1902 Encyclopedia > Martin Luther > Martin Luther - First Period (1483-1517)

Martin Luther
(Part 1)


Early Life of Martin Luther

Martin Luther (Lyder, Lüder Ludher -- from Lothar, some say) was born at Eisleben in the county of Mansfeld, in Thuringia, on the 10th of November 1483. His father Hans Luther, a slate-cutter by trade, belonged to a family of free peasants. His mother was Margaret Lindemann. Hans Luther had left Möhra, his native village, and had come to Eisleben to work as a miner. When Martin was six months old he went to Mansfeld and set up a forge, the small profits of which enabled him to send his son to the Latin school of the place. There the boy so distinguished himself that his father determined to make him a lawyer, and sent him for a year to a Franciscan school at Magdeburg, and then to Eisenach near Möhra. There Luther, with other poor scholars, sang for alms in the streets, and his fine tenor voice and gentle manners attracted the attention and gained for him the motherly care of Ursula Cotta, the wife of the burgomaster of Eisenach. From Eisenach he went in his eighteenth year to the high school of Erfurt, where his favourite master was the humanist Trutwetter, who taught him classics and philosophy. He took his bachelor’s degree in 1502, and his master’s in 1505. At Erfurt the preaching of the town’s pastor. Weinmann made a deep impression on his mind, as did the preacher’s frequent exhortations to study the Scripture. Luther tells us that he sought in vain for a whole Bible, and that he could only get portions to read. A dangerous illness, the death of near friend, together with other circumstances, so wrought on his pious, sensitive nature that in spite of father and family he resolved to give up all his prospects and become a monk. He entered the Augustinian convent at Erfurt in June 1505, taking with him Plautus and Virgil, the solitary mementos of the life he had abandoned. His first years of monastic life were spent in fierce mental struggle. He had found a whole Bible and read it diligently, but is did not bring him peace. The feeling of universal human sinfulness, and of his own, was burnt into him both by his dogmatic studies and by his reading of the Scripture. He lived a life of the severest mortification, and invented continually new forms of penance, and all the while heart and head alike told him that outward acts could never banish sin. "I tormented myself to death," he said, "to make my peace with God, but I was in darkness and found it not." The vicar general of his order, Staupitz, who had passed through somewhat similar experience, helped him greatly. "There is no true repentance," he said, "but that which begins with the love of righteousness and of God. Love Him then who has first loved thee." Staupitz had been taught heart religion by the mystics, and he sent Luther to the sermons of Tauler and to the Thelogia Germanica.

When Luther regained his mental health, he took courage to be ordained priest in May 1507, and text year, on the recommendation of Staupitz, the elector of Saxony appointed him professor in the university of Wittenberg, which had been founded in 1502. While in the monastery Luther had assiduously pursued his studies, and his severe mortifications and penances had never interrupted his theological work. He read all the great scholastic theologians, but Augustine was his master in theology, while Erfurt studies Trutwetter doubtless made him pore over Occam ("mein liever Meister," as he afterwards fondly called him) till he got his bulky folios by heart. He began by lecturing on Aristotle; and in 1509 he gave Biblical lectures, which from the very first were a power in the university. His class-room was thronged; his fellow-professors were students. Staupitz forced him also to preach; and his marvelous eloquence, felt to be from the heart, attracted great crowds of hearers. The year 1511 brought an apparent interruption, but in fact only a few development, of Luther’s character and knowledge of the world. He went to Rome, probably in fulfillment of an old vow, and the journey was a marked event in his life. He went up in true pilgrim spirit, a mediæval Christian, and he came back a Protestant. The pious German was horrified with what he saw in Rome, and he afterwards made telling use of what he had seen in various tracts, and notably in his address to the German nobles. He tells us that at Wittenberg he had pondered over the text. "The just shall live by faith," that while in Rome the words came back to him, and that on his return journey to Germany the evangelical meaning of the phrase rushed into his mind. On his return to the university he was promoted to the degree of doctor of divinity, in October 1512. The oath he had to take on the occasion "to devote his whole life to study, and faithfully to expound and defend the holy Scripture," was to him the seal of his mission. He began his work with lecture on the Psalms, and then proceeded to comment on the epistles of Paul to the Romans and Galatians, enforcing especially his peculiar views of the relations between law and gospel. His lectures and his sermons were attended by great audiences, and disciples gathered round him. As early as 1516 his special principles were publicly defended at academical disputations. Staupitz made him district-vicar of his order for Meissen and Thuringia. He made short preaching tours, and his influence was felt far beyond Wittenberg. When the plague came to that university town he remained at his post when other fled. Then came 1517, the year of the Reformation. The new pope, Leo X., had sent agents through Germany to sell indulgences, and John Tetzel, a Dominican, had been chosen for Saxony. Luther, who had passed through deep soul-struggles ere he won pardon, knew that God’s forgiveness could not be purchased for money, and thundered against Tetzel and his indulgences from Wittenberg pulpit. He wrote anxiously to the princes and bishops to refuse the pardon-seller a passage their lands.

The Wittenberg Theses

When Tetzel got to Jüttebogk near Wittenberg. Luther could stand it no longer. He wrote out ninety-five propositions or these denouncing indulgences, and on the eve, of All Saints, October 31, nailed the paper to the door of the Castle church. In a short time all Germany was ablaze.

These ninety-five theses are one continuous harangue against the doctrine and practice of pardon-selling, but they do not denounce indulgence in every form. They make plain these three things:æ (1) there may be some good in indulgence if it be reckoned one of the many ways in which God’s forgiveness of sin can be proclaimed; (2) the external signs of sorrow are not the real inward repentance, nor are they as important as that is, and no permission to neglect the outward expression can permit the neglect of true repentance; (3) every Christian who feels true sorrow for sin is there and then pardoned by God for Christ’s sake without any indulgence ticket or other human contrivance. And in his sermons on indulgence Luther declared the repentance consisted in contrition, confession, and absolution, and that contrition was the most important, and in fact the occasion of the other two. If the sorrow be true and heartfelt, confession and pardon will follow. The inward spiritual fact of sorrow for sin, he thought, was the great matter; the outward signs of sorrow were good also, but God, who alone can pardon, looks to the inward state. These theses, with sermons explaining them, brought Germany face to face with the reality of blasphemy in the indulgences. Luther’s public life had opened; the Reformation had begun.

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