Martin Luther (Germany, 1483-1546)


Figure 1.--Luther married Katherina von Bora (1525). They had six children, but only four survived childhood. Many artists as the Reformation became established depicted the family. Here is one such depiction of the Luther family with the family singing at home. Luther also appreciated church music and had a great impact on it. Although singing at home, they are probably singing hymns. We are not sure who the artist was or when this was painted, but it is clearly not contemporary.
The Reformation began when a German monk, Martin Luther nailed his "95 Thesis" on the church door in Wittenberg (1517). Luther was offended by the papal sale of indulgences. As the pope had authoirized the indulgences, the Church could hardly accept Luther's call for reform. The problem was that even though indulgences were not a critical element of Catholic doctrine, papal infalibility was. The Church ordered Luther to retract his statements and to submit to Church authority. Instrad Luther became more intransigent and expanded his call for reform to include central aspects of the Roman Catholic faith, the sacramental system and insisted that salvation was based on on personal religiouds faith based on an understanding of the guidance contained in the Bible. On these issues the Church could not comprimise and Luther faced excomunication. A defiant Luthir burned the papal bull (notice) of excomunication and a volume of cannon law. Luthrer was no longer a reformer, but had broken irrevocably broken with the pope and the Church hierarchy. Luther's theological contentions were soon combined with a complex mix of doctrinal, political, economic, and cultural issues that would take European Church and temporal leaders nearly two centuries to partially resolve and several devestating wars.

Medieval Catholocism

Medieval Roman Catholicism placed considerable emphasis on angels, demons, hell, judgment, miracles, priests, purgatory, the saints (especially the Virgin Mary), and sin. Important elements of Church doctine such as the role of priesthood, celibacy, indulgences, and the infalability of the papacy was not Bible based. Believers in particular were not incouraged to ask many questions. They were to persue salvation through the priesthood overseen by an omnisent Pope in Rome. The Church did not want many believers reading the Bible on their own and engaging in theological discussions. A a result the Church buned theologians who attempted to translate and publish the Bible from Latin into national languages. The image of Jesus was very different than the modern concept. Jesus was depicted very austere judge that could not be approached by the average man, just as the average person could not read the Bible. Christians were rather to approach the Virgin Mary or other saints. Every Church was dedicated to a specific saint. Europe in the 16th century was emerging from the Medieval era and undergoing the Renaissance. Many were asking questions and national consciouness was becoming increasingly pronounced. An increasingly secular papacy was spending huge sums on the construction of St. Peters and other projects. This was being financed from Church collections in Germany and other countries. The sale of indulgences angered some of the faithful--especially the young German religious scholar Martin Lurther. This transfer of wealth was being seen with increasing concern. Luther is todau seen as a religious leader, but in fact is also a major German political fifure and mationalist.

Parents

Hans and Margarethe Luther were peasants living in comfortable circumstances. Martin was born November 10, 1483. He was the first son. He was born on the feast dy of St. Martin and thus named Martin. There would be six more children to come after him.

Childhood

Martin Luther was born in Eisleben, an old town in central Germany. Eisleben was a small town in Saxony one of the states of the Holy Roman Empire. He grow up in Mansfeld, Magdeburg, and Eisenach. Not a great deal is known of his childhood. The availavle accounts suggest that he was an especially sensitive boy and took an early interest in religion. The images of Christ he was exposed to as a stern judge as well as the firy torments of Hell terrified him.

Education

Hans Luther greatly respected education. An his son was very bright. Many boy's with Luther's social background, even clever boys, could not have expected to achieved much. His father took difficult jobs in copper mines to earn the money needed to educate his son. He studied at the University of Erfurt (1501-05) earning the Magister Artium" (Master of Arts) (1505). His father insisted that he persue his education so Luther entered the law school at Erfurt. After becoming a priest he resumed his education, he studied theology at the University Wittenberg, earning the doctor of theology degree (1512).

