Luther and the Beginnings of the Protestant Reform


The Tower experience: the moment in which Luther ‘sees’ that he is justified not through any works of his own but by faith in God.

Understanding the Context

Note:  The information contained in some of the recommended sites below sometimes overlaps with information on other sites. Often aspects of the Reformation other than simply its context and background are explored and some sites are more challenging than others. It is worthwhile to read several sites to get a grasp of the historical context and a variety of points of view.

The Lutheran religious reformation brought more than a series of reforms, it brought a revolution. These disruptions came about in a European setting that was ripe for change. Many factors—religious, intellectual, social, economic and political—contributed to the extraordinary transformation of European Christianity in the sixteenth century. Several sites can help you gain an appreciation of the circumstances in Europe prior to Luther’s dramatic intervention.

It is also important to recognise that there had been numerous efforts at reformation in the church prior to Luther. Some of these reformers remained within the church (for example Francis of Assisi, Dominic, Catherine of Siena in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries), while others, like the English priest John Wycliffe and the Czech, Jan Hus, were found to be heretical and were suppressed, sometimes even at the cost of their lives. Cardinal Ximenes in Spain and others in Northern Europe, like Erasmus and Thomas More, were also working for internal reform in the decades prior to the Lutheran reformation.

Another important influence on Medieval Europe was the impact of the plague during the 14th century. Because of the sheer scale of loss of life, fear of death and also a macabre fascination with it, had a pervasive influence on the popular imagination of people in Europe, including Luther himself.


A more detailed article entitled The Northern Renaissance and the Background of the Reformation is useful, especially for its discussion of the spread of Christian Humanism in Northern Europe. The second and third sections of this lecture would be useful later on as they discuss the influence of Luther’s thought, and the political considerations that led to the establishment of Protestantism in Northern Europe.


  • Do some research into how people learned in an era that had no radio or TV, no newspapers and no printed books. You might find some clues on these sites:
  1. Medieval architecture
  2. Education in Medieval Europe
  3. Schools/Universities
  4. The Medieval Child
  • Present your findings in a PowerPoint presentation or an illustrated pamphlet.
  • Make a poster that conveys the reasons that people were so preoccupied with death in the late Middle Ages. A useful site for visual inspiration could be images from Hans Holbein’s Dance of Death cycle published in Lyons in 1538.
  • Devise five or six ‘cutting edge’ questions and ‘interview’ one of the great Northern humanists—Erasmus or Thomas More. Try to use some actual quotations from them in their ‘answers’. Naturally this means reading some of their work.. (Hint: read what they have to say first—then frame your questions.)
  • List the five or six factors you think most important in giving rise to the Lutheran Reformation. Explain two of these in more detail.
  • Imagine you are a parish priest in a German village at the beginning of the sixteenth century. Use the background reading you have done to fill in a diary of a typical week in your parish. (The diary entries should show how the broader issues you have read about had an impact at a personal or local level. Keep in mind the level of education of your priest and his parishioners; how faithful your priest is to his task and his vows; where his income is obtained; the kind of pastoral care he provides; how the people fulfil their religious duties; their hopes and fears; festivals and religious celebrations that might occur during the week you have chosen; etc.)

Introducing the Personalities

A well set out and illustrated site entitled A Mighty Fortress is Our God tells Luther’s story in a way which allows a sense of his personality and his times to come through. It includes a timeline of his life and explores the legends which have grown up around his story.

Here is a link to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s Luther entry which gives a philosophical and theological background to Luther’s thought as well as the biographical facts.

Luther wrote prolifically throughout his life and his books and pamphlets reached large numbers of people throughout Europe because of the recently invented printing presses. Read his moving account of his moment of enlightenment—his realisation that it is first of all faith in God that justifies human beings rather than any good deeds they carry out.

There are many more biographies of Luther online, including, unfortunately, some from crudely anti-Lutheran stances and some from strongly anti-Catholic stances. Avoid any sites whose chief purpose is to stir up antagonism, dislike or distrust.


Other significant figures in the story of Luther are his parentsCharles V, the Holy Roman Emperor at the time; Leo X, the worldly Pope; the German prince Frederick, Elector of Saxony (electors were those seven whom, according to the constitution of the Holy Roman Empire, had the right to elect the Emperor); Johann Staupitz, Luther’s religious superior in the Augustinian order of Friars; the Dominican preacher and indulgence purveyor, Johann Tetzel, the Dominican preacher on Indulgences, whose arrival in Wittenberg precipitated Luther’s publication of his 95 theses; Cardinal Cajetan the papal legate; Johann Eck, a Catholic priest and theologian who debated with Luther; Katherina von Bora whom he married in 1525 and Philipp Melanchthon, his friend and the first Lutheran theologian.


