Opinion

On the Reformation’s 500th anniversary, remembering Martin Luther’s contribution to literacy

Plastic statuettes of 16th-century Protestant reformer Martin Luther, which are part of the art installation "Martin Luther - I'm standing here" by German artist Ottmar Hoerl, are pictured in the main square in Wittenberg, eastern Germany, on Aug. 11, 2010. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-LUTHERAN-JEWS, originally transmitted on Nov. 17, 2016.

(The Conversation) This year marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s famous 95 theses, which helped spark the founding of the Reformation and the division of Christianity into Protestantism and Catholicism. The Conversation

Martin Luther, founder of Germany’s Protestant (Lutheran) Church, nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany, on Oct. 31, 1517. RNS file photo

The 95 theses critiqued the church’s sale of indulgences, which Luther regarded as a form of corruption. By Luther’s time, indulgences had evolved into payments that were said to reduce punishment for sins. Luther believed that such practices only interfered with genuine repentance and discouraged people from giving to the poor. One of Luther’s most important theological contributions was the “priesthood of all believers,” which implied that clerics possessed no more dignity than ordinary people.

Less known is the crucial role Luther played in making the case for ordinary people to read often and well. Unlike the papacy and its defenders, who were producing their writings in Latin, Luther reached out to Germans in their mother tongue, substantially enhancing the accessibility of his written ideas.

In my teaching of philanthropy, Luther’s promotion of literacy is one of the historic events I often discuss with my students.

Luther’s 95 Theses.
Keren Tan, CC BY-SA

Early years

Born in Germany in 1483, Luther followed the wishes of his father to study law. Once, while caught in a terrible thunderstorm, he vowed that if he were saved, he would become a monk.

Indeed, Luther later joined the austere Augustinian order, and became both a priest and a doctor of theology. Later he developed objections to many church practices. He protested the promotion of indulgences, the buying and selling of clerical privileges, and the accumulation of substantial wealth by the church while peasants barely survived. Legend has it that on Oct. 31, 1517, Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, the town where he was based.


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He was branded an outlaw for refusing to recant his teachings. In 1521, Pope Leo X excommunicated Luther from the Roman Church. His patron, Frederick of Saxony, saved Luther from further reprisal and had him taken in secret to a castle, where he remained for two years.

It was during that time that Luther produced an immensely influential translation of the New Testament into German.

Impact of Luther’s writing

Gutenberg’s earlier introduction of the printing press in 1439 made possible the rapid dissemination of Luther’s works throughout much of Europe, and their impact was staggering.

Luther’s collected works run to 55 volumes. It is estimated that between 1520 and 1526, some 1,700 editions of Luther’s works were printed. Of the six to seven million pamphlets printed during this time, more than a quarter were Luther’s works, many of which played a vital role in propelling the reformation forward.

Thanks to Luther’s translation of the Bible, it became possible for German-speaking people to stop relying on church authorities and instead read the Bible for themselves.

Luther argued that ordinary people were not only capable of interpreting the scriptures for themselves, but that in doing so they stood the best chance of hearing God’s word. He wrote,

“Let the man who would hear God speak read Holy Scripture.”

Luther’s Bible helped form a common German dialect. Prior to Luther, people from different regions of present-day Germany often experienced great difficulty understanding one another. Luther’s Bible translation promoted a single German vernacular, helping to bring people together around a common tongue.

Expanding literacy

This view, combined with the wide availability of scripture, shifted responsibility for scriptural interpretation from clerics to the laity. Luther wanted ordinary people to assume more responsibility for reading the Bible.

In promoting his point of view, Luther helped to provide one of the most effective arguments for universal literacy in the history of Western civilization.


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At a time when most people worked in farming, reading was not necessary to maintain a livelihood. But Luther wanted to remove the language barrier so that everyone could read the Bible “without hindrance.” His rationale for wanting people both to learn to read and to read regularly was, from his point of view, among the most powerful imaginable – that reading it for themselves would bring them closer to God.

For much of Luther’s life, his remarkable output in theological treatises was exceeded only by his Bible commentaries. He believed that nothing could substitute for direct and ongoing encounters with scripture, which he both advocated for and helped to shape through his detailed commentaries.

Reading to interpret truth

Luther had many reasons to favor the dissemination of learning. He was a university professor. His 95 theses were intended as an academic disputation. His teaching and scholarship played a crucial role in the development of his theology. Finally, he recognized the crucial role students would play in carrying his movement forward.

Martin Luther King Jr., namesake of the German reformer.
the.urbanophile, CC BY-ND

So powerfully did Luther’s influence reverberate down through the ages that, during a visit to Germany in 1934, Rev. Michael King Sr. chose to change both his and his son’s name to Martin Luther King. MLK Jr., namesake of the great German reformer, would make full use of the power of free speech in catalyzing the American civil rights movement.

In posting his 95 theses, Luther was encouraging a vigorous exchange of ideas. The best community is not the one that suppresses dissent but one that challenges ideas it finds objectionable through rigorous argumentation. It is largely for this reason that the founders of the United States took so seriously freedom of religion, free association and the protection of a free press.


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Luther trusted ordinary people to discern the truth. All they needed was the opportunity to interpret what they read for themselves.

