Martin Luther (l. 1483-1546) was a German priest, monk, and theologian who became the central figure of the religious and cultural movement known as the Protestant Reformation. Even though earlier reformers had expressed Luther's views, his charismatic personality and efficient use of the printing press encouraged widespread acceptance of his vision of Christianity.
He was born to lower-class parents, who hoped he would become a lawyer, but his insistence on defining unassailable truths, coupled with an appeal for divine help he made during a storm, led him to become an Augustinian monk. He was a devout, if troubled, priest of the Roman Catholic Church in Wittenberg, Germany, until his outrage over church policy, especially the sale of indulgences, encouraged him to question the Church's authority.
Luther never intended, initially, to challenge the church hierarchy or the pope. Martin Luther's 95 Theses of 1517 were an invitation to discuss policies and practices of the Church he found troublesome and unbiblical. The original document, written in Latin, was intended for an ecclesiastical audience, but it was translated into German by his friends and supporters, and thanks to the advent of the printing press c. 1440, they spread the theses throughout Germany and on to other nations igniting the Protestant Reformation.
Early Life & the Vow
Luther was born in Eisleben, modern-day Germany, in 1483, a region then part of the Holy Roman Empire. His parents were of the upper peasantry as his father was not bound to the land as a farmer but owned a number of copper mines. Scholar Roland H. Bainton comments:
His father, Hans Luther, and his mother, Margaretta, were sturdy, stocky, swarthy German [peasants]. They were not indeed actually engaged in the tilling of the soil because, as a son without inheritance, Hans had moved from the farm to the mines. In the bowels of the earth, he had prospered with the help of St. Anne, the patroness of miners, until he had come to be the owner of half a dozen foundries; yet he was not unduly affluent, and his wife had still to go to the forest and drag home the wood. The atmosphere of the family was that of the peasantry: rugged, rough, at time coarse, credulous, and devout. Old Hans prayed at the beside of his son and Margaretta was a woman of prayer. (10-11)
Luther was the eldest of a number of children and his father saw to it he was well educated so he could become a lawyer and move up the social hierarchy to a more comfortable position. Luther was first educated at Magdeburg and Eisenach before entering the University of Erfurt in 1501 when he was 17. According to his later writings, Luther struggled with his studies and dropped out of the law curriculum, believing it was ultimately meaningless.
His search for meaning in life, something concrete and unchanging, led him to philosophy, but he found this equally unsatisfying as it relied on human reason and interpretation of changeable circumstance which could not be trusted, he felt, because intellectual reasoning was flawed since human beings were of necessity at the mercy of subjective interpretations of their experiences. He believed God was the ultimate truth but had no idea how one was supposed to pursue any meaningful or lasting communion. He had been brought up fearing God as a strict and unforgiving judge and could not conceive of any other image of the divine.
In July 1505, when Luther was traveling back to university along a road, a storm blew up and lightning struck a nearby tree. Frightened, he cried out, "St. Anne, help me! I will become a monk!" (Bainton, 5). He considered this a solemn vow, and upon arriving back at university, he sold his books and dropped out, entering St. Augustine's Monastery that same month on 17 July 1505, much to his father's displeasure.
Spiritual Crisis & Revelation
Luther took his vow to Saint Anne so seriously because he was terrified of death and credited the saint with saving his life that day of the storm. His fear of death came directly from his understanding of God as a divine being, all-powerful and all-knowing, who saw into people's hearts and punished them for their failings. Recognizing himself as a deeply flawed human, Luther could see no way toward God's forgiveness or life after death in heaven and could only imagine the torments of hell for eternity.
He devoted himself to a strict discipline of prayer, fasting, almost constant confession of sin, and studying the scripture but still could not conceive of a loving God who offered forgiveness. Luther later wrote of his view of God at this time:
Is it not against all natural reason that God, out of his mere whim, deserts men, hardens them, damns them, as if he delighted in sins and in such torments of the wretched for eternity, he who is said to be of such mercy and goodness? This appears iniquitous, cruel, and intolerable in God, by which very many have been offended in all ages. And who would not be? I was myself more than once driven to the very abyss of despair so that I wished I had never been created. Love God? I hated him! (Bainton, 44)
He complained of his struggles to his mentor, Johann von Staupitz, expecting perhaps to be released from the order, but, instead, Staupitz told him to pursue his doctoral degree and take over Staupitz's Chair of the Bible at the University of Wittenberg. Luther did not accept this advice gladly, arguing that such a course would kill him, but Staupitz assured him that, if so, he would find plenty to occupy his time in heaven.
