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Martin Luther – German theologian and religious reformer

Martin Luther was a German theologian and religious reformer that had a great impact on not only religion but also on politics, economics, education and language. Martin Luther was born in the town of Eisleben, Germany, on November 10, 1483, (Encarta 1). His father Hans Luther, was a worker in the copper mines in Mansfield. His mother was Margaret. Martin grew up in a home where parents prayed faithfully to the saints and taught their children to do the same. His father and mother loved their children dearly, but were also very strict with them.

Luther said, my father once whipped me so that I ran away and felt ugly toward him until he was at pains to win me back. My mother once beat me until the blood flowed, for having stolen a miserable nut. (Luther 31) When Martin was five years old, he went to school in Mansfeld, where his parents had moved about a year after he was born. The subjects taught at this school was the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, church music, together with some Latin and arithmetic. (Catholic Encyclopedia 1) The sad part of the instruction was that Martin and his fellow pupils learned little about the love of God.

They learned to know Jesus, not as the Friend of sinners, but as the Judge. They feared Jesus, but did not love him. The schoolmasters in my days were tyrants and executioners; the schools were jails and hells! And in spite of fear and misery, floggings and tremblings, nothing was learned, Luther said. (Luther 31) Despite the conditions at Mansfield, Martin learned rapidly, for he was a bright boy and studied diligently. At the age of twelve he was admitted to the Latin High School at Magdeburg, sixty miles from his home. Here, for the first time, Luther found a Bible.

Most of his teachers at Magdeburg were members of the Brethren of the Common Life. This is the first place where he feels his first desire to enter into the religious community. The next year his father transferred him to a school on Eisenach, wishing him to become a lawyer. Here a young woman, Mrs. Ursala Cotta, took a special liking to him. At one time, when a group of boys was singing before her house, she invited Martin in and offered him free lodging. He accepted. He received free meals in another house where he taught a young child of the family. Luther was now free to devote more time to his studies.

Since the Cotta family was a cultured family, Luther’s stay in this home taught him to appreciate such things as music and art and helped him to develop especially his remarkable talent for music. By the time Luther was far enough advanced to enter the university his father had become a prosperous man. He went from being a miner to being the owner of many small foundries. He could now afford to give Martin a college education. Recognizing the gifts of his son, the father intended that his son should become a lawyer and therefore sent him to the University of Erfurt in 1501 at the age of seventeen.

Encarta 2) Here again the young student prayed and studied constantly. To increase his knowledge, Luther spent much time at the library. Discipline was as strict as it had been at Megdeberg and Eisenach. The students were awakened at 4:00 AM. Lectures began as the sun rose and continued until 5:00 PM. The first meal of the day was at 10:00 AM. The students hurried from class to class, pausing only for the briefest of conversations before the next lecture commenced, whispering quietly to each other in the required Latin, (Luther 34). In 1505 at the age of twenty-one he was awarded the Master of Arts degree.

Encarta 2). He now had the right to teach and was able to register for a law course. To please his father, Martin remained on at the University to read law, but he soon lost interest in that subject. More and more he studied religion and worried over his sinful condition. But no matter how hard he tried to please God, he couldn’t find peace of soul. One day a friend was torn from him by sudden death. Luther was so shaken that he became fearful and deeply disturbed. A little later, while returning to Erfurt from a visit to his parents, he was overtaken by a violent thunderstorm.

Almost frantic with fear, young Luther then and there determined to become a monk and no longer wanted to follow his father’s wishes. He said, St. Anne help me! I will become a monk, (Luther 35). Upon his return to the University, Martin sold his books, said farewell to his friends, and, deaf to their pleadings entered the Augustinian monastery at Erfurt. After spending a few weeks as a candidate to enter the Order of Augustinian Eremites and having the senior friars watch him to see if he would be a suitable person to enter the monastery, he was formally admitted to the trial period of one year.

