Rick Steves’ Luther and the Reformation

In a castle, in the heart of Germany, in 1521, a monk on the run took refuge. He was in disguise
and using an alias. A few days earlier, the holy Roman emperor
had branded him an outlaw, and now
he could be killed at will. For nearly a year, that monk
hid out in this castle while shock waves
from his supposed crimes reverberated throughout Europe. His name? Martin Luther. This is the story of Luther
and the Reformation. And it’s more. It’s the story of progress, from medieval darkness
to Renaissance humanism, and how it’s with great struggle that societies earn freedom
as they evolve. Hi, I’m Rick Steves. 500 years ago, Martin Luther
kicked off the Reformation. In the next hour, we’ll trace the dramatic events
of this grassroots movement that changed
the course of history. With this upheaval,
Christianity in Western Europe was split in two — between
Protestants and Catholics. This split happened
to a medieval world permeated and stabilized by one
all-encompassing religion. But that world was colliding with the new ideas
of the Renaissance. It was rocked
by fearless explorers and adventurous thinkers. And one of these great minds belonged to a humble German monk
named Martin Luther, who could no longer stay silent about the wealth and corruption
of his Church. His controversial teaching
and preaching brought him into conflict
with the pope and the holy Roman emperor, leading to a bold showdown
watched by all of Europe. This courageous stand by one man
sparked a century of conflict. It started as a war of words, but eventually spiraled
into actual war, changing Europe and Christianity
forever and contributing to the birth
of our modern world. The story of Martin Luther — the man who would become
the most notorious, celebrated, and provocative figure
of his age — begins here, in the bucolic German
countryside south of Berlin. When Luther was born in
this house in Eisleben in 1483, he entered a world
that was still medieval. Most people
lived in humble villages. They tilled the fields. They lived their entire lives
in a single place, poor and illiterate. They bowed down
to the local duke, who protected them
from rampaging bandits. And in every town,
overseeing it all was the biggest and richest
structure in town — the church. Though most people were poor, Luther’s father owned
a copper mining business, and his son
got the best education this remote land could offer. Luther’s story was set here
in rural Germany at the end of the Middle Ages. But to understand
the Reformation, we need to go back 1,000 years
to far-off Rome. When the ancient Roman Empire
fell around the year 500, it created a power vacuum that left Europe in relative
poverty and stagnation for 10 centuries —
the Middle Ages. During that difficult time, the Roman Catholic Church
held Europe together. It provided more than religion. It provided stability. It was the one thing
that united a fractured Europe, offering continuity and comfort
in a troubled age. Echoes of ancient Rome
lived on in the Church: Roman senators became bishops, the design of their law courts
— called “basilicas” — became the design
of their churches, and the Roman emperor
(called the “pontifex maximus”) became the Christian pope (also called
the “pontifex maximus”). The Church was “Roman”
because it was ruled from Rome, and “catholic” —
a word that means “universal.” Through the Middle Ages, the Church condoned a kind of
institutionalized slavery — that was feudalism. Feudal European society
was made of three parts — The nobility
had the secular power and owned most of the land. The Church —
which was the educated elite — controlled the Word of God, and
provided spiritual blessings. And the downtrodden peasantry —
they did all the hard labor. For commoners — that was
90% of the population — life was pretty miserable. Most children died
before adulthood. Punishments for the poor
were harsh. [ Bell ringing ] The plague, which routinely
devastated towns, killing a third
of the population, was thought to be
the wrath of God. It was a frightful time. People worked the land, hoping
only to survive the winter. Life for the vast majority
was a dreary existence, tolerable only as a preparation
for heaven. The Church offered
a glimmer of hope with the promise of
eternal happiness in paradise. Art was considered worthwhile
and legitimate only as long
as it glorified God. Entire communities dedicated
generations of their resources to constructing the biggest
buildings of the age: awe-inspiring cathedrals
lit by splendid stained glass. The Church commissioned
society’s greatest art — statues, pulpits,
and altar pieces, all done anonymously. And Europe’s faithful masses
paid the price, and carried the stone. To this day, all over Europe,
you can see the legacy of this great medieval
“Age of Faith” — soaring naves topped with
elaborate Gothic arches and flooded
with a heavenly light. Art was a tool of the Church —
both to teach, and to terrify. Imagine, once a week, illiterate peasants
would walk into a church and be wonder-struck
by stained glass, towering columns,
and glittering glories. Church art gave them a glimpse
of the amazing heaven that would reward
only the faithful and the terrible hell
awaiting those who disobeyed. Martin Luther lived at
the end of this period, but on the cusp
of dramatic change, the dawn of the modern age. In 1501, 18-year-old Martin
moved to the city of Erfurt, where he attended law school. Even today, this half-timbered
medieval town — with a shallow river
gurgling through its center — remains an inviting destination. Erfurt’s venerable university produced many
illustrious alumni. But a good education
didn’t come easy. Medieval students
