The Real Story of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses Protest

By Diane Haddad

Martin Luther statue in Dresden

The last day of this October marks the 500th anniversary of a protest that changed the world, perhaps more than any other protest has managed to do.

In 1517, Martin Luther, a 33-year-old German monk and moral theology professor at the University of Wittenberg, had become fed up with the Catholic Church’s practice of selling indulgences to reduce God’s eternal punishment for sinners. On Oct. 31, he sent his 95 Theses—basically, a list of points for scholarly debate—to the Archbishop of Mainz.


The Church Door Legend

Like me, you might’ve imagined that Luther marched up the church steps in Wittenberg and defiantly pounded a nail into the wooden door, hanging his complaints there for all to see. Posting theses was the custom at universities—an early version of the “open letter” on Facebook. Luther may have posted the 95 Theses on church doors around town, but historians don’t have any proof he actually did so.

Even so, the theses were quickly translated from Latin and reprinted all over Europe on the relatively new printing press. A “pamphlet war” (an ancestor to today’s Twitter war?) erupted with a Dominican friar named Johann Tetzel.

A grand commissioner of indulgences for the Archbishop of Mainz, Tetzel was supposedly sending the money to Rome to build St. Peter’s Basilica. He’s credited with the rhyme “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”

But it turned out that half the indulgence money Tetzel raised went to his boss, who had to repay the people who made him archbishop. Politics, right?


Martin Luther Won’t Recant

In 1518, Luther defended himself before the Imperial Diet. The meeting turned into a shouting match and he slipped away in the middle of the night.

In July 1519, Luther questioned the infallibility of the pope. This Catholic dogma basically says the pope speaks for God when exercising his role as church leader.

Well, that was too much. In 1520, Pope Leo X issued a papal bull demanding Luther recant 41 of his statements or be excommunicated.

Luther publicly set the bull on fire.

Of course Leo excommunicated him, on Jan. 3, 1521. Luther stated before the Diet of Worms (does this name make anyone else giggle?), “I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.”

The Diet declared Luther a heretic and demanded his arrest. Not only was it illegal to help Luther, but anyone could kill him scot-free. His followers—the Lutherans—faked a kidnapping and secured him in Wartburg Castle. There, Luther wrote against indulgences, compulsory confession, monastic vows and other Catholic practices.


Stuck in the Middle

Meanwhile in Wittenburg, Augustinian friars revolted and unrest prevailed. Luther secretly returned and preached against the violence. He re-established calm, but was now stuck between the establishment, which he disagreed with, and radical reformers, whose methods he disapproved of.

Monasteries, bishops’ palaces and other church buildings were being burned. Central German peasants, who already had a beef with the aristocracy, incorporated the reformation’s rhetoric into the revolts of the German Peasants’ War. Luther condemned them in his tract “Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants.”

Martin Luther

The Fruits of Martin Luther’s Protest

The Reformation diversified and spread far beyond Luther’s influence, eventually giving rise to Lutherans, Calvinists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Dutch Reformed, Baptists, Anabaptists, Moravians and many others.

The number of Protestant denominations today is the subject of debate, with some claiming upwards of 33,000 and others saying the number is much lower. (See here and here.) Either way, there are more than 900 million Protestants around the world. Their numbers testify to the strength of Luther’s protest.

As for Martin Luther, he married, continued writing, and translated the Old Testament into German. He’s less well-known today for his increasingly violent anti-Semitic works, which later figured into Nazi propaganda. Lutheran church denominations have officially denounced Luther’s anti-Semitic writings. After years of deteriorating health, Luther died of a stroke on Feb. 18, 1546.