By Mark Franke
Note: The 500th anniversary of the Reformation is Oct. 31, 1517, the day a German monk, Martin Luther, nailed his Ninety-five Theses on the door of the All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany.
Why does an event that happened 500 years ago in medieval Germany matter to us in the United States in 2017?
Granted, northeast Indiana, as well as much of the upper Midwest, is heavily populated by German Lutheran stock. Reformation commemorations and celebratory worship services are being conducted by Lutheran and other Protestant churches throughout the month. As a life-long Lutheran, I know and understand the deeply held spirituality of the Reformation. And I wouldn’t want it any other way.
Theology aside, although you really can’t put theology aside in context of the entire political-economic environment of the Holy Roman Empire, there is a critical outcome of the Reformation that explains what brought many of us here to America.
In short: religious liberty. In spite of the political correctness mania that distorts our children’s history textbooks, the inconvenient truth remains that most of the early European colonists who came to the new world in the 16th and 17th centuries came to freely practice their religion. That is an idea that occurred to virtually no one prior to Oct. 31, 1517.
Martin Luther probably, nay certainly, didn’t have any concept of the forces he was unleashing when he nailed a call to academic disputation over indulgences to the castle church door in Wittenberg, Electoral Saxony. What he didn’t realize was that the power of the newly invented movable type printing press would publish those theses — and in German, not Latin — throughout much of Germany and eventually all of Europe.
While Luther separated himself from many of the other reformers who followed him over significant matters of doctrine, he could not put the populist genie back in the bottle after the common people were taught by him that they had direct access to God without the intercession of a bureaucratic and avaricious Church hierarchy. If man could speak directly to God, why should his religion be mandated by pope or prince?
Recall, as those of us educated in the 1950’s still can, how the American colonies were settled: Plymouth Rock, the separatist Pilgrims; Massachusetts Bay, the non-conforming Puritans; Maryland, Roman Catholics and others promised religious freedom by the proprietor, Lord Baltimore; New Amsterdam, Calvinist Dutch while their homeland was under siege by the King of Spain and his inquisitors; Pennsylvania, Quakers, not tolerated anywhere; and even Virginia, technically by members of the Church of England (Episcopalians) who wanted space between them and the Stuart monarchy that was moving toward realignment with Rome.
Most of these, except of course the Lutherans who settled in Pennsylvania and Delaware, would not have claimed Luther as their prophet who motivated them to come here. But they can’t truthfully deny his influence, either. If it weren’t for Luther, the thought of a new world of religious freedom would have been stillborn.
Even in these post-modern times, one only can look to the proliferation of religions and de facto religions that are thriving in today’s America: Mormonism, neo-paganism, secular humanism (yes, that is a religion even if they refuse to acknowledge a Supreme Being as being central to mankind’s existence), and the atheistic movement, to name just a few. Would these faiths be tolerated in America without the Reformation?
So let’s give Luther his due. If it weren’t for him, would the First Amendment to our constitution exist? Absolutely not. As the United States Supreme Court takes up religious liberty cases this term, let’s hope our justices realize that our nation did not come about in a vacuum but rather in a political, economic and religious environment that fostered freedom of conscience — and that includes, per force, freedom of worship.
Mark Franke, an adjunct scholar of the foundation, is formerly an associate vice chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.