September 2017

September 2017

Reformation Day: Why Halloween?

As we’ve learned over the last couple of months, Martin Luther was motivated by his roles as Doctor of Sacred Scripture and as parish pastor to protest the sale of indulgences. We also know that he ultimately nailed his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the Church of All Saints in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517—which happens to be Halloween! Why did Luther choose that particular date to begin his public critique of indulgences?

As we know, Halloween is short of “All Hallows’ Eve.” The “Hallows” are the saints. The word “hallow” is etymologically related to the word “holy,” and we still use it in the Lord’s Prayer: “Hallowed be Thy name,” i.e., may God’s name be kept holy among us. All Hallows’ Eve is the eve of All Saints’ Day, much as Christmas Eve is the eve of Christmas Day. We still celebrate All Saints’ Day on November 1, so we celebrate Halloween on October 31 because it falls on the evening before All Saints’ Day.

Luther’s nailing of the Ninety-Five Theses, therefore, had more to do with All Saints’ Day than it did with our modern conception of Halloween. Luther did not have costumes, party games, or trick-or-treating in mind. He was thinking of something that would happen on All Saints’ Day: the Church of All Saints would open with one of the greatest displays of relics in the world.

Relics were the remains of the saints. For example, one might display a saint’s knuckle bone, or a vial of a martyr’s blood. These relics could be venerated to earn an indulgence, i.e., time off one’s sentence in purgatory. Luther’s prince and protector, Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony, possessed one of the worlds’ greatest collections of relics, and every year, on All Saints’ Day, he put his relics on display in the Church of All Saints, the court church or castle church (Schloßkirche) in Wittenberg. Visitors would flock to his church to venerate the relics displayed therein, earning thousands of years off their time in purgatory. In fact, Frederick the Wise forbade indulgences from being sold in his territory, not because he objected to indulgences themselves, but because he didn’t want other indulgences competing with the indulgences gained from his own relics collection!

When Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses, he was protesting not only the sale of indulgences, but the whole system of indulgences itself. He was protesting what was going on in a church in his own town! That’s why he chose Halloween.

Next month, for our October newsletter, we’ll learn about the contents of the Ninety-Five Theses. What was this document whose posting we celebrate at this upcoming five-hundredth anniversary? The answer may surprise you…


Pastor Neuendorf