Martin Luther, Founder of Protestantism

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Martin Luther in 1529

Martin Luther (1483-1546) is credited with starting the Reformation, reforming Christianity, changing Catholicism and dividing Europe. Describing his own life, Luther wrote: "I am the son of a peasant and the grandson and great-grandson. My father wanted to make me into a burgomaster [mayor]. I became a monk and put off the brown beret. My father didn't like it, and then I got into the Pope's hair and married an apostate nun. Who could have read that in the stars." [Source: Merle Severy, National Geographic, October 1983; Otto Friedrich, Smithsonian magazine]

In 1517 Luther was an obscure Augustinian monk who challenged the Catholic church, at that time "the most unifying force in Europe.” In addition to discontent with the Catholic church, Europe was experiencing economic unrest as a result of the injustices of feudalism. Usually when presented with people like Luther, the church ignored them or had them executed as a heretic. Luther did not intend to be a revolutionary, rather he was man who was so appalled by the impious acts of the church, which he thought was very unchristian, that he could not remain quiet.

Peter Schjeldahl wrote in The New Yorker: “Luther was born in Saxony in 1483, the son of a well-to-do mining entrepreneur. He studied law, but later wrote that a terrifying experience during a thunderstorm, in 1505, led him to enter a monastery. He became a priest in 1507 and a theology professor in 1512. Nevertheless, he was racked by doubts about God and about his own mind and heart. That qualified him, in Kierkegaard’s words, three centuries later, as “disciplined in all secrecy by fear and trembling and much spiritual trial for venturing the extraordinary in God’s name.” But Kierkegaard noted a flaw: Luther was ambitious, and to gain converts he effectively excused them from the inner struggle that gave his beliefs their meaning. W. H. Auden picked up the theme in a sonnet, “Luther”: “ ‘The Just shall live by Faith . . .’ he cried in dread. / And men and women of the world were glad, / Who’d never cared or trembled in their lives.” [Source: Peter Schjeldahl, The New Yorker, November 14, 2016]

Based on pictures and descriptions of him, Luther was a big, powerful man with a gentle, cherubic face. He suffered from severe constipation and reportedly had his most profound religious experience while sitting on a toilet. "Luther," wrote Otto Friedrich in Smithsonian magazine, "was intensely neurotic, perhaps even manic depressive, subject to paralyzing fears and fist of despair, and arguably prey to what we today would probably call psychosomatic illness."

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Martin Luther's Early Life and Religious Career

Luther in 1525

Martin Luther was born on November 10, 1483 and, as was the tradition them, was baptized as soon as possible so that if he died his soul would go to heaven. Luther's father rose from a lowly copper miner into a self-made mining and smelting entrepreneur and town councilor. Martin began Latin school when he was seven and graduated from Erfurt University with a bachelor's degree at the age of 21 after attending for only 18 months. He went on to get his masters degree but disappointed his father when he chose to attend an Augustinian monastery intend of pursuing a career as a lawyer.

Luther changed his mind about his legal career at the age of 21 when, he said, a lightning bolt hurled him to the ground during a violent thunderstorm."Walled around with terror and agony of sudden death," Luther wrote. He shouted, "Help, St. Anne! I will be a monk." He survived the event and entered a monastery. St. Anne, the patron saint of miners, was no doubt a religious figure that he felt particularly close to because of his father.

Luther visited Rome when he was 27. To get there he walked over the Alps and covered the entire 800 miles distance from Erfurt by foot in 40 days. In Rome he wrote he ran around like "a mad saint through all the churches and crypts.”

During his early thirties Luther was elected as a vicar of monasteries throughout the Saxony region. His duties included collecting rents, mediating over monastic disputes, preaching, lecturing on theology at the university and supervising the studies of fledgling friars. Because these chores were time consuming he skipped meals, slept less and prayed all day Saturday to fulfill his seven daily canonical hours of prayer. In 1512 he was appointed a professor of biblical studies at the University of Wittenberg and also worked as a parish priest in the town of Wittenberg.

