The Town That Changed the World


The Reformation of the 16th century changed the way people live and worship today. Harold Harker takes us to where it all began.

Wittenberg is a small town in eastern Germany—an hour’s drive south of Berlin. Yet this small town has influenced the world to a far greater extent than its size would suggest.

Situated on the Elbe River, it sees small barges come and go and is subject to perennial floods. It’s also a university town, dating to just before the beginning of the 16th century, the location selected by Erfurt monastery supervisor Staupitz, to send the young monk Martin Luther to study theology. Luther responded to the suggestion of study, “It will be the death of me!” However Staupitz was adamant and said, “It’s quite all right. God has plenty of work for clever men like you in heaven.” And so in 1508 Luther enrolled at the Augustinian University in Wittenberg. His life was never the same. He returned to Wittenberg in 1511 after a spell at Erfurt of two years. On August 12, 1512, Luther received his doctorate from the dean Andreas Carlstadt and was appointed as Bible lecturer at the university.

Luther never had a thought of separating himself from the establishment church, but afterward felt that the Reformation had been caused because the pope had prevented him from doing his duty and expounding the Scriptures.

The dramatic moment came when a monk sent by the Archbishop of Worms came selling indulgences at Wittenberg . The money gathered was to fund the building of St Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther proceeded to nail his collection of 95 theses (or proposals) to the doors of the Castle Church. Luther intended only to arouse the conscience of the church to abuses that were occurring and seek dialogue and change. However, this act of a scholar was seen as a challenge to the authority of the church, which believed doctrine was decided by papal or council edict rather than a clear understanding of the Word of God.

Today the present Castle Church, a little more than 100 years old, has Luther’s 95 theses on the door in brass. It is situated at one end of the main street and is a must-see site in Wittenberg. Inside the church are the tombs of Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon. The stairs up the tower of the castle lead to a great view over the town, the main street and the river.

In the centre of the town just a short distance from the main square and the Town Hall is St Mary’s Church—usually known as the City Church to distinguish it from the church in the castle.

This church dates from the 13th century and is the oldest building in Wittenberg.

It contains priceless paintings by Lucas Cranach and is rightly called the Mother Church of the Reformation. Here Martin Luther would have preached most of his sermons, and while the pulpit of Luther’s day has been moved across the church, it still has the same atmosphere as when Luther would have preached.

Perhaps the greatest sermon preached here was Luther’s sermon on how a person is saved—“The Just Shall Live by Faith.” This became the heart of the Reformation message and so from this church has flowed a lifegiving message to the whole world.

Just along the main street—Collegienstrasse— is the building of the old Wittenberg University at number 62. On a place on the facade is a list showing the names of famous lecturers and students.

Behind it, in the quadrangle of this university begun by Frederick who became Luther’s protector, are the dates and references to other universities that commenced around the same time.

Passing Melanchthon’s former house (number 60), today a museum to Melanchthon, one comes to the old Augustinian monastery where Luther originally came in 1508 and where later he lived. The building at the rear was a gift to Luther from Frederick the Wise.

The house has the famous Katharina’s Portal—the door that Luther’s wife, the runaway nun Katharina von Bora, had built for Luther’s 57th birthday in 1540. Today this is an excellent museum and another must-see when visiting Wittenberg.

A little beyond Luther’s House at the intersection of two streets is a tree known as the Luther Oak. In Luther’s time this was beside a town gate called the Elster Gate. This was the place where, in December 1520, Martin Luther was given the papal bull threatening him with excommunication; whereupon he tore it to shreds and threw it in a fire.

Martin Luther, with this town at its centre, so influenced history, that it is known as Lutherstadt Wittenberg, or Luther’s Town of Wittenberg. His protest that belief must be sola fide, sola Scriptura, and sola Cristus —by faith alone, by Scripture alone, by Christ alone—is an integral part of this town. The protest taken further by the German princes at Speyer led to the word “Protestant” becoming a definitive part of Christendom based on belief and faith in Jesus.

The town of Wittenberg with its long Collegienstrasse invites you to visit and ponder the great events of history associated with and in many cases originated here, a town well worth the visit.

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