Plastic statuettes of 16th-century Protestant reformer Martin Luther, which are part of the art installation “Martin Luther – I’m standing here” by German artist Ottmar Hoerl, are pictured in the main square in Wittenberg, eastern Germany, on Aug. 11, 2010. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch

This year marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s famous 95 theses, which helped spark the founding of the Reformation and the division of Christianity into Protestantism and Catholicism. The Conversation

The 95 theses critiqued the church’s sale of indulgences, which Luther regarded as a form of corruption. By Luther’s time, indulgences had evolved into payments that were said to reduce punishment for sins. Luther believed that such practices only interfered with genuine repentance and discouraged people from giving to the poor. One of Luther’s most important theological contributions was the “priesthood of all believers,” which implied that clerics possessed no more dignity than ordinary people.

Less known is the crucial role Luther played in making the case for ordinary people to read often and well. Unlike the papacy and its defenders, who were producing their writings in Latin, Luther reached out to Germans in their mother tongue, substantially enhancing the accessibility of his written ideas.

In my teaching of philanthropy, Luther’s promotion of literacy is one of the historic events I often discuss with my students.

Early years

Born in Germany in 1483, Luther followed the wishes of his father to study law. Once, while caught in a terrible thunderstorm, he vowed that if he were saved, he would become a monk.

Indeed, Luther later joined the austere Augustinian order, and became both a priest and a doctor of theology. Later he developed objections to many church practices. He protested the promotion of indulgences, the buying and selling of clerical privileges, and the accumulation of substantial wealth by the church while peasants barely survived. Legend has it that on Oct. 31, 1517, Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, the town where he was based.

He was branded an outlaw for refusing to recant his teachings. In 1521, Pope Leo X excommunicated Luther from the Roman Church. His patron, Frederick of Saxony, saved Luther from further reprisal and had him taken in secret to a castle, where he remained for two years.

It was during that time that Luther produced an immensely influential translation of the New Testament into German.

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SOURCE: Religion News Service

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