As Americans, can you imagine what life would be like if there was no American Revolution? What rights would we have if there was no Constitution? Where would the balance of power be if there wasn’t separation of powers forming the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government? We don’t usually give much thought at all about the whys and wherefores of our historical past…until something judges us out of our complacency and we exert our claim on our freedoms.
So many other parts of the globe have had huge upheavals this year. Tunisia led the way for the uprisings that have gripped most of the Middle East. I can’t even keep up with the names of countries in Africa anymore, much less pronounce the countries that were once a part of the USSR. The geography of the planet has changed immensely since I was in school many, many moons ago.
And then there’s the church.
Now the church, primarily the Roman Catholic Church, has had its share of bloody battles and conquests. The Crusades and The Inquisition are probably the most well-known and far-reaching. Political rulers and popes worked together to wield their domination over any and all in their jurisdictions. Constantine, the fourth century Roman emperor who converted to Christianity, was both a blessing and a curse for Christianity, but that’s for another time.
In 1516, a Dominican friar was sent to Germany, by the Roman Catholic Church, to fundraise for the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Well, it was more like sales than fundraising. He was selling indulgences, basically a form of payment to lessen or remove the punishment of forgiven sins. Faith had to be accompanied by good works and good works could be obtained by donating money to the church. The people really were at the mercy of both the king and the pope.
The indulgence salesman finally arrived in Wittenberg, Germany where Martin Luther was a priest and theologian. Salesmen had catchy phrases even back then: As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs. Martin Luther was not humored. October 31, 1517 he nailed his response, The Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences, to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg (church doors functioned like a community bulletin board). He also mailed it off to the nearest bishop, hoping to engage a dialogue. He was concerned, among other things, that money was being extracted from poor believers to finance projects and debts of church officials.
Needless to say, there wasn’t a dialogue. Instead, October 31, 1517 marked the beginning of what is now known as the Protestant Reformation. And why is that important? Besides all of the doctrinal goodness that came out of the Reformation, people engaged. It turned out there was a lot of discontent among church-goers! Finally, there was a movement that really could challenge the power of Roman Catholic Church. It swept through Europe in the 16th century, marking the beginnings of several Protestant denominations and spin-offs.
The Reformation was also a triumph of literacy and the new printing press. Luther’s translation of the Bible from Latin into German now made it possible for people to read the sacred text for themselves. Luther really helped launch a new media revolution. Luther took advantage of this new technology to launch printed attacks against the Roman Catholic Church. And we’ve been using that technology primarily until the arrival of the digital age.
One of my favorite quotes of Luther’s is the Clergy is the greatest hindrance to faith. He also wrote one of my favorite hymns: A Mighty Fortress Is Our God. It’s often called The Battle Hymn of the Reformation because of its effect in marshaling support for the reformer’s cause.
Many composers have worked Luther’s hymn tune. So you have a choice! A 1952 recording of Albert Schweitzer performing Bach’s chorale A Mighty Fortress, on the organ or the final movement of Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony. As with all great music, turn it up!