Martin Luther (1483-1546), German theologian and Augustinian monk, demonised as the original heretic by some, others revering him as brother and co-apostle of Christ wrote 95 Theses (1517). Luther's teachings caused much division in the 16th century but they were also the catalyst inspiring reform and change for the Lutheran and Protestant traditions. The leader of the Reformation, he saw it not only as revolt against ecclesiastical abuses but a plea for the Pope to affirm the Gospel, wherein lay the doctrine of justification of faith by faith alone.
Born `Luder' and named after St. Martin of Tours, Martin would later change his last name to Luther. He was born 10 November 1483 at Eisleben, in the federal state of Saxony-Anhalt, Germany, the son of Hans Luder, a farmer and his wife, Margaretha Luder née Lindemann. Hans Luder would become successful in the then copper mining boom of nearby Mansfeld.
Young Martin attended Latin school in Mansfeld, then in 1497 he went to a boarding school in Magdeburg; two years later he moved to Eisenach and lived with relatives while attending school there. In 1501 at the age of eighteen Luther entered the University of Erfurt where he studied the liberal arts, and in 1505 attained his Master's degree with the intention of studying Law as was his father's wish. However that was not to be as it is said that while Luther was just outside of Stotterheim one day after visiting his parents he was caught in a terrific thunderstorm where lightning struck nearby, thus throwing him to the ground and in his terror he called out "St. Anne Help me! I will become a monk!" It's most likely he was considering a life of the cloth before this event, much to his father's chagrin. His friends and family tried to convince him to continue his studies in Law but he vowed to keep his promise, and entered the Mendicant order of the Augustinian monks at the Black Monastery in Erfurt in July of 1505.
Luther was introduced to the monk's daily life of prayer, fasting, and manual labour that would last two years. Plagued with uncertainty and doubt as to his own salvation he struggled for enlightenment through fasting, flagellation, and confession, though it only seemed to deepen his need to find meaning with God. In 1507 he was ordained as priest and started Theological studies at the University of Erfurt. Thus began five years of rigorous study in Humanist ideology, 'Ad Fontes! - Back to the Source!', the Bible in its original Hebrew and Greek. He received his doctorate in Theology in 1512 and became professor at Wittenberg University, lecturing on Psalms (1514-15), Letter to the Romans (1515-16), Letter to the Galatians (1516-17), and Letter to the Hebrews (1517-18). Living in the ancient city of Wittenberg on the Elbe, this was a period of intense study for Luther, especially of Letter to the Romans, whereupon he came to realise finally that it is by the grace of God alone that one receives justice, not by doing good works.
“For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, `The one who is righteous will live by faith.'” (Romans 1:17)
Luther also served as priest for Wittenberg's City Church in 1514, at a time when many of his parishioners were going to neighbouring ones in order to purchase indulgences as a bypass of confession. This commerce in salvation was detestable to Luther, and there was also rumour that the Dominican monk, Johann Tetzel, could redeem the sins of the deceased by such trade as well. Luther preached against it, and in his famous 95 Theses (1517) he wrote to his superiors asking they put a stop to the sale of indulgences. If there is one representative symbol of the Reformation, it is from the legend of Luther nailing his Theses to the door of the Wittenberg church.
It is certain that Luther sent his Theses to area bishops and friends and it was not long before they were in circulation in nearby Leipzig, and Nuremberg and Basel. There was much discussion and controversy surrounding them, humanists and princes approving, the Roman Catholic church denouncing. Tetzel of course was vehemently opposed and accused Luther of heresy, in the order of Jan Hus, threatening to burn him at the stake. Emperor Maximilian denounced Luther as a heretic and in 1518 The Papal Court ordered an inquisition in Rome. Karl V continued the fight against Luther. Luther's Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences was written in 1517.
As Luther became distanced from Rome between 1520 and 1521 he continued to write including Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, The Babylonian Captivity and The Freedom of the Christian Man. These works furthered his isolation and on 15 June, 1520 the Papal Bull of excommunication in which Luther was given sixty days to recant his teachings was delivered at the height of the inquisition. Luther reacted strongly and it is said he exclaimed in his protest:
“Because you, godless book, have grieved or shamed the holiness of the Father, be saddened and consumed by the eternal flames of Hell ”.
