He Talked to Us on the Road
"All pilgrimages should be done away with," Martin Luther wrote in 1520. "For there is no good in them, no commandment, but countless causes of sin and of contempt of God's commandments. These pilgrimages are the reason for there being so many beggars, who commit numberless villainies."
This quote—and the Reformer's many other warnings against pilgrimage—seem to be missing from the government and private materials promoting the Luther Trail, a 170-mile route from Wittenberg to Mansfeld, his childhood home. See Luther's ink stain on the wall at Wartburg Castle! Feel the cold wind that nearly killed him at Unterrissdorf! Buy "Here I stand" socks in Erfurt!
"Luther would probably have been horrified," says British theologian and Luther scholar Graham Tomlin. "He even hated the idea of people being called 'Lutherans.' Though maybe he might not have minded [the trail] if the purpose was to remind people of the rediscovery of the gospel by retracing his steps." After all, Tomlin notes, Luther himself often retold the story of how he rediscovered the gospel.
It would be easy to dismiss the Luther Trail—and similar Reformation pilgrimage routes in John Calvin's Switzerland, John Knox's Scotland, and elsewhere—as the savvy marketing of tourism boards. But even the most Reformed evangelicals are now talking openly about spiritual travel. True, Protestants have long embraced the language of pilgrimage, but almost exclusively as metaphor, as in John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress or the old gospel hymn, "I Am a Pilgrim."
Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Al Mohler isn't using the word as a metaphor when he talks about his pilgrimage to Jonathan Edwards's grave in Princeton, New Jersey. In August, Mars Hill Church pastor Mark Driscoll is leading a tour of Greece and Israel. "It seems that perhaps nothing would be a more memorable, life-enriching, and memory-making Christmas gift," wrote Driscoll on his blog last November.
Less than a decade ago, one could find several books combining travel and Eastern religions, along with scads of interfaith volumes on "looking for God in America." But only in the last few years have Christian publishers such as InterVarsity Press and Lion Hudson jumped in with titles on uniquely evangelical pilgrimages. Treks to historically Protestant pilgrimage sites like Iona, Scotland, and Taizé, France, are booming, while evangelicals throughout Europe, particularly in Scandinavia, see their continent's growing interest in pilgrimage as a missional opportunity and a sign that their neighbors' hunger for God is gnawing away at them.
Perhaps the greatest sign that evangelicals are mining the 1,700-year-old tradition of pilgrimage is in Charlotte, North Carolina, where visitors to the Billy Graham Library can touch artifacts from the evangelist's life, see the family typewriter and Bible in the actual (but relocated) farmhouse he grew up in, then follow the footpath through the prayer garden to the grave of Ruth Bell Graham and the plot for Billy. Visitors are not permitted to lower cloths into the graves themselves, a popular practice at the burial sites of medieval saints, but official souvenirs can be purchased at Ruth's Attic Bookstore.
"It's been possible after several centuries to disentangle pilgrimage from the works righteousness that Luther so disapproved of, so that now Protestants can go on pilgrimages—though most often, they don't call them that—without any sense that they are earning God's favor by doing so," says Tomlin, who wrote on healthy ways Protestants can go on pilgrimages for a 2004 volume. "For most, they are like study tours or holidays with a spiritual dimension."