had a rough life. They got up at 4:00
in the morning to attend mass, ate two simple meals a day,
and only took one bath a month. On the upside, students were
given a liter of beer per meal. Martin enjoyed his college days
here in Erfurt. Like any normal kid, he studied
hard, and he partied hard. As a schoolboy, young Martin
developed his appetite for learning, music,
and the Bible. A deep thinker and a big
personality even at a young age, his friends nicknamed him
“the philosopher.” And his love of good German beer earned him the title
“king of hops.” Luther’s father had planned that
his son would become a lawyer, but that safe career path
was suddenly sidetracked by an event that seemed to him
like destiny. In July of 1505,
as he was traveling to school, Martin was caught
in a violent storm and nearly struck by
a bolt of lightning. Terrified, he promised that
if he survived the storm, he’d dedicate his life to God. Soon after, 21-year-old Martin checked into Erfurt’s
Augustinian monastery, famous for its discipline
and scholarship. The former party boy took a vow of chastity, poverty,
and obedience and became a monk. Luther set out to become
an A-plus monk. He did everything he could
to please God. He studied ancient Greek
and Hebrew in order to read the earliest
manuscripts of the Bible. He’d spend hours at a time
in confession and lie overnight on this tomb,
arms outstretched, to meditate on his faith. He was ordained a priest and said his first mass
in this church. By age 23, Martin Luther
was a dedicated priest in the Roman Catholic Church, and on the fast track
to a brilliant career as a professor of theology. And yet, in spite of all this, he remained tormented by
feelings of unworthiness. He was consumed
by a spiritual obsession — coming to terms with
his relationship as a sinner with a demanding
and judgmental God. In 1505 — the same year that Luther entered
the monastery in Germany — hundreds of miles to the south,
in Italy, Florence was celebrating
the unveiling of a brand-new symbol
of the city — Michelangelo’s “David.” David also symbolized a new age,
known as the Renaissance. Looking into the confidence
in David’s face as he sizes up the giant
he’s about to kill, the Florentines saw optimism,
the goodness of creation, and the power of the individual
to affect change — in a word, humanism. That’s why the Renaissance was
about more than just pretty art. It was a revolution of ideas. The Renaissance,
which means “rebirth,” sought to rediscover
Western civilization’s ancient Greek and Roman roots. And with humanism, the importance of the individual
skyrocketed. This “rebirth” opened up a whole
new world of possibility — in science, politics,
and economics. Religion was also seen
in a new light. Life was suddenly about more than preparing
for the hereafter. Artists saw themselves
as an extension of God’s creative powers. Both in subject matter —
like beautiful nude bodies — and in theme, humanists embraced
the full human experience. Rather than just bowing down
in church, Renaissance artists and thinkers sought to express
the glory of humanity — and in doing so,
to glorify God. Other big changes
were also percolating. Imagine Europe’s class of 1500. Great thinkers
like Leonardo da Vinci embraced science
and studied nature. Gutenberg’s printing press
made books affordable, allowing knowledge
to spread rapidly. Michelangelo was chipping away
at his early masterpieces, Machiavelli
was shaping modern politics, Columbus
stumbled upon the Americas, Copernicus was putting the earth
in its place, and Martin Luther, among other
courageous reformers, would soon be questioning
1500 years of Church tradition. With all this progress, two important movements
in European history were about to intersect: the Renaissance and the coming
Protestant Reformation. But first, Luther had to address
his inner turmoil, and a life-changing trip
helped make that happen. In 1510, seeking a way to help the troubled young monk
overcome his demons, Brother Martin’s superiors
at the monastery sent him on a pilgrimage. He walked 700 miles
through a harsh winter, over the Alps,
down the spine of Italy on a pilgrim’s trail
just like this. His destination — the hometown
of his Christian faith, the city of Rome. Imagine Luther, the weary
yet wide-eyed young pilgrim, trekking for weeks and finally cresting this hill
and seeing Rome. Passing through the gates
of the city, he dropped to his knees and
said, “Hail, holy city of Rome!” He would have seen
many of the same sights that tourists and pilgrims
enjoy today, places like
the fabled Colosseum, the glorious Pantheon — where pilgrims remembered
early Christian martyrs sent to their deaths, and churches approached
by long stairways, busy with worshippers
climbing on their knees. He marveled at
exquisite basilicas, and gazed at Castel
Sant’Angelo — the fortress
where the pope would take refuge when the city was under siege
in that rough-and-tumble age. Luther crossed this bridge,
the venerable Ponte Sant’Angelo, to reach the highlight
of his pilgrimage — St. Peter’s Basilica. Today’s basilica stands
on the tomb of St. Peter — the spot where,
nearly 2,000 years ago, Christianity became
solidly established in Europe. It’s believed that Peter,
Jesus’ right-hand man, was crucified for his beliefs right here
at a chariot racecourse, which was decorated
by this obelisk. His followers buried his body
in a humble graveyard on the Vatican Hill —
just over there. For three centuries, Christians
worshipped quietly at his grave. In the fourth century, after
Christianity was legalized, a huge church was built
directly upon Peter’s tomb. While today’s basilica was built
