The Reformation at 500: Commemorations around the World


A few weeks ago, I set foot in the historic Saint Michael’s Church on 99th and Amsterdam for the first time. The church was hosting a concert, “J.S. Bach: Cantatas for Reformation Day,” featuring Juilliard415 and Yale Schola Cantorum, to commemorate the upcoming 500-year anniversary of the Reformation, on October 31st, 2017. The setting alone of the performance was beautiful and awe-inspiring—Saint Michael’s Church has the kind of dim lighting, chandeliers, and large stained glass windows that give it a historic feel. The chapel was also filled, with many people forced to stand on the side, adding a sense of unity and importance.

Then began the music. The two cantatas in the program, Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild and Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, were composed by Bach in the 1720s for two separate Reformation Days, when he was musical director for a boys choir in Leipzig, and written with the goal of encouraging celebration. As a result, I am sure that this particular iteration of the cantatas was very different from their original performances, where the choir consisted of all boys and the audience was listening to the music as part of a religious service—the third section of the first piece would probably have been followed by a sermon, for example.¹

Yet this recent performance was performed for the same purpose as the premieres of Bach’s cantatas—to commemorate Reformation Day all over again, 292 years later.

I actually had never heard of Reformation Day as a holiday until attending this Reformation Day concert, though I had heard the story that the Day celebrates. According to legend, Luther posted the 95 Theses on the door of the All Saints’ Church in modern-day Wittenberg, Germany, on October 31st, 1517, a day that is often considered the start of the Protestant Reformation. The Day is celebrated primarily by Lutherans and publically recognized in a few German states, as Germany is arguably the country most directly impacted by Luther’s actions. Other Protestant denominations, such as Calvinists, and more recently the Catholic Church have also come to observe this day.

But even for those who do not recognize October 31st as anything beyond Halloween, this particular event must be acknowledged as leading to the start of a fundamental change in the course of western religion. Both Catholics and Protestants would likely view the Reformation as a large, mostly positive influence—for example, many positive reforms within the Catholic Church occurred as a result, including the founding of the Jesuits and the end of indulgences.² In some ways, the Reformation also allowed Christianity to return to the people once more—and music, such as Bach’s cantatas, is an example of this.

Even beyond religious contexts, however, the nailing of the 95 Theses had monumental consequences, as the Reformation had a political impact that changed the course of governance in western Europe. Lack of religious unity divided the Holy Roman Empire and disrupted the unity that emperor Charles V had attempted to maintain, while the Peasants’ War, a revolt by farmers and peasants against the dominance of the aristocracy that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, was heavily a result of Luther’s words—even if Luther himself denounced the uprising. The Reformation spread to Switzerland and France, where conflict between Catholics and Protestants Huguenots led to more violence. England left the Catholic Church and became Anglican, something that arguably would not have occurred without this earlier change.³ All this culminated in the Thirty Years War, one of the longest and deadliest wars in European history, leading to the deaths of between 3 and 11 million people and 20% of the German population.⁴

Even beyond religious contexts, however, the nailing of the 95 Theses had monumental consequences, as the Reformation had a political impact that changed the course of governance in western Europe.

All of these events undoubtedly had huge consequences, beyond religion or theology alone. Part of this is a result of the interconnectedness of church and state in the 16th century, where any religious change would have drastic political ramifications. But what all of these undeniable consequences also mean is that there are countless ways to look back at the Reformation, and it is fascinating to consider how this is done throughout the world, especially in light of the 500th anniversary—the recent concert I went to was but one example.

This year, Reformation Day is an official holiday in all of Germany because of the 500th anniversary—on other years, only a few German states recognize the day.⁵ Yet many of the celebrations within Germany are more critically reflective than celebratory. This past summer, while in Berlin for a few days, I saw an exhibit at the Topography of Terror that took a different approach than that of Bach to the impact of the reformation.

To give a bit of context, the Topography of Terror is a history museum located on the same site of the Third Reich headquarters, with a few permanent exhibitions on aspects of the Nazi regime and varying temporary exhibits.⁶ This summer, it featured a special exhibit titled “‘Luther’s words are everywhere …’ – Martin Luther in Nazi Germany,” which will be on display until November 5, 2017, a few days after the 500th anniversary of Luther’s most famous act. The exhibit primarily focused upon Martin Luther’s influence on the Third Reich: how the Nazis took Luther’s words and turned them into justifications for evil and genocide.

The exhibit started out by recounting other ways that Martin Luther had been celebrated throughout German history. For example, the 400th anniversary of the nailing of the theses was during WWI, a relatively modest celebration, while the 450th birthday of Luther was celebrated in 1933, the year the Nazis took power—an opportunity they used to claim sole ownership of Luther. “Luther belongs to us Germans alone,” said Kurt Melcher, Governor of the Prussian Province of Saxony in 1933, according to the exhibit.

