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Martin Luther, the greatest of the Protestant Reformers of the sixteenth century, was born at Eisleben on November 10, 1483. His father was a miner in humble circumstances; his mother, as Melancthon records, was a woman of exemplary virtue, and particularly esteemed in her walk of life. Shortly after Martin's birth his parents removed to Mansfeld, where their circumstances ere long improved by industry and perseverance. Their son was sent to school; and both at home and in school his training was severe. His father sometimes whipped him, he says, "for a mere trifle till the blood came," and he was subjected to the scholastic rod fifteen times in one day! Luther's schooling was completed at Magdeburg and Eisenach, and at the latter place he attracted by his singing the notice of a good lady of the name of Cotta, who welcomed the lad into her family and provided him with a comfortable home during his stay there. Here under Trebonius he made good progress in Latin. In 1501, when he had reached his eighteenth year, he entered the university of Erfurt, with the view of qualifying himself for the legal profession. He went through the usual studies in the classics and the schoolmen, and took his degree of doctor of philosophy, or master of arts, in 1505, when he was twenty-one years of age.
Martin Luther before the Council of Worms.
On Luther's return from Rome he was made a doctor of the Holy Scriptures, and his career as a reformer may be said to have commenced. The system of indulgences had reached a scandalous height. The idea that it was in the power of the Church to forgive sin had gradually grown into the notion that the Pope could issue pardons of his own free will, which, being dispensed to the faithful, exonerated them from the consequences of their transgressions. The sale of these pardons had become an organized part of the papal system. Money was largely needed at Rome, and its numerous emissaries sought everywhere to raise funds by the sale of "indulgences;" the principal of these was John Tetzel, a Dominican friar, who had established himself at Jueterberg (1517). Luther's indignation at the shameless traffic which this man carried on, finally became irrepressible. "God willing," he exclaimed, "I will beat a hole in his drum." He drew out ninety-five theses on the doctrine of indulgences, which on October 31st he nailed up on the door of the church at Wittenberg, and which he offered to maintain in the university against all impugners. The general purport of these theses was to deny to the Pope all right to forgive sins. This sudden and bold step of Luther was all that was necessary to awaken a wide-spread excitement. Tetzel was forced to retreat from the borders of Saxony to Frankfort-on-the-Oder, where he drew out and published a set of counter-theses and publicly committed those of Luther to the flames. The students at Wittenberg retaliated by burning Tetzel's theses. The elector refused to interfere, and the excitement increased as new combatants--Hochstratten, Prierias, and Eck--entered the field. Eck was an able man, and an old friend of Luther's, and the argument between him and the reformer was especially vehement. In 1518 the latter was joined by Melancthon, who became one of his dearest and most trusted friends.
At first the Pope, Leo X., took little heed of the disturbance; he is reported even to have said, when he heard of it, that "Friar Martin was a man of genius, and that he did not wish to have him molested." Some of the cardinals, however, saw the real character of the movement, which gradually assumed a seriousness evident even to the Pope; and Luther received a summons to appear at Rome, and answer for his theses (1518). Once again in Rome, it is unlikely he would ever have been allowed to return. His university and the elector interfered, and a legate was sent to Germany to hear and determine the case. Cardinal Cajetan was the legate, and he was but little fitted to deal with Luther. He would enter into no argument with him, but merely called upon him to retract. Luther refused, and fled from Augsburg, whither he had gone to meet the papal representative. The task of negotiation was then undertaken by Miltitz, a German, who was envoy of the Pope to the Saxon court, and by his greater address, a temporary peace was obtained. This did not last long. The reformer was too deeply moved to keep silent. "God hurries and drives me," he said; "I am not master of myself; I wish to be quiet, and am hurried into the midst of tumults." Dr. Eck and he held a memorable disputation at Leipsic (1519), in which the subject of argument was no longer merely the question of indulgences, but the general power of the Pope. The disputation, of course, came to no practical result; each controversialist claimed the victory, and Luther in the meantime made progress in freedom of opinion, and attacked the papal system as a whole more boldly. Erasmus and Hutten joined in the conflict, which waxed more loud and threatening.
