Martin Luther—the Story of his Life - E. Singmaster

Last Years and Death

Worn by his early hardships and austerities, exhausted by the incessant labors of his later years, Luther grew old before his time. The diseases which had long troubled him became more torturing; chronic aches turned now to acute misery. More and more earnestly he longed to lay aside "this useless, worn-out, exhausted tabernacle." He wrote in 1541:—

"On Palm Sunday the tumor reached my ear and attacked not only my head, but my soul, so that the intolerable anguish forced tears from my eyes (though I do not easily nor often weep), and I said to the Lord: 'May these pains cease or may I die.' I could not have borne that terrible fight with nature two full days, but on the second day the tumor broke. Now the winds of all the seas and all the forests blow through my head, so that I can hear nothing unless it is shouted at me. At least I have the advantage of being able to read and write even if I cannot sleep as I used to."

In spite of almost unbearable suffering, his extraordinary diligence was but little diminished. Though he took no active part in the various conferences by which it was hoped that Catholicism and Protestantism might come to a harmonious agreement, he constantly advised and directed by letter. No whit of his old passion for truth was lost nor had his hatred of those who opposed it abated in the least. From his pen there continued to pour letters, pamphlets, and books. Two years before his death he wrote of the plans which he had made and those which others had made for him:—

"You often urge me to write a book on Christian discipline, but you do not say where I, a weary, worn, old man can get the leisure and the health to do it. I am pressed by writing letters without end; I have promised our young princes a sermon on drunkenness; I have promised certain other persons and myself a book on secret engagements; to others one against the sacramentarians; still others beg that I shall omit all to write a comprehensive and final commentary on the whole Bible."

A month before his death he described with characteristic vividness and humor himself and his activities:—

"Old, decrepit, sluggish, weary, worn out, and now one-eyed, I write to you. Now that I am dead—as I seem to myself—I expect the rest I have deserved to be given me, but instead I am overwhelmed with writing, speaking, doing, transacting business, just as though I had never done, written, said, or accomplished anything."

His physical weakness and suffering rose more and more like a dark glass between him and the world. The results of his struggle against the Papacy now seemed less valuable to him than a few years before, and he considered the moral conditions in Germany and in Wittenberg especially to be bad. Once he left Wittenberg, meaning never to return, but was persuaded by his distressed friends to change his mind.

The death of thirteen-year-old Magdalene in 1542 was another cause of the depression and sadness of his latter years. From her birth, which followed closely upon the death of his first daughter, Elizabeth, Luther had loved her dearly. The strong man, who dared to attack the greatest potentates and the most firmly established of human convictions, knelt beside the child's bed weeping bitterly.

In December, 1545, the Counts of Mansfield asked Luther's services in settling a dispute between them. The fact that he had been born in their dominions and the existence of a warm personal friendship with them moved Luther to accept the office of mediator. In spite of wretched health and the bitter winter weather, he left at once with Melanchthon for Mansfield. On account of the frail health of Melanchthon, the work could not be completed and the party returned home. Late in January, when Melanchthon was still unable to leave Wittenberg, Luther set forth again, accompanied by his three sons and one of the young men of his household. Delayed at Halle by floods, they finally reached Eisleben where the conference was held.

Greatly to Luther's joy the negotiations were successful. In his satisfaction with their progress he became more and more cheerful, even though his physical sufferings were acute. In the midst of his activity and pain, his heart turned constantly to the "dear Katie "whom he had left at Wittenberg, and to her on the 14th of February he wrote the last letter of many written her during this journey and the last indeed of his life:—

"Grace and peace in the Lord. Dear Katie, we hope to come home this week if God will. God has shown great grace to the lords, who have been reconciled in all but two or three points. It still remains to make the brothers Count Albert and Count Gebhard real brothers; this I shall undertake to-day and shall invite both to visit me, that they may see each other, for hitherto they have not spoken, but have embittered each other by writing. But the young lords and the young ladies, too, are happy and make parties for fools' bells and skating, and have masquerades and all are very jolly, even Count Gebhard's son. So you see that God hears prayer.

"I send you the trout given me by the Countess Albert. She is heartily happy at this union.

"Your little sons are still at Mansfield. James Luther will take care of them. We eat and drink like lords here and they wait on us so well—too well, indeed, for they might make us forget you at Wittenberg. . . .

