Five hundred years ago, in a town in Germany, a man walked up to an important building and pinned a notice on the door. A simple act on the face of it but this was to turn the Christian world on its head, cause a veritable earthquake of sermons, religious writings and a lot of blood to be spilt. The place was the German town of Wittenberg, the building was the church and the pinner-up of the notice was a monk and priest called Martin Luther. The notice, which was the catalyst for all the upheavals to follow, was the list of Luther's 95 Theses, a scathing indictment of the Church's practice of selling indulgences to raise money. One simply paid out a certain amount to the Church and your sin was forgiven; no mention of repentance or penitence was involved and certain sections of the Catholic Church gained a considerable amount of money from this practice. The selling of indulgences was just the beginning as Luther went on to attack the general corruption he perceived within the church.

Who was he, this firebrand, who changed history and what sort of person was he? He was born the son of a copper miner in Eiselben. In 1501 he went to the University of Erfurt, graduating four years later. Interested in the study of the Scriptures and attracted to the monastic life he spent three years at the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt and was ordained a priest. A year later he became a lecturer at the University of Wittenberg and from 1512 until his death was the Professor of Biblical Exegesis. He has been described as reckless, brilliant, prejudiced and self doubting and he was certainly a man of courage to take on the power and might of the Church. Naturally the 95 theses caused something of a stir and opponents were quick to respond. The Dominican priest Johann Tetzel, who had been the subject of Luther's accusations, published a set of counter theses and publicly burned Luther's. Luther's students retaliated by burning Tetzel's theses and thus battle commenced. In 1518 Luther was supported by Phillip Melanchthion, professor of Greek at Wittenburg and a colleague. Melanchthion was to become Luther's successor to the leadership of the Reformation movement after Luther's death. The archbishop of Mainz who it is believed had personally benefited from the sale of indulgences, initially ignored Luther's appeal, hoping, no doubt, that it was all a storm in a teacup and that Luther would simply lose interest and go away. Pope Leo X who had also initially ignored the disturbances summoned Luther to Rome to account for himself. Wittenburg University and the government in the shape of the Elector of Saxony then became involved and the situation escalated. Luther then extended his criticism to include the papal system and the doctrines of the Catholic Church as a whole. His supporters included the Dutch scholar Erasmus. A papal bull containing 41 theses was issued against him which he promptly burned before a crowd of academics, students and citizens in Wittenberg. Germany was now in a state of unrest and the Emperor Charles V summoned Luther to appear before the first Diet (national assembly) at Worms. On his return to Wittenberg he was arrested by order of the Elector and kept in what would today be called protective custody. He spent the time composing yet more theses and translating the scriptures.

In 1522 he was released and called back to Wittenberg in order to make a stand against the lawlessness on one side and the tyranny on the other. During this year he attacked Henry VIII of England on matters of the sacraments and a short while later he and Erasmus fell out. In 1525 they engaged in attacking one another in print. By this time Luther had well and truly put himself outside the Catholic Church and he married Katherine von Bora, a nun who had left the convent life. In 1529 at Marburg he took on Zwinglii and his fellow Swiss theologians where he strongly maintained his views about the Eucharist. In 1530 the Augsburg Confession, a statement of faith which was the first of the Protestant Confessions, was drawn up marking the culmination of the German Reformation. Luther died in his home town of Eiselben and was buried in Wittenberg.

Protestantism spread rapidly through Europe but it did not have an easy passage. Many countries including these islands were riven with religious strife and sectarianism still exists. Countries went to war to try to re-establish the Roman Catholic faith or to defend the Protestant one.

Luther's is quite a story! He was learned and well read, his literary output was prodigious and he used the printing press as a weapon in what became a war of words with the Catholic church and other reformers with whom he disagreed. He was obviously charismatic and his public debates drew larger and larger audiences. No-one could doubt his courage. He passionately believed that only God could forgive sins and that all Christians had the right to read the scriptures for themselves. In 1524 he met with the English scholar William Tyndale who was later to lose his life for publishing Bibles in languages other than Latin.

I do not suppose Luther set out to divide the Christian church and change the world but the time was ripe for reform and the 95 theses lit the flame. Luther and others like John Calvin who followed him saw what was wrong with the church at the time and had the courage and conviction to speak out regardless of any personal risks. Centuries later, John Wesley also took on the religious establishment when he felt it was needed. Martin Luther is indeed the father of the Protestant faith.

Barbara Hothersall