Luther, consumed by guilt and paralyzed by fear that his merit was not enough, concluded that man was not worthy of God's forgiveness that God might or might not grant, only through his grace. Luther believed the devil took up residence in his body from time to time and occasionally had visions of the devil spinning in his head and roaring in his ear. Some scholars believed his problem was Meniere's disease, which attacks the middle ear. Martin Luther is crediting with inventing the game of nine pins.

Luther’s Religious Life

Luther and Moses

Luther went about his religious duties like an athlete in training. "He fasted days on end," wrote National Geographic historian Merle Severy, "extended vigils far beyond the rule, based himself, performed noxious chores, confessed every sin he could imagine, then returned to confess again. Yet austerities brings him no peace, only terror of a judgmental God he cannot appease.” ''If ever a monk got to heaven by his mockery," he would later say, "I was that monk."

Luther spen a lot of time studying the scriptures and one of his goals was to find out exactly what the lord wanted in return for his saving grace. Luther had a deep fear of damnation not only for himself but for his parishioners as well. He reportedly frustrated his confessor, admitting every trivial thing he did and impious thought he thought he had, sometimes taking six hours to admit all his sins. He also became obsessed wih the notion that no person could remember all their sins, which made it impossible for them to atone for these sins by good works and receive God's grace.

Monks at Luther's monastery today rise everyday before sunrise and participate in hour-long services with responsive readings, Gregorian chants and prayers at 6:00am, noon, and 6:00pm. A communal meal follows each service, and during the midafternoon there is reading of the scriptures. Luther's personal Bible was found by a Portuguese researcher at the Baden-Wurttemberg State Library in the mid 1990s. It was ascribed to Luther after handwriting in the Bible was matched with that of Luther's.

Luther and His Problems with the Catholic Church

Luther's realization that the Catholic Church's emphasis on holy relics, contributions, indulgences are other material ways of achieving salvation were not only useless but wrong and deceitful. Luther believed that salvation was te product of faith nor of indulgences and good deeds. [Source: People's Almanac]

One practice of the Catholic church that Luther found particularly upsetting was the sale of soul-saving indulges authorized by the Pope. These documents, it was said, could be used to have punishment time in purgatory reduced by the purchaser for oneself or for a loved one already dead. It was sort of like a savings bond or a gift certificate for the afterlife.

The Catholic church raised most of its revenues from the indulges which sold for around twenty silver coins a piece. The money was used to build churches and maintain the luxurious lifestyle of the pope and the papal elite. During Luther's time expensive construction work was being done on St. Peter’s basilica in Rome and indulgences were sold to pay for that.

Luther's Enlightenment

Certificate for confession from 1521

One night while meditating on the passage "The just shall live by faith" from Roman 1:17 in the New Testament he wrote: ““Nevertheless, in spite of the ardor of my heart I was hindered by the unique word in the first chapter (of Romans): ‘the righteousness of God is revealed in it.’ I hated the word ‘righteousness of God,’ because in accordance with the usage and custom of the doctors I had been taught to understand it philosophically as meaning, as they put it, the formal or active righteousness according to which God is righteous and punishes sinners and the unjust. As a monk I led an irreproachable life. Nevertheless I felt that I was a sinner before God. My conscience was restless, and I could not depend on God being propitiated by my satisfactions. Not only did I not love, but I actually hated the righteous God who punishes sinners…Thus a furious battle raged within my perplexed conscience, but meanwhile I was knocking at the door of this particular Pauline passage, earnestly seeking to know the mind of the great apostle. Day and night I tried to meditate upon the significance of these words: ‘The righteousness of God is revealed in it, as it is written: The righteous shall live by faith.’”

"The whole Scriptures revealed a different countenance to me...All at once I began to understand the justice of God as that by which the just live by the gift of God, which is faith: that passive righteous with which the merciful God endures us in the form of faith, thus justifying, rendering us just...At this I experienced such relief and easement, as if I was reborn and had entered through open gates into paradise itself."