"A report has reached here that Doctor Martin Luther has left for Leipsic or Magdeburg. Such tales are invented by those silly wiseacres, your countrymen. Some say the Emperor is thirty miles from here, at Soest in Westphalia; some say that the French and the Landgrave of Hesse are raising troops. Let them say and sing; we will wait on God. God bless you.


On the 17th of February, Luther signed the treaty which was drawn up between the two brothers. Early the following morning he became ill and his children and friends were hurriedly summoned. Before he lapsed into unconsciousness the record of his sayings were completed by the addition of his last words. Never had the faithful amanuensis written down sentences more filled with that faith in which he had lived:—

"O my heavenly Father, one God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, thou God of all comfort, I thank Thee that Thou hast given for me thy dear son, Jesus Christ, in whom I believe, whom I have preached and confessed, loved and praised, whom the wicked Pope and all the godless shame, persecute and blaspheme. I pray thee, dear Lord Jesus Christ, let me commend my soul to thee. 0 heavenly Father, if I leave this body and depart I am certain that I will be with thee forever and can never, never tear myself out of thy hands."

Last of all his friends asked him, "Reverend father, will you stand steadfast by Christ and by the doctrine you have preached?"—and Luther answered firmly, "Yes."

Before dawn he breathed his last in the town of his birth. From it he had never wandered far, yet he had shaken the world.

The Counts of Mansfield, their admiration and affection for him deepened by the sacrifices made in their service, begged that he might be buried in Eisleben, but to this the Elector of Saxony would not give his consent. Borne back to the scene of his labors, accompanied by an honorable escort and greeted by mourning thousands, his body was carried, past the door upon which he had nailed his theses, into the castle church.

Katie survived her husband six years. Only a few of her letters have been preserved; among them is an expression of her grief:—

"Kind, dear sister! I can easily believe that you have hearty sympathy with me and my poor children. Who would not be sorrowful and mourn for so noble a man as was my dear lord, who much served not only one city or a single land but the whole world? Truly I am so distressed that I cannot tell my great heart sorrow to any one, and hardly know what to think or how I feel. I cannot eat or drink, neither can I sleep. If I had a principality and an empire, it would never have cost me so much pain to lose them as I now have that our Lord has taken from me, and not from me only, but from the whole world, this dear and precious man."

The property left by Luther was first injured in war and was then involved in a costly lawsuit and lost, so that at the end of her life Katie was obliged to support herself by taking boarders in the Black Cloister. In 1552 she fled from Wittenberg on account of the plague and died and was buried at Torgau, far away from her home and the grave of her husband.

Of Luther's six children four grew to maturity and married. Martin died childless, Hans had one daughter who died without issue, Paul and Margaret have descendants now living.

Soon after Luther's death the conflict between the Catholic and Protestant divisions of the German Empire, which had so long threatened, came at last to a head. The horrors of religious war were fortunately spared to Luther, who, his work done, lay at peace. To his biography an account of the bitter strife which desolated Germany does not belong. We believe that the wise mind of Lincoln would have guided free of shoals the American nation through the Reconstruction dangers; it may be that with Luther living, the course of German history might have been changed. But this is hardly probable. Luther's weapon was the sword of the spirit and not the sword of steel; a longer life would likely have brought him merely greater grief. More to the purpose is an account, now that four hundred years have passed since he stood before the church door at Wittenberg, of that which his work has accomplished.

The Church of the Reformation has extended far beyond the Germany in which it had its birth and is by far the largest of the Protestant churches. Denmark, Sweden, and Norway hold almost unanimously the religious doctrines laid down by the reformers, and the strength and activity of the American Lutheran Church prove the vitality and the adaptability of the Lutheran belief.

