The Protestant Reformation, 500 Years Later

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500 years ago today, an angry, pudgy monk lit the fire that remade the world. Mostly by accident. Martin Luther was a dissatisfied monk from the town of Wittenberg, in modern Germany. In the 1500’s friars of the Catholic Church roamed Europe selling indulgences, slips of paper representing a way of spending less time in purgatory if you were only a mediocre Catholic, as long as you understood what you had done wrong. But the system of indulgences was one that was ripe for abuse, and that is exactly what some people would do. Luther wasn’t the only one who was fed up with the state of things. A hundred years before him, a Czech reformer named Jan Hus had attempted to challenge the power of the Catholic Church, but he was brutally killed and his followers defeated in the Hussite Wars. But by Luther’s era, the situation was ripe for change. The powerful German princes were getting antsy with the might of the Church. The printing press had recently been invented by Johannes Gutenberg. And the sale of indulgences had reached an all-time high to fund St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

 

On the 31st of October, 1517, Luther sent a letter to the Albert of Brandenburg, the Archbishop of Mainz with ninety-five theses (points of discussion) listed explaining why he disagreed with the sale of indulgences. On the same day, according to apocryphal lore, he nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of Wittenberg’s All Soul’s Church for all to see. Although Luther really only wanted to start an academic discussion, his points were both repressed by the Church and seized upon by the German princes, leading to religious conflict between the Protestants and the Catholic Church that did not end until the Peace of Westphalia one hundred and thirty years later. Over the years Luther’s movement grew out of his control, and today there are tens and hundreds of different Protestant groups.

 

The spectrum of Protestantism spans everyone from Lutherans (Luther’s followers), who are considered relatively close to the Catholic Church, to Evangelicals, who Luther would have despised. To learn more about how different Catholics and Protestants view each other now, 500 years from Luther’s letter to the Archbishop of Mainz, I spoke to some of our students and staff about their own beliefs. To the majority of them, the Reformation was a matter of distant history, and had little to no effect on their faith today. The only Catholic I spoke to, sophomore Amila Niksic, said that she was never really taught about the Reformation at Sunday school. The same was true for Cecil Price, who is a Baptist. Only the oldest of those I interviewed, Mr. Denlinger (who some believe to have been alive during the Reformation), remembers hearing prejudice against Catholics, and even that was only in his younger days. He even said that if the Catholic Church were as it is today, he doubts the Reformation would have happened, a statement with which Mr. Dumbroski seemed to agree. Over the years, the various Christian denominations have become more concentrated on their similarities and less on their differences, so the Reformation has lost importance to modern believers. As Mr. Dumbroski communicated to me during my talk with him, it faith that really holds the most importance. 

Nations with a significant Protestant population. Darker shades indicate higher percentages of Protestants. The almost invisible countries have very low numbers of Protestants.

 

Nations by percentage of the population that is Catholic.

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