Martin Luther was born 10 November 1483 of peasant stock, and lived among the untutored folk of the remote woods and mines around the East German town of Eisleben. His mother and father, Hans and Margaretta Luther, were both devout and prayerful, and yet superstitious and believing in spirits that inhabited the forests, winds and water.
Devils, witches and ill-tempered spirits roamed this world among the church spires and bell towers in towns where Luther learned his psalms and marched in religious processions. Both parents were very strict with him, and Luther later told about how their whipping of him had drawn his blood as well as making him very fearful of his father.
Caught in a thunderstorm
His father owned half a dozen foundries and was, therefore, wealthy enough to send Martin to university to become a lawyer. This would ensure that Martin would be prosperous enough to look after his parents in their old age. But after Martin was awarded a Master of Arts degree in 1505, he was caught on the outskirts of a Saxon village in a terrible thunderstorm (2 July 1505). He prayed to St. Anne, the patron saint of his father’s occupation as a miner, and promised to become a monk if he survived the storm. Having duly survived, Luther kept his promise and joined the Augustinian Order on 17 July.
As a monk, Luther should not have had to worry about his afterlife, for he diligently obeyed his monastic vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. But he nonetheless feared an angry God who condemned any and all sinners to Hell. Seeing himself as nothing but a weak and sinful man, he could only imagine that God would most certainly condemn him to Hell. As Luther raised the bread in the consecration of his first Mass, he felt that he, a mere man, could not look up to the majesty of God. Urged by his senior monk to study and teach the Psalms, Luther transferred north from the University of Erfurt in Saxony to Wittenberg (1511) and was made Professor of Theology at Wittenberg’s new university. Here he immersed himself in studying the Psalms and the Letters of St Paul, both of which dealt with sin and salvation. Between 1513 and 1517 developed a theological body of thought, based above all on Paul’s Epistles to the Romans and Ephesians.
The Ninety-five Theses
On 31 October 1517, the 34-year-old Luther posted his condemnation, his Ninety-five Theses, against Roman Catholic theological declarations on the door of Wittenberg Cathedral. Luther therein attacked, among other things, a system of church-sponsored intercession in exchange for money as a means of getting into Heaven. He criticized the Church’s doctrine of salvation, and preached instead that man is saved by Grace alone through God-given Faith, and not at all by man’s good works. He eliminated five of the Church’s seven sacraments that had been thought in the Roman Catholic Church to be necessary for salvation, retaining only Baptism and the Eucharist as scripturally based sacraments. He did not believe that priests changed the bread and wine in the Mass into the actual body and blood of Jesus, but believed instead that the bread in the Lutheran Mass already had the body of Jesus in it. Luther believed in a God who condemns sinful men, without exception, and was consumed by years of self-doubt as to whether he himself would ever get into Heaven.
Emperor Charles V declared Luther an enemy of the Holy Roman Empire at the Diet of Worms of 1521 and, later that same year, Pope Leo X excommunicated him from the Roman Catholic Church. Luther fled to the Wartburg in Saxony where he enjoyed the protection of Duke Frederick the Wise who, though a strong Catholic, was an enemy of Charles V. He was joined by thirteen monks who had also left the Augustinian order in Wittenberg. It was only in March 1522 that Luther could return to Wittenberg, where his fellow former monks joined him in apostasy. There, he and his followers taught Lutheran theology and founded the center of Lutheranism.
Lutheranism spawned the Protestant Reformation, but it would not have ultimately concluded in a widespread reform without the movement itself splitting into separate religious groups. Each group further reformed Protestantism according to the developing theology of its own leadership. Persecution by Catholics as well as by other Protestants and the desire to convert large numbers to their cause resulted in a migration throughout Europe of congregants and their ideas.
Described by a contemporary as “a man of middle stature, with a voice which combined sharpness and softness,” Luther wrote many important works, especially On the Freedom of the Christian Man, Address to the German Nobility, and his German translation of the Bible, which allowed the Bible to be read by all Germans; a work important in the development of modern German.
A “posse of devils”
Luther’s later years were spent writing and teaching his congregation. In 1526, he married Katherine von Bora so that he could please his father, “spite the pope and the devil,” and to have someone carry on his name after what he expected would be an early martyrdom. He said of von Bora, a former nun Luther had brought back to Wittenberg for one of his fellow former monks to marry, that he’d “rather have Katie than France or Venice,” and together they sired six children. When Luther died on a visit to his home town of Eisleben on 18 February 1546, aged 62, contemporary Catholic writers asserted that a “posse of devils” had been seen taking his soul directly to Hell both for his “theological heresy and for marrying a former nun.”