By Lance Hickerson, Reference Department
The library celebrated Halloween Day by creative decorations in every department topped off with offers of candy to patrons young and old throughout the day. With the festive atmosphere, it is easy to overlook the important event of 500 years ago by a young monk named Martin Luther, who started a cultural transformation known as the Protestant Reformation. But just how big a deal was Luther’s courageous act of pinning 95 theses to the Wittenburg Church door? No one, especially Luther himself, foresaw the far reaching results.
Years have since revealed the significance of what some have called Luther’s “accidental revolution.” PBS explained it this way with their documentary on Luther released just last month entitled, “Martin Luther: The Idea that Changed the World:
The year 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of one on the most important events in Western civilization: the birth of an idea that continues to shape the life of every American today.
In 1517, power was in the hands of the few, thought was controlled by the chosen, and common people lived lives without hope. On October 31 of that year, a penniless monk named Martin Luther sparked the revolution that would change everything.
He had no army. In fact, he preached nonviolence so powerfully that — 400 years later — Michael King would change his name to Martin Luther King to show solidarity with the original movement.
This movement, the Protestant Reformation, changed Western culture at its core, sparking the drive toward individualism, freedom of religion, women’s rights, separation of church and state, and even free public education. Without the Reformation, there would have been no pilgrims, no Puritans, and no America in the way we know it.
Luther’s contributions started out in the religious realm but quickly impacted many areas of everyday life. Because of this, even the nonreligious may offer their genuine appreciation. One atheist mentioned to me how glad he was that Luther introduced to the West “the priesthood of all believers,” thereby giving legitimacy and impetus to human individuality. The leveling effect of Luther’s emphasis began to transform society such that the common people, often excluded from important discussions, were able to read primary documents like the Bible, which Luther masterfully translated into the people’s own local language. Luther gave millions of people a voice. There is a sense in which Luther democratized the faith, an impetus that would later on translate into full blown governmental democracy.
Luther’s continuing work soon also abolished the rigid distinction between clergy and laity. This meant that the concept of work as vocation applied to everyone, thereby exalting all types of work as important. Luther explained, “It is pure invention that pope, bishops, priests and monks are to be called the ‘spiritual estate’; princes, lords, artisans and farmers the ‘temporal estate.’ . . . . All Christians are truly of the ‘spiritual estate.’ …. A cobbler, a smith, a farmer, each has the work and office of his trade, and yet they are all alike consecrated priests and bishops, and everyone by means of his own work or office must benefit and serve every other …”
We take for granted many of the innovations set in motion by Luther that presently form western society. It is appropriate that we give Luther this small moment of recognition.
- Alister McGrath, Christianity’s Dangerous Idea (2007)
- Andrew Pettegree, Brand Luther (2015)
- Scott Hendrix, Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer (2015)