Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) was a German monk who endured a difficult childhood and a fraught relationship with his father. He suffered from bouts of depression and anxiety that led him to become monk, the traditional solution to an identity crisis as of the early modern period. Luther received both a scholastic and a humanistic education, eventually becoming a professor at the small university in the city of Wittenberg in the Holy Roman Empire. There, far from the centers of both spiritual and secular power, he contemplated the Bible, the Church, and his own spiritual salvation.
Luther struggled with his spiritual identity. He was obsessively afraid of being damned to hell, feeling totally unworthy of divine forgiveness and plagued with doubt as to his ability to achieve salvation. The key issue for Luther was the concept of good works, an essential element of salvation in the early-modern church. In Catholic doctrine, salvation is achieved through a combination of the sacraments, faith in God, and good works, which are good deeds that merit a person’s admission into heaven. Those good works could be acts of kindness and charity, or they could be gifts of money to the Church - a common “good work” at the time was leaving money or land to the Church is one’s will. Luther felt that the very idea of good works was ambiguous, especially because works seemed so inadequate when compared to the wretched spiritual state of humankind. He could not understand how anyone merited admittance to heaven no matter how many good work they carried out while alive - the very idea seemed petty and base compared to the awesome responsibility of living up to Christianity’s moral standards.
In about 1510 Luther began to explore a possible answer to this quandary: the idea that salvation did not come from works, but from grace, the limitless love and forgiveness of God, which is achievable through faith alone. Over time, Luther developed the idea that it takes an act of God to merit a person’s salvation, and the reflection of that act is in the heartfelt faith of the individual. A person’s willed attempts to do good things to get into heaven were always inadequate; what mattered was that the heartfelt faith of a believer might inspire an infinite act of mercy on the part of God. This idea - salvation through faith alone - was a major break with Catholic belief.
This concept was potentially revolutionary because in one stroke it did away with the entire edifice of church ritual. If salvation could be earned through faith alone, the sacraments were at best symbolic rituals and at worst distractions - over time, Luther argued that only baptism and communion were relevant since they were very clearly inspired by Christ’s actions as described in the New Testament. In Luther’s vision, the priest was nothing more than a guide rather than a gatekeeper who could grant or withhold the essential rituals, and a believer should be able to read the Bible directly rather than be forced to defer to the priesthood.
Having developed the essential points of his theology, Luther then confronted what he regarded as the most blatant abuse of the Church’s authority: indulgences. In 1517, Pope Leo X issued a new indulgence to fund the building of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Luther was incensed at how crass the sale of indulgences was (it was as bad as a carnival barker’s act in nearby Wittenberg) and at the fact that this new indulgence promised to absolve the purchaser of all sins, all at once. Furthermore, the indulgence could be purchased on behalf of those who were already dead and “spring” them from purgatory in one fell swoop. Luther responded by posting a list of ninety-five attacks against indulgences to the door of the Wittenberg cathedral. These “95 Theses” are considered by historians to be the first official act of the Protestant Reformation.
The 95 Theses were relatively moderate in tone. They attacked indulgences for leading to greed instead of piety, for leading the laity to distrust the Church, and for simply not working - they did not, Luther argued, absolve the sins of those who purchased them. Written in Latin, the 95 Theses were intended to spark debate and discussion within the Church. And, while he criticized the pope’s wealth and (implied) greed, Luther did not attack the office of the papacy itself. Soon, however, the 95 Theses were translated into German and reprinted, which led to an unexpected and, at least initially, unwanted celebrity.
Within two years, Luther was forced to publicly defend his views and, in the process, to radicalize them. A fellow professor and member of the Church, Johann Eck, publicly debated Luther and forced him to admit that the pope had the authority issue indulgences. This, however, led Luther to argue that the pope could be wrong if his position was not authorized by the Bible itself. In the end, Luther argued that the pope, and by extension the entire Church, were irrelevant to to spiritual salvation. He argued that true Christians were part of the priesthood of believers, united by their faith and without need for the Catholic Church.
