Myths of the Reformation

“God knows the thoughts of the heart. It is well that Zwingli, Carlstadt, and Pellicanus lie dead on the battle-field, for otherwise we could not have retained the Landgrave, Strasburg and other of our neighbours [true to our doctrine]. Oh, what a triumph is this, that they have perished! God indeed knows His business well.”

Martin Luther’s reaction to hearing of the death of fellow “Reformer” Zwingli in battle in 1531, and the false report that two other “Reformers” had also fallen.




I find it bleakly appropriate that the Reformation began five hundred years ago on Halloween.  On this date in 1517 Martin Luther sent to his Bishop a copy of his “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences”, what has become known as his 95 theses.  He may or may not have nailed up the 95 theses to the door of All-Saints Church in Wittenberg.  If he did, there would have been nothing unusual about this, as this was a common custom to begin scholarly debate on propositions.  A scholarly debate, and no more, was probably what Luther initially intended, but debate swiftly became revolution with the Latin 95 theses begin translated into German by friends of Luther in January 1518 and swiftly spreading throughout Germany and then Europe.  The Reformation thus begun was a vast historical event, now shrouded in myths.  When it is recalled today, most people doing so will not be remembering the actual event but rather the popular myths that have been propagated about it.  Here are some of the myths.

  1.  The Church Was Corrupt-Actually the Church overall was in better shape just prior to the Reformation than it had been in centuries, with a better trained, educated and pious clergy.  Most revolutions occur in a time of rising expectations and that perhaps was the case with the Reformation.
  2. The Reformation Was a Victory for Freedom of Thought-Nothing could be further from the truth.  Luther and most of the other so-called Reformers stood foursquare against any idea that people had a right to freely discern truth in religion or other areas.  Luther, if he were alive today, would be appalled at the moral and intellectual anarchy he would perceive, none of which would have surprised him as he thought most men needed to be kept in constant check by State and church.
  3. The Reformation Was a Victory for Freedom of Religion-Luther thought that Christians should have the freedom to believe how Herr Doktor Martin Luther believed since he had discovered the truth of the Scriptures.  He took opposition poorly to say the least.
  4. The Reformation Stands for Separation of Church and State-This is the most laughable of all the myths of the Reformation.  Luther and his followers actually stood for the proposition that the State should be in charge of the Church, at least if the State were willing to impose Luther’s version of Christianity.
  5.  The Reformation Led to an Improvement in Morals-Luther himself would have laughed at that one.  At the end of his life he frequently lamented that people were worse than they had been when he was a young man.  He saw no improvement in morals at all and rather the reverse.
  6. The Reformation  Led to an Immense Religious Revival-We are indebted to the first generations of Protestant pastors who often kept careful records.  They frequently lamented how few people came to the new churches, although they were now legally compelled to come, and the ignorance, indifference and outright contempt of those who did come.  If a religious revival occurred during the Reformation it is very well disguised in the copious records that have come down to us.
  7. The Reformation Was a Victory for Democracy-Actually it was the Church, with quite a bit of difficulty, that had restrained the ambitious rulers.  Those rulers who turned Protestant were immensely strengthened, with the plunder from the Church at their disposal, a subservient local church under their control, and ministers who preached that they were God’s anointed.  The Reformation, taken as a whole, was a defeat for limited government and popular rule.

This list of myths could go on and on.  The point is that what people will be celebrating or mourning today bears little resemblance to the actual event.