This Halloween marked the 500th anniversary of the day that changed everything

Jeff Bobo • Nov 4, 2017 at 8:30 PM

My Tuesday evening was spent wandering around downtown Rogersville taking photos and live video of some really creative youngsters and their parents in costume.

I chose downtown Rogersville because I knew there was going to be a humongous crowd there celebrating All Hallows’ Eve at the annual Trunk or Treat on Main Street festival.

That’s not unlike the reason Martin Luther chose Oct. 31, 1517 to nail his pamphlet “Ninety-five Theses” on the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg, Germany. A huge crowd was expected that day as well for the upcoming All Saints’ Day feast.

My online Trunk or Treat photo gallery received more than 30,000 clicks, and the Facebook livestream video of the event had 5,300 views, which wasn’t bad for a Tuesday night.

Martin Luther’s “Ninety-Five Theses” had a bit more of a profound impact.

Many would argue that Oct. 31, 1517 was the third most significant day in the history of Christianity, behind the birth of Christ and the Resurrection.

And while I was enjoying our modern Halloween festivities Tuesday evening, mooching candy and laughing at the outrageous costumes, in the back of my mind a little voice kept reminding me that this was no ordinary Halloween.

It was the 500th anniversary of the day that changed everything and shaped the modern Western world. It was the day that started the Protestant Reformation.

For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, on Oct. 31, 1517, German theology professor Martin Luther released a pamphlet called “Ninety-five Theses” outlining some of the corruption he had identified within the Catholic Church — which at the time was the only western Christian church as well as the ultimate authority in the Christian world.

Before I go any further, it’s incumbent upon us all to recognize that the church of the 1500s was much different than the church of today. In this country, we’re all friends. Catholic, Protestant, Hebrew, whatever. We’re all on the same team. But it was a slow metamorphosis, and for hundreds of years the folks who wanted religious reform suffered a lot of persecution.

In the 1990s, I took a medieval history course at Loyola University in Chicago that was taught by a Jesuit priest who was adamant about presenting the non-watered-down version of the Reformation. You can do your own research, but let’s just say that a lot of blood was spilled before we earned the right to attend the church of our choice.

Basically the “Ninety-five Theses” criticized the practice of selling indulgences, or selling salvation to sinners. In other words, you could bribe the clergy to buy your way out of hell. It was a scam, and I’m sure a lot of recently departed sinners were demanding a refund the first time that red hot pitchfork stuck them in the bum. 

At the time, however, questioning any practice of the church was heresy punishable by excommunication and/or death.

The “Ninety-five Theses” opened the door to questioning other policies and interpretations of the church. The printing press was also becoming the Facebook of its time, and Luther’s pamphlet went viral. Before long, people started reading their own Bibles as well, making their own interpretations of its meanings, and eventually they wanted their own churches too.

And voilà, 500 years later we have so many churches to choose from in Kingsport it takes two full pages every Friday in the Times-News to advertise them all.

It wasn’t until recently that I discovered my own connection to the Reformation. About 10 years ago, my mom completed an extensive genealogy study on our family and traced the Bobos back to the French Huguenot village of St. Sauvant near the port town of La Rochelle.

There are two main events which led my American progenitor and seven-times great-grandfather Gabriel Baubeau to leave France in 1698.

The first was the Oct. 31, 1517 posting of the “Ninety-five Theses,” which kicked off the Reformation.

The second was the revocation of the Edict of Nantes by King Louis XIV of France in 1685. The Edict of Nantes (1598) granted Huguenots the right to practice their religion without persecution. When Louis needed a loan from the pope to pay for his wars, however, the pontiff demanded the edict’s repeal.  

At the time, religious persecution was already escalating in France, as reported in documents from that era.

In 1681, Gabriel’s brothers Laurence and Jean Baubeau appeared on a list of individuals sentenced to death for their religion beliefs. They both later appeared on a list of 1681 reprieves for recanting their faith.

Later records list Gabriel’s brothers Louis and Jean as being among a group arrested for assisting Protestant assemblies in 1697.

The translated record states: “Louis Baubeau  and Jean Baubeau went with 400 others to the Easter Assembly convened secretly in the St. Sauvant Forest on April 9, 1697 where a boy from the countryside preached to them. Then, caught red-handed in the act with 7 others ... and condemned to death. Sentencing to be carried out on May 7, 1697. Jean should be hung and strangled at St. Nicholas Square in Poitiers and his dead body placed (displayed) on the main road in Couvre. Louis should be hung and strangled on the public square of St. Sauvant and his dead body placed on the main road of Poitiers.”

I guess seeing your two brothers hanged for attending church was enough for Gabriel. In 1698, he left France for England and arrived in King William County, Va., in October of  1700. And the rest, as they say, is history.

As a result of government-sanctioned persecution created by the revocation of the Edict of Nantes,  the number of Protestants who fled France in the last two decades of the 1600s has been estimated as high as 900,000.

In France, it’s known as the “Great Brain Drain.” The country lost a significant percentage of its artisans and skilled labor and, some would say, never fully recovered.

Gabriel, like many, made his way to the New World, where cheap farmland was plentiful and you weren’t hanged for attending church.

And 500 years after Martin Luther changed the world, we still have him to thank for the religious freedom we enjoy today. But I’m gonna go ahead and shoot a personal thanks to Gabriel Beabeau as well.

My grandfather Price Bobo was a pastor who died when I was very young, so I never got to know him. Genealogy wasn’t big in his time, so I seriously doubt he knew anything about his five-times great-grandfather Gabriel or why Gabriel came to America. Aside from preaching, Grandpa Price was a cotton farmer raising a family during the Great Depression and a boll weevil blight, so he had his hands full.

But I’d like to think that if Price knew about the struggles and loss Gabriel endured, like me he would be grateful to him for taking a chance, hopping on a boat, and ensuring our family’s religious freedom for the next 320 years and beyond. 

Jeff Bobo covers Hawkins County for the Times-News. Email him at jbobo@timesnews.net.