Monastary (1505)

Luther followed his father's wished and began to study the law. About a year into his studies his life was fundamentaslly changed. After a stay with his parents, Luther was retuning to the University. He was caught in a terrible thunderstorm and narrowly escaped a thunder bolt. He cried out in terror to St. Anne, the patron saint of miners and thus important in the Luther home. "Help me, St. Anne, and I'll become a monk!" Luther survived and within a month was a novice in an Erfurt monestary (July 1505). Luther was a devoute youth and adapted well to a monastic life. He continued to be terrified of the wrathful God tp whom he was exposed. He reportedly confessed his sins up to 20 times a day. One wonders just what sins a devoted young man like Luther go up to 20 times a day. He also practiced an extremely rigorous life style. He slept on a hasrd, cold floor. He was ordained a priest (1507).He writes that he performed his first Mass with a "trembling hand".

Rome (1510)

Luther with his quick mind was given the coveted assignment of traveling to Rome to reprepresent the Erfurt Monestary. He was very excited about the assignment. Travel was not something usually open to men of his social stature. And to travel to Rome would have been almost unimaginable. The young priest, however, was apauled by what he found in Rome. The immorality of the Roman priesthood shocked him. He was also struck by their ignoramce as well as the lack of devotion to the Church. A key teaching of the Church at the time was that one must show respect to religious relics. And that the greater the respect sjown, the less time would be spent in purgatory. As he dutifully fufilled the expected devotions such as kissing each of Pilate's stairs, he failed to experience the religious awakening thast he had expected. He began to ask questions about Chhurch teachings, especially about relics and merits. Luther after returning to Erfut was greatly troubled.

Doctrinal Questions

Luther was open about his doubts. He discussed them with the Monestary superior, Johann von Staupitz. He told Luther to stop worrying do much about Church doctrine and just love God. For Luther this was not all that simple. The God he had been raised with was a terrible vengeful God, not an easy God to love. Luther in favt feared God a lot more than h loved him. In fact Luther later wrote, "Love God? I hated him!" Staupitz found dealing with Luther very difficult. Luther had a sharp mind and was constantly asking difficult to answer questions. He decided that the best way to deal with him was to have him work on a doctorate in theology at the University of Wittenburg. Staupitz hoped that academic studies would resolve Luther's diocrinal questions and takevhis mind off the status of his soul. At any rate he would not have to listen to his troublesome young priest constatly prattle on about his salvation. Luther was made for academia. He was not only bright, but eager to emerse himself in theological study. The result was the best explanation of why the Church discouraged the faithful from reading the Bible. The more Luther read, the more he began to question Church dictrine. (A tenant of Protestantism would be persoal Bible study which is why there are so many Protestant sects.) After receiving his degree, Luther lectured at the University.While preparing his lectures he found more Biblical passages which seem to vary with Church teachings. Two were especially important. Luther read in Psalms that Christ cried out on the cross: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" This seemed to Luther to describe a much more approachable Christ than he had imagned. Later Nuther noted a passage in Romans (1:17), "The just will live by faith." Luther mulled over this passage for some time. It seemed to question all the emphasis the Church put on relics and merit. He discussed this issue in his lectures and gradually it gained great credence with not only the tudents, but the faculty as well.

German Reformation

The Reformation began when Luther nailed his "95 Thesis" on the church door in Wittenberg (1517). Luther was offended by the papal sale of indulgences. As the pope had authoirized the indulgences, the Church could hardly accept Luther's call for reform. The problem was that even though indulgences were not a critical element of Catholic doctrine, papal infalibility was. The Church ordered Luther to retract his statements and to submit to Church authority. Instrad Luther became more intransigent and expanded his call for reform to include central aspects of the Roman Catholic faith, the sacramental system and insisted that salvation was based on on personal religiouds faith based on an understanding of the guidance contained in the Bible. On these issues the Church could not comprimise and Luther faced excomunication. A defiant Luthir burned the papal bull (notice) of excomunication and a volume of cannon law. Luthrer was no longer a reformer, but had broken irrevocably broken with the pope and the Church hierarchy. Luther's theological contentions were soon combined with a complex mix of doctrinal, political, economic, and cultural issues that would take European Church and temporal leaders nearly two centuries to partially resolve and several devestating wars.

