Commentary: Reformation’s 500th anniversary—remember Martin Luther, America’s first Founding Father

Commentary: Reformation’s 500th anniversary—remember Martin Luther, America’s first Founding Father
Without Martin Luther's reforms in the 16th century, it is hard to imagine the United States ever existing. (John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images)

On Oct. 31, 1517, 500 years ago, a relatively unknown German monk named Martin Luther purportedly nailed his “95 Theses” to the large church doors marking the entrance to Schlosskirche Church in Wittenberg.

Contrary to popular belief, Luther’s dramatic act was never meant to spark a theological revolution. Luther’s 95 Theses, which outlined numerous perceived problems with the established Christian churches in Germany and throughout Europe, was written in Latin, not the common German language, and was directed toward his fellow academics and students at the University of Wittenberg. To Luther’s great surprise, his 95 Theses  were quickly translated and distributed throughout the German kingdoms, and eventually Europe, an immense effort that had only become possible as a result of the invention of Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press.

A religious revolution

At the heart of the debate that would later ensue between Luther and the established church system, led by an immensely powerful papacy in Rome, was Luther’s belief that the Christian Gospel — which Luther and other Reformers defined as achieving spiritual salvation by faith alone in Jesus Christ alone and by God’s grace alone — had been largely abandoned by the existing church leaders.

Luther’s rejection of many key theological beliefs held by the established Roman Catholic Church, especially its perceived reliance on a system of sacramental “works,” was based in Luther’s reading of Scripture, which he believed to be God-breathed, and thus the highest source of theological authority — higher than even his local bishop or the Roman papacy.

In modern America, such a belief seems rather unextraordinary. In the United States, people hold all sorts of religious beliefs, and some seem quite strange to many. Virtually no one, however, wants to go knocking down doors to burn books or people considered to have out-of-the-ordinary religious views. But in 16th-century Europe, religious liberty was considered theologically and politically dangerous, and “heretics” were often expelled from “good” Christian kingdoms — or even murdered.

One man against an empire

It should come as no surprise then that Luther was told he must recant of his rejection of the supreme authority of the Roman papacy, and when he refused, the papacy “excommunicated” Luther in 1521, officially renouncing many of Luther’s views and throwing him out of the established church. This wasn’t simply a theological expulsion, however. Those excommunicated from the church were often sentenced to death by secular authorities, most of whom were closely allied with the papacy and viewed Christian dissenters as revolutionaries and threats to the established order.

Luther was forced to address the accusations against him at a royal assembly at Worms in 1521, and it was here, I argue, that America was born. Standing before the princes of the central-European-based Holy Roman Empire, Luther was told he must reject his previous statements or else face arrest, and potentially death. It was then that this German monk defied an emperor, and, indeed, the whole of Europe’s existing power structure, by declaring that his conscience was held captive by God’s Word and that no earthly power could change that. “Here I stand,” Luther reportedly said. “I can do no other. God help me.”

Luther was condemned by the emperor, but he found a sympathizer in Frederick III, a powerful leader in Saxony, and before Luther could be arrested on his way home, Frederick saved Luther, hiding him at Wartburg Castle until the threat subsided.

God and liberty

The religious, social, and political turmoil that resulted set the stage for many of the important developments that would eventually follow, including the establishment of the Massachusetts Bay Colony by Puritans escaping the religious tyranny of the established church in England.

Regardless of what you think of Martin Luther or his religious views, it’s undeniable that this one man changed the course of human history. But you’re likely wondering why I say Luther was America’s first Founding Father. After all, many of Luther’s views would be considered incompatible with the U.S. Constitution, and he lived long before the American colonies took shape.

In Luther’s Europe, kings and emperors dominated the politics of the day, and most only did so with the blessing of the Roman Catholic papacy. It was commonly believed that kings were chosen by God and had a “divine right” to rule. It was also widely held that the papacy had total authority over all spiritual matters. It’s not hard to imagine then how utterly improbable the American Revolution would have been in such a world. To defy a king backed by the papacy was to defy God Himself. Certainly, two divinely established kings could war with one another, but what right did peasants, merchants, and other commoners have to stand against their rulers?

Luther’s core message shattered that longstanding paradigm. When told he must stand down, Luther stood up, and defiantly declared that no king or church leader is more powerful or important than an individual’s conscience shaped by God. Luther was effectively saying that he had a divine right to pursue what he believed to be what God desired for him, and that no one could take that away, kings be damned.

This would, at least in practice, become one of the foundations of the belief that all men are born with the alienable right to pursue religious liberty, and it destroyed the existing cycle of tyranny that had long dominated Europe. No longer could a king simply appeal to an “infallible” papacy or theories about royal divine rights as its source of absolute political authority. Or, put another way, Luther reasoned people don’t get their right to religious liberty from kings or popes, but directly from God. And if God gives people the power to pursue their own consciences on religious matters, why not in other areas of life?

Luther may have been a German monk, but his unwillingness to recognize earthly rulers as the source of his rights was as American as anything said or done by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson or James Madison. The entire free world stands on his shoulders.