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Martin Luther as Priest, Heretic, and Outlaw:
The Reformation at 500

David B. Morris,
German Area Specialist,
European Division

Note: The items described in this post can be viewed in an exhibit of the same title in the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Building of the Library of Congress, October 3, 2017–January 1, 2018.

On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther posted his Ninety-five Theses against papal indulgences, or the atonement of sins through monetary payment, on the door of the church at Wittenberg, Germany. Within less than four years, the Catholic Church would brand Luther a heretic, and the Holy Roman Empire would condemn him as an outlaw. These were the early years of the Protestant Reformation, a turning point in history that would transform not only the Christian faith, but also the politics and society of all of Europe.

The clash between Luther and the Catholic Church in Rome was also history's first "media event." Johannes Gutenberg's development of the moveable-type printing press about seventy-five years earlier had a profound impact on the spread of Luther's thought. Thanks to the new technology, his theses soon reached a broad circulation that surprised even Luther. As he expanded his critique into other areas of church policy and the conflict with Rome intensified. Luther's supporters in Germany's vibrant print industry made many of his works the first "bestsellers" in history and Luther himself among the most famous men in Europe.

The following selections of Luther's and other Reformation-era works at the Library of Congress document not only the progress of Luther's thought as the conflict with Rome took shape, but also how printing in Germany blossomed into a mass medium as public interest in the controversy continued to grow.

(Click on images to enlarge. Caption titles are linked to catalog record).

I. Luther the Priest

When he posted his theses, Luther was a thirty-four-year-old priest and professor of theology at Wittenberg University, a provincial institution that had been founded only fifteen years earlier. Most depictions of Luther posting his theses show a defiant monk swinging his hammer against the church door, but the scene depicted here is probably more accurate: an assistant posts the theses while Luther discusses them with a colleague. Luther composed his theses in Latin and intended them as the basis of a disputation, or scholarly debate, on papal indulgences. Posting a notice for such an event on the doors of the church, which was affiliated with the university, was a common practice at the time.





Anfang der Reformation Luther lässt 95 Sätze gegen den Ablass an die Schlosskirche zu Wittenberg anschlagen. den 31. Octbr 1517
Wilhem Baron von Löwenstern. Anfang der Reformation Luther lässt 95 Sätze gegen den Ablass an die Schlosskirche zu Wittenberg anschlagen. den 31. Octbr 1517 (The beginning of the Reformation, Luther has 95 Theses against indulgences posted on the Castle Church at Wittenberg Oct. 31, 1517). Stuttgart, 1830.

"When the Coin in the Coffer Rings . . . "

Luther's critique of indulgences was not just academic. The Catholic Church had granted indulgences since the Middle Ages to penitent Christians as a form of absolution after they fulfilled proscribed conditions such as prayer or fasting, but by Luther's time the church was selling indulgences outright as a source of revenue. The indulgence document shown below includes a space to fill in the name of the "contributor." As a priest, Luther thought selling indulgences weakened his flock's personal motivation to seek divine grace and exploited their sacred quest for salvation for the profane ends of power and wealth. Luther was especially angered by the flagrant hawking of indulgences in German lands by the papal agent Johannes Tetzel, who is credited with the phrase, "When the coin in the coffer rings/the soul from purgatory springs." For Luther, this monetization of faith was an abuse of church practice in his jurisdiction that he was duty-bound to report to his superiors. He did so on the same day he posted the theses, including a copy of them with a letter to his archbishop, Albrecht of Mainz.

Catholic Church, Subcommissarius in Negotio Cruciatae. Indulgentia
Catholic Church, Subcommissarius in Negotio Cruciatae. Indulgentia (Indulgence). Germany, 1482.

Albrecht met Luther's letter with silence, for the priest from Wittenberg had touched on a sensitive nerve in high-level church administration in both Rome and Germany: Pope Leo X and Albrecht were dividing the proceeds from the sale of indulgences to finance the lavish construction of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome and to pay Albrecht's debts. More important, the Holy See quickly discerned in Luther's theses a broader challenge to its power, since the authority for granting indulgences ultimately rested with the pope. As their conflict took shape, the church's resistance only strengthened Luther's growing conviction that the Roman Church had grown corrupt, luxuriant, and removed from its flock. In this context, the Ninety-five Theses were transformed from an academic agenda into a manifesto of church reform.

