Martin Luther (November 10, 1483–February 18, 1546) was a German theologian, an Augustinian monk, and an ecclesiastical reformer whose teachings inspired the Reformation and deeply influenced the doctrines and culture of the Lutheran and Protestant traditions. Luther’s call to the Church to return to the teachings of the Bible led to the formation of new traditions within Christianity and to the Counter-Reformation, the Catholic reaction to these movements. His contributions to Western civilization went beyond the life of the Christian Church. His translations of the Bible helped to develop a standard version of the German language and added several principles to the art of translation. His hymns inspired the development of congregational singing in Christianity. His marriage on June 13, 1525, to Katharina von Bora began a movement of clerical marriage within many Christian traditions.
Luther’s Early Life
The “Luther house” where Luther boarded from ages 14 to 17 while attending private school at Eisenach.
Martin Luther was born to Hans and Margarette Luther, née Lindemann, on November 10, 1483, in Eisleben, Germany, and was baptized on the feast day of St. Martin of Tours, after whom he was named. His father owned a copper mine in nearby Mansfeld. Having risen from the peasantry, his father was determined to see his son ascend to civil service and bring further honor to the family. To that end, Hans sent young Martin to schools in Mansfeld, Magdeburg and Eisenach.
At the age of seventeen, in 1501, Luther entered the University of Erfurt. The young student received a Bachelor’s degree in 1502 and a Master’s degree in 1505. According to his father’s wishes, he enrolled in the law school of that university.
All that changed during a thunderstorm in the summer of 1505. A lightning bolt struck near to him as he was returning to school. Terrified, he cried out, “Help, Saint Anne! I’ll become a monk!”. His life spared, Luther left his law school and entered the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt.
Luther’s Struggle to Find Peace with God
Young Brother Martin Luther fully dedicated himself to monastic life, the effort to do good works to please God and to serve others through prayer for their souls. He devoted himself to fasts, flagellations, long hours in prayer and pilgrimage and constant confession. The more he tried to do for God, it seemed, the more aware he became of his sinfulness.
Johann von Staupitz, Luther’s superior, concluded the young man needed more work to distract him from excessive rumination. He ordered the monk to pursue an academic career. In 1507 Luther was ordained to the priesthood. In 1508 he began teaching theology at the University of Wittenberg. Luther received his Bachelor’s degree in Biblical Studies on March 9, 1508, and a Bachelor’s degree in the Sentences by Peter Lombard (the main textbook of theology in the Middle Ages), in 1509. On October 19, 1512, Martin Luther received the degree Doctor of Theology and on October 21, 1512, he was “received into the senate of the theological faculty” and called to the position of Doctor in Biblia.
Luther’s Theology of Grace
The demanding discipline of earning academic degrees and preparing lectures drove Martin Luther to study the Scriptures in depth. Influenced by Humanism‘s call ad fontes (“to the sources”), he immersed himself in the study of the Bible and the early Church. Soon terms like penance and righteousness took on new meaning for Luther, and he became convinced that the Church had lost sight of several of the central truths of Christianity taught in Scripture—the most important of them being the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Luther began to teach that salvation is completely a gift of God’s grace through Christ received by faith.
Later, Luther defined and reintroduced the principle of the proper distinction between Law and Gospel that undergirded his theology of grace. Overall, Luther believed that this principle of interpretation was an essential starting point in the study of the Scriptures. Luther saw failure to distinguish Law and Gospel properly as the cause of the obstruction of the Gospel of Jesus in the Church of his day, which, in turn, gave rise to many fundamental theological errors.
The Indulgence Controversy
In addition to his duties as a professor, Martin Luther served as a preacher and confessor at the Castle Church, a “foundation” of Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony. This church was named “All Saints” because it was the repository of his collection of holy relics. This parish served both the Augustinian monastery and the university. It was in the performance of these duties that the young priest was confronted with the effects of obtaining indulgences on the lives of everyday people. An indulgence is the remission (either full or partial) of temporal punishment still remaining for sins after their guilt has already been removed by absolution. A buyer could purchase one, either for himself or for one of his deceased relatives in purgatory. The Dominican friar Johann Tetzel was enlisted to travel throughout Archbishop Albert of Mainz’s episcopal territories promoting and selling indulgences for the renovation of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Tetzel was very successful at it. He urged: “as soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs”.
