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Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Martin Luther


Martin Luther was born to Hans Luder and his wife Margarethe (née Lindemann) on  November 10, 1483. He entered this world at the back of a stall at Eisleben market. in Eisleben, Saxony, then part of the Holy Roman Empire.

He was baptized as a Catholic the next morning on the feast day of St. Martin of Tours after whom he was named.

Martin's family moved to Mansfeld in 1484, where his father was a leaseholder of copper mines and smelters and served as one of four citizen representatives on the local council

His parents were deeply religious in a superstitious way; for instance they believed in fairies.

As a child, young Martin liked the country life.

As he grew older, Martin Luther found it difficult to pray "Our Father" as the words reminded him of his own coarse dad.


Having risen from the peasantry, Martin's father was determined to see his son ascend to civil service and bring further honor to the family. To that end, Hans sent young Martin to schools in Mansfeld, Magdeburg and Eisenach, where he excelled in Latin.

As a young student Luther sang in the streets of Eisenach to pay for his school fees.

At the age of seventeen in 1501 Luther entered the University of Erfurt. According to his father's wishes, Martin enrolled in the law school of that university.

Luther was very intelligent especially in writing and speaking and his talents won the admiration of the whole of Erfut University.

Much of Luther's training at Erfurt centered around the academic traditions of textual analysis, the formation of theses and conclusions and proofs. The stress at Erfut was on faith and scripture.

Luther was a brilliant student and received a Bachelor's degree in 1502 and a Master's degree three years later.


In 1505, Martin Luther was a 22-year-old ill-mannered and vulgar German law student growing up in a culture where people habitually attend Mass. For some time, Luther had been troubled by a deep consciousness of sin. One hot July day, returning from his parents' house during a thunderstorm, he was nearly struck by lightening and a frightened Luther cried "help me St Anne and I will become a monk." To the surprise of his friends he joined the Augustian Hermits.

In 1507 Luther was sent by his order to the University of Wittenburg to teach moral theology and the Bible.

On October 19, 1512, Luther was awarded his Doctor of Theology. Two days later, he was received into the senate of the theological faculty of the University of Wittenberg. He spent the rest of his career in this position at the educational establishment.

Once he had become an Augustian monk, Martin Luther started attempting to achieve salvation through prayers, fasting and penance. From 1510 to 1520, Luther lectured on the Psalms and the books of Hebrews, Romans, and Galatians. As he studied these portions of the Bible, he came to view the use of terms such as penance and righteousness by the Catholic Church in new ways.

Luther as an Augustinian friar


The papacy was earning a good income by the indulgences system that allowed Christians to purchase remission from penance in purgatory. Luther's career as a reformer was initiated by a visit to Rome in 1510-11 where the sale of indulgences and the luxury and corruption of the Papal court angered him.

Luther first attained nationwide recognition in 1517 for his denunciation of the Dominion Monk Tetzel, who was one of those sent out by the Pope to sell indulgences as a means of raising funds for the rebuilding of St Peters at Rome. The relics at Wittenburg Cathedral were reckoned to earn a remission for pilgrims of 1,902,202 years.

Appalled at the indulgences system, Martin Luther nailed up on the church door at Wittenburg on October 31, 1517, his Ninety-five Theses, (the standard way of raising issues for debate), arguing that a Christian has had a full pardon from God and no need of indulgences. The Reformation had begun.

1517 Nuremberg printing of the Ninety-five Theses as a placard

Luther was attempting to free the masses from rigid forms and from priests standing between men and the Bible stressing the preaching of the word, the communion and congregational singing. Especially inspired by the letters of Paul he declared that the Bible should be available for all and that faith is a gift from God, not an intellectual effort.

By 1520 Martin Luther had amassed many followers including a number of German knights. However, he was horrified that they are being called Lutherans after him.

Having denied the infallibility of the pope, rejecting the Papal claim to be the sole authority of scriptures, and the infallibility of the general council, Luther was sent a papal bull Exsurge Domine (Latin for "Arise O Lord") on June 15, 1520 threatening his excommunication.

Luther publicly burned the bull on December 10, 1520 outside Wittenberg's Elster Gate and was consequently excommunicated. "I am more afraid of my own heart than of the pope and all his cardinals. I have within me the great pope," he said.

Title page of first printed edition of Exsurge Domine.

In 1521, Luther was summoned by the powerful Charles V, of Spain to the Imperial Diet of Worms, due to his alleged heresies. Luther refused to go into hiding despite his friends' caution.

Luther's trial over his teachings begins on April 17, 1521 during the assembly of the Diet of Worms. When asked to recant the next day, Luther declared to the Diet leaders, "I am bound by the scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything." Still refusing to recant he proclaimed "Hier Stehe ich, ich kann nicht anders", ("Here I stand I can do no other. God help me, amen.") Luther was officially outlawed but escaped with his life.

Luther before the Diet of Worms by Anton von Werner (1843–1915)

After being outlawed Martin Luther found refuge at Wartburg Castle under the protection of Frederick of Saxony. He was disguised while staying there as a minor nobleman, Junker George.

