What Really Happened on October 31, 1517?

Today is Reformation Day, and not just any Reformation Day – it is the 500 year anniversary of the event which is usually considered to mark the official start of the Reformation, and rightly so – because something was done on October 31, 1517 which would snowball into the Reformation and would changed the world forever.

But what was that event?

It is widely held, that this is the day when Martin Luther defiantly nailed his 95 Theses to the wooden door of the castle church in Wittenburg, Germany – his hammer strikes shattering the Holy Roman Empire, and the nail piercing right through the heart of the Pope!

luther-hammers-the-95-theses-to-the-church-door-of-wittenberg.jpg

But on closer examination, it was actually something no less significant, but probably slightly less dramatic!

Here’s what we know:

Luther mailed a letter

The one thing we do know is that on this day, Luther posted a letter to Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz. So rather than having the picture in your mind of Luther brazenly and defiantly mailing nailed a list of grievances to the door of the church, picture in your mind Luther sitting at his desk, sealing an envelope and then gently handing a letter to a currier, and giving him some cash to deliver it.

Furthermore, this letter was written – not defiantly and aggressively, but in the most humble, polite and apologetic tone that can be imagined.

You can read the text of that letter here: Luther’s Letter to the Archbishop of Mainz (1517)

Here’s just his introduction:

Spare me, Most Reverend Father in Christ and Most Illustrious Prince, that I, the dregs of humanity, have so much boldness that I have dared to think of a letter to the height of your Sublimity. The Lord Jesus is my witness that, conscious of my smallness and baseness, I have long deferred what I am now shameless enough to do, — moved thereto most of all by the duty of fidelity which I acknowledge that I owe to your most Reverend Fatherhood in Christ. Meanwhile, therefore, may your Highness deign to cast an eye upon one speck of dust, and for the sake of your pontifical clemency to heed my prayer.

The reason Luther wrote to the Archbishop of Mainz is because these indulgences were being sold in his name in the region over which he had oversight and authority, and Luther believed that Archbishop Albrecht was not aware of what was going on, and that it was his duty to inform him. Luther expected that upon hearing about what was happening, Archbishop Albrecht would put an abrupt stop to it. That is, however, not what happened…

We don’t know when the 95 Theses were actually posted

It was Melanchthon, Luther’s follower, who several years later gave the date of October 31, 1517 as the date when the 95 Theses were posted. There’s a good chance that he did that based on knowing that was the day when Luther mailed his letter to Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz.

Maybe that is the date, maybe it isn’t.

The 95 Theses probably weren’t posted the way it has been depicted

A hammer and some nails. So dramatic. Such bravado! But in all likelihood, that’s not how they would have been posted.

More likely:

  • They were probably posted with paste, rather than with a hammer and nails. So instead of imagining Luther with his arm cocked back to strike a nail with a hammer, imagine him with a bucket of paste and a brush.
  • They were probably not posted by Luther himself. The door of the church functioned as the church bulletin board, where you would post everything from “I lost my cat Mittens” to “I’m offering guitar lessons for $10/hour”. And it was the job of the church custodian to post things on the door. So try to picture Luther gently handing the church custodian something to post on the door, you know: when he had a moment.
  • They were probably posted on several church doors. The posting was in Latin (not the vernacular German), and it was an invitation to a scholarly debate. Kind of like how you might post to Facebook and Twitter and Instagram to get your message out there, it is likely that a message like this would have been shared on more than one church door (AKA bulletin board).

No matter the particulars about it, we can be sure of one thing: the Reformation was about a return to the Bible, putting the Bible in the hands of the people, and a rediscovery of the core message of the Bible: the gospel!

Happy Reformation Day!

One thought on “What Really Happened on October 31, 1517?

  1. Nick, your sermon and posting regarding Martin Luther are very interesting; thanks for taking the time to research and share this information.

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