Martin Luther
Summary: In Luther's writing career, he produced 294 German works, 71 Latin works, and thousands of letters that changed the face of German Christianity forever.

At the beginning of the sixteenth century, Europe needed a leader to stand up to the Papacy. Martin Luther was born to a poor family at Eisleben, Saxony, on November 10, 1483. He attended school at Mansfeld, Magdeburg, and St. George’s high school at Eisenach. He also attended the University of Erfurt. His father wanted him to study law, and paid for his schooling. Luther earned a bachelor of arts, and later a master of arts.

Against his father’s wish, Luther entered an Augustinian monastery in 1505. The monastery had a good reputation. In exchange for doing menial tasks, Luther was given access to a Latin Bible. He was ordained a priest in 1507, and in 1508 was asked to teach at Wittenberg University. Luther was listed as Wittenberg’s highest trained theologian. Some say he knew from memory every verse of the Bible.

Martin Luther Public Domain

In 1511, Luther visited Rome. Here he saw “the terrible corruption...the wholesale lust, cupidity, pomp and vanity, ambition and sacrilege.”i The next year, the University of Wittenberg gave him the degree of doctor of theology. In 1515 he became vicar of Meissen and Thuringia.

Luther wanted to bring material before his colleagues for debate. To do this, Luther nailed 95 theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. Luther questioned the authority of the Pope. He stated that we are saved by faith and not works. His theses were never intended to be read by the Pope.

Luther’s theses were translated and spread. Luther was summoned to Rome but was granted a hearing in Augsburg in October 1518. The more the quarrel between Luther and the Papacy grew, the more Luther’s fame spread. By 1520, more than 100 editions of Luther’s works had been taken door to door. Meanwhile the enrolment at Wittenberg increased yearly.

Luther engaged Dr. John Eck in an eight-day debate in Leipzig. Eck won technically, but it made Luther the focal point of German discontent. The debate also established Luther’s own beliefs. Eck recommended to Rome Luther’s excommunication.

Luther was given six months to recant. The papal bull issued by the Church was publicly burned by Luther in December 1520. In January 1521, Pope Leo X published a bull of excommunications against Luther, his works, and his followers. Emperor Charles V, of the Holy Roman Empire, promised Luther a trial. Luther was summoned to appear before the Diet of Worms.

Luther entered Worms April 16, 1521, with 100 horsemen. Thousands of people crowded the streets. When asked to recant, Luther asked for more time. He spoke with great hesitancy. At the end of the first day, the nobility assured Luther that “they would with their own bodies make a living wall before they would allow one hair on his head to be touched.”

The next day Luther spoke fearlessly. He stated the Church councils were in error. He ended this statement with “Here I stand! I can do nought else! So help me God!” Luther was ordered to leave. The next month, full excommunication was sanctioned against Luther. Luther was taken to Wartburg Castle. Here he disguised himself as a knight. In Wartburg he translated the New Testament into German. This book united the country. Heinrich Heine said, “Luther created the German language, and he did it by translating the Bible.”

It appeared that a German national Church would soon form. However, in 1524, the Peasants’ War broke out. This had negative effects on the Reformation and the peasants. Some thought Luther was responsible for the uprising. However, the existing social, financial, and political conditions were also factors. When Luther’s pamphlet Against the Murdering, Thieving Hordes of Peasants, it angered both the rulers and the peasants. The nobility attacked the peasants, and the death toll rose to as high as 150,000.

Luther’s credibility as a Christian leader took a severe blow. The peasants’ faith in Luther was destroyed. The revolt effectively halted the growth of the German Reformation. Luther turned to tasks which would establish his work for the future. He opened schools, and promoted education.

Luther’s writings continued to show enmity towards the Catholic Church. He opposed everything in the way of the Reformation. He finished two catechisms, and finally the German Bible in 1534.

Towards the end of his life, Luther seemed to long for death. He spoke of it often. He died at Eisleben, the town of his birth, February 18, 1546. He was buried in the Castle Church in Wittenberg.



i. Frantz Funck-Brentano, Luther: 19.

This article is adapted from Gideon and Hilda Hagstoz' Heroes of the Reformation.
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