500 Years of Protestantism

October 31st will mark the five-hundredth anniversary of the symbolic beginning of the Protest Reformation and, therefore, one of the most momentous occasions in the history of the West. On that day in 1517, a monk named Martin Luther is said to have nailed his Ninety-five Theses­, a list of severe grievances against the Catholic Church, to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Saxony. With that legendary deed, Luther set into motion a sweeping tide of religious reform throughout Europe that would have serious reverberations throughout all of Christendom and the world. The following religious conflict between Catholic and Protestants would define Europe for centuries through dynastic upheavals, such as those that plagued early modern England, and massive continent-wide conflagrations, most notably the Thirty Years’ War.

Protestantism, with over nine-hundred million adherents, is the second-largest form of Christianity in the world. Of course, Protestantism is of particular historical importance to the College; Dartmouth was founded by Eleazar Wheelock in affiliation with the Congregationalist movement.

This remarkable anniversary provides an historic opportunity to consider what this day means to Protestants, clergy and laity alike, within our community.

The Rev. Mandy Lape-Freeberg, who has recently become Senior Pastor of Wheelock’s own Church of Christ at Dartmouth College (CCDC), views this occasion as a very momentous one. It has given her an opportunity to consider the distinctions of Protestantism and to sermonize about those characteristics, such as sola scriptura or “by scripture alone,” which trace their theology back to Luther himself. Though she acknowledges and regrets some of Luther’s flaws, particularly his anti-Semitism, she celebrates his role as the progenitor of many principles of Protestant faith. She said that her denomination, the United Church of Christ’s, religious and democratic culture comes from Luther and that they are beholden to Luther for his courage and what he did.

“I am grateful for this anniversary coinciding with my beginning tenure at CCDC because the Reformation is a wonderful lens to look at our tradition through,” Rev. Lape-Freeberg told The Review.

Luther’s outspoken and revolutionary theology indeed put him into bitter conflict with the Catholic Church. His Ninety-five Theses were defined by their attack on the Catholic sacrament of indulgences, which allowed believers to reduce their punishment in purgatory for a price. Luther contested that salvation was achieved by the grace of God through faith and could not be bought or sold. For his heretical preaching, Luther was the subject of a papal bull in 1520 censuring his writings and threatening him with excommunication unless he recanted. In bold defiance of the Pope, who he would later call “the very antichrist,” Luther burned the bull publicly.

When called to account for his actions by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms, Luther refused to acquiesce. He legendarily proclaimed, “Here I stand, I can do no other.” At that moment, his historic bravery and resolve were commendably apparent.

This anniversary is a time to remember and value Luther’s contributions to Christian faith and worship for the Rev. Dr. Guy Collins, Rector at St. Thomas Episcopal Church and Dartmouth’s Episcopal Campus Minister at Edgerton House. Rev. Collins emphasized that he and his congregation value Luther’s movement of radical inclusion that brought people from all walks of life into religious practice. Rev. Collins called him an educator, who helped make the holiest of scriptures available to the common people by translating the Holy Bible from the esoteric Latin into the vernacular German. In this regard, Rev. Collins also esteemed Luther’s role in involving those previously excluded from Christian worship, especially women and children.

To commemorate the anniversary, Rev. Collins has been teaching an OSHER@Dartmouth class for the last six weeks on the life and times of Martin Luther, with a particular focus on his theology and spirituality. The course is a part of a lifelong learning program that has enabled him to teach not only members of his congregation, but also members of the broader Dartmouth community. In this way, he sees himself emulating Luther’s model of communal engagement.

“Part of what I love about Luther is that he doesn’t separate the spiritual from the secular. He’s a man who lives in the world and we Episcopalians, we like to be living in the world, and the idea that we are some sort of holy huddle would be anathema to Luther and is anathema to us,” Rev. Collins remarked to The Review.

On Sunday, October 29th, the St. Thomas Episcopal Church commemorated the five-hundredth anniversary in their service and reflected on what Luther can still give them, in addition to remembering some of the more challenging aspects of his life and character. In his honor, their choir performed an anthem inspired by one of the hymns Luther himself wrote.

Regarding history and theology, the Lutheran Church is the most direct offspring of its namesake’s beliefs. Therefore, the anniversary is very significant for the Rev. Nancy Vogele ‘85, Dartmouth’s Lutheran Campus Minister, and her community at Our Savior Lutheran Church. The church celebrated the anniversary on Sunday with worship and special music, followed by a festive luncheon, including Reformation Ale. Rev. Vogele views the occasion as one that inspires her community to keep moving forward, as she likes to say, “Always Reforming.” Even though the Reformation began around five-hundred years ago, she believes it is one that guides Lutherans “to reform continually in order to serve God in our neighbors.”

Rev. Vogele, Our Savior’s Transitional Pastor, is not personally a Lutheran, coming from an Episcopalian background, but has found the experience of leading the Lutheran congregation very enhancing for her religious faith.

Her Sunday sermon on focused not on the importance of Luther nailing his Ninety-five Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church, but rather on the spiritual significance of Luther’s self-described “Tower Experience.” That is when he realized, after days, if not a lifetime, of spiritual turmoil and meditation, perhaps his most important principle: salvation by grace through faith. The importance of this “Tower Experience” to Rev. Vogele is as indicative of Luther’s internal reformation and personal feeling of doing God’s work in the world.

“I call it the reformation before the Reformation,” she says.

According to Rev. Vogele, Luther’s values directly guide the operations of the Lutheran Campus Ministry at Dartmouth.

“‘Building Community. Deepening Faith. Expanding Minds. Inspiring Service.’ This is the vision of Lutheran Campus Ministry and it guides all that we do for our students. I think it describes Luther’s vision as well for the church,” Rev. Vogele informed The Review.

Although it will be five-hundred years since Luther’s legendary initiation of the Protestant Reformation on Tuesday, it is clear that his legacy lives on with great spiritual significance for many Protestants at Dartmouth, actively shaping their religious communities. Anniversaries of this importance and history are rare and inspire us to think respectfully and intently about the turning points of our civilization. This week, many in our community will take a moment to reflect on what their faith and society owes the decisive actions of a lone German monk centuries ago, and we at The Review intend to do the same. Though a complicated figure, Luther can inspire us all with his intrepid spirit and willingness to strike out against the prevailing current.