The Fronts Harden at Leipzig

The Roman Church's initial response to Luther's theses followed the scholarly and deliberative pattern he had established. Rome dispatched high-ranking clergy and theologians to debate Luther in disputations and offer him the opportunity to retract or mollify his views. The debate at Leipzig in July 1519, documented here, was a turning point. In debates with the formidable theologian Johannes Eck, Luther stood his ground in what was interpreted as a direct challenge to papal authority. Eck was later instrumental in urging Pope Leo to issue the papal bull, or edict, condemning Luther's views as heresy and threatening him with excommunication.

Disputatio . . . eiusdem D. Iohannis Eccij & D. Martini Lutheri Augustiani q[uae] cepit IIII Iulij
Johann Eck. Disputatio . . . eiusdem D. Iohannis Eccij & D. Martini Lutheri Augustiani q[uae] cepit IIII Iulij (Debate . . . between Dr. Johannes Eck and Dr. Martin Luther, Augustinian, which began July 4). Erfurt: Matthes Maler, 1519. Reformation Collection.

Forging Alliances

Luther paired his critique of the church with a call to reform Germany's secular institutions. A number of Germany's many princes, knights, and other nobles bristled under Roman influence and saw Luther as a potential champion of German freedom from it. In one of the most important works of the early Reformation, To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, Luther sought to forge alliances with these groups to bolster his reform of the church with a reform of German society. In laying out his reforms, Luther argued that the state and its institutions should wield authority over the church.

An den Christlichen Adel deutscher Nation: von des Christlichen Standes Besserung
Martin Luther. An den Christlichen Adel deutscher Nation: von des Christlichen Standes Besserung (To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation: Concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate). Wittenberg: Melchoir Lotter d.J., 1520. Martin Luther Collection.

II. Luther the Heretic

In the three years after he posted his Ninety-five Theses, Luther not only persisted in his critique of the church but expanded it to practically all areas of church authority in civil society and Christian faith. Meanwhile the German presses could barely keep up with the demand for Luther's works. The Catholic Church therefore faced not only a fundamental challenge to its institutions and practices, but one backed by the force of a new technology. Having failed in its efforts to move Luther to recant, the church met this threat by branding Luther a heretic and rendering him up to the Holy Roman Empire for trial and punishment.

"The Bull of the Antichrist"

Shortly after Luther's disputation with Eck in Leipzig, rumors circulated that Rome was preparing a papal bull, or decree, condemning Luther's reformism as heresy and threatening him with excommunication. Luther was not sure whether the rumored bull was a ruse concocted by Eck to threaten him into submission, or a genuine papal edict. In the text Against the Bull of the Antichrist, Luther launched a preemptive attack and condemned "whoever wrote this bull" as the Antichrist. He challenged Eck and his other critics to "show that I am a heretic, or dry up their spittle."

Widder die Bullen des Endchrists
Martin Luther. Widder die Bullen des Endchrists (Against the Bull of the Antichrist). Wittenberg: 1520. Martin Luther Collection.

The Church as Babylon

A work that vividly displays Luther's growing estrangement from the Catholic Church, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church was published only a few months after To the Christian Nobility. With the papal bull looming, The Babylonian Captivity marks Luther's shift from reform to a revolutionary break with Rome. Luther abandons the moderate tone of the earlier work and aims an embittered and angry attack against the foundation of the church's authority. Comparing the church to the infamous biblical city of Babylon, Luther argues it has abused Christ's sacraments in the interest of maintaining its power as an intermediary between God and the faithful. The prominent woodcut portrait by Hans Baldung Grien is an example of the importance of artists in the growing popular awareness of Luther as an individual facing the arrayed powers of church and state.

