Monday Morning Brief | Martin Luther and the Reformation

Oct 30, 2017, 4 AM

Scott catalog new-issues editor Marty Frankevicz discusses recent stamps that honor the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation begun by Martin Luther on Oct. 31, 1517.

Full Video Transcript:

Good morning and welcome to the Monday Morning Brief for October 30, 2017.

October 31, 2017, marks the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation begun by Martin Luther.

Stamps to remember Luther’s stand were produced earlier in 2017 by the land of Luther, Germany, as well as Austria, Belgium, Hungary, Lithuania, Iceland and Brazil. Predominantly Roman Catholic Poland and Italy also created stamps noting the Reformation and a Reformation stamp is on the 2017 schedule for Vatican City, perhaps to be issued later this year.

While the Reformation was a significant event in world history, Christianity had undergone splits in the past. Schisms in earlier centuries brought forth a church based in Rome and a church based in Constantinople. And later, for a period, the Roman church had three men claiming to be the pope.

In the age of Luther, the Roman church was carrying out inquisitions in Spain, and the church had little tolerance for dissent. An English priest, John Wycliffe, had numerous issues with church doctrine which he complained about until his death in 1384. In 1415, the church declared him a heretic and banned his writings. But that wasn’t enough, so in 1428, they exhumed his body and burnt it.

And then there was Jan Hus, a Bohemian priest, who in 1415 made a stink about the granting of indulgences – the remission of punishment in purgatory – in exchange for money. He, too, was declared a heretic. But, unlike Wycliffe, they didn’t wait for Hus to die before burning his body. They did it when he was still alive.

About one hundred years later, in Saxony, Johann Tetzel was busy selling indulgences as the Grand Commissioner for Indulgences. Some of the proceeds were sent to Rome to help build St. Peter’s Basilica and some went to Tetzel’s boss, the Archbishop of Mainz, to defray the costs of obtaining the position of archbishop. Tetzel’s aggressive marketing put forth claims that a freshly bought indulgence could even be used towards remitting punishment for sins not yet committed.

When local Catholic vicar Martin Luther caught wind of that tale, it didn’t sit well with his understanding of Catholic theology. So Luther decided to jot down some choice comments about selling indulgences and other things that didn’t mesh with his training.

It is said that Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg on Oct. 31, 1517. The nailing may be apocryphal, but it is certain that he sent those choice comments to that same Archbishop of Mainz on that day. Thesis 86 asked why a rich pope was building the basilica of St. Peter with the money of poor believers rather than his own money. Though conflict with Rome was not what Luther sought, it’s what he got.

His theses were written originally in Latin, the language of the church. But Luther translated them into German. With the help of a new invention called the printing press, copies of Luther’s theses were distributed all over Germany and Europe in 1518.

A 1520 papal bull threatened Luther with excommunication if he didn’t quickly recant his writings. He refused to do so and ratcheted up the tension by burning the edict in public.

Luther was excommunicated in early 1521. Weeks later, he was brought before the Diet of Worms, the imperial authorities who would try him and mete out any punishment. He was found guilty of heresy, and his writings banned. But he was allowed to return home briefly before being officially arrested. However, on his way home, he was spirited away by Prince Frederick III, elector of Saxony, who brought him to Wartburg Castle to protect him.

At the castle, Luther began work on a German translation of the New Testament, which the printing press made accessible to lay people in 1522, and later wrote catechisms to educate the clergy and the laity about his theology for his new Lutheran church. His teachings spread, and religious reformers in other countries began to find their voices.

For Linn’s Stamp News and the Scott catalogs, I’m Marty Frankevicz. Enjoy your week in stamps.