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illuminated On 31 October 1517 Martin Luther (1483-1546) wrote a letter to his superiors mainly to express his unhappiness with the sale of indulgences.[1]
An indulgence, according to the Roman Catholic Church, is a means of remission of the temporal punishment for sins which have already been forgiven but are due to the Christian in this life and/or in purgatory. This punishment is most often in purgatory but can also be suffered in this life. An indulgence removes time needed to be spent in purgatory. There are two kinds of indulgences: partial and plenary. A partial indulgence removes part of the punishment of sins. A plenary indulgence removes all of the punishment of sins. Granting an indulgence of a certain number of days or years means that is how many days or years is removed from the time of punishment a person must undergo in purgatory.[2]

With the letter he added his 95 theses. With the theses Luther wanted to have certain changes made to the Catholic religion. He believed that some of the traditions, rites and rituals were not confirm with what was written in the Bible. The story that he nailed his 95 theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg is just a legend.[1]

This part from history is often seen as the start of the Reformation. However in previous years other movements existed like the Hussites, Lollards, Cathars and Waldensians. They also had different ideas to what the Church preached, but had been pressed down by the Church. Men like John Wycliffe (1330-1384) and Jan Hus (c1369-1415) preceded Luther, but their impact wasn’t as large as Luther. Although after their death, Wycliffe got his Bible, translated into English, published. And Hus’ death lead to a revolt in Bohemia until 1434 when peace was made and the Hussites were granted a slightly different communion (bread and wine vs only bread).[3]
Martin Luther

Luther sent one copy of the theses to Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz and Magdeburg, who checked it for heresy and informed Pope Leo X in Rome. The Pope ordered Luther to be questioned, which happened in October 1518 by papal legate Cardinal Cajetan. As Luther was not willing to recant, he was supposed to be arrested. However he managed to escape before that.

Within Germany Luther’s popularity grew strongly, mainly because of a recent invention, the printing press. The Theses got copied and reprinted and spread quickly all over Europe, mainly to Northern, Central and North Western Europe.

Also according to Luther, the ruler of a state can decide for himself which faith to follow. Many princes and kings of the various German states and kingdoms did do so and adopted Lutheranism as their state religion.

As he continued to publish more works, and also his stature was growing the Pope gave him one last chance to recant. In protest Luther burned the papal bull 'Decet Romanum Pontificem' with this message and that got him excommunicated by the Church on 3 January 1521.

Later, in April of the same year, during the Diet of Worms, the German Emperor Charles V who was a devoted Catholic, asked Luther again to recant, but again Luther refused. Therefore Charles V imposed an Imperial Act, which declared Luther to be an outlaw. On his way home, Luther was kidnapped. The kidnapping was a setup to allow Luther to disappear for a while. He ended up in Warburg under the assumed name of Junker Jörg. Prince Frederick the Wise of Saxony allowed the kidnapping and so was able to protect him. During the time in exile, Luther devoted himself to translate the New Testament into German.[1]


Desiderius Erasmus, born in Rotterdam on 28 October 1466, was a theologian and humanist. Erasmus also stood for a reformation of the Church. In June 1511 he published probably his most famous book 'The Praise of Folly'. In which he, in a satirical way, attacks the traditions of European society and the Catholic Church. In a way he is not happy with the current state of affairs, and by using humor is able to deliver his points without offending anybody.
It is said that by attacking the morality of the Church, although in a humorous way, he also laid part of the foundation of the Reformation.

in 1516 Erasmus had published his New Testament, both in Greek and Latin. He believed that the Editio Vulgata, made by Hiëronymus between 390-405AD and one the most important Bible translations, was not entirely correct. In 1546 the Editio Vulgata was considered as authentic during the Council of Trente. Not everybody was happy with Erasmus' translation as in those days the official church language was Latin, and not Greek. And when Luther used the Greek text as the basis for his translation of the New Testament into German, the Church blamed Erasmus for seeding the heresy. However his goal was never to create another schism in the Church, but rather to change the morality of the Church itself while keeping the unity within.

So even though both Luther and Erasmus seem to seek a reformation of the Church, they were both on the opposite side of the spectrum, they were miles apart. Furthermore Erasmus believed that every human has a free will and he was an advocate for peace.


At the same time in Switzerland another man, Huldrych Zwingli (1484-1531) used Erasmus' Greek New Testament while preaching. Over the years he also became convinced that one should follow the Scriptures rather than what the Pope and the Church would declare to be followed: 'If it can't be found in Bible, don't believe it and don't follow it'. For example he didn't believe in fasting, celibacy and also was against the decorations in a church.
This last part eventually ending up in removing all religious images from churches in Zurich. Even the church organs were removed, as music like art would only disrupt praying.
In 1523 Zwingli established the Prophezei (Carolinum) in Zurich, a school to train and educate the clergy.

Peasants War

In 1524-1525 there was a major revolt from the lower class in society, peasants, farmers and urban poor, against the nobility to demand more rights and freedom. The revolt started in Germany, spread to Austria and later to Switzerland. It was partly inspired by the just started Protestant Reformation. The peasants stated 12 articles for improvement of their situation, the Twelve Articles of Memmingen.

Luther initially supported the revolt, only after violence clashes requested a quick reaction by the nobility. However after the revolt was over, condemning the nobility again for their harsh, violent action and continuation of the suppression of the peasants.

In the end some 100,000 peasants were killed as they didn't have much chance against the well trained armies from the various nobility. When the revolt had ended not much would change for the peasants.[4]

Marburg Colloquy

During the Marburg Colloquy, which took place between 1 and 4 October 1529, Zwingli met with Luther. Philip I of Hesse had arranged this meeting with the goal to unite the protestant states in Germany and Switzerland in order to form a strong front against the Catholic Church and emperor Charles V.
Although both reformers agreed upon many things, there was one on which they couldn't reach agreement on, which is the Sacrament, and especially the sentence ‘hoc est corpus meum’. Luther believed that this means This is my body, whereas Zwingli sees it as This Signifies my body.[5]
Luther believed that Christ's body was present "in, with and under" the bread and wine. Zwingli believed the whole ceremony of communion was a memorial of Christ's death for us.

For your information, the Catholic Church's point of view is that the bread and wine are transformed into the literal body and blood of Christ.[6] During the council of Trente, the term Transubstantiation was introduced and the sacraments were reaffirmed.

Next Story: Counter Reformation
Read Again: Spanish Inquisition
Read Again: Medieval Inquisition

[1] https://www.luther.de/en/index.html
[2] https://carm.org/catholic/indulgences
[4] https://www.thoughtco.com/german-peasants-war-4150166
[5] https://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/the-reformation/the-marburg-colloquy/
[6] https://www.christianity.com/church/church-history/timeline/1501-1600/marburg-colloquy-failed-to-reach-consensus-11629947.html