On this day 502 years ago, an obscure German monk named Martin Luther nailed a list of 95 grievances with the Roman Catholic Church to the castle church door in Wittenberg. These ‘Ninety-Five Theses’ outlined doctrines and practices of the Church that Luther perceived to be unscriptural and corrupt. The most infamous of these was the selling of indulgences, where people could allegedly purchase shorter time in purgatory. These indulgences were taking advantage of the poor, and the money was being funnelled into rebuilding St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
This piece of parchment nailed to a church door on 31 October, 1517, launched the Protestant Reformation, among the most influential movements in modern history. The Protestant Reformation constitutes far more than a religious schism. It has profoundly shaped Western values and institutions. In many ways, it was an economic, social, political and religious reformation. There are three key areas that the Reformation has influenced; literacy, capitalism and freedom of conscience. Luther’s legacy, while not immediately visible, is indelible.
The Gutenberg Printing Press was invented in the mid 1400s, making the spread of ideas and information quicker than ever before. Printing shops were popping up across Europe. With the proliferation of ideas enabled by the printing press, 1517 was ripe for the Reformation.
In the Holy Roman Empire, the Bible was only printed in Latin – which only the clerical class and educated could understand. Consequently, the layman was fully dependent on the clergy to tell them what the Bible said. It is estimated that the overall literacy rate in the Holy Roman Empire was a mere 5% at the time, and the amount of people that could read Latin was smaller still.
In 1522 Martin Luther translated the Bible into colloquial German; the language of the people. The Printing Press made this translation widely accessible and relatively inexpensive. For the common people, this meant they could read the Bible for themselves.
Key to understanding the link between the Reformation and literacy is actual Protestant theology. Put simply, Protestantism credits final authority to the Bible on matters of faith and doctrine, rather than the Church. The catch-cry of the Reformation, ‘sola scriptura’ or ‘scripture alone’ demonstrates the emphasis placed on the Bible alone as the ‘Word of God’, and not the Pope, as the supreme authority on Christian faith and doctrine. As a result, literacy became paramount as individuals were propelled to read and interpret the Bible for themselves. For centuries the medieval Church had acted as the gatekeepers of knowledge and mediators in one’s relationship with God. The Protestant Reformation was a democratising movement, as every individual could seek a direct relationship with God through the Bible.
The German translation of the Bible, alongside the Protestant doctrine of ‘sola scriptura’, greatly advanced literacy levels across the European continent. Although empirical data is tenuous on literacy rates before the 19th century, scholars suggest that by 1600, 35-40% of Europeans could read. The growth in the literacy rate and the empowerment of the individual paved the way for the Enlightenment and ironically, a rising secularism.
At first glance, it is difficult to see any association between a religious reformation and an economic system. However, there is broad consensus that the Protestant Reformation did contribute to the development of modern capitalism, although the extent of this contribution is debated.
One of Luther’s most revolutionary ideas was that there was a vocational equality between the clergy and the laity. The medieval Church had sown a very clear distinction between the sacred and the secular. The clergy were seen as being called to a higher service than those who pursued other ‘worldly’ occupations. What Luther did was conflate the sacred and the secular, and argued that every secular vocation was sacred.
In a sermon in 1530, Martin Luther said
Every occupation has its own honour before God, as well as its own requirements and duties.
The relationship between the capitalist economy and the Protestant Reformation was perhaps most expounded by German sociologist Max Weber in his seminal text The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Weber’s argument was that seeing secular vocation as a ‘calling’, imbued with a spiritual significance produced a ‘Protestant work ethic’. This work ethic entailed a commitment to wealth creation as a moral duty, and work as a form of worship, rather than simply the way to stay alive.
While the seeds of capitalism can be located as early as the 9th century, people like Weber have put forward a compelling case that the Protestant Reformation made a significant contribution to the character of modern capitalism.
Freedom of Conscience
Standing before the political authorities at the Diet of Worms in 1521, Luther refused to renounce his teachings. He is said to have declared;
My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.
There had been dissenters in the 16th Century Church before, however, none had such an enormous impact as Martin Luther. Luther’s dissension led to a mass movement that undermined the monolithic authority of the Roman Catholic Church in Europe. Before the Reformation, a complex conglomerate of states and regions constituted the Holy Roman Empire spanning huge chunks of Western and Central Europe. All these regions found unity in their common Catholic faith, and the Church exercised an enormous amount of political and religious power in the Empire. But the Reformation caused disunity in the Empire as the rulers fell to either side of the Catholic/Protestant debate. Ultimately this led to the decline of the political hegemony of the Roman Catholic Church in Europe and the rise of nation-states whereby the supreme secular authority rested with the local monarch. The Roman Catholic Church’s monopoly on faith and state waned considerably.
The Protestant Reformers cannot be called libertarians. In fact, the early Reformers frequently were champions of statism. But, the Protestant Reformation itself sent a powerful message that has endured until today. The human conscience does not belong to the state and government has no right to the inner life of the individual. Following the Reformation, greater thought was afforded to themes like the inalienable rights of the individual, especially freedom of conscience.
Half a millennium later, the Reformation remains a decisive moment in the history of the Western world. The 31st of October means many things to many people. For lovers of ecumenism, it is a time for grief as it marks the beginning of another church schism. For many Protestants, it represents the retrieval of gospel truths which had been neglected during the medieval period. And for others, it is simply Halloween and wasn’t Martin Luther that American civil rights guy? Wherever you fall on this spectrum, what is clear is that the Protestant Reformation was decisive in shaping the Western world. And the 31st of October serves as a timely reminder that truth does not belong to the state.
Julia Kokic is currently serving as the Secretary of the Conservative Club.