There is no evidence that an Augustine monk named Martin Luther, unhappy with a popular fundraising tool of the Catholic Church, actually nailed his list of complaints — the famous “95 Theses” — to the door of the All Saints’ Church at Wittenburg exactly 500 years ago. He never claimed to have done so, and the story wasn’t circulated until after his death.

We do know that he distributed them in a letter dated Oct. 31, 1517, to the archbishop, listing his 95 criticisms about the enthusiasm with which the church was selling indulgences.

An indulgence was a piece of paper that, for instance, shortened the time that had to be spent in purgatory. The church had been vigorously selling them to raise money to rebuild the St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.


This bothered Luther a lot, not because he was so liberal, but because he was so pious. He prayed, he fasted, he flagellated himself. Luther was getting to heaven the hard way, and it galled him that a rich man could just loosen his purse strings, dig out a few coins, and cut in line.

“The treasures of indulgences are nets that are now used to fish for the wealth of people,” reads thesis No. 66.

You can see an actual indulgence — from Pope Sixtus IV, raising money for an expedition against the Turks — on display at the Newberry Library in a fascinating exhibit, “Religious Change and Print: 1450-1700,” that runs through Dec. 27.

Martin Luther sparks the Reformation by complaining against indulgences, which were documents issued by the Catholic Church that allowed, for a fee, accomplishments usually only gained through prayer and repentance, such as cutting time in Purgatory. This indulgence, from Sixtus IV, was to fund a war against Turkey. | Courtesy of the Newberry Library

The show connects the beginning of the Reformation to the rise of printing, beginning with a leaf from the Gutenberg Bible. The publication of a Bible using moveable type, we tend to forget, was itself a radical act, moving the Holy Scriptures from hand-copied, vastly expensive work owned by churches, into mass-produced, less-expensive reading material that could eventually find its way into the hands of regular people, who could then fancy themselves free to not only read it, but to analyze and dispute what was within. Soon those people were printing books of their own, plus pamphlets and broadsheets. Printing and heresy went hand-in-hand.

“They’re very closely connected,” said David Spadafora, president of the Newberry. “Print right away becomes a very important medium for people like Luther to get their views out to a wider public than could possibly otherwise have received them.”

The Reformation, as Luther’s protest became known, was not the first break in the Catholic Church — branches had been shearing off since the 1st century, with the Great Schism of 1054 perhaps even more significant, leading to the East and West divisions.

But Luther’s schism gained momentum quickly with the help of printing and the desire of the faithful to take more control of their spiritual lives. Protestantism became important in the march toward modernity, a journey that saw God move from something defined by priests and manifested through relics and miracles, into something practiced by individuals. God went from living in the church to living in your heart.

After Luther, “faith could not be coerced, and secular powers could not legislate in the spiritual sphere,” writes Euan Cameron, professor of Reformation Church History at Union Theological Seminary in New York.

Though not for lack of trying. The Catholic Church was quick to push back against Luther. Pope Leo excommunicated him in 1520, amid general cranking up of repression, as noted in the Newberry’s exhibit, in one of the sharper sentences I’ve read on a museum wall:

“No institution better encapsulates the official goals and approaches of the Catholic Church to regulation than the Inquisition.”

Half a millennium ago, remember. They did get better. Because repression only works until it doesn’t; then it fuels the fires it’s trying to extinguish. “Lutheran” was first used as a slight by Catholic authorities trying to emphasize the human, as opposed to divine, source of these new ideas.

Luther himself did not want want to name his movement for himself — he wanted his followers to simply call themselves “Christians.”

Martin Luther became famous after his Ninety-Five Theses were made public in 1517, which explains his prominent portrait on the title page of his 1520, “De captivitate Babylonica ecclesiae,” or “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church.” | Courtesy of the Newberry Library

“After all,” he wrote, “the teaching is not mine. Neither was I crucified for anyone.”

Not to give Luther too much credit. Once he started questioning Church authority, Luther was surprised and aghast to find people started questioning him.

“Definitely,” said Spadafora. “That’s one of the reasons why on the one hand, Luther really wanted to put Bibles in people’s hands, on the other hand, he came to realize they were doing interpretation much more individualistically than even he felt comfortable with.” (Nor was Luther, a fervent anti-Semite, comfortable with Jews, but that’s a topic for a different day).

One lesson, in our own time of shifting values and communications upheaval, is the importance of talking to people in the way they want to be spoken to.

“Luther very cannily begins to use German, begins to use the vernacular and makes sure a lot of his materials are printed in the vernacular,” said Spadafora, “vernacular” meaning “common speech.”

“Whereas the Catholic church is relatively slow to respond in the vernacular way. They lose the battle over the argument because they are slower and appealing in Latin to a different audience,” Spadafora said. “We see this in social media all the time.”

STEINBERG: Art in Chicago? ‘You’re surrounded by it everywhere’
STEINBERG: ‘Don Quixote’ ripped from the headlines?
STEINBERG: Before we can hope for gun control, we need empathy

Today the Catholic Church still dominates Christianity, at least numerically: 1.2 billion Catholics, compared to about 900 million Protestants. Since both groups tend to view Muslim sectarian bloodshed, say between Sunni and Shia, as representing that faith’s inherent violence, it might be useful to remind them that modern scholars estimate that 50 million Christians were killed by one another in the centuries of Reformation and Counter-Reformation struggles that followed Luther’s brash act.

That schism has somewhat healed — last year Pope Francis formally apologized for the Catholic side of the slaughter, and the Catholic Church and various Protestant denominations have signed agreements within the past decade recognizing the legitimacy of each other’s baptisms.

The Newberry has various podcasts and displays on its website about the anniversary, and is holding a number of programs. On Nov. 1, Martin Marty, a noted religious scholar who lives in Chicago, and whose recent book is titled, “October 31, 1517: Martin Luther and the Day that Changed the World,” will deliver a lecture on “Luther and the Reformation: 500 Years of Book-Burning and Book-Learning” at the Newberry Library, 60 W. Walton St. Admission is free.