Reformation Day
From Wikimedia Commons


Martin Luther (1483–1546) had no idea that his invitation for theological discussions on ninety-five themes in the newly established University of Wittenberg (1502) would result in reforming the church of his time.

Tradition holds that, according to the academic custom, Luther nailed the Ninety-Five Theses on the main door of the university church in Wittenberg on 31 October 1517; these theses were so contemporary and urgent that readers, printers, and distributors carried them everywhere.

As they stirred the conscience of the leaders of the church and the state in and around Germany, Luther faced countless troubles. His employer, Friedrich The Wise (1463–1525), who was the influential Elector of Saxony, defended and protected him. University was the place where thoughts and concepts for public could be responsibly expressed and debated. 

Foes And Friends Of Reformation

Soon, Luther gained friends and foes in all spheres of his life and work. The foes feared the drastic changes to the accustomed ways of thinking and doing things in the church and state. For example, they resisted the use of mother tongue in public worship services.

They did not wish the common people to read the biblical texts in German. They opposed the marriage of clergy. They did not wish to give up the financial income, which the sale of indulgencies (i.e., certificates forgiving sins, which they could buy for a price) and the visit to holy artifacts in various churches generated.

They did not endorse the education of ordinary people in villages and rural areas because it could enable them to claim their rights and privileges, which mostly the aristocrats enjoyed. By contrast, the friends of reformation welcomed the new ways of thinking, making meaning, and being responsible human beings in their living contexts.

Luther’s classical pamphlet entitled The Freedom of a Christian Man (1520) expressed a central social thought: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, and subject none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”

Accordingly, people were free to think for themselves, make the best choice among all available alternatives, and be responsible for the consequences of the actions based on their choice. They could re-evaluate their customary ways of being human individually and collectively.

Luther and his followers helped the people to translate their theological convictions into their everyday life: their foundational belief that the just shall live by faith (Romans 1:17) led them to free themselves from those social customs and religious rituals that had improvised them earlier (e.g., paying compulsory offerings to churches, high fee for rituals such as marriage, baptism, funeral, repeated fasting, the threat of social and religious excommunication, and the like).

The reformers highlighted the four pillars, namely Christ only, Scripture only, Grace only, and Faith only, and popularized their ideas through worship services, educational institutions, and political engagement.

Thus, they attempted to Christianise their living contexts so thoroughly that people with different views and lifestyle had no place among them. For example, people who opposed Luther’s views (e.g., peasants, some Catholic communities that loyally upheld the primacy of papacy) had little or no place. 

Spread Of Reformation Ideals Outside of Europe

Consequently, the followers of Luther and his friends and the loyal members of the Catholic congregations fought over theological convictions, ecclesial practices, possession of immovable properties, and access to education, gainful employment, marriage, baptism, and funeral.

Soon, reformers in Germany and in Switzerland (esp. John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli) found at odd ends and fought wars. Calvin’s followers in Switzerland and the Netherlands disagreed with the Anabaptists among them. Gradually, England joined the reform movement because the Pope Clement VII had refused to invalidate the marriage of King Henry VIII with Catherine of Aragon of Spain.

He accused her for not bearing a male child for him. Eventually, Henry VIII declared himself as the Head of the Church of England (1534). These changes and reformulations of churches in Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and England affected the commercial and political structures of their neighbouring countries and initiated new alliances.

Churches became an important aspect, by which European countries negotiated their identities, jurisdictions, commercial prospects, and political leanings. Theologians of nationalist churches developed theologies that addressed their contemporary needs; gradually their views emerged as normative articulations for Christian faith and practices in Europe. 

The reformations disturbed the socio-political equilibrium of European countries to an extent. However, European discoveries of peoples outside of Europe astonished them: following the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the Turks, Europeans tried to find sea routes to the lands of spices, silk, cotton, and other luxury goods for European consumption.

In 1492, Christopher Columbus reached The Bahamas in the Caribbean and provided new possibilities for Europeans to discover the Americans and to benefit from its natural riches. Six years later, in 1498, Vasco da Gama landed Kozhikode in southwestern India. The Spanish and the Portuguese colonial expansion broadened the European views of humanity, non-European peoples, their cultures, achievements including food.

Ferdinand Magellan, a Protuguese sailor circumnavigated the globe (1519–1521). Though he was killed in the Philippines, some of his team members returned to Spain. The reports of these three sailors transformed the worldview of Europeans: in the course of time, their adventurers and merchants encountered Asian, African, Latin American inheritors of civilisations that were older and equally influential as that of the ancient Greeks and Romans.

Europeans tried first to defend their assumptions about superiority and exclusiveness and did not hesitate to fight wars against the non-western peoples, who had welcomed them earlier and showed them hospitality. Gradually, Europeans of all Christian persuasions moved into the American colonies: for example, the Pilgrim Fathers, who sailed on the Mayflower from Plymouth in England in September 1620 and reached Plymouth in North America in November 1620.

