Next year sees the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg’s Castle Church, an act of defiance against the Catholic Church that transformed theology and divided Christians in the west
Born in Germany in 1483, Martin Luther became one of the most influential figures in Christian history when he began the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. He called into question some of the basic tenets of Roman Catholicism, and his followers soon split from the Roman Catholic Church to begin the Protestant tradition.
Luther was born on November 10, 1483, in Eisleben, Saxony, in modern southeast Germany. His parents, Hans and Margarette Luther, were of peasant lineage. In 1484, the family moved to Mansfeld where he entered school. In 1498, he returned to Eisleben and enrolled in a school, studying grammar, rhetoric and logic.
Martin Luther (1483) and Johann Sebastian Bach (1685) were both born in the same town of Eisenach, Germany. Bach was a passionate Lutheran who shared many of Luther’s beliefs and experiences centuries after the Great Reformer’s death.
In 1501, Martin Luther entered the University of Erfurt, where he received a Master of Arts degree (in grammar, logic, rhetoric and metaphysics). Caught in A horrific thunderstorm where he feared for his life, had a life-changing experience for young Martin. He cried out to St. Anne, the patron saint of miners, “Save me, St. Anne, and I’ll become a monk!” The storm subsided and he was saved. The decision to become a monk was difficult driven by fears of hell and God’s wrath. He felt that living in a monastery would help him find salvation.
The first few years of monastery life were difficult for Martin Luther, as he did not find the religious enlightenment he was seeking. At age 27, he was given the opportunity to be a delegate to a church conference in Rome. He came away more disillusioned, and very discouraged by the immorality and corruption he witnessed there among the Catholic priests. Upon his return to Germany, he excelled in his studies and received a doctorate, becoming a professor of theology at the university.
Two years later, while preparing a lecture on Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, he read, “The just will live by faith”, he realised that the key to spiritual salvation was not to fear God or be enslaved by religious dogma but to believe that faith alone would bring salvation. This period marked a major change in his life and set in motion the Reformation.
In 1517, Pope Leo X announced a new round of indulgences to help build St. Peter’s Basilica. Martin Luther nailed a sheet of paper with 95 theses on the university’s chapel door. The Ninety-Five Theses laid out a devastating critique of the indulgences as corrupting people’s faith. Aided by the printing press, copies of the Ninety-Five Theses spread throughout Germany within two weeks and throughout Europe within two months.
The Ninety-Five Theses laid out a devastating critique of the indulgences as corrupting people’s faith. Aided by the printing press, copies of the Ninety-Five Theses spread throughout Germany within two weeks and throughout Europe within two months
The Church eventually moved to stop the act of defiance and at a meeting with Cardinal Thomas Cajetan in Augsburg, Martin Luther was ordered to recant his Ninety-Five Theses by the authority of the pope. Luther said he would not recant unless scripture proved him wrong. The meeting ended in a shouting match and initiated his ultimate excommunication from the Church.
Throughout 1519, Martin Luther publicly declared that the Bible did not give the pope the exclusive right to interpret scripture, which was a direct attack on the authority of the papacy. Finally, in 1520, the pope issued an ultimatum threatening Luther with excommunication. Luther publicly burned the letter.
In January 1521, Martin Luther was officially excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church and on 8th May 1521, the council released the Edict of Worms, banning Luther’s writings and declaring him a “convicted heretic.” This made him a condemned and wanted man. Friends helped him hide out at the Wartburg Castle. While in seclusion, he translated the New Testament into the German language, to give ordinary people the opportunity to read God’s word.
Though still under threat of arrest, Martin returned to Wittenberg Castle Church, in Eisenach, miraculously managed to avoid capture and began organising a new church, Lutheranism. He gained many followers and got support from German princes. In 1525, he married Katharina von Bora and over the next several years, they had six children.
From 1533 to his death in 1546, Martin Luther served as the dean of theology at the University of Wittenberg. During a trip to his hometown of Eisleben, he died on 18th February 1546, at the age of 62.