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October 28, 2017

500 years of reformation


October 28, 2017

In 1517, Martin Luther (d 1546), professor of theology at the Wittenberg University nailed his 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Church, challenging the authority of the Pope. He was prompted to do this after observing the sale of indulgences to collect money, an act that exploited the religious sentiments of the common people.

While this was an apparently insignificant event, it changed the course of history. Before Luther, many religious reformers had made attempts to revive the original teachings of Christianity and purify it from polluted rituals and traditions, which had gradually seeped into the institution of the Papacy and the Church. Such was the power and hold of the Church – and its collusion with political authority – that reformation movements were brutally crushed before they had achieved any success in getting the support of the common people.

One of these reformers was John Huss (d 1415), a Czech priest who raised his voice against the corrupt practices of Church and gained popularity among his disciples. He was invited by the Imperial Diet consisting of the holy Roman emperor and the representative of the Pope to present his religious views. Huss was given assurance of safety. However, when he pleaded his case, it was rejected and he was arrested and tried as a heretic, and then burnt alive in 1415.

Another religious reformer was Girolamo Savonarola of Florence (d 1498). Savonarola faced the same fate because he condemned the Pope and the irreligious practices of the Church. For a short while, young people gathered around him with fanatic religious zeal to follow the original teachings of Christianity. However, the Pope excommunicated him and ordered the authorities of Florence to punish him. Savonarola was arrested and hanged publicly in 1498. Martin Luther was aware of the fate of these reformers, who had failed to bring any change in the religious structure of the Catholic Church and had instead faced tragic death. Realising the risk, he took a bold step, with courage and conviction, to purify a distorted religion.

Although he was excommunicated by the Pope, Luther was saved from the persecution of religious authorities because the German princes supported him.

There are at times moments in history that make reforms and revolutions against established traditions successful. For Luther, the political situation of Germany was appropriate to his religious views against the Pope and the Church. The German princes too were eager to end Papal interference in their internal affairs. Every year, a huge amount in the shape of religious taxes was taken away to Rome by the Church authorities, where it was spent on the Pope and the Cardinals. Luther was, therefore, patronised by the prince of Saxony, who kept him in a castle, away from Papal authorities. Here, Luther translated the Bible into the German language, giving people the opportunity to have direct access to the holy book.

Luther also had the advantage of the availability of the printing press. His books and pamphlets were widely spread throughout Germany. The people of Germany extended their support for religious reforms. However, when his followers acted violently against churches, he condemned these acts and urged his followers to remain peaceful.

Similarly, when in 1525, the peasants of Germany – following in the footsteps of Luther – revolted against the political authority of feudal lords, Luther condemned their revolt and sided with the princes, advising them to crush the rebellion with an iron hand. The great rebellion of the peasants ended after their slaughter by the organised armies of the rulers. This approach by Luther changed the character of the reformation, which became magisterial in order to defend the interest of the princes.

Luther’s reformation brought fundamental structural changes in the Christian church. The sect founded on the basis of Luther’s ideas was known as Lutheran or Protestant. It ended the domination of the authority of the Pope. Luther and his followers also abandoned the practice of celibacy; the Protestant church also discarded certain religious rituals.

Luther’s reformation movement also inspired some other religious reformers such as Zwingli in Zurich, John Calvin in Geneva, and Henry VIII of England, who established the Anglican Church. This ended the unity of Christiandom and Europe was divided into two different sects: Roman Catholic and Protestant. As the Protestant countries were liberated from the clutches of Papal authority, their creativity and innovation in the field of knowledge blossomed. Their societies rapidly developed in trade and commerce and became economically prosperous, compared to the Catholic countries which lagged behind.

The Roman Catholic Church, however, also launched a counterreformation to overcome its weaknesses – especially a new religious order of Jesuits devotedly engaged in restoring the credibility of the Roman Catholic Church. Another step taken by the Catholic Church was to send missionaries to Asian and African countries in order to compensate for the loss of its followers in Europe. The religious reform movements became a model for other religions whose leaders also made attempts to revive the original structure of their religion and make it relevant to the need of time.

The writer is a veteran historian and scholar.

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