Luther was struck by the notion that salvation was something that involves the spirit not the flesh. God saved those who have faith, who believe in god, not those who give alms and perform good works. This revelation, somewhat similar to the enlightenment of Buddha, is often referred to as the Tower experience because it occurred in the tower of the Augustan cloister of Wittenberg, but scholars have determined that it actually occurred in the latrine, where he spent a lot of rime because he suffered from constipation.

Luther and the Reformation

The Reformation began, according to legend, on the eve of All Hallow's Eve in 1517 when Martin Luther posted the first of 95 theses criticizing the Catholic Church on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. The church was where town meetings, graduations and assemblies were held, and disputes were settled. The door on the church was the equivalent of the community bulletin board.

Luther debating with Zwingli, another Reformation leader

Peter Schjeldahl wrote in The New Yorker: “Martin Luther either did or did not nail a paper titled “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” better known as the Ninety-five Theses, to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany. (The evidence is murky.) But, by whatever means, on that day the Augustinian monk made public a multipronged attack on the Roman Catholic hierarchy’s sale of indulgences—get-out-of-Purgatory-early guarantees—to raise funds for the completion of St. Peter’s Basilica, in Rome. The revolutionary theology that Luther thereby introduced held that only personal faith can obtain divine grace, rejecting any intercession between an individual and God. (In 1520, he declared that “all Christian men are priests, all women priestesses.”) Thanks to the relatively recent technology of the printing press and to widespread discontent with Rome and with Pope Leo X, Luther’s ideas convulsed the Holy Roman Empire.” [Source: Peter Schjeldahl, The New Yorker, November 14, 2016]

Luther's aim, initially, was not to bring about a reformation of the Catholic church, but rather to debate certain issues that he believed were of theological importance. In addition to the 95 theses read: "Those who can not be present and discuss the subject orally are asked to do so by letter. Under normal circumstances the 95 theses, written in Latin, would have stirred up little attention but they were translated into German and circulated in pamphlets and were embraced by theologians, noblemen and ordinary people who were frustrated with the greed of the Catholic church.

Luther was not the first man who attempted to reform the Catholic church. St. Francis of Assisi rejected the materialist trappings of the Catholic clergy and was canonized for his vow of poverty. John Huss (Jan Hus) and Girolamo Savanarola were burned at the stake for condemnation of the church's moral conduct.

Luther's Beliefs

from a Luther prayer book

Luther believed that faith led to salvation. Rituals, good works and mediation by the clergy in comparison were not important. He criticized the pope, celibacy and other rules and recommended that individuals study the Bible rather than having it delivered to them by clergymen. Luther said man can work towards salvation through penances, pardons and pilgrimages but only through faith that Christ died for mankind's sins on the cross and that faith was freely given with the trust of the word of God. He said also that more could be achieved through prayer and good works than by armed revolt pushed by the fanatic religious cults of his time and expensive indulgences of the Catholic church. The Lutheran is motto "By grace alone; through faith alone."

Luther asserted that humankind did not need the corrupt Catholic church to mediate between humankind and God. He believed that Christians should be governed by temporal rulers in their own land not by the Pope. He called for the abolition of the papacy and asserted that every Christian could be his or her own priest. Luther based his positions on St. Paul's Letter to the Romans. "Works" Paul said had no bearing on the afterlife." When he was asked if being one with God was based on "the principle of works." Paul said no.

The purpose of Martin Luther's efforts was to give lay people access the Bible, the church and redemption. Luther believed that the Bible should be read by everyone not just the clergy and promoted literacy, education and making scriptures understandable to ordinary people. Luther is famous for highlighting the importance of a direct relationship between god and the individual without a clergy and translating the bible in into everyday language of the people. He did not intend to displace the Catholic religion, only to reform it, and he was appalled by the development of the Lutheran church.

