On the memorable thirty-first day of October 1517, which has ever since been celebrated in Protestant Germany as the birthday of the Reformation, Martin Luther nailed to the doors of the church at Wittenberg ninety-five Latin Theses on the subject of indulgences and invited a public discussion. No one accepted the challenge and no discussion took place. But history itself undertook the disputation and defense. The Theses were copied, translated, printed and spread throughout Germany and Europe in a few weeks. The Theses of Luther found a hearty response with liberal scholars and with thousands of plain Christians. On the other hand, the Theses were strongly condemned by the clerical hierarchy and the universities.
The main writers against Luther were Tetzel, Conrad Wimpina and the formidable John Eck who was at first a friend of Luther, but now became his enemy. These men hurt their cause in public estimation by the weakness of their defense. They could produce no arguments for the doctrine and practice of indulgences from the Word of God, or even from the Greek and Latin fathers, and had to resort to extravagant views on the authority of the Pope. They even advocated papal infallibility, even though this was still an open question in the Roman Church, and remained so till the Vatican decree of 1870.
After the debate at Leipzig, Luther lost all hope of a reformation from Rome. Luther was prepared for the bull of excommunication. He then turned the tables against the Pope. The Pope had ordered his books to be burned and they were actually burned in several places. Luther returned fire for fire, curse for curse. On December 10, 1520, at nine in the morning, before a large number of professors and students, he committed the bull of excommunication, together with the papal decretals, the Canon Law and several writings of Eck and Emser, to the flames.
In his final stand for the truth he had preached, he spoke these immortal words, “Unless I am refuted and convicted by testimonies of the Scriptures or by clear arguments (since I believe neither the Pope nor the Councils alone; it being evident that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am conquered by the Holy Scriptures quoted by me, and my conscience is bound in the word of God: I can not and will not recant any thing, since it is unsafe and dangerous to do any thing against the conscience."
Dr. Eck exchanged a few more words with Luther, protesting against his assertion that Councils may err and have erred. "You can not prove it," he said. Luther repeated his assertion, and pledged himself to prove it. Thus pressed and threatened, amidst the excitement and confusion of the audience, he uttered in German, at least in substance, that concluding sentence which has impressed itself most on the memory of men: "Here I stand. [I cannot do otherwise.] God help me! Amen."
The Reformation work in Zurich was headed by Ulrich Zwingli. Zwingli was elected to the position of chief pastor of the Great Minster, the principal church in Zurich by seventeen votes out of twenty-four, Dec. 10, 1518. He arrived in Zurich on the 27th of the month, and received a hearty welcome. He promised to fulfill his duties faithfully, and to begin with the continuous exposition of the Gospel of Matthew, so as to bring the whole life of Christ before the mind of the people. This was a departure from the custom of following the prescribed Gospel and Epistle lessons, but justified by the example of the ancient Fathers, as Chrysostom and Augustine, who preached on whole books. By his method of preaching on entire books he could give his congregation a more complete idea of the life of Christ and the way of salvation than by confining himself to detached sections.
In July of 1522 Zwingli, with other priests, sent a Latin petition to the bishop, and a German petition to the Swiss Diet, to permit the free preaching of the gospel and the marriage of the clergy as the only remedy against the evils of enforced celibacy. The petition was not granted, but several priests openly disobeyed. Zwingli himself married in 1522, but did not make it public till April 5, 1524 (more than a year before Luther’s marriage, which took place June 13, 1525).
By these preliminary measures public opinion was prepared for the practical application of the new ideas, but the old order of worship had to be abolished before the new order could be introduced. The change was radical. It began at Pentecost and was finished on June 20, 1524. In front of a deputation from the authorities of Church and State, the churches of the city were purged of pictures, relics, crucifixes, altars, candles, and all ornaments, the frescoes effaced, and the walls whitewashed, so that nothing remained but the bare building to be filled by a worshiping congregation. The Swiss Reformers regarded all kinds of worship paid to images and relics as a species of idolatry.
The mass was gone. The preaching of the gospel and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper by the whole congregation took its place. The first celebration of the communion after the Reformed usage was held in the Holy Week of April 1525.