On the 31st October 1517, the foundations of the Protestant Reformation were laid when Martin Luther reputedly nailed his ‘Ninety-five Theses’ to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg – a town in the German state of Saxony-Anhalt. As a ‘disputation’ the theses were designed to be points for theological debate around the practice of selling indulgences, but the political and religious climate of the time – combined with the recent invention of the printing press – meant that Luther’s document was circulated to a much wider audience.
Officially titled The Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences, Luther had sought to engage the church authorities in a debate over the effect of earthly deeds on a soul’s salvation. The frankly more exciting tradition that he angrily nailed a list of grievances to the door of the church is therefore highly unlikely. Modern scholars now suggest that Luther wrote to the bishop on the 31st October and, after failing to receive a response, began circulating his theses among his friends.
Luther’s particular concern was the church practice of selling indulgences with a promise that a buyer’s sins would be absolved. However, he also shone light on the Papacy’s extraction of money from the poor in order to build St Peter’s Basilica rather than using its own financial reserves. It is therefore no surprise that the 95 Theses made their way to Rome, where the Pope condemned them. Two years later Pope Leo X issued a papal bull that led to Luther’s excommunication but was unable to stop the Protestant Reformation.