Reformation still divisive, 500 years on

Hammered home: The door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg served as a university bulletin board.

Was the Reformation a mistake? Forget Halloween — tomorrow marks 500 years since one of the biggest events in history: Martin Luther triggering the split between Catholics and Protestants.

Tomorrow is the 500th anniversary of the day when a frustrated monk named Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of his church. In doing so, he sparked a revolution that is still being felt today.

In 1517, the Catholic Church was the dominant power in Europe. But Luther felt that it had become greedy and corrupt. He hated the idea of “indulgences”, payments to the church that were said to help people get to heaven. His theses argued that this was wrong, and called for reform.

His ideas spread through Europe like wildfire. Soon he was excommunicated, and the Catholic church split in two. In 1534, he published a translation of the Bible in German, and Henry VIII declared that England would become Protestant.

The consequences of all this were huge. Protestants and Catholics were burned at the stake. Up to 12m people died in the Thirty Years War. More recently, thousands of Catholics and Protestants died in the conflict in Northern Ireland.

But the Reformation also launched a wave of creativity. The vernacular Bible taught many ordinary people to read and think for themselves. This led to the enlightenment, the founding of the USA, and perhaps even the industrial revolution.

Was it all worth it?

I got 95 problems

Of course, say some. The Reformation’s effects were not always pretty, but it led to the world we live in today. Without it, the Catholic church would have had too much power over Europe, and may never have faced up to its problems. Tomorrow should be a day of celebration.

For many Christians, it is not so simple. The Bible says that Jesus’s followers should be “one”, but they are not. And perhaps the industrial revolution would have happened sooner under Catholicism, without wars getting in the way. Tomorrow should be a time to reflect on how to heal.

You Decide

  1. Was the Reformation a mistake?


  1. As a class, list as many differences between Catholicism and Protestantism as you can think of. Then discuss: will the two sides ever be reconciled?

Some People Say...

“To go against conscience is neither right nor safe.”

Martin Luther

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Tomorrow, “Reformation Day” will be a national holiday in Germany. Last year, Pope Francis said that he hoped the churches could move “beyond the controversies and disagreements that have often prevented us from understanding one another”.
What do we not know?
Whether the talk about reuniting the churches will ever come to fruition. There is disagreement about much of Christianity.

Word Watch

95 Theses
A document with 95 arguments about the Catholic Church.
Banished from the Catholic church.
Thirty Years War
1618-1648, with roots in the religious strife.
Northern Ireland
“The Troubles”, 1968-1998, were not an official war, but a conflict between Protestant loyalists and Catholic republicans.
The language of the ordinary people. Until the Reformation, the Bible was only published in Latin, the language of the educated minority.
The 17th-18th century flourishing of philosophy, reason and science.

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