Martin Luther

                                          "The Monk Who Shook the World"


                                     
 


                                                                      Early Life


Martin Luther, the greatest of the Protestant Reformers of the 16th Century was born at Eisleben on November 10th 1483 - both of his parents were poor, his father was a humble farmer.

Shortly after his birth his family moved to Mansfeld where at the age of 14, the young Luther was sent to the Franciscan School at Magdeburg.


In the year 1501, Luther entered Erfurt University – he was 18 and a glorious prospect of long and ardent study was open to him. Here he visited the library where one day he found a large old book - this book was the Bible. Luther was delighted for in church he had only heard portions of the Bible read, he had never seen or been able to study the book – in that time the Bible was only written in Latin and only available to the clergy – the common people had no access to it.

 

Up to this point Luther had wanted to be a lawyer. Two things changed his direction:


1.         He read the Bible and discovered the word of God first hand.

2.        One day, after visiting his parents he was caught in a terrific thunderstorm where lightning struck nearby, throwing him to the ground. In his terror he called out to God to save him from death, vowing to pledge his life to God if he survived. He did survive and entered a convent, changing his name to Augustine - a move which angered his father and amazed his friends, but Luther had made a pact with God and he vowed to keep it.

 

                                                                        95 Theses


Luther was ordained as a priest in 1507 and moved to Wittenberg the following year to become a teacher in the university. He became a bachelor of Theology and a Scriptural lecturer, rapidly gaining influence amongst all classes.

Soon, Luther's study of the Bible convinced him that the Church had lost sight of several central truths. To Luther, the most important of these was the doctrine of justification by faith alone – the Roman church taught that your soul could be saved through good works, through monasteries, disciplines, confessions, masses and absolutions – Luther denounced all these – Salvation was only possible through personal faith in God and trust in God's promise to forgive sins for the sake of Christ's death on the cross. Luther’s other main grievance was that in the Catholic Church, the Pope had total authority and his word was more important than the word of God, written in the Bible – to Luther, God’s Word had final authority.

On a visit to Rome, he witnessed the Papacy's greed and corruption and the many sinful practises which plagued the Roman Catholic Church – the one which disgusted him most was the selling of indulgences, which the church claimed, would save your soul and guarantee entry to heaven. Luther was disgusted by the corruption he saw within the church and he wrote out 95 theses or statements concerning the sale of indulgences and the power of the Pope.

 

Examples of these were:

 

32 – Those who believe that through letters of pardon, they are made sure of their own salvation, will be eternally dammed along with their teachers.


52 – Vain is the hope of salvation through letters of pardon even if a commissary, nay the Pope himself were to pledge his own soul for them.

 

Luther nailed these 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg on 31st October 1517. This was the spark which would lead to a fire of excitement and religious feeling which had been building for some time.


     
           The doors of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. The original doors were damaged by
                               fire in 1760. These  replacements in bronze are inscribed with 
                                                 the 95 theses and were unveiled in 1858.

 

Martin Luther was summoned to Rome to face the Pope and answer for his crimes against the church but fearing for his safety and on the advice of his University and his friend the Elector Frederick, he did not go there.

A “Papal bull of excommunication” was issued against Luther on 15th July 1520.

41 propositions, taken from his work were found to be heretical – he was given 60 days to retract his theses or face ex-communication. He appealed unsuccessfully and on December 10th 1520, he appeared before a large crowd, at the eastern gate of Wittenberg and flung the Papal bull into a large fire.

 

The Pope and the Catholic Church were outraged and issued a second bull against Luther and also upon any place where he and his followers might stay. He was then summoned to appear before a special council called the Diet of Worms. His friends and followers tried to dissuade him from going but he was determined to attend “I am called” he said – “it is decreed and ordered that I proceed to Worms, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.”



             
                                                   
Luther presents his case at the Diet of Worms

On 15th April 1521, at Worms he appeared before the council who included John Eck, orator for his Imperial Majesty the Emperor. Luther was accused of equivocation and in his own defence, made a long and detailed reply based on the Scriptures. Eck became sarcastic and impatient with the length of Luther’s defence and demanded a brief, plain and simple answer to his questions. Luther then rose and made that memorable and brave reply:


“If I am not convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by other reasons clear and indisputable (for I will yield neither to Pope nor councils, who have often erred and contradicted each other), I neither can nor will revoke anything. The testimonies I have cited have not been and cannot be refuted. No one should be compelled to act against his conscience. Here I stand; I can do no other. May God help me! Amen”

 

Private conferences were held to determine Luther's fate. The Emperor issued the Edict of Worms on 25th May, 1521, declaring Martin Luther an outlaw and a heretic and banning his literature.

 

Before a decision was reached on his sentence, Luther’s great friend and protector, the Elector of Saxony sent masked men to Worms, who seized Luther taking him to safety at the castle at Wartburg. It was during his stay in hiding in his room or “Patmos” as he called it, that Luther studied, composed hymns and translated the Bible into German – therefore making it available to the common people. Although his stay at Wartburg kept Luther hidden from public view, he often received letters from his friends and allies, asking for his views and advice – some of these letters came from neighbouring France, as Luther’s ideas had spread far beyond Wittenberg.

 

However during his time there his health deteriorated - a symptom of living in confined conditions.

 

In 1522 he escaped and travelled to Wittenberg and found that many of his ideas on theology and reform had spread so widely that private masses were abolished, images had been taken down and communion was administered by both the breaking of bread and taking of wine.

1522 also marked the year when Luther’s German New Testament translation was first published – this was a huge innovation, as the common people could now read the word of God in their own homes.

 

 

                                                        Later Years and Death


In 1525 he married Katharina von Bora – one of the nuns who had thrown off all ties with the Roman church and become free women. Martin Luther and Katharina had six children together.



                                                       
                                                                                                        Katharina von Bora
 

Throughout the remainder of his life Luther suffered much ill-health but was actively involved in pursuing his beliefs – the high point of which was his involvement in the writing of the Augsburg Confession, the high point of the German Reformation to date.  In 1534 he published his translation of the Old Testament, therefore making the complete Bible available to everyone.

 

 

Luther’s health deteriorated quickly in the 1540’s and he died at Eisleben on 18th February 1546. 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.”

 

Four days later, he was laid to rest in the Chancel of the Castle Church in Wittenberg.

In 1821 a colossal bronze statue was erected to his memory in Wittenberg.



                             

                                               Luther's tomb in the Castle Church, Wittenberg


                                                           Martin Luther’s Legacy


Martin Luther was certainly not the first reformer in the Roman Catholic Church – many had gone before him, John Huss, John Wycliffe, William Tyndale, the Florentine Priest Savonarola and many others had all expressed opposition and disgust to many of the corrupt practices of the Roman Church. Neither would he be the last – many would follow the flame which Luther had lit.

But Martin Luther's bold rebellion, more than the other religious dissenters that preceded him, led to the Protestant Reformation. Thanks to the printing press, his pamphlets were well-read throughout Germany and beyond - soon similar thinkers developed other Protestant groupings. Since Protestant countries were no longer bound to the powerful Roman Catholic Church, an expanded freedom of thought developed which probably contributed to Protestant Europe's rapid intellectual advancement in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Luther left behind a movement that quickly spread throughout the Western world. His doctrines, especially justification by faith alone and the final authority of the Bible, were adopted by other reformers and are shared by many Protestant denominations today. As the founder of the 16th  Century Reformation, he is one of the major figures of Christianity and of Western civilization – certainly the western world would be vastly different today if Martin Luther had not nailed his 95 theses to that church door in Wittenberg.



     
    The statue in memory of Martin Luther - Wittenberg Town Square