On the 31st day of October, in the year 1517 AD, the Catholic monk, Martin Luther, nailed his famous 95 Theses to the door of the All Saints Chapel in Wittenberg, Germany. The 95 Theses were 95 points of debate, question, and criticism of the Church’s teaching and practice of selling letters of indulgence. In other words, they were selling forgiveness of sins (even sins that had not yet been committed), for money.
Here is a selection of some of Luther’s 95 Theses:
21) Thus those indulgence preachers are in error who say that a man is absolved from every penalty and saved by papal indulgences.
27 & 28) They preach only human doctrines who say that as soon as the money clinks into the money chest, the soul flies out of purgatory.
It is certain that when money clinks in the money chest, greed and avarice can be increased; but when the church intercedes, the result is in the hands of God alone.
32) Those who believe that they can be certain of their salvation because they have indulgence letters will be eternally damned, together with their teachers.
36 & 37) Any truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without indulgence letters.
Any true Christian, whether living or dead, participates in all the blessings of Christ and the church; and this is granted him by God, even without indulgence letters.
41-43) Papal indulgences must be preached with caution, lest people erroneously think that they are preferable to other good works of love.
Christians are to be taught that the pope does not intend that the buying of indulgences should in any way be compared with works of mercy.
Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better deed than he who buys indulgences.
45-51) Christians are to be taught that he who sees a needy man and passes him by, yet gives his money for indulgences, does not buy papal indulgences but God’s wrath.
Christians are to be taught that, unless they have more than they need, they must reserve enough for their family needs and by no means squander it on indulgences.
Christians are to be taught that the buying of indulgences is a matter of free choice, not commanded.
Christians are to be taught that the pope, in granting indulgences, needs and thus desires their devout prayer more than their money.
Christians are to be taught that papal indulgences are useful only if they do not put their trust in them, but very harmful if they lose their fear of God because of them.
Christians are to be taught that if the pope knew the exactions of the indulgence preachers, he would rather that the basilica of St. Peter were burned to ashes than built up with the skin, flesh, and bones of his sheep.
Christians are to be taught that the pope would and should wish to give of his own money, even though he had to sell the basilica of St. Peter, to many of those from whom certain hawkers of indulgences cajole money.
79) To say that the cross emblazoned with the papal coat of arms, and set up by the indulgence preachers is equal in worth to the cross of Christ is blasphemy.
82) “Why does not the pope empty purgatory for the sake of holy love and the dire need of the souls that are there if he redeems an infinite number of souls for the sake of miserable money with which to build a church?” The former reason would be most just; the latter is most trivial.
86) “Why does not the pope, whose wealth is today greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build this one basilica of St. Peter with his own money rather than with the money of poor believers?”
94 & 95) Christians should be exhorted to be diligent in following Christ, their Head, through penalties, death and hell.
And thus be confident of entering into heaven through many tribulations rather than through the false security of peace (Acts 14:22).
The 95 Theses was not his only criticism of the corruption and apostasy he saw in the Church. For these criticisms he was called to a tribunal before the Diet (Assembly) of Worms with the Emperor, Charles V, presiding. There he was asked to recant his writings.
His response was, “If I recant those books, I will do nothing but add strength to tyranny, and open not only the windows but also the doors to this great ungodliness [speaking of the corruption in the Church].” He went on to say,
I am but a man, and I can err, but let my errors be proven by scripture. Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the scripture or by clear reason, and not by the words of the Pope or of councils which have so often contradicted themselves, my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything. To go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other. May God help me. Amen.
These words were his death sentence. The Pope (Leo X) issued a decree for his arrest and punishment. Fortunately, Luther was taken into hiding by Prince Frederick the Wise at Wartburg Castle where he worked to produce a common language text (German) of the Bible so that the common man could have access to the Word of God. The actions of Martin Luther were key to the Christian Reformation, and the nailing of his 95 Theses to the chapel door, which was a catalyst for the Reformation, is celebrated on this day (Reformation Day, October 31st).
Incidentally, Joseph Smith was very fond of Luther’s translation. He often quoted from it in his sermons and said of it, “I have an old edition of the New Testament in the Latin, Hebrew, German and Greek languages. I have been reading the German, and find it to be the most [nearly] correct translation, and to correspond nearest to the revelations which God has given to me for the last fourteen years.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pg. 349)
For Martin Luther, the scriptures were primary to the foundation of his faith. He rejected the “traditions of the elders”, and relied solely on the authority of the Word of God to inform the tenets of his faith.
