Martin Luther and Mary
The earliest Protestant Churches retained many of the beliefs and practices of the Roman Catholic Church. As the years progressed, however, these churches resembled Roman Catholicism less and less. Few people recognize how significant Marian devotion was to many of the reformers, although the reformers were generally cautious in their Mariology.
Luther was outspoken in his concerns about some of the excessive forms of Marian devotion, and was especially appalled by some practices that he saw as being on the level of folk piety — he did not like to see the Virgin Mary equated with God. Sometimes, Luther made the common mistake of lumping together practices that were accepted on the level of popular practice with actual dogma of the Roman Catholic Church.
Luther did not intend to start a new church, but rather to bring about reform within the Roman Catholic Church. Although passionate about taking a stance against the abuses he experienced, he was deeply conflicted over the possibility of schism. His excommunication indeed did bring about an era of schism in which Protestant churches broke apart from each other.
Praying to Mary
Although early in his ministry he sometimes seemed to invoke the prayers of the Virgin Mary in a public way, over time Luther became increasingly wary of the practice of invoking the prayers of the saints. He was especially uncomfortable (as many Protestants are to this day) with the idea of Mary as a mediator or intercessor. As Luther's ministry evolved, he came to distrust the practice of invoking the prayers of the saints. His caution, however, did not suppress his belief that the departed saints do continually pray for those on earth and that Mary, especially, prays for the Church.
Luther also offered some cautions related to the saying of the Hail Mary. While he believed that this prayer could be useful for believers who wanted to meditate on Mary's faith, he was concerned that those who didn't believe in God might say the “Hail Mary” in a way that was spiritually dangerous. He was troubled that some people would pray to Mary instead of Christ.
Luther's Catholic Convictions
Luther did, however, believe in most official Roman Catholic teachings related to the Virgin Mary, especially her ever-virginity and her Immaculate Conception, although the latter was not officially proclaimed as dogma by the Roman Catholic Church until 1854. Although Luther called this doctrine a “sweet and pious belief” and embraced it on a personal level, he did not believe that the chapter 10: Toppling Mary: The Reformation Immaculate Conception should be forced upon believers because he did not see sufficient Biblical evidence to support it.
It is fallacy to believe that the Immaculate Conception refers to Jesus' birth from a virgin. The Immaculate Conception is a view held by the Roman Catholic Church that Mary was conceived without the original stain of sin which had been passed on to every person since the fall in the Garden of Eden.
Luther also believed in the ancient Christian idea that Mary was the spiritual mother of the Church. And he believed that Mary was a wonderful person to meditate on and emulate, especially because of her extreme humility and obedience to the will of God.
According to Martin Luther, not only was devotion to Mary a spiritually helpful practice, but it was an almost intrinsic aspect of healthy spirituality. According to a sermon he gave on September 1, 1522, “the veneration of Mary is inscribed in the very depths of the human heart.”