shortly after Luther’s visit, stepping into the grand church, Luther would have had
an experience much like pilgrims do now. He’d have seen Peter
everywhere — in artwork, his tomb, and in the words that Christ
spoke to his disciple, which gave the popes in Rome
their holy authority — “You are Peter, and upon this
rock I will build my church.” And, like today’s pilgrims, Martin Luther lined up
to kiss the foot — worn shiny by over 1,000 years
of veneration — of this very statue of Peter,
the first pope. Despite all the history
and grandeur, Luther was struck
by the contradiction between the enormous wealth
of the Church and the Bible’s emphasis on simplicity and caring
for the poor. During Luther’s visit, the bombastic Pope Julius II was in the midst
of spending a fortune for an extravagant remodel
of his church. In addition,
the pope had hired Raphael to decorate
his personal living quarters with elaborate frescoes and Michelangelo
to paint his sanctuary, the Sistine Chapel. All this was to be financed by money extracted from faithful
parishioners across Europe. Over the centuries,
the Church, ruled from Rome, had grown increasingly corrupt
and worldly. Popes, bishops, and priests
lived in luxury while others struggled, tarnishing
the Church’s reputation. The Church hierarchy
had become materialistic and entangled with politics. Sins were crimes, and tithes
were collected like taxes. Popes waged war, and bishops
were treated like royalty — when one entered the room, you knelt
and made a show of humility. The Church — tasked with protecting
1500 years of tradition — had grown conservative, even as
times were changing quickly. While scientists
and progressive thinkers were introducing new ideas, the Church,
which defended the notion that the world
was the center of the universe, fought against these new ideas. And the Church
was the keeper of knowledge. Knowledge is power,
and in Europe, until modern times, church abbey libraries
held most of the books. And locked away
in these libraries were any books
with threatening ideas — the “libri prohibiti,”
or prohibited books. Church leaders were the
gate-keepers to this knowledge, and they alone had the key. Back then, access to the Bible
was also controlled. It was only available in Latin, which only the educated elites
of medieval Europe, which was the clergy,
could read. For over 1,000 years,
mass had been said in Latin. Priests would interpret the Word
of God to the parishioner, who had little choice
but to simply nod in agreement. In Rome,
Luther came face-to-face with this worldly corruption
at its worst. And one thing he found
particularly troubling — the veneration of holy relics. Relics were the physical remains
of something holy — a saint’s bone, a piece of the
cross, or a drop of holy blood. Rome was the richest place
in Christendom for relics, which helped make it
the ultimate destination for pilgrims. And the pilgrimage trade was a
big money-maker for the Church. Medieval Christians
believed they’d go to heaven only if they did more good
than evil. And most figured
they’d fall short. So when they died, God would need to purge them
of their excess sin. The Church called this
purging process “purgatory” and the people thought of it
as years of misery. To reduce waiting time
in purgatory, the devout accumulated
good works in this lifetime by doing penance,
and by venerating holy relics. Like any devout pilgrim, Luther immersed himself
in the holy sights of Rome and visited a long list
of relics. But he became
increasingly disenchanted. He wondered if these objects
really were that important. He observed lots of greed
and hedonism, and very little spirituality. It seemed that each spiritual
favor came with a price. Corrupt monks and clergy
were abusing both their powers and the trust
of their parishioners. And Luther bristled
at the pope’s lavish lifestyle and vanity projects funded
by the sale of indulgences. Indulgences worked like this: The saints lived such holy lives that they accumulated a surplus
of “heavenly merits.” These merits could be earned
or purchased by sinners and then used
as a kind of currency to buy down the consequences
of their sins. An indulgence came as a letter
from the pope, a kind of coupon
good for less time in purgatory. And they were transferable. An earnest Christian
could actually buy credit for his dead loved ones,
as well. One day while in Rome,
Luther visited the Scala Santa (or “Holy Steps”)
brought back from the Holy Land and believed to be
the very steps from Pontius Pilate’s palace that Jesus climbed
on the day he was convicted. As Roman Catholic pilgrims
still do today, Luther joined the crowd
and made his way up, saying the Lord’s Prayer
on each step. The pilgrim’s reward
for this climb: fewer years in purgatory
for each of those steps. Reaching the top,
Luther stood up and thought, “Who knows
if this is actually true?” Luther had a lot to think about
as he hiked home. Back in Germany, he moved to the
university town of Wittenberg, where he became
a professor of theology. At the time,
Wittenberg was on the rise. The local ruler,
Prince Frederick the Wise, was working to make his capital an intellectual
and cultural center. He invited the region’s
best and brightest, from Luther
to the painter Lucas Cranach to Luther’s fellow professor
and theologian, Philip Melanchthon. The old center of Wittenberg
looks much like it did in Martin Luther’s day. Stately mansions
stand shoulder to shoulder, and the main square is dominated
by its Town Hall. Wittenberg’s Church of St. Mary is where young Luther
preached hundreds of sermons. As if sorting out
the spiritual confusion caused by his time in Rome, Luther struggled publicly
through his preaching. It was a dilemma. He wanted to be true
