Traditionally, 31 October 1517 is widely held to be the day German monk Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the All Saints' Church in Wittenberg, Electorate of Saxony within the Holy Roman Empire. Reliable evidence unambiguously confirming this event is not known of. Historians and other experts on the subject argue that Luther may have chosen All Hallows' Eve on purpose to get the attention of common people, although this has never been proven. Available data suggests that October 31 was when Luther sent his work to Albert of Brandenburg, the Archbishop of Mainz. This has been verified; nowadays, it is regarded as the start of the Reformation alongside the unconfirmed, supposed nailing of the Ninety-Five Theses to All Saints' Church's door on the same date.
On 31 October 1517, Martin Luther wrote to Albrecht, Archbishop of Mainz and Magdeburg, protesting against the sale of indulgences. He enclosed in his letter a copy of his "Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences," which came to be known as The 95 Theses. Hans Hillerbrand writes that Luther had no intention of confronting the church, but saw his disputation as a scholarly objection to church practices, and the tone of the writing is accordingly "searching, rather than doctrinaire." Hillerbrand writes that there is nevertheless an undercurrent of challenge in several of the theses, particularly in Thesis 86, which asks: "Why does the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of St. Peter with the money of poor believers rather than with his own money?"
Luther objected to a saying attributed to Johann Tetzel that "As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory [also attested as 'into heaven'] springs." He insisted that, since forgiveness was God's alone to grant, those who claimed that indulgences absolved buyers from all punishments and granted them salvation were in error. Christians, he said, must not slacken in following Christ on account of such false assurances.
According to Philipp Melanchthon, writing in 1546, Luther "wrote theses on indulgences and posted them on the church of All Saints on 31 October 1517", an event now seen as sparking the Protestant Reformation. Some scholars have questioned Melanchthon's account, since he did not move to Wittenberg until a year later and no contemporaneous evidence exists for Luther's posting of the theses. Others counter that such evidence is unnecessary because it was the custom at Wittenberg university to advertise a disputation by posting theses on the door of All Saints' Church, also known as "Castle Church".
The 95 Theses were quickly translated from Latin into German, printed, and widely copied, making the controversy one of the first in history to be aided by the printing press. Within two weeks, copies of the theses had spread throughout Germany; within two months throughout Europe.
Luther's writings circulated widely, reaching France, England, and Italy as early as 1519. Students thronged to Wittenberg to hear Luther speak. He published a short commentary on Galatians and his Work on the Psalms. This early part of Luther's career was one of his most creative and productive. Three of his best-known works were published in 1520: To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, and On the Freedom of a Christian.
The parish order for the New Church in Regensburg states that the Reformation of the city is to be observed the first Sunday after October 15, every year. This document may be from 1567, however the dating is uncertain. The 1569 church order in Pomerania states that the Reformation was to be observed on St. Martin's Day, which falls on November 11. The hundredth anniversary of the Reformation, celebrated throughout the Protestant areas of Germany, was observed from October 31 to November 1, 1617, but a standard annual observance began much later, sometime after the two hundredth anniversary commemoration in 1717.
It is celebrated among various Protestants, especially by Lutheran and Reformed churches. Due to ecumenical movements, some other Christian groups tend to acknowledge or co-participate in church services celebrating the Reformation Day. That includes the Roman Catholic Church, as well as various Protestant denominations that are neither Lutheran nor Reformed, i.e. lack a connection to religious events of the 16th century Europe.
In the United States churches often transfer the holiday, so that it falls on the Sunday (called Reformation Sunday) on or before October 31, with All Saints' Day moved to the Sunday on or after November 1.
According to some sources, Reformation Day has been commemorated since 1567. Exact dates for the holiday varied until after the two hundredth celebration in 1717 when October 31 became the official date of celebration in Germany and later expanded internationally.
In 1617, the celebration of faith concentrated on Lutheran orthodoxy. In early 1617, the Lutheran duke and elector John George I of Saxony received a politically delicate dispatch. The University of Wittenberg asked for permission to celebrate the memory of its former lecturer Martin Luther. The duke agreed and made the commemoration obligatory for all of Electoral Saxony. The worship services and sermons were, however, all prewritten and prescribed in detail and provided as a recommendation to other Protestant regional rulers as well. They did not want any trouble with the Catholics. In the end, the Reformation was celebrated in 1617 in nearly all of the Protestant territories of the Holy Roman Empire, and members of the Protestant Union and others following its lead all celebrated together on the first Sunday in November. As Wolfgang Flügel, an expert for Reformation jubilees and a researcher with the Society for Reformation History of the University of Halle-Wittenberg explains: “Competition and crises were decisive in the realization and content of the 1617 celebrations.” The historian Heinz Schilling speaks of “confrontation for the sake of preserving one’s own identity”.
It is a civic holiday in the German states of Brandenburg, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia. Slovenia celebrates it as well due to the profound contribution of the Reformation to that nation's cultural development, although Slovenes are mainly Roman Catholics. With the increasing influence of Protestantism in Latin America (particularly newer groups such as various Evangelical Protestants, Pentecostals or Charismatics), it has been declared a national holiday in Chile in 2009.
In 2017, 31st October will be a lawful holiday in all of Germany. In order to do this, German states which do not celebrate the Reformation Day annually have passed adequate legislation or made regulations. These states are Baden-Württemberg, Bayern, Berlin, Bremen, Hamburg, Hessen, Niedersachsen, Nordrhein-Westfalen, Rheinland-Pfalz, Saarland and Schleswig-Holstein.
