Did Martin Luther Really Nail the 95 Theses & Why On Halloween?

Drew Thomas

 

As the legend goes, on October 31st 1517, Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Saxony. But did he? And if he did, why on Halloween? Let’s find out.

Did Luther really nail the 95 Theses to the church door?

In 1968 a German Roman Catholic historian, Erwin Iserloh, claimed that Luther never actually nailed his Theses to the church door in Wittenberg. Instead, he sent a copy to his ecclesial superior, the Archbishop of Magdeburg, complaining about the sale of indulgences and that the doctrine needed clarification. He further mentions the lack of surviving source material referencing that such an event took place. It wasn’t until later that the event became a celebrated occasion.

Schlosskirche, Wittenberg
The Castle Church in Wittenberg, as represented in 1509 by Lucas Cranach the Elder

All of this is true. Luther did send a copy to his Archbishop. There are also no known contemporary witnesses to the event. Luther’s friend and co-reformer Philipp Melanchthon mentioned after Luther’s death that they were posted on October 31st. Luther’s editor, Georg Rörer, stated that Luther posted them on all the churches in Wittenberg. As I explained in my post on academic theses, nailing the theses would not have been an uncommon act. Luther’s Theses were not a public act of protest. He was participating in the academic tradition of the time. In an age before mass communication, if you wanted to publicize an academic event, such as the debate Luther was proposing, you posted your theses in a public place. Many university events took place in the Castle Church, so it made sense to post them here. There is surviving contemporary evidence later during the Reformation of Luther posting notices and theses on church doors. It would not have made sense to Luther to write a set of theses just to send to his Archbishop. The purpose of theses was to announce which items would be debated at the academic debate. He had to publicize them.

Furthermore, at the time, no one, including Luther, had any idea that these Theses would become so popular and spread across Europe. There was no reason for the event to be thought of as memorable, as it was an event that happened regularly in the university community. Only a few weeks before, Luther had circulated another set of theses for a different academic debate.

In addition to the Castle Church hosting some university events, there is another reason why Luther would have chosen the door of the Castle Church. Frederick the Wise, the Imperial Elector of Saxony, housed his relic collection in the Castle Church. Relics were holy objects, such as small bone fragments from deceased saints, articles of their clothing, or other objects. These items were considered holy and often displayed in ornate devices, called reliquaries. Today, altars at Roman Catholic churches contain a relic within them, often a small bone fragment from a saint.

reliquaries woodcut
Frederick the Wise’s reliquaries as represented in 1509 by Lucas Cranach the Elder.

Frederick the Wise had collected over 17,000 relics, making it one of the largest collections in Europe. He housed his collection in the Wittenberg Castle Church, where pilgrims would travel to see the relics. Frederick had received permission from the Church to issue an indulgence to pilgrims when they visited his collection. The indulgence promised to reduce their time in purgatory based on the number of relics they viewed in the collection. In total, pilgrims could receive 1,902,202 years and 270 days off of their time in purgatory!

Luther thought this was ridiculous. His Ninety-Five Theses focused on how indulgences were being abused. Since pilgrims came to the Castle Church to see the relics and get an indulgence, it was a perfect place for Luther to post his Theses.

Why did Luther nail his 95 Theses on Halloween?

While today Halloween might be filled with Disney princesses, it still has plenty of zombies. Halloween has always been a holiday associated with the dead. Why? Well, November 1 is All Saints’ Day and November 2 is All Souls’ Day. You might be familiar with the Mexican holiday Dia de los muertos, or Day of the Dead, which is on November 2. All Saints’ Day was a very important Christian holiday during Luther’s time and is still important to many Christian denominations. In England the day before All Saints’ Day was called All Hallows’ Eve, similar to how the day before Christmas is Christmas Eve. It is from this term that we get the modern “Halloween”.

Frederick the Wise was only allowed to issue his indulgence for his relic collection on a limited number of days per year. One of those days was All Saints’ Day, which was appropriate, as the official name of the Castle Church was All Saints’ Church. By posting his Theses the day before All Saints’ Day, the day before all the pilgrims would come to receive their indulgence, Luther was ensuring it would get noticed. The other set of theses that Luther had circulated a few weeks prior clearly did not get noticed, as the proposed debate never took place. With the Ninety-Five Theses, Luther was determined to get them more widely circulated.

What’s known for certain is that Luther sent a copy to his Archbishop on the 31st. He may have posted them on this day also, or later in November.


So did Luther really nail the Ninety-Five Theses to the Castle Church door? We may never know for sure, but if he did, it was the perfect location on the perfect day.

Church Door
The doors of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. The original doors have long since been replaced by ones with Luther’s “Ninety-Five Theses”.

 

Images from Wikimedia Commons.

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