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Introduction to the Protestant Reformation: Setting the stage

Video transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] DR. BETH HARRIS: So this is the first video in a short series introducing some of the major ideas of the Protestant Reformation. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: And in this video, we just want to lay the groundwork. What was it like to live in Europe before the Protestant Reformation? DR. BETH HARRIS: That is, before 1517, when Martin Luther, a German monk and professor of theology, nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg. And we'll get back to that. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: I was driving around my neighborhood about a week ago, and I took photographs of some of the churches that were there. And within only 15 or 20 minutes, I had photographed the signs in front of six different kinds of churches. DR. BETH HARRIS: And this is a really good place to start, because it's at the time of the Reformation that we get this explosion of different kinds of Christianity. So tell us what you took pictures of. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: I took pictures of a Lutheran church, of a Baptist church, of a United Methodist church, there was a Catholic church there, there was a Congregationalist church, there was a Presbyterian church. And so five of those six churches were created as a result of the Protestant Reformation. So let's go back to a time when there was only one kind of Christianity in Western Europe. DR. BETH HARRIS: And that's the religion, we today call, Roman Catholicism. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Now we didn't need to use that phrase, Roman Catholicism, because there was nothing to differentiate it from. The term Catholic really means universal. And so that makes the point that this was the universal Church. DR. BETH HARRIS: Or that was their ambition, to be the Universalist Church. And we use the term Roman Catholic, because the head of the Church is in Rome. And that's the pope. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: And that man was enormously important, because he would lead the way to salvation, to Heaven, according to the Catholic tradition. That is, one found one's way to salvation, which was tremendously important, because the alternative was hell. DR. BETH HARRIS: And it's important to remember, I think, that back then, the concern for most people was salvation-- was how to get to Heaven. And the path was one path. It was through the teachings of the church, through the sacraments. In a way, it was a simpler time to live, because you had one choice. You didn't have to say, what religion should I be? DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Except for those very few people in Europe, for instance, very few Jews and even fewer Muslims. So the church really infused everybody's life-- it was the vehicle to salvation. And just for the average person in a small town, the church's spire would tower over the other buildings, the bells in the tower would ring on the hour, the church would celebrate the saint's feast days-- what we call holidays, that is, holy days-- and it was, in a sense, the church that marked the days of your life, and the major events in your life, as well. DR. BETH HARRIS: And through the sacraments, you hoped to earn God's grace, you hoped to secure yourself a place in Heaven. And the sacraments included baptism, confirmation, communion-- which you might know as the Eucharist-- penance-- also known as confession-- marriage, last rites, and ordination for priests. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: And so it's just a good reminder of how important the Church was in the lives of everyday people. And those everyday people, although they might look to their local priests, would look to the pope in Rome as the ultimate authority on earth. And the pope, at this point in 1517, was Pope Leo X. DR. BETH HARRIS: So Pope Leo X was intent on rebuilding the Church of Saint Peter's, and the plans for Saint Peter's were very ambitious. In fact, Pope Julius II, who commissioned the rebuilding of Saint Peter's-- the pope before Leo X-- said he wanted to create the most grandiose church in all of Christendom. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: And they did. The church itself, Saint Peter's Basilica, was tremendously important to the authority of the pope. By tradition, Saint Peter is buried under that church. And Saint Peter was charged by Christ himself to lead to church, and so Saint Peter is understood to be the first pope. And so every succeeding pope is taking on the job of Saint Peter from Christ himself. And so the very authority of this office is vested in this building. The problem is, the building was really expensive to construct. And the question was, where were they going to get the money? DR. BETH HARRIS: Well, there was a pretty common way to get money, and that was selling indulgences. Now an indulgence was a piece of paper that made it possible for you to get to Heaven more quickly. Most people when they died-- you had, throughout your life, confessed your sins, you had atoned for your sins, but there would probably be something that you hadn't quite atoned for. And so for most people, you wouldn't go straight to Heaven. You would go, instead, to this place in between-- a kind of way station before you got to Heaven. A place called Purgatory. And it was indulgences that bought you time off from Purgatory. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: So this is a little tricky, because indulgences were actually a very old tradition. Where if you did a good work, you could, in fact, receive an indulgence. That is, a kind of certificate that would speed your soul out of Purgatory, to Heaven. Even in certain extraordinary cases, it might allow you to circumvent Purgatory entirely, and go directly to Heaven. The problems began not so much in the actual indulgences, but in the perception of the selling of indulgences. And here's what happened, Leo X granted indulgences to his representatives to raise money for the building of Saint Peter's, but this was misunderstood to mean that one could simply pay money and then gain access to Heaven directly. DR. BETH HARRIS: But keep in mind, that money was for the rebuilding of Saint Peter's. And say you were doing a good work, and according to the Catholic church, doing a good work is one of the ways you can assist in the process of gaining yourself a place in Heaven. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: And it does make sense that even a monetary donation to doing good Christian work would be itself a kind of holy act. DR. BETH HARRIS: But it did come to be seen as a money exchange for getting to Heaven. And the one example that really got under Martin Luther's craw, so to speak, was a man named Tetzel, who was selling indulgences not far from Wittenburg where Luther was professor of theology. Tetzel said, "as soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs." So you can see right there, money is going in and a soul is going up to Heaven. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: It sounds so crass, and you're absolutely right. Martin Luther, who was a monk and was a very devout professor of theology, was really rubbed the wrong way by people saying that they had bought these indulgences and therefore, they were freed of their sins. DR. BETH HARRIS: And as a monk, Luther felt oppressed by the sinfulness of human nature, or his own nature, and so the idea that you could pay money to erase those sins and get quicker entry to Heaven was really an issue for him. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: He took these issues very seriously and really struggled with them. And then he did what any good doctor of theology would do, he wrote out a series of arguments. But in his case, he posted them, at least according to tradition, to the doors of the castle church in Wittenberg. 95 Theses, 95 arguments, that took issue primarily with the selling of indulgences. DR. BETH HARRIS: Luther sent them to the local archbishop, and they made their way to Rome. And so we have the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: In fact, if you think about those words, Protestant Reformation, for just a moment, I think it's interesting to note that the word Protestant is formed out of the work protest, and reformation out of the work reform. So this was a kind of protest against the church, and it was an attempt to reform it. [MUSIC PLAYING]