The exhibit primarily focused upon Martin Luther’s influence on the Third Reich: how the Nazis took Luther’s words and turned them into justifications for evil and genocide.

As the exhibit went on, providing further information on the progression of the Nazi regime, the number of startling references to Luther and how his words supported their actions only increased. Protestant theologians, church historians, and politicians contributed to Luther’s reputation as a representative of “militant Germanness,” often depicting him as “the personification of a Christianity “appropriate for [our] type.”” Then, on the night of November 9, 1938, SA, SS, and German civilians ransacked Jewish homes, burned synagogues, and destroyed Jewish businesses. This Night of Broken Glass or Kristallnacht was also the night of Martin Luther’s 455th birthday—and the overlap of these two events was not a coincidence. The exhibition stated:

“Because the pogroms took place on the eve of Luther’s birthday, it stood to reason that the Nazis made reference to his anti-Jewish statements in order to legitimize their crimes.”

That Luther was anti-semitic is undeniable. In 1543, Luther published On The Jews and Their Lies, which called for and justified the burning of Jewish synagogues. He even writes, “we are at fault in not slaying them,” at one point, which seems to directly support what the Nazis were doing.⁷ There are differing views today, however, on the extent of Luther’s anti-semitism and the extent to which his views influenced Germany in the next 400 years.⁸

The exhibit seemed to conclude that Luther’s anti-semitic views had little to do with the way that the Nazis interpreted them, and that he would not have been satisfied to see the result. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor known for his staunch opposition to the Nazis, wrote in 1943, as shown in the entrance to the exhibit, “one wonders why Luther’s actions had to be followed by consequences that were the exact opposite of what he intended.” Kurt Hendel, professor emeritus of Reformation history at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, explains that Luther’s opposition to Jews was a result not of their specific ethnic group but of their refusal to convert.⁹

Even if Luther’s motivations for anti-semitism were not based on ethnicity, however, any type of anti-semitism cannot be overlooked. To clarify, I am not trying to bring up negative aspects of Luther’s legacy today to take away from his positive influence—his accomplishments, as stated earlier, were vital and changed things for the better in a lot of ways. But it is also important to recognize that Luther also has a more dark, often overlooked side, which is usually ignored in the annual commemorations of his legacy.

500 years since the Reformation should be a time to reflect and think critically about both the past and the future, not just to celebrate the past, because while a lot of great things have come about as a result of the Reformation and Luther’s actions, not all of it is necessarily good. Celebrating the Reformation should also not emphasize any one person above all others—the Reformation was able to exert the influence that it did only because of a multitude of predecessors and successors (John Wycliffe, Jan Hus, Ulrich Zwingli, to name a few). No one person could have caused Christianity to split or have influenced the Catholic Church in such a major way.

500 years since the Reformation should be a time to reflect and think critically about both the past and the future, not just to celebrate the past.

Today, most Americans and Europeans would probably say that Christianity has less influence in politics today compared to Luther’s day. This is probably true, and there are few religious figures with significant political power besides the Pope and the Dalai Lama. But it’s also important to remember that in the 16th century, Christianity and the Reformation had little impact or acceptance outside of Europe. This is in contrast to now, where Christianity has reached all of the continents and expanded to include a vast range of cultures and practices.

There also may not be as many “Reformers” such as Luther, changing the very face of theology, but theology continues to evolve—the Catholic church made distinct changes during Vatican II in the 1960s ¹⁰, the many Protestant churches are also constantly changing, and new denominations continue to be born.

In a few days, the Reformation will be celebrated across the world. Germany, the birthplace of Luther, will be host to a range of events and celebrations, many of which build off pre-existing ones.¹¹ Other areas nearby, such as Switzerland, have also commemorated the Reformation in the past; Geneva, for example, contains the Reformation Wall, a larger-than-life monument consisting of statues of important figures of the Reformation in Switzerland including John Calvin, for whose 400th birthday the monument was built.

The impact of the Reformation, however, has spread well beyond central Europe. Reformation Day has been a public holiday in Chile since 2008, a “cultural milestone,” as Latin America has previously primarily recognized only Roman Catholic holidays.¹² Slovenia has also recognized the day since 1992, which is always now a work-free day for the country.¹³ Many secular events in the United States of America, including concerts or lectures, recognize the anniversary of the Reformation, especially this 500 year anniversary.

The extent of this celebration is truly global in its nature. But there is always room for more —and perhaps in the future, in areas around the world where Christianity has newly sprung, there will be holidays, monuments, events, and exhibits that go beyond what we have now, focusing upon a new generation of influence.

Tiffany Li ’19 is Managing Editor of Crown & Cross. 







⁷ Martin Luther, On Jews and Their Lies.