Reflecting on 500 years of the Reformation


Matthew Crawford, an assistant professor in the history department.

Cameron Gorman

To most, Oct. 31 is Halloween — the saturation of skulls and devils conjures up many less-than-Christian visions of holiday revelry. But it also marks a lesser known observance — the 500th anniversary of Reformation Day.

“Within the Lutheran Church, we pretty much mark Reformation Day as an important day because it kind of grounds us in who we are as people of faith, following the teachings of Martin Luther,” said the Rev. Douglas Fidler of Trinity Lutheran Church in Kent.  

On that day in 1517, Luther nailed his 95 theses on the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany — a key moment in the events of the Protestant Reformation.

“The Reformation was a cleavage in Western European Christianity between what becomes Catholicism and the various … Protestant churches,” said Matthew Crawford, an assistant professor in the history department.

This division and reform of the western Church in the 16th century, mainly sparked by leaders Luther and John Calvin, was in response to perceived problems such as the sale of indulgences in the Catholic Church — giving money in return for some merit or grace, said Fidler.

“At the time, Luther wasn’t necessarily arguing that, but … what really was troubling him was people were just — those who could would pay the money, and then there would be no change of heart,” Fidler said.

The Reformation played a part in making the Catholic Church “look at itself,” said Jordan Cinderich, the associate director of campus ministry for the University Parish Newman Center.

“If we didn’t have the Reformation, we wouldn’t have the Council of Trent, which is where a lot of that reformation happened,” Cinderich said. “And if you look at Luther’s original issues with the church, a lot of those things have been addressed and have helped grow the church. So in a lot of ways, the Reformation did help the church in its growth.”

Now, Cinderich said, the two institutions are engaged in solidarity.

“The Catholic Church is celebrating the Reformation as well,” Cinderich said. “The past is the past, but we do have a great relationship with the Lutheran community of the world, and we’re very similar in most ways — most of the things that they had troubles with, the church has fixed.”

The anniversary was a driving factor in the offering of Crawford’s class, “The Protestant and Catholic Reformations,” this year — the first time Crawford has taught it in the nine years he has been at Kent State.

“The main goal of the course is to introduce students to the era of the Reformation, predominantly in early modern Europe,” Crawford said. “… It’s specifically about those series of events, but I think really what one of the things the things the course is about is religion in history, and the role of religion in society.”

Lindsay Starkey, an assistant professor of history, teaches the same class at the Stark campus.

“The class in general, the way I kind of conceptualize it, is about, essentially, the debate about what it means to be Christian, beginning in the 16th century in Europe,” Starkey said.

Crawford said he has seen a good amount of student interest — perhaps because of the charismatic allure of the character of Luther himself — for example, his prolific use of the newly invented printing press.

“He published a massive amount of material — he relentlessly attacked his critics in the press, he was constantly attacking the papacy in Rome, and he did a lot to build up his own image, and his supporters did that as well,” Crawford said. “He was very, very good at using this new medium, not unlike certain figures in the media today who use Twitter in a very effective way to reach the masses and craft a public image and so forth.”

Fidler said this helped Luther because of the overwhelming power of the Catholic Church at the time.

“Everything that Luther wrote was quickly printed and mass published,” Fidler said. “So you could try to quiet him, but all of a sudden there were hundreds if not thousands of people already saying, ‘Yeah, we agree with this guy.’”

The Reformation caught on, Crawford said, not only because of Luther’s ideas but because of the way in which he used technology.

“One objective is to think about how those other factors — technology, social structures, social tensions, political interests — come into play to drive this division and drive this religious change,” Crawford said.

One change involved the shift in thinking that the worth of a Christian was determined by faith alone rather than by requiring good works.

“Luther, early in his career, was really troubled that the image he had of God was a stern judge, out to get people, and if you don’t toe the line, you’re going to spend years in torment,” Fidler said. “And that was a pretty popular thinking approach, and it was a way to control the masses. And Luther began studying the Scriptures … he discovered a verse from the Old Testament, Habakkuk, that the righteous shall live by faith. And all of a sudden, it was kind of like his eyes were opened. It’s not by what we have to do, but it’s by what God has done for us already.”

Though this is still a cornerstone of the Lutheran Church, Catholics uphold the belief that works are important.

“What’s interesting to me because of that — and this is what I think is the special modern relevance — is that debates start to break out about on what should we base our belief,” Starkey said. “… I think this question about on which authority should we base our actions — in other words, how do we prove we’re right in certain kinds of debates — I think that’s something that’s still with us today.”

The Reformation, however, was not only a change in ideas, but in society — something that could be seen as a reflection of current cultural divides.

“The fact that it’s not just any anniversary, but 500 years I think is something that’s getting people’s attention,” Starkey said. “I think the fact that the Reformation is often seen as a moment of division in European history, and that’s something that I think that is something that kind of affects the modern world today, these questions of differences.”

Crawford said that the connection to the present was important, but cautioned against searching for parallels.

“I think it’s definitely important to recognize the ways in which the past is different than our world today, and you can get into a lot of trouble trying to draw analogies from the past to the present,” Crawford said. “But … you don’t want to go too far in that line of thinking, because if you’re studying the past just for the past’s sake, then it doesn’t seem as meaningful.”  

The past, for example, can be “good to think with,” said Crawford — in other words, it can provide a context in which to think about contemporary issues without the strong feelings that come with them, such as church and state separation.

“With the caveat that we do need to respect the past and understand it, we also need to recognize that we’re connected to the past. We don’t live in isolation from it,” Crawford said. “We live in a society that is very future oriented … but the fact is that we can’t deny that our world is a product of this past.”

Learning about the Reformation — and history in general — is important not only because of the importance of preserving history, Crawford said, but because history often teaches us about issues in the present.

“For me, just in history in general, I think it gives you an appreciation that the challenges that we’re facing today, the debates that we’re having today — they didn’t just appear out of nowhere. It’s not like they’re completely unprecedented,” Crawford said. “… The challenges we face today — they’re distinctive in their own ways, but they’re not necessarily entirely new.”

Cameron Gorman is the humanities reporter. Contact her at [email protected]