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25 August 2017

A centenary marked during World War 1

A centenary marked during World War 1

In 1917 marking the centenary of the Reformation was a much harder affair than it is today, as war raged, and the prospect of celebrating the life and work of a German proved too much for some.

One hundred years ago the Evangelical Alliance had great plans for celebrations to mark the 400th anniversary of the Reformation.

Ideas were discussed for a large international celebration at an Evangelical Alliance executive council meeting in August 1914, possibly taking place in Germany, but by 1917 that was clearly impossible as Great Britain was now at war with Germany.

Merely organising a celebration of the work of a German could have been controversial at the time, but it was felt that the centenary was too important to pass unmarked. More modest plans were put in place for a commemorative event to take place in November 1917 at Queens Hall, London.

The Alliance published a statement saying: “We looked forward to a closer unity between the sons of the Reformation. Today Great Britain and Germany, the chief Protestant European powers, are in a death- grip. We lament the fact and are saddened by the perverted use to which great privileges have been put. Luther was a German, but his influence was and is world-wide. He was born to do a great work and he did it.”

The commemorative event was well supported by Christians across the denominations and there was a wide range of speakers including the Dean of Canterbury, the Very Rev Dr H Wace, who was the most senior evangelical in the Church of England at the time.

The Alliance at this time in its history was organising regular
united prayer meetings that featured speakers from a range of denominations and churchmanship to demonstrate unity and the wide support for this big event must have been particularly pleasing. An offering taken up during the event raised £200, the equivalent of roughly £16,000 today.

Speeches given at the event were published in full in a special supplement to the Alliance’s magazine Evangelical Christendom. There was an appeal in the magazine for subscribers to pass their supplement on as the war time situation was making further distribution difficult, thus making the “valuable addresses” less readily available as they should have been.

Celebrations also took place in Germany and, not surprisingly due to the war-time situation, many had a nationalistic air to them with Luther being celebrated as a great German.

Despite World War I preventing a coordinated international celebration of Reformation Day in 1917, the Alliance was able to celebrate other related 400th anniversaries in the inter-war years, starting in June 1930 with an international event in Augsburg which commemorated the presentation of the Augsburg Confession at the German Diet in 1530. The Diet was the legislative assembly of the Holy Roman Empire.

The Diet had been called during a time of unrest amongst Protestants. There had been disagreements amongst Christians in the 13 years since Luther had posted his 95 theses and Protestants were not a united grouping. In 1529 Luther and Zwingli had tried to come to an arrangement that would smooth over the differences but this was unsuccessful as they continued to disagree on the question of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist.

While a few Lutheran princes prepared for military action, a compromise-minded group led by Phillip Melanchthon, who was really concerned about the divisions in Protestantism, drew up a moderate outline of Lutheran positions which was presented to the Diet. This outline or confession as it is known went to become one of earliest summaries of Protestant beliefs. It took two hours to read out and was met with a raucous response. People were shouting both for and against.

As part of the commemoration of this event the Alliance published, in the May/June 1930 edition of the Alliance’s magazine, Evangelical Christendom, a five-page article about the Augsburg Confession by Bishop Arthur Ward. In the article the bishop looked in detail at the story about why Luther wrote his 95 Theses and his “astonishment” that his thoughts “written in Latin for the learned, were known all over Germany in a few days, and he found himself the mouthpiece of the nation.”

As well as the stormy aftermath of the presentation Melanchthon’s confession in 1530 the Edict of Worms was reinstated and yet again Luther’s writings were banned and he was described once again a heretic. Bishop Arthur wrote: “Yet in spite of the apparent failure in 1530 Luther regarded the events of the Diet as ‘a great miracle’”.

To commemorate the 400th anniversary of this “miracle” Christians from all over Europe and North America gathered in Barfusser Church, Augsburg in 1930. The Alliance’s general secretary Martyn H Gooch spoke at the gathering to deliver the Alliance’s message of “...joy in the historic Confession of Faith which first set out the great protestant doctrines in clear language that all might understand.” 

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