At the mention of the name, “Martin Luther,” many North Americans will not picture the Reformer from Wittenberg, Germany in the 16th century, but the American civil rights leader from Atlanta, Georgia named Martin Luther King Jr. The American Dr. King’s name was, at first, Michael King, but his father changed it to honour the German reformer.
Martin Luther was born to parents, Hans and Margarethe Luder (the German language and its spellings were somewhat fluid at the time, and later the spelling “Luther” was adopted) in Eisleben, Germany on November 10, 1483. He was baptized in the Roman Catholic Church the next day, the Feast of St. Martin of Tours, and was given the name Martin in honour of the saint. Luther’s father was a leaseholder of copper mines and smelters and served on the town council in Mansfeld, where the family moved in 1484.
Hans Luther had plans for his son to be a lawyer, so young Martin began his academic career by attending Latin schools in Mansfeld, Magdeburg, and Eisenach. The three schools focused on the so-called “trivium” of grammar, rhetoric, and logic. When Martin was 19, he enrolled in the University of Erfurt, where he received his master’s degree in 1505. He then entered the law school at the Erfurt university, but left the school soon after beginning there.
Luther left the law school because of the school’s use of reason against the Word of God, a decision made that he later attributed to a frightening experience that took place during a thunderstorm. On July 2, 1505, while Luther was returning to back to the university, on horseback, after a visit home, a lightning bolt struck the ground near him. Terrified, he cried out to St. Anna for help, vowing to become a monk if he was allowed to survive the storm. After the storm, he kept his promise, selling his books and leaving law school and entering an Augustinian friary on July 17, 1505. Luther’s father was not happy with his son’s decision to leave law school, believing him to be throwing his life away.
Luther was totally committed to being the best monk possible by adopting a rigorous approach to the mortification of his flesh through fasting and prayer and self-flagellation. He once remarked: “If anyone could have gained heaven as a monk, then I would certainly have done so.” During this time in the monastery, Luther came to look upon God the Father as a stern judge and Christ as the “jailor and hangman” of his soul. Luther’s superior, Johann von Staupitz, aware of the young monk’s spiritual turmoil, pointed Luther to the merit of Christ and taught him that true repentance came through faith in Christ and not by punishing his flesh.
In 1508, a year after Luther was ordained to the priesthood, von Staupitz assigned Luther to teach theology at the newly founded University of Wittenberg. On March 9, 1508, Luther received a bachelor’s degree in Biblical studies and in 1509 another bachelor’s degree in the Sentences of Peter Lombard, a book of systematic theology written in the 12th century. On October 19, 1512, he received the degree of Doctor of Theology and was admitted into the senate of the theological faculty of the University of Wittenberg two days later. Luther would remain on the university faculty for the rest of his career.
In 1516, Johann Tetzel, a Dominican friar, was sent by Rome to Germany to sell indulgences in order to raise funds for the building of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The Roman Catholic Church taught that faith alone was insufficient to merit salvation and that good works were also necessary. People were told that the left over good works that the saints in heaven did not use to get into heaven were available to them through the buying of an indulgence. A saying attributed to Tetzel was: “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”
On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther wrote to his bishop, Albert of Mainz, protesting the sale of indulgences. Included with this letter was a copy of the “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” also known as the Ninety-five Theses. Luther also nailed a copy of the Ninety-five Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg to prompt theological discussion and debate within the university community. In January of 1518, the document found its way to the new printing press of Johannes Guttenberg and was widely circulated. The writing and distribution of the Ninety-five Theses is credited with launching the Reformation.
Throughout his career, Luther was a prolific writer. What must be understood about what he wrote is that it was done while under fire. This was a time of theological warfare and Luther often “shot from the hip” with harsh condemnation and blunt and sharp words for those who attacked the Gospel. His theology was, therefore, not ordered systematically, but often written to address problems in the church as they arose.
On June 13, 1525, Luther married Katherina von Bora, one of twelve nuns he helped escape from the Nimbschen Cistercian convent in April of 1523. Martin and Katie were given The Black Cloister, a former monastery, as a wedding present by elector John the Steadfast. There they lived for many happy years, God giving them six children.