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500 Years Since 95 Theses, Martin Luther's Legacy Divides Some Of His Descendants


Many Protestants around the world are celebrating the start of the Reformation five centuries ago. As the story has it, on the eve of All Saints' Day, a renegade monk named Martin Luther hammered 95 theses that challenge Catholic doctrine onto a church door in Germany. And he launched a movement that forever changed Christianity.

But as NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports, not everyone is comfortable with the German theologian's legacy, including some of his descendants.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in German).

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: This German video is one of many issued to mark the quincentennial of Martin Luther's act of defiance. It features the Castle Church, which according to legend, is where Luther posted the theses on October 31, 1517.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in German).

NELSON: Among those visiting the church in the Eastern German town of Lutherstadt Wittenberg on a recent weekend are 44 people who claim a family connection to Luther. He was an excommunicated monk who married a young runaway nun, and they had six children.

CHRISTIAN PRIESMEIER: We were walking on the footsteps of Luther. We visited the Luther House. We were at the Castle Church.

NELSON: Christian Priesmeier is among the descendants exploring his German ancestor's turf. He heads the association of Lutherides, which is made up of Luther descendants. Like Priesmeier, most of the 200 members are German. But he estimates Luther has up to 5,000 descendants worldwide.

Among those attending the reunion is Linda Fulmer, an American from Hideaway, Texas. She says she's an evangelical who grew up Baptist but always felt close to Luther and his teachings. Sixteen months ago, she discovered via that she is actually related to the reformer.

LINDA FULMER: I do a lot of genealogy for myself, my family and for other people, too. And so I was looking at something about my Tennessee ancestor. And there was something that came up on Ancestry about descended from Martin Luther.

NELSON: Her ancestor turned out to be Luther's daughter, Anna Margareta, who was born in 1534. Priesmeier is descended from Luther's son Paul. He says Martin Luther helped him understand the importance of the individual in society.

PRIESMEIER: Maybe I only have a single voice, but my single voice can be important. And this is something I guess I also got from Martin Luther because he was raising up his voice because he saw that something was not right in the church. And he said, well, we have to talk about it.

NELSON: Luther led a backlash against increasing corruption in the Catholic Church, especially the sale of indulgences that were supposed to help the buyer get to heaven. He also helped unify the German language. But there's a lot about Luther that makes the descendants uneasy, including his rants against Jews who failed to convert. Luther's words were used over the centuries to justify German anti-Semitism, including during the Nazi era. Fulmer offers this observation about Luther.

FULMER: He was very intolerant. He could write people off easily. He was a very uncompromising person in his personality.

NELSON: Priesmeier adds Luther's stubbornness is why he succeeded with the Reformation but that his approach is outdated.

PRIESMEIER: I would say Luther, in our time, would not survive. So he would be not a political person who would change anything.

NELSON: He and Fulmer are optimistic, however, that Luther's church and the Catholic Church will finally reconcile.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Lutherstadt Wittenberg. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.