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

At the Wartburg and Back in Wittenberg

The stronghold which was to be Luther's home for almost a year was already associated with the real and legendary history of Germany. Here had dwelt the saintly Elizabeth, of whose good deeds Luther had heard with awe as a lad, and here the Meistersingers of Wagner's opera had held their contests.

To Luther was assigned a room and several attendants. Friends who were in the secret of his hiding were allowed to visit him and he was permitted to walk, and ride about and even to accompany the chase. Here as elsewhere his mind was occupied with the great problem of religion. A letter in which he recounts an experience of the hunt reveals his tenderness of heart and the obsession of his spirit with the salvation of mankind:—

"Last week I hunted two days to see what the bitter-sweet pleasure of heroes was like. We took two hares and a few poor partridges—a worthy occupation indeed for men with nothing to do. I even moralized among the snares and dogs, and the superficial pleasure I may have derived from the hunt was equaled by the pity and pain which are a necessary part of it. It is an image of the devil hunting innocent little creatures with his guns and his hounds, the impious magistrates, bishops, and theologians. I deeply felt this parable of the simple and faithful soul. A still more cruel parable followed. With great pains I saved a little live rabbit, and rolled it up in the sleeve of my cloak, but when I left it and went a little way off, the dogs found the poor rabbit and killed it by biting its right leg and throat through the cloth. Thus do the Pope and Satan rage to kill souls and are not stopped by my labor. I am sick of this kind of hunting and prefer to chase bears, wolves, foxes, and that sort of wicked magistrate with spear and arrow. It consoles me to think that the mystery of salvation is near, when hares and innocent creatures will be captured rather by men than by bears, wolves, and hawks, i.e., the bishops and theologians."

In his imprisonment Luther was frequently depressed. The rigors of monastic training began to have their effect in ill health, which made his life from now on often a burden. Various forms of indigestion resulting in vertigo, the nervous irritation and exhaustion which follows over-work, and finally calculus began to attack the strong peasant body, but did not quench the fiery spirit or seriously affect the busy hand and brain. One reason for anxiety was Luther's fear that his disappearance might seem cowardly.

He described his life in one of the many letters which he sent from the Wartburg as one of "indolent idleness." Yet never had his pen moved so rapidly. From it poured tracts, sermons, expository writings and scores of letters to hearten his friends. He did not allow himself to be separated from that world which he had left in turmoil. When the Archbishop of Mayence, emboldened by his absence, opened a new sale of indulgences, Luther wrote him so indignant and fiery a letter that the Archbishop submitted in fright.

More important than any other work accomplished in the Wartburg was the translation of the New Testament into German, which was finished in less than three months. This version was by no means the first translation of the Scriptures into German. Those which existed were, however, made from the Latin Vulgate and included its errors. Moreover, they were written in a poor Latinized German impossible for the average reader to understand. Luther used not the Vulgate, but the original Greek, for his source of material and the German of the common people for his vehicle of expression.

For the task of translation he was amply prepared. He was, in the first place, thoroughly acquainted with the Bible, as only those can be who have turned to it in hours of deep despair and have felt in their own hearts the spiritual experiences of its characters and the healing of its divine consolation. The study of Greek had become a passion with Luther at Erfurt and he had never ceased to apply himself to it, especially to the Erasmian edition of the New Testament. In the third place, his native German had become in his mouth a glowing and living tongue, such as it had never been. Acquainted with the speech of the fireside and the market-place, he sought with careful patience for those words which would make most clear to simple folk the meaning of the original. Added to his capacity for taking pains was the true literary gift which would have made him famous even if he had never exhibited a reforming zeal. Thus prepared and working with superhuman swiftness, he produced a version which possesses amazing unity.

The humble spirit in which he labored may be seen in an allusion to his work: "I also have undertaken to translate the Bible. It is good for me, for otherwise I might have died with the fond opinion that I was learned."

That he was successful in his task, four centuries abundantly testify. The Luther translation has never been equaled or superseded. Beside giving to his dear Germans their Bible, Luther gave them from many rough dialects the noble tongue in which Goethe and Schiller were to write.