Von der Babylonischen Gefengknuss der Kirchen
Martin Luther. Von der Babylonischen Gefengknuss der Kirchen (The Babylonian Captivity of the Church). Strassburg: Johann Schott, 1520. Martin Luther Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

"Arise, O Lord"

Pope Leo promulgated the bull condemning Luther's unrepentant indictment of the Catholic Church in June 1520, and an official copy finally reached Luther at Wittenberg in October. Commonly known by the Latin phrase in its opening lines, Exsurge, Domine (Arise, O Lord), the bull accuses Luther of heresy and issues an ultimatum: recant the heretical statements in the Ninety-five Theses and other writings within sixty days or face excommunication. Luther's works were to be burned in public, and all Christians who owned, read, or published them faced automatic excommunication as well. Luther now had reason to fear for his life: the punishment for heresy was burning at the stake.

Bulla contra errores Martini Lutheri et sequacium
Catholic Church, Pope Leo X. Bulla contra errores Martini Lutheri et sequacium (Decree against the errors of Martin Luther and his followers). Rome, 1520. Early Print Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

The Freedom of a Christian

The freedom of the individual is a thread running through much of Luther's work and endowed his theological arguments with a political and social force both church and state were quick to recognize. Luther drafted On the Freedom of a Christian with an accompanying letter to Pope Leo shortly after receiving the papal bull. A manifesto of individual freedom in faith, On the Freedom of a Christian would become one of the most important documents in the establishment of a new, reformed church. Facing the threats of excommunication and execution, Luther makes an impassioned plea for the individual liberty of the Christian in his personal relationship with God and his fellow man, unmediated by earthly powers. In his letter to Pope Leo, Luther takes a conciliatory tone toward the pontiff, but only to distinguish him, "a sheep among wolves, like Daniel among the lions," from the "godlessness" of the Roman curia, which he compares to Babylon, Sodom, and Gomorrah. Although addressed to the pope, Luther published his message in German as an open letter intended for a national audience. By the time Pope Leo received it, in a language he could not read, it had already become a bestseller.

Von der Fryheit eines Christen Menschen and Epistel zum Babst Leo
Martin Luther. Von der Fryheit eines Christen Menschen and Epistel zum Babst Leo (On the Freedom of a Christian, and Letter to Pope Leo). Zurich: Christoffel Froschouer, 1521. Reformation Collection.

A Public Burning

Thanks to the medium of print, Luther was arguably the first "celebrity" in history outside of Europe's royal dynasties, and his likeness was among the most well known in Europe. Luther made shrewd use of this status by reinforcing his written disdain for the papal bull with a dramatic act of defiance: on December 10, the pope's sixty-day deadline to recant or be excommunicated, Luther burned the papal bull in public. Surrounded by students and colleagues outside the gates of Wittenberg, Luther cast the bull into the bonfire along with other anti-Luther works and editions of canon law. In Luther's time, burning a person's works was a powerfully symbolic act akin to burning the person himself. Luther's gesture was partly in retaliation for the church's burning of his works as instructed by the papal bull. With this mutual consigning to the flames, the split between Luther and Rome was now irrevocable. Less than four weeks later, on January 3, 1521, the pope formally declared Luther a heretic.

Luther verbrennt die päpstliche Bulle und das canonische Recht vor Wittenberg, am 10. December 1520
Wilhem Baron von Löwenstern. Luther verbrennt die päpstliche Bulle und das canonische Recht vor Wittenberg, am 10. December 1520 (Luther burns the papal bull and the canon law before Wittenberg). Stuttgart, 1830.

III. Luther the Outlaw

Declared a heretic by the church, the Holy Roman Empire now tried Luther as an outlaw. At the Imperial Diet of Worms, convened in April 1521, Luther held fast to his views. Despite some sympathy for Luther's cause among the assembled nobles, Emperor Charles V had little choice but to condemn him as an outlaw of the empire in the so-called Edict of Worms. Now an enemy of both church and state, Luther could be apprehended or even killed on sight. In a staged "kidnapping" Luther's supporters spirited him away to Wartburg Castle in disguise and under an assumed name. While at the Wartburg, Luther later wrote a German translation of the Bible that would profoundly influence the development of the German language. Meanwhile he continued his busy writing schedule in defiance of the bans against him, and his allies in the print industry continued to spread his views.

