A brief history of the Reformation & Reformation Day in Germany

A brief history of the Reformation & Reformation Day in Germany

The Reformation was a historical shift that shaped much of Europe as we know it today. Here in Germany, pivotal figures of the Protestant Reformation rose to mount a political challenge to the all-powerful Catholic church. In advance of Germany marking Reformation Day on October 31, here’s the German side of the story of the Reformation.

What was the Reformation?

The Reformation was a pivotal period in European Christianity in the 16th century, which saw the start of Protestantism and the splitting of Western European Christianity into Protestantism and Catholicism. Though there were many attempts at reform before, the key figure seen as responsible for the Reformation was Martin Luther, one of Germany’s own, with the writing of a letter in 1517, that came to be known as his Ninety-five Theses.

The objections made by Luther came to be guiding principles of the Reformation - questions around the elevated status of the clergy, the pope and the luxurious lives they were seen to live. The sale of indulgences - grants that diminished or waived punishments for sins - was particularly criticised. Luther further argued that Scripture could be the only source of proper doctrine, and that belief in Jesus was the only source of salvation, rather than good deeds.  

The works of Martin Luther

Luther's works were originally written in Latin, but they were soon translated into German and widely distributed across the country and Europe - a process that was greatly aided by the recent invention of the printing press. 

Luther claimed that his work was merely for the purposes of academic debate, but as popular support for reform began to grow, he became a key figure in the Reformation movement. Many Christians supported his ideas and soon enough, formalised documents and literature were produced to set the doctrine of the reformists into scripture.

While some praised Luther's progressive thinking, others called for him to be burned at the stake for heresy. Ultimately, Luther was excommunicated in 1521 but not burned, and his literature - although officially banned - had a lasting impact across the continent, setting the stage for reform across Europe. 

Statue of Martin Luther Reformation Germany

What happened during the Reformation in Germany?

While Martin Luther is said to have not thought his works were especially significant, others certainly did. Many nuns across Germany left their monasteries and found a new calling in what was to become the Protestant church. Lots of followers grew more discontent with the Catholic church and switched to Lutheranism in support of Germany’s most well-known theologian, pulling the country to where it is today, with the majority of German Christians being Lutheran. 

The Reformation soon began to catch on abroad, too. Across the border in Switzerland, Huldrych Zwingli pushed the movement further still, with some of his followers believing that the Reformation didn’t go far enough and that more radical actions needed to be taken.

Meanwhile in France, John Calvin, the founder of Calvinist theology, stepped away from the Catholic church in 1530 and moved to Switzerland to get away from the persecution of reformists that was taking place in France. Calvin then spread the reformist ideology to Scotland, Hungary, Switzerland and the rest of Germany - forever transforming the religious landscape of western Europe and setting the stage for centuries of conflict over these competing ideologies. 

Reformation holiday in Germany

Reformation Day (Reformationstag) marks the day that Luther nailed a copy of his Ninety-five Theses to the door of the All Saints' Church in Wittenberg and remembers the pivotal change that came about because of it. As early as 1567, Protestant churches across the country began marking the day the 95 Theses was posted. 

Nowadays, the day is celebrated as a public holiday in several predominately Protestant German federal states: Brandenburg, Bremen, Hamburg, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Lower Saxony, Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt, Schleswig-Holstein and Thuringia.

On October 31, 2017, Germany marked the 500th anniversary of Reformation Day with a public holiday across the whole country. 

On Reformation Day, churches typically hold special commemorative services, while people might choose to wear the symbolic colour of red and eat foods like bread, cakes and sweet treats. 

Emily Proctor


Emily Proctor

Emily grew up in the UK before moving abroad to study International Relations and Chinese. After this, she obtained a Master's degree in International Security and gained an interest in...

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