MARTIN LUTHER, the greatest of the Protestant reformers of the 16th century, was born at Eisleben, on the 10th of November 1483. His father was a miner in humble circumstances; his mother, as Melanchthon records, was a woman of exemplary virtue, and esteemed in her walk of life. Shortly after Martin's birth, his parents removed to Mansfield, where their circumstances ere long improved by industry and perseverance. Their son was sent to school; and both at home and at school his training was of a severe and hardening character. When he reached his eighteenth year, he entered the university at Erfurt, with a view of qualifying himself for the legal profession. He went through the usual studies in the classics and the schoolmen, and took his degree as Doctor of Philosophy, or Master of Arts, in 1505, when he was twenty-one years of age. Previous to this, however, a profound change of feeling had begun in him. Chancing one day to examine the vulgate version of the Bible in the University Library, he saw with astonishment that there were more gospels and epistles than in the lectionaries. He was arrested by the contents of his newly found treasure. His heart was deeply touched, and he resolved to devote himself to a spiritual life. He separated himself trom his friends and fellow-students, and withdrew into the Augustine convent at Erfurt.
Here he spent the next three years of his life - years of peculiar interest and significance, for it was during this period that he laid in the study of the Bible and of Augustine, the foundation of those doctrinal convictions which were afterwards to rouse and strengthen him in his struggles against the papacy. He describes very vividly the crisis through which he passed, the burden of sin which so long lay upon him, "too heavy to be borne;" and the relief that he at length found in the clear understanding of the "forgiveness of sins" through the grace of Christ.
In the year 1507, Luther was ordained a priest, and in the following year he moved to Wittenberg, destined to derive its chief celebrity from his name. He became a teacher in the new university, founded there by the Elector Frederick of Saxony.
In 1510 or 1511, he was sent on a mission to Rome, and he has described yery vividly what he saw and heard there. On his return from Rome, he was made a Doctor of the Holy Scriptures, and his career as a reformer may be said to have commenced. Money was largely needed at Rome, to feed the extravagances of the papal court; and its numerous missionaries sought everywhere to raise funds by the sale of "indulgences," as they were called, for the sins of frail humanity; the principal of these was John Tetzel, a Dominican friar, who had established himself at Juterboch, on the borders of Saxony. Luther's indignation at the shameless traffic which the man carried on, soon became irrepressible; "God willing," he exclaimed, "I will beat a hole in his drum." He drew out 95 theses on the doctrine of indulgences, which he nailed up on the gate of the church at Wittenberg, and which he offered to defend in the university against all opponents. The general thrust of these was to deny to the pope all right to forgive sins. "If a sinner was truly contrite, he received complete forgiveness. The pope's absolution had no value in and for itself."
This sudden and bold step of Luther's was all that was necessary to awaken a widespread excitement. The news of it spread far and wide.
At first, the pope, Leo X, took little heed of the disturbance. Some of the cardinals, however, saw the real character of the movement, which gradually assumed a seriousness evident even to the pope, and Luther received a summons to appear at Rome, and answer for his theses. Once again in Rome, it is unlikely he would ever have been allowed to return. His university and the elector interfered, and a legate was sent to Germany to hear and determine the case. Cardinal Cajetan was the legate, and he was but little fitted to deal with Luther. He would enter upon no argument with him, but merely called upon him to retract. Luther refused, and fled from Augsburg, whither he had gone to meet the papal representative. The task of negotiation was then undertaken by Miltitz, a German envoy of the pope to the Saxon court, and a temporary peace was obtained. This did not last long. The reformer was too deeply moved to keep silent. "God hurries and drives me," he said; "I am not master of myself; I wish to be quiet, and am hurried into the midst of tumults."
In 1520, the reformer published his famous address to the "Christian Nobles of Germany." This was followed in the same year by a treatise "On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church." In these works, which circulated widely and powerfully influenced many minds, Luther took broader and firmer ground; he attacked not only the abuses of the papacy, but the doctrinal system of the Church of Rome. "These works," Ranke says, "contain the whole kernel of the reformation." The papal bull was issued against him, but the dreaded document was burned before an assembled multitude of doctors, students, and citizens at the Elster Gate of Wittenberg. Germany was convulsed with excitement. Eck (who had been the chief agent in obtaining the bull), fled from place to place, glad to escape with his life, and Luther was everywhere the hero of the hour.
Charles V had at this time succeeded to the empire, and he convened his first diet of the Sovereigns and States at Worms. This diet met in the beginning of 1521; an order was issued for the destruction of Luther's works, and he himself was summoned to appear before the diet. This was above all what he desired - to confess the truth before the assembled powers of Germany. He resolved to obey the summons, come what would. All Germany was moved by his heroism; his journey resembled a triumph; the threats of enemies and the anxiety of friends alike failed to move him. "I am resolved to enter Worms," he said, "although as many devils set at me as there are tiles on the house tops." His appearance and demeanor before the diet, and the firmness with which he held his ground and refused to retract, all make a striking picture.
On his return from Worms, he was seized at the instigation of his friend, the Elector of Saxony, and safely lodged in the old castle of the Wartburg. The affair was made to appear as an act of violence, but in reality it was designed to secure him from the destruction which his conduct at Worms would certainly have provoked. He remained in this shelter for about a year, concealed in the guise of a knight. His chief employment was his translation of the Scriptures into his native language.
In the year 1525, Luther married Catharine Von Boro, one of nine nuns, who, under the influence of his teaching had emancipated themselves from their religious vows. The step rejoiced his enemies, and even alarmed some of his friends like Melanchthon. But it greatly contributed to his happiness, while it served to enrich and strengthen his character. All the most interesting and touching glimpses we get of him henceforth, are in connection with his wife and children.
Two years after his marriage, he fell into a dangerous sickness and depression of spirits, from which he was only aroused by the dangers besetting Christendom from the advance of the Turks. Two years later, in 1529, he engaged in his famous conference at Marbury, with Zwingli, and other Swiss divines. In this conference he obstinately maintained his peculiar views as to the sacrament of the Lord's Supper. Aggressive and reforming in the first stage of his life, and while he was dealing with practical abuses, he was yet in many respects, essentially conservative in his intellectual character, and he shut his mind pertinaciously after middle life, to any advance in doctrinal opinions. The following year finds him at Coburg, while the diet sat at Augsburg. It was deemed prudent to trust the Protestant cause to Melanchthon, who attended the Diet, but Luther removed to Coburg, to be conveniently at hand for consultation. The establishment of the Protestant creed at Augsburg, marks the culmination of the German Reformation; and the life of Luther henceforth possesses comparatively little interest. He survived sixteen years longer, but they are years marked by few incidents of importance. He died in the end of Febtuary 1546.
“Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.”
– John 1:12