This new Plymouth Colony did not wish to continue the tradition of the Church of England in the American colonies. Slowly, some of these Christians became either Puritans or Episcopalians. As increasing number of Europeans migrated into the American colonies and extended their frontiers westward and southward, new ideologies and theological expressions emerged.

Though their outlook resembled to the theological persuasions of the reformers in Europe, they developed their Christianity differently, mostly in separation from the government. Churches functioned as voluntary associations. Therefore, they were more productive, innovative, and energetic. Their values such as individualism, thirst for progress, insistence on personal freedom and happiness, manifest destiny, and the like would impact all European countries as well as the newly established countries like Australia (26 January 1788). 

Secularisation Of Reformation Christianity

Reformation Christianity on European continent had different contours: trading companies such as the English East India Company (EIC, 1600–1858), the Dutch East India Company (VOC, 1602–1799), the Dutch West India Company (1659–1795), the Danish East India Company (1618–1845), the Danish West India Company (1659–1776), the French East India Company (1664–1794), the French West India Company (1664–1793), and others sped up the process of European secularisation and moved European commercial elites away from their Christian heritage.

These trading companies maintained their own warehouses, militaries, fleets of weaponised ships, ammunition factories and storages; gradually they formed colonies; with the support of local elites, the representatives of these trading companies governed the colonies for the benefit of their shareholders in Europe.

As their success depended exclusively on the cooperation of non-Christian traders, mercenary soldiers, spies, police personnel, and diverse service providers (cooks, washermen, gardeners, drivers, security guards, and the like), the Europeans did not wish to publicly display their Christian identities. They privatized their faith claims and secularized their Christian identity. 

Most of these trading companies had their origins either during or immediately after the deadliest Thirty-Year War (1618–1648) killed a vast number of people, especially young men of all social, political, and religious classes. The principle that permitted the religion of ruler to define the religion of the people emerged in 1530 at the Diet of Augsburg, but it operated more visibly after the Thirty-Year War.

It affected for example the English and Danish colonies in India. Their traders had neither will nor money to build a church for their expatriates. The glory of reformations faded away in the colonies. Though the English had their colony of Fort St. George (modern day Chennai) in 1639, the dedicated their first church named St. Mary’s Church only in 1680. The Danes established their colony of Colony of Tranquebar in 1620; but their Zion Church was built only in 1701. The commercial companies and their successive colonial governments did not desire to propagate the teachings of Protestant reformers in the colonies. 

Newer Attempts To Spread Reformation Ideals

The Pietists, especially the German Lutheran Pietists like Philip Jacob Spener and August Hermann Francke and their followers challenged the status quo. They were not satisfied with the hair-splitting arguments among leaders of Lutheran orthodoxy but promoted a heart-warm faith that enriched the lives of individuals and their communities.

At one point, King Friedrich IV of Denmark took his spiritual responsibility seriously, and deputed two young German Lutheran Pietists, as missionaries to his colony of Tranquebar. Consequently, Bartholomeus Ziegenbalg and Heinrich Plütschau landed in Tranquebar on 9th July 1706. Their arrival opened a new chapter in the history of Christianity in India and other parts of the world. The Francke Foundations in Halle (Saale) supported these missionaries and their fifty-four successors until Tranquebar was sold to the British in 1845. 

These Pietists brought the teachings of the European to India and translated them into various socio-cultural spheres: Bible translations, production of dictionaries, lexicons, grammars, and treatises on culture, religion, geography, history, and the like. They facilitated several effective means of knowledge transfer between Europe and India.

The example of Christian Friedrich Schwartz (d. 1798) caught the attention of influential British evangelical leaders, such as Charles Grant, William Wilberforce, and others. In the meantime, more British Christians realized the need for Christian presence in their colonies. After failed attempts in 1793, they succeeded in 1813 to persuade the British Parliament to permit Anglican clergy to establish their bishopric in Kolkata (1814) and other colonial centres in modern day Chennai and Mumbai.

They expanded the scope of the Pious Clause of the EIC’s Charter in 1833 that permitted Protestant Christians from Euro-American countries to send their representatives to work in their colonies in Asia and Africa. Consequently, more Euro-American missionaries moved into Asia and Africa.

By that time, the European trading companies had transported several millions of Africans from their homelands to the British plantations in the United States of America and other places. After the British Parliament had abolished slavery in 1807 and 1834, the trading companies dislocated indentured labourers from India, China, and other Asian countries to their colonies in Africa and the Caribbean. Thus, they facilitated the speedy spread of religions such as ‘Hinduism’ and Islam. 