Luther Attacks the Catholic Church and the Pope

Luther wrote treatises claiming that not only was the pope fallible he may even be the Antichrist. Luther voiced his support of woman priests and married clergymen; he argued that the sacramental system had no basis in the scripture; and acknowledged that birth control was alright and that divorcees should be allowed to take sacraments again. The time was ripe for Luther's reforms. Common people were appalled by the greediness of local clergymen and the dictatorial repression the church used to squash local customs. Luther envisioned a day when there would be no religious festivals or pilgrimages, no indulgences or privately endowed masses, and no veneration of saints or seeking of miracles.

Luther nailing the 95 Theses

At first Luther didn't go after the Pope. In 1517 he first attacked Catholic doctrines, then the church itself and its financial extractions. He targeted "indulgence-givers" in the local clergies that worked under him. The pope he said, "would prefer to have St. Peter's collapse in ruins rather that build it with the skin and flesh and bones of his flock." Defending the church and arguing against Luther's claims were the Dominicans, the order of monks that so ruthlessly sought heretics to have them burned at the stake. One debate between Luther and a Dominican theology professor over whether or not the burned heretic Hus was correct is his denial of the divine origin of the papacy lasted for 11 days.

Luther's rebellion began to take shape when a Dominican friar named Tetzel began an indulgence campaign in Germany to raise money for the rebuilding of St. Peter's Cathedral in Rome. Anyone who bought an indulgence Tetzel promised would be forgiven for his sins and freed from purgatory. Luther's 95 theses were his response to Tetzel indulgence campaign and his assertion that man can be saved by faith alone. He was surprised by reaction that followed. Letters from all over Europe poured in, supporting his cause, and he was transformed into a kind of folk hero.

The pope at this time was Pope Leo X. A member of the rich and powerful Medici family, he first dismissed Luther's treatises as "monkish babble" that didn't deserve his attention. In a September 6, 1520 letter to Pope Leo X, Luther wrote: "Your see...which is called the Court of Rome, and which neither you nor any man can deny be more corrupt than any Babylon or Sodom...I have verily abominated, and have felt indignant that the people of Christ should be cheated under your name and the pretext of the Church of Rome; and so I have resisted, and will resist, as long as the spirit of faith shall live in me...The church of Rome, formerly the most holy of all Churches, has become the most lawless den of thieves, the most shameless of all brothels, the very kingdom of sin, death, and hell, so that not even antichrist, if he were to come, could devise any addition to its wickedness." In response Leo called him a "drunken German" who will "feel different about it when he sobers up.”

Luther, the Diet of Worms and Why Wasn’t He Burned as a Heretic

Luther in Worms

Peter Schjeldahl wrote in The New Yorker: “In 1521, Leo excommunicated Luther, and Charles V summoned him to trial at the Diet of Worms. There Luther scored an oratorical triumph with a speech adducing Scripture in defense of his heresies. “Here I stand. I can do no other,” he is reputed to have said.

Luther refused to recant he statements he made in the 95 theses and three years later when he burned the codex of Canon law he was excommunicated from the Catholic Church. "I cannot control my own life," Luther confessed, "I am driven into the middle of a storm...It was the love of truth that drove me to enter this labyrinth and stir up six hundred minotaurs." Not long after he wrote this the Holy Roman Emperor released the edict of Worms which accused Luther of inciting "rebellion, division, war, murder, robbery, arson and the collapse of Christendom.”

Luther refused to recant before an ecclesiastical court, court. He also refused to recant before two high tribunals. Pope Leo was pressured into issuing a papal bull, or decree, giving Luther 60 days to recant his assertions or face excommunication. Luther's response was the public burning of the decree along with volumes of canon law.

On April 17, 1521, in a event now dubbed the Diet of Worms, the 37-year-old Luther was a given a chance to defend himself before a room full of nobles presided over by the 21-year-old Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Charles V, whose main ambition in life was to recapture Constantinople from the Turks.

