Since I am a product of Catholic schools, I was interested in viewing the TV movie about Martin Luther presented on PBS (Public Broadcasting System). I knew very little about him; he was simply a footnote in my studies.
Actor Liam Neeson is the narrator of this powerful presentation of a man who defied the establishment, standing by his beliefs in the face of possible excommunication and death. Martin Luther lived in the late 15th century and early 16th century when the power of the church dominated every facet of a person’s life.
As a college student, Luther was demanding of himself and had no problem with the teachings of the church to which he adhered rigorously. The people of his day, including himself, were concerned about their eternal salvation and how to achieve it. One evening, caught in a thunderstorm, he became so frightened that he vowed to become a monk to insure the salvation of his soul. True to his vow, he became an Augustinian monk, an order which renounces the comforts of this world.
As a part of his studies, he was sent on a Mission to Rome. Having had humble beginnings, he had never been to a large city and was awed by the luxury of the Vatican and the comfortable life that the clergy seemed to live. At that time, tithes from the people were mandatory. The trip was an eye-opener for Luther.
He was particularly disturbed that Pope Leo X had emptied the church’s coffers through his desire for all kinds of worldly pleasures. To overcome the crisis, the Pope instituted the practice of selling indulgences to the faithful in order to shorten their time in Purgatory. They could also buy indulgences for their dead loved ones.
His disillusionment and depression became noticeable to his colleagues. One wise superior sent him to Wittenberg in 1511 to become a Professor of Bible Studies. It was here that Martin was enlightened to realize that we do not need an institution to achieve salvation; it is about the individual and his relationship with God. This idea saved Martin’s sanity.
It was in 1517 that Luther wrote his 95 Theses against the Pope and the selling of indulgences. It was common practice then for students to nail their theses to a church door to gain the attention of the clergy. Luther did not dream that his act would cause such a stir.
Thus arose an enormous battle between the Church and one solitary monk. Pope Leo X demanded that Luther denounce the 95 Theses under pain of excommunication and death, which was the common penalty for heresy. Luther refused to back down. He was protected in Germany by a local ruler named Frederick the Wise who had his own grievances against the Pope.
Despite the growing acceptance Luther received he was officially excommunicated from the church in 1521. He was summoned before a secular group, the Diet of Worms, but once again refused to recant his statements. When he was declared a convicted heretic, friends aided him in hiding out at Wartburg Castle, where he continued to disburse his writings, including the 95 Theses. While in seclusion, he also translated the New Testament into German, giving ordinary people the opportunity to read the Bible. The invention of the printing press at that time aided him in reaching thousands of people he could not possible have reached on his own. The printing press then was like the Internet today in its power.
A revolution arose among the people which is now called the Reformation. Luther was able to form a new church which he called Lutheranism. He had a huge following, many of whom agreed with his controversy with the Catholic Church. He was able to induce princes and nobles to back him, which had a positive effect on his church’s growth.
As his renown flourished, he was no longer rebuked by church authorities, and until his death in 1646, he served as the Dean of Theology at the University of Wittenberg. Martin Luther is remembered as one of the most influential, albeit controversial, figures of the Reformation, when new sects of Christianity arose and positive reform took place within the Church.