Most Protestant missions in nineteenth century produced a considerable body of Christians, who wanted to determine their own destiny. Their European leaders were unwilling to understand and accept this desire. After the sudden burst of the ‘volcanos’, namely the two World Wars, European Christian leaders in Asia and Africa realised the importance of indigenous leadership.

The reputation of Reformation Christianity suffered irrevocably. The process of decolonisation began forcefully. India and China, two large Asian countries, did not wish to prolong the stay of European missionaries in their sovereign territories. Consequently, native leaders assumed leadership of Christianity in Asia and Africa.

Most Christians of Reformation traditions in Europe developed a deep sense of failure and guilt that paralysed their spiritual witness for decades. They supported secularisation of their constitutions, public institutions, and educational systems.

Lack of Bible-based sermons in churches, of religious teachings in schools and universities, discovery of diverse scandals in the systems and functions of churches, and the increasing spread of non-Christian religious communities in European and North American cities and towns, and other similar forces called for civil and secular toleration; law courts began to enforce this toleration to preserve pluralism. Consequently, many Christians attached to the Protestant traditions in Europe and North America left; they either joined the newer religious movements or became areligious. 

A Glimpse Of Contemporary Reformation Christianity In The Global South

Astonishingly another Christian picture has emerged in the newer countries in Africa and Asia. After the defenders of European colonialism had left their country, they found freedom to develop themselves in ways that were not known to the Europeans. The Church of South India (September 1947) organically incorporated into it Anglican, Presbyterian, and Congregational traditions of European and North American persuasion.

This organic expression of living unity constitutes, so to say, the second miracle after Pentecost! Similar church unions took place elsewhere as well. However, the countless African Initiated / Indigenous Church movements have increased the number of Christians in Africa. Pentecostalism and Charismatic Christianity have influenced countless congregations in Latin America.

Consequently, more Christians of European Reformation live nowadays not in Europe, but in the Majority World, i.e., Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Oceania. According to the Global Statistics of Christianity (published by Todd Johnson and his colleagues in January 2023), 1,766,089,000 Christians are currently living in the Global South. All Christians in the Global North amount to 838,293,000 Christians. African Christians (718,096,000) take the preeminent place among the Christians in the Global South. Christians in Latin America (611,370,000), Asia (406,555,000), and Oceania (30,068,000) enliven the life of Christians in the Global South. 

The Reformation Day of 31 October 1517 had unexpected consequences. They reformers would not have imaged the demographic shift of Christianity from Europe to non-European parts of the world. They would be sorry about the violence which their successors experienced in Europe. Yet, they would rejoice in knowing the living expressions of their reformation ideals among Christians in the Global South. None of these expressions are currently perfect and trouble-free; they seek to interpret the universal claims of the Lord Jesus Christ into their living contexts, they face limitations and prohibitions. 

A Concluding Remark

Nowadays, many Europeans and most North Americans celebrate 31 October as Halloween (i.e., All Hallow’s Eve). This ancient Celtic festival rested on the premise that 31 October provided an opportunity for the spirits of the dead to visit their dear ones on earth. Currently, this day is day of busy commerce that brings about great fortunes for producers and vendors of Halloween memorabilia. Halloween has effectively diminished and replaced even the memory of Reformation Day. 

Outside of Europe and North America, 31 October still retains its reformation flavour. Christians in Global South remember the reformers and their contributions; they conduct seminars and conferences. They ordain new clergy persons. They still support Martin Luther’s original vision such as vernacular translation of God’s Word, salvation by God’s grace, and the responsible freedom of individuals towards God and their fellow human beings.

They encounter realities, which European reformers and their successors did not know. Christians in the Global South seek to interpret Christianity into the living contexts where they are numerically minorities, politically and economically weak. They suffer marginalisation and exploitation on various fronts. They live among dominant peoples, who have not yet experienced the currents such as European Renaissance, Enlightenment, Rationalism, and French Revolution.

Amidst various struggles they seek to serve their society as salt and light. They worship God in their native language and bear witness through word and deed to who they are and why they are Christians. Thus, their songs and stories contain fresh theological symbols and expressions. Taken together, they provide a fuller picture of the Body of Christ, which Martin Luther did not know on 31 October 1517. 

At present, Christianity is the most pluralistic faith of contemporary humanity. Especially, Christians in the Global South maintain the legacy of Reformation alive, and they will pass it on to their successors. At the same time, it is also their responsibility, to remind their fellow Christian sisters and brothers in the Global North of the importance of the Reformation Day for themselves and their contemporaries. Obviously, it became a one of the major foundation stones, on which their ancestors as proponents, critiques, opponents, and re-interpreters built and expanded their society to its contemporary status. One should not kick away the ladder, on which they climbed.

Prof. Dr. Daniel Jeyaraj is an accomplished church historian and currently serves as the Academic Dean at Oxford Center for Religion and Public Life.