Luther’s ideas were obviously dangerous to the Church on a number of levels. If taken to the logical extreme, Luther’s beliefs made the Church obsolete. The Church faced the possibility of a mass exodus of souls. If the Church was no longer necessary for man’s salvation, why should anyone continue to submit to the Church’s authoritarian rule? Why should anyone continue to send money to Rome to support the lavish lifestyle of the pope? If, instead of the clergy holding the highest place, all believers were equally important in the eyes of God, who would respect the current clergy— and who would join the clergy in the future? What if entire kingdoms turned their backs on the Church?
No one, least of all Luther, could have had any idea how his new religious ideas would change the landscape of Europe and then the rest of the world. Clearly there would be religious changes all over Europe—but other changes were also taking place.
Peasants Pick Luther
Preachers all over Germany used Luther’s writings when they delivered sermons. Germans tired of being oppressed by the Church devoured Luther’s ideas about spiritual freedom. A frenzy seized the general population of Germany, and fired-up Germans heralded Luther as their champion. Luther, they believed, recognized the plight of the common people of Germany—the peasants—writing that Germany would be “drenched in blood” and that the people will “no longer submit to oppression by force.”
In true Lutheran fashion, the peasants put their frustrations in written form in a document known as the Twelve Articles. Most of the articles demanded of their lords relief from tithes, feudal obligations, and the like. The Twelfth Article, again in true Lutheran fashion, said the peasants would withdraw their grievances if someone showed that their grievances were against the teachings of the Bible. Soon a fullblown peasant revolt erupted, and, much to the shock of Luther, the leaders seemed to point to Luther as their inspiration.
Would You Believe?
The effect of the printing press on the spread of the Reformation spirit cannot be overstated. Were it not for the invention of the printing press only 70 years earlier, Luther's ideas never would have spread so quickly and to so many people.
Luther faced a dilemma. He criticized the nobility for possibly causing the revolt. However, he also criticized the peasants for mistaking spiritual liberty with liberty from earthly rulers. In his notorious Against the Murdering, Thieving Hordes, Luther encouraged the nobility to use force to put down the “insurgents” that threatened social and political stability in Germany. The German princes jumped at the chance to crush the peasants, and they did just that. Perhaps 100,000 or more peasants were dead by the time the nobility restored order. The princes were grateful to Luther for his endorsement, even though he wouldn’t have condoned their brutality, while the peasants felt betrayed.
Historians have debated the extent to which Luther was responsible, but the peasants’ revolt left the princes in total control and the peasants totally irrelevant. Additionally, after Luther sold them out, from their perspective, the Lutheran movement didn’t have the same appeal it once did among the common people and peasants.
Princes Pick Luther
In 1526, a number of Lutheran representatives met with representatives of the Holy Roman Emperor at the famous Diet of Speyer. The Holy Roman Empire knew that it would eventually have to deal with the presence of two religious factions, the Catholics and the Protestants, but the Empire granted concessions to the Protestants and decided to deal with the problem later.
At the time, Germany was not a nation or even a kingdom. It was a geographic area that included around 300 independent principalities or states ruled by princes. The major concession of the diet allowed the ruler of each principality to decide for himself if his kingdom would be Catholic or Lutheran. Many princes chose to stay true to Catholicism. However, many saw the opportunity to get out from under the influence of Rome—and avoid sending money to Rome every year. As a result, many princes chose Lutheranism.
Only three years later, the emperor revoked the edict from the Diet of Speyer in an attempt to stop the spread of Lutheranism. It was too late, though. Lutheranism had taken hold. After years of failed diplomacy and widespread violence, the two sides agreed on the Peace of Augsburg in 1555, which basically upheld the original edict of the Diet of Speyer in 1526. Princes were allowed to choose their religion, the emperor was to stay out of religious affairs, and people were allowed safe passage to other cities of their religion.
Luther and the Status of Women
As a monk, Martin Luther took a vow of celibacy. In other words, he was to remain chaste his entire life. The Catholic Church prohibited its clergy from marrying or from having sexual relations of any kind. As Luther developed his ideas about religion, he questioned this practice just as he questioned others. Because the clergy were, in his opinion, not necessary for man’s salvation, Luther saw no reason for them to be celibate. Eventually, Luther married a nun named Catherine von Bora and went on to have a happy marriage complete with six children.
As a result of Luther’s happy marriage to his soul mate, Luther developed an interesting new attitude toward women. The Catholic Church never considered women to be equal to men in any respect, not even in a spiritual sense. Luther questioned this and said that women were equal in the eyes of God. He encouraged women to have a greater role in the home and the spiritual community. Luther believed women should be in charge of the Christian education of children in the home and in Christian educational settings. He did not, however, believe that women were to be equal in social status or in the public eye.
The Least You Need to Know
• Early reformers like Wycliffe and Hus questioned the authority of the pope, argued for the supremacy of the Bible and called for reform in the Church.
• Problems in the Church pointed out by reformers included corruption, ostentation, simony, lay investiture, and illiteracy among priests.
• The issue of the abuse of the sale of indulgences served as the final straw for Luther, who wrote his 95 Theses in response to Tetzel’s sales campaign.
• Luther didn’t intend to start a new religion, but his beliefs eventually blossomed into a new religious movement that began in Germany.