"Here I Stand"

Luther's appearance at the Imperial Diet of Worms was a media sensation. He had already attracted crowds during his two-week journey there from Wittenberg, preaching to massive congregations in defiance of the papal bull. In Worms, the assembly hall was overflowing, supporters and opponents of Luther clashed in the streets, and reports on the proceedings were quickly rushed to the presses and spread throughout Germany. Standing before the emperor and surrounded by the glittering elite of the Holy Roman Empire, the monk from Wittenberg was confronted with stacks of his writings and ordered to retract them. Instead, Luther renewed the themes of individual liberty and personal faith in his earlier work: "I cannot and will not recant anything, for it is dangerous and a threat to salvation to act against one's conscience." Luther's defiant words would become a declaration of independence for generations of Protestants the world over: "Here I stand, I can do no other, God help me. Amen."

Luther auf dem Reichstag zu Worms 1521
Wilhem Baron von Löwenstern. Luther auf dem Reichstag zu Worms 1521 (Luther at the Diet of Worms). Stuttgart, 1830.

The Primacy of Faith

After his escape to the Wartburg Luther continued to issue a flurry of writings. The treatise, The Judgement of Martin Luther on Monastic Vows became a bestseller. Luther draws on the themes of On the Freedom of a Christian to argue that vows conflict with the word of God as spoken through His commandments. In a preface dedicated to his father, Hans, he concedes the elder Luther was correct in opposing his son's taking of vows. Reflecting on his own path toward God, Luther argues that it lies not in vows but in faith alone.

Von dem geystlichen und kloster gelubten Martin Luthers urteyll
Martin Luther. Von dem geystlichen und kloster gelubten Martini Luthers urteyll (The Judgment of Martin Luther on Monastic Vows). Wittenberg: Nickel Schirlentz, 1522. Martin Luther Collection.

Christ and Antichrist

In this magnificent example of early printing, Luther has chosen quotations from the Gospels and canon law to contrast the life of Christ with the corruption and luxury of the "Antichrist" pope and his curia. This contrast is graphically depicted in thirteen pairs of woodcuts by Lucas Cranach the Elder, a major artist of the Northern Renaissance and adherent of Luther. The pair displayed here shows Christ driving the moneylenders from the temple, while on the right the pope sells indulgences. Cranach and other prominent artists produced many portraits of Luther that made his likeness among the most famous in Europe.

Passional Christi und Antichristi
Lucas Cranach the Elder. Passional Christi und Antichristi (Passion of Christ and the Antichrist). Wittenberg: Johann Rhau Grunenberg, 1521. Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection.

The Wittenberg Nightingale

This poem's title and its woodcut frontispiece depict Luther's growing fame: The Wittenberg Nightingale Now Heard Everywhere. The Nuremberg shoemaker and printer Hans Sachs was one of many artists who contributed to this phenomenon. (Richard Wagner would immortalize him 350 years later as the protagonist of his music drama Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.) Sachs' poem shows Luther's fame in the eyes of his contemporaries and the mass appeal of his reformism in Germany and elsewhere in Europe.

Sachs' poem also foreshadows how future generations would look back on Luther, especially on those early years of the Reformation between the posting of the Ninety-five Theses and the Edict of Worms. By shaking the mighty Catholic Church, the priest and professor from Wittenberg not only sparked the Reformation, he also hastened the end of Medieval Europe and heralded the Modern Age, in which individual rights, backed by the medium of print, would be heard everywhere as they challenged the ancient powers of church and state.

Die Wittenbergisch Nachtigall Die man yetz höret überall
Hans Sachs. Die Wittenbergisch Nachtigall Die man yetz höret überall (The Wittenberg Nightingale Now Heard Everywhere). Augsburg: Philipp Ulhart d.Ä., 1523. Martin Luther Collection.
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