both to his Church and to his new understanding
of God. Things were revving up as it was
becoming clear to everyone that there were discrepancies
between what the Bible taught and what the Church was doing. Luther attracted
larger and larger crowds as, eventually, both
his teaching and his writings directly attacked the corrupt
practices he’d seen in Rome. At the altar today, a painting
shows a charismatic Luther preaching
with his hand on the Bible, recalling
how he supported his points not by relying on
Church tradition but by quoting directly
from the gospel. Luther was not the first
to question Church practices, nor was this discontent
limited to Germany. But going up against
the medieval Church had a history
of deadly consequences. Two centuries before Luther, these evocative and remote
castles in the south of France were destroyed
by the medieval Church to silence heretical voices
and keep the Church united. They were the desperate
last refuge of the Cathars, a break-away group of Christians
who disobeyed Church dictates. After a terrible period
of torture and mass burnings, the Cathars were wiped out. A century after the Cathars, Jan Hus of Prague
also confronted the Church and met a similar fate. He demanded
that ordinary Christians be allowed to take communion with both the bread
and the wine, which at the time
was reserved exclusively for the priest. Like Luther, Hus was a professor who gave controversial sermons
and challenged Church authority by translating parts of the
Bible into the local language. And, also like Luther,
Hus was prepared to die for his convictions. But Hus was ahead of his time. Lacking Luther’s advantages — such as the printing press,
to help spread his ideas — Jan Hus was declared a heretic
and burned at the stake in 1415. Back in Wittenberg, just as Luther was struggling
with these contradictions and becoming
more and more skeptical, the pope kicked off
a capital campaign to build a glorious new
St. Peter’s Church in Rome. It would be very expensive, and the German states,
more fragmented and therefore easier
to take advantage of than other parts of Europe, would foot much of the bill. Papal fundraisers
came out in full force. With a fanfare of drummers
and trumpeters, the fundraising campaign of
the zealous priest John Tetzel came to Luther’s neighborhood. They offered letters
of indulgence promising “full forgiveness for
all sins, no matter how great, and absolution
from all punishments.” As these were
fully transferable, indulgences were ideal for bailing loved ones
out of purgatory. Caring and frightened peasants
lined up to buy as Tetzel’s men sang, “As soon
as the coin in the coffer rings, another soul from purgatory
springs.” [ Coin jingles ] Luther, with fresh memories of
the corruption he saw in Rome, was outraged. The Bible said nothing
about buying forgiveness. And it said nothing
about purgatory, either. Luther, now brazenly
defying both the pope and over a thousand years
of Church tradition, had become hugely popular. But internally,
he was still struggling with feelings
of his own unworthiness. He searched the Bible,
hungry for an answer. He was desperate to know, how could anyone deserve
or earn salvation? He found his answer
in Paul’s letter to the Romans. It read,
“The just shall live by faith.” With that key phrase,
Luther discovered what he considered
the “good news”: that salvation is not earned
by doing good works or giving money to the Church — it’s a free gift
to anyone who believes. Realizing this,
Luther actually wrote, “All at once, I felt
that I had been born again.” Re-energized, Luther began
shaping a new theology that emphasized a personal
relationship with God. It was each person’s faith
that mattered, rather than Church rituals. By the fall of 1517,
Luther was ready to go public. He wrote a treatise,
known as his “95 Theses,” or points for discussion. As any good professor should,
he raised some hard questions. For example,
point #82 boldly asked, “If the pope redeems some souls
for the sake of miserable money to buy a church, why doesn’t he empty purgatory
for the sake of holy love?” It was here,
at Wittenberg’s Castle Church, where, on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther came
with his 95 points. According to legend,
he nailed the list to the door. It was a kind of community
bulletin board back then. It was written in Latin, and intended only
for scholarly debate. But its impact turned out
to be far greater. Luther’s supporters
spread his ideas. They were printed up in German
and spread across the land. The issues he called attention
to angered the public. This was a turning point,
and now, change was unstoppable. The sale of indulgences
dropped dramatically, and the pope’s salesmen
were run out of town as German mobs now chanted
slogans like, “When the coin rings
in the pitcher, the pope becomes even richer.” [ Coin jingles ] Luther’s posting
of the 95 Theses kicked off the Reformation. Many consider this the most
important religious event of the last 1,000 years. And today, 500 years later,
Reformation Sunday is still celebrated
in Protestant churches each October. Luther was expert at PR,
and his timing was ideal. While he was a great writer, he also had the best
political cartoonist in the land as a friend and took full advantage of
the new-fangled printing press. Thanks to the printing press,
his many sermons and essays could be quickly and cheaply
mass-produced as booklets. His writing was witty, concise,
and often in the local dialect. His pamphlets
were instant bestsellers — nicknamed “Flugschriften,”
or “writings that fly,” because they spread
like a flock of birds to every corner of Europe. In today’s terms,
