 illegitimate children (nearly all of which he used to maintain or gain political power). Alexander’s successor, Julius the second, would personally lead armies in the Italian wars and war of the Holy League. This corruption was not limited to merely to the Pope, however, as many other Church leaders were guilty of similar crimes. In fact, it was not uncommon for a church bishop to not only hold a religious office, but a political one as well.
Martin Luther’s story begins with his services to the Catholic Church. During his time inside the organization, he had witnessed these and other heinous forms of corruption. While many of his petitioners lived in dire poverty, Martin Luther watched as his colleges inside the church lived a lavish lifestyle that compared to that royalty. Even worse, the money that fed these lavish lifestyles was money that the officials had received in the form of indulgences, which were given as a means (for the petitioners) to compensate for their sins.
When he voiced his fury at witnessing such atrocities, he did so in his publishing the 95 thesis, a plainly written document that depicted his grievances with the Catholic Church. His 27th complaint directly addressed the ridiculousness of indulgences stating that “There is no divine authority for preaching that the soul flies out of purgatory immediately (after) the money clinks in the bottom of the chest.” The writing holds a great deal of what could be considered common sense.
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The 95 thesis was well received inside Luther’s intellectual circle. It received nearly unanimous support, and was published in multiple languages immediately following its release. It’s also worth noting that the mass publication of Luther’s work was due largely to the invention of the printing press. For the first time, massive amounts of people had access to the ideas being published. The works were published all over Europe.
The Catholic Church responded in kind, though not immediately. The 95 Thesis was published in 1517, while Luther’s official excommunication did not take place until 1521, nor was his work banned until that time. He was tried and convicted before the famed Diet of Worms, but refused to retract his statements. The Elector of Saxony, Fredrick the third, later protected him by placing him in solitude at Wartburg castle.
It was during this time that he published “Refutation of the Argument of Latomus”. In this writing, he insisted that the only way to heaven was by Faith alone. Nothing a person could ever do, in his eyes, could ever be good enough for them to be allowed into heaven. No amount of good deeds and sacraments would atone for the sins in person’s life. Instead, the only way to get to heaven was through the saving grace of God- through faith in Jesus Christ.
While the church may not have been drawn to Luther’s words, the general public certainly was. As previously stated, the invention of the printing press enabled Luther’s ideas to become widespread concepts across Europe. Friends inside the intellectual community both praised and translated the work, enabling it to be published in multiple languages. With this came an un-coined concept that can accurately be referred to as the Cycle of Learning. With a widespread access to a printing source, more ideas could be published. In turn, more people could learn to read and write. The intellectual discussions that came from this ability to do so enabled more people to want to learn to read and write, and thus more and more ideas were published. In this regard, Luther’s ideas inspired countless others to publish their views and ideas, which lead to a more well-rounded society.
This concept was clearly demonstrated to Martin Luther when he left his solitude. His supporters had continued to put into practice the concepts and reforms that he had pleaded for. With the public’s support came support from the German princes, who oversaw various territories in Germany, and thus declared this new form of Christianity a formally established religion. In doing so, they no longer associated themselves with the Catholic Church, and thus no longer had to pay taxes to the Holy Roman Empire.
With his safety ensured, Luther’s legacy turned to a darker place. During his last years of life, he wrote many works encouraging the discrimination and all around damnation of the Jewish people. His most famous work during this darkened period in his life would be On the Jews and Their Lies, a vicious and hateful work that advocated the destruction of the Jewish lifestyle. During this work, he called out to followers to provide a “Sharp Mercy” by destroying their houses of worship and taking their livelihoods. By this time, he was considered too highly in German society to be questioned, and when he spoke with Anti-Semitic words in cities like Saxony, people took his words to heart. Demonstrations broke out, forcing the Jewish population from many of the cities.
Sadly, this portion of his legacy would later be used as propaganda to manipulate the 1940s German population into accepting the Anti-Jewish campaigns of the Nazi party. Never the less, it is undeniable proof that Martin Luther’s words had a lasting impact on Germany and Western Europe. While his later works filled his legacy with an irrefutable darkness, they did not, in any way, diminish his importance as a church reformer. His own Protestant reforms provided with other branches of Christianity with the means to develop. For example, after Martin Luther’s words had laid the ground work, Zwingli of Switzerland also struck out against the Catholic Church. Other protestant branches, such as Calvinism and Anabaptism would be also spawn from these teachings. In essence, the world would be a very different place if Martin Luther had never lived and the Lutheran upheaval never occurred. Apart from suggesting that other forms of Christianity may never have taken root, there would also be a limited number of ideas in circuit, because of the lack of information being published. While it is impossible to determine exactly what would be different, one could argue that without the Protestant reformation, Europe (and, indeed, the rest of the world) would be a very different place.
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