Martin Luther

Martin Luther was born in Eisleben in what is now called Germany in 1483. Instead of working, like boys of his age, he went to school and studied Latin and religious practice. He went on to a monastery in Magdeburg. Like other students he had to beg for his bread. He carried on to Eisenach and Erfurt and did well academically and was aiming to carry on his training in law. But caught in a thunderstorm he prayed to St Anne the saint of miners, that if helped he would become a monk. Once helped he told his father who was livid.

As a monk Luther tortured himself with all sorts of privations. But this did not help the internal struggles that raged within him. He was acutely aware of his guilt and felt that God had abandoned him. He carried on his studies, but not even a visit to Rome eased his troubled mind. Gradually his views on sin, faith and salvation diverged from orthodox Catholic teaching. Finally Luther, while studying at Wittenberg, nailed his 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg church. This was an indictment against the church selling indulgences. This was a scheme which in this specific case was dreamt up by a monk named Tetzl. It involved the selling of slips that granted absolution for sin for the buyer and even for their dead relatives. This was anathema to Luther.

Luther finally realised that there was no need to buy your way into God’s love, but you could be saved by faith as Christ had already accomplished the work of redemption on the cross, and that by accepting him we are made righteous through him and therefore now in communion with God.

He wrote many tracts about his new found beliefs or railed against the church which he now was in opposition to. His work was enabled by the printing press which spread his writings to the mass market.

He was protected by Frederick the Wise, and avoided being summoned to see the Pope. He was called to the Diet of Worms where he was questioned by German nobles headed by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, a staunch Catholic. Luther was shown some of his work and asked to recant. He would not, instead he claimed that unless convinced by scripture or debate, he would not take instruction from anyone else including the Pope. The nobles would not consent to send him to Rome, so Charles put him under Imperial ban, threatening his life. He went into hiding.

He believed that having the Bible in your own language was very important, so he translated it into German. There were many other writings completed at Wartburg castle. Within a year he had returned to the safety of Wittenberg and began planning the start of a new church.

Luther’s writings had encouraged many new protestant movements. Now there was a choice of how to worship and what to believe. He prepared thousands of sermons at this time and often preached three or four times on Sunday. He was also very keen on hymns and wrote many of those too.

Having rescued some nuns from a convent and married them off, he felt obliged to marry Katherina Van Bora in 1525. Marriage to Kate was a great success, they had 6 children and adopted 4 more. He encouraged his monk friends to get married too. He was rather keen on beer, especially Kate’s brew. In private he was quite coarse in his language and could speak offensively to his enemies. Behaviour that would not sit well with those who follow his lead now.

He was a man who emptied out his soul to find the truth. Then shared it with the world. He stood by his principles both in his home, in his church and through the medium of the printing press. He started a revolution to enable all to share in that truth, not knowing how devastating the wars in his name would become.

In the next century, Calvinists and Lutherans would wage the thirty years war against the Catholic Church that ruined central Europe and displaced and killed many people. There were some who were soldiers, others who for stood their doctrines and were prepared to kill for them. This error and betrayal of Luther contributed this to this war being the main source of the belief that religion causes wars.

I would contend that what is important is how you enact your beliefs in society. Are you prepared to break your principles to bolster your own belief-structure? There are not many who could take Luther’s path, and I suppose that is a good thing as initiated much strife. But in taking the responsibility for the beliefs he held, he could not step off the path.

 

Conway-Laird (2017)

 

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