his ideas went viral. And that political cartoonist? That was Lucas Cranach. Cranach painted many portraits
of Luther and his family, and illustrated Luther’s books. Knowing many of his followers
were illiterate, Luther used Cranach
to illustrate his points. And Cranach did so vividly. Book covers showed priests
as bumbling animals, even the pope as a donkey. Luther’s bold ideas resonated
with the masses: “Christ is found
not in the bones of saints but in your love for each other, in the sacraments,
and in the holy words.” “God’s forgiveness
cannot be purchased like a sack of potatoes. The pope needs more
prayer than money.” Meanwhile,
the news of Luther’s theology, attacks on the Church, and
growing popularity reached Rome. The new pope, Leo X,
called Luther a heretic and sent him a papal bull
threatening excommunication. This formal document
gave Luther 60 days to recant or be kicked out of the Church. Luther,
not cowed by the pope’s bull, responded with a flurry
of new pamphlets, further challenging
Church practices. Things escalated. In a legendary tit-for-tat, the pope ordered
the burning of Luther’s books, and Luther
burned the papal bull. The more the Church
opposed Luther, the bolder Luther became. The two most powerful leaders
in Europe back then were the pope, based in Rome, and the holy Roman emperor, whose empire
spanned much of Europe. The pope was furious. And the emperor, Charles V,
being a devout Catholic, wanted to support his pope. The emperor could have
crushed Luther easily. But Charles
had a bigger problem. The Turks were threatening
Europe from the east, closing in on Vienna. Much of Charles’ empire
was made of German states, so to defend Europe,
he needed German support. Knowing Martin Luther
had powerful German friends, the emperor had to deal
with Luther cautiously. He agreed
to give Luther a hearing and summoned him
to the imperial diet — that’s like
a congressional hearing — in the city of Worms
on the Rhine River. The Holy Roman Emperor himself
traveled to Worms to arbitrate. Luther’s challenge
to Rome’s authority was cheered by Germans. Traveling to Worms,
Luther was greeted with a hero’s welcome
at each stop. Pamphlets showed him with a halo accompanied by a dove,
symbol of the Holy Spirit. It’s said that in one town,
60 horsemen escorted Luther to a church so packed with
people eager to hear him preach that the balcony groaned
and nearly collapsed. Imagine the showdown at Worms — papal representatives, princes,
imperial troops, all power-dressing. The emperor himself,
sitting high on his throne. The crowds craning
to see the action. In the center of the room,
Martin Luther stood alone beside a table stacked with his rabble-rousing
books and pamphlets. The prosecutor insisted
Luther was a heretic. Summing up his case, he asked, “Who are you to go against
1500 years of Church doctrine?” He demanded that Luther
renounce his writings. Luther would not budge. Perhaps as never before
in European history, one ordinary person stood up to
authority for what he believed. He said:
“Unless you can convince me by scripture
or by clear reasoning, I am bound by my beliefs. I cannot and I will not recant. May God help me. Amen.” Luther was declared a heretic and left Worms
essentially an outlaw. Now “outside” the protection
of the law, Luther could be captured
and killed by anyone. On his way home to Wittenberg, he was kidnapped
and dropped out of sight. Many thought
Luther had been killed. In fact,
Luther had been kidnapped but by friends
for his own safety. He was given refuge
in the Wartburg Castle by his benefactor,
Prince Frederick the Wise. Luther grew a beard and passed himself off as
a simple knight — Junker George. He spent the next year
in hiding — waiting, planning, and wondering
what would come next. This was Luther’s room. Restless and lonely
in the castle, he fell into depression. Throughout his life,
he had struggled with what he saw as his personal war
with Satan. Luther would say, “Whenever the devil
harasses you, seek out the company of friends, drink more, joke,
and make merry.” Alone at Wartburg,
he fought his depression by studying and writing. And it was here that he employed
his favorite weapon — the printed word. Believing that everyone should
be able to read the Word of God, Luther began the daunting —
and dangerous — task of translating the New Testament from the original ancient Greek
into German. He used simplified language,
as he said, like a mother
talking to her children. Just as the King James version
of the Bible did for English, Luther’s translation
helped to establish a standard German language
that’s used to this day. Luther’s translation
brought the Bible to the masses. The printing press made it more
readily available and affordable to the public. And German literacy rates
skyrocketed. As Germans read the Bible
for the first time, they found — as Luther had —
no mention of indulgences, purgatory, or even a pope. This further fanned the fires
of reform. Luther was becoming the hero and figurehead
of a growing revolution. The epic showdown
at the Diet of Worms inspired others to action. Before long, across the land, monks and nuns
left their monasteries, priests got married, and peasants were actually
challenging the feudal system. Things went beyond
Luther’s intentions of reforming the Church. The Reformation was unleashing a grassroots social
and political rebellion, and it spread like fire. The changes
spilled beyond religion. In 1524, Germany’s peasants, emboldened by Luther’s brave
challenge to the status quo, rose up,
attacking their feudal masters with hoes and pitchforks. They misinterpreted Luther’s
calls for freedom of religion to mean freedom from
