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In My Words: ​Oct. 31 is also Reformation Day

Tom Nelson, associate professor of communications, writes in this column about the often overlooked history of Oct. 31 as Reformation Day. 

Eliot Stein/Special to the Washington Post

This column was originally published in the Greensboro News & Record. Views expressed in this column are the author's own, and not necessarily those of Elon University. 


By Tom Nelson

The final day of October is known as Halloween, but the date is also known by another name. It is also Reformation Day.

That so few people know of Reformation Day, especially on the 500th anniversary of its christening, is an offense to history.

Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the doors of a German church on Oct. 31, 1517. The date was first known as Luther Day and now more inclusively as Reformation Day.


The 95 Theses were a list of things that Martin Luther thought could improve Christianity. It turned out that a lot of people agreed with him.

I tried to be clever as I began to write, something to the effect that I had only one complaint rather than 95. My complaint was against amnesia to anything older than an Instagram. I stopped myself though as I feared it was a sin of vanity to be playful about an event still omnipresent in its effect.

Consider that most Christians were, at least on the face of it, of one seamless faith as the sun set on Oct. 31, 1517. A new epoch dawned the next day, and things would never be the same. The genie was out of the bottle. Martin Luther uncorked for many a festering resentment against ritualized, centralized Christianity. The wave of the future for many Christians was a personal rather than a mediated relationship between themselves and Christ. The zeitgeist of that moment extends across five centuries.

Martin Luther and his followers were called protestors at the onset, and as their way of thought settled into a common consciousness, they were called Protestants.

Old words such as transubstantiation (does anyone even know what that means in 2017?), grace, penance and salvation were suddenly, inevitably defined by conscience as often as by dogma.

This all sounds so distant today as we witness the total eclipse of Reformation Day by Halloween. Yet the Halloween of 2017 and the Reformation Day of 1517 are oddly linked in the most profound way. Each ponders the afterlife, although Halloween mocks it while Reformation Day esteems it.


Owen Covington,
10/31/2017 8:40 AM