As a priest concerned about the spiritual welfare of his parishioners, Luther saw this traffic in indulgences as an abuse that could mislead them into relying simply on the indulgences themselves to the neglect of the confession, true repentance, and satisfactions. Luther preached three sermons against indulgences in 1516 and 1517. On October 31, 1517, according to traditional accounts, Luther’s 95 Theses were nailed to the door of the Castle Church as an open invitation to debate them. The Theses condemned greed and worldliness in the Church as an abuse and asked for a theological disputation on what indulgences could grant. Luther did not challenge the authority of the pope to grant indulgences in these theses.
The 95 Theses were quickly translated into German, widely copied and printed. Within two weeks they had spread throughout Germany, and within two months throughout Europe. This was one of the first events in history that was profoundly affected by the printing press, which made the distribution of documents easier and more widespread.
Diet of Worms
Main article: Diet of Worms
Emperor Charles V opened the imperial Diet of Worms on January 22, 1521. Luther was summoned to renounce or reaffirm his views and was given an imperial guarantee of safe conduct to ensure his safe passage.
On April 16, Luther appeared before the Diet. Johann Eck, an assistant of Archbishop of Trier, presented Luther with a table filled with copies of his writings. Eck asked Luther if the books were his and if he still believed what these works taught. Luther requested time to think about his answer. It was granted. Luther prayed, consulted with friends and mediators and presented himself before the Diet the next day. When the matter came before the Diet the next day, Counsellor Eck asked Luther to plainly answer the question: “Would Luther reject his books and the errors they contain?” Luther replied: “Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.” According to tradition, Luther is then said to have spoken these words: “Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen”.
Over the next few days, private conferences were held to determine Luther’s fate. Before a decision was reached, Luther left Worms. During his return to Wittenberg, he disappeared.
Martin Luther’s Marriage and Family
April 8, 1523, Luther wrote Wenceslaus Link: “Yesterday I received nine nuns from their captivity in the Nimbschen convent.” Luther had arranged for Torgau burgher Leonhard Koppe on April 4 to assist twelve nuns to escape from Marien-thron Cistercian monastery in Nimbschen near Grimma in Ducal Saxony. He transported them out of the convent in herring barrels. Three of the nuns went to be with their relatives, leaving the nine that were brought to Wittenberg. One of them was Katharina von Bora. All of them but she were happily provided for. In May and June 1523, it was thought that she would be married to a Wittenberg University student, Jerome Paumgartner, but his family most likely prevented it. Dr. Caspar Glatz was the next prospective husband put forward, but Katharina had “neither desire nor love” for him. She made it known that she wanted to marry either Luther himself or Nicholas von Amsdorf. Luther did not feel that he was a fit husband considering his being excommunicated by the pope and outlawed by the emperor. In May or early June 1525, it became known in Luther’s circle that he intended to marry Katharina. Forestalling any objections from friends against Katharina, Luther acted quickly: on the evening of Tuesday, June 13, 1525, Luther was legally married to Katharina, whom he would affectionately call “Katy.” Katy moved into her husband’s home, the former Augustinian monastery in Wittenberg, and they began their family: The Luthers had three boys and three girls:
- Hans, born June 7, 1526, studied law, became a court official, and died in 1575.
- Elizabeth, born December 10, 1527, prematurely died on August 3, 1528.
- Magdalena, born May 5, 1529, died in her father’s arms September 20, 1542. Her death was especially hard on Luther and Katherine.
- Martin, Jr., born November 9, 1531, studied theology but never had a regular pastoral call before his death in 1565.
- Paul, born January 28, 1533, became a physician. He fathered six children before his death on March 8, 1593 and the male line of the Luther family continued through him to John Ernest, ending in 1759.
- Margaretha, born December 17, 1534, married George von Kunheim of the noble, wealthy Prussian family, but died in 1570 at the age of 36. Her descendants have continued to the present time.
