Martin Luther (1484-1546) journeyed in 1509 from Germany to Rome. He could scarcely believe the wealth, luxury, and debauchery of the clergy there. He heard priests telling indecent jokes and using profanity, even during mass. This experience prompted him to say, "Even depravity may have its perfection. No one can imagine what sins and infamous actions are committed in Rome; they must be seen and heard to be believed. The Romans are in the habit of saying, 'If there is a hell, Rome is built over it; it is an abyss whence issues every kind of sin.'" Luther came to view Rome as the seat of sodomy and the Beast of the Apocalypse. Within ten years he was leading a revolt against the Roman Catholic Church, centered on his doctrine "justification by faith alone."
Martin Luther Reads the Bible
Martin Luther had no fear except the fear of God. He acknowledged no foundation for the Christian faith except the Holy Scriptures. Luther grew up the son of an impoverished miner. He often sang for his food from door to door. Luther had a thirst for knowledge, and developed a high standard of moral and intellectual excellence. He began each day with prayer.
Martin Luther discovered a Latin Bible in the school library one day. He had never seen one before, and didn't even know they existed. He had heard parts of the Gospel and the Epistles read to people by priests. Reading this Bible became the focus of his life. He wrote, "The Gospel of God is something that is not very well known to a large part of the Church."
Martin Luther was ordained a priest and named professor at the University of Wittenberg. He began to preach the Word of God with eloquence.
Martin Luther was rude and had a bad temper. But he also was a fervent and holy monk, who was forgiving of human weaknesses. He preferred the company of the repentant sinner to the self-righteous. While he thought astrology to be idolatry, he did not want those involved in it to be punished or even harassed. Luther possessed a strong sense of humor, laughed often, and drank beer. He loved nature, and played the guitar and the flute.
Johann Tetzel appeared in the mining town of Wittenberg, Germany, in the autumn of 1517. He was there to sell indulgences—coupons from the pope offering forgiveness of all past and future sins (no repentance necessary) in exchange for contributions to the building fund of St. Peter's Basilica. The purchase price was 1% of a person's annual income, and you could buy additional coupons for the dearly departed. Tetzel cried in the town square, "The wailing voices of your dead relatives and friends implore you, 'Have mercy, have mercy! We are in wretched agonies, and you can redeem us for a mere pittance, but you don't want to.' When a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs."
Tetzel sold thousands of these certificates, collecting bucketfuls of gold and silver. Salvation bought with lucre was an easy path compared to repentance, faith, and overcoming sin. These glaring falsehoods would not have been believed had the ignorant, credulous, superstitious masses of Germany possessed the Word of God. The Catholic Church had made it a crime punishable by death for a common person to read the Bible, arguably to control the populace, and swell the power and riches of Rome.
Martin Luther was furious, and he challenged Tetzel's theological credentials by posting his arguments against indulgences (95 theses) on the door of his church in Wittenberg in 1517. Luther denied that the pope could release anyone from purgatory (a state between heaven and hell). He declared that only repentance toward God and faith in Christ can save a sinner. The grace of Christ cannot be purchased; it is a free gift. At the heart of Luther's beliefs was his axiom: "The true treasure of the Church is the most holy Gospel of the glory and grace of God."
The 95 Theses of Luther were copied by somebody and dispersed around Germany within a few days—and spread around Europe within a few weeks. Many devoted Catholics had long lamented the terrible iniquity of the Church, but had no way to stop it. They read Luther's writings with great joy, perceiving in them the voice of God.
The pope summoned Luther to Rome to answer for this affront to his authority but he refused to go, or we would not know of him today. So the pope sent envoys to debate Luther, but these debates only served to convince Luther and his followers that they were in the right. In 1520, Martin Luther was excommunicated by Pope Leo X.
Excommunication was a sentence that struck terror in the hearts of even powerful kings; it could fill an empire with woe and desolation. If you were excommunicated, you were universally regarded with dread and horror, cut off from the community, and treated as an outlaw.
Pope Leo X was of the Medici family, and the last non-priest to become the pope (papa). He was a man of exquisite taste, who was devoted to sensuality, beauty, and luxury. He hadn't thought much about this little monk at first.
Luther's prince was Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony, who refused a request from the pope to discipline Luther. Frederick was a devout Catholic, who owned a collection of 8,000 relics, including straw from the crib of Jesus, bread from the Last Supper, a branch from the Burning Bush, milk from the Blessed Virgin, and the corpse of a child killed by King Herod. But all his life he protected Luther, though they never met, who kept burning papal bulls (official letters from the pope). Frederick did not appreciate Italians interfering in the affairs of the German nation, and he feared that the sale of indulgences would diminish his tax revenues.
