It’s been so often repeated that Martin Luther nailed a copy of his revolutionary theses to the door of Wittenberg’s Schlosskirche on 31 October 1517 that only serious scholars continue to argue to the contrary. Certainly, Luther did write 95 theses challenging some of the Catholic practices of the time, especially the selling of ‘indulgences’ to forgive sins and reduce the buyer’s time in purgatory. However, it’s another question entirely as to whether he publicised them in the way popular legend suggests.
Believers in the tale point to the fact that the Schlosskirche’s door was used as a bulletin board of sorts by the university, that the alleged posting took place the day before the affluent congregation poured into the church on All Saints’ Day (1 November), and the fact that at Luther’s funeral, his influential friend Philipp Melanchthon said he witnessed Luther’s deed. But Melanchthon didn’t arrive in town until 1518 – the year after the supposed event. It’s also odd that Luther’s writings never once mentioned such a highly radical act.
While it is known that Luther sent his theses to the local archbishop to provoke discussion, some locals think it would have been out of character for a devout monk, interested mainly in an honest debate, to challenge the system so flagrantly without first exhausting all other options. In any event, nailed to the church door or not, the net effect of Luther’s theses was the same. They triggered the Reformation and Protestantism, altering the way that large sections of the world’s Christian population worship to this day.