Catholic view of Luther

Charles V presided at the meeting. Luther was to supposed to recant his heresy but instead defended himself with his declaration: "Here I stand; I can not do otherwise." The emperor asked Luther if he was ready to revoke the heresies put forth in his treaties. Luther replied: "Unless proved wrong by Scripture and plain conscious is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant since it is neither right nor safe act against my conscious. Here I take my stand. I can not do otherwise. So help me God." The next day the emperor issued his decision his decision: "a single friar who goes counter to all Christianity for a thousand years must be wrong...I will have no more to do with him."

One of the big questions about Luther is why other reformers were burned at the stake and he wasn't. Most scholars say Luther wasn't burned at the stake mainly through the efforts of Frederick the Wise, a Saxon prince who pressured the emperor into giving him a fair hearing and made sure he was given safe-passage to Worms where the hearing was to take place. Professor Horst Rabe of the University of Konstanz told National Geographic that Charles didn't order Luther's execution because: "He didn't want to stain his knightly honor, and he had a lot of pots bubbling on the stove...The Protestant matter usually had to take a back burner to crises in Italy or Spain, or to the Turkish threat."

Luther Translates the Bible After Being “Abducted"

After the Diet of Worms Luther was "abducted" by sympathetic knights and taken to Wartburg Castle of Frederick the Wise for protection. Disguised as a bearded a squire he stayed there for a years and made the most of his time translating the New Testament into vernacular German (which took only 11 weeks) and codifying his beliefs (which form the foundation of the Lutheran religion). While working on the translation of the Bible he said he was tempted by the Devil and rebuked him by throwing his inkwell at him.

Luther's "abduction"

Peter Schjeldahl wrote in The New Yorker: Frederick the Wise protected Luther from what amounted to an imperial dead-or-alive warrant. Living under the alias Junker Joerg (Knight George), Luther translated the New Testament into German, from the original Greek, in eleven weeks. He then returned to Wittenberg and translated the Old Testament, from the Hebrew. The Luther Bible became the fulcrum of the Reformation and did for vernacular German roughly what Dante had done for Italian. Heavily worked manuscripts...document his labor. Luther’s version is tendentious: he consigned the Book of James to the Apocrypha, because it posited good works, rather than faith alone, as a route to salvation. [Source: Peter Schjeldahl, The New Yorker, November 14, 2016]

Luther's protector, Frederick the Wise, surprisingly remained a Catholic to the day he died. Because he was one of the four important secular princes in the Holy Roman Empire both the Holy Romans Emperor and the Pope needed his support. This enabled him to save Luther's skin in a way that a lesser patron could not. In the meantime, Luther’s German Bible was widely distributed with newly-utilized printing presses.

Luther on Women, Hazing and the Jews

Luther was against celibacy. He once made matches for an entire convent of nuns and then married one of the nuns himself. You couldn’t call him a feminist though. In “Table Talk,” Luther wrote "women ought to stay at home; the way they were created indicated this, for they have broad hips and a wide fundament to sit upon to keep house and bear and rase children."

Peter Schjeldahl wrote in The New Yorker: Luther “was unusually supportive of women. In his view, a woman with an impotent or unwilling husband should seek a divorce and, if he refuses, request sex with one of his relatives or friends. Failing that, she might leave and start fresh in another town. [Source: Peter Schjeldahl, The New Yorker, November 14, 2016]

Luther's wife Magrethe

Luther officiated over hazing ceremonies in which horns were attached the heads of new students and wine was poured over their bodies. "You'll be subjected to hazing al your life," Luther told the new recruits. "When you hold important offices in the future, burghers, peasants, nobles and your wives will harass you with various vexations. When this happens, don't go to pieces. Bear your cross with equanimity and your troubles without murmuring."