(Richard Gunderman is the Chancellor’s Professor of Medicine, Liberal Arts, and Philanthropy at Indiana University. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article)

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16 Comments

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  • Luther was everything you say he was, but he was also fiercely anti-Semitic. This anti-Semitism bore terrible fruit in the 20th Century. Luther may have been a great man, but his faults were also great.

  • While what you say is true, it should be noted that his anti-Semitism came relatively late in life when he was astonished and disturbed that Jews would not receive his theology which he considered superior to that of Rome. It should also be noted that he railed against anyone who rejected his putatively “superior” theological insight. He suffered from hallucinations and severe gastric distress in his later years. While his anti-Semitism cannot be excused, it should be recognized that quite possibly he was not quite right in the head during the period of his later vituperation.

  • Are you saying anti-Semitism is better late than never? Do you think at Nazi seminars and KKK meetings that there are in-depth discussions of Luther’s age and infirmities which explain or excuse his hatreds?

  • Well, I certainly don’t think so. But this discussion forum is not a Nazi seminar, nor is it a KKK meeting. So yeah, we get to talk and even *think* about those little extra details of life, which might adjust a person’s view of a given situation.

  • Luther had a huge impact on all of western Christianity, German states and much of it for the good. His movement brought literacy to the common person in German states with a translation of the Bible that was the foundation of the German language much as the Shakespeare and the King James Bible did for English. His reforms cleaned up some corrupt practices in what remained of the Roman Church. One can carry on about anti-semitism, but at the time in his later life; he was not out of step with that part of Europe under the Roman Church or that part facing the invasion of by the Muslim Ottoman Empire.

    Hitler was a racist and selectively used Luther as others do to twist heros for their own needs. In an age of absolutes in which no religion tolerated nonconformists, Luther wanted the Jews along with everyone else to convert to the Evangelical Church and was frustrated with those who did not. Hitler wanted to kill anyone who was an ethnic Jew and not in converting them.

    Further, Thomas Jefferson ,George Washington and other founders owned slaves and were party to a constitution that protected that institution. Yet we can remember the good things these people did that led to a better society for all even though it has taken over two centuries and is still a work in progress.

  • In looking at all these great men from the past it is important to remember both the good they did and the bad. As with Luther, the good done by the founders of the American Republic was mixed with the bad and the world lives with both consequences today.

    Our descendants will also remember both our achievements and our failings. Let us hope that they have the good sense both to learn from our virtues and to take warning from our faults, and not to confuse one for the other.

  • :ess known is the crucial role Luther played in making the case for ordinary people to read often and well. Unlike the papacy and its defenders, who were producing their writings in Latin, Luther reached
    out to Germans in their mother tongue, substantially enhancing the accessibility of his written ideas.”

    This article affirms that not only did Martin Luther completely revolutionize the theology of his day; he also revolutionized the state of learning! By writing his 95 theses and nailing them to the door of the church at Wittenburg, Luther loosend the stranglehold the Roman Catholic Church had over the souls of all seekers of Christ at that time.

    By promoting reading and learning among the peasant class, Luther loosend the stranglehold the Roman Catholic Church had over people’s minds, and their ability to think freely and critically! The state of both Christianity and learning today would be MUCH different had not this Augustinian monk had the courage to speak and write what was in his heart!

  • There is a straight line from Luther’s vicious “On the Jews and their Lies” to Kristalnach.

    This is a just an example of what is in “On the Jews and Their Lies:”

    He argues that Jewish synagogues and schools be set on fire, their prayer books destroyed, rabbis forbidden to preach, homes burned, and property and money confiscated. They should be shown no mercy or kindness, afforded no legal protection, and “these poisonous envenomed worms” should be drafted into forced labor or expelled for all time.[4] He also seems to advocate their murder, writing “[W]e are at fault in not slaying them”.

    There is a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. He was not an anti-Semite, but his father was.

  • Observer Guy, read Luther’s pamphlet, “On the Jews and their Lies.” The Nazis did not selectively use Luther. They used his prescription for the Jews, Including, “We are at fault for not slaying them all.” Luther didn’t have any use for Jews who converted to Christianity. He thought Jews were liars and could not be trusted. Their conversion must be false, he believed.

  • There is an interesting question there for Christians who want to convert Jews. Will they turn to hate when Jews don’t convert?

  • Jefferson and Washington were secular leaders. They were not theologians or religious leaders.

  • Pardon a late reply. No Christian of my acquaintance, nor any among those Christian teachers and pastors whose work I admire would do so. In fact, in the event any persecution of Jews occurs under any pretext, among those Christians I have cited, the first response will be to denounce and combat it. Conversion by force, or the rejection thereof is no true act of Christian character.

  • By no means, I merely posit that within the context of Luther’s own human limitations he erred grievously. Any who lacked the proper insight and discrimination to reject Luther’s errors will bear their own responsibility before God.

  • Absolutely. I cannot speak to whether or not Luther was “saved” if we use the modern usage, but if he was, according to orthodox teaching, then there would be a substantial loss of “reward” in heaven. Luther is and will remain beyond our reach. Our responsibility today is to remain steadfast against oppression without abandoning the theology we have affirmed as Christians.

  • Who wasn’t anti-Semitic in the 16th century? It was par for the course until the 20th century.

    That’s not to make excuses, but virtually everyone from that time period would have discriminated against the Jews.

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