their feudal lords, as well. Luther, who was only concerned with issues of faith
and the Church, was horrified that his ideas
could be misused to spark such a social revolt. He actually condoned
the nobles’ brutal crackdown as they killed thousands
of peasants to restore order. But it was clear, the wheels of
Revolution he’d set in motion could not be stopped. Martin Luther’s reforms
unleashed turmoil far beyond his intent. Eventually Luther
left his Wartburg Castle refuge and returned home,
here to Wittenberg. He surrounded himself
with a theological think tank and worked to rein in
the extremism now rampaging through the land and to give direction
to the Reformation and to what was becoming
the “Lutheran” Church. The Reformation movement
spread far beyond Germany in the early 1500s. Luther, while pivotal,
was only one of many Christian leaders
struggling to reform the Church. In Switzerland, a land with deep roots
in democracy and free thinking, Ulrich Zwingli also challenged
the authority of Rome. From his pulpit in Zürich, he
railed against Church corruption and any practices that
weren’t specifically
mentioned in the Bible. His mission — to place a Bible,
written in everyday German — into the hands of every person. Zwingli’s ideas reached each
of Switzerland’s remote cantons, and his theology gave
the famously independent and yet-to-be-united Swiss
something in common. In nearby Geneva,
in this church, a Frenchman named John Calvin
also preached reform. Like Luther,
Calvin was convinced that salvation
was by God’s grace. But Calvin emphasized
predestination, the notion that God had already
decided who was saved. Calvinism, which evolved
into Presbyterianism, spread to France,
the Netherlands, and beyond. Protestant ideas spread quickly
through Scandinavia, thanks to its rulers. King Christian III of Denmark had actually been present
at the Diet of Worms and was inspired by
Luther’s brave stand. He returned home to Copenhagen
to establish Lutheranism as Denmark’s state religion. The Swedish king, Gustav Vasa, took a shrewd
political approach. He used the Reformation to make a clean break
with Roman Catholic rule, nationalize Church holdings, and consolidate power
for himself, thus becoming the “father”
of the modern state of Sweden. In England, King Henry VIII
also broke with the pope in Rome but for selfish
as well as political reasons. He created
the Church of England, with himself at its head. He dissolved the monastic
orders, destroyed their abbeys, and appropriated the Catholic
Church’s vast land holdings. When Catholics rose up
against him, Henry had the ringleaders
hung, drawn, and quartered. And his actions left Henry not only much richer
and more powerful but free
to divorce his barren wife and marry
his fertile young mistress. In Scotland, John Knox preached
at the main church in Edinburgh, where he founded a separate
Protestant denomination, austere
Scottish Presbyterianism. Knox insisted that every person
be able to read the Word of God for themselves, which resulted in Scotland
developing an education system centuries ahead of its time. Not all reformers
broke from the Church. The priest and philosopher
Erasmus of Rotterdam admired Luther’s ideas on the importance of faith
over good deeds. Like Luther,
he openly questioned the Church. But he proposed sweeping reforms
from within. Erasmus remained a priest and
never left the Catholic Church. A Spanish soldier
named Ignatius of Loyola had a spiritual conversion and spent a decade wandering
Europe on a pilgrimage. He eventually formed
the Jesuits, a religious order whose mission was to be the intellectual
warriors of the Church, battling both corruption
within the Church and heresy outside the Church. During the early 1500s, new ideas were cross-pollinating
throughout Europe. Protestant reformers,
Catholic reformers, humanists, and scientists were
all reading each other’s words. It was an exciting
and confusing time. Two powerful
cultural movements — the Reformation
and the Renaissance — were rushing together
in a swirl of currents as history flowed on. All across Europe, the momentum
seemed in favor of reformers. But the spread
of the Reformation didn’t happen
without chaos and conflict. In many areas,
there were violent uprisings. From Holland to Switzerland, Protestant extremists
vandalized Catholic churches. They attacked what
they considered symbols
of idol worship, forbidden by their
interpretation of the Bible. These iconoclasts,
as they were called, shattered stained-glass windows, they lopped off the stone heads
of saints, and stripped gold-leaf angels
from the walls. When Catholic cathedrals
became Protestant churches, interiors were made simple, with dazzling images
replaced by plain walls, pipe organs, and pulpits. [ Organ plays ] For example, the biggest church
in Switzerland, the Lausanne Cathedral, was originally Catholic
and dedicated to Mary. But when the Reformation hit,
Swiss reformers purged it, whitewashing
colorfully frescoed walls, trashing stained-glass windows, and smashing statues
of Mary and the saints. Today, the church remains clean
of images and dominated
by its extravagant pipe organ. [ Organ plays ] Another example
is the once Catholic, now Protestant main church
of Haarlem, in Holland. While now whitewashed
in the Protestant fashion, the pillars reveal
the decorative original frescoes that were covered up. The many gilded chapels
dedicated to various saints were removed. The towering pipe organ
is a reminder that, for Protestants, music became more important
than the visual arts. [ Organ plays ] And pulpits
became a prominent feature because of
the Protestant emphasis of bringing the Word of God
directly to the people