Martin Luther was notoriously anti-Semitic. He thought all Jews should be shipped to Paestines and their property should be burned or confiscated, and wrote: “Know Christians that next to the devil thou hast no enemy more cruel, more venomous and violent than a true Jew.” Peter Schjeldahl wrote in The New Yorker: “His early belief, based on his reading of the Old Testament,” was “that Jews would accept Jesus as the Messiah. In 1523, he sympathized with their suffering under Christian persecution, in a tract titled “That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew.” But, by the end of his life, in writings that included a sixty-thousand-word screed, “On the Jews and Their Lies” (1543), his hatred verged on the genocidal.” [Source: Peter Schjeldahl, The New Yorker, November 14, 2016]

Luther's Reservations About the Reformation He Unleashed

While Luther was at Wartburg Castle reformers pushed forward with the reformation. When the Luther emerged he was viewed as the leader of a New Church which recognized only two sacraments: baptism and communion. Luther was uncomfortable with his position as the leader of a new religious movement and he began arguing for restraint. He wrote “A Faithful Exhortation for all Christians to Shun Riot and Rebellion” while he was exiled in the castle and later said that witches should be burned as an examples to others and Anabaptist doctrines should not be tolerated because they denied the validity of infant Baptism.

Luther's house in Eisenach

Luther was appalled by the Protestant clergy that had taken the place of Catholic one. In Saxony he met clergymen who lived in "wild wedlock," who were often seen hanging out at beer halls and who couldn't even recite the Lord's Prayer or the Ten Commandments. This experience gave him reservations about the notion of an "invisible church" and a "direct relationship with god" and sent him to work training ministers to give simple sermons. But when other Protestants looked to him as a popelike leader he said: "they are trying to make me into a fixed star. I am an irregular planet."

Luther took the side of the princes during a peasant revolt that left around 5,000 peasants dead. Peter Schjeldahl wrote in The New Yorker: “Luther’s betrayal of the peasantry’s hopes that his religious populism would extend to common cause with the oppressed. (They may have been misled by his mythologizing of himself as a man of humble birth.) Instead, he promoted the brutal crushing of insurrection in the Peasants’ War of 1524-25, siding with the secular authorities on whose backing he depended.” [Source: Peter Schjeldahl, The New Yorker, November 14, 2016]

Luther's Later Life

After 42-year-old Luther married a former nun, he wrote "the angels laughed and the devils wept." He had six children and opened his house to poor relatives and boarded needy students. From time to time he visited the local tavern for a beer and he was fond of his dog Töpel. "Ah," he once wrote, "if only I could pray the way that dog watches that morsel, all his thoughts concentrated on it!"

In an average day Luther mediated disputes, preached four sermons, ordained two pastors, founded a school, wrote letters to his children and took notes for his treatises. He preached thousands of sermons in his lifetime. In the treatises he wrote during this period Luther labeled inflation as a game of the devil; accused lawyers of robing their clients blind; claimed that marriage was built on "harmony in patterns of life and ways of thinking"; and even made up dialogue for Biblical figures. In one dialogue Eve scolds Adam" "you ate the apple." "But you gave it to me!" Adam answers. He also played the lute and flute and composed some hymns.

Peter Schjeldahl wrote in The New Yorker: “He believed firmly that the Second Coming of Christ was imminent, and seemed to feel that, time being short, life should be lived to the fullest. He celebrated conviviality—no great novelty in Wittenberg, where one out of three houses was licensed to brew beer...Luther, who lived out his life in familial contentment, undertook considerable legal wrangling to will his entire estate to Katharina, rather than to their sons. [Source: Peter Schjeldahl, The New Yorker, November 14, 2016]

In 1541, Luther became deaf after suffering severe earaches and having heavy discharge from his ear. Luther died on February 18, 1546 of heart failure believed that have been brought on by high blood pressure and angina pectoris, a heart disease that caused spasms of pain in his chest. He died with some of his disciples shouting questions at him about his faith. Hi last words were reportedly "yes."

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Sourcebook ; “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible,; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible,; Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) , Frontline, PBS, Wikipedia, BBC, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time,, Reuters, Associated Press, Business Insider, AFP, Library of Congress, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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