Martin Luther by Lucas Cranach, the Elder (1472-1553)
A photo of this 1526 painting of Martin Luther by Lucas Cranach the Elder (from the National Museum in Stockholm, Sweden) is available for public use on Wikimedia Commons.

On October 31, 2016, the world begins a year-long series of events, exhibitions and inter-religious dialogues on the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Millions of men and women around the globe will be touched by this anniversary in some way.

Here are some tips from two veteran religion writers about understanding this historic milestone.

1. Acknowledge the vast scope of this historic change.

The world is looking back to October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther published his 95 Theses—but historians caution that this titanic shift in Western culture unfolded over a roughly 200-year period from the mid 1400s to the mid 1600s. The Reformation rested on a whole host of transformative changes in Europe, starting with the invention of moveable type in the mid 1400s. The Reformation was the first international revolution fueled by the social media of that day: pamphleteering.

Here’s how Yale historian Carlos Eire summarizes the era in his new 900-page history, Reformations:

To say that Luther changed his world single-handedly or that 1517 was the absolute beginning of a new epoch would be wrong, but to say that nothing was ever the same after Luther’s act of defiance is to settle for understatement. What he set in motion in 1517 not only changed the world as it was then; it still continues to shape our world today and to define who we are in the West.

2. There are many related stories to explore.

Beyond the historical details from Luther’s era, there are many directions journalists can take this story. Consider just a few ideas that move the story beyond specifically religious themes:

  • Compare the use of social media in revolutions today with the impact of moveable type and pamphleteering in the 15th century.
  • Cover the five-century-long rise of literacy as a result of developments in this era.
  • Take a fresh look at the so-called Protestant Work Ethic.
  • Beyond the split and the formation of Protestant denominations, the Reformation also changed the Catholic church in many ways. Look into the long-lasting effects of the so-called Counter-Reformation.
  • Consider the tragic outcomes as well. Luther’s diatribes against Jews and tragic conflicts between rich and poor also were results of the Reformation. In some parts of the world, Catholic and Protestant communities remain in conflict to this day.
  • The artistic story also is fascinating and complex. Some artists thrived on the Reformation—while some branches of the Reformation sought to destroy or remove fine arts from houses of worship and create new kinds of religious spaces.

María-Paz López adds:

In Germany, this story is seen as much more than a religious story. Germans are looking at the outcomes of the Reformation in a comprehensive way. There are a lot of cultural exhibitions planned. New books are being published. Germany is hoping to see a rise in tourism. The influence of Martin Luther continues to shape culture and history throughout northern Europe—and around the world.

3. Luther almost certainly did not nail his 95 Theses on a door on October 31, 1517.

That’s how the story traditionally has been told. Historians now agree that he published or sent out the theses on that date. If he did nail a copy to a door, it likely occurred weeks later. Here is Wikipedia’s summary of these issues.

María-Paz López says:

Wittenberg is where Martin Luther published his theses. Many people still tell the story that he nailed the theses on the door of a church in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517, but that’s not true. I’ve seen many news publications add sidebars to their stories clarifying and explaining the story of the nailing. It is a powerful story and has been shared by many people over the years, but historically it’s a myth. The nailing scene has become more of an iconic image of the Reformation.

4. This is a major news story far beyond Germany.

Nonprofits, cultural institutions, tourism officials and government agencies in Germany are expecting worldwide attention for special events and programs in the coming year. But many other European countries have significant Lutheran populations. If you want to compare and contrast the religious diversity in nations around the world, the International Association of Religion Journalists recommends using free resources from the Association of Religion Data Archives (ARDA).

Remember that turbulent change surrounded the Reformation over a long period of time in nations across Europe and eventually around the world. In the heat of the core historical period, major events took place in Switzerland, England and many other nations.

5. Germany shouldn’t be described as simply a Lutheran nation.

Historically, that’s not the case. In the wake of conflict touched off by the Reformation, people living in what was then known as the Holy Roman Empire—which included present Germany and nearby territories—were compelled to adopt the religion adopted by their respective prince (in Latin: cuius regio, eius religio). That’s why some people became Protestant and some others remained loyal to Rome.

Today, both ARDA’s data and the Pew Global Religious Landscape report that nearly 70 percent of Germans say they have a religious affiliation. The vast majority give a Christian affiliation, but that population is split evenly between Catholics and Protestants. Those Protestants refer to themselves as Evangelicals, a federation of religious groups, including Lutherans, called the Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland or EKD.

Germany’s population is 82.2 million, today. The country’s religious populations are estimated at: 23.8 million Catholics, 22.3 million Protestants, 4.5 million Muslims and 118,000 Jews.

María-Paz López adds:

It’s important for the international community to realize that the religious population of Germany is more or less half Catholic and half Protestant. Historically, this is because not all of the princes in what is now considered Germany chose to challenge the Catholic Church’s power. Half of what is now Germany didn’t join the Reformation. There has been a tradition, for example, that when it comes time to appoint a new German ambassador to the Vatican, this alternates between a Catholic appointee and, then the next time, a Protestant appointee. Journalists outside of Europe also should remember that throughout Europe, people are not as religious as they are in other parts of the world. In Germany, many people would describe themselves as sociologically Protestant or sociologically Catholic. Also, after more than 40 years of Communist rule, a majority of East Germans are not religious.

6. Major Catholic and Lutheran leaders in Europe are not in conflict now. In fact, they’re marking the anniversary together.

For many years, The Lutheran World Federation and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity have been planning jointly for this anniversary. Pope Francis is flying to Sweden (where the Lutheran church counts 75 percent of the population as adherents) to launch the anniversary year. Here is the Vatican’s earlier summary of the trip. Here is a short update on Francis’s travel plans.

These plans rest on a major document jointly published by the two organizations in 2013, called From Conflict to Communion. You’ll find the long text on the Vatican website and also in PDF form on the Lutheran World Federation website. That text is packed with quotable lines putting the past half-century of Catholic-Lutheran relations in context, including:

In 2017, Catholic and Lutheran Christians will most fittingly look back on events that occurred 500 years earlier by putting the gospel of Jesus Christ at the center…

In 2017, Lutheran and Catholic Christians will commemorate together the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation. Lutherans and Catholics today enjoy a growth in mutual understanding, cooperation, and respect…

The year 2017 will see the first centennial commemoration of the Reformation to take place during the ecumenical age. It will also mark 50 years of Lutheran–Roman Catholic dialogue. As part of the ecumenical movement, praying together, worshipping together, and serving their communities together have enriched Catholics and Lutherans. They also face political, social, and economic challenges together. The spirituality evident in inter-confessional marriages has brought forth new insights and questions. Lutherans and Catholics have been able to reinterpret their theological traditions and practices, recognizing the influences they have had on each other. Therefore, they long to commemorate 2017 together. …

What happened in the past cannot be changed, but what is remembered of the past and how it is remembered can, with the passage of time, indeed change…

Lutherans and Catholics have many reasons to retell their history in new ways. They have been brought closer together through family relations, through their service to the larger world mission, and through their common resistance to tyrannies in many places. These deepened contacts have changed mutual perceptions, bringing new urgency for ecumenical dialogue and further research.

Care to read more?

María-Paz López recommends these online resources:

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David Crumm is a veteran religion writer and publisher who works with the communications team of the International Association of Religion Journalists (IARJ). María-Paz López is a founding board member of the IARJ and serves as Berlin correspondent for La Vanguardia, based in Barcelona.