The Protestant Reformation, which we are celebrating this year, was an event so cataclysmic before it was over 100,000’s had perished. It forever changed the political, social, and religious landscape. There had been many rumblings about abuses coming out of Rome for much of the preceding century. In England, John Wycliff was translating the Bible into English against the expressed instructions from Rome. Upon his death, the Roman authorities dug up his body and burned it along with all of his books, declaring him a heretic.
On the other side of Europe, Jan Hus in Prague, actually broke from Rome and established a sect known as the Hussites. Rome burned him at the stake. For Martin Luther to hang his 95 thesis on the church door in Wittenberg took no small amount of personal courage. Within a year his death warrant was signed and if Roman authorities had captured him, his death would be certain and eminent.
Even though Luther wrote 95 different statements or thesis calling into question the practices and theology of the Roman Church, two key themes run through most of them. sola fide (“justification by faith alone”) and sola Scriptura, the Bible and the Bible alone has the authority to inform our faith. Our salvation and redemption can not be earned by any monetary donation to the church or any other good work. It comes simply and completely by the work of Christ upon the Cross. We are utterly incapable of doing anything to aid our redemption because sin has tainted every corner of our being.
Through the centuries a body of traditions had attached themselves to the church like barnacles on a ship. Some may have started as a way of understanding scriptures but they had grown into something completely extra-scriptural. Luther wanted to return to a faith informed solely by the scriptures.
These two ideas formed the basis of the Reformation as it took different forms throughout Europe over the next several decades. With the aid of the newly invented printing press and growing level of literacy in the general population it was a fire which could not be extinguished.
So how did this affect the common person sitting or rather standing in church? (Seating was something only the wealthy had access to.) One of first affects was the loss of a church building. If the local ruler didn’t approve of the reformation going on, the local church building would stay the provenance of the Roman Church. Civil and religious authorities often ostracized and persecuted the new convert. The Huguenots in France, one of the better known victims of this persecution, were nearly entirely exterminated.
One of the first tasks for Luther was the establishment of a whole new church. He had to establish a governing authority responsible for proper worship practices, providing new church buildings, training of clergy, and the care for the various congregations.
One of the most remarkable changes for the common man was now he could actually understand what was said. The vernacular became the language of worship instead of Latin. Another new development was the inclusion of congregational singing within the service. No longer was the music the prevue of the clergy and professional choirs, everybody sang!
Now as an aside; sometimes you may hear that Luther used drinking songs as a basis of his new hymns. He did not do this; actually writing very strongly against the practice. Luther knew the secular words would be more on the minds of the people than the new sacred texts. The confusion comes from the term for new development in musical notation: the bar line. The bar line divides music into even time periods which makes group singing easier to do. Before this time music contained no bar lines. So yes, he used “bar form” music, not music from bars.
Luther wrote extensively to give a form and foundation to his new church. And along with John Calvin in Zurich, Switzerland, provided the intellectual justification for the Protestant Reformation. I would encourage you to read his writings, he had some very interesting things to say on all sorts of very relevant subjects.