Music

Luther is of course best known for launching the Reformation. This alone makes him one of the most important figures in history. And this does not just mean among Protestants. The Reformation along with the Renaissance and Rnlightement was one of the central steps in the forging of Western Civilization--essentially modernity. But this was not Luther' only contribution. He also played an important role in the development of Western music. Before Luther Germany (atually the German states) was just ome of several European nations. After Luther Germany became central to Western music. The three B's (Betoven, Bach, and Brahams) not to mention Mozart are at the hear of Western music, but they are only a of a host of German compossers. The primacy of Germany in music is undeniable and it all began with Luther. Music was used in Catholic services for centuries. During Medieval era it was priests or a choir of monks including boys training for the priethood. Luther loved music and he wanted it to be at center of the Mass, but he favored the congregational singing of the early church. For that to be the case , servies including the singing had to be done in German, not Latin. He wanted the entire congregation to participate in services through singing. Larger congregations at first kept agood bit of the Latin liturgy. Smaller churches, hiwever,began began using Luther's Deudsche Messe. The chorle and cantrafacta became important, but soon polyphonic chorale settings appared, especially in Germany. A German theological professor describes luther's views. "Also music and painting are in God's service. Praying was Luther's most important engagement, but he visited imperturbably a religeous service, listened to the sermon, received the Lord's Supper (communion ), sang religeous songs and read the bible. Also the music and the pictures could very well be seen and heard in God's service unlike the Swiss reformators Luther lived a pious lifeand he wanted to encourage the Evangelical Christians to become more devout. But how do you become pious? It could be taught. That's why Luther used his catechisms. Only Belief is important and sets people free and right.Believing is a gift from God , which we always can ask for prayer." [Jung] Germany became a hot bed musical innovation ad creativity. Catholic countries hung on to pre-Reformtion forms. Other reformers were less interested in music than Luther. The Swiss reformers (Zwingli and Calvin) id not want music to be at the center of the service. Zwingli did not want anything to detract from the sermon. In this enviromnt it would be Germany that wold come to to dominate European music. While this began as church misic, it would prepare the way for the classics of secular music as well.

Literarture


Family

One of Luther's reforms was to end the celibate priesthood, a Roman Catholic rule that was not Bible based. In fact, celibacy was not introduced for a millenia, and then primarily to prevent land donated to the Church from being acquired by priests for their families. This change of course meant that the former monk and priest could marry. This is why Protestant clerics can marry and have families. Soon after the Reformation began, Luther learned about a group of nuns who wanted to escape from their convent. This was not at easy step at the time. Katherine von Bora (1499-1552) and 8-11 other nuns (accouts vary) wanted to escape their cloister. They could not just walk out. They secretlly wrote to Luther whose new ideas had reached even their isolated convent. Liberating nuns was a capital offense. Luther decided to help them. He contacted Leonhard Koppe who delivered herring to the cloister. Koppe when he made the next delivery of herring smuggled twelve nuns out inside hus empty herring barrels. A Wittenberger wrote after the nuns were liberated heighligting the danger of the action. “A wagon load of vestal virgins has just come to town, all more eager for marriage than for life.” Luther took a personal interest in the nuns. He found husbands for most, but he struggled to find a suitable match for Katherine. She was a feisty redhead who spoke her mind and in her mid-20s. This was older than the usual age for marriage at the time. Luther suggested an older man, but she refused him. Katherina added, however, that if Luther, who was not seeking aide, were willing, she would say yes. Luther at first declined saying that he daily expeted to be arrested and executed as a heretic. Luther eventually married Kate in a secret ceremony (June 1525). As iconic as the Luther family became, when word leaked out, he was sharply criticized from all quarters, including some of his supporters. One of the sharpest condemnations came from English King Henry VIII, at the time aefender of the faith and Catholic family man. Kate proved a marvel. Luther's quarters were desheveled and he never even even made his bed. Kate changed all that. And she helped bring Luther's finances into balance. It was not an easy job. The Luther home usually overflowed with reffomers and the needy. One friend wrote, “a motley crowd of boys, students, girls, widows, old women, and youngsters. For this reason there is much disturbance in the place.” Kate proceeded to supervise the chaotic situation with skill and patience. And if that was not enough, Kate planted the garden, cared for an orchard, harvested a fish pond, looked after the barnyard, and slaughtered the livestock. Themarriage prospere in other ways. They had six children, but only four survived childhood. From their marriage until his death, Luther's family life became a model of a Christian German family. And his family became a source of psychological support to him and his struggles. And the marriage which began on a rocky start with the two committing several capital crimes became the model German family of all time. Many artists as the Reformation became established depicted the family. Some are contemprary and served as a model for later depictions.

