Luther’s Failure and the Success of Pentecostalism 

German reformer Martin Luther is often heralded as the founder of Protestantism and one of the most influential Christians ever. Historian Bernd Moeller has even described him as the most influential European who ever lived, with millions of followers and a massive readership, his reformation project has had an overwhelming success – even though it ultimately failed to reform the Roman-Catholic church.[1]

However, this notion has recently been challenged by other historians. Hartmut Lehmann writes in his contribution to Radicalism and Dissent in the World of Protestant Reform, an anthology on the so-called radical reformation:

True, Protestantism has become a major world religion, with congregations on all continents. In the course of the twentieth century, however, not all branches of the Protestant family grew at the same rate. In Europe and North America, Lutheran churches, that is the churches directly descending from the German reformer, stagnated. Some are in decline, like many other mainstream churches. In contrast, the various branches of Baptist churches blossomed and attracted many new members, and so did numerous Pentecostal churches.

In Africa and some parts of Asia, in particular, congregations that can best be described as charismatic, fundamentalist, or evangelical (I am aware that all of these terms are disputed), are strong and vibrant. While Europe’s traditional Protestant churches are afflicted by progressive secularization, the much younger Protestant churches in the southern hemisphere experience vitality, and their leaders speak of unheard blessings.

In looking at what the British-American historian Philip Jenkins, in his book The Next Christendom, has called ‘The Coming of Global Christianity’, one may ask what has become of Luther’s heritage and what of his theological legacy. Luther never accepted the baptism of adults and was among the fiercest opponents of the early Baptist movement. Furthermore, Luther strongly rejected any kind of charismatic or emotional religious performance. For him, those who believed that they should follow sensational inspirations, were nothing but enthusiasts who could not be trusted.

However, not in the early years of the Protestant Reformation, but over the centuries, these unreliable enthusiasts have succeeded in unforeseen ways. By the twentieth century, ‘Martin Luther’s unruly offspring’ could proudly claim ‘mass’ success, or ‘Massenerfolg’, to use Bernd Möller’s phrase.[2]


anabaptist martyred

As we at PCPJ have previously pointed out, the Anabaptist movement which was contemporary with Luther’s reformation was predominantly charismatic, combining a passion for peace and justice with prayer for healing and prophecy. Lehmann connects the Anabaptists to later Baptists and Pentecostals, which makes sense: the theology is similar, and John Smyth, the founder of Baptism, was influenced by Anabaptist Mennonites in the Netherlands. Pentecostalism sprung out of Baptism as well as the Holiness Movement, which in turn was influenced by Anabaptism. This was apparent in the fact that early Pentecostals were pacifists, like Anabaptists, and held to believers’ baptism.

Martin Luther would probably not have liked this development: he argued that Anabaptists should be executed. But if he had been a bit more charitable to other interpretations of Scripture than his own, he should have realized that Pentecostalism ultimately is a natural consequence of what the reformation was all about. Bridget Heal writes in the same book:

Luther’s key messages (were) spiritual equality and lay access to the Bible. Ultimately, however, it was not the Wittenberg reformer but his ‘unruly offspring’ who disseminated these messages around the world. While Luther retreated behind the protection of the state and condemned those who challenged the divinely ordained order, the evangelicals whom he derided as unreliable enthusiasts succeeded in unforeseeable ways.[3]

Thus, it seems like it is the Pentecostal-charismatic movement, rather than orthodox Lutheranism, that carries the torch of the reformation most effectively today.

Micael Grenholm is editor-in-chief for PCPJ.

ska%cc%88rmavbild-2017-01-06-kl-21-17-02Pentecostals & Charismatics for Peace & Justice is a multicultural, gender inclusive, and ecumenical organization that promotes peace, justice, and reconciliation work among Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians around the world. If you like what we do, please become a member!


[1] Bernd Moeller, Luthers Erfolge, in: Lather-Rezeption. Kirchenhistorische Aufsätze zur Reformationsgeschichte, idem (Göttingen), pp. 270-284.
[2] Hartmut Lehmann, Martin Luther’s Unruly Offspring: The Protestant Reformation and Radical Critique, in: Radicalism and Dissent in the World of Protestant Reform, Bridget Heal and Anorthe Kremers (eds.), pp. 15-24.
[3] Bridget Heal, Introduction, in: Radicalism and Dissent in the World of Protestant Reform, Bridget Heal and Anorthe Kremers (eds.), pp. 8-14.

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