Martin Luther was indeed a man of his age. The Renaissance, German nationalism, the oppression of the poor and the ignorance of the priests all affected him. Earlier reformers also influenced him, particularly John Hus.

This page surveys Luther's reform.

I. Luther's Background

Martin Luther was born to the family of a poor miner at Eisleben, Saxony in 1483. Luther's father later enjoyed prosperity in industry. Luther shared bed and board with six other children. Luther's father determined he should have an education, but as a lawyer not a priest.

Luther began his education in his home town but his first genuine schooling occurred in Magdeburg. From there he went on to Erfurt where he ran into Renaissance humanistic thought. It was in Erfurt that he first became distressed, then depressed over his spiritual condition. He tried reading the Bible, but his study only deepened his depression. Ultimately he dropped his legal studies and entered an Augustinian cloister as a monk.

He reached his decision to enter the monastery when he and a close friend returned to the University in Erfurt. Luther was 21 at the time. No one really knows exactly what happened since reports vary. There are three constants to each story: Luther, lightning, and his friend. Roland Bainton states that "lightning struck him to the earth." Luther then cried out to the miners' patron saint saying, "St. Anne, help me! I will become a monk." The experience convinced Luther that God had called him to the religious life.

Luther found his personal struggle intensified in the monastery. At every point in his life, he felt unworthy to stand before the holy God. A crisis came when the church ordained him and required him to celebrate his first mass. During the mass, the priest recites the mass wearing the correct vestments and saying the correct words. Even more important, a priest's soul had to be correct! Therefore, each candidate needed absolution before approaching the altar. When Luther arose to say mass "the terror of the Holy, the horror of Infinitude, smote him like a new lightning bolt" and he finished in abject terror. The worst part of it all was his father's presence at the ceremony.

Luther determined to be a holy monk. He fasted, sometimes three days straight without a crumb. He cast off his blankets and nearly froze to death in the winter. John Staupiz, his order's vicar and personal confessor, counseled him regularly. Luther attended confession frequently, often daily, and for as long as six hours mumbling every known sin. Frustrated with Luther's continual confession, Staupiz one day declared, "Look here, if you expect Christ to forgive you, come in with something to forgive -- parricide, blasphemy, adultery -- instead of all these peccadilloes." No religious exercise, ceremony or rite gave Luther any comfort. Finally Luther admitted that instead of loving God, he hated him.

When he finally turned to Scripture, he discovered help. A study of Romans brought him face to face with Romans 1:17. Luther noticed immediately that the passage spoke of the "righteousness of God." As he read further, he came across the same phrase in Romans 3:21-22. He realized it was not his personal righteousness that saved, but God's righteousness! He knew then that Jesus was savior, not lawgiver. Luther decided that faith lifted men into God's favor and works resulted from that faith. So convinced of this was Luther that the phrase, Sola Fide, became his watchword.

II. The stirrings of revolt

In time the order assigned Luther to the faculty at the University of Wittenberg along with responsibilities in the Wittenberg chapel. At the time, the Archbishop of Mainz needed to pay his annates (first year contributions) to the Pope. To raise the funds promised, the Pope allowed the sale of indulgences. The Archbishop's jurisdiction did not include Saxony but iIndulgence hawkers came as close to the Saxon borders as possible. Citizens crossed principality borders to obtain an indulgence.

Luther believed the practice was wrong. His convictions led him to challenge church leadership to debate the issue. He penned 95 theses which he nailed to the chapel door. The chapel door usually served as a community bulletin board in those days. Some like to think Luther acted rashly, impetuously, and rebelliously. Actually, he didn't. He simply took advantage of the common means to secure open debate on issues of interest. Luther firmly believed Pope Leo did not know of such extortion. A debate would certainly make the Pope aware of the problem. When the Pope took no notice, Luther began open opposition. Pope Leo X only regarded Luther as a "drunken monk" who would soon come to his senses.

When Luther's objections became bothersome, the Pope summoned him to Rome. Luther balked because he knew how the church executed John Hus after promising safe conduct. Frederick the Elector, the prince of Saxony, arranged for a meeting in Augsburg instead. Here Luther promised to cease his attacks provided his opponents stopped harassing him. He also agreed to write a letter of submission to the Pope admitting he was a bit strong in his words and actions.

Andreas Carlstadt, a radical colleague at Wittenberg, issued a bold defense of Luther's theses. This action fueled the fires of revolt. Luther suggested a disputation at Leipzig. The Church agreed and sent Johann Eck to defeat Carlstadt and Luther himself if necessary. The disputation became a major turning point in Luther's life.

Luther tried to stay out of the discussion, but he failed. Once drawn into the fray, Eck drove Luther to admit that he believed the Papacy to be of human origin, he denied Papal infallibility (which was not official dogma at the time), and stated his conviction that John Hus's Christianity could not be doubted. This last admission led Eck to pronounce Luther a heretic. On June 15, 1520 Pope Leo X issued a bull of excommunication against Luther. When Luther received the communication he burned it. Luther showed his mettle when by setting the Canon Law ablaze, too. The revolt was underway!

III. The Reform

Before I go on, let me remind you of Germany's political situation. At this time Germany is a loose federation of principalities. German princes and church officials elected the Holy Roman Emperor but he had limited power. A Diet, or legislative parliament, indicated some German unity but very little.