  • Prepare a mime reflecting key moments in Luther’s life from the time he was a law student at Erfurt until he burned the papers excommunicating him. It might be accompanied by a brief spoken script outlining the bare bones of the story or by music which expresses the range of Luther’s state of mind and emotions.
  • Imagine you are Martin Luther. Make an annotated scrapbook of your life using portraits, maps and pictures. Sign it with your autograph (scroll through document to find reproduction of this). Sites already mentioned plus virtual tours of Wittenberg and Eisleben provide many possible images of people and places. Make sure your comments as Martin Luther stay in character.
  • Create a conversation between either:
  1. Martin Luther the monk and his religious superior Father John Staupitz, who are  sitting in Martin’s cell in 1515 discussing his religious difficulties.
  2. Pope Leo X and Cardinal Cajetan in the papal chambers in Rome in September 1518 just before Cajetan is sent to Augsburg to confront Luther and persuade him to recant.
  3. Frederick, Elector of Saxony and his secretary Georg Spalatin who, in 1519, are discussing the political advantages of supporting Luther against the Pope.
  4. Martin Luther and Katherina von Bora a month or so before they marry in 1524 discussing their plans to marry despite their religious vows.
  5. Lucas Cranach and Luther in Cranach’s studio in Wittenberg, chatting as Cranach paints the latter’s portrait in 1525.

Focusing on the Events

A simple but quite detailed timeline gives a bird’s eye view of significant moments in the unfolding of the Lutheran reformation. This timeline contains hyperlinks to illustrations and further articles.

The sale of indulgences was the trigger for Luther’s action in posting his 95 theses. An older, more detailed Catholic Encyclopedia article explains their meaning further and provides a context for how they were understood in Luther’s time. The sale of indulgences was an abuse forbidden by the church after the Reformation, but the concept of the indulgence as a way in which people, having  acknowledged their sins in confession, make up for the damage their own sins have done or for the sins of others by particular prayer or good works, is still part of Church practice.

There are many online editions of the 95 theses and other parts of Luther’s prolific output. The Wittenberg Project contains several significant documents. Many of these are challenging reading, but two shorter letters allow us to see Luther’s thoughts about the preaching of indulgences early on and also his response to the Pope’s intervention. They are addressed to the Archbishop of Mainz and Leo X respectively. The polite tone of these initial exchanges alters as the controversy gets underway. During 1520, Luther repeatedly denounces the authority of the Papacy. And eventually, the Pope condemns Luther’s theology and excommunicates him from the church in 1521.

Follow the rest of Luther’s story as it unfolds on a fine German site (translated into English) which sets out important turning points in Luther’s life and the growth of German Protestantism.

Another immensely influential aspect of Luther’s  writing was hymnody. His first hymn is a popular and succinct summary of his theology of justification by faith alone and also of the intense personal struggle he had undergone before finding peace. While the language of the hymns may sound archaic to us, it was through the hymns Luther wrote that his theology most directly touched the lives of the ordinary people of his time. Here is a site that helps to interpret primary historical sources will help you understand this hymn more effectively.

Treasures of the Saxony State Library contains some pictures and artefacts illuminating the period, which might be interesting to teachers and students. A series of maps of Europe show the changes that came over Europe from the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries.


  • Sort the following events of Luther’s life into chronological order, supplying dates:
  1. the imperial Diet of Worms
  2. Luther marries Katharina von Bora
  3. Luther meets with other reformers at Marburg
  4. The Peasant Wars
  5. Luther enters the Augustinian monastery
  6. Luther composes his 95 theses
  7. Luther in hiding at Wartburg
  8. the Augsburg Confession
  9. Luther begins Law studies at Erfurt
  10. publication of the Bible in German
  11. Luther is excommunicated.
  • Choose a couple of scenes from Luther’s life to re-enact. Make sure you research the different points of view and emotions carefully.
  • On an outline map of Germany fill in the towns of Wittenberg, Eisleben, Torgau, Leipzig, Erfurt, Eisenach, Marburg, Worms, Mainz. Around your map draw medallions containing cartoons of an event in Luther’s story associated with each place.
  • Produce a Luther crossword or wordsearch.
  • Write a series of short obituaries for Martin Luther from the point of view of:
  1. his wife Katharina
  2. Catholic reformer Ignatius of Loyola
  3. his friend Justus Jonas
  4. the Emperor Charles V
  5. the painter Lucas Cranach
  6. yourself

or a longer obituary from one of the above.

  • How do these obituaries compare with what Luther’s friend and pastor, Johann Bugenhagen, said about him in the actual eulogy at Luther’s funeral?
  • Make a simple model of Wartburg Castle. Explain the importance of the Castle in Luther’s story, especially:
  1. Why he was there.
  2. Who arranged refuge for him there
  3. How long he remained there?
  4. What work he undertook there?


  • Look carefully at the Cranach prints. Click on a site that helps you interpret historical sources (which include pictures) and say what the two pictures are about, noticing what the artist wants us to think and feel about what he is portraying.
  • Listen to a recording of Luther’s first hymn. The tune, as well as the words, is available online. It is a simple metrical hymn – class members who are music students could easily help the class learn to play and sing it. Notice how it is partly autobiographical and partly an expression of Luther’s belief about God. Luther wrote both the words and the hymn tune. He was a gifted musician and awakened the love of music in his Evangelical Church.
  • While the language and music of this hymn was very appealing to the people of Luther’s time it can sound old fashioned to us. How could you rewrite it in contemporary language and music to make it more appealing to twenty-first century Christians?

