Martin Luther is famous in history as the great central figure of the Reformation. While some of the reformers, such as Erasmus, were more interested in learning and shrank from strong measures, Luther, by his wonderful strength of character and directness of purpose, became the greatest revolutionary of the sixteenth century.
He was born in Saxony, the eldest son of peasant parents (1483). The first blow against the Church was struck by Luther when a friar came to distribute Indulgences at Wittenberg, where Luther was professor (1517). To help to raise money for the building of St. Peter's Church at Rome, the Pope issued these Indulgences, which granted to subscribers to the fund relief from the penance usually imposed on those who had confessed their sins with a firm purpose of amendment.
On the door of tho castle church at Wittenberg Luther nailed a paper containing ninety-five arguments against the sale and abuse of indulgences. This caused a sensation, far greater than Luther expected. In a fortnight his daring action was known all over Germany.
At first, when complaints were made to him, the Pope merely said, "Brother Martin is a man of very fine genius, and this outbreak a mere squabble of envious monks." But the effect of Luther's arguments was that many people ceased contributing to the fund. The papal party took action against Luther, who issued three famous pamphlets (1520) attacking not only the Pope, but also the doctrines of the Church of Rome.
Meantime the Pope issued a Bull of excommunication against Luther, condemning his works to be burnt, and threatening him with punishment, which people knew would be very severe, if he did not recant within sixty days. "A wild boar has broken into the vineyard of the Lord," said the Bull; "a wild beast is seeking there to devour." In reply, Luther burnt the papal law-books in the presence of all the Wittenberg students, and then threw the Bull itself to the flames. As he refused to retract, the sentence of expulsion from the Church was pronounced against him and his followers.
It now remained for the emperor, Charles V, to put him under the "ban of the empire," so that he could be seized and punished as a "pestilent heretic." Luther's patron, the Elector of Saxony, however, obtained Charles's consent to hear Luther defend himself before taking action.
Luther was therefore summoned to appear uuder a safe-conduct at Worms, on the Rhine, at a meeting of all the princes, nobles, bishops, abbots, and deputies of the Holy Roman Empire. "Luther at Worms is the most momentous event in modern history."
Warning Luther that he would be burned like the Bohemian Reformer, Huss, who had also had a safe-conduct, a friend at Worms sent him a message to turn back. But he replied, "I will go if there are as many devils in Worms as there are tiles upon the housetops. Though they burnt Huss, they could not burn the truth." He arrived at Worms amidst great excitement. "Little monk, little monk," said a famous warrior to him, clapping him on the shoulder as he went to the hall, "thou art on a march and charge such as we captains never saw in our bloodiest battle; but if thy cause be just, on in God's name! He will not forsake thee."
Repelled by Luther's want of grace and polish, Charles at first remarked with contempt, "This is not the man who will make me a heretic." But Luther spoke "with such bravery and modest candour, with eyes upturned to heaven," that every one was astonished. All the terrors of the law were held over his head, but he still refused to retract. Looking round at the great gathering who were to decide upon his fate, he simply said: "Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen."
So ended the meeting at about eight o'clock in the evening of Tuesday 18th April, 1521, with torches flaring in the crowded hall -- "a solitary, low-born, peasant monk" facing undismayed all the power and splendour of the empire. The Spaniards who were with Charles V., for he was also King of Spain and its vast empire, hissed Luther; but the Germans were proud of their countryman.
A silver tankard of beer was sent to him by a duke, who first drank out of it himself, while his patron sent for him to say "how excellently did Father Martin speak both in Latin and German before the emperor." He was allowed to depart safely. Nothing could persuade Charles to imprison him and so violate the safe-conduct, for he said that although good faith might be banished from the world, it should still find a refuge in the breast of kings. A month later, however, an edict was issued, placing him under the ban of the empire. But his good patron had had him kidnapped on his way home and carried to his castle, the famous Wartburg, where he lived for ten months under the name of "Squire George," growing a beard and dressed as a knight. Returning at length to Wittenberg, he lived there in peace till his death (1546). In appearance Luther was a man of middle height; in early manhood so wasted that his bones might be counted, but later somewhat stout. He had an upright bearing, with well-raised head and "deep, dark eyes twinkling and sparkling like stars, so that one could hardly look steadily at them." The German Protestant Church is still called after his name.
Thus, while Erasmus relied for reform within the Church under the influence of the New Learning, Luther risked all for unchecked conscience, and substituted the authority of the Bible for that of the Church.
Charles V tried later to compel obedience to Rome. Some Lutheran princes made a "protest," and so they became "Protestants."
Soon Europe was in an uproar. "Not a statue was left in church or monastery; what would not burn was hewn to pieces. Nothing was spared, however precious or beautiful. And the mass was forbidden even in private houses."
So wrote Erasmus sadly of the town where he was then living.
“What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?”
– Matthew 16:26