in their own language. In territories
where Protestants dominated, Catholics survived
but went underground, forced to practice their faith
in hidden churches. In generally Protestant
Amsterdam, for example, this Catholic church
kept a low profile, disguised as a townhouse. Persecution of Catholics, along
with the rise of Protestantism, was turning Catholics into
a minority in northern Europe. By the mid 1500s,
the Roman Church employed a strategy for stemming
the tide of reformation. The Vatican fought back
with the Counter-Reformation, an attempt to put what was
the universal Catholic Church back together. On one hand, the Church worked to reform
its internal corruption and reach out
to alienated members — and on the other hand, the
Church resorted to propaganda, intimidation,
and outright force. Art became a propaganda tool. Extravagant Counter-Reformation
art and architecture was designed
to inspire the masses. Catholic churches dazzled with gold leaf
and ornate decorations, offering a glimpse of the heaven that awaited those
who remained faithful. Counter-Reformation artists painted radiant,
soft-focus Marys, sentimentally
wrapping everything in warm colors and gentle light. This bubbly Baroque style of art
featured large canvases… bright colors… rippling motion… wild emotions… grand themes… and holy saints. It appealed to the senses. and was popular with both
peasants and nobles alike. It made heavenly visions real,
and stirred the emotions. This Baroque style
remained popular in Catholic parts of Europe
for generations. The Church’s propaganda art could intimidate
as well as inspire. Worshippers saw images
of God-fearing Catholics burning Protestant pamphlets, of defenders of the Church stepping on snakes
representing heretics, and angry angel babies tearing
out pages of Lutheran teaching. And the Counter-Reformation
relied on an institution dating back to earlier times:
the Inquisition. It emanated from Spain at the
imposing palace of El Escorial. This full-scale,
Church-run legal system brought Protestants, Jews,
and nonconforming Catholics before its courts on the
slightest evidence of “heresy.” Those convicted
would be punished, tortured,
and, in many cases, executed. The Protestants responded with anti-Catholic propaganda
of their own. In this painting, hanging in Luther’s
hometown church in Wittenberg, the reformers tend to
the “Garden of the Lord.” Luther rakes, and his
intellectual sidekick, Melanchthon,
pulls water from the well, symbolizing how the reformers
went back to the original source to translate the Bible. Meanwhile,
the pope and his people trash all their careful
spiritual gardening. Even though Jesus
has given the pope a reward, the pope keeps his hand
outstretched, asking for more. Looking on,
the reformers pray reverently. Other art was shockingly direct. In this etching, Protestants portray the pope
as Satan himself. The whole era was intolerant
to the extreme. Everyone was convinced
their vision of God was the one and only way. And Luther was as conflicted
and intolerant as his age. He came down hard
on the Roman Church, on Protestants who disagreed,
and particularly hard on Jews. Luther was intolerant of Jews. He was angered that
they wouldn’t convert, which drove him,
in his later years, to write
hateful anti-Jewish essays. This prejudice was consistent
with his general intolerance, as when he supported the killing
of so many rampaging peasants who were threatening
the social order. And it was only a matter of time before this kind of bitter war
of ideas would flare up into actual war. The Reformation
and Counter-Reformation unleashed pent-up frustrations that transformed Europe
into a battlefield for the next 100 years. The wars may have been called
“religious wars,” but for the princes who ruled
the many little German states, breaking with Rome —
as with most religious wars — was also about power,
money, and land. Many German princes —
like Luther’s supporter Frederick the Wise
at Wittenberg — saw the Roman Church
as an obstacle to greater power. And, at great peril, many opted
to split from the Roman Church to support Luther,
even if that meant war. For a German prince, there were three big reasons
to break from Rome: First, by opposing the pope, princes could rule
without meddling bishops, who were above secular laws. Second,
princes could hold onto tithes formerly sent to Rome — and a huge
drain on their economies. And third, the biggest landowner
in their realm was the Church, and by joining forces
with the Protestants, princes could confiscate
Church lands. The strife Martin Luther
had unwittingly unleashed led to a chaotic series of wars that would last
more than a century. Throughout the 1500s, Europe’s princes and kings
jockeyed for power, using religion as their excuse. It culminated
in a bloody free-for-all, called the “Thirty Years’ War,”
that raged from 1618 to 1648. While the war
involved many countries, it was fought
mainly on German soil. Much of the battle gear,
ramparts, and folkloric reenactments
tourists see today in Germany dates from this war. Casualties were devastating, as a third of all Germans
were killed. On the Catholic side, the pope was supported by
the powerful holy Roman emperor. The emperor
had Europe’s leading army, and was more than willing
to march into Germany and put down Protestants. As these wars, with a mix of
political and religious agendas, raged across Europe, princes grabbed for power while the people
violently sorted out their deep-seated
religious frustrations. After literally
millions of deaths, the devastation
of entire regions, and widespread economic ruin, all involved were exhausted. In 1648,
a treaty was finally signed. The result?