During his year spent under the protection of Frederick, Luther improved his knowledge of Greek and Hebrew.

At Wartburg Castle, Luther worked tirelessly on translating the New Testament into German, in defiance of the Diet of Worms, so that the Bible might be read by all.  It was published in 1522.

Luther and his collaborators completed the translation of the Old Testament in 1534, when the whole Bible was published. Luther's German Bible had a profound effect on the development of the German language and contributed largely to restructuring German literature.

The Wartburg room where Luther translated the New Testament into German. 

More than 90 volumes of Luther's  works were published. (He wrote a treatise or tract every two weeks)

Luther's guiding principle for his writing and speeches were "Look at the way the man in the street speaks."

Inspired by Luther's and other reformer's teachings, German peasants staged an uprising in 1525 to demand basic rights. As a result many thousands were killed as the worried German princes crushed the uprising. Luther lashed out at them in a paper, Against the Murdering and Thieving Hordes of Peasants.

Some German Knights offered to arrange a military group to help Luther in his fight against the Church but the great reformer declined. However he did advocate violent means to diminish the power of the Anabaptist movement.

King Charles V of Spain referred to Luther as "This devil in the habit of a monk." In Luther's time, the Spaniard was the most powerful monarch on the globe and was successfully stamping out the new Reformation movement. However the Ottoman Empire, led by Suleiman the Magnificent were sweeping through Eastern Europe, and by 1529 had reached Vienna. Charles had to swallow his pride and make peace with his Protestant subjects, so they could be united against the common enemy. Thus divine providence bought good out of evil.


After a long spiritual crisis where he'd become obsessed by his own unworthiness, Luther had come to understand the true nature of God. He kicked out all theology based on tradition and started emphasizing personal experience and the Bible. The turning point was his discovery in 1519 in the writings of St Paul that God spares the sinner and that we are justified not by faith not works. He called surrendering to Christ, "A joyful exchange".

It is likely that Luther's transformation of thinking came as the culmination of a long, painstaking attempt to understand Paul's saying that the righteousness of God was revealed in the gospel (Romans 1:17). His studies of Augustine's teachings that man is saved by Jesus' blood and not by his good works confirmed this.

Luther said virtually nothing about evangelism and the great commission. He understood it as relating to the apostolic era only. He felt God would somehow do it on his own.

Like most men of his age, Luther was very chauvinist. He did not admire intelligence in females and recommended "Women should remain at home, sit still, keep house and bear and bring up children." He did however allow women to participate in congregational singing - a revolutionary step in the 16th century.

Luther was bitterly hostile to the groups of independent and Baptist Christians that were beginning to emerge.

He was Anti-Semitic, which was not unusual in Luther's day. When the Jews triggered his wrath by failing to convert em masse after his Church reforms, Luther published a tract that recommended they be deported to Palestine, or at the very least, their synagogues be burned and their books confiscated.

A Nationalist, Luther wrote a tract entitled The Nobility of the German Nation.


During religious disturbances, Luther was instrumental in the escape of a dozen nuns, who had been hiding in remote villages after becoming convinced of the truth of Lutheran theology. Making it his business to find them husbands in their new homes, Luther discovered two years later that one of them, Katharina Von Bara, was still unattached, so on June 13, 1525 he married her himself.

Katharina von Bora had ran away from the Cistercian Convent of Nimptschen in 1523 along with ten of her sisters after adopting Lutheran doctrines. After two years as a guest in the home of German artist Lucas Cranach and his family, who made various attempts to marry her off, she finally gave word that she would only marry either Luther's friend Amsdorf or Luther himself.

A Catholic pamphleteer addressed Kath as a "poor fallen woman" who had "gone to Wittenburg like a chorus girl" and by her example "reduced many godly young women in the cloisters to a pitiable state of body and mind."

After his marriage in 1525 Luther took the Augustian monastery in Wittenburg as married quarters. The Luthers lived in the "Black Cloister;" formerly Martin Luther's home as a monk. It was given to them by Elector Frederick the Wise, and its 40 rooms were nearly always full.

While Luther traveled, preached, and wrote, Katharina  (with the help of an aunt, children, and servants) sowed and reaped the garden, planted an orchard, brewed beer, milked and slaughtered cattle, made butter and cheese, and bought a nearby brook and fished from it.

Katharina as epicted by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1526

They lived together happily for the rest of Luther's life, Luther enjoyed being bossed around by Katharina.

Luther said: "Before I married, my bed was not made for a whole year and became foul with sweat. There is a lot to get used to in marriage. One wakes up in the morning and finds a pair of pigtails on the pillow, which weren't there before."

Luther's marriage to Katharina emphasized his rejection of monasticism and celibacy for the clergy. It kick started the tradition of clerical marriage within several Christian traditions. The reformer said he could find no trace in the Gospels of the vows of chastity taken by monks and nuns.

