Special Edition: 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation

95 Theses
Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, from University of Arizona Special Collections

Happy Reformation Day! You might be celebrating Halloween today, but Reformation scholars and Christian churches across the world are focused on commemorating the five-hundredth anniversary of Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses. Legend has it that on October 31, 1517, the Augustinian monk and professor of moral theology Martin Luther nailed his theses against papal indulgences to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. (I say “legend” because most historians agree that this story is likely apocryphal, and Luther most likely simply mailed his theses to the Archbishop of Brandenburg — but this isn’t nearly as dramatic, of course.)

In the last few days, I’ve seen articles on the Reformation quincentenary on TimeNPR, and BBC News, and from my very own institution’s UANews. In Geneva there are currently three (!) separate exhibitions commemorating the anniversary, and nearly every (Protestant) church I’ve seen is hosting some kind of celebration or event for the anniversary. I’ve even seen a “Luther 2017” poster at a church in Venice!

Scholars of the Reformed tradition (traditions that trace their roots to the Swiss reformers Calvin and Zwingli) began our own 500-year celebrations in 2009, commemorating John Calvin’s 500th birthday with a deluge of new Calvin biographies. As for me, I’m holding out for a few more years — until 2035/36 — when Genevan historians will have our own major 500-year anniversaries to celebrate: Geneva’s successful political revolution, the city’s suspension of the mass and major acts of iconoclasm, the publication of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin’s entry into Geneva, and the final unanimous vote in favor of establishing the Protestant Reformation in the city. But for now, it’s an exciting time to be a student of early modern Europe and the Reformation, and for all of us to mark this particular Reformation Day with our own commemorations and celebrations. I recommend perusing the University of Arizona Libraries’ online exhibit: After 500 Years: The Protestant Reformation (linked here to Luther’s Life & Theology).


For a consideration of the question of whether or not Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the church door, see Peter Marshall’s essay “What Martin Luther’s Reformation tells us about history and memory.” I also highly recommend C. Scott Dixon, “Did Luther Post the Ninety-Five Theses?” in his Contesting the Reformation (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), 205-7.

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