The New Testament was published in September, 1522. The volume was made as handsome as possible with fine woodcuts, and contained a description of the Holy Land by Melanchthon and many notes.

Outside the quiet Wartburg confusion reigned. The acceptance of Luther's doctrines of Christian liberty released mankind from a thousand binding rules. As in all times of change in human thought, many lost their moorings, and those who were not sufficiently clear-headed and strong-willed to adjust their lives to freer ways and higher ideals went sadly adrift. There were radicals, especially in Wittenberg and Zwickau, who out-Luthered Luther and carried reform far beyond the limits of common sense and reason.

One of the first practical effects of the new teaching was the marriage of parish priests, a reform of which Luther heartily approved and which he had recommended. That the parish priest living among his people, ministered to of necessity by women, should be compelled to live in celibacy, Luther in his Address to the Nobility of the German Nation had declared to be wrong, especially since the condition had been productive of constant scandal to the Church.

The breaking of the monastic vow of chastity seemed at first to Luther to be different from the violation of the celibacy demanded of the parish priest. Presently, however, he came to the conclusion that all monastic vows were ungodly because they were contrary to nature and to faith.

The new spirit showed itself in the repeal of certain civil laws and the passing of new and sensible ordinances. The begging friars were forbidden to ply their business, the worthy poor were provided for, a part of the funds for this purpose being drawn from the funds of monastic brotherhoods. Presently the services of the church were simplified.

Among those who brought discredit to the new movement was that Carlstadt who had debated with Luther against Eck, and also fanatical men from Zwickau, who preached a return to a primitive life with the abolition of all social distinctions, of education, and of all labor but manual labor. With such earnestness did they advocate their doctrines that not only the unlearned but men like Melanchthon were considerably impressed. Even the Elector had grave doubts as to the wisdom of resisting them, anarchists though they were.

Each proposed change brought protest from the more conservative of the population and each refusal of the conservative to accede brought fresh tumult from the radicals. So concerned was Luther that he made in December a hurried and secret visit to Wittenberg. In the progress of true liberty he rejoiced, but he deplored then and thereafter all violence. Changes must be made gradually, in an orderly way, and by the State. In the new liberty old evils would disappear of themselves. "Pay no more money for bulls, candles, bells, pictures, churches," said he; "but declare that the Christian life consists in faith and love, and keep doing it for two years, and you will see what happens to Pope, bishop, cardinal, priest, monk, nun, bells, steeples, masses, vigils, cowl, cap, shaven poll, rules, statutes, and the whole swarm and rabble of the Pope's government. They will vanish like smoke." For the excesses of the fanatics, with their faith in dreams, their advocacy of the destruction of property, their insistence upon re-baptizing all their converts by immersion, he had only condemnation.

After Luther's visit to Wittenberg the tumult did not diminish, but rather increased. So great was the confusion that he now appeared openly, taking upon himself all the responsibility for his return. At once he assumed his old duties as teacher and preacher.

With him he brought order. Calm, controlled, he showed that the power of the new gospel was to build as well as to destroy. For eight successive days he preached in the city church, the general subject of his discourses being the Pauline text, "All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient." Violence was of the devil; the Christian liberty of which they made so much was liberty to serve one's fellow men.

In his second sermon he declared a principle which he held firmly, contrary to the policy of the Roman Church and contrary to the policy of some other reformers.

"Compel or force any one with power I will not, for faith must be gentle and unforced. Take an example by me. I opposed indulgences and all the papists, but not with force; I only wrote, preached, and used God's Word, and nothing else. That Word has broken the Papacy more than any king or emperor ever broke it. Had I wished it, I might have brought Germany to civil war. Yes, at Worms I might have started a game which would not have been safe for the Emperor, but it would have been a fool's game. So I did nothing, but only let the Word act."

With seemly deliberation and without turmoil began the up-building of the new Church. At first the old form of service was continued with a few modifications, but presently the Latin of the mass was given up for German so that all might understand, and later a simpler service was prepared which might or might not be used. In order to provide the people with a part in the service, Luther wrote forty-two hymns, of which the greatest is "A Mighty Fortress is our God."

