1518 | Wittenberg

Going Viral

Martin Luther’s unwanted celebrity.

To the learned Herr Christoph Scheurl, my esteemed friend in Christ, my greeting! I have received two letters from you, along with a present from that superior man, Albrecht Dürer, and my Latin and German propositions [Ninety-five Theses]. You wonder I did not tell you of them. But I did not wish to have them widely circulated.

I only intended submitting them to a few learned men for examination, and if they disapproved of them, to suppress them—or make them known through their publications, in the event of their meeting with your approval. But now they are being spread abroad and translated everywhere, which I never could have credited, so that I regret having given birth to them—not that I am unwilling to proclaim the truth manfully, for there is nothing I more ardently desire, but because this way of instructing the people is of little avail. As yet I am still uncertain as to some points, and would have gone into others more particularly, leaving some out entirely, had I foreseen all this.

From the rapid spread of the theses, I gather what the greater part of the nation thinks of Indulgences, in spite of them having to disguise their opinions for fear of the Jews; still I must have the proofs of my propositions in readiness, although I cannot publish them yet, having been delayed. Yes, when the Lord grants me leisure, I propose issuing a book on the use and misuse of the Indulgences. I have no longer any doubt that the people are deceived, not through the Indulgences, but through their use. When I have finished these propositions, I will send them to you. Meantime, pray remember me to Albrecht Dürer, that excellent man, and assure him of my continued gratitude. But I expect both of you to discard your exalted opinion of me, and not to expect more from me than I can render, for I am nothing, and can do nothing, and am daily becoming more of a cipher.


Martin Luther

From a letter. Angered by the selling of supposed salvation through papal indulgences, Luther finished his Ninety-five Theses on October 31, 1517, and sent the document to friends and to Archbishop Albert of Mainz, who forwarded it along to Rome. The following year, he had printed no fewer than eighteen new works, among them a sermon enumerating his views on indulgences written in vernacular German (not Latin); it went through fourteen editions before 1519.