After that one year was up the superiors would make a decision to see if he should remain with the cloister. Luther continued his study of the Bible. Dressed in the black robe and little cap, to be worn day and night, he faithfully engaged in the many daily religious exercises prescribed. He also spent much time in trudging though the streets of the city, carrying a sack on his back, as was the custom then, begging for bread, butter, eggs and whatever else he could get for the monastery. In addition, he swept the chapel, cleaned the rooms, rang the bells, and performed similar work.

Back in his little cell, he constantly studied religion and philosophy and prayed to the saints, eagerly striving to earn his way to heaven through his own good works. More than ever he was searching for peace of soul; he could not find rest. As time went on, however, and as he continued to study the Bible, and learn much of it by heart, he made the marvelous discovery that salvation is a free gift from God. In the summer of 1506 Luther made his full profession of vows and was admitted into the Augustinian community (Luther 41).

He then began to prepare for the priesthood by learning every detail of the Mass and every word of the text needed to be recited during the Mass. In the spring of 1507, Luther, now twenty-three, was made a Catholic priest (Catholic Encyclopedia). He celebrated his first Mass with his peers and family. This was the first time he saw his parents since the time he left the University. He was unable to say the entire Mass for he just about fainted after holding up the chalice. Luther’s first Mass was critical to his development as a truly revolutionary theologian.

It represented his first uncertain but resounding step in a new direction, along a path of intellectual and religious inquiry that would lead him inexorably toward a new theological landscape, a landscape that was to be revealed by the transformation of belief, (Luther 42). Luther then went back to studying theology in order to become a professor at one of the new German universities staffed by monks. In 1508, Johann von Staupitz who was the vicar-general of the Augustinians assigned Luther to the new University of Wittenburg (founded in 1502) to give introductory lectures in moral philosophy (Encarta 1).

He soon became known as a great teacher of the Bible. Students came in great numbers to listen to his lectures. His work as a teacher was interrupted, however, by a request from his Father Superior, Dr. Staupitz, to go to Rome in 1510, where the Pope lived (Martin 46). He and a companion (a senior friar) set out on foot. The seven-week journey was long and difficult; the two travelers spent their nights in monasteries along the way. When they finally saw the city before them, Luther fell on his face and cried out, Blessed art thou, Rome, Holy Rome, (Luther 48).

But he was greatly disappointed when he observed that the life on Rome was very sinful. He was amazed to find that the Italian priests were leading lives of luxury and self-indulgence. Luther said, the Italians mocked us for being pious monks, for they hold Christians fools. They say six or seven masses on the time it takes me to say one, for they take money for it and I do not, (Luther 48). After visiting a shrine in Rome was when Luther began to doubt that a Christian could save a soul simply by visiting shrines and paying Tithes to the Church.

After his return five months later, Luther resumes his teaching at the University of Wittenburg. In the fall of 1512, he began his assignment as professor of Bible studies. Besides teaching at the University, he now also began to preach in the large Castle Church. Never before had the people heard the Word of God proclaimed so richly and so powerfully. They flocked in ever increasing numbers to hear him. In his sermons Luther warned his hearers against trying to earn salvation by good works and pleaded with them to accept God’s offer of free salvation in Jesus. Once again in 1515 Luther received another promotion.

This time he was appointed as the vicar provincial of the Augustinian Eremites, (Luther 53). In this position he was responsible for the administrative and spiritual supervision of 11 Augustinian cloisters. During Luther’s study of St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans in preparation for his lectures, he came to believe that Christians are saved not through their own efforts but by the gift of God’s grace, which they accept in faith. This event turned him decisively against some of the major tenets of the Catholic Church, (Encarta 1). Thus was the beginning of the Reformation.

Common in those days was the practice of selling indulgences for money. Pope Leo X started this practice to get money to be used to finance the construction of St. Peter’s Cathedral on Rome. People who purchased these indulgences were promised freedom from punishment on earth and in purgatory. John Tetzel, a salesman of indulgences, came into the neighborhood of Wittenburg. He urged people to buy forgiveness for all past, present, and future sins. Some of Luther’s church members purchased these worthless indulgence letters. They boldly refused to repent of their sins. Their impenitence brought Luther to action.

