Luther, Jefferson, and Trump


April 3, 1521, the most controversial Catholic monk in Europe rode into the German city of Worms to stand before Emperor Frederick on the charges the Church had against him. He had traveled from the place where all the controversy began, the city of Wittenberg where Luther in 1512 received his doctorate and taught at the Wittenberg University. It was here he nailed his 95 Theses to the Castle Church door challenging the church’s use of Indulgences. This wasn’t a protest but the way one started a dialogue over issues needing clarification. Having access to a Bible, which most including priests did not, Luther saw a glaring conflict between what was in the Bible and the practice of Indulgences.

At first blush we might find this fact that Bibles were scarce in the church incredible, but not so much when you consider that any cannon of the Bible (the authorized collection of writings put into one volume) didn’t begin to form until 170 AD and not until The Council of Hippo (AD 393) and the Council of Carthage (AD 397) were the same 27 books deemed authoritative.

As the New Testament is mostly the letters to the churches spread throughout the Greek/Roman world it was written in Greek because that was the common language. The collection of writings that would form the Old Testament were, obviously, written in Hebrew that in the third century was translated by Origin into Greek in what we call the Septuagint. Don’t forget, all this translation and copying is done by hand so there won’t be a mass of copies available for people to read, including the time-period of Luther, though this was quickly changing in his lifetime.

Now in this Greek/Roman world the educated were taught Latin that would distinguish them from the common person who only spoke Greek. In 382 Pope Damasus commissioned Jerome to provide a definitive Latin version of the Bible. As Rome took over the leadership of the church Latin was the language used in masses and any communications between priests and the common folk in sermons. In part because Bibles were scarce, church doctrine was taught based on scripture, which most could not validate because they wouldn’t have a Bible to read. And, of course, the masses who would never have access to a Bible had to trust their church leaders to speak the truth to them. So it was unusual that Luther would get a copy of the Bible and then to be so taken by it that his head was constantly in the Bible.

Sometime around 1439 the first printing press was invented by Johannes Gutenberg, born in Mainz, Germany, though it was most likely he was living in Strasburg when the invention that would change the world came into being. It was in 1450 that he began printing the Bible in Latin and the Gutenberg Bible is the first one ever printed. It’s doubtful that the Bible Luther had was a printed Bible, more likely a hand copy, but the printing press would change his and our world in ways he could not imagine.

By the time of Luther it had been 1,500 years since the First Church. Now the Roman Catholic Church is the dominant church in Europe and it has fallen into the preaching mode of dangling people over hell to scare them into good works and salvation. In this theology of works, Metaxas explains regarding Martin Luther, he was in a desperate search for the meaning of life and the way of salvation. It couldn’t be this difficult, he worried. In his study of the Bible, Luther began to see the conflict between the doctrine of the church and the doctrine of the Bible. Nowhere in the Bible could he find indulgences which had become the way of the Roman church to pay for so many things going on in Rome. As the church went after Luther it opened Pandora’s box as Luther pointed out more and more the doctrines of the church in conflict with scripture.

Two great men before Luther took on Rome, John Wycliffe who died of natural causes but whose bones were dug up by the church and burned to say, “Take that you heretic,” and John Huss who was burned at the stake. The followers of Hus formed the Moravian Church in 1457 that predates Luther’s reformation but it wasn’t until Luther that Protestantism exploded as an alternative to the Roman Catholic Church. The biggest support in this that Hus didn’t have was the printing press. Many of Luther’s writings of his arguments against the church, and his sermons on faith and salvation, and the contrast between church doctrine and scripture’s teaching that salvation comes by faith (not works), an action by God and not man, was being printed and distributed throughout the German federation. At the Diet of Worms were 61 plus writings of Luther on display that had been printed and widely read. As Metaxas writes in Luther:

“That Luther was in some ways the first celebrity of modern culture had everything to do with the extraordinary reach of his publications . . . The technology to print a near infinity of his many writings and to add to them the fanciful woodcut illustrations by Cranach made something possible that had never been possible before, to blast a persona—an image and a lively voice that knew how to communicate to the common man—into the wide world, where it would touch the butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers, none of whom spoke Latin or had previously ever been invited into these important discussions about the world in which they lived, about the institutions that affected them and shaped their lives.”

This is what caught my attention: the masses felt disenfranchised from the church that didn’t seem to listen to them or be concerned enough with them to understand their needs and work on their behalf. In Luther they found their voice and a message of hope. The Christian world (indeed so much of the world at large) was forever changed.

Fast forward a couple hundred plus years to 1776 and names like Washington, Madison, Jefferson, the two Adams, Hamilton and many more and we have some uncanny similarities to the time of Martin Luther. In fact, Martin Luther and his reformation were the catalyst behind the Puritans leaving Europe and coming to America.

By the time of Henry VIII the Reformation had already reached England and was brought to life when Henry wanted a divorce and the Pope wouldn’t give him one so he kicked the Pope out of England and took over the church. The German succession from the Roman Catholic Church (at least more than not) reveals a new thinking by the people and a willingness to trust individualism over absolute authority. This kind of thinking had always been part of England which brought about the Magna Carta ceding some power away from the monarchy to the people. Protestantism expanded this thought, especially inside the church, and the rebellion of the Puritans and the Separatists wanting a new freedom, both religiously and politically led them to a new world where this would be possible.

What the Reformation did for the Christians in Europe, indeed around the world by opening up the Bible to the common person giving them greater access to ruling their own lives, was happening again in the American Thirteen Colonies. As it wasn’t Martin Luther’s intention to separate himself and others from the Catholic Church but to reform it, it ended up in separation because the church leaders wouldn’t listen to his ideas of reform. So it wasn’t the intention of the Americans to separate themselves from England but to be granted more local authority over their lives, for instance, representation in the British Parliament. While money was the most obvious cause, fundamental issues both in the Church and Britain prevented any reconciliation.

In Martin Luther’s scriptural studies, he could not find where the church was placed between man and God. He also found that salvation was not through works or the church but salvation came from the grace of God to individuals changing the role of the church in everyone’s lives.

And in the American colonies, men like Madison, Sam and John Adams, George Washington, Franklin and Jefferson were understanding though their reading of the Bible that there are self-evident truths that determined the nature of life irrespective of governments. And through the pen of Thomas Jefferson they all agreed that “[w]e hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

This was their version of Luther’s 95-Thesis that would bring about a revolution that would change the world.

Now fast-forward again, this time to 2016. The conditions for the Reformation—that the people weren’t being listened to by their leaders—that were also the conditions for the American Revolution are seen again rising up to cause trouble.

In 1969 we heard the term “silent majority” by Richard Nixon. These were so-called middle Americans, normal people who aren’t politically active and just trying to live their lives and don’t have time to protest. Donald Trump in his bid for president brought back the idea of the silent majority. Like those Germans in the time of Luther, and the Colonists in the time of our founding, middle Americans found themselves being stabbed by the sharp stick of government changing their lives not for the better.

Democrats are making every excuse in the book for why Hillary Clinton lost her bid for president. It’s very clear that she was seen as part of the problem middle Americans saw as destroying their lives so they voted for Donald Trump because he recognized their issues as real and was willing to fix them.

As I thought about these three historical movements (one quite recent) their similarities are fascinating and the changes each brought to the world, not just themselves. While they weren’t pure and pretty movements it was the time for real and meaningful change. Because we are in the middle of this historical change it’s not always easy to see where it’s going and how it will work. As the Pope and the Catholic institution fought hard to stop Luther, and King George and Parliament fought hard to stop the American Revolution, so Democrats and progressives are working hard to stop this new American movement.