Individualism was central to the Protestant Reformation, and its centrality cannot be overstated. Martin Luther was a very religious individual whose views on religion increasingly came into conflict with the Catholic Church. Witnessing the cynicism and corruption endemic in the Church of his time, Luther began to rebel against the notion of the Church as the sole repository of redemption, a situation exacerbated by the inability of many Christians to read Latin, the language of the Bible interpreted by the leading theologians. His efforts at translating the Bible into German for the purpose of making it more accessible to the masses was a major action taken to counter the Church’s monopoly on the sacred texts.
Luther’s rejection of the notion of a morally superior hierarchy manifested itself in his appeal to the individualistic nature of most people. The increasingly corrupt Church hierarchy lacked the moral authority, he argued, to speak for God and to represent God’s followers. His appearance before the Diet of Worms in 1521 provided Luther the platform he needed to make perhaps his most eloquent appeal:
“Unless I am proved wrong by Scripture or by evident reason, then I am a prisoner in conscience to the word of God. I cannot retract and I will not retract. To go against the conscience is neither safe nor right. Here stand I: I can do no other. God help me. Amen.”
The concept of individualism as exemplified by Martin Luther should not be confused with contemporary concepts of individualism as manifested in today’s ultra-nonconformist attitudes. Luther’s concept of individualism was firmly rooted in fealty to a greater good as represented in the words of God. Whereas the Church posed as God’s representatives on Earth, Luther argued that God was present in each individual, and that individuals did not require a Church-sanctioned representative to feel His glory and, more importantly, did not require the Church’s sanction before one could enter the Kingdom of Heaven.