To finance such projects, the Church increased fees for services such as marriages and baptisms. Some clergy also promoted the sale of indulgences.

An indulgence was a type of pardon that lessened the time of punishment a soul faced for sins committed during a person's lifetime. In the Middle Ages, the Church had granted indulgences only for good deeds. By the late 1400s, however, indulgences could be bought with money or a gift to the Church.

Many Christians protested such practices. In Northern Europe, especially, religious piety deepened even as interest in secular things was growing. Christian humanists such as Erasmus urged a return to the simplicity of the early Christian church. They stressed Bible study and rejected Church pomp and ceremony.

Early Reformers

Even before the Protestant Reformation, a few religious thinkers had called for change. In England in the late 1300s, John Wycliffe attacked corruption in the Church. He also questioned some Church doctrines. He is probably best remembered for supporting the translation of the Bible into English. After his death, Wycliffe was condemned for heresy, but not before his ideas had spread to other lands.

A Czech priest and philosopher, John Hus, was a follower of Wycliffe. Like Wycliffe, Hus believed Christians should be allowed to read the Bible in their own language. He rejected some Church teachings, including indulgences. Put on trial for his activities, he was condemned and burned at the stake. His followers continued to operate in Eastern Europe, despite Church efforts to destroy the movement.

Martin Luther's Protests Bring Change

Protests against the Church continued to grow. In 1517, these protests erupted into a full scale revolt. The man who triggered the revolt was a German monk and professor of theology named Martin Luther.

Raised in a middle-class German family, Martin Luther had been slated by his father for a career as a lawyer. As a youth, however, he had a powerful religious experience that changed his life. One day, during a violent storm, a terrified Luther cried out to St. Anne for help. He promised to become a monk if he were spared.

True to his word, Luther entered a monastery. There, he prayed, fasted, and tried to lead a holy life. Still, he suffered from doubts. He believed he was a sinner, doomed to eternal damnation.

He also grew increasingly disillusioned with what he saw as the corruption and worldliness of the Church. An incident in his native town of Wittenberg, Germany, prompted him to act.

95 Theses Challenge the Church

In 1517, a German priest, Johann Tetzel, set up a pulpit on the outskirts of Wittenberg. With the approval of the pope, he sold indulgences to any Christian who contributed money for the rebuilding of the Cathedral of St. Peter in Rome. Tetzel claimed that purchase of these indulgences would assure entry into heaven not only for the buyers but for their dead relatives as well.

To a pious man like Luther, Tetzel's actions were an outrage. Luther was furious that people could pay for indulgences and think they were saved instead of seeking true repentance for their sins. Besides, only the rich could afford indulgences.

Painting of a man in a robe and cap using a hammer to point to papers nailed to the door of a large building. Other men have lined up to observe.

Martin Luther nails his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg. The theses also contained an invitation to church leaders to debate Luther on the issues raised by his theses. The invitation was ignored.

In response, Luther drew up a list of 95 Theses, or arguments, against indulgences. Following the custom of the time, he posted the list on the door of Wittenberg's All Saints Church.


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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments