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Why did Luther act on Halloween?

Written by Peter Smith on .

coin1Was it just a coincidence that Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on what we now consider to be Halloween?

This year marks the 500th anniversary of Luther publishing his theses, an opening salvo in what would become the Protestant Reformation. 

Surely Halloween in 16th century Germany was nothing like today's extravaganza of costumes and sugar comas, but who knows? Maybe if Luther walked through today's grocery aisles in October, he might have protested against the commercialization of Halloween rather than indulgences.

Or maybe he was really trick-or-treating at the Wittenberg church door, wearing a monk's robe as a costume.

But seriously, there may be a connection between Reformation Day and Halloween.

Luther, as we know, was seriously bothered by indulgences, the idea that one could buy repentance on the cheap, drawing on the virtues of Jesus, Mary and the departed saints.

Saints. Also known as Hallows -- the holy.

And what's Halloween named for? All Hallows Eve.

Nov. 1 is All Saints Day or All Hallows Day, a day of particular devotion to the departed heroes of the faith in heaven.

As it happens, the castle church in Wittenberg, where Luther either did or didn't nail his theses, was loaded with relics of saints. Maybe not to the extent of St. Anthony Chapel, but enough.

A 2015 article in the academic journal Lutheran Quarterly looked at the debate over whether Luther really nailed the Theses. It gave pro-and-con arguments. This formed part of the pro- argument:

At Vespers on the Eve of All Saints' Day, anticipating the public reading of the list of the Elector's relics and their exhibition at the Castle Church the next day and the crowds that such an event would draw, Luther posted a copy of the Theses on the door of the Castle Church and perhaps the other church doors in Wittenberg, following the general rules of the university for academic disputations.

OK, so Luther would have had an audience on Halloween, but is that the only connection?

Maybe not, according to the paper's authors, Volker Leppin and Timothy J. Wengert.

To be sure, it is also clear that beginning in 1517 he (Luther) was already expressing his own uncertainties regarding the distribution of indulgences, especially in connection with the Elector Frederick’s All Saints’ Foundation and its relics.

Luther preached a sermon to that effect early in 1517, and there's certainly reason to suspect that when All Hallows came around, this stirred up his misgivings.

This theory could also fit with the con- argument. Luther maybe never did post the theses on any door, but as a house of relics, the castle church may have been a magnet for the anti-indulgence fervor of Luther and his followers, and therefore found its way into enduring Lutheran lore.

We'll never know for sure, but just maybe there's a direct line from the coin buckets of indulgence peddlars to today's Halloween candy buckets.

Image: This pewter medallion from St. Lucas Kirche in New York commemorated the 350th anniversary of the Reformation in 1867 by depicting Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses on a church door in Wittenberg, Germany, on Oct. 31, 1517. Myra and Otto L. Schreiber Collection, Krauth Memorial Branch Library, United Lutheran Seminary, Philadelphia



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