Luther’s Last Journey and Death
Martin Luther’s final journey to Mansfeld Eisleben came about because of his concern for the families of his brothers and sisters who continued in father Hans Luther’s copper mining trade, which was threatened by Count Albrecht of Mansfeld’s bringing this industry under his own personal control for his own profit. The controversy that ensued involved all four of the Mansfeld counts: Albrecht, Philip, John George, and Gerhard. Luther journeyed to Mansfeld twice in late 1545 to participate in the negotiations for a settlement. A third visit was needed in early 1546 to complete the negotiations. On January 23 Luther left Wittenberg accompanied by his three sons. The negotiations were successfully concluded on February 17. After 8:00 p.m. on that day Luther suffered chest pains. When he went to his bed he prayed, “Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God” (Ps. 31:5), the common prayer of the dying. At 1:00 a.m. he awoke with more chest pain and was warmed with hot towels. Knowing that his death was imminent, he thanked God for revealing His Son to him in Whom he had believed. His companions Justus Jonas and Michael Coelius shouted loudly, “Reverend father, are you ready to die trusting in your Lord Jesus Christ and to confess the doctrine which you have taught in His name?” A distinct “Yes” was Luther’s reply. He died 2:45 a.m. February 18, 1546 in Eisleben, the city of his birth. He was buried in the Castle Church in Wittenberg near to where he had made such an impact on Christendom: his pulpit.
A slip of paper Luther wrote February 16, 1546, was his last written statement: “Know that no one can have indulged in the Holy Writers sufficiently, unless he has governed churches for a hundred years with the prophets, such as Elijah and Elisha, John the Baptist, Christ, and the apostles . . . We are beggars: this is true”.
Martin Luther, more than the reformers that preceded him, shaped the Protestant Reformation. Thanks to the printing press, his pamphlets were well-read throughout Germany, influencing many subsequent Protestant Reformers and thinkers and giving rise to diversifying Protestant traditions in Europe and elsewhere. Protestant countries, no longer subject to the papacy, exercised their expanded freedom of thought, facilitating Protestant Europe’s rapid intellectual advancement in the 17th and 18th centuries, giving rise to the Age of Reason. In reaction to the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Reformation, too, was a part of this intellectual advancement, for example, through its scholastic Jesuit order. It would also be accurate to consider Martin Luther one of the founders of the German language.
On the darker side, the absolute power of princes over their subjects increased considerably in the Lutheran territories, and Catholics and Protestants waged bitter and ferocious wars of religion against each other. A century after Luther’s protests, a revolt in Bohemia ignited the Thirty Years’ War, a Catholic vs. Protestants war which ravaged much of Germany and killed about a third of the population.
- ^ Brecht, vol. 1, p. 48
- ^ Johann Von Staupitz at Catholic Encyclopedia
- ^ Brecht, vol. 1, p. 93
- ^ Brecht, vol. 1, pp. 126–27; Luther’s Works, vol. 10, pp. 1-2
- ^ Brecht, vol. 1, p. 182
- ^ Brecht, vol. 1, p. 200
- ^ An Open Letter to The Christian Nobility of the German Nation Concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate, 1520 Part 1 Part 2
- ^ Bainton, pp. 142–44
- ^ Letter 99.13, To Philipp Melanchthon
- ^ The Protestant Inquisition. “Reformation” Intolerance and Persecution by Dave Armstrong
- ^ Paul Johnson: A History of the Jews, 1987. p.242
- ^ Siemon-Netto, Uwe. “Luther and the Jews.” Lutheran Witness 123 (2004)No. 4:19.
- ^ Martin Luther, “On the Jews and Their Lies,” Trans. Martin H. Bertram, in Luther’s Works (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971), 268-271.
- ^ Johnson, 242.
- ^ Russell Briese, “Martin Luther and the Jews,” Lutheran Forum 34 (2000) no. 2:30.
- ^ Egil Grislis, “Martin Luther and the Jews,” Consensus 27(2001) No. 1:64.
- ^ Exodus 22:18.
- ^ Jörg Haustein, “Martin Luthers Stellung zum Zauber- und Hexenwesen”. Dissertation, Berlin 1990, p. 150.
- ^ Small Catechism, I.B.A 
- ^ cf. Brecht, vol. 3, pp. 369–79
- ^ The Last Written Words of Luther