Friday, May 25, 2012

May 25, 1521 – Martin Luther Assassinated


The success of the printing press hastened the spread ideas, particularly theology. Lawyer-turned-monk Martin Luther published Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences in 1517, which became known as The Ninety-Five Theses. It formed a list of what he felt was wrong with Church practices, particularly the selling of indulgences: writs of forgiveness for sins that could be purchased (even in advance of committing a sin). Luther had suffered through his own understanding of forgiveness while in the monastery and finally relied solely on God's power rather than Dominican friar Johann Tetzel's salesmanship, “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, The soul from Purgatory springs.”

The letter spread through much of Northern Europe and found many like-minded supporters. Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz and Magdeburg, who had initiated much of the surge of indulgence sales (and received half of the profits to pay debts, the other half going to pay for the construction of St. Peter's Basilica), sent a copy to Pope Leo X, who responded with orders that Luther be arrested. Luther, however, had won the support of Frederick III, Elector of Saxony, who protected him politically. The Pope excommunicated Luther in with a bull in December of 1520 and ordered him to recant at a diet in Worms under Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Luther prayed for guidance and finally admitted before the emperor, “I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.”

Luther was released as he had been guaranteed safe passage through Frederick the Elector, but deliberations continued five more days until May 25 when Emperor Charles announced, “We want him to be apprehended and punished as a notorious heretic.” Luther's literature was banned. He himself was declared an outlaw, forbidding anyone to give him shelter or even food, requiring his arrest, and legalizing his murder. As Luther traveled homeward, he was met by armed men in the forest. Thinking they were his escort from Frederick, Luther and his party peacefully approached them. These men, however, were zealous supporters of the Church who had been waiting for the emperor's word. Frederick's soldiers arrived shortly after Luther had been killed and were able to win back his body before the bandits could escape with it in hopes of a bounty.

An uproar rang through Germany, taking Luther as a martyr. Faced with a wave of rebellion among Luther's supporters outraged by actions blamed on the Church as well as incursions by the Turks besieging Vienna, Charles decided to separate himself from Rome's stalwart rejections. Pope Leo X shifted blame to Bishop Albrecht, who was replaced and forced to pay his debts.

Without Luther, the Reformation settled onto the shoulders of Philipp Melanchthon, who distinguished himself from the violence associated with radicals such as Zwingli and the Zwickau prophets. Melanchthon had long kept correspondence with Luther, and the monk had even invited Melanchthon to a professorship at the University of Wittenberg after his liberal theology was dismissed at Tübingen. He determined to work with the Church in gradual reforms, such as the end of indulgences as outlined in the 1530 Augsburg Confession. Melanchthon's use of reason won him great fame and calls for lectures across northern Europe. His student Flacius carried on after him, working alongside the Church for reforms throughout north and eastern Europe. Centers like Spain and the Italian states were slower to take to reform, but eager to trade. Seeing bloody violence in England after Henry VIII's forcible creation of the Church of England in 1529 discouraged Scandinavian crowns from separating outright, instead slowly asserting political authority as the Continent shifted toward humanism.

Capitalism and technology outpaced spiritualism as the centuries progressed. The Holy Roman Empire, a model of the balance of power between the First, Second, and Third Estates brought on by waves of reform, became the “Hinge of Europe” as Habsburg power waned due to excessive inbreeding. Instead, Congresses of dukes, princes, and elected representatives, all joined together by the Catholic religion across nationalities, ruled. The Ottoman Empire began to wane as Austria looked to the Atlantic for trade through Spain and Portugal rather than eastward. With Dutch mariners joined by German innovators and ample settlers from among the myriad of Austrian-Hungarian peoples, Roman colonies spread into North America to balance French Canada and Louisiana, the Caribbean, Africa, India, and the Pacific until a third of the world was under imperial power.


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In reality, Frederick III successfully “kidnapped” Luther and hid him in Wartburg Castle. Luther continued to write, translating the New Testament into German and solidifying his ideas of grace. Melanchthon continued to be a leader, but Luther ensured that the movement would not make concessions to the Church. Lutheranism would become its own major denomination with some 70 million participants worldwide in 2005.

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