Emperor Charles V ordered Frederick to ban Luther. Frederick refused. Charles V, acting under Papal direction, summoned Luther to the Diet guaranteeing "safe conduct." Friends and colleagues counseled Luther to stay home, but he determined to go at all costs. On April 16, 1521 Luther entered Worms in a Saxon two-wheeled cart in the company of a few companions.

In the Diet assembly, officials called upon Luther to retract his writings. He asked for time to consider their request. Again in their meeting, he agreed to retract anything proven false by Scripture or reason. In his own words he said, "Here I stand, I can do none else. God help me!" He refused to budge. The following day, all six electors prepared to name Luther heretic. Since all stood against Luther, the Emperor was urged to withdraw the safe conduct. Instead, the Diet took action in the form of the Edict of Worms. The orders went out banning Luther, prohibiting his writings and destroying his current books.

Frederick the Wise, or Elector, wanted no harm to come to Luther so he arranged with court officials to hide the reformer. Luther and one companion knew of the plan but Luther was not happy about it. As they left Worms and just before entering the woods on the outskirts of his birthplace, armed horsemen jumped Luther's caravan and, with much cursing and show of violence, dragged him to the ground. Luther disappeared! He actually went to Wartburg Castle under his prince's watchful eye and he remained there until 1521.

Luther experienced severe depression during his stay at the Castle. Compounding the problem was loneliness since his only companions were two serving boys. He also suffered from insomnia and physical ailments. Luther went to work; he learned that work helped cure his depressions. During this protective custody, Luther translated the entire New Testament into German.

Three men assumed the growing reform movement's leadership during this period. They are Melanchthon, professor of Greek; Carlstadt, also a professor; and to Gabriel Zwilling, a monk from Luther's old order. Without a moderating force, however, innovation followed innovation. Priests married, monks married, nuns married. Nuns and monks married each other. They gave wine to the laity during mass, celebrated mass without vestments, recited portions of the mass in German, and discontinued masses for the dead. In addition vigils ceased, the vespers altered, images smashed, and formerly good Catholics ate meat on fast days. Changes came too quickly and violence flared.

On December 4, 1521 Luther returned to Wittenberg. He instituted a more moderate course over the objections of Carlstadt and others. Some of these radicals ultimately left the Lutheran movement. Luther desired rapid reform, but he knew that it was prudent to exercise care so that the reform effort did not outpace his prince.

Perhaps Luther's biggest mistake, and one of the saddest events of the German reform, came during the peasant revolts. Feudalism prevailed in Germany and those on the bottom, the serfs, were terribly poor. A number of people movements sought additional personal freedom during the period. Hans Boheim appeared as a prophet in 1476 intent on destroying the right to private property. Authorities ultimately burned him for his efforts. The Bund Schueh Movement also protested inequalities. Members of the people movements saw Luther as a hero. They realized the courage needed to strike out against established institutions and their corruption. They read Luther's treatises striking out against luxury in the upper classes, too, along with inequality and other social ills. In addition, hadn't Luther made the Bible their book by putting it into their language?

The German peasants ultimatelybecame violent. When the violence began Luther reacted negatively. He stood for separation of church and state and understood that Christians should be in submission to their governing authorities. Luther called on the peasants to stop their violence. When they would not, he told the nobles to put the rebellion down at all costs. The nobility formed the Schwabian League and killed over 100,000 peasants. Luther's counsel and the subsequent slaughter hampered reformation among the lower classes for generations. Descendants of those lower classes remain strongly Catholic even today.

The reformation continued spreading throughout Germany in spite of Luther's mistakes. Nuns and monks left their cloisters in increasing numbers. Even Luther helped these people make the transition to a normal lifestyle. On the night before Easter in 1523, Luther bundled twelve nuns into his wagon to help them escape a convent. Three nuns returned to their homes. The remaining nine went to Wittenberg and Luther set out to find them all homes, husbands or positions. Someone suggested he marry one himself. On November 30, 1524 Luther commented that he did not want to marry because he expected death at any moment as a heretic. In the end he provided for all nine except for Katherine von Bora. She was set to marry a young Nurnberg patrician, but his family objected. Then Luther selected a Dr. Glatz, but Katherine refused him. She wanted to marry either a Dr. Amsdorf of Magdeburg or Luther himself. Oy June 13, 1525, Luther asked Katherine to marry him and was, in the law's eyes, already a married man. The couple solemnized their marriage on September 20, 1525. From that point on the Luthers established the model for the Protestant parsonage.

By 1526, political changes made the Reformation's course easier. The Diet of Spiers in 1526 determined that each principality could practice religion as they chose. Germans had largely forgotten the Edict of Worms. A few years later, however, a Diet meeting in Spiers reversed the decision and insisted on enforcing the Edict of Worms particularly in Catholic areas. German princes protested and from their protest came the designation Protestant.

In 1530, Emperor Charles V, in an attempt to restore peace and conciliate Lutherans, called a Diet for Augsburg. At this Diet everyone could speak their opinions. Melanchthon, with Luther's approval, presented what we now know as the Augsburg Confession of Faith. This creed sealed the recognition that Lutherans were indeed different.

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