Lutheran Church History

Learn How Lutheran History Changed the Face of Christianity

Lutheran Church History
Portrait of Martin Luther (1483-1546). Leemage / Getty Images

What began as an effort in Germany to reform the Roman Catholic Church escalated to a rift between that church and the reformers, becoming a division that would change the face of Christianity forever.

Lutheran Church History Originates in Martin Luther

Martin Luther, a friar and theology professor in Wittenburg, Germany, was especially critical of the Pope's use of indulgences to build St. Peter's basilica in Rome in the early 1500s.

Indulgences were official church documents that could be purchased by common people to supposedly eliminate their need to stay in purgatory after they died. The Catholic Church taught that purgatory was a place of cleansing where believers atoned for their sins before going on to heaven.

Luther distilled his criticism into the Ninety-Five Theses, a list of complaints he publicly nailed to the Castle Church door in Wittenburg, in 1517. He challenged the Catholic Church to debate his points.

But indulgences were an important source of revenue for the church, and Pope Leo X was not open to debating them. Luther appeared before a church council but refused to take back his statements.

In 1521, Luther was excommunicated by the church. Holy Roman emperor Charles V declared Luther a public outlaw. Eventually a bounty would be put on Luther's head.

Unique Situation Helps Luther

Two unusual developments allowed Luther's movement to spread.

First, Luther was a favorite of Frederick the Wise, prince of Saxony. When the Pope's soldiers tried to hunt Luther down, Frederick hid and protected him. During his time in seclusion, Luther kept busy by writing.

The second development that allowed the Reformation to catch fire was the invention of the printing press.

Luther translated the New Testament into German in 1522, making it accessible to common people for the first time. He followed that with the Pentateuch in 1523. During his lifetime, Martin Luther produced two catechisms, dozens of hymns, and a flood of writings that set forth his theology and explained key sections of the Bible.

By 1525, Luther had married a former nun, conducted the first Lutheran worship service, and ordained the first Lutheran minister. Luther did not want his name used for the new church; he proposed calling it Evangelical. Catholic authorities coined "Lutheran" as a derogatory term but Luther's followers wore it as a badge of pride.

Reformation Begins to Spread

English reformer William Tyndale met with Luther in 1525. Tyndale's English translation of the New Testament was secretly printed in Germany. Eventually 18,000 copies were smuggled into England.    

In 1529, Luther and Philip Melanchthon, a Lutheran theologian, met with Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli in Germany but could not reach an agreement on the Lord's Supper. Zwingli died two years later on a Swiss battlefield. A detailed statement of Lutheran doctrine, the Augsburg Confession, was read before Charles V in 1530.

By 1536, Norway had become Lutheran and Sweden made Lutheranism its state religion in 1544.

Martin Luther died in 1546. For the next several decades, the Roman Catholic Church attempted to stamp out Protestantism, but by then Henry VIII had established the Church of England and John Calvin had started the Reformed Church in Geneva, Switzerland.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, European and Scandinavian Lutherans began to migrate to the New World, establishing churches in what would become the United States. Today, due to missionary efforts, Lutheran congregations can be found throughout the world.

'Father of the Reformation'

Even though Luther is called the Father of the Reformation, he has also been dubbed the Reluctant Reformer. His early objections to Catholicism focused on abuses: selling indulgences, buying and selling of high church offices, and the relentless politics involved with the papacy.

He did not intend to split from the Catholic Church and start a new denomination.

However, as he was forced to defend his positions over the next several years, Luther eventually hammered out a theology that was at non-negotiable odds with Catholicism. His doctrine that salvation came by grace through faith in the atoning death of Jesus Christ, and not by works, became a pillar of several Protestant denominations. He rejected the papacy, all but two of the sacraments, any redemptive power for the virgin Mary, praying to saints, purgatory, and celibacy for clergy.

Most importantly, Luther made the Bible -- "sola scriptura" or Scripture alone -- the only authority for what Christians are to believe, a model nearly all Protestants follow today. The Catholic Church, in contrast, holds that teachings of the Pope and church bear the same weight as Scripture.

Over the centuries, Lutheranism itself has divided into dozens of sub-denominations, and today it covers the spectrum from ultra-conservative to ultra-liberal branches.

(Sources: Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions, Concordia Publishing House; bookofconcord.org, reformation500.csl.edu)