Luther burned the Papal Bull, along with various books by his enemies, and the book of church law in December of 1520 in Wittenberg, where the Luther Oak (Luthereiche) sprouted. Cardinal Cajetan pleaded with him to recant, though Luther ended up fleeing the city in fear of his life. By 1521 the Pope had excommunicated Luther from the church. Hoping to weaken the Pope's political influence in his empire, Frederick III the Wise, Elector of Saxony offered protection to Luther, though he also ended up wanting Luther to recant. Luther and the princes who supported him were given safe escort to the Imperial Diet of Worms, setting out in April of 1521. Along his journey he was welcomed and cheered, but his journey was for naught, for he again refused to recant to the Emperor:
“Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason - I do not accept the authority of the Popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other - my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen. ”
Luther stated “I am finished” and set out on his journey home. An Imperial Act (Wormser Edikt) was imposed, labelling Luther an outlaw and giving anyone licence to kill him without penalty. With Luther’s knowledge a mock kidnapping by `bandits' was carried out by Friedrich the Wise and his men. He was taken to Wartburg Castle in Eisenach in order to protect him from harm. While in hiding he called himself Junker Jörg (Knight George) and grew his hair and a beard; rumours of his death circulated. It is said that Luther suffered delusions and torment by demons and evil spirits, and his life of exile surely increased his paranoia. There is a legend of him throwing his inkwell at the devil in a fit of anger.
During his exile of 1521, Luther continued to keep contact with his supporters, including his dear friend Phillip Melanchthon (1497-1560) to whom he wrote Let Your Sins Be Strong. They had met at the University where Luther introduced him to reformed theology, and Melanchthon taught him Greek. Melanchthon was one of the first to join the Reformation movement. Melanchthon's Loci communes (1521) greatly influenced Luther's future writings. During this period Luther also devoted himself to the translation of the original Greek New Testament into German, which took him a mere eleven weeks and was published in 1522. This work helped to develop a standardised version of German, and made accessible the bible to commoners. After the Old Testament was translated, the complete Bible in German was printed in 1534.
Wittenberg had become the centre for the Reformation; worship service was changed and by 1521 three priests had married. When Luther returned in 1522 he was once again at the helm, and began preaching the Gospel throughout Germany. An important work during this period was Luther's To the Councilmen of all Cities within German Territories; Christian Schools Ought to be Kept Up outlining the obligation of the community to provide for the needy, and proper education with funds from the newly set up system of a "Common Treasury" of collecting financial donations. The relative calm was not to last and in 1525 peasant protest reared its head, fronted by Thomas Münzer, priest and one-time follower of Luther. They called for more just economics, even at the downfall of authorities, though they were defeated at the battle of Frankenhausen during which tens of thousands were killed and most of the year's crops destroyed.
Having taken a vow of chastity and often preaching on the virtues and importance of marriage, Luther wrote in a letter to Bavarian noblewoman Argula von Grumbach, his response to her query as to whether he would ever marry;
“Nevertheless, the way I feel now, and have felt thus far, I will not marry. It is not that I do not feel my flesh or sex, since I am neither wood nor stone, but my mind is far removed from marriage, since I daily expect death and the punishment due to a heretic. Therefore I shall not limit God’s work in me, nor shall I rely on my own heart. Yet I hope God does not let me live long.”
