Martin Luther (1483
) was one of the major leaders of the Protestant Reformation
and the founder of Lutheranism
Luther was born in Eisleben, Saxony in 1483 to a family of small but free landholders. Educated at the cathedral school at Eisenach and the University of Erfurt, he planned to study law. In 1505 however, Luther experienced a sudden, profound religious experience and decided to become an Augustinian friar. He was ordained as a priest in 1507, and travelled to Rome in 1510, where he was shocked by papal opulence and ostentation.
In 1512 Luther became a professor of Scripture at Wittenberg University, where he began to wrestle with issues of personal salvation. After months of mental anguish and psychic turmoil, Luther eventually concluded that salvation flowed unmerited from a loving God as a free gift to mankind. God's grace could not be earned by eartly acts such as confession, pilgrimage, or charity, but was obtained by faith alone. This doctrine became known as the Justification by Faith.
Calls for Reform
Luther's activist phase began in 1517 when Johann Tetzel toured Saxony selling papal indulgences. Luther denounced the practice in his famous 95 Theses, which he posted on the door of the castle church. In one of the earliest examples of the power of the printing press, the theses were mass reproduced and became wildly popular reading, earning Luther followers and fame, but also drawing vicious attack, especially from Johann Eck.
At first Luther sought to initiate reform from within the church, but Pope Leo X ordered the Augustinian order to supress the burgeoning movement. Luther was called before the papal legate at Augsburg in 1518, but refused to recant, and in 1519 in a public disputation with Eck at Leipzig Luther found himself forced to declare himself in open oposition to established church doctrine.
As Luther began to realize that a break with the church was inevitable, he started to call for even more extensive reform. In To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation (1520) Luther attacked the claim of the papacy of authority over secular rulers, calling for German control of German ecclesiastical matters and appealing to the German princes to help effect a reformation in Germany. Dangling the promise of greater power for the German princes proved to be an astute move, as the princes would eventually back Luther's movement and protect him from chruch persecution. Most importantly, Luther denied the central role of the pope as final interpreter of Scripture, instead declaring a "priesthood of all believers."
In other writings, most notably The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, Luther further denied any special spiritual role for priests and rejected the idea of transubstantiation, instead embracing consubstantiation. He also called for clerical marriage, assailed the corruption of the church, attacked usury and commercialism, and recommended a return to a primitive agrarian society.
Break with the Church
The Church responded with a crackdown, condemning Luther's views and threatening him with excommunication in the papal bull Exsurge Domine. Luther responded by holding a public burning of the bull and a copy of the canon law and the Church excommunicated him in 1521. That same year the Catholic Holy Roman Emperor Charles V summoned Luther to the Diet of Worms and demanded that he renounce his heresies. Luther refused, allegedly saying, "Here I stand: I can do no other."
After a heated debate, the Diet decided to outlaw Luther as a heretic and issued an edict for his arrest, but Luther found protection under Frederick III of Saxony and sought refuge in the castle at Wartburg. There, in only six months, Luther translated the New Testament into German and began a translation of the entire Bible, which he completed 10 years later.
Luther's movement continued to grow, and he felt safe enough to return to Wittenberg, from where he directed the Reformation for the rest of his life. Luther attempted to moderate the tide of reform, offering harsh opposition to more extreme reformers such as the Anabaptists. In 1525 he split with the humanists, writing The Bondage of the Will in response to the attacks of Erasmus. Luther's intolerance of divergent streams of reform and his unpopular opposition to the Peasants' War (Luther always sided with the princes who protected him) contributed to the gradual breakup of the initially united reform movement.
Luther's main-line movement continued to grow, however, and Luther himself continued to thrive as a polemicist and respected leader. In 1525 he married a former nun, Katharina von Bora, with whom he would raise six children. His closest associates, Philip Melanchthon and Justus Jonas, helped carry forward his endeavors, and after the death of Frederick III he enjoyed the strong support of John Frederick I. Luther worked actively to build a competent educational system, wrote extensively on church organization, composed numerous hymns, and wrote a liturgy. In 1529 he wrote two catechisms that became the foundations of Lutheran religious practice.
Luther remains perhaps the towering figure in Early Modern European History. His teachings changed the daily life of half a continent, and shaped the wars and writings and ideas for hundreds of years to come. In addition, his prolific, lively, and idomatic prose helped standardize modern German language.