Final Years

Luther died February 18, 1546.

Impact

The Reformation inspired by Martin Luther is the root of many Christian religious beliefs around the world. Martin Luther became a person known all over Germany and the German-speaking world as well as the Netherlands and Scandinavia. He was held in great esteem in the Protestant countries and reviled in the Catholic world. Luther as a professor with the University in Wittenberg taught many scholars who carried his doctrinal views to all important medieval towns. Luther translated the New Testament into the German language. This hgad a profound impact on the develkopment and codification of German in much the sane way as Shakespere and the King James played a major role the development of English.

Germany and Europe

The Germanic tribes swept over central and western Europe with the fall of Rome. As Medieval Europe evolved, the Germanic Holy Roman Empire was theoretically the heart of Europe and the most important force. Conflict between the Emperor and the Pope, however, made it impossible to build a centralized German state as occurred elsewhere in Europe. Had this occuurred the Germans almost certainly would have dominated the Continent. This still could have occurred had the Hapsburg Emperors succeeded in uniting the Empire in the 16th century. This was possible given the vast wealth available to emperors like Charles V after Spain (part of the Hapsburg empire) established a vast overseas empire. Luther is often depicted by German historians as an important German nationalist and the Reformation as, in part, an act of German nationalism. The Reformation, however, by spliting Germany along religious grounds delayed unification until the 19th century. But this division had far broader implications than just German unification. Rather than Germany dominating Europe, countries on the perifery of Europe were able to emerge as major centers of power, at first France and Spain, but eventually Britain. This small relatively poor country, developed as a major power center that played a key role in maintaining a balance of power in Europe. And then the colonies that Britain planted in America proved the deciding factor in preventing two efforts by a finally united Germany to dominate Europe in the 20th century. Ironically German immigrants (including many Lutherns) played a vital role in the development of America as a 20th century powerhouse. Had Luther not suceeded in dividing Germany along religious grounds in the 16th century, the history of Europe would have surely been very different.

The Modern Mind

Luther and the Reformation played a major role in the development of the modern Western mind. The origins of Western thought of course can be traced to classical Greece and Rome. The Renaisance renewed the familiarity of European scholars with surviving works of the great classics. The core belief of the Greeks was that man was the measure of all things. Christianity as it developed in Europe put God at the center of the universe and individuals were not encouraged to read, even the Bible. Individuals who questioned not only Church theological doctrine, but Church doctine on the natural world were putting their lives in danger. This put limitations on how Europeans could advance science. (Similar limitations did not exist in China which is one reason why Chinese science until the Renasance was more advanced than European science.) The Reformation had two impacts on the closed Roman Catholic mind set. First, Luther believed that individuals should read and study the Bible to persue their own personal salvation rather then simply follow the instructions of the Church through the priesthood. Luther was primarily thinking in religious terms. But incouraging people to read, study, and think had ramifications in many other areas, including politics, philosophy, science, and other disciplines. Second, Luther by destoying the Roman Catholic church as a arbiter of values and morals created a diversity in Europe which was condusive for the development of democracy. Here we do not say that Luther believed in diversity any more than the pope did, but we maintain that the Reformation created conditions in which diversity of thought could develop.

Sources

Jung, Martin. Zuerst Professor für evangelische Theologie an der Universität in Osnabrück.





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Created: 11:20 PM 12/19/2005
Last updated: 10:13 PM 7/7/2016