Luther’s Lasting Influence on Texas Christianity Speaking Truth to Power

Dec 21st, 2017 | Category: Uncategorized
By Douglas Krengel

Editor’s Note: This essay focuses on Luther’s influence on Christianity in Houston and, more broadly, on all of Texas. Almost all of what the author presents is also true across the United States and across all of North America. As a doctoral candidate at Concordia University Chicago, Douglas Krengel has made this essay he submitted to the Houston Chronicle available to this Editor, who is also the chair of his dissertation research.

On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed 95 Theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany. What this Roman Catholic priest did seems distant and insignificant to many of us half a millennium later—if it is remembered at all. However, these words of a determined monk developed into a period in history called the Reformation—an era that has provided Houston many blessings. Those of us who live in Texas, those of us who speak Spanish, those of us who read our Bible in our mother tongue, those of us who attended public schools—or Lutheran schools—those of us who enjoy congregational singing, we who receive both bread/body and wine/blood in Holy Communion—for all such people, October 31, 2017, is a meaningful day. These aspects of our community life, and many more, were affected by the Reformation. Five hundred years of Reformation history is worth celebrating because the debates, councils, papal decrees, imperial mandates, and military actions from the time of the Reformation still affect every American citizen today.

Just four years after Luther posted his theses with the intent of fostering local scholarly debate, Gutenberg’s printing press spread Luther’s words all over Europe, sparking an international religious crisis. Suddenly, the then-unknown Bible professor at the University of Wittenberg was an enemy of Charles V, who, as Holy Roman Emperor, ruled over much of Europe and lands far beyond. In fact, Charles V’s authority included the very ground Houstonians call home, making the bayou city itself part of the story of the Reformation.

In addition to ruling the land that is Houston, the reason so many Houstonians speak Spanish today is a result of Emperor Charles V being a speaker of Spanish. Charles V was the ruler of the old world, but equally and uniquely of a part of the new world beyond the ocean. The Emperor dedicated himself to a small Latin phrase, Plus Ultra (still further). Charles V used his immense power to send his navy with military personnel called conquistadores, along with Roman Catholic priests, on a mission to perpetually go “still further” in converting the world to the Roman Catholic faith—a faith the Emperor swore to defend and extend. These “missionaries” came to Texas in 1519, the year Charles V ascended to the imperial throne. Charles V spoke Spanish. Therefore, his world-wide empire spoke Spanish. Part of the lands conquered in the name of Holy Roman Empire are the lands we call Houston where many people still speak the language of the Holy Roman Emperor from the 16th century.

Conquering land and language made it appear that nothing was beyond Charles V’s capacity to conqueror. This was indeed the state-of-affairs except for one Augustinian monk from a small village in Germany—a monk named Martin Luther. On April 18, 1521, in the city of Worms, Germany, Luther stood before The Golden One (as Charles V was known) and refused to recant his Theses unless they were shown to be in error by reason or by proof from the Holy Bible. Luther informed the emperor he was “bound by the Scriptures I have quoted, and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise. Here I stand, may God help me. Amen.”

In Luther’s words we find an extreme example of truth being spoken to power. Here in the words of this humble Augustinian monk from a small village in Germany, we discover a model of a conscientious protester. The German princes present at Luther’s hearing before Charles V recognized the power of his words. They found Luther’s writings so inspiring that they formally protested for their religious rights in the form of the Augsburg Confession of 1530. From that time on, such people of faith would be called “Protestants.” After 25 years of additional councils, colloquies and military actions, the 1555 Peace of Augsburg ushered in a Europe that officially was religiously diverse.

During the period between 1517 and 1555, Luther was excommunicated by Pope Leo X, and was listed as an official enemy of the state by the Emperor; yet, because of the political and military protection Luther received from the Protestant princes, Luther was able to develop numerous reforms. These reforms included reforms to the German language—reforms that occurred as a result of Luther translating the Bible. Those of us reading our Bibles in our mother-tongue enjoy this privilege in part due to Luther and numerous other reformers who dedicated themselves to making the Bible available to all people.

After providing a readable version of the Bible, Luther recognized that the population was in great need of education. Luther addressed this social issue by calling upon the princes to pay for basic education for both boy and girls. The princes listened to Luther’s arguments and public education was initiated. Today in Houston this legacy of education lives on in the public schools, as well as in numerous parochial schools such as the many Lutheran preschools, elementary schools, and high schools that serve our community.

Of course, Martin Luther was foremost a priest and a pastor. As such, he organized a visitation campaign for all the parishes in the princes’ realms. Luther himself joined the effort to survey the religious situation in the congregations he believed to be the instruments of the Gospel. The results of these visits made it very clear that very little was being taught about the Bible, or Jesus Christ, or the Gospel, or much of anything at all. In response to the great spiritual need of the local priests, and the people those priests served, Luther led numerous religious reforms. These reforms included calling for the congregation (not just the choir, or priest) to sing. In addition, the common practice of the priest alone drinking from the chalice during Holy Communion was ended. All people would now be offered both the bread/body, and wine/blood, of Christ in the Sacrament of the Altar. Therefore, those of us who sing in church with the congregation, and those of us who receive both kinds in communion, are experiencing the effects of the Reformation 500 years after the original reforms were sanctioned.

The reforms that Martin Luther led in the 16th century affected many others besides ourselves. For example, two hundred and thirty-six years after the Peace of Augsburg, on December 15, 1791, the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution (also known as the “Bill of Rights”) were ratified. The first of these amendments stated that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Herein we discover many connections between October 31, 1517, and the country we live in today. The type of freedom that came at great pain for Luther is now our legal right—a right today’s professional church workers enjoy as they continue to boldly proclaim the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Author Information

Douglas Krengel is the Senior Pastor of the Family of Faith Lutheran Church in Houston, Texas. In addition he is a doctoral candidate at Concordia University Chicago in the Department of Leadership, with a major in organizational leadership. His doctoral research will study the relationships between pastors and early childhood directors in a sample of congregations. Rev. Krengel was recently the chair of the 500Forward committee, working to develop an array of celebrations of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in the greater Houston area.