However, as he wrote to John Rühel, “in defiance of the devil and all his adversaries”, Martin Luther married Katharina von Bora (1499-1552) on 27 June 1525. The University of Wittenberg gave them a silver goblet and the city magistrate gave them gifts. `Kate' was a nun who had taken refuge in Wittenberg after having fled the convent Nimbschen, near Grimma. Martin and Kate would have six children together. She was an avid gardener, cattle breeder and competent Lady of the house and her and Martin led a happy life together. Many of Luther's circle of friends and supporters were dismayed by his marriage, including Melanchthon, who had not been invited and who deemed it a foreshadowing of bad luck. The Luther's lived in the Augustinian monastery, a bustling and happy home. They had many houseguests and boarders, including students and widows who would provide some much needed income, in addition to Luther's modest income, towards the running of the household. Luther would sometimes jokingly refer to her as `Lord Kate' because of her bossy and commandeering motherly ways, though no doubt it was necessary at times. Luther's sisters' six children would live with them after her death. Among the various works Luther wrote during this time were the Baptismal Book, Wedding Book and Small and Large Catechism (1529). He was also a lover of song, “The one who sings, prays double”, and contributed towards the singing of hymns in Christian congregations. He wrote the Smart Songbook and many hymns including the choral A Mighty Fortress is Our God in 1527.
Many changes were enacted during the Reformation, including allowing the parish to take the wafer and the wine during Communion. Luther was constantly defending the Reformation to the Roman Catholic faction and he also argued bitterly with Dutch humanist Erasmus von Rotterdamm. His Jesus was born a Jew (1523) was considered conciliatory at the time and now deemed anti-Semitic, as well as his Jews and their Lies (1543). In his later years Luther wrote Against the Papacy at Rome Founded by the Devil wherein he dealt his final blow to the Roman Catholic church.
Luther had been suffering from various physical ailments like arthritis, digestive upset and heart problems for years and they were continuing to weaken him, yet he continued to teach at the University of Wittenberg and fight for reform. It is said that his last lecture ended with the words “I am weak, I cannot go on.” He also continued to write including On the Councils and Churches (1539). This same year Katy suffered a miscarriage and Luther was by her side throughout, Lutherans all over the world praying for her recovery. He wrote Disputation on the Divinity and Humanity of Christ in 1540. Whilst the plague was sweeping Europe, the untimely death of his daughter Magdelena sets him off into a deep depression and ruminations on the signs of the End Days.
Against the Papacy at Rome Founded by the Devil (1545) is said to be one of Luther's most coarse and vehement works he ever produced. Scatological satires of the Pope and Rome accompany it. The same year, Luther had returned to his birthplace in Eisleben with his three sons to assist in settling an inheritance dispute between the landed gentry Mansfeld Counts. After suffering prolonged chest pains, he did not have the strength to return home to Wittenberg and Martin Luther died on 18 February 1546 in Eisleben. It is said that some of his last words were the prayer of the dying;
“Into your hands, I command my spirit. You have saved me, Father, you faithful God.”
He was laid to rest in the Chancel of the Castle Church in Wittenberg; Johannes Bugenhagen pronounced the oration. He is buried beneath the floor of the church, the stone marking his tomb stating: “Here lies the body of Martin Luther, Doctor of Sacred Theology, who died in his hometown Eisleben in the year of our Lord 1546 on the 18th day of February after having lived for 63 years, 2 months and 10 days.”
In Eisleben the home and room where he died has been memorialised. The city of Wittenberg today is still at its heart a spiritual and cultural centre for Europe. One of the countries' most popular folk festivals celebrates the Luther's marriage.
After her husband's death, and in the wake of the Smalkaldian War, Kate fled Wittenberg. Most of the Luther property was in ruins when she returned, and the plague drove her away from the city again. Katharina Luther died of consumption at the age of fifty-three on 20 December 1552. She is buried in the Marienkirche, Torgau.
Part of the last written words of Luther were:“Virgil's shepherd poems cannot be understood, except by one who has been a shepherd for five years. Virgil's poetry about agriculture cannot be understood, except by one who has been a farmhand for five years. Cicero's letters cannot be understood, except by one who has participated and lived within a large community for 25 years. The Holy Scriptures do not have a satisfactory taste for me or anyone else, unless he has spent 100 years ruling a community as the prophets Elijah and Elisha, John the Baptist, Christ and the Apostles.”
Biography written by C.D. Merriman for Jalic Inc. Copyright Jalic Inc 2005. All Rights Reserved.
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