The Birth of Protestantism: The First Great Media Event of the Early Modern Period

The Reformation by Martin Luther was a movement in the 16th century that arose from perceived abuses and discrepancies by the Catholic Church and led to the birth of Protestantism.

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Who Was Martin Luther?

German monk and theologian Martin Luther (1483-1546) was one of the most significant figures in Christian history in the 16th century. The publication of his Ninety-five Theses was the impetus for the Reformation.

Luther, Martin Life (1520)LIFE Photo Collection

Indulgences and Salvation Controversy

Luther was opposed to what he saw as the abuse of the clergy in promoting the purchase of a Letter of Indulgence for the forgiveness and repentance of sins; insisting that the Pope had no authority over purgatory and that the Treasury of Merit (Treasury of the Church) had no foundation in the Bible.

A single-leaf print of the Ninety-Five Theses, page 3 (20th century) by Martin LutherUNESCO Memory of the World

Ninety-Five Theses

The Ninety-five Theses is a list of propositions written by Luther in 1517 responding to the indulgences and salvation controversy, stating that in order for sins to be forgiven internal spiritual repentance rather than external sacramental confession is required.

A single-leaf print of the Ninety-Five Theses, page 1 (20th century) by Martin LutherUNESCO Memory of the World

Explanation of Ninety-Five Theses

Luther reasoned that Indulgences caused Christians to avoid true repentance and remorse for sins by believing that they could simply buy an Indulgence instead. He claimed that this discouraged Christians from performing acts of mercy that were more spiritually valuable.

A single-leaf print of the Ninety-Five Theses, page 2 (20th century) by Martin LutherUNESCO Memory of the World

Undercurrent of Church Reform

Although Luther intended theTheses to be subservient to the Pope and the church there was an undercurrent of reform. Luther began to formulate theological positions that caused him to part ways with the church. The Reformation started with the Theses publication.

Luther Martin Diet Of Worms 1521LIFE Photo Collection

The Edict of Worms

Although the Reformation was started in 1517, Luther wasn’t excommunicated by Pope Leo X until January 1521 by The Edict of Worms , which condemned him and officially banned all citizens of the Holy Roman Empire from defending or propagating his ideas.

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What Did Reformation Give Rise To?

It was a major movement within Christianity in 16th-century that posed a religious and political challenge to the Catholic Church and papal authority. It arose from what were perceived to be errors, abuses, and discrepancies by the Catholic Church. It gave rise to Protestantism.

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Reformation's Position

Its core position was that the Bible is the main source of religious authority and that salvation is achieved through faith and not deeds, which is the core of Protestantism. It fractioned the Catholic Church into three parts: Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, and Eastern Orthodoxy.

Luther, Martin WartburgLIFE Photo Collection

What Are Documents Representing the Reformation?

These Documents (1483-1546) represent the beginning and the early development of the Reformation that Luther initiated and that spread from Wittenberg far beyond the German empire of his time and well beyond his own epoch. 

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Why Are Reformation Documents Important?

They record how a religious impetus focused on the revision of traditional positions gradually developed into larger societal and political phenomenon that made an impact throughout the world. They also show the transition from manuscript to print media.

Autograph letter (20th century) by Martin LutherUNESCO Memory of the World

Types of Reformation Documents

The Reformation Documents include: Luther’s correspondence, lectures on the Psalms, translation of bible, principal writings of the Reformation, hymns, letters, etc.

Martin Luther verbrandt de pauseijke bul (1783) by Vinkeles, Reinier (I)Rijksmuseum

1. Martin Luther’s Lectures on the Psalms from 1513–1515

During the early stages of his “evangelical orientation” Luther practiced the Late Medieval mode of lecturing. It shows how he worked with biblical texts and his new hermeneutical approach, which led his innovative way of dealing with religious norms.

Martin Luther’s German translation of the New Testament (20th century) by Martin LutherUNESCO Memory of the World

2. German Translation of the New Testament by Martin Luther

The September Testament, the German translation of the New Testament, was enormously significant. It was ground-breaking in its linguistic form, increased accessibility, artistic framework (rendered by Lukas Cranach), the formation of a Protestant piety in everyday life, and its long-term impact.

Hand-colored woodcut illustration to the Book of Revelation, page ee 4v (20th century) by Martin LutherUNESCO Memory of the World

3. On the Freedom of a Christian

On the Freedom of a Christian represents the chief writings of the Reformation of 1520, in which Luther systematically unfolded his ideas regarding Christian freedom and the dualism between freedom and the boundlessness of the individual. Its impact continues today.

The Indulgences; or, The Ninety-Five Propositions (1869) by Unknown and Pierre-Antoine LabouchèreThe J. Paul Getty Museum

4. Sermon on the Indulgence and Grace

Luther’s reformational ideas gained wide-spread popularity via his Sermon on the Indulgence and Grace pamphlet, which contains a proto-formulation of his evangelical understanding of the sinner in God’s sight. This homily exhibits how the new reformational teaching was spread.

Spiritual songs and psalms (1569) by Martin LutherNational and University Library of Slovenia

5. Hymn – Spiritual Song of Psalms

The hymn "Rejoice, Dear Christians One and All"  offered a summary of reformational teaching and opened the door for printed hymnals as the basis for congregational singing. Singing became an activity through which new ideas were proclaimed and simultaneously appropriated.

Luther, Martin Life (1520)LIFE Photo Collection

6. New Formation of the Educational System

In his treatise An Open Letter to the City Council Members of German Towns, 1524 , Luther urged politicians to take the education of children seriously and to not neglect the philological studies of pastors, laying the foundation for education reform.

Luther, Martin Life (1520)LIFE Photo Collection

7. German Mass – a New Order for the Liturgy

Luther created his German Mass (1525-1526), a new order for the liturgy, based on seeing rites and ceremonies as externals to be freely shaped. It held that reading, singing, preaching, and praying should involve active participation in the service of worship. 

Martin Luther’s German translation of the New Testament (20th century) by Martin LutherUNESCO Memory of the World

Gutenberg's Printing Press

The transition from manuscript to print media, via the Gutenberg's printing press, was a key impetus for the Reformation. It drew attention to the application of various media and modes of communication to influence the masses and inspire and mobilize of the public.

Reformation centenary broadsheet (1617/1617)British Museum

First Great Media Event of the Early Modern Period

The Reformation was the first great media event of the Early Modern period. It used all the literary genres and means of communication at hand and was able to have a continuing effect over a long period of time, moving beyond geographical and cultural boundaries. 

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How Did the Reformation Impact the World and Present Day?

The Reformation’s influence called into question traditional structures and had tremendous power in shaping societies in the Early Modern period and even the present. Protestant spirituality bears the marks of the German Mass to this day.

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