People wonder how one man could cause such a massive reform in history. Martin Luther was an ordinary man with one main goal, to reform the Church. He was not anything out of the ordinary, just a man with a plan. His life can be divided into four major phases. The first phase of Luther’s life which encompasses his childhood, university studies and his time as an Augustinian monk is characterized by his search for religious understanding. When he finally reached the understanding he was searching for, he realizes that there are many problems in the world and the church. He rebels against the abuses of the church and his actions spark strong reactions. Luther hides at the Wartburg on the orders of his Elector, Fredrick the Wise. The Reformation has caught on with some of the most powerful people and is unstoppable. Luther is able to return to Wittenberg to fight his adversaries and put his ideas into practice. During the last years of his life, Luther is no less active, but resignation and an inclination towards sudden outbursts of rage can be seen in the works and speeches of the aging reformer (Andrea, THR, 5).
Martin Luther, born as Martin Luder, was born on November 10, 1483, into an extremely tense world. Great changes were waiting around the corner, and Luther, too, would take his part in these changes. Luther’s father, a farmer’s son, moved from Eisleben to Mansfeld shortly after Luther’s birth in 1484 to try to better the family’s financial situation by mining copper. Luther’s mother, Margarete Luder, had many children to look after and was a harsh disciplinarian. Martin attended the Latin school in Mansfeld where barbaric teaching methods of the Middle Ages still reigned. Luther had been described as a quiet, reserved yet talented student who was intimidated by the strict order. The University or Erfurt , founded in 1392 was one of the best German universities at this time. During Luther’s time, before one could study a specific field, you had to learn the7 Liberal Arts. Luther did this, received his Baccalaureate in 1502 and then received his Master’s degree in 1505. Luther, as the legend goes, swore to become a monk on July 2, 1505 while he was caught in a terrible storm. He did this, to his friends surprise who knew him as full of the joys of life and his parents anger; he entered the Mendicant order of the Augustinian monks in Erfurt.
This time molded Luther, he found a close relationship to the Bible which characterized his later life and work. In 1507, Luther was ordained as a priest and started studying Theology at the University. He came in contact with the ideas of Humanists and began to study the Bible in its original Hebrew and Greek. After receiving his doctorate in Theology in 1512, Luther took a position as Theology Professor at the Wittenberg University ‘Leucorea’. He gave lectures over the Psalms (1514-15), Letter to the Romans (1515-16), Letter to the Galatians (1516-17), and Letter to the Hebrews (1517-18) (Spaeth, 10).
From 1514 Luther was not only theology professor at Wittenberg University but also the priest at the City Church in Wittenberg. So he was also responsible for the salvation of his parish. Luther observed that many people in Wittenberg were not coming to him for confession any more. They were going to towns in Brandenburg or Anhalt to buy Indulgences. The practice of buying indulgences, which quasi replaced confession and allowed people to buy their salvation, was completely repulsive to Luther. He strongly believed that one lived a life of humility in order to receive God’s grace.
Prior to October 31, 1517, Luther had preached against the indulgence trade. After reading an instruction manual for indulgence traders, he wrote a letter to his church superiors hoping to get rid of this abuse. In this letter he included 95 Thesis which were to be used as the basis for a discussion on the topic. That Luther hammered his thesis to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg belongs to legends. Luther sent his 95 Theses to a few bishops and some friends; therefore he did not expect or receive a prompt response. By the end of 1517, however, copies of the 95 Thesis had been printed in Leipzig, Nuremberg and Basel. Some humanists and princes passionately approved of the theses, but parts of the Roman Church completely rejected them. The most vehement voice against the thesis was the Indulgence Priest Tetzel, who supposedly categorized Luther as a follower of the heretic Jan Hus and threatened to have him burned at the stake. At first the bishops reacted mildly. A few bishops actually welcomed Luthers ideas for reform. Because of increasing pressure, Luther found it necessary to explain and clarify his thesis in writing. In 1518, Luther himself said that he only wanted to take care of an abuse and was not striving to unhinge the papacy with his thesis. The Papal Court reacted drastically to the alleged heretic and in 1518 an inquisition was begun in Rome. This quieted down in 1519 during the search for a successor to the deceased Emperor Maximilian. Once Karl the V was elected as emperor, the fight against Luther and his followers continued.