Diet of Worms
The pope appealed to the new teenaged emperor, Charles V, who agreed to deal with this troublemaker. In 1521 Charles V summoned Luther to appear before the Diet of Worms, the assembly of the German states. Dignitaries of church and state assembled, including lords, knights, ambassadors, bishops, and priests. It made for a dramatic contrast. The emperor was surrounded by the most illustrious personages in the empire. There stood a simple monk before the most powerful man in Europe besides the pope, the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. No man had ever stood before such an imposing assembly. Luther wrote, "Who was I to oppose the majesty of the pope, before whom the kings of the earth trembled?"
Charles demanded that Luther recant his 95 theses. A deep silence fell upon the assembly. Luther expressed regard for his Church but then said, "Prove from the writings of the apostles that I have erred, and I will retract every error. I will be the first to lay hold of my books and throw them into the fire. I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted; my conscience is captive to God's Word. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to act against conscience is neither safe nor honest. Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise."
The assembly was amazed and speechless. The distinguished papal lawyer, Aleander, perceived the effect produced by Luther's speech and said, "It is high treason against the Church to allow so horrible a heretic to live on hour longer. Let the scaffold be instantly erected for him!"
Luther Pronounced Guilty
The august tribunal and the large crowd present had an excellent opportunity to compare these two men; to judge for themselves the spirit manifested by them, and the strength and truthfulness of their positions. Aleander was a gifted, eloquent orator. But he was also self-important, haughty, threatening, and never mentioned Scripture. A prince who was there said, "Aleander is moved by hatred and vengeance much more than by zeal and piety." Martin Luther was humble but firm; calm, dignified, and peaceful. The emperor even exclaimed, "This monk speaks with an intrepid heart and unshaken courage." Christ had spoken through Luther with power and grandeur that had filled friends and foes alike with awe and wonder. But Aleander implored the emperor not to cast away the support and friendship of the powerful pope, in the cause of an insignificant monk.
Luther was declared a heretic, and all those who followed him were to be banished, cursed, and excommunicated. All persons were forbidden to harbor him, or give him food or drink, under threat of imprisonment and confiscation of their property.
Aleander pronounced Luther guilty of sedition, rebellion, and blasphemy. And he demanded that the emperor disregard the promise to Luther of safe-conduct. But the princes of Germany reminded the emperor what had happened when the safe-conduct promised to Jan Hus had been ignored by the German Emperor Sigismund—Hus was burnt at the stake, leading to a massive rebellion in Bohemia. Charles V allowed Luther to leave, and he was whisked away into hiding, at the castle of Wartburg. His location was kept a secret, even from his protector, Frederick of Saxony—because if he knew not where Luther was he could not reveal his location under pressure. But the emperor was pressured to issue a proclamation that Luther was "Satan himself under the form of a man and dressed in a monk's frock."
German Bible of Luther
It was at Wartburg that Luther translated the first German Bible. Here Luther was removed from human praise, saving him from the pride often succumbed to by those who are successful. He humbly suffered instead. In this way God assured that it was not Luther to be honored but God himself. This thwarted the plans of Satan, who always seeks to divert the thoughts and affections of man from God, and toward men; honoring His instrument rather than the hand that steers Providence.
Luther's proclamations were well received by German peasants, merchants, knights, princes, and even priests. He declared that every man was a priest, with direct access to God, and no man needed the Roman hierarchy to act as his middleman.
The Catholic Church was an easy target in many ways. Monks were idle gluttons who lived in splendor, not trying to save souls but to profit from them; priests had concubines, and didn't teach the Scriptures, in fact hardly knew them; bishops had become absentee businessmen and politicians.
The pope and his cardinals were angry that their power, which caused kings to tremble, did not terrify this simple monk. Luther continued to be visited by princes, counts, barons, and bishops. He was seen by many as more than human. A man who had the integrity to face death rather than violate his conscience was admired even by those who did not share in his views. Luther said, "In what concerns the Word of God and the faith every Christian is as good a judge as the pope. God, who is the searcher of hearts, is my witness."
This one man was to affect the church and the world throughout all future generations. He taught that man should not submit to man, where eternal interests are concerned, because such submission in spiritual matters is real worship, and ought to be solely rendered to the Creator.
Luther Disavows Purgatory
The conflict caused Luther to further study the papal decrees, and compare them to Scripture. He wrote, "I am reading the decrees of the pontiffs and I do not know whether the pope is the antichrist himself, or his apostle, so greatly is Christ misrepresented in them." Yet he continued to support the Roman Church. Luther wrote to the emperor, "It is a horrible thing to behold the man who styles himself Christ's vicegerent, displaying magnificence that no emperor can equal. Is this being like the poor Jesus, or the humble Peter? He is, they say, the lord of the world. I said formerly that the pope was Christ's vicar; now I assert that he is our Lord's adversary, and the devil's apostle. "
In 1530, Luther published his Disavowal of Purgatory, which articulated his conception of justification by grace alone through faith. He wrote, "It is clearly false and foreign to the Holy Scriptures as well as to the Church Fathers to promise that by the power of the keys, through indulgences, souls are delivered from purgatory. Unless it can be founded on divine authority, it is a diabolical lie." Indulgences were therefore scandalous and dangerous. The message of the Gospel was the doctrine of justification by faith. This doctrine is the foundation of the entire Reformation; in fact the chief doctrine of Christianity and the chief point of difference separating Protestantism from Roman Catholicism.
