Samuel Lutheran to present the musical ‘Martin Luther’

Photo by Jenny Kirk Cast as Martin Luther, Austin Rubendall, second from left, sings along with other Samuel Lutheran School students during a practice session on Tuesday in preparation for today’s public performance of “Martin Luther” — a musical production meant to honor the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

MARSHALL — Be prepared for a thunder and lightning storm, a glowing fire suitable for book burning and a lesson in Biblical truth as Samuel Lutheran School presents the musical play “Martin Luther” tonight in honor of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

Martin Luther is said to have nailed 95 Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in the German town of Wittenberg on Oct. 31, 1517. Those 95 Theses were criticisms regarding the Roman Catholic Church’s practice of selling indulgences to worshippers.

“As a Roman Catholic monk, Martin Luther didn’t know how things were supposed to be until he really got into the scripture because in the early days, the common people didn’t read the Bible,” director John Festerling said. “So when he started to read the Bible, he said, ‘You know, it doesn’t say that you have to earn your good works or earn your way to heaven.'”

Luther challenged the Catholic clerics’ practice, proclaiming that salvation came by grace through faith alone.

“It’s part of who we are as Lutherans,” Festerling said. “So for our kids, they know early on that it’s by grace alone we’re saved — Scripture alone, grace alone, faith alone — and that’s the message that we have in our musical.”

Though not necessarily intended, Luther’s dramatic act sparked a theological revolution. The 95 Theses that outlined the issues he identified were written in Latin — instead of the common German language — because they were meant to be directed toward fellow professors and students.

But Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press unpredictably allowed the 95 Theses to be quickly translated and distributed throughout the German kingdoms and eventually, throughout Europe.

“It affected the world,” Festerling said.

As the Samuel Lutheran School K-8 students demonstrate in the musical, Martin Luther faced a great deal of criticism — even threats to his life — for speaking out against the supreme authority of the Roman papacy.

“Luther tried to set it straight,” Festerling said. “That’s why the pope said he was a heretic and that they were going to burn him at the stake and he had to hide for so long. But he stood up and said he can’t take back what he said because what he wrote is true. It’s what the Bible says.”

When he was told to recant, Martin Luther refused even though he faced excommunication from the church, the fear of being arrested and worse.

“He said, ‘If you can show me in the Bible where it says different, I’ll take back what I said,'” Festerling said regarding Luther’s response. “But they couldn’t prove it, so it stood. And so 500 years later, we’re still preaching the truth of the Bible.”

Festerling added that Luther didn’t want credit for his efforts, but people wanted to attribute the good work he did to him anyway.

“His thing was ‘Don’t honor me. Honor God,'” Festerling said.

Narrators Madeline Prahl and Hailey Schaffran set each scene of the musical before the young actors began saying their lines. Near the beginning, one of those scenes depicts what life was like around 1500, when only boys were allowed to attend school.

“Martin Luther encouraged education for all,” Festerling said. “He said, ‘Ladies, go to school.’ If you have an education, you can read the Bible. He wanted the girls to be able to read the Bible, too. The Reformation wasn’t just about religion — that was the key about it — but it was about a lot of things.”

In another scene, students portrayed Dominican friar Johann Tetzel, who attempted to persuade townspeople to ensure their journey — straight from purgatory to Heaven — by dropping coins into the coffer. That money — much of it collected from poor believers — was meant to be used to build the basilica of St. Peter in Rome. Luther questioned the ethics behind the endeavor.

Portraying Martin Luther in the musical, Austin Rubendall summed up what he came to learn through the scriptures.

“You can’t buy forgiveness,” Rubendall said.

Martin Luther taught that everyone should have the same religious rights — that the Roman Church was not the lone authority when it came to interpreting the Bible. People did not get their right to religious liberty from anyone except God, he argued.

Festerling noted that he wasn’t sure if he wanted to leave a particular line — when the townspeople yell that they want wine — in the play, but that it served a symbolic purpose.

“They yell that they want wine, but only the pope and priests got the wine,” he said. “But the Lord’s Supper is meant for all of us — for the forgiveness of sins. That’s what Luther was trying to get out clearly and truly.”

The Reformation caused lasting change in Europe and beyond. It led to wars and persecution, but eventually to greater freedom of religion and expression.

Luther, despite his extensive knowledge and insight, refused to force religion on anyone. Rather, he preached about free will.

“I will not force anyone to have faith,” Rubendall said in his role as Martin Luther. “It must come freely.”

Between scenes portraying the life and work of Martin Luther, the K-8 students projected their angelic voices through multiple songs, accompanied by Julie Festerling.

“Singing is our strong point,” John Festerling said. “That’s part of the Lutheran Reformation, too. That’s why we’re doing this play. It’s the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther and his work with the Reformation. Part of all that was the fact that singing is important — it’s part of the Lutheran Church.”

Backstage, Amy McArthur did her part to keep the practice session running smoothly on Tuesday afternoon. The students have one more afternoon to perfect their theatrical skills before the public performance.

“They’re getting there,” John Festerling said. “It’s been a tough one because there are a lot of words — everybody has lines — so it’s been a challenging musical. And we had a couple who have been sick, so that gives us a little challenge, too, but hopefully they’ll be back (today).”

“Martin Luther” will be presented at 7 p.m. today in the gymnasium at Samuel Lutheran School. There is no cost to attend and the public is invited.