The inquisition against Luther was taken up again in 1520, partly because of these works. The peak of the inquisition came on June 15, 1520, with the Papal Bull of excommunication in which Luther was ordered to recant his teachings. Luther reacted in protest. He burned the Papal Bull along with the book of church law and many other books by his enemies on December 10, 1520 in Wittenberg where the Luther Oak stands today. This behavior caused a conclusive and irrevocable break with Rome. On January 3, 1521 the Pope excommunicated Luther. The Emperor, however, felt forced to accept Luther because of the pro-Luther mood in the empire and because of the influence of various princes who were hoping to weaken the Pope’s political influence through Luther. As a result, the rebel was guaranteed safe escort on his trip to the Imperial Diet of Worms. The journey to the Imperial Diet did not embody the repentance the church had hoped for. The journey to Worms was more like a victory march; Luther was welcomed enthusiastically in all of the towns he went through. Luther’s appearance at the Imperial Diet was described as objective, clever and well thought out. He had to appear before the Emperor twice; each time he was clearly told to take back his teachings. Luther didn’t see any proof against his theses or views which would move him to recant. After he left the negotiations room, he said “I am finished.” And he was for the time finished; Luther was dismissed, and not arrested because he had a letter of safe conduct which guaranteed him 21 days of safe travel through the land. When Luther and the princes who supported him left Worms, the emperor imposed an Imperial Act. Luther is declared an outlaw (he may be killed by anyone without threat of punishment) (Spaeth, 11). On the trip home Fredrick the Wise allowed Luther to be kidnapped on May 4 This took place on the one hand to guarantee Luther’s safety and on the other hand to let him disappear from the scene for a short while; there were even rumors of Luther’s death.
Luther lived incognito at the Wartburg; he called himself Junker Jorg (Knight George) and “grew his hair and a beard.” (Andrea, THR, 13). Luther devoted himself to a new task. He translated the New Testament from its original Greek into German within eleven weeks. Reformation theories were put into practice in Wittenberg which had become the center of the Reformation. After the first iconoclastic movement in Wittenberg, Luther returned from exile. The outlaw’s return was dangerous, but the reformers achieved partial success as far as Luther’s safety was concerned. The Second Imperial Diet of Nuremburg declared the banishment of Luther as unenforceable. In 1524, however, at the Third Imperial Diet of Nuremburg the banishment was renewed, but the Reformation had rooted itself so deeply by then, that it seemed unlikely that Luther would be arrested. In the years that followed, Luther concentrated on spreading his beliefs through writings and sermons. The reform of the school system was one of the most important of Luther’s duties. Some of the professors and students with their interpretations of Luther’s teachings had and almost shut down schools completely. On June 13, 1525 Luther married Katharina von Bora, a nun who had fled from a convent in Nimbsch, and had taken refuge in Wittenberg. Luther’s marriage to Katharina was opposed by many of his friends who saw in it the downfall of the Reformation. Luther however proved them wrong and continued to keep the reformation alive. Luther was able to convince the Elector to establish some measures for the security of the Reformation like regulating the salaries of pastors. In the reform of the worship service, one of the most important changes was allowing the parish to take both the wafer and the wine during Communion. Luther also took many trips during which he evaluated the work of pastors and the realization of the reforms he had made for the worship service. On top of the church reforms Luther wrote many books at this time including the Baptismal Book and Wedding Book and in 1529 the Small and Large Catechism. And in 1534 Luther’s complete Bible translation appeared.
The First Imperial Diet of Spires gave the Protestants the first opportunity to legally go ahead with their reforms. The Imperial Diet of Augsburg in 1530 forbade all reforms. In response to the anti-Reformation statements of the Imperial Diet of Augsburg, protestant estates of the Empire formed the Smalkaldian Alliance in 1530; a defensive alliance founded to protect against catholic attacks (Andrea, THR, 15).
During his last years of life Luther fought against many physical ailments. The death of his daughter Magdelena, in 1542, was also very difficult for him. Luther continued his preaching duties despite his various disappointments and ailments. Luther continued to teach at Wittenberg University until the end of his life; his last lecture ended with the words: “I am weak, I cannot go on” (Andrea, THR, 17). Luther set off on his last trip on January 17, 1546, to his birthplace Eisleben. Although he was drawn with illness, he went to settle a dispute among the Mansfeld Counts. The negotiations ended unsuccessfully. Luther did not have the energy to return to Wittenberg. He died on February 18, 1546 in Eisleben. On his death bed, he prayed “Into your hands, I command my spirit. You have saved me, Father, you faithful God (Andrea, THR, 20)
1.Andrea, Overfield. The Human Record. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001.
2.Spaeth, Adolph, L.D. Reed, Henery Eyster Jacobs, et Al., Trans. & Eds., Philidelphia: A.J. Holman Company, 1915, Vol. 1, pg 10-11.