German religious reformer, and founder of the Reformation
Luther was born in Eisleben, the son of a worker in the copper mines. He went to school at Magdeburg and Eisenach, and went to the University of Erfurt in 1501, taking his degree in 1505. He was also interested in the study of the Scriptures, and spent three years in the Augustinian monastery at Erfurt. In 1507 he was ordained a priest, and in 1508 went to lecture and preach at the University of Wittenberg. On a mission to Rome in 1510-11 he was appalled by the corrupt practices he found there, in particular the sale of indulgences by the Dominican Johann Tetzel and others to raise funds for building and other purposes. From this experience, Luther's career as a Reformer began.
As professor of biblical exegesis at Wittenberg (1512-46), he began to preach the doctrine of salvation by faith rather than works; and in 1517 he drew up a list of 95 theses on indulgences, denying to the pope all right to forgive sins, and nailed them on the church door at Wittenberg. Tetzel published a set of counter-theses and burnt Luther's, and the Wittenberg students retaliated by burning Tetzel's. In 1518 Luther was joined by Philip Melanchthon. The pope, Leo X, at first took little notice of the disturbance, but in 1518 summoned Luther to Rome to answer for his theses. His university and the elector interfered, and ineffective negotiations were undertaken by Cardinal Cajetan and by Miltitz, envoy of the pope to the Saxon court. Johann von Eck and Luther held a memorable disputation at Leipzig (1519).
Luther meanwhile attacked the papal system as a whole more boldly. Erasmus and Ulrich von Hutten now joined in the conflict. In 1520 Luther published his famous address to the Christian Nobles of Germany, followed by a treatise On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church of God, which works attacked also the doctrinal system of the Church of Rome. A papal bull containing 41 theses was issued against him, and he burned it before a crowd of doctors, students and citizens in Wittenberg. Germany was convulsed with excitement; and Luther was summoned to appear before the first Diet at Worms, which Charles V had convened in 1521. Finally he was put under the ban of the empire; on his return from Worms he was seized, at the instigation of the Elector of Saxony, and lodged (mostly for his own protection) in the Wartburg. During the year he spent there he translated the Scriptures and composed various treatises.
His Bible translation and its subsequent revisions, written in a straightforward style, were hugely successful, and their variety of German became the basis of the modern literary standard.
Civil unrest called Luther back to Wittenberg in 1522; he rebuked the unruly elements, and made a stand against lawlessness on the one hand and tyranny on the other. In this year he published his acrimonious reply to Henry VIII on the seven sacraments. Estrangement had gradually sprung up between Erasmus and Luther, and there was an open breach in 1525, when Erasmus published De Libero Arbitrio, and Luther followed with De Servo Arbitrio. In that year Luther married Katherine von Bora (1499-1552), one of nine nuns who had withdrawn from convent life. In 1529 he engaged in his famous conference at Marburg with Zwingli and other Swiss theologians, determinedly maintaining his views as to the real (consubstantial) presence in the Eucharist.
The drawing up of the Augsburg Confession, with Melanchthon representing Luther, marks the culmination of the German Reformation in 1530. Luther died in Eisleben, and was buried at Wittenberg. He possessed the power of kindling other souls with the fire of his own convictions.
Luther's voluminous works include Table-talk, Letters and Sermons. His commentaries on Galatians and the Psalms are still read; and he was one of the great leaders of sacred song, his hymns having an enduring power. See also H A Oberman, Luther (1990); James Atkinson, Martin Luther and the Birth of Protestantism (1968); Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (1951).
Esto peccator et pecca fortiter, sed fortius fide et gaude in Christo. "Be a sinner and sin boldly, but more boldly believe and rejoice in Christ."
- From a letter to Melanchthon (1521).
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