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Martin Luther's American legacy, 500 years later

Martin Luther's American legacy, 500 years later

October 31, 2017

Today commemorates the Reformation. It was 500 years ago on October 31, 1517 when a 33-year old German monk and theology professor named Martin Luther posted 95 Theses for public debate on Castle Church's door, a standard practice in the university town of Wittenberg.

Luther's theses challenged the status quo of certain church teachings by his own understanding of the Bible. In doing so Luther unwittingly released a floodgate of protest and reform resulting in profound social change for Europe. Beyond Europe, Luther's legacy shaped American ideals about liberty of conscience while animating a reformist impulse.

What does the Reformation of a half millennium ago have to do with America? Perhaps it is no accident that America's greatest reformer is the namesake of the very man who set-off the Reformation.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is named for the medieval reformer, a little known and under-appreciated fact. The Baptist minister and civil rights leader was born Michael King Jr. on January 15, 1929. His father, also a Baptist minister, traveled to Germany in the early 1930s and while there was personally inspired by the life and legacy of the great reformer. In consequence, the senior King changed his name and that of his young son "little Mike" to Martin Luther honoring the reformer. For both men, it was a name to live up to.

Martin Luther is celebrated for his heroic stance before Emperor Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire, the supreme power of central Europe in the day. In 1521 Luther was accused of religious heresy and arrested. If convicted, he faced the death penalty. Asked to recant his views during his trial, the monk spent a sleepless night wrestling about his life or death answer. The following day Luther respectfully affirmed his beliefs:

"I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus, I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one's conscience is neither safe nor sound. God help me. Amen."

From that moment on, Luther was a marked man, and yet he survived to lead a movement we now call the Reformation. Luther's faith and commitment to liberty of conscience inspired many in transforming European culture.

In the next century, tens of thousands of Europeans came to these shores originally seeking the freedom to read the Bible and live by its teachings as understood by their private judgment and the moral dictates of their conscience. The Pilgrims and Puritans in New England established Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies. Baptists and other sects established Rhode Island Colony. Pennsylvania's founder, the Quaker William Penn, theorized a society, at least in part, based on his reading of the Bible. His "holy experiment" was committed to liberty of conscience in its fundamental law -- the 1701 Charter of Privileges -- and remains so today. These are American heirs of the Reformation.

In the America founded upon the liberty to read one's Bible and live by its teaching, another heir of the Reformation, in fact a modern "Martin Luther" was arrested in 1963 for acting according his conscience. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was imprisoned in Birmingham, Alabama for participating in an illegal demonstration against the racist policy of segregation.

Openly criticized even by fellow ministers sympathetic to his cause, King penned his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." Writing on scraps of newspaper in his cell, King civilly and respectfully argued from the moral authority of a higher law that civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance to racism was just. Conscious of the American court of public opinion and in the spirit of his Reformer namesake, King wrote: "I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law."

The horror of Charlottesville, NFL player protests about the National Anthem, controversies over monuments and symbols, etc. provide a cultural moment for reflection about measures of protest and reform. Certainly, our "Luthers" remind us that "acting against one's conscience is neither safe nor sound." Indeed, is it better to endure the penalty of consequence than compromise one's conscience.

This 500th anniversary of the Reformation offers all Americans a moment to reconsider the democratic value of liberty of conscience bequeathed to us by the great German Reformer as well as what it truly may cost to live in expressing "the highest respect for the law" as modeled by America's greatest reformer.

Alan R. Crippen II is Chief of Exhibits and Programs of the Faith and Liberty Discovery Center coming to Philadelphia's Independence Mall in 2019.

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