By 1520 Luther was actively engaged in writing and publishing inflammatory pamphlets that attacked the pope’s authority and the corruption of the Church. He was summoned to Rome to recant, but refused to go. In turn, the secular authorities stepped in. In 1521 Luther was tried at the Diet of Worms, the Holy Roman Empire’s official meeting of princes, where the emperor Charles V ordered him to recant. Luther refused and was declared an “outlaw” by the emperor, stipulating that no subject of the Empire was to offer Luther food or water, and suffer no legal penalty should Luther be murdered. Luther was swiftly taken into the custody of a sympathetic German prince, Frederick the Wise of Saxony, who spirited Luther away and allowed him to continue his work writing anti-papal propaganda.
Much of Luther’s, and Protestantism’s, survival owes to the simple fact that both the pope and Charles V were reluctant to threaten Frederick the Wise, who was one of the electors of the empire and one of its most powerful nobles – essentially a king in his own right. Frederick both genuinely supported and agreed with Luther's views and also realized that he could benefit from rejecting the authority of the pope and, to a lesser extent, the emperor. Charles V had enormous prestige and some ability to influence his subjects, but practically speaking each prince was sovereign in his own domain. This loose overall control was disastrous for Catholic uniformity in the empire, as Luther’s doctrines, soon referred to as Lutheranism, rapidly spread. To make matters worse, Charles V was too preoccupied with wars against France to spearhead a genuine effort to crush Lutheranism; in turn, the French King Francis I extended royal protection to Lutherans in France, since doing so undermined the authority of Charles.
Luther’s position continued to radicalize after 1521. He claimed that the pope was, in fact, the anti-Christ foretold in the Book of Revelations, and he came to believe that it was the End Times. He also personally translated the Bible into German and he happily met with his ever-growing group of followers. Initially a slur against heretics, the term “Protestant” was soon embraced by those followers, who used it as a defiant badge of honor.
Very quickly, Protestantism caught on across the empire, especially among elites, churchmen, and the educated urban classes. In the 1520s most Lutherans were reform-minded clerics; they saw Luther’s movement as an effective and radical protest against all of the problems that had plagued the Church for centuries. Part of the appeal of Lutheranism to priests was that it legitimized the lifestyle many of them were already living; they could get married to their concubines and acknowledge their children if they left the Church, which droves of them did starting in the 1520s. Thanks both to the perceived purity of its doctrine and the support of rulers, nobles, and converted priests, Lutheranism started spreading in earnest among the general population starting in the 1530s.
Charles V was in an unenviable position. As Holy Roman Emperor, he felt honor-bound to defend the Church, but he could not do so through force of arms. He spent most of his reign fighting against both France and the Ottoman Empire, which besides Spain were the greatest powers of the era. Thus, in 1526 he allowed the German princes to choose whether or not to enforce his ban on Lutheranism as they saw fit, in hopes that they would continue to offer him their military assistance – he tried unsuccessfully to repeal this reluctant tolerance in 1529, but it was too late. Practically speaking, the German states ended up being divided roughly evenly, with a concentration of Lutheranism in the north and Catholicism in the south.
Luther was elated by the success of his message; he happily accepted the use of the term “Lutheranism” to describe the new religious movement he had started, and he felt certain that the correctness of his position was so appealing that even the Jews would abandon their traditional beliefs and convert (they did not, and Luther swiftly launched a vituperative anti-Semitic attack entitled Against the Jews and their Lies). Much to his chagrin, however, Luther watched as some groups who considered themselves to be Lutherans took his message in directions of which he completely disapproved.
Luther himself was a deeply conservative man; his attack on Catholic doctrine was fundamentally based on what he saw as a “return” to the original message of the Bible. Many Protestants interpreted his message as indicating that true Christians were only accountable to the Bible and could therefore reject the existing social hierarchy as well. In 1524, an enormous peasant uprising occurred across Germany, inspired by this interpretation of Lutheranism and demanding a reduction in feudal dues and duties, the end of serfdom, and greater justice from feudal lords. In 1525, Luther penned a venomous attack against the rebels entitled Against the Thieving, Murderous Hordes of Peasants which encouraged the lords to slaughter the peasants like dogs. The revolt was put down brutally, with over 100,000 killed, and Lutheranism was able to keep the support of the elites like Frederick the Wise who sheltered it.
Still, the uprising indicated that the movement Luther had begun was not something he could control, despite his best efforts. The very nature of breaking with a single authoritarian institution brought about a number of competing movements, some of which were directly inspired by and connected to Luther, but many of which, soon, were not.