Among the reforming measures upon which Luther laid particular emphasis was that of education. Everywhere parents were urged to send their children to school. For their proper training Luther prepared a curriculum which included music and instruction in religion. In 1524 he published a "Letter to the Aldermen and cities of Germany on the erection and maintenance of Christian schools." He argued that children should be taught, first, that they might read the Bible, and second, so that they might be trained to govern. Not only boys but girls should be educated and public libraries should be established in every town.

More trying than any other difficulty which Luther had to meet was a widespread and serious uprising of the peasants in 1525. From them had come requests for many years that their condition be ameliorated. The demand was wholly justifiable. To their plea the princes would not listen, but responded with cruel punishments. Gradually the temper of the peasants changed. They began to dream of revolution, to believe that it was their duty to destroy all rulers so that God's kingdom might come. Luther's stirring Address to the Nobility of the German Nation, which proposed so many reforms, seemed to reveal him as the prophet and leader of their cause.

It was a leadership which Luther did not desire and would not have. While he reproved the princes for their tyranny, he condemned the peasants for their threats. Upon becoming real Christians both would find their grievances to vanish. It was right and necessary that there should be rulers and to them men should give obedience.

But to Luther's admonishing the peasants would not hearken. Furiously denouncing him as a traitor to their cause, they began a fierce warfare. Burning and murdering, they rushed upon the unprepared princes, many of whom felt in their terror that there was nothing to do but yield.

Forced to choose between what he considered to be a lawful if imperfect government and the worst sort of anarchy, Luther advised vehemently that the uprising be quelled. Bitterly reproached at the time and since, he is believed to-day to have taken the only possible course for one who saw clearly that all he had accomplished was becoming allied in the minds of sensible men with riot and revolution. He spoke with the deepest pity for the poor, misguided peasants, but said and believed that it was better to cut off a member than to allow the whole body to perish. The war ended with the defeat of the peasants.

The years following immediately upon Luther's return from the Wartburg saw the end of the old friendship with Staupitz, to whom Luther owed so much and whom he had dearly loved. Unable to follow his former disciple along the dangerous path which he had chosen, the old man died in alienation though not in anger.

A more serious disaster befell the friendship of Luther and the famous Erasmus. Admiring greatly the younger man's courage, Erasmus differed with him so widely by nature that the two could not long pursue a peaceful course. Erasmus had mercilessly attacked the lives of the monks in his famous "Praise of Folly," but he was unalterably opposed to conflict with the ecclesiastical authorities and carefully avoided any attack upon ecclesiastical doctrines. To Luther his attitude seemed cowardly. Doctrinal differences added fuel to a flame which was already burning brightly and the two became open enemies.

Among those who had reformation at heart was Ulrich von Hutten. Like Erasmus he was a brilliant critic of the corruption of the Church, but his motive was that of the German patriot who longed to cut the cord which bound his nation to Rome. Upon the publication of Luther's Address to the Nobility of the German Nation, which expressed so many of his convictions, Von Hutten and other knights of his own way of thinking hailed Luther as one of themselves. Offering their protection, they hovered about Worms during the Diet, determined to defend Luther with their lives.

But the spirit of the two men was different; the sword of Von Hutten was the sword of steel and the sword of Luther was the sword of the spirit. Von Hutten was interested in the unification and independence of the German nation, Luther in the spread of the true gospel. Nevertheless, each aided the other.

During the stay of Luther in the Wartburg, his doctrines had spread rapidly and steadily. This expansion continued until the Peasants' War put a check upon it. The efforts of the Popes who succeeded Leo X to stamp out the Lutheran heresy failed. At the Diet of Nuremberg in 1524 the Protestant estates demanded a free council of the Church to meet at Spires. At Spires in 1526 a decree was passed by which each state of the Empire was to act in matters of faith "as it could answer to God and the Emperor." Individual liberty of conscience was not yet attained, but a tremendous stride had been made in its direction. Many rulers accepted the new religion, some because they sincerely believed it, others because of political ambitions. For the most part the northern states accepted, the southern rejected it. . . .