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A reformation by Martin Luther alone?

30 June 2017

Charlotte Methuen considers whether the Reformation would have happened without the German friar


Trailblazer: a statue of Martin Luther in Wittenberg, Germany

Trailblazer: a statue of Martin Luther in Wittenberg, Germany

MARTIN LUTHER has formed the focus of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Centred on 31 Oc­to­ber 1517, the day that Luther sent release of his Ninety-five Theses against indulgences to the Arch­bishop of Mainz (but probably not did not nail them to the door of the Castle Church, Wittenberg), this has become the Luther anniversary par excellence, being marked both ecu­menically and internationally.

But would the Reformation have happened even without Luther and his theses? The answer to this ques­­tion, as always with the great “what-ifs?” of history, can remain only specu­lation. But the question of the extent to which the Refor­mation was shaped by Luther is an im­­­portant one.


LUTHER grew up in a Church in which calls for reform were coming from many different quarters. In 1512, Pope Julius II summoned the Fifth Lateran Council, which ran until 1517. This was, in part, a re­­action to what the Pope saw as the illegitimate Council of Pisa of 1511, which had been called by the King of France.

Across the Western Church, in­­dividual diocesan bishops tried to reform their dioceses. Increasing numbers of city councils were ap­­pointing preachers, often Fran­cis­cans and Dominicans, who were in­structed to deliver sermons in the vernacular. Lay people were invest­ing in the Church, often through elaborate chapels or new church buildings. Luther’s ideas spoke to people who were deeply religious. But so, too, had the ideas of the prophetic preacher Girolamo Savona­­rola, in Florence, just two decades before. Savonarola was con­victed of heresy and hanged in 1498.

That Luther escaped death as a heretic shows the complex inter­action between political and reli­gious motives which shaped and enabled the Reformation. Luther’s “Germany” was not one nation, but a mass of territories, each under its own ruler. Many of the rulers were bishops, whose dioceses extended beyond their own political terri­t­ories to give them spiritual juris­diction over neighbouring terri­t­ories.

Germany’s secular princes and city councils were often locked in conflict that related to their respect­ive authorities. The city of Cologne, declared a free imperial city in 1475, refused to recognise the authority of the Archbishop of Cologne, and Hermann von Wied, appointed Archbishop in 1515, was consec­rated in Bonn; he was not formally received into Cologne until 1522. Ecclesiastical power was contested. City councils and terri­torial rulers across Germany were assert­­ing their rights over the Church.

In Wittenberg, both the Elector’s All Hallows’ Foundation and the parish church had held papal privileges since 1400, and these were extended to the university on its foun­­dation in 1502. In consequence, the authority of the Bishop of Brandenburg, and the Archbishop of Mainz, in Wittenberg, was ex­­tremely limited. Moreover, Frederick the Wise was one of seven Electors of the Emperor.

It was clear during the 1510s that Emperor Maximilian might not have long to live, and, in 1518, Pope Leo X was seeking to ensure that his successor would be another Habs­burg and (for instance) not the King of France. Frederick Maxi­milian made it a condition of his vote that Luther’s case would be in­­­vestigated in a German territory by theolo­gians, and not in Rome by canon lawyers. Frederick’s support of Luther both at this point and after the Diet of Worms saved him from trial and from execution as a heretic. Without Frederick the Wise, Luther would not have lived to write his ideas.


WHEN Luther wrote his Ninety-five Theses, he did so in Latin, the language of academia and the Church. They could be read only by clergy (and not all of them), and by those who had received a Latin education. A German translation by the Nuremberg city councillor Kaspar Nützel seems to have been made by Christmas 1517.

Perhaps encouraged by the re­­sponses to his German sermons against the indulgences, in early 1518 Luther published a “Sermon on Indulgences and Grace”, which presented his ideas in German. It went into at least 16 editions in 1518, and another nine by 1520.

Luther’s decision to begin to write in German led to a string of pastoral works through 1518 and 1519, including explications of the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer, an instruction on making confession, and a series of “sermons” (actually short treatises) on baptism, the eucharist, penance, and marriage. These were short, access­ible works that could be read by those who were literate, and read aloud to those who were not.

These tracts were sup­ple­mented by il­lustrated pamphlets and broad­sheets that offered visual critiques of indulgences. Many of these were single sheets; the woodcut images often compared indulgence prea­chers to the merchants and money-lenders in the cleansing of the Temple. Later broadsheets depicted Bible readers being taken to heaven, or showed them with a dove, representing the Holy Spirit, while those engaging in traditional practices (such as saying the Ave Maria) were associated with demons, scorpions, or hell. These tracts, pamphlets, and broad­sheets went into multiple editions, printed not only in Wittenberg but in cities across the German territories, in­­clud­­­ing Augsburg, Erfurt, Frank­­furt, Leipzig, Nuremberg, and Stras­bourg.

