1483 - 1546
Martin Luther, German monk, priest, professor, and Protestant Reformer, was born on 10 November 1483 to Hans and Margaret Luther.
During his studies to become a lawyer, Luther had a near-death experience in a lightning storm, and fearing judgment, committed himself to religion and entered an Augustinian monastery. There he took up an extremely ascetic lifestyle in an effort to find peace with God, which failed completely. Luther’s confessor, Johann von Staupitz, tried to impress upon him that true repentance must be based on Christ’s work, not acts of penance.
When Staupitz became dean of the new University of Wittenberg, he appointed Luther to teach theology, hoping to distract him from his introspection, and it was during his career there that Luther began to understand the teaching of the Bible on the nature of salvation. Thus he also came to see the corruption of the Catholic church more clearly, especially through the indulgence-peddling of Dominican friar Johann Tetzel. Wishing to address the church’s errors, he wrote a protest in 1517 which came to be known as the Ninety-Five Theses, posting it on the door of the church in Wittenberg. By 1519, Luther was firmly convinced that the Bible taught justification by faith alone: ‘The righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith – as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”‘
In 1520, he was warned by the pope that he would be excommunicated if he did not recant the doctrines he espoused in his Ninety-Five Theses, but Luther refused and publicly set fire to the papal bull containing the warning. In 1521, he was excommunicated and ordered to appear before the Diet von Worms, a general assembly of the Holy Roman Empire. At the assembly, Luther was challenged to recant his many writings against the errors of the Catholic church. After a day and night to consider and pray, Luther gave his famous reply:
Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. Here I stand. I can do no other. May God help me. Amen.
Five days later, the Edict of Worms declared Luther an outlaw and banned all his writings, making it a crime for anyone to aid or abet him, and lawful for anyone to kill him. However, Frederick III, Elector of Saxony, arranged for Luther to be smuggled to Wartburg Castle where he remained in hiding for a year, continuing to write and correspond, and working on a German translation of the Bible.
In 1522, hearing that his teachings were being radicalised by German revolutionaries, he returned to Wittenberg and intervened, opposing the Peasants’ Revolt and continuing the work of Reformation under the protection of the Elector.
Over the coming years, despite his initial desire merely to reform the Catholic church, he organised a new church body in Saxony, writing new forms of worship and new catechisms. He continued translation of the Bible into German and wrote many hymns. His books and pamphlets were distributed widely with the help of Gutenberg’s printing press. His marriage to escaped nun Katharina von Bora in 1525 was yet another departure from Catholic rules. They had a happy marriage and six children.
After more than twenty years of fruitful work, Martin Luther died aged 62 and was buried in Wittenberg. The Reformation he had helped to begin in Germany spread rapidly throughout Europe and changed the fabric of Western society forever.