In 1520 the reformer published his famous address to the "Christian Nobles of Germany." This was followed in the same year by a treatise "On the Babylonish Captivity of the Church." In these works, both of which circulated widely and powerfully influenced many minds, Luther took firmer and broader ground; he attacked not only the abuses of the papacy and its pretensions to supremacy, but also the doctrinal system of the Church of Rome. "These works," Ranke says, "contain the kernel of the whole Reformation." The papal bull containing forty-one theses was issued against him; the dread document, with other papal books, was burned before an assembled multitude of doctors, students, and citizens, at the Elster Gate of Wittenberg. Germany was convulsed with excitement. Eck (who had been the chief agent in obtaining the bull) fled from place to place, glad to escape with his life, and Luther was everywhere the hero of the hour.
Charles V. had at this time succeeded to the empire, and he convened his first diet of the sovereigns and states at Worms. The diet met in the beginning of 1521; an order was issued for the destruction of Luther's books, and he himself was summoned to appear before the diet. This was above all what he desired--to confess the truth before the assembled powers of Germany. He resolved--having received a safe-conduct--to obey the summons, come what would. All Germany was moved by his heroism; his journey resembled a triumph; the threats of enemies and the anxieties of friends alike failed to move him. "I am resolved to enter Worms," he said, "although as many devils should set at me as there are tiles on the housetops." His appearance and demeanor before the diet, and the firmness with which he held his ground and refused to retract, all make a striking picture. He was not allowed to defend his opinions. "Unless I be convinced," he said, "by Scripture and reason, I neither can nor dare retract anything, for my conscience is a captive to God's word, and it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. There I take my stand. I can do no otherwise. So help me God. Amen."
On his return from Worms he was seized, at the instigation of his friend, the Elector of Saxony, and safely lodged in the old castle of the Wartburg. The affair was made to assume an aspect of violence, but in reality it was designed to secure him from the destruction which his conduct at Worms would certainly have provoked, he having been placed under the ban of the empire. He remained in this shelter for about a year, concealed in the guise of a knight. His chief employment was his translation of the Scriptures into his native language. He composed various treatises besides, and injured his health by sedentary habits and hard study. His imagination became morbidly excited, and he thought he saw and heard the Evil One mocking him while engaged in his literary tasks; the blot from the inkstand that he hurled at him is still shown on the wall of his chamber. The subject of the personality and presence of Satan was a familiar one with Luther, and he has many things about it in his Table-talk.
The disorders which sprang up in the progress of the Reformation recalled Luther to Wittenberg. He felt that his presence was necessary to restrain Carlstadt and others, and, defying any danger to which he might still be exposed, he returned in 1522 to the old scene of his labors, rebuked the unruly spirits who had acquired power in his absence, and resumed with renewed energy his interrupted work. He strove to arrest the excesses of the Zwickau fanatics, and counselled peace and order to the inflamed peasants; while he warned the princes and nobles of the unchristian cruelty of many of their doings, which had driven the people to exasperation and frenzy. At no period of his life is he greater than now, in the stand which he made against lawlessness on the one hand and tyranny on the other. He vindicated his claim to be a reformer in the highest sense by the wise and manly part which he acted in this great social crisis in the history of Germany. In this year also he published his acrimonious reply to Henry VIII. on the seven sacraments. Although he had been at first united in a common cause with Erasmus, estrangement had gradually sprung up between the scholar of Rotterdam and the enthusiastic reformer of Wittenberg. This estrangement came to an open breach in the year 1525, when Erasmus published his treatise "De Libero Arbitrio." Luther immediately followed with his counter-treatise "De Servo Arbitrio." The controversy raged loudly between them; and in the vehemence of his hostility to the doctrine of Erasmus, Luther was led into various assertions of a very questionable kind, besides indulging in the wild abuse of his opponent's character. The quarrel was an unhappy one on both sides; and it must be confessed there is especially a want of generosity in the manner in which Luther continued to cherish the dislike which sprang out of it.
In the course of the same year Luther married Katharina von Bora, one of nine nuns who, under the influence of his teaching, had emancipated themselves from their religious vows. The step rejoiced his enemies and even alarmed some of his friends, like Melancthon. But it greatly contributed to his happiness, while it served to enrich and strengthen his character. All the most interesting and touching glimpses we get of him henceforth are in connection with his wife and children.