When Luther wrote “To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation” in 1520, the first edition comprised an astonishing 4000 copies; it was sold out within days. The first edition of his German translation of the New Testament, the “September-Testament” of 1522, was 3000 copies. A much more ex­­pensive work, even this had sold out by December when the second edi­tion was printed.

The Reformation profited from a revolution in communication. The combination of German translation with the technology of printing allowed Luther’s ideas to spread very rapidly. It also made his name synonymous with this new “Evan­­gel­ical” theology, which sought to root itself explicitly in scripture and the gospel.

But this was not all due to Luther. Erasmus’s satirical works, written in Latin, and highly critical of the Church, had opened up a market for the kind of works that Luther was now writing in German. Other authors followed suit. Between 1501 and 1530, about 10,000 pamphlets were print­ed in Germany, many with religious or political content which was strongly critical of the status quo.

The spread of these ideas re­­­quired the engagement of printers in towns and cities across Germany, and the distribution networks of the growing book trade. All this was financed by the rapidly expanded group of literate citizens who were deeply disturbed by the Church’s focus on money, and its failure to engage with their questions about salvation.

Without this funding and infra­structure, Luther’s ideas would prob­­­­­­­­ably never have reached bey­ond Wittenberg and the circle of his own correspondents. The only other people to know about him would have been those involved in the disciplinary process initiated by the Archbishop of Mainz.


IDEAS do not constitute a Re­­formation. The Reformation brought about practical changes to what was done in churches. Aur­­i­cular confes­sion ceased, and the eucharist was distributed in both kinds. The new, revised liturgies were in the vernacular. Church buildings were redecorated and reordered. The organisation of the Church as an institution changed, and monastic houses were dissolved. In the winter of 1521-22, while Luther was absent from Wittenberg, confined to the Wartburg, Andreas Karlstadt intro­duced a German mass in Witten­berg with communion in both kinds, and there was a wave of iconoclasm. On his return, Luther reversed many of Karlstadt’s changes, emphasising the need to “make haste slowly”.

In Wittenberg and Luther’s home state of Saxony, the German liturgy was introduced only in 1525, after the death of Prince Frederick of Saxony. In Nuremberg, German Bible readings and communion in both kinds had already been introduced in 1523, and the liturgy of the mass had been revised to remove the suggestion that it was a sacrifice. In Strasbourg, revisions to preaching and liturgy were already being introduced in 1523. These changes were inspired by Luther’s theology, and supported by these cities’ councils, in opposition to their bishops.

In Zürich, the council called in 1520 for “scriptural preaching with­out ‘Lutheran’ teachings”; in 1523, they supported Ulrich (or Huld­rych) Zwingli in a theological disputation that led to reforms of the chapter of the Great Minster church and of support for the poor, the closure of monasteries and con­vents, the destruction of images, and the rejection of the authority of the bishop of Constance.

Zwingli took a very different theological line to Luther on ques­tions such as the relationship be­­tween law and gospel, and the eucharist. He claimed that his theology was not influenced by Luther’s (although it probably was), and the Zürich Reformation had a very different feel to the Refor­mation in many parts of Germany, with thor­ough iconoclasm and much less use of music. In Zürich, Strasbourg, and Nuremberg, the city councils were instrumental in introducing reform­ing practices, even before they had become estab­lished in Wittenberg.

One of the earliest territories to adopt the Reformation was Hesse, where, between 1521 and 1526, the Landgrave, Philip, introduced the Reformation, and, in 1527, founded the first Protestant university in Marburg. By 1529, 14 imperial cities and five territories had introduced the Reformation, and others were close to doing so. Without the will of city councils and territorial rulers, the Reformation would not have been implemented.


MANY factors and people con­­tributed to spread Luther’s ideas, and without them the Reformation would not have had the influence that it did. Would there have been a Reformation without Luther?

The example of Zürich suggests that the answer is possibly yes. City councils and territorial rulers were eager to find a way to assert their authority, and reforming the Church was one way of doing that. Without Luther’s theology, how­ever, and without his reluctance to compromise, it would not have been the same Reformation: the result might well have been more of a reform and less of a Reformation.


The Revd Dr Charlotte Methuen is senior lecturer in theology and religious studies at the University of Glasgow. Her Luther and Calvin: Religious revolutionaries is published by Lion Hudson at £9.99 (£9).

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