31st October marks Reformation Day, a Protestant Christian religious holiday in remembrance of the onset of the religious Reformation in the sixteenth century. This day was chosen as it is widely held to be the day that Martin Luther, in 1517, nailed his 95 theses to the door of his church in Wittenberg.
Wittenberg Church Door
Martin Luther was a monk who taught at a Catholic university in Wittenberg, located in present day Germany. Like many others at the time he felt that the Catholic Church had strayed from its mission and had become too corrupt to provide spiritual guidance to people. Among the practices he opposed in the Catholic Church was the selling of indulgences, which were exemptions from spiritual punishment for lesser sins such as coveting thy neighbour’s wife. This system of paying for exemptions from penance and paying for monks to pray on your behalf had led to a culture where people no longer focussed on their own behaviour as the source of their spiritual salvation. Luther created his 95 theses hoping to spark debate within the church about these issues, however when they were printed and distributed to the masses their reach went far beyond the church. His words spread across Europe sparking debate in all sectors of society which led to the Reformation and the split in the Christian church.
The words of Luther and his supporters had made it to England by the early 1520s but it wasn’t until the 1530s that they had a substantive impact on the nation. Because of factors such as financial need, and his desire for a divorce from Catherine of Aragon, Henry decided that a split from Rome would be the answer to his problems and made a decision that would divide the nation for centuries to come. As part of his new church he dissolved the monasteries, which he saw as a symbol of the Roman hold on the country, and stripped them of their wealth. Westminster Abbey, which was at that time a monastery, was saved from this fate and was instead changed to be a cathedral church with a bishop and a dean. It is likely its longstanding history as the Coronation church saved it from the destruction which befell so many sites.
The Reformation in Europe was a very divisive movement which led to violence and destruction across the continent. Despite this, it still had an important role in shaping religion and society for generations to come by making spiritual teachings more accessible to those outside of the church.
As this year marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, a special service will be held on 31st October in Westminster Abbey, to be followed by a symposium in St Margaret’s Church. To find out more about these special events please visit the Westminster Abbey website.
To find our more about the Reformation and the role that Martin Luther played in it you can purchase our selection of books on the subject, available online and in store.