The best treatment of the Reformation and all the personalities involved in this great work of God, is without a doubt, J. H. Merle D’Aubigne’s The History of the Reformation in five volumes. This has been rarely, if ever, out of print since it was finished in 1853. (For more on D’Aubigne see this post). It would be a daunting task for anyone to wade through the entire work from beginning to end, but as a reference to this period it is indispensible. But D’Aubigne wanted his work to be accessible to, and readable by, all who had an interest in the subject. So to accomodate this desire, he wrote a one volume summary of his work as a narrative entitled The Story of the Reformation, which saw several editions of its own. This work can still be found on the second-hand market today.
As an aside, it is interesting to note that no where in his writings does Luther speak of nailing the theses to the church door at Wittenberg. We only know this through an account of the story given by his friend, Philip Melancthon, after Luther’s death. Certain 20th century Catholic scholars have tried to detail that this event never actually happened at all, supposedly to lessen the impact of Luther’s legacy. Be that as it may, Luther exposed the Papacy and their system of indulgences for the ungodly circus that it was, and still is. Also note, considering the recent discussions on Halloween, the reason why Luther chose to post his theses on All Saints Day: it was because this day highlighted the wickedness and debauchery that had infiltrated the church, and that he very much opposed. The irony should not be lost on us.
The following excerpt is longer than I like to usually post. It is taken from this work by D’Aubigne mentioned above and describes the effects of Luther’s action on October 31st, 1517. It is well worth the time to read.
Let us now return to the field of actual history, and see what the evening of the same day [October 31st] produced at Wittenberg.
Luther’s words had produced little effect. Tetzel continued his traffic and his impious discourses with utter indifference. Shall Luther submit to these flagrant abuses, and look on in silence? His resolution is taken.
It is not the Church or the Pope he thinks of attacking. Far from contemplating a revolution which shall overthrow the Roman primacy, Luther believes that he has the Pope and Catholicism on his side against some impudent monks. He has given his warnings as a pastor and preacher: it now remains that he should address himself to those who are, like himself, doctors of the Word of God.
All Saints day was an important occasion for Wittenberg, and above all for the Church which the Elector had built there and filled with relics. These were carried out on that day, adorned with gold, silver, and precious stones; and exhibited to the eyes of the people, amazed and dazzled by such magnificence. Whoever that day visited the church of Wittenberg, and confessed there, obtained a rich indulgence. Pilgrims therefore flocked in crowds to Wittenberg.
Luther, already decided, boldly makes his way on the evening of the 31st of October, 1517, towards the church, whither thousands of superstitious pilgrims were hastening, and fastens to the doors ninety-five theses, or propositions against the doctrine of indulgences. Neither the Elector, nor Staupitz, nor Spalatin, nor any even of his closest friends, had received intimation of his purpose.
In this document Luther declares, in a sort of preamble, that he has written these theses in a truly charitable spirit, and with the express desire of bringing the truth fully to light. He expresses his readiness to defend them the next day at the university, in the presence of and against anyone. Everybody reads and repeats them; in a short time the pilgrims, the university, and the whole city, are full of them.
Luther had boldly drawn the sword of the Word: he had done this with faith in the power of truth. Doubtless, after having fastened his theses to the church door, he retired to his quiet cell, filled with that peace and joy which flow from an action done in the name of the Lord, and for the sake of eternal truth.
Whatever daring may be conspicuous in these propositions, they plainly show that the monk does not admit a doubt as to the authority of the see of Rome. But in attacking the doctrine of indulgences, Luther had, without perceiving it, stumbled upon many errors, the exposure of which could not be agreeable to the Pope, seeing that sooner or later it must lead to the question of his supremacy. Luther did not then see so far; yet he felt the boldness of the step he had taken, and thought that it was his duty to temper its audacity as much as he could consistently with the respect due to the truth. He therefore set forth his theses merely as doubtful propositions, on which he solicited the information of the learned; and he added to them, according to established usage, a solemn protestation, declaring that he did not desire to affirm anything that was not founded on holy Scripture, the Fathers of the Church, and the rights and decretals of the see of Rome.
Often, in aftertimes, as Luther contemplated the immense and unexpected consequences of this bold attack, he was astonished at himself, and could not comprehend how he ventured to make it. It was because an invisible hand, mightier than his, held the reins, and guided the herald of truth into a path yet hidden from him, and from the difficulties of which he would perhaps have recoiled, had he known them, and had he advanced alone, or of himself. “I entered on this dispute,” he said, “without any fixed purpose, without knowing or intending it; I have been taken quite unprepared. For this I call God to witness, who sounds all hearts.”
…On the same day that Luther put up his theses, he wrote to Albert a most candid but respectful letter. “Great God!” he says, in the course of this letter, “the souls committed to your care, most excellent father, are instructed, not for life, but for death. The just and exact account which will be demanded of you for this is swelling every day. I have found it impossible to keep silence any longer. No! man is not saved by the work or by the office of his bishop. Why, then, do the indulgence-preachers lull the people into a carnal security with their empty fables?…I entreat your Highness, by the Lord Jesus Christ, to bend a look of paternal vigilance on this affair, and to command the preachers to speak in a different manner to the people. Unless you do so, dread that you will one day hear some voice lifted up to confute these preachers, to the great shame of your most serene Highness.”
