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Reformation Day and Freedom of Religion

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KEVIN SARTIN
Theology Columnist

Religious freedom is
something that historically
we have always enjoyed
as citizens of the
United States of America.
It’s one of the principles
that we believe our nation
was founded on. It’s also
something that by-andlarge
we take for granted.
We typically identify the
securing of the right to
worship God according to
the dictates of one’s conscience
rather than the
mandates of an external
power as something imagined
and then achieved
by the first colonists who
crossed the ocean to set
foot on America’s shores,
but in all actuality that
right was one secured
by the willing sacrifice
of courageous men and
women hundreds of years
before and bequeathed to
those colonists, who then
simply took advantage of
the opportunity to carry
it to a place where it had
room to grow and flourish.
It seems fitting then, with
Reformation Day only a
few days away, to pay tribute
to three of those early
reformers who lived by the
conviction that the believers’
freedom of conscience
was worth dying for: John
Wycliffe, John Huss, and
Martin Luther.
John Wycliffe was born
in Yorkshire, England
somewhere around 1320.
Wycliffe’s lasting historical
impact came not through
his educational achievements
or even his preaching
prowess. Wycliffe is
most remembered for his
attempts to reform the
ecclesiastical politics of
his time. Wycliffe’s insistence
that the wielding of
temporal power and the
accumulation of worldly
possessions were not
endeavors befitting the
church put him at odds
with Rome and led to his
life-long struggle to reform
the church from the inside.
One of Wycliffe’s fervent
beliefs was that all believers
should have the opportunity
to read God’s Word
for themselves. This belief
led Wycliffe to spearhead
an effort that resulted in
the first translation of the
New Testament in its entirety
into the English language.
Some years after
his death, Wycliffe was
declared to be a heretic
and under the ban of the
church, and as a result his
remains were exhumed,
burned, and the ashes
cast into the river Swift
that flows through Lutterworth.
His conviction that
the Bible was uniquely
authoritative for the belief
and life of the Christian,
however, lived on.
Then, there was John
Huss. Huss was born to
peasant parents in Husinec,
located in the south
of today’s Czech Republic.
According to Huss’s memoirs,
he initially entered
the priesthood to escape
poverty. In his own words,
he saw it as an opportunity
to “secure a good
livelihood and dress and
to be held in esteem by
men.” Huss eventually
became the preacher at
Prague’s Bethlehem Chapel,
which at the time was
the most popular church
in one of Europe’s larger
cities. It was there that
he was exposed to the
writings of John Wycliffe,
which stirred his interest
in the Bible. Huss’ life was
transformed by the truth
of God’s Word, which he
came to treasure above
all else. His stated desire
was to “hold, believe, and
assert whatever is in them
[the Scriptures] as long as
I have breath in me.” Huss
eventually came to hold to
many of Wycliffe’s beliefs,
among them convictions
concerning the authority
of the Bible, the lessening
of the power and influence
of the papacy, and
the moral reform of the
clergy. These convictions
led Huss to author a number
of treatises, including
De Ecclesia, in which he argued
that Christ and Christ
alone was the head of the
church. In November of
1414, Huss was lured to
the Council of Constance
under the pretense of being
offered a platform to
present his views. Instead,
he was arrested and imprisoned,
with his only
opportunity to speak coming
in the form of an order
to publically recant his
views. Huss refused, and
as a result he was burned
at the stake and his ashes
were scattered over the
surface of a nearby lake.
Finally, and probably
best known among the early
reformers, was Martin
Luther. Luther was born
in 1483 to peasant parents
in Eisleben, Saxony. Luther’s
transformation from
promising law student to
conflicted monk to seeking
professor of theology
to steadfast reformer was
a gradual one, but by the
time he nailed his soonto-
be-famous-throughout-
Europe Disputation of Martin
Luther on the Power and
Efficacy of Indulgences (more
commonly known as The
Ninety-Five Theses) to the
door of All Saints’ Church in
Wittenberg he was convinced
of two things: 1) the church
was abusing its power and
defying the mandates of
God’s Word through corrupt
practices like the sale of
indulgences, and 2) it was
up to him to do something
about it. Though Luther was
initially committed to pursuing
reform from inside of
the church much like John
Wycliffe attempted some
200 years before, his attacks
on the authority of the papacy
could not be abided by
the church and so finally, in
January of 1521, Luther was
officially excommunicated
from the Roman Catholic
Church and declared to be
“a convicted heretic.” While
in exile at Wartburg Castle in
Eisenach, Luther completed
his translation of the New
Testament into contemporary
German, which according
to church historian Phillip
Schaff was “the most important
and useful work of [Luther’s]
whole life” because it
made the Bible “the people’s
book in church, school, and
house.” Luther’s translation
of the Bible inspired a young
man named William Tyndale,
who used the same Greek
sources as Luther to complete
an English translation of
the Bible that was printed on
the printing press and eventually
formed the foundation
of what history has proven
to be the most famous and
enduring English translation
of the Bible– the King James
version. Luther died in 1546
in Eisleben, the same town
where he was born, but his
determination to follow the
convictions of his conscience
in his worship of God and
his efforts to make the Bible
accessible to the common
man continued to impact the
world long after his death.
So, the next time that you
open a Bible written in your
own language, or drive to a
church of the denomination
of your own choosing without
fear of being imprisoned
or burned at the stake, take
a moment to thank God for
the courage of conviction
demonstrated by these men
and so many others that
formed the foundation of the
religious freedoms we currently
enjoy. We owe them a
debt of gratitude!