Not religious freedom. But now the leaders
of each country were free to decide
if their subjects would be Roman Catholic Christian
or Protestant Christian. Western Europe
was effectively divided between a Catholic south
and a Protestant north, a line that roughly survives
to this day. Europe had split into two camps. On one side was
the Roman Catholic Church — those Christians
who still recognized the pope. On the other side
were the Protestants, or protesting Christians. Of course, both Catholics
and Protestants are Christians. But they have different styles
and take different approaches. For Catholics, church rituals
and an ordained clergy are essential intermediaries
between a worshipper and God. They venerate saints
and the Virgin Mary, and confess their sins
to a priest. Catholics accept precedents established through
the centuries by the Church, and follow the spiritual
leadership of the pope in Rome. And they maintain
a time-honored element of elaborate ritual
and mysticism that enriches
their religious experience. For Protestants,
worship style became different. They purged their churches
of holy relics, dispensed
with many of the rituals, and reduced the formal role
of ordained clergy. Rather than appealing to saints
and Mary, Protestants emphasize their
direct relationship with God through Bible study
and personal prayer. Luther rejected five of the Catholic Church’s
seven sacraments. He kept only Holy Communion
and baptism. The Lutheran movement introduced
two essential changes — They believe, first, salvation
is a gift from God. It’s a matter of faith.
You can’t earn it. And second, the Bible is the only source
of religious authority. After sparking
such sweeping changes, Luther, in his later years, settled into a quiet life
as a respected professor. But his life
was never without surprises. One of the first things he did
shocked everybody — he got married! 42-year-old Martin Luther,
a former monk, married 26-year-old
Katherine von Bora, a former nun. Martin and Katie went on
to have six children and raise four orphans. Katie, who ran the huge and busy
Luther household, was a welcome partner
in Luther’s circle. Luther wrote,
“Marriage is a better school for the character
than any monastery, for it’s here that your sharp
corners are rubbed off.” Luther used
his dining room table to host an ongoing social
and intellectual jam session. It was where his students,
houseguests, and fellow reformers gathered, drinking Katie’s homebrewed beer and eating the Luthers
almost out of house and home. They’d spend long hours discussing and debating
religious issues and applying their ideas
concretely to everyday life. Luther’s followers
hung on his every word. His students took notes. And this anthology,
which was printed in 1567, is called “Table Talk.” It collects over 6,000 entries, from profound to vulgar
and offensive to silly. “He who does not love wine,
women, and song remains a fool
his whole life long.” “What lies they tell
about relics! How is it that 18 apostles
are buried in Germany when Christ had only 12?” “God writes the gospel
not in the Bible alone but on the trees and flowers
and clouds and stars.” Luther remained a complex man. He continued to struggle
with depression. He could be crude, bombastic,
and even bigoted — riddled with contradictions. And he certainly
enjoyed his beer. Although he did warn, “It’s better to think
of church in the ale house than to think of the ale house
in church.” Luther’s earthy lifestyle
reflects some of the spirit of what became
the Lutheran Church, ideas which, back then,
were quite radical. He affirmed dimensions
of everyday life, such as marriage
and the joy of sex, as good and important, provided
they were carried out in faith. And pastors were free to marry. There was nothing in the Bible
that said they couldn’t. Luther believed in what
he called the “priesthood
of all believers.” Whether a schoolteacher,
farmer, or a gardener, he believed
all are equally capable of understanding God’s word and can receive salvation
without the help of
intermediaries. Because literacy was crucial
to reading the Bible, Luther lobbied Germany’s nobles to provide schools
for all boys and girls. And Luther loved music, which
he figured the devil hated. In perhaps
his deepest depression, Luther wrote one of
Christendom’s greatest hymns, “A Mighty Fortress.” He composed many other hymns that put the basic elements
of Christian worship into song. To this day, Protestant churches
are particularly alive with great organs
and choral music. Luther, who believed,
“He who sings prays double,” would have enjoyed the singing of the visiting
Dresden boys’ choir as they performed in his
hometown church in Wittenberg. Luther died in 1546 at age 62. A massive funeral procession
accompanied his body to the Castle Church
in Wittenberg, where he’s buried. To this day,
pilgrims bring flowers. [ Choir singing ] After Luther’s death, until
the dawn of the 20th century, the Reformation
helped open the way for fundamental changes
in Western society. With a less controlling role
of the Church in everyday life, secular forces
were free to flourish. Secular thinking,
including science, would thrive. Literacy increased across Europe as people had the freedom
to read the Bible. Free-market capitalism thrived
in northern Europe, fueled by
the Protestant work ethic. Nonreligious, secular arts
were able to flourish. And, eventually,
a democratic spirit was kindled as people were emboldened
to stand up to power, and there was
a greater separation between church and state. For most of the 500 years
since the Reformation, relations between Catholics and
Protestants have been troubled. But there was one lesson
Europe learned the hard way: tolerance. And in our lifetime,
huge strides have been made. More than ever, Protestants and
Catholics are coming together, and see themselves merely
as different expressions of the same faith. The Reformation was more than
a religious event. It was part of the societal
weave we call progress. And progress
comes out of struggle — religious freedom grew out of
the Protestant Reformation, political freedom came out of
the French Revolution, and personal freedom is the cry
of the civil rights movement in our age. It’s all hard-earned.
It’s not always pretty. But it is worth the trouble. Martin Luther was
a pivotal character in history who stood up
for what he believed. The Reformation he unleashed helped create
a more tolerant society that eventually
allowed diversity in how people strive
to better understand God. I’m Rick Steves.
Thanks for joining us.

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