He refused to give such members absolution and Communion unless they showed themselves repentant. Deeply disturbed by the attitude of the people, Luther preached many sermons on repentance. Finally he wrote 95 thesis, sentences in which he condemned the sale of indulgences. On October 31, 1517, he posted these 95 Theses on the University bulletin board, the door of the Castle Church, (Encarta 1). In one of his theses he stated, those preachers of Indulgences are wrong when they say that a man is absolved and saved from every penalty by the Pope’s Indulgences, (Luther 60).

Thousands, both in high places and low, were glad that Luther had spoken out. When Pope Leo X in Rome heard of the affair in Germany, he was furious and threatened Luther with excommunication if he not take back what he did within sixty days. But Luther remained firm, for he felt that he was right and that he had acted for the glory of God. In 1521 Luther was ordered to appear before Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms for trial. At this convention the highest officials of the Church and of the State were present, and Luther was again asked to recant.

He refused firmly, asserting that he would have to be convinced by Scripture and clear reason in order to do so and that going against conscience is not safe for anyone, (Encarta 2). Not one opponent could bring forward a word from the Bible to show that Luther was not mistaken. Luther, therefore, refused to change anything that he had said or written. The emperor then condemned Luther. Luther was now declared an outlaw; anyone might have killed him without fear of punishment. Although his life was in great danger, Luther was unafraid and began the return journey to Wittenburg on April 26, 1521. (Luther 91).

While he was riding through a forest on May 4, 1521, a band of masked men rushed upon him, took him prisoner, and brought him to a castle, the Wartburg. (Luther 91). At midnight a heavy drawbridge was lowered, and Luther disappeared behind the massive castle walls. Only a few persons knew where Luther was, and they kept their secret well. Some people thought that Luther was dead. What they did not know was that some of his friends had secretly kidnapped him and had brought him to a safe place. On May 26, 1521, Charles V issued a singularly violent proclamation to the electors, princes, and people of Germany.

This proclamation, known as the Edict of Worms, called upon the Germans to forsake the dissident whose teachings threatened to divide the nation, (Luther 93). Meanwhile Luther, disguised as a knight, lived at the Wartburg. Here he translated the New Testament into the German language so that the common people might easily read and understand the Word of God. Since printing with movable type had been invented shortly before this time, copies were soon in the hands of many people. Luther remained in seclusion at the Wartburg for almost a year. Then he returned to Wittenburg and again appeared in his pulpit.

He preached eight powerful sermons to clear away certain errors into which many had fallen and to show them what the new way of life was really like. He warned them against using force in their struggle against the Pope and his followers. Their sole weapon, he urged, was to be the powerful Word of God. From Wittenburg Luther went to a number of other towns and communities everywhere counseling to use the liberty from the Papal oppression for only one purpose- to become better Christians. Luther lived in constant danger of being arrested and killed.

But although his friends were worried, no one ever touched him. That he remained alive seems like a miracle. On June 13, 1525, Luther married Katherine von Bora, a former nun. (Luther 114). The wedding ceremony took place in the Black Cloister in Wittenburg, now changed into a dwelling place for Luther. Martin and Katherine were blessed with three boys and three girls. Luther loved home life, and he took time to play with his children, to make music with them, and to write letters to them when he was away from home. He was also interested in gardening and in the problems of running a household.

He had many visitors. Although Luther was a man of modest means, he was very generous. His kindness and generosity to others sometimes worried his wife, especially since Luther was extremely hospitable and would freely give shelter, food, and even gave money to the unfortunate. By 1537 Luther’s health had begun to go downhill. In 1546, Luther was asked to settle a controversy between two young counts who ruled the area of Mansfeld, where he had been born, (Encarta 3). After he resolved the conflict he died of a heart attack on February 18, 1546, in Eisleben, (Encarta 3).

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