Luther was awarded his doctorate in 1512, took over Staupitz's position, and became a member of the university's faculty and, around 1513, had a revelation concerning the nature of God while reading Saint Paul's Epistle to the Romans. The passage from Romans 1:17 which reads, in part, "the just shall live by faith", spoke deeply to him. He later wrote of that moment:
Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that "the just shall live by his faith." Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy, God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through the open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning and, whereas before the "justice of God" had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate into heaven. (Bainton, 51)
This experience also impressed upon Luther the primacy of the scripture over church teachings, as the Church had been unable to offer him anything meaningful in dealing with his spiritual struggles, while the biblical passage had opened the way for complete communion with the divine.
Once he understood the nature of God as revealed in scripture, he began to seriously question the vision of that God encouraged by the medieval Church. If one was saved through faith alone, Luther reasoned, what was the purpose of all the policies and rules and tithes the Church imposed on believers? Where, in the Bible, was there any support for the Church's teaching on purgatory, the intermediate zone between hell and heaven where sinners were tormented in fires until their sins were purged and they could enter paradise? Where, even, was the biblical justification for the pope?
Luther's questions became more urgent in 1516 when the archbishop of Mainz, Albrecht von Brandenburg, asked Pope Leo X to allow the sale of indulgences – writs that allegedly lessened one's time in purgatory – in his region. Albrecht at this time was deeply in debt and agreed to split the money from the indulgences with Leo X who needed funds for the rebuilding of Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome. Leo X sent the Dominican friar Johann Tetzel to the region in 1516, and Luther, who knew nothing of the deal the archbishop and the pope had struck, objected by writing his Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences, later known as his 95 Theses.
According to tradition, Luther nailed his document to the door of the Wittenberg Church on 31 October 1517, All Saint's Eve, but modern scholarship challenges this claim. The story of Luther and the church door was circulated later by Luther's friend and colleague Philip Melanchthon (l. 1497-1560) who was not even in Wittenberg at the time. Still, scholars concede, nailing his arguments to the church door is the sort of dramatic gesture Luther would be known for. Luther's theses were translated by his followers into German, printed, and disseminated, sparking widespread challenges to ecclesiastical authority in Germany and, translated and spread further, in England, France, and other regions.
The 95 Theses were not intended as a direct challenge to the Church, however, and were also nothing new. Luther's 97 theses only a month before in September presented his objections to scholastic theology. His 95 theses, written in Latin, only proposed 95 "talking points" for discussion but became the catalyst for reformation once they were translated and distributed because, to the people, they did challenge the authority of the Church.
Whether they were posted on the Wittenberg church door, the 95 Theses were sent by Luther to Albrecht von Brandenburg who had them checked for heresy and sent them on to Rome. Pope Leo X then sent a number of delegations to persuade Luther he was in error, especially concerning his claim that the pope should fund the building of St. Peter's Basilica instead of demanding money from the poor. Among the most famous delegates was Cardinal Thomas Cajetan (l. c. 1468-1534) who tried to steer Luther back toward orthodoxy, unsuccessfully, at Augsburg in 1518.
Another famous delegate was the theologian Johann Eck (l. 1486-1543), a former friend of Luther's, who, at the disputation with Luther and his fellow reformer Andreas Karlstadt (l. 1486-1541) at Leipzig in 1519, maintained the view that, if there was no central authority interpreting scripture, anyone who read it could interpret it for themselves, and this would lead to chaos because not all people could understand holy writ correctly. The Church, Eck claimed, relied on a scholarly tradition (the same Luther had complained about in September 1517) in interpreting the Bible, which meant its understanding was correct and Luther's claims concerning justification by faith were wrong. Luther refused to back down, and in 1520, the papal bull Exsurge Domine was issued threatening excommunication, which Luther publicly burned in Wittenberg that December.
Worms & Wartburg
He was excommunicated in January 1521, and his case was turned over to the secular authorities who called Luther to appear at the Diet of Worms, a hearing at the city of Worms. Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, presided, and one Johann Eck (not the same man as above) represented the Church in again pressing Luther to recant. Luther was promised safe passage to and from the hearing by Frederick III (the Wise, l. 1463-1525), an elector (one of the nobles who elected the emperor) of Saxony who was sympathetic to Luther's views.
On 18 April 1521, Luther refused to recant, delivering his famous speech which included the lines:
Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the Pope or in the councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience…I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may God help me. Amen. (Roper, 172)
When he finished speaking, he is said to have raised his arm in the traditional salute of a knight after winning a bout. As with the 95 Theses, modern scholarship challenges the inclusion of the famous line, "Here I Stand," in Martin Luther's speech at the Diet of Worms, as it only appears in later transcripts of the hearing, but the line is generally accepted as authentic.
Luther was condemned as an outlaw on 25 May 1521, meaning anyone offering him assistance would be charged, and he could be killed without consequences. On his way back to Wittenberg from Worms, he was abducted by soldiers of Frederick III, disguised as highwaymen to deflect suspicion, and brought to Frederick's castle at Wartburg where he was protected. While at Wartburg, Luther wrote almost constantly and translated the New Testament from Latin to German, which quickly became a bestseller owing to the speed and efficiency of the printing press.