Luther and Katharina had five children (three sons, two daughters) and adopted four other orphaned nephews and nieces.

His 13-year-old daughter Magdalena died in Wittenberg in her father's arms after a prolonged illness. Luther bewailed the tragedy of a parent outliving a child.

Katharina remained in Wittenberg after Luther's death until 1552, when an outbreak of the Black Plague and a harvest failure forced her to leave the city. She fled to Torgau where her cart was involved in a bad accident near the city gates, seriously injuring her. Katharina died in Torgau about three months later on December 20, 1552 at the age of fifty-three and was buried at Torgau's Saint Mary's Church, far from her husband's grave in Wittenberg.


Luther killed his own pigs to make sausages.

Luther was known to fast for four days in succession from both food and drink. At other times he relied for several days in a row on a small allowance of bread and herring.

Katharina Von Bara brewed their own beer. Indeed Luther claimed Katharina brewed the best beer in town.


Luther had a loud laugh and coarse humor. Prone to flatulence, he once said "If I break wind in Wittenburg, they smell it in Rome."

Luther's works contain a number of statements that modern readers would consider rather crude. At least one such statement would not be heard from most modern pastors: He regularly told the Devil to kiss his arse.

Legend has it that Martin Luther was the first person to put candles on a Christmas tree. The founder of the Protestant church was walking home one snowy Christmas Eve in a jolly mood, singing and talking about the incarnation. He looked up and was deeply moved by the beauty of the glittering stars overhead. Wishing to describe this inspiring spectacle to his wife and children Luther dug up a small fir tree and put it in the nursery. He then lit up its branches just as the starlit trees outside had appeared to him that cold, winter night.

Luther recommended playing skittles after church, giving each skittle the name of a sin. During the religious reformer’s time the number of skittles was not yet generally fixed but differed from city to city. Some used as many as 16 pins, others as few as three. Luther began to investigate possibilities of improving the game searching for the ideal number of pins. This eventually he found to be nine.


Martin Luther wrote hymns and a Mass and introduced public worship with liturgy in German rather than Latin into the reformation church service.

Luther sung tenor and played the lute and recorder.

Amongt the texts and melodies Luther wrote for chorales was "A Mighty Fortress", a paraphrase of Psalm 46, which he penned at a difficult and discouraging time in 1524. One day Luther recalled some words from the psalm "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble." Inspired he wrote the great chorale which was translated into many languages.

An early printing of Luther's hymn A Mighty Fortress Is Our God (Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott). CC BY-SA 2.5, Wikipedia Commons
Luther wrote the hymn "Good News From Heaven The Angels Bring" around 1535 as a gift to his son Hans, who at that time was only five years old. Today, it’s famous amongst Christian households everywhere as a Christmas song which speaks of the arrival (i.e. the birth) of Jesus Christ.

Josquin (c1440-1521), a Flemish composer of Catholic Latin music, was Luther's favorite composer. He called Josquin, "master of the notes, which must do as he wishes. Other composers must do as his notes wish."

Luther once wrote: "Neither should we ordain young men as preachers unless they have been well exercised in music too."

Luther wrote in In Praise of Music: "Music is one of the greatest gifts that God has given us: it is divine, and therefore Satan is its enemy. For with its aid many dire temptations are overcome, the devil does not stay where music is."

Luther made singing a central part of Protestant worship. In his German Mass of 1526, he dispensed with the choir and assigned all singing to the congregation. He would often call congregational rehearsals during the week so the people could learn new hymns.

Luther was also revolutionary in allowing women to participate in congregational singing.


Luther had trouble with chronic constipation, catarrh, kidney stones, gout, insomnia and dizziness. His chronic constipation was particularly troublesome and he spent much of his time in contemplation on the lavatory. Indeed Luther said himself that he made his reformatory discovery "in cloaca", which is Latin for "in the sewer".

Luther suffered from fits of depression. One day his wife came to him wearing a black veil and a black gown, saying "I am mourning the death of God for by the way you are behaving God must surely be dead".


Martin Luther died on February 18, 1546 in his small hometown of Eisleben, where he was born. After many years of unceasing work his body had given up, his insistence on going on a journey to mediate in a quarrel between the Counts of Mansfield in the winter being the final nail in the coffin. There had been a cold snap and on the way home he caught a chill, soon became seriously ill and a few days later died.

Portrait of Luther by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1546.

In his last years Luther was an irritable, testy, at times positively coarse old man. Bitterly hostile to the groups of independent and Baptist Christians that had emerged and anti-Semitic, tragically his last sermon, a week before his death, was on why Germany should expel all it's Jews. Despite his faults, like Jacob, Moses and Samson, others with obvious shortcomings, Luther had been chosen by God, picked out and anointed for a purpose.


Lutheranism, the denomination arising from Luther's teaching, is today the largest worldwide Protestant body, with approx. 80 million people in it's fold.

In communist East Germany Luther was regarded as a revolutionary socialist hero after originally being condemned.

Sources Food For Thought by Ed Pearce,

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