There are an estimated 900 million protestants among the world’s 2.3 billion Christians, and each owes his or her doctrinal heritage to events that began on All Hallows’ Eve 500 years ago.
Popularly, Oct. 31 is widely celebrated in America as the holiday of costumes and candy. But religiously, it is Reformation Day, commemorating the date in 1517 on which an Augustinian monk and theology professor named Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany.
Half a millennium is a mighty long time. The United States won’t celebrate its 500th birthday until July 2276. Who knows to what spectacular degree fireworks displays will have advanced by then?
It’s a more than a little mind-boggling to think that our nation will have to survive 65 more presidential elections to get to that major historical milestone. Will our famous landmarks survive another 260 years as well as Old Castle Church?
Consecrated in 1503, and also known as All Saints Church, the cathedral doubled as a fortress. It was burned to its foundations in 1760 during the Seven Years’ War following a bombardment. The blaze consumed all the church’s priceless artwork.
Castle Church with its 289-foot steeple was not only rebuilt but also has been repeatedly remodeled over the centuries, and now stands as majestically as ever. Its 2,200-pound set of bronze doors, on which are inscribed Luther’s 95 Theses, were installed in 1858 (the 375th anniversary of Luther’s birth). Most tourists visiting Wittenberg wind up being photographed in front of the massive entry.
It takes a lot of imagination to think back to 1517. Shakespeare wouldn’t be born for nearly another 50 years, and Sir John Harrington’s revolutionary flushing lavatory, through use of cistern, wouldn’t be invented for about another 80.
A city of 50,000 was considered huge–London’s population was about 70,000–and most towns were very small. There were no municipal sewage or drainage systems. Juxtaposed against such primitive living conditions were advanced scholarly intellects in men like Luther.
Besides his monastery training, Luther was an insatiable learner, earning three bachelor’s degrees, a master’s degree, and a doctorate in theology before the age of 30. In addition to his native German, he was proficient in Latin, Hebrew and Greek. A prolific author, his works in English translation comprise 55 volumes.
He was also a productive hymnodist—”A Mighty Fortress is Our God” is perhaps the most well-known Luther composition—and, more importantly, an early proponent of singing in worship services. Previously, parishioners might have intoned a Latin lyric, but they would have only repeated sounds, not understood words. Luther’s encouragement of and support for common-language hymns and their spirited rendition in church were fanning winds that helped spread the reformation wildfire.
His preaching was prodigious at a time when most church services did not include a scripture lesson: he delivered an estimated 4,000 sermons, some 2,300 of which are preserved.
The 95 Theses were titled “Disputation of Doctor Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.” A person-on-the-street survey would likely find the majority struggling with the definition of at least two and maybe three of those words. (“Indulgences” as referenced here refer specifically to a Catholic religious practice at the time that Luther considered to be easily corrupted and biblically errant.)
Hardly anyone on this continent could read it in its original Latin. Neither could common Christians in 1517. But since the Gutenberg printing press was in widespread use by then, Luther’s theses were translated into German and copies distributed publicly by January 1518.
That gave wings to Luther’s main precepts: justification by grace through faith, rather than by works, and a belief in the Bible as the sole source of spiritual authority.
After altering the course of history by launching and defining the reform movement, Luther went on to translate the Bible, essentially establishing a unified German language from among the multitudinous dialects of that age. His New Testament translation appeared in 1522, followed by a whole translated Bible published in 1534, which made holy scripture directly available and accessible to the common German people.
Legend surrounds Luther’s timing; some say his choice of Halloween to post his 95 Theses was to gain publicity among the people. But the fact that they were written in Latin would seem to undermine that notion.
It’s irrelevant anyway. Five centuries ago, one man’s courage and conviction–gained through diligent study and worship–galvanized a movement that changed forever the face of religion in the world.
A better mousetrap
Life in the country involves critters, and as the nights grow colder and the crops are harvested, field mice often aspire to become house mice.
Historically, setting traditional spring-loaded mousetraps has been a challenge. If you happen to be an “all-thumbs” type, the exercise can frequently result in painful smashed fingers.
Thanks to still-thriving American ingenuity, however, folks truly do build better mousetraps nowadays.
The model I use to repel autumnal rodent invasions is made by a longtime trap manufacturer (Victor) and its bait-trough design not only protects my fingers, but also has a handle to make disposal touch-free.