Luther's influence, moreover, far outreaches the bounds of the Lutheran church. Protestantism is his. His discovery of the way of salvation amid so much agony of spirit is a legacy which he has bequeathed not to one nation or time, but to all peoples of all ages. Phillips Brooks asks the question, Is Luther's Protestantism a failure or a success? and himself declares, in answer: "These centuries of Anglo-Saxon life made by the ideas of Luther answer the question. The Protestantism of Milton and of Goethe, of Howard and of Francke, of Newton and of Leibnitz, of Bunyan and of Butler, of Wordsworth and of Tennyson, of Wesley and of Charming., of Schleiermacher and of Maurice, of Washington and of Lincoln is not a failure. . . . This at least is sure, that the great principles of Martin Luther's life must be the principles of every advance of man on to the very end. Always it must be by a regeneration of humanity. Always it must be by the power of God filling the soul of man. Always it must be religious. Always it must be God summoning man, man reaching after God. Always it must be the moralist and the mystic, conscience and faith, meeting in the single human here or in humanity at large, which makes the Reformation. And however it shall come, all human progress must remember Martin Luther."

Even the Roman Church which despises and condemns Luther owes to him a quickened life. Within the Church ecclesiastical training was improved, church government was reformed, the means of education were increased. The doctrines of Rome, however, remained unchanged. Indeed, upon those which Luther had denounced there was laid now an exaggerated emphasis.

It is wise to allow neither the enemies of a man nor those who laud him with too fulsome praise to shape our opinions of his worth. Closely associated with Luther for many years, loving him and greatly beloved by him, differing with him at times, aware of his short-comings, disapproving of his violence of speech, Philip Melanchthon had above all other men the opportunity to form a true opinion of Luther and his work. Called to deliver over him a funeral oration, Melanchthon pronounced the eulogy with which a large part of the thinking world agrees:—

"Luther brought to light the true and necessary doctrine. That the densest darkness existed touching the doctrine of repentance is evident. In his discussion he showed what true repentance is, and what is the refuge and the sure comfort of the soul which quails under the sense of the wrath of God. He expounded Paul's doctrine which says that man is justified by faith. He showed the difference between the Law and the Gospel, between the righteousness of faith and civil righteousness. He also showed what the true worship of God is, and recalled the Church from heathenish superstition, which imagines that God is worshiped, even though the mind, agitated by some academic doubt, turns away from him. He bade us worship in faith and with a good conscience, and led us to the one Mediator, the Son of God, who sits at the right hand of the Eternal Father and makes intercession for us. . . .

"He also pointed out other services acceptable to God, and so adorned and guarded civil life as it had never been adorned and guarded by any other man's writings. Then from necessary services he separated the puerilities of human ceremonies, the rites and institutions which hinder the true worship of God. And that the heavenly truth might be handed down to posterity he translated the Prophetical and Apostolic Scriptures into the German language with so much accuracy that his version is more easily understood than the commentaries.

"I do not deny that the more ardent characters sometimes make mistakes, but amid the weakness of human nature no one is without fault. But we may say of such an one what the ancients said of Hercules, Cimon and others: 'rough, indeed, but worthy of all praise.' And in the Church, if, as Paul says, he wars a good warfare, holding faith and a good conscience, he is to be held in the highest esteem by us.

"That Luther was such we do know, for he constantly defended purity of doctrine and kept a good conscience. There is no one who knew him, who does not know that he was possessed of the greatest kindness, and of the greatest affability in the society of friends, and that he was in no sense contentious or quarrelsome. He also exhibited, as such a man ought, the greatest dignity of demeanor. He possessed 'an upright character, a gracious speech.'

"Rather may we apply to him the words of Paul: 'Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report!' . . .

"In the many grave deliberations incident to the public perils, we observed the transcendent vigor of his mind, his valour, his unshaken courage, where terror reigned. God was his anchor and his faith never failed him."

Such briefly told, is the life of Martin Luther, who next to the Divine Founder of the Church and his Apostles has done most to dignify and ennoble mankind. In his life is to be found no base motive of any sort. Here is courage which dared to scrutinize the claims of the most august and powerful institution which the world has seen, and having discovered its weaknesses to declare them. Here is a passion for truth which laughs at the death of the body. Here is, above all, supreme faith in God. The courageous man may admire Luther, the man of intellectual independence may sympathize with him, but only he can truly understand him who has felt the weight of sin and an intense longing for absolution and peace. Luther would consider his life wasted if he were remembered only for his courage or for his service in liberating the human conscience from the shackles which bound it. His message to mankind is that "little gospel "which he rescued from obscurity and which brought comfort to his own heart: "God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." This was to him the truth which was to save the soul, this the truth which was to make men free.