History Book – Luther’s excommunication

NICK EICHER, HOST: Next up on The World and Everything in It: the WORLD History Book. This week, a notorious excommunication, the arrest of five members of a Soviet spy ring, and an out-of-this-world mystery. 

Here’s WORLD senior correspondent Katie Gaultney.


KATIE GAULTNEY, SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: Martin Luther began his New Year in 1521 with a stern message from the pope. It’s been 500 years since Pope Leo X issued the papal bull Decet Romanum Pontificem, excommunicating Luther from the Catholic Church. 

Stephen Nichols, president of Reformation Bible College, explains the gravity of that move. 

NICHOLS: This is a moment in time when to be outside of the church meant that you are outside of salvation. 

The decree came more than three years after the German theologian catalyzed the Protestant movement in Germany with his 95 theses. That document, of course, condemned Catholic leadership for the corrupt practice of selling indulgences for forgiveness of sins. And Luther was warned that he should recant or risk excommunication. The 2003 movie Luther, starring Joseph Fiennes, imagined one such warning. 

LUTHER: My criticism was not of the Holy Father himself, but of those rogues who claim to represent him. You have been summoned to appear by Rome. You are threatened with excommunication. 

In fact, Luther had publicly burned a prior papal bull warning him he was on thin ice. Frank James, president of Biblical Theological Seminary, said Luther had made the situation untenable for the Catholic Church. 

JAMES: Some people ask the question whether or not Luther was kicked out of the church or whether he left the church. Well the answer is both because Luther made that situation so impossible for the medieval church that they had to excommunicate him. So he really didn’t give them any choice. 

As we know, he refused to recant. To this day, the Catholic Church still has not lifted Luther’s excommunication, though it joined with Lutherans and Methodists in 1999 and 2006 to agree on a “common understanding of justification by God’s grace through faith in Christ.” 

Jumping ahead nearly four-and-a-half centuries, to January 9, 1961, when British authorities announced they had uncovered the Soviet Portland Spy Ring in London. 

The spy ring was made up of Brits Harry Houghton and Ethel Gee, Americans Morris and Lona Cohen—masquerading as British booksellers—and Soviet Konon Molody, under the alias of “Gordon Lonsdale,” a Canadian businessman. The group was working against the British government on behalf of the Soviet Union. The USSR’s biggest target? A nuclear submarine called Dreadnought.

QUEEN ELIZABETH: I name this ship Dreadnought. May God bless her and all who sail in her. 

It had sophisticated technology for the day, particularly with its sonar and underwater concealment capabilities. 


And the Soviets wanted those plans. They pulled out all the stops, with fake passports, dead drops, “microdots” of information that could only be read under a microscope, and concealed cameras.

The espionage came to an end on January 7, 1961, when an MI5 sting operation led to the arrests of the five spies. But many in British intelligence believe other Soviet operatives involved managed to escape. Here’s journalist Chapman Pincher talking to the BBC in 1993. 

PINCHER: There were others, beyond question, as far as MI5 is concerned. That a number of people had escaped because the police blew the investigation too early. 

And from intrigue on planet Earth to an interstellar mystery? 


January 8th marks 40 years since a farmer in France spotted an unidentified flying object, dubbed by science magazine Popular Mechanics “perhaps the most completely and carefully documented sighting of all time.” 

NICOLAI: [Farmer Renato Nikolai explains UFO sighting]

That’s Renato Nicolaï, a 55-year-old farmer in Trans-en-Provence who reported the UFO. He said he heard a whistling sound on his farm around 5 p.m. That’s when he claims a saucer-shaped object about 8 feet in diameter landed about 150 feet away from him. 

He described it as “the color of lead.” He said it had reactors or feet, and trapdoors, and it took off almost immediately and disappeared, leaving burn marks in about a six-foot, circular area where he alleged it landed. 

Nicolai assumed it was a military space vehicle, so he notified the local gendarmerie the next day. A French space agency investigated. Its analysis of the burned, depressed ground found the damage resulted from a mechanical pressure of as much as 5 tons, and it generated heat of over 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. They found trace amounts of phosphate and zinc in samples taken from the area. 

But after a two-year investigation, they couldn’t determine what might have caused the damage. Skeptics think the markings in the field were caused by cars. 


That’s this week’s History Book. I’m Katie Gaultney.

(Photo/Public Domain) Martin Luther painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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