How Reformation History Came Alive for Me

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This year marks the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation. All around the world churches and theological institutions are marking this momentous occasion with special conferences, lectures and events. Some (including Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary) have even scheduled trips to Reformation sites.

In June 2017, 48 students, faculty, pastors and friends of Southeastern Seminary, led by esteemed Southeastern professors Drs. Daniel Akin, Stephen Eccher, Scott Hildreth, Marty Jacumin and Dwayne Milioni, embarked on an 11-day tour through Germany and Switzerland to visit some of the major sites of the multidimensional and tumultuous Protestant Reformation. I had the privilege of being a part of this journey. What I experienced was more than a vacation; the Reformation came alive for me.

Southeastern Seminary professors, students, pastors and members of the Southeastern Society visit Wittenberg, Germany

Southeastern Seminary professors, students, pastors and members of the Southeastern Society visit Wittenberg, Germany.

The Journey

We arrived in Berlin exhausted but ready to take it all in. In Berlin 18th-century Prussia meets 20th-century modernism, exuding Germany’s prestige as the economic and political powerhouse of Europe but also displaying remnants of its war-torn past. We briefly explored the heart of the capital, viewing famous landmarks like the Brandenburg Gate, remnants of the Berlin Wall, the Victory Column and the Reichstag building. After our brief introduction to Germany, we excitedly but sleepily boarded the bus to travel east through the country to Wittenberg — the flashpoint of the 16th-century Reformation, the place where the greatest upheaval of the church started.

In this quaint town we toured the homes and stomping grounds of Martin Luther and Philipp Melanchthon. We entered the beautiful Schlosskirche, with Luther’s 95 Theses memorialized in bronze outside and the graves of the two Wittenberg reformers inside. As we walked the cobblestone streets we learned about the politics of relics and indulgences, of Renaissance education and of the influence of the printing press and Lucas Cranach’s woodcut pictures on literacy and theological education.

The legacy of the Reformation reaches into nearly every sphere of life.

After two days in Wittenberg, we headed southwest to Eisleben, the place of Martin Luther’s birth—and ironically—his death. Although the town has erected numerous memorials to Luther, we were confronted by the sad reality of the near death of Protestantism in the city. Few people today know the definitions of important words like “sin,” “repentance,” “righteousness” and “faith,” which were so central to Luther’s writings.

From there we went far off the beaten path to the Castle Allstedt, where Thomas Müntzer delivered his “Sermon before the Princes” calling for social reform, which eventually led to the Peasants’ War in south and west Germany in 1524 and 1525. As we sat in the same banquet hall as those princes once did, we learned about some of the negative repercussions of the Reformation and possible negative consequences of the cherished principle of the priesthood of all believers. That evening we trekked east again to the revitalized city of Leipzig, the place where Luther, Melanchthon and Andreas Karlstadt disputed with Johann Eck over the authority of Scripture in 1519. We toured the Thomaskirche, where Johann Sebastian Bach taught and composed and is buried.

The next day of our journey was filled with emotional and theological highs and lows. We toured the Buchenwald Concentration camp, the Wartburg Castle and yet another Luther House in Eisenach. On one hand, we witnessed the tragic fallout of Luther’s anti-Semitism: Evil men in the twentieth century used his words to justify the death and destruction of millions of innocent Jews. Yet only two hours later we explored the place where Luther translated the Bible into German, demonstrating undivided commitment to the Word of God and the necessity of its accessibility to clergy and laypeople alike.

On day six of the trip we traveled to the hilly fairytale city of Marburg, the home of revered St. Elizabeth, the first Protestant university and the Brothers Grimm. We climbed up to Marburg Castle, the site of the Marburg Colloquy, where reformers such as Luther, Melanchthon, Martin Bucer and Ulrich Zwingli met to try to reach consensus between their reform movements but ultimately failed to unite over the issue of Jesus Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper. From there we made a brief stop at the giant Reformation monument in Worms and then spent a day and a half in the beautiful and historic city of Heidelberg.

The two days we spent in Zürich were my favorites by far. Before we visited the city of Zwingli, we traveled to Wappenswil, a small town twenty kilometers from Zürich. We hiked off the visible road to the Tauferhole, or the Anabaptist Cave, where groups of Swiss Anabaptists were forced to worship in secret under threat of persecution from the Swiss state church. We sang hymns and reflected on the cost of affirming doctrines like adult baptism, regenerate church membership and pacifism that many evangelicals hold dear today. As a descendant of Swiss Anabaptists who lived in villages surrounding Zürich (one of which is only 11 kilometers from the cave), I was overwhelmed with gratitude and honor for my ancestors. These brave believers risked so much for their faith, perhaps even more than any other group of reformers. We spent the next day in Zürich, touring the city and learning about Zwingli and Heinrich Bullinger and ascending the narrow, winding staircase to the top of the Grossmünster Church. We paid homage at the site where Felix Manz and five other Anabaptists were drowned in the river by the state church, which demonstrated further the complex history of the Reformation.

We finally ended our tour in Geneva, the city of John Calvin. We reveled in the Cathédrale Saint-Pierre and stood in the courtyard of his famed academy. We noted the significant impact of a man in exile and his far-reaching influence on the course of the Reformation in France and Great Britain.

The reformers were brave yet flawed individuals who passed the faith on to me — and to you.

Lessons from the Journey

This trip was incredible—not just for the history, but for the sense of community we built as a team as we walked through church history. We bonded over long bus rides, wrong turns, delicious food, unseasonable heat, singing hymns and all the other surprises of international travel. This trip gave me the opportunity to get to know other students, professors and members of the Southeastern Society who provide financial support to Southeastern.

Some people have criticized these Reformation 500 tours, arguing they practice the very veneration of historical figures and relics against which Martin Luther preached so vehemently. And it is true that Wittenberg and other cities capitalize off of these anniversaries; the museums we toured featured pictures, pamphlets and other memorabilia from the 500th anniversary of Luther’s birth, the 450th and 400th anniversaries of the Reformation and so on.

But I would disagree with these cynical critiques. The legacy of the Reformation reaches into nearly every sphere of life—ecclesiastical practice, personal faith practice, biblical interpretation, economics, education, linguistics and government—and the best way to make sense of and appreciate Reformation events in all their complexity is to go where the reformers went and place yourself in their context. You need to “get on the ground,” so to speak, to see the fuller picture. So I leave this trip with a desire to travel and learn history: I want to learn more, go more places and see more of what God has done in the world throughout history. For these reformers are more than names in a textbook; they were brave yet flawed individuals who passed the faith on to me — and to you.

Editor’s Note: You too can travel with Southeastern Seminary on the Oxford Study Tour (July 9 – 25, 2018). Learn more at the L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture.

Image Credit: Ferdinand Pauwels / Wikimedia Commons

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  • history
  • reformation
Alysha Clark

Alysha works in clinical trials research in Research Triangle Park, NC. She is currently pursuing a ThM in New Testament Studies at Southeastern Seminary and enjoys exploring the convergence of theology and work in the world.

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