Along with this letter Luther sent his theses to the Archbishop. But all was unavailing. The youthful Albert, full of his pleasures and his ambitious projects, made no reply to so solemn an appeal. The Bishop of Brandenburg, Luther’s diocesan, a learned and pious man, to whom he also sent his theses, replied that he was attacking the power of the Church, that he would draw down much trouble and sorrow upon himself, that the affair was beyond his strength, and that he (the Bishop) strongly advised him to remain quiet. The princes of the Church closed their ears; they would not understand the signs of the times; they were struck with that blindness which has occasioned the downfall of so many powers and dignities.
No one appeared at the university the next day to oppose Luther’s propositions. Tetzel’s traffic was in too much disgrace, and too shameful, for any one but himself to take up the gauntlet. But these theses were destined to resound elsewhere than under the roof of an academic hall. Hardly had they been nailed to the church door, when the feeble taps of that hammer were followed throughout all Germany by a blow that reached the very foundations of haughty Rome, threatening sudden ruin to the walls, gates, and pillars of popery, stunning and terrifying its heroes, and waking many thousands of men from the sleep of error.
These theses were diffused with the rapidity of lightning. A month had not elapsed before they were actually in Rome. “In fifteen days,” says a contemporary historian, “they were spread over the whole of Germany, and in four weeks they had overrun almost all Christendom, as if the angels themselves had been their messengers, and had borne them to the eyes of all men. No one would believe the noise they made.” They were afterwards translated into Dutch and Spanish, and a traveller sold them in Jerusalem.
A portion of the pilgrims who had flocked from all quarters to Wittenberg for the feast of All Saints, carried back with them, instead of indulgences, those famous theses of the Augustinian monk, and so contributed to their propagation. Every one read them, meditated and commented on them. They were the subject of conversation in all the convents and in all the universities. All the pious monks who entered the convent to save their souls, all upright and conscientious men, rejoiced in this simple and striking confession of the truth, and wished with all their hearts that Luther would continue the work he had begun.
Luther’s great rival, Erasmus, a man very worthy of credit, said: “I observe that the purer a man’s morals are, and the more evangelical his piety, the less opposed he is to Luther. His life is praised even by those who cannot tolerate his faith. The world was tired of a doctrine in which there were so many puerile fables and human ordinances, and it thirsted for this living, pure, and hidden water which flows from the veins of the Evangelists and Apostles.”
We must follow these theses wherever they made their way,—into the closet of the learned, the monk’s cell, and the princely palace, if we would form some idea of the various and prodigious effects they produced in Germany.
Reuchlin received them, and exclaimed, “Thanks be to God for this! They have now found a man who will give them so much to do, that they will be obliged to leave me to pass my old age in peace.”
The prudent Erasmus inwardly rejoiced at seeing his secret desires for the redress of evils, so courageously expressed. He signified his approval to their author, only exhorting him to more moderation and prudence. “God,” he said, “has given men a physician who thus cuts deep into the flesh, because without him the disease would have become incurable.”
Doctor Fleck, had for some time ceased to read mass, but had told no one the real cause. One day he found Luther’s theses hung up in the refectory of his convent; he read them, and had only run his eye over a few of them, when he cried out, “Oho! here is the man at last that we have been so long looking for, and who will make you monks open your eyes!” He wrote to the Doctor to continue this glorious war with courage. Luther calls him a man full of joy and consolation.
Lorenz von Bibra, the bishop of Wurtzburg, read the theses in his palace with delight, and publicly declared his approval of Luther. He afterwards wrote to the Elector Frederick: “Do not let the pious Doctor, Martin Luther, go, for they do him wrong.”
The Emperor Maximilian, predecessor of Charles V., himself read the monk of Wittenberg’s theses with admiration. “Take good care,” he sent word to the Elector, “of the monk Luther, for the time may come when there will be need of him.”
At Rome even, and in the Vatican, the theses were not so ill received as might be supposed. Leo X. judged of them as a man of letters, rather than as a pope. The entertainment they afforded him made him forget the severe truths they contained. “This brother, Martin Luther,” he observed, “is a man of very fine genius, and all that is said against him is but monkish jealousy.”
There were few men on whom Luther’s theses exerted more influence than on the scholar of Annaberg, whom Tetzel had so heartlessly repulsed. Myconius had entered a monastery. Myconius, like Luther, longing after holiness, devoted himself in the convent to watchings, fastings, mortifications, and all the works invented by men; but, at last, he despaired of ever arriving at the object of his desires. He gave up his studies, and occupied himself sometimes in binding books, sometimes in turning, or at some other manual work. Still, this outward activity could not appease his troubled conscience. God had spoken to him, and he could not fall back into his slumber. This painful state lasted several years.
No doubt there were others for whom Luther’s theses were the signal of life; they kindled a new light in many cells, cottages, and palaces. “Whilst those,” says Mathesius, “who had entered the convents to seek a good table, an idle life, or consideration and honour, heaped Luther’s name with abuse; those monks who lived in prayer, fasting, and mortification, gave thanks to God as soon as they heard the cry of that eagle which John huss had foretold a century before.”
And 489 years later, we should too.