Martin Luther certainly did not want to separate himself from the Catholic Church. He wanted to reform it, chiefly by stripping the papacy of its riches, pomp, and Papal States; and also by allowing the clergy to marry. He soon became the most famous man in Germany. Luther was not opposed to the Catholic religion or its adherents. He was opposed to the papacy, and the man-made trappings of worship. And he was convinced that a close reading of the Gospels by anyone would prove him right. To prove this, he translated the New Testament from the Greek version by Erasmus into German. Copies poured off the presses. A Catholic scholar lamented, "Tailors and shoemakers, even women and other simple idiots were debating texts with priests and monks." Luther's majestic Bible would go on to shape the German language.
Soon priests in some parts of Germany were seen reciting the mass in plain clothes, in German, and giving the wine as well as the bread to the people during Communion. Monasticism began to die, and priests got married. Mass for the dead was eliminated, as were feast days. The emphasis was on the Bible and preaching. Latin, the cult of Saints, and allegiance to Rome ceased. The Germans involved did not see this as leaving the Catholic Church, only as a Reformation of it.
Luther's followers were called Evangelicals for a long time. Eventually the accidental name, Protestants, prevailed after German princes protested a compromise with Catholic authorities. After a rift among the Protestants, his followers became known as Lutherans.
Martin Luther Hymns
Luther was not a prude. He believed it was cruel to bind young people to celibacy as priests, monks or nuns. He thought that sex was a powerful force of nature and having children divinely ordained. Luther said, "Early love is fervid and drunken, blinds us and leads us on. Rosy cheeks and white legs drive young men to get engaged."
Martin Luther married a former nun in 1525. He and Katie had six children. Luther preached three or four sermons every Sunday for 28 years. He wrote so many letters, tracts, and Bible commentaries that it took 55 volumes to hold them all.
Martin Luther was also a poet, composer, and a fine tenor. He thought it important that the congregation participate in the music, and so he wrote some of the finest hymns ever. This new Lutheran musical tradition was the catalyst for Germany to become the most musically educated nation in Europe. This lay at the roots of the later awesome German music of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms.
Luther's protégée, Philip Melanchthon, was modest, eloquent, upright, gentle, and brilliant. He displayed sound judgment and extensive knowledge, winning him universal admiration and esteem.
The Protestant Reformation was a revolution, sparked by a seemingly insignificant event. A ripple became a tidal wave. The news traveled quickly; rumors, misunderstandings, and exaggerations spread about Luther, begetting much conversation. The atmosphere became electric. At Wittenberg there was shouting, window breaking, and fist fighting in the church. In such a revolution not only sincere believers but also immature youths, rowdy folk, vengeful characters, criminals, and lunatics join in. Then customs and manners deteriorate. Insults and profanities fly; shops are looted; buildings are vandalized. Learned discourse gives way to angry debate. Common people learn words and ideas hitherto neither familiar nor interesting and discuss them like intellectuals. Talk begins about sweeping away all corruption and evil. Those on the side of tradition come together to defend what they have against the revolutionaries. Voices grow shrill, parties form and adopt names and are tagged with them in derision; families and friendships are broken; turncoats abound; authorities are bewildered and alternate between threats and concessions.
Sources and Other Hubs
My sources used to prepare this article include The Great Controversy by Ellen G. White; From Dawn to Decadence by Jacques Barzun; A Short History of Christianity by Stephen Tomkins; The One Year Book of Christian History by E. Michael & Sharon Rusten; and Europe by Norman Davies.
This Hub is part of a series on the History of Christianity. The previous four entries were:
More by this Author
- EDITOR'S CHOICE95
“It is better to obey God than man.” This passage from Acts 5:29 was the lifelong motto of a merchant from Lyon, France, turned evangelist named Peter Waldo (1140-1218). He founded a group of Christians who...
The History of Christianity series continues into the 17th century with sections about Lutherans, Baptists, Quakers, Huguenots, Anglicans, Pilgrim's Progress, King James Version, and Reformed Theology
Famous American Photographers: Irving Penn, Garry Winogrand, Walker Evans, Margaret Bourke-White, Bruce Davidson, Philippe Halsman, Weegee, Sally Mann, Herb Ritts, William Myers, Wallace Kirkland