Martin Luther

By 1500 AD, nearly all of Europe embraced Christianity. While the individual kingdoms of medieval Europe often bickered and fought, they all worshipped the same God.

After the collapse of the Roman Empire in the fifth century, the spread of Christianity accelerated, eventually reaching France, England, Germany, Russia, and Scandinavia. Medieval Christendom—the community of believers—stretched from the olive groves of Italy to the fjords of Iceland.

But this unity masked growing unhappiness with the church during the Middle Ages. The horrors of the plague left many Europeans disillusioned, as many could not understand why God would allow so many to die. The Renaissance challenged traditional Christian teachings. And the venality and corruption of the Roman Catholic Church itself dismayed many of its most ardent believers.

In 1517, a frustrated German clergyman named Martin Luther (1483–1546) tacked a document to the doors of the cathedral in Wittenberg. The document contained Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, a scathing indictment of the pope’s leadership and the general state of the Roman Catholic Church.

Luther’s main accusation was that the church leadership in Rome had become too greedy and decadent. At the time, the pope was selling indulgences to rich laymen to fund the construction of new cathedrals. An indulgence officially forgave its buyer for his sins. The practice of selling forgiveness to the highest bidder deeply offended Luther.

Almost immediately, Luther’s theses provoked a major schism within European Christianity. In many corners of Europe, his criticisms of the church found a receptive audience. Luther’s followers became Protestants, rejecting the traditional authority of the pope in a religious movement known as the Reformation. Within a few years, England and many other pockets of northern Europe had rejected the pope’s leadership, leaving the continent divided along religious lines.

Back in Rome, the pope condemned Luther as a heretic, and a series of religious wars ensued between Catholics and Luther’s followers. Those wars continued intermittently for a century, until the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. With Luther’s revolt against Rome, the religious unity of Western Europe had been shattered forever.

ADDITIONAL FACTS

  1. England’s King Henry VIII initially opposed Luther, but he rejected Catholicism in 1534 after the pope refused to allow him to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon.
  2. In 1522, Luther produced a German translation of the New Testament in only eleven weeks, giving Germans their first chance to read the holy book in their own language
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