The Shout That Awakened Nations: Martin Luther, the Reformation-And the Birth of the Modern World

By Heffer, Simon | New Statesman (1996), January 27, 2017 | Go to article overview

The Shout That Awakened Nations: Martin Luther, the Reformation-And the Birth of the Modern World


Heffer, Simon, New Statesman (1996)


There is still the odd parish church in England with a notice on its south door that begins: "There are those who will tell you that at the time of the Reformation the Church of England ceased to be Catholic and became Protestant. Do not believe them." It is a bemusing argument, hinting at the divisions within Anglicanism that stemmed from Henry VIII's decision to establish a state church in 1534 and reject the authority of the pope in Rome.

Many Anglican clergy long for the Western Church to be reunited, but important practical and doctrinal differences obstruct this--not least the celibacy of clergy and the ordination of women as priests. Henry VIII's decision had little to do with religion, though a theological earthquake in continental Europe had made it possible. Not the least of the secular consequences of that earthquake was that the king of England could, in order to marry his mistress, set up his own Christian Church, and in doing so change the course of English, and British, history. It is not least why we have a queen of German descent, and why for centuries Britain and Ireland had such bad relations.

By 1534 the course of European history had already been changed; large tracts of the world would in the ensuing centuries have their destinies changed as a result. On 31 October it will be 500 years since Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk from Saxony, sent his bishop, Albrecht of Mainz, his Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences. And Luther may, as the mythology states, have nailed the document--also known as the 95 Theses--to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, where he was a theologian at the university.

In England it occasioned the most significant moment in history between the Battle of Hastings and the Great War: significant because of all that flowed from it, not in a theological sense, but in its secular effect. In Europe it caused an upheaval not seen since the establishment of the Holy Roman empire in 800, and it was the beginning of the end of that empire. The history of the West changed in that moment. Despite the efforts of the Spanish and Portuguese to establish Catholic empires around the world, the most extensive empire of all would be the Protestant, British one. Its creation was directly attributable to the religious, economic and cultural consequences of the Reformation, and it would be imported into North America, Africa and Australasia.

Luther, who was 33 when he picked this argument with his Church, had become a monk after a bolt of lightning hit the ground near him and thus spared him. Later, he was ordained as a priest. He was a gifted and disputatious academic theologian. The cause of his affront was that the then pope, Leo X--a Medici from Florence--had granted the sale of indulgences to raise money to complete St Peter's at Rome, and had sent Johann Tetzel, his commissioner for indulgences, to Germany to raise funds in this way. Purchase of an indulgence supposedly guaranteed less time in purgatory. Luther was outraged: he had developed a system of belief in which simple faith, not the execution of good works or donations of money to various forms of charity, was the way to salvation. In this way, he was also indirectly the father of the welfare state.

Luther's 86th thesis asked why, given the pope's wealth, he did not use his own money to pay for St Peter's rather than that of "poor believers". Bishop Albrecht did not respond to his complaint, but sent the document to Rome. Early in 1518, using the relatively new medium of the printing press, the 95 Theses, in the universal language of Latin, were distributed around Germany and, with remarkable speed, much of Europe, too. Thomas Carlyle, for whom Luther was one of history's heroes, called this expression of outrage a "shout", and wrote: "The Pope should not have provoked that 'shout'! It was the shout of the awakening of nations."

Carlyle got to the root of the significance of the Reformation, and why it shapes our world so profoundly. …

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