Examining the Consequences

The History Guide takes a slightly longer range look at the immense impact of Lutheranism on German society, noting the effect of these events and persons on history, politics and society of the time. A noteworthy social and political consequence was the Peasant Uprising of 1525.

One of the significant religious results of the new movement was the response of the Catholic church itself. Although there had been calls from within the church for reform in head and members in the centuries prior to the Protestant Reformation, it wasn’t until the church began to lose adherents in great numbers as a result of the teachings of Luther and other reformers, such as Zwingli and Calvin that the papacy was stung into action. The result was the calling of the Council of Trent convened in three sessions between 1545 and 1563, which rejected the teaching of the Protestant reformers, Luther included, but instigated widespread reform within the Catholic Church itself.

An article on the consequences of the Reformation summarises some of the results of the religious upheaval of the sixteenth century. The most severe consequence was the division of Western Christianity into two largely hostile camps, Catholic and Protestant, which, until the mid twentieth century, took great pains to proclaim their differences while ignoring their agreements. Hence Catholics set a great deal of store on the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, while the Protestant churches of the Reformation (splintered into many smaller denominations and sects) emphasised the authority of scripture. Protestants also emphasised the sufficiency of justification by faith while the Catholic church preached the necessity of both faith and good works. Catholics interpreted ‘good works’ to mean participation in the sacraments and in works of mercy.

The division of the Western Church still exists, though much of the hostility has vanished as a result of ecumenical initiatives since the mid twentieth century.


  • Invite a Lutheran minister/layperson to your class to speak with you about Luther and the Reformation in Germany.
  • Use the work you have done in this unit to prepare some formal questions about:
  1. Luther himself
  2. the need for reform of the Church in his time
  3. the way the reforms quickly became a Reformation
  4. the role of non-religious factors in reshaping the churches
  5. the Lutheran Church in Australia

as well as chatting informally with him or her. If you have learnt a Lutheran hymn it might be very appropriate to sing this together at the conclusion of the meeting.

Exploring the Impact in Our Own Time

The impact of the Reformation movements, Lutheran and others, is still obvious today. The division of the Western church into Protestant and Catholic branches is the most obvious effect. Lacking internal authority, the Protestant movement divided into many groups even within the lifetimes of the sixteenth century reformers, and hundreds, indeed thousands, of Protestant denominations exist in the twenty-first century.

However, the persecutions, hatred and ill-feeling of earlier centuries have largely disappeared. The Catholic Church and the various reformed traditions, especially since the middle of the twentieth century, are more concerned with what they have in common than with what divides them. Most Catholics, who regret the doctrinal divisions of the Reformation and the wounds of disunity, still agree that the Church of the later Middle Ages was in need of both external and internal reform. The Protestant movement inspired by Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and others provided the spur to that reform.

Specifically, in relation to the Lutheran tradition, the 1997 Joint Declaration made a statement of common agreement on the doctrine of justification which was the key point of disagreement between Luther and the Catholic Church of his time. In 1999 a Lutheran-Catholic Pact was signed in Augsburg on 31 October, the anniversary of the posting of the 95 theses by Luther in 1517. reports on preparations for this, and an article on the American Catholic site discusses its implications.

The sadness is that the separation in tradition over the past 500 years has meant that issues other than theological ones: historical divisions and wounds, difffering traditions and customs and worship forms, now divide the church. Hopefully, continued dialogue and efforts to work cooperatively together and become better Christians will enable eventual unity.

An article in the National Catholic Reporter reports on Pope Benedict’s visit to his native Germany in 2011 and discusses both some of the agreements and some differing emphases between Catholic and Lutheran theologies.


  • The Luther Rose, Luther’s personal seal, is a pictorial summary of his theology. Read his explanation of this symbol. Is there anything a Catholic would disagree with in his words?
  • Use the Tips and Tricks Geometry page to construct a personal seal for yourself, or for one of the other characters in the story of Luther.
  • What do you think would have happened in the history of the Church if Martin Luther had not challenged the religious leaders of the time with his writings and preaching? Would other reformers have brought about similar restructuring? Compare what actually happened with what might have happened if events had unfolded in a different way. How might the political landscape be changed? How would our religious beliefs, liturgy and church life be different? Would our school and family life be different?

Make an ecumenical gesture:

  1. write to students at a Lutheran school, mentioning something of what you have learnt and inviting them to write back
  2. organise a visit to a Lutheran school
  3. arrange a joint project with a Lutheran welfare organisation
  4. exchange email and website details with a Lutheran school in Germany (or perhaps a Lutheran school in South Australia). You might be able to send photographs/reports of some of your projects and presentations as well as exchanging personal information.
  • Organise a class debate on the topic: ‘Was the Lutheran Reformation a good thing?’