2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the reformation. On 31 October 1517, Martin Luther made his name by nailing his 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg church. This simple act of criticism represented something bigger than one monk with an axe to grind. It started a deluge of criticism, complaint, and debate regarding the nature of the church, its doctrines, its authority, and even its history. From one German principality, Luther’s name and complaint echoed across Germany, Europe, and across the seas into England and Scotland.
The story of Martin Luther and the reformation has always fascinated me. I remember reading a short narrative of Luther’s story for my A-Levels and becoming transfixed by it. The lowly monk who challenged a worldwide institution and won. It reads more like a work of fiction than fact. But it’s not a story. It’s history. It actually happened, and therefore there are consequences.
Around 15 million died in the Thirty Years War, a war that began between the protestant and catholic principalities. In England, John Foxe records 284 deaths of Protestants caused by Queen Mary. During the Bartholomew massacre in France somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 (figures vary widely) died. This is just the tip of the iceberg. Many others died in multiple countries for either the Protestant or Roman Catholic faith. Then there is the upheaval itself. The ordinary people were suddenly told that their faith was wrong and had been for centuries. Whole swathes of what people considered to be ordinary and sustaining aspects of their lives were altered, removed, or dismantled. In England at least, the Bible could suddenly be read in English, the Mass was no longer considered supernatural in property, but simply claimed as a re-enactment, purgatory was declared as a lie and prayer for the dead made meaningless, and saints could not offer help in this world. The list goes on.
There are many other consequences of the reformation. Depending on your beliefs, people in European countries either found the true religion, removed themselves from the true religion, or still got it wrong whatever they did. Max Weber first suggested that the reformation also brought about the ‘modern’ world, encouraging innovation and capitalism. Its effects echo down the centuries in a variety of ways and, perhaps, gives us some pause for thought about how we should handle events in our own time.
If for a moment, we try to put ourselves in the shoes of ordinary people in the sixteenth-century, then the changes would appear overwhelming. For those who found themselves in Protestant controlled territories, their core beliefs and practices were overturned and made illegal within one generation. For those remaining under the care of the papacy, then there is the horror of such huge swathes of fellow Christians breaking from the church and declaring war upon it. For the ordinary person on either side of the confessional divide, the reformation was something to conform to; something to survive through. It provokes a familiar feeling. In a few ways the world that developed in 2016 in the West, of Brexit and Donald Trump, leads to a similar level of disruption, uncertainty, confusion, and outright fear in 2017. Yet, in the same way, life plods on. People adapt. Whether there are parallels to be made between then and now which prove fruitful remains to be seen, but certainly ‘history’ continues to play a role in the present and will continue to help shape our future, whatever that might be.