What does all this have to do with polygamy? The freedom of both thought and action that were spawned by the Reformation allowed previously “heretical” or suppressed ideas in the scriptures to come again to light, to be discussed, debated, and even to be adopted as part of individual faith. Among these topics was the idea of polygamy. Speaking on this topic Martin Luther wrote:
“I confess that I cannot forbid a person to marry several wives, for it does not contradict the Scripture. If a man wishes to marry more than one wife he should be asked whether he is satisfied in his conscience that he may do so in accordance with the Word of God. In such a case the civil authority has nothing to do in the matter.”
Letter to Chancellor Gregory Bruck, January 13, 1524
(De Wette II, 459, pp. 329, 330)
In fairness, it must be mentioned that Luther was not in favor of the general adoption of polygamy as a Christian form of marriage. Indeed, he advised that it be reserved for extreme situations where the first wife was ill, etc. However, he freely admitted that his objection to the general practice of polygamy by Christians was not based on any prohibition found in the words of scripture, but rather founded on social reasons; that scandal may be avoided, and that offenses be not given. He quoted St. Paul saying, “All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient” (1 Cor. 6:12)
Even so, his views towards polygamy remained, shall we say, “permissive” throughout his life. Sixteen years after the letter to Chancellor Buck, quoted above, Luther and other Reformation leaders were found giving their consent to the plural marriage of Prince Phillip of Hesse. A fact which has proven an embarrassment to many Protestants since, and is considered to be one of Luther’s “warts”.
Not too surprisingly, Brigham Young had favorable things to say about Martin Luther (and Mormons in general view him, and all the reformers, in a very positive light – and not necessarily for his views on polygamy):
“We have been told a great many times that polygamy is not according to Christianity. The Protestant reformers believed the doctrine of polygamy. Philip, Landgrave of Hesse, one of the principal lords and princes of Germany, wrote to the great reformer Martin Luther and his associate reformers, anxiously imploring them to grant unto him the privilege of marrying a second wife, while his first wife, the princess, was yet living. He urged that the practice was in accordance with the Bible, and not prohibited under the Christian dispensation. Upon the reception of this letter, Luther, who had denounced the Romish church for prohibiting the marriage of priests, and who favored polygamy, met in council with the principal Reformers to consult upon the letter which had been received from the Landgrave. They wrote him a lengthy letter in reply, approving of his taking a second wife, saying,
‘There is no need of being much concerned for what men will say, provided all goes right with conscience. So far do we approve it, and in those circumstances only by us specified, for the gospel hath neither recalled nor forbid what was permitted in the law of Moses with respect to the marriage. Jesus Christ has not changed the external economy, but added justice only, and life everlasting for reward. He teaches the true way of obeying God, and endeavors to repair the corruption of nature.’
This letter was written at Wittemburg, the Wednesday after the feast of St. Nicholas, 1539, and was signed by Martin Luther, Philip Melancthon, Martin Bucer, and five other Reformers, and was written in Melancthon’s own handwriting.
The marriage was solemnized on the 4th of March, 1540, by the Rev. Denis Melanther, chaplain to Philip. Philip’s first wife was so anxious ‘that the soul and body of her dearest spouse should run no further risk, and that the glory of God might be increased,’ that she freely consented to the match.
This letter of the great Reformers was not a hasty conclusion on their part that polygamy was sanctioned by the gospel, for in the year 1522, seventeen years before they wrote this letter, Martin Luther himself, in a sermon which he delivered at Wittemburg for the reformation of marriage, clearly pronounced in favor of polygamy.
These transactions are published in the work entitled, ‘History of the variations of the Protestant churches.’
Ladies and gentlemen, I exhort you to think for yourselves, and read your Bibles for yourselves, get the Holy Spirit for yourselves, and pray for yourselves, that your minds may be divested of false traditions and early impressions that are untrue.” June 18, 1865, Journal of Discourses 11:127
We owe a large debt of gratitude to the great man, Martin Luther, and to William Tyndale, and John Wycliffe, and Jan Hus, and to all the other brave men and women of the Reformation who risked both their lives and their fortunes to live and teach the Truth as they saw it. They sowed some of the first seeds of religious freedom, and tho the crop is slow in growing, we are still reaping the benefits of their labors today.
HAPPY REFORMATION DAY!