Martin Luther (b. 10 November 1483 in Eisleben, County of Mansfeld, Holy Roman Empire; d. 18 February 1546 ibid) was a German monk, theologian, author, hymnwriter and church reformer. Protestantism began in the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation in 1517, when Luther published his Ninety-five Theses as a reaction against abuses in the sale of indulgences by the Catholic Church, which purported to offer the remission of the temporal punishment of sins to their purchasers.
Luther's theology challenged the authority of the papacy by emphasizing the Bible as the sole source of religious authority and all baptized Christians as a general priesthood. According to Luther, salvation was attainable only by faith in Jesus as the Messiah, a faith unmediated by the church. These ideas helped to inspire the Protestant Reformation and changed the course of Western civilization.
Luther's translation of the Bible into the vernacular, making it more accessible to ordinary people, had a tremendous political impact on the church and on German culture. The translation also furthered the development of a standard version of the German language, added several principles to the art of translation, and influenced the translation of the English King James Bible. His hymns inspired the development of congregational singing within Christianity. His marriage to Katharina von Bora set a model for the practice of clerical marriage within Protestantism.
While initially pro-Jewish for a time, as he was under the impression that the Jews would convert to his church if he broke away from Catholicism, he revised his views on the matter when this not occurred and after having read the Talmud and wrote the anti-Semitic book On the Jews and Their Lies.
Birth and Education
Luther was born to Hans Luder (or Ludher, later Luther) and his wife Margarethe (née Lindemann) on November 10, 1483 in Eisleben, Germany, then part of the Holy Roman Empire. He was baptized the next morning on the feast day of St. Martin of Tours. His family moved to Mansfeld in 1484, where his father was a leaseholder of copper mines and smelters, and served as one of four citizen representatives on the local council. Martin Marty describes Luther's mother as a hard-working woman of "trading-class stock and middling means," and notes that Luther's enemies would later wrongly describe her as a whore and bath attendant. He had several brothers and sisters, and is known to have been close to one of them, Jacob.
Hans Luther was ambitious for himself and his family, and was determined to see Martin, his eldest son, become a lawyer. He sent Martin to Latin schools in Mansfeld, then Magdeburg in 1497, where he attended a school operated by a lay group called the Brethren of the Common Life, and Eisenach in 1498. The three schools focused on the so-called "trivium": grammar, rhetoric, and logic. Luther later compared his education there to purgatory and hell.
At the age of seventeen in 1501, he entered the University of Erfurt — later describing it as a beerhouse and whorehouse — which saw him woken at four every morning for what Marty describes as "a day of rote learning and often wearying spiritual exercises" He received his master's degree in 1505.
In accordance with his father's wishes, he enrolled in law school at the same university that year, but dropped out almost immediately, believing that law represented uncertainty. Marty writes that Luther sought assurances about life, and was drawn to theology and philosophy, expressing particular interest in Aristotle, William of Ockham, and Gabriel Biel. He was deeply influenced by two tutors, Bartholomäus Arnoldi von Usingen and Jodocus Trutfetter, who taught him to be suspicious of even the greatest thinkers, and to test everything himself by experience. Philosophy proved to be unsatisfying, offering assurance about the use of reason, but none about the importance, for Luther, of loving God. Reason could not lead men to God, he felt, and he developed what Marty describes as a love-hate relationship with Aristotle over the latter's emphasis on reason. For Luther, reason could be used to question men and institutions, but not God. Human beings could learn about God only through divine revelation, he believed, and Scripture therefore became increasingly important to him.
He decided to leave his studies and become a monk, later attributing his decision to an experience during a thunderstorm on July 2, 1505. A lightning bolt struck near him as he was returning to university after a trip home. Later telling his father he was terrified of death and divine judgment, he cried out, "Help! Saint Anna, I will become a monk!" He came to view his cry for help as a vow he could never break.