Within the Lutheran church, Reformation Day is considered a lesser festival, and is officially referred to as The Festival of the Reformation. Until the 20th century, most Lutheran churches celebrated Reformation Day on October 31, regardless of which day of the week it occurred. Today, most Lutheran churches transfer the festival, so that it falls on the Sunday (called Reformation Sunday) on or before October 31 and transfer All Saints' Day to the Sunday on or after November 1.
The liturgical color of the day is red, which represents the Holy Spirit and the Martyrs of the Christian Church. Luther's hymn, A Mighty Fortress is our God is traditionally sung on this day. It is also traditional in some Lutheran schools for schoolchildren to hold Reformation Day plays or pageants that re-enact scenes from the life of Martin Luther. The fact that Reformation Day coincides with Halloween is not mere coincidence. Halloween, being the Eve of All Saints' Day might have been an entirely appropriate day for Luther to post his 95 Theses against indulgences since the castle church would be open on All Saints' Day specifically for people to view a large collection of relics. The viewing of these relics was said to promise a reduction in time in purgatory similar to that of the purchase of an indulgence. That Martin Luther intended his 95 Theses to persuade the common people, however, is extremely unlikely, since the 95 Theses were written in Latin, a language which the common people did not understand.
Reformation Day (Reformationsfest) was celebrated in Leipzig in Bach's time with a service, for which he composed cantatas, including in 1725 Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild, BWV 79, and later Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, BWV 80.
Although not shaped by Luther's doctrine, Calvinist churches throughout the world do not regard the Reformation Day as less important, and celebrate it in a similar manner to Lutherans. The nailing of the Ninety-Five Theses sparked the discussion about Catholic beliefs and practices of the day. Reformed theology first emerged with Huldrych Zwingli in Switzerland who decided to participate in this European-wide discussion after seeing Luther's postulates; all this would not have happened without the events of 31st of October, 1517. Theological conversations caught on with French priest John Calvin joining it soon after Zwingli.
Other Protestant churches
Other Protestant denominations differ in their celebration of this holiday from Lutheran & Reformed way of honoring the events, to a complete lack of observance.
- "Johann Tetzel," Encyclopædia Britannica, 2007: "Tetzel's experiences as a preacher of indulgences, especially between 1503 and 1510, led to his appointment as general commissioner by Albrecht, archbishop of Mainz, who, deeply in debt to pay for a large accumulation of benefices, had to contribute a considerable sum toward the rebuilding of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. Albrecht obtained permission from Pope Leo X to conduct the sale of a special plenary indulgence (i.e., remission of the temporal punishment of sin), half of the proceeds of which Albrecht was to claim to pay the fees of his benefices. In effect, Tetzel became a salesman whose product was to cause a scandal in Germany that evolved into the greatest crisis (the Reformation) in the history of the Western church."
- "BBC Religion & Ethics - In Pictures: Martin Luther, Wittenberg and the Reformation". Bbc.co.uk. 1 January 1970. Retrieved 31 October 2012.
- Hillerbrand, Hans J. "Martin Luther: Indulgences and salvation," Encyclopædia Britannica, 2007.
- Bainton, Roland. Here I Stand: a Life of Martin Luther. New York: Penguin, 1995, 60; Brecht, Martin. Martin Luther. tr. James L. Schaaf, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985–93, 1:182; Kittelson, James. Luther The Reformer. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Publishing House, 1986),104.
- Brecht, 1:200–201.
- Iserloh, Erwin. The Theses Were Not Posted. Toronto: Saunders of Toronto, Ltd., 1966; Derek Wilson, Out of the Storm: The Life and Legacy of Martin Luther, London: Hutchinson, 2007, ISBN 978-0-09-180001-7, 96.
- Junghans, Helmer. "Luther's Wittenberg," in McKim, Donald K. (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Martin Luther. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003, 26.
- Brecht, Martin. Martin Luther. tr. James L. Schaaf, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985–93, 1:204–205.
- Spitz, Lewis W. The Renaissance and Reformation Movements, St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1987, 338.
- Look who’s celebrating Reformation Day today
- Reformation Day in Chile
- Reformationstag – 2017 einmalig bundesweiter Feiertag? In: Stuttgarter-Zeitung.de, 29. Oktober 2013.
- Gesetz über die Sonntage und Feiertage (Feiertagsgesetz – FTG) ArbZ 1.3.1
- Gesetz zur Änderung des Feiertagsgesetzes vom 12. April 2016 (GVBl. S. 50)
- Abgeordnetenhaus Berlin, Plenarprotokoll, 25. Juni 2015
- Gesetz zur Änderung des Gesetzes über die Sonn- und Feiertage, Drucksache des Landtags vom 7. Mai 2013
- Fünfte Verordnung zum Feiertagsgesetz (Verordnung über den Reformationstag 2017) vom 30. April 2013
- Verordnung zur Bestimmung des Reformationstages 2017 zum gesetzlichen Feiertag vom 16. Oktober 2013
- Niedersächsisches Gesetz über die Feiertage (NFeiertagsG)
- Gesetz über die Bestimmung des 31. Oktober 2017 als 500. Jahrestag der Reformation zum Feiertag in Nordrhein-Westfalen vom 25. Juni 2015 (GV. NRW. S. 496)
- Mitteilung der Landesregierung vom 17. November 2015
- Verordnung zur Erklärung des 500. Reformationsjubiläums am 31. Oktober 2017 zum Feiertag vom 18. Juni 2014, Amtsbl. S. 283,
- Landesverordnung über den Reformationstag 2017 vom 24. November 2014
- Revelation 14:6
- "Reformation – October 26, 2015". wels.net. Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod.