This week we’ve rounded up thirteen things to know about Martin Luther from the biographies we’ve been reading. This post is not a comprehensive biography but hopefully will give you some conversation points or historical facts to share with family and friends as we remember Reformation500 – five hundred years since the Protestant Reformation began.
Martin Luther wasn’t perfect. No one is. Rather, his life is an example of how men of faith can change the world and how imperfect humans can be used in a divine plan.
Born in 1483
Martin Luther was born in 1483. His parents were middle, working class folks with devotion to religion and ambition for Martin; they wanted him to be a lawyer. Consequently, he was sent to three different schools to learn grammar, logic, and rhetoric, but the young man wasn’t fond of learning in his early years.
2. Went To College
Around age seventeen, Luther went to the University of Erfurt, and he graduated in 1505 with a master’s degree. Following his father’s wishes, he began to study law but was more interested in philosophy and religion.
3. Entered A Monastery
Later in his life, Luther claimed that in a ferocious thunderstorm he made a vow to Saint Anne that if his life was spared he would enter a monastery. When the storm cleared, he was still alive and kept his promise. In 1505, Luther entered St. Augustine’s Monastery in Erfurt, searching meaning in his life and angering his father with the decision.
As a monk, Luther constantly worked to save his soul, enduring self-inflicted punishments and deprivations in an effort to pleasure God, atone for sins, and work his way to heaven. He was ordained in 1507, and the following year sent to teach theology at the University of Wittenberg.
4. Taught Theology At University Of Wittenberg
Luther earned bachelor and doctorate degrees in theology and eventually became the chairman of theology at the university. As he studied and taught, he read and re-read the Bible, focusing on Paul’s letters to the Romans and Galatians. Troubled by discrepancies between what Scripture said and what was practiced in his church, Luther struggled with his beliefs.
In 1510 or 1511, Luther traveled to Rome to conduct church business. What he found in the papal city disturbed him even more. He felt that the priests were immoral, irreverent, and too fond of their riches; as he crawled up the Santa Scala steps, murmuring prayers and hoping it would shorten his parents’ eventual time in purgatory, Luther wondered if “is this all true?”
5. Angered By Sale Of Indulgences
Already troubled by problems and errors in the Catholic Church, Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses was prompted by the sale of indulgences. A man named Johann Tetzel arrived in German to raise money for the rebuilding of Rome’s papal basilica. Basically, Tetzel traveled the countryside declaring that as soon as the people handed over their money, a loved one’s soul in purgatory went to heaven. He also offered a “ticket to heaven,” guaranteeing that with that scrap of paper a person could continue to sin but still be assured of a place in heaven.
Outraged, Luther decided such teaching was contrary to what he found in Scripture and was merely a way to cheat people out of their money. Salvation and heaven – Luther would argue – was obtained by faith, not money and not works. Luther wrote and posted his beliefs, inviting Tetzel to debate. It didn’t take long for the printing presses to copy and distribute his words throughout the region, nations, and continent.
6. Studied & Translated Scripture
Students and scholars came from across Europe to meet the theology teacher in Wittenberg. Luther willingly discussed his studies and beliefs. He continued his in-depth reading of the Bible, writing commentaries which were printed and widely distributed. He also worked on translated the Bible into the German language so it could be read by the common people. He also developed a catechism to help others learn Biblical details and theological points.
By 1522, Luther’s translated New Testament was published, and a complete Bible was printed in 1534. This was a major step away from the Catholic Church tradition of preaching and sermons only in Latin.
The Catholic Church didn’t welcome the criticism or theology lesson from a renegade monk in Wittenberg. For the first three years after the publication of the Ninety-Five Theses, Pope Leo X sent other theologians to Germany to counter Luther and debate; however, the plan seemed to backfire as Luther became more steadfast and popular with students and common people.
After refusing to recant his beliefs, Luther was excommunicated by papal bull on January 3, 1521.
8. Defended His Beliefs
In April 1521, the Diet of Worms – an assembly of the rulers of the Holy Roman Empire, presided over by Emperor Charles V – heard Martin Luther’s statements. They were supposed to enforce the church’s displeasure. The council stacked Luther’s books on the table and asked if they were his and if he continued to believe what he had written.
Luther’s response: “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.”
In the end, the Edict of Worms declared Luther a heretic and forbade anyone to give him shelter or aid.
9. Protected By German Nobility
On his way home from the Diet of Worms, friends kidnapped Luther and took him to Wartburg Castle to hide him from enemies. There, Luther continued his translations and wrote more tracts and commentaries which were distributed across Europe.
Throughout his defiance to the powerful Catholic Church, Luther was supported and protected by German electors in the Holy Roman Empire. It wasn’t always because they believed in his theological points. The political scene in Germany had created dissatisfaction with the papal power and many electors were willing to support new beliefs and movements that weakened the church’s influence in their politics. Providentially, their support gave Luther protection when he needed it most.
10. Married Katherina Von Bora
As Protestant beliefs spread across Europe, monks and nuns started leaving their convents and embracing their new faith openly. In 1523, Luther and his friends helped twelve nuns escape from a convent. Two years later, Luther married one of the escaped nuns, Katherina Von Bora. They settled in an abandoned cloister which was given to them as a wedding gift from a supportive German elector.
Martin and Katherina Luther had six children. He often praised Katherina for her resourcefulness, industry, and cheerfulness as she managed their household, allowing him to study and entertain visitors.
11. Struggled With His Beliefs
Throughout his life, Luther continued to struggle with his beliefs. At times, he wrote about feeling overwhelmed by sin and constantly hounded by the devil. However, he continually returned to the belief and theme that started the Reformation – salvation by faith and grace and the infallibility of the Bible.
12. Not Willing To Work With Other Prominent Reformers
Luther was often unwilling to discuss theology and beliefs with other reformers who continued to study Scripture and built other theological foundations. For example, Luther didn’t want to discuss infant baptism and openly spoke against the Anabaptists – another reformer sect.
He could also be heavily critical of other religions, particularly Judaism. Politics also caused trouble for Luther as rulers and dissatisfied peasants tried to use Protestantism for justification for their own purposes.
13. Died In 1546
Short-tempered by ill health and becoming more angry and abusive in his writings, Martin Luther struggled on. On February 16, 1546, Luther died in Eisleben; he was buried in Wittenberg.
Martin Luther’s life was a struggle. He took major steps which started the Protestant Reformation and defended his beliefs. However, as the years passed, he became very defensive and unwelcoming to discussion of other theological points and toward certain ethnic groups. Ultimately, he played an important role in world and church history, and yet his struggles and faults reminded him and us of the need for grace and faith.