He left law school, sold his books, and entered a closed Augustinian friary in Erfurt on July 17, 1505. One friend blamed the decision on Luther's sadness over the deaths of two friends. Luther himself seemed saddened by the move, telling those who attended a farewell supper then walked him to the door of the Black Cloister, "This day you see me, and then, not ever again." His father was furious over what he saw as a waste of Luther's education.
After entering the monastery, Luther becomes increasingly doubtful that the Church can actually offer him salvation at all. His views crystallize even further with a trip to Rome, where he finds that the capital of Catholicism is swamped in corruption. Wracked by despair, Luther finally finds release in the pages of the Bible, when he discovers that it is not the Church, but his own individual faith that will guarantee his salvation.
With this revelation, he turns on the Church, attacking its practice of selling Indulgences in the famous 95 Theses. The key points of Luther's theses were simple, but devastating: a criticism of the Pope's purpose in raising the money, "he is richer than Croesus, he would do better to sell St Peters and give the money to the poor people...", and a straightforward concern for his flock, "indulgences are most pernicious because they induce complacency and thereby imperil salvation".
Luther was not only a revolutionary thinker, he would also benefit from a revolutionary technology: the newly invented machinery of printing. A single pamphlet would be carried from one town to another, where it would be duplicated in a further print run of thousands. Within three months, all Europe was awash with copies of Luther's 95 Theses. Martin Luther had inadvertently chosen unavoidable conflict with what was the most powerful institution of the day, the Catholic Church.
The Reluctant Revolutionary
- "Here I stand, I can do no other, God help me, Amen..." (Martin Luther)
When an obscure monk named Martin Luther nailed 95 Theses - 95 stinging rebukes - attacking the practice of selling indulgences to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, he unleashed a tornado. It was a tornado of violence and revolution that raged across Europe, and changed the face of a continent forever.
The Catholic Church brought all its considerable power to bear to try and muzzle Luther, including accusations of heresy and excommunication. But protected by his local ruler, Frederick the Wise, Luther continued to write ever more radical critiques of the Church, and to develop a whole new system of faith, one that puts the freedom of the individual believer above the rituals of the Church.
His ideas spread like wildfire, aided by the newly invented printing press. Finally he's called before the German imperial parliament, in the city of Worms, and told he must recant. Risking torture and execution, Luther nevertheless refused and proclaimed his inalienable right to believe what he wished. He said, "Unless I am convicted by scripture and plain reason I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other. My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen." The first accounts of this scene also have him saying, "Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise."
Luther and Jews / Judaism
Initially relatively more pro-Jewish for a time, he revised his views when Jews did not convert to Christianity after his reforms and after having read the Talmud.
Many of his criticisms were religious and against Judaism, which therefore would not apply if the Jews converted, but politically correct sources tend to describe them as racist. This despite that race denialists claim that race as a concept did not exist at this time.
During his later years, Luther wrote harsh texts generally, not just regarding Jews and Judaism, stating that Anabaptists should be hanged as seditionists and that the pope was the Antichrist. Various explanations have been proposed, such as deteriorating health and chronic pain, insomnia, depression after deaths of friends and relatives, expectation of the imminent end of the world, and deep disappointment over certain failures of the religious reforms.
Luther wrote the anti-Semitic On the Jews and Their Lies in 1543. He alleged various negative characteristics and actions and proposed various measures against these. The most well-known and often quoted sentence in the treatise may be the sentence "we are at fault in not slaying them". This is often alleged to mean Luther advocated a future genocide of Jews. However, it occurred after Luther had alleged killings by Jews in the past of Christ and Christians and may therefore refer to Luther finding fault with alleged past Jewish crimes not having been punished in the past. Elsewhere in the text, Luther clearly stated various proposed anti-Jewish measures that did not include a genocide (such as Jewish expulsions). Later, Lutheran church bodies have denounced and dissociated themselves from Luther's statements.
Luther finally died in the year 1543, seized by a crippling heart attack but he held onto his righteousness and rage until the very end.
- "When I die, I want to be a ghost...So I can continue to pester the bishops, priests and godless monks until that they have more trouble with a dead Luther than they could have had before with a thousand living ones."
