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How Martin Luther Was Both A “Revolutionary” And A “Conservative”

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Many times, the terms “revolutionary” and “conservative” are seen as mutually exclusive. Revolutionaries push for change while conservatives seek to keep the status quo and tradition. In some cases, however, somebody can possess both of these qualities. One notable individual who was simultaneously revolutionary and conservative was “The Father of the Reformation”, Martin Luther.

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On one hand, Martin Luther was an enthusiastic revolutionary. One night, after surviving a thunderstorm, Luther promised to devote his life to serving Christ. Switching his goal from becoming a lawyer to becoming a monk and theologian, he gradually became more and more disgusted at the activities taking place in the Roman Catholic Church, deeming them unchristian. Things came to a head in 1517, when a man named Johann Tetzel was hired by the Church to sell indulgences. Indulgences were a way of performing temporal penance by paying with money. In Catholic theology, it is thought that those who sin, but not enough to end up in hell, end up in purgatory. By performing penance, it was thought that, after one’s death, their sins would be forgiven and they would go to heaven. Luther thought that the idea of selling indulgences was fundamentally unchristian, and started to observe massive amounts of corruption in the Church.

After Tetzel started selling indulgences for the alive to pay for their dead relatives, Luther nailed his 95 Theses to a church door in Wittenberg, Saxony. His initial idea was to rid the Church of its corruption, or reform it. The 95 Theses were written as theological questions to discuss with the Church. The Roman Catholic Church saw this differently, as they saw Luther’s opinions as heretical and a threat to their authority. Calling the Diet of Worms, Emperor Charles V demanded that Luther recant his views. Luther refused, and was subsequently declared an outlaw by the church. After this, Luther no longer sought to reform the Church, as he genuinely saw the high religious officials in Rome as being controlled by the Devil.

Luther was also very revolutionary with regards to how he spread his word. He was the first reformer to use the printing press. By the time of the Diet of Worms, Luther had utilized the newly invented printing press to spread his word, which was extremely efficient and helped him amass a huge group of supporters in a rather short period of time. He had already gained thousands of followers throughout the German states. Luther translated the Bible from Latin to the vernacular German so that more people would be able to interpret its words for themselves. This was revolutionary for his time. Before this, as only a relatively small amount people spoke Latin outside of the Church officials and monks, it had been up to the religious officials to tell the common people what the Bible meant and how to interpret it. Luther felt the mark of a good Christian was faithfulness, and he thought that one could not be faithful without knowing what he is reading. The ability to read the Bible allowed each reader the capability to serve Christ in their own way, and without the implicit bias that Church leaders would add to it to benefit the Church’s power. Luther’s actions against the Church sparked a revolution, and Christianity in Europe would never again be unified. Luther sent a shockwave throughout sixteenth century Europe that would affect the continent, and by extension, the world, for centuries.

Luther could also be seen as a staunch conservative in some areas. He was a devout Christian and based every aspect of his life on the religion. He wanted the values of Christianity to stay constant to what was written in the Bible. He would go on to attack indulgences from the Church because he said that it was written nowhere in the Bible. Prior to the Reformation and the 95 Theses, Luther had wanted to live his life as a monk. The Christian monks ideally would live a life of solitude and poverty and absolute service to God. When he began to see how unchristian and unbiblical the religious leaders and monks acted, his Christian ideas incentivised him to nail the 95 Theses. In this way, his conservative viewpoint actually inspired him to become revolutionary. When peasants in the southern areas of the Holy Roman Empire eventually took Luther’s ideas against authority as inspiration to revolt against their authorities due to mistreatment, Luther sided with the authorities. Luther, in this case, accepted the traditional roles of society and argued that peasants had no right to take up arms. This was a fairly conservative position to hold. Luther’s support for much of the social structure allowed princes to safely adopt his religion. If Luther had held a liberal view during the Peasants Revolt (1524-1526), no prince would have adopted his ideology. If they had, they would be despots with complete authority over peasants, adopting a religion which supported the freedom of peasants from authority. Due to this, Luther’s hardline conservative views against the Peasants Revolt saved the future of his new sect of Christianity, which would be called Lutheranism.

Martin Luther was both a revolutionary and a conservative. As a revolutionary, he incited the change that he wanted to see in the world himself. Luther was able to make lasting change in Europe and the Christian world. His revolutionary split from the Catholic Church inspired other revolutionaries, like John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli, to split as well. His inspiring nonviolent journey to achieve the goals which he wanted in society inspired American Civil Rights leader Michael King Jr. , who would change his name to Martin Luther King Jr. out of respect for one of his role models. Martin Luther King Jr. would also seek to incite nonviolent change in his nation, with the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the March on Washington. Martin Luther, as revolutionary as he was, was a conservative. He respected the social hierarchy of principalities and kingdoms, and was a strict interpreter of the Bible. Luther’s revolutionary cause was in some way aided by his conservative views.

Luther’s conservatism helped him build a foundation and create reasons for his dissent from the Church. Without being a strict Bible interpreter and conservative Christian, Martin Luther would not have been able to give the amount of legitimacy to his Protestant ideas as he was able to. As a conservative, without Martin Luther supporting the traditional relationship between despot and peasant, Lutheranism would not have been able to convert so many princes and kings in such a short period of time. Martin Luther proved that one does not have to be merely a revolutionary or merely a conservative, but that they can be both at the same time.

18 May 2020

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