The printing press, in fact, was Luther's "secret weapon" which allowed not only for the swift dissemination of his views but for illustrations picturing him as a heroic figure and "man of the people" challenging the authorities that maintained policies of inequality and kept the people in poverty. Earlier so-called "proto-reformers" such as John Wycliffe of England (l. 1330-1384) and Jan Hus of Bohemia (l. c. 1369-1415) had no access to this kind of technology as the printing press had not yet been invented. They had to rely on woodblock printing, which took longer and produced texts of poorer quality. The press of Luther's time could produce pamphlets, posters, books, and anything else quickly, which were then made available to the public.
Although most of the population could not read, they could have these materials read to them, and Luther became a hero to the people who, encouraged by local leaders, began to revolt in Wittenberg, starting the German Peasants' War (1524-1525) which was encouraged, in part, by a former admirer of Luther's, turned adversary, Thomas Muntzer (l. c. 1489-1525), who preached an apocalyptic/mystical interpretation of Christianity. The peasants expected Luther to come out in support of their cause, but instead, he denounced the violence, citing scripture on the importance of obeying temporal authority, and, in eight sermons delivered in Wittenberg, ended the revolt.
He would later change his mind and encourage resistance to unjust authority, but at the time, he believed he was obeying his conscience, and scripture, in condemning violence and maintaining the status quo. Critics have pointed out, however, that he may have been motivated by his relationship with Frederick III whose lands and wealth, and so Luther's protection, were threatened by the revolt. This very charge was advanced by Muntzer in written attacks on Luther between 1521-1524 and also by Karlstadt who blamed Luther for halting the Reformation's progress in Wittenberg at the request of Frederick III.
Marriage & Lutheranism
Luther was married in June 1525 to Katharina von Bora (l. 1499-1552), a former nun who, in 1523, had written Luther asking for his help in freeing her and some of her associates from their convent. Luther arranged for them to be smuggled out in a wagon of herring barrels and found suitable homes for all of the women except Katharina who wanted to marry him. He had already concluded there was no biblical basis for the celibacy of the clergy, and although he initially had some doubts, he went ahead with the marriage.
Luther and Katharina were very close, and their marriage served as an inspiration to other clergy to follow their example. Katharina took care of the management of their lands, bore him six children, and helped Luther in formulating what would become Lutheranism. Between 1526 and his death, Luther, Katharina, Philip Melanchthon, and others busied themselves with the organization and administration of the new church, concentrating on educating the people so they could interpret the scriptures according to their own understanding.
Luther wrote his Large Catechism to educate priests and his Small Catechism for laypeople in 1529 and published the complete Bible in German in 1534. He also wrote a number of hymns, still popular in the present day (notably A Mighty Fortress is Our God), theological works, and participated in the Marburg Colloquy, an attempt at unifying the differing Protestant movements in Europe. At the conference, Luther and the Swiss reformer Huldrych Zwingli (l. 1484-1531) parted ways over their interpretation of the Eucharist, while other differences between Protestant parties proved equally insurmountable, and the various sects were left to develop their own visions.
Luther died of a stroke at age 62 on 18 February 1546 in his hometown of Eisleben. He was buried in front of the pulpit of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, the same Church whose doors he had posted his 95 Theses on years before. By the time of his death, he was an international hero to Protestant sects and an irredeemable devil to Catholics, who saw him as an agent of Satan that had broken the unity of the Church.
Even among his admirers, Luther faced criticism as he was censured for his handling of a scandal involving Philip I of Hesse, who Luther counseled to lie about his bigamy, and for his refusal to compromise with other Protestant leaders at Marburg. Luther was also virulently antisemitic, publishing a number of works condemning the Jews as "the other" and perpetuating the image of Jews as "Christ-killers" and a fallen people who had rejected God's grace.
Although modern scholars have offered various apologetics for this aspect of his character, it is impossible to explain away easily as Luther simply being "a man of his time" as he was quite clearly extraordinary in many respects. Still, his powerful rhetoric and skill as a writer continued to encourage antisemitism and hate crimes after his death. Luther's works, in fact, were greatly admired by the Nazi party of Germany in the 1930s and early 1940s and were used as justification for genocide.
His stubborn streak was noted by his friend Melanchthon, and his attitude toward Judaism seems symptomatic of this, as once he had decided upon anything, he was unlikely to be moved from that position (also seen in his rejection of Copernicus' theory of the heliocentric universe). There is no evidence he ever interacted to any meaningful degree with any Jewish people, and it is most likely he developed his antisemitism the way many still do today, by never questioning what they hear about people they have never met.
This aspect of his personality is at odds with a man who was not afraid to question the precepts of the Church which claimed to hold the keys to heaven and hell. History, however, presents accounts of many great women and men who, in spite of their achievements, were flawed to greater or lesser degrees, and Martin Luther is no exception.