In 1525, Luther married ex-nun Katharine von Bora (b. 29 January 1499 n Lippendorf, Electorate of Saxony, Holy Roman Empire; d. 20 December 1552 in Torgau, Electorate of Saxony, Holy Roman Empire), whom he had helped to escape from her nunnery and they had a large family together, Luther was able to devote himself to the simpler pleasures of life, gardening, music and of course, writing.
They had six children. Johannes, known as Hans, was born in 1526. The next year, their daughter Elizabeth arrived. In 1529 another daughter, Magdalena, was born and then in 1531 their second son, Martin, was born. Paul, who was born in 1533, and Margaretha, born in 1534, were the last children. With such a large family, born so quickly, it is said that both mother and father were very busy, that Luther himself had to wash diapers and that Luther declared that even if neighbors laughed at him performing such “unmanly” labors, “Let them laugh. God and the angels are smiling in heaven.”
Hans became a lawyer – the career chosen for Martin Luther by his parents – and later became a government official. Hans married Elizabeth Kreutziger in 1553. They had four children. Hans died in 1575. He was only 49 years old. Paul became a doctor. He was also a medical chemist and alchemist. Paul was named for St. Paul. Martin Luther died when Paul was only 13 and the family was left in terrible poverty. Finally, after moving several times, they returned to Wittenberg and Philip Melanchthon advised Paul to attend the University and study medicine. In 1553, Paul married Anna Warbeck. This same year the family lost their mother, Katharine. Paul took up the practice of physician, but he enthusiastically and zealously defended his father’s teachings. Eventually, Paul became the personal physician of Augustus, Elector of Saxony. As a chemist, Paul developed several drugs. Paul died in Leipzig in 1593. Paul and his wife Anna had six children. Martin studied theology, but never became a pastor as he died at age 33. Margaretha was married to German noble Georg von Kuenheim and she and her husband had five children. Margarethe died in 1570. She was only 36 years old. Two of the Luther children passed away as children. Elizabeth died at age 6 months and Magdalena at 13 years of age. Magdalena suffered from an extended illness and it is reported that as Magdalena died in her father’s arms, Luther said, “You will rise and shine like the stars and sun.” Luther reported to a friend that he prayed while Magdalena lay dying, “I love her a lot, but good God, if Your will is to take her, I will give her to You with great pleasure.”
- Disputation Against Scholastic Theology, 1517
- Ninety-five Theses, 1517
- The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, 1520
- Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants, 1525
- The German Mass and Order of Service, 1526
- On War Against the Turk, 1529
- Letter Against the Sabbathers to a Good Friend, 1538
- From the Schem Ham Phoras: And from the lineage of Christ, 1542
- The Jews and their Lies, 1543 (PDF)
- Know, dear Christian, and have no doubts about it, that next to the Devil you have no more bitter, poisonous and determined enemy than a genuine Jew. If they do something good for you, it is not because they love you, but because they need room to live with us, so they have to do something. But their heart remains as I have said!
- This gives you a clear picture of their conception of the fifth commandment and their observation of it. They have been blood thirsty bloodhounds and murderers of all Christendom for more than fourteen hundred years in their intentions, and would undoubtedly prefer to be such with their deeds. Thus they have been accused of poisoning water and wells, of kidnaping children, of piercing them through with an awl, of hacking them in pieces, and in that way secretly cooling their wrath with the blood of Christians, for all of which they have often been condemned to death by fire.
- There is no other explanation for this than the one cited earlier from Moses - namely, that God has struck them with "madness and blindness and confusion of mind." So we are even at fault in not avenging all this innocent blood of our Lord and of the Christians which they shed for three hundred years after the destruction of Jerusalem, and the blood of the children they have shed since then (which still shines forth from their eyes and their skin). We are at fault in not slaying them.
- On the Jews and Their Lies by Martin Luther. A free ebook, available in HTML, PDF, EPUB, and MOBI formats.
- Encyclopedia Britannica: Martin Luther
- Encyclopedia Britannica 1911 Edition: Martin Luther
- Encyclopedia.com: Martin Luther