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Martin Luther  

Five hundred years ago, a German priest and theologian criticized the Church's sale of indulgences. With that act, Martin Luther became one of the main leaders of the Protestant Reformation.
Last Updated: Aug 8, 2017 URL: Print Guide RSS Updates

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Martin Luther (1483-1546)


Brief Biography

Martin Luther, one of the leaders of the Protestant Reformation, was born in Eisleben, Germany on November 10, 1483.  He was not of noble blood.  His father was a copper miner. The family moved to Mansfeld, where young Martin received a very good primary and secondary education.  His father wanted him to become a lawyer.  Martin received his bachelors' and master's degrees at the University of Erfurt.  In 1505 on his way home, he found himself in a terrible storm and was almost struck by lightening.  He prayed to Saint Anne, the patron saint of miners.  He promised to become a monk if he was saved from the storm.  True to his word and to the great disappointment of his father, Martin left law school and entered the local Augustinian monastery in Erfurt.  He made his profession as a monk in 1506 and was ordained as a priest in 1507.   A diligent and able priest and student, he was asked to study theology in order to become a professor.  He earned another bachelor's degree ( in theology) in 1509 and taught at Erfurt for 2 years.  In 1510 he was selected to go to Rome.  He was appalled at the worldliness of the Roman clergy and the extravagance of the Church.  Upon his return home he was reassigned to Wittenberg and was asked to study for a doctor of theology degree.  In 1512, he earned his doctorate and took over the chair of biblical theology at Wittenberg,  a post he held until his death.

While a pious priest and scholar, Luther was not certain of his salvation.  He could not be sure all his good works would be pleasing to God, as he was a sinner  ( in his eyes) like all men and women.  He was obsessed with what would happen to him when he died.   Through careful study of the Bible he came to the conclusion that Christians are not saved by their own efforts but by the gift of God's grace which must be accepted in faith.  No matter how much we may sin, God in his mercy and love would accept us--this was called justification by faith.  God knows we sin, but despite that, He "justifies" us, i.e. through Christ, God accepts us.  This meant that the sale of indulgences by the Church was not only unnecessary but corrupt.   We can't "buy" our way into heaven  ( or help our dead relatives enter heaven).  It was especially immoral to sell indulgences in order to pay for the building of Saint Peter's Cathedral in Rome.  Luther published his 95 Theses in Latin, opposing the sale of indulgences and other Church practices.  There is some dispute among scholars over the story that Luther nailed his theses to the local church door.  In any case, they were soon translated into German and widely printed  and distributed throughout Germany and northern Europe.  The use of the printing press, a relatively new invention, helped Luther's cause and added to his support.  He was also helped by the fact that local princes were tired of the power of the Church.  Local nobles wanted more control over their territory and saw Luther's actions as a way to gain power over the Church.  In any event, Luther was excommunicated by the Church.  He was ordered to appear before Emporer Charles V at the Diet of Worms in 1521.   He stood his ground under intense questioning and refused to recant.  He was condemned by the emperor but fell under the protection of his prince, Frederick the Wise.  He was kept in hiding in Wartburg Castle for over a year.  He was not idle, but worked on and eventually completed a German translation of the Bible.  He would often go into the local town in disguise  and listen to the everyday speech  of the people.  This helped him use language and a dialect that most common people used.   His translation helped in the development of a standard German language.

Luther continued to write after it became clear that he would not be executed by the Church.    He worked with other reformers and even married in 1525 to Katharina von Bora, a former nun.  The marriage was a happy one that produced several children.   Luther promoted the independence of local rulers over the supervision of the Church.  This added to both his safety and political support.   The Church dared not try to harm him.

Luther's health began to decline as early as 1537.  He suffered from terrible vertigo, ringing in the ears, kidney stones and digestive problems  ( chronic constipation).  He was often in pain or at the very least, very uncomfortable.  This did not stop him from writing and lecturing at the University.  He always had faith in God's love.  All humans are sinners and God in His love forgives everyone.  One just needs to have faith in God's love and accept Jesus.   God revealed himself in Jesus Christ--to everyone, from the noblest to the most common worker.   Luther worked until the end.  He began to suffer from heart problems and died on February 18, 1546 in Eisleben.   He had survived the wrath of the Church and was instrumental in freeing others to found other versions of Christianity.



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