Two years after his marriage he fell into a dangerous sickness and depression of spirits, from which he was only aroused by the dangers besetting Christendom from the advance of the Turks. Two years later, in 1529, he engaged in his famous conference at Marburg with Zwingli and other Swiss divines. The following year finds him at Coburg, while the diet sat at Augsburg. It was deemed prudent to intrust the interests of the Protestant cause to Melancthon, who attended the diet, but Luther removed to Coburg to be at hand for consultation. The drawing up of the Augsburg Confession marks the culmination of the German Reformation (1530); and the life of Luther from henceforth possesses comparatively little interest. He survived sixteen years longer, but they are years marked by few incidents of importance. He died at Eisleben on February 18, 1546, and was buried at Wittenberg.
Luther's character presents an imposing combination of great qualities. Endowed with broad human sympathies, massive energy, manly and affectionate simplicity, and rich, if sometimes coarse humor, he is at the same time a spiritual genius. His intuitions of divine truth were bold, vivid, and penetrating, if not comprehensive; and he possessed the art which God alone gives to the finer and abler spirits that He calls to do special work in this world, of kindling other souls with the fire of his own convictions, and awakening them to a higher consciousness of religion and duty. He was a leader of men, therefore, and a Reformer in the highest sense. His powers were fitted to his appointed task; it was a task of Titanic magnitude, and he was a Titan in intellectual robustness and moral strength and courage. It was only the divine energy which swayed him, and of which he recognized himself the organ, that could have accomplished what he did.
View him as a mere theologian, and there are others who take higher rank. There is a lack of patient thoughtfulness and philosophical temper in his doctrinal discussions; but the absence of these very qualities gave vigor to his bold, if sometimes crude, conceptions, and enabled him to triumph in the struggle for life and death in which he was engaged. To initiate the religious movement which was destined to renew the face of Europe, required a gigantic will, which, instead of being crushed by opposition, or frightened by hatred, should only gather strength from the fierceness of the conflict before it. To clear the air thoroughly, as he himself said, thunder and lightning are necessary. Upon the whole, it may be said that history presents few greater characters--few that excite at once more love and admiration, and in which we see tenderness, humor, and a certain picturesque grace and poetic sensibility more happily combined with a lofty and magnanimous, if sometimes rugged, sublimity.
Luther's works are very voluminous, partly in Latin, and partly in German. Among those of more general interest are his Table-Talk, his 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, rugged but intense and expressive, having an enduring power.
As an example of his more tender writing, take his letter to his little son Hans:
"Grace and peace in Christ. My dear little son, I am glad to hear that thou learnest well and prayest diligently. Do this, my son, and continue it; when I return home I will bring thee a fine fairing.
"I know a beautiful, cheerful garden, in which many children walk about. They have golden coats on, and gather beautiful apples under the trees, and pears, and cherries, and plums; they sing and jump about, and are merry; they have also fine little horses with golden bridles and silver saddles. And I asked the man, 'Whose children are they?' He replied, 'These are the children who like to pray and learn and are pious.' Then I said, 'My good man, I have a son; his name is Hans Luther; may he not also come to this garden to eat such nice apples and pears, and ride such fine little horses, and play with these children?' And the man said, 'If he likes to pray and learn, and is pious, he shall come to this garden with Lippus and Just; and when they all come together, they shall have pipes and cymbals, lutes, and other musical instruments; and dance and shoot with little cross-bows.'
"And he showed me a fine meadow in the garden, prepared for dancing: there being nothing but golden pipes, cymbals, and beautiful silver cross-bows. But it was yet early, and the children had not dined. Therefore I could not wait for the dancing, and said to the man, 'My good master, I will go quickly and write all this to my dear little son Hans, that he may pray diligently, learn well, and be pious, that he also may be admitted into this garden; but he hath an aunt Lena whom he must bring with him.' The man answered, 'So be it; go and write this to him.'
"Therefore, my dear little son Hans, learn and pray with all confidence; and tell this to Lippus and Just, that they also may learn and pray; and ye will all meet in this beautiful garden. Herewith I commend thee to Almighty God. Give greetings to Aunt Lena, and also a kiss from me,
"Thy loving father,
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