On this day in 1521, German theology professor, composer, priest and monk, Martin Luther, is excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church by Pope Leo X. This severed Luther from his own mother church, as in the text of Matthew 28:17, “And if he will not hear the church, let him be to thee as the heathen and publican.”
Luther studiously acquired this PNG status through rejecting several teachings and practices of the Roman Catholic Church. He strongly disputed the Catholic view on indulgences, that freedom from God’s punishment for sin could be purchased with money, and he proposed an academic discussion of the practice and efficacy of indulgences in his Ninety-five Theses of 1517. These were famously nailed to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, and caused quite a stir.
After excommunication, Luther was called to defend his beliefs before Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms, where he was famously defiant. For his refusal to recant his writings, the emperor declared him an outlaw and a heretic. Luther was protected by powerful German princes, however, and by his death in 1546, the course of Western civilization had been significantly altered.
To wit, Luther’s translation of the Bible into the German vernacular (instead of Latin) made it more accessible to the laity, an event that had a tremendous impact on both the church and German culture. It fostered the development of a standard version of the German language, added several principles to the art of translation, and influenced the writing of an English translation, the Tyndale Bible.
Ancillary to Luther’s efforts toward a new accessibility of faith, in 1524 large numbers of peasants in southwestern Germany staged a series of uprisings that were partly inspired by his reform proposals, though they also addressed long-standing economic and political grievances. By the spring of 1525 the rebellion, known as the Peasants’ War, had spread to much of central Germany. After the movement’s publication of a manifesto titled “The Twelve Articles of the Peasants,” which held that the uprising should be judged only by God and not by the nobility, Luther initially embraced, but then quickly eschewed the violence of the uprising.
Laying further cornerstones for the non-papalist faith, Luther’s hymns influenced the development of singing in Protestant churches. His marriage to Katharina von Bora, a former nun who had fled her convent, set a model for the practice of clerical marriage; prior to his vows to Katharina, Luther himself had declared that marriage was an honorable order of creation, and asserted the Roman Catholic Church’s insistence on clerical celibacy was the work of the Devil.
Closer and more recent study has revealed that in two of his later works, Luther expressed antagonistic views towards Jewry, writing that Jewish homes and synagogues should be destroyed, their money confiscated, and liberty curtailed. Condemned by virtually every Lutheran denomination, these statements and their influence on antisemitism have contributed to Luther’s continuing controversial status.
And here, the excommunication communication endeth.