The Protestant Reformation was shaped by many people over many years, but came into focus when a monk named Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg church in 1517. Luther was a Catholic priest who was upset at the widespread corruption he observed within the ecclesiarchy, most notably the sale of “indulgences” that promised postmortem forgiveness of sins for deceased loved ones.
Outside Luther’s Germany, similar “protest” movements were helmed by people like John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Knox. Beyond protesting corruption in the church, the emerging “protestant” movement challenged many of the theological teachings of the Roman Catholic church. The reformers believed that Scripture alone—not human traditions or the rulings of a church—held complete authority for Christians (see “sola scriptura”), and that salvation was a free gift of God that could not be earned by good deeds. The widespread publication and distribution of Bibles—indeed, the fact that all of us can afford and freely read the Bible ourselves—is one of the most enduring legacies of the Reformation.
The century following the Protestant Reformation was a chaotic and violent time, but the reform movements survived to form the basis of today’s Protestant denominations. Protestants owe a debt of gratitude to the many reformers who risked (and in some cases, lost) their lives rebuilding the church. And non-Protestant Christians can appreciate the reformers for confronting corruption in the church, even if they don’t agree with all of Protestant theology. So today, pause for a few minutes amidst the Halloween festivities to remember this pivotal moment in church history.