Nothing says “Happy Halloween” quite like black hooded figures chanting in a strange language, a creepy old castle, and runaway nuns. Well, maybe not the nuns, but all these things do have something in common with Martin Luther, and believe it or not, Martin Luther has something to do with Halloween. Christians are quick to dismiss Halloween as a holiday for heathens and unclean liberals, but next to Easter and Christmas, October 31 should be one of the most important anniversaries on the Protestant calendar.
The story starts with Luther as a lowly Augustinian monk. Luther joined the monastery after a near-death experience with a thunderstorm prompted him to make an irretractable vow to Saint Anne to spare his life at the price of becoming a monk. This is why we don’t play in lightning, kids; you might end up selling all your possessions and donning a wicked-awesome hooded robe while you recite rhythmic Latin prayers. Anyway, as a monk, Luther had time to study Scripture and noticed discrepancies between the actions of the Church and the actual commandments of the Bible. For instance, the Pope cannot take money from people in exchange for the pardoning of sins. The Church should not be the biggest oppressor of the poor. The realization of the rampant presence of these atrocities prompted Luther to nail a list of 95 complaints against Christian leaders to the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany on—you guessed it—October 31, 1517.
Stopping the story here would be like offering a bowl of carrots to trick-or-treating children: misleading and highly disappointing. Luther is most famous for helping reform Christian theology, but that is only a fraction of his story.
Despite furious backlash from the Pope and his goonies (is that sacrilegious to say?), Luther stuck by his claims and successfully got himself excommunicated and outlawed, which meant anyone could beat, rob, or kill him without any legal consequences. To protect Luther, a friend hid Luther in his (creepy, old) castle under the alias of Knight George. When Luther got bored playing hopscotch and skittles—which are actual medieval pastimes, look it up—he translated the New Testament into German, the common vernacular of the people.
Impressive as that was, Luther was determined to do more. He returned to Wittenberg where he spent the next decades of his life preaching the truth of the Bible, composing hymns, writing passionate books, penning history-altering laws, and occasionally helping Catholic-turned-Protestant nuns escape their convents and assimilate into normal society, usually by introducing them to suitable husbands. One of these runaway nuns was named Katarina, and the suitable husband Luther found for her was himself. Katie proved to be not only a faithful wife, but also a savvy business partner and exceptional encourager for Luther’s reoccurring seasons of depression. Without Katie’s support, the Reformation could have died after the translation of the Bible.
This is only a fraction of Martin Luther’s story, yet its implications for believers and non-believers today are too many to name. Luther was looking for an academic debate when he nailed his grievances, but what he got was a spiritual, social, and political revolution that deeply affects our lives. Luther’s translation of the New Testament empowered the masses to read the Bible, and the study of Scripture skyrocketed the literacy rate, which then in turn prompted the creation of universal education and boosted the economy. Luther’s relationship with Katie also radically shifted the cultural perspective on marriage and family. Gone were the days of celibate church leaders parading themselves as holier-than-thou. Women were given the potential to become spiritual leaders in their homes, and children found a new place of honor and discipleship.
Little actually changed in Germany on Halloween of 1517, but without the events of that day and the decades of radical transformation that followed, the world as of Halloween 2017 might be totally unrecognizable. So if you still want to hate Halloween, that’s fine. Somebody else can wear this fabulous Martin Luther costume. But do take a minute or two to learn something about Martin Luther and the Reformation because it matters to you as a literate Christian living in a country with free education and protected women’s rights. I think you’ll be surprised how important black hooded figures, creepy old castles, and runaway nuns are to your life.
Written by Savanna
Image credit: Savanna Mertz