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


In his parting discourse our Lord commanded his disciples to carry his gospel to the uttermost parts of the earth. Late in the sixth century, Pope Gregory I, obeying the divine command, sent the monk Augustine with a band of forty companions to persuade the Angles and Saxons to become Christians. The Pope, while yet a bishop, had seen in the Roman slave market fair blue-eyed captives from distant Britain. "They are not Angles," said he, "but Angels, and it becomes such to become co-heirs with the angels in heaven."

In a few years the English Church had grown to be the glory of Western Christendom, not only for its spiritual unity, its fine organization, its learning, but because of its many missionary enterprises. The most famous of its missionaries was Wynfrith or Boniface, the "Apostle to Germany." Devoted to Rome, diligent and truly evangelical, he overturned idols, preached against heathenish superstition, built churches and monasteries, and carefully instructed his converts. In 754 he and his companions were massacred by the heathen on the shores of the North Sea.

About seven hundred years later, on the 10th of November, 1483, there was born at Eisleben, a village in Thuringia, a part of Boniface's mission field, Martin Luther.

The Germany of 1483, though no longer merely an aggregation of forest tribes, was not yet a nation but a loose coalition of independent states which gave to the House of Hapsburg the imperial title. Under the greatest Hapsburg, Maximilian I, who ascended the throne in 1493, was first to be seen a strong tendency to union and centralization.

A union might have been consummated many centuries before it came about had not the German rulers been ever more concerned with campaigns for foreign conquest than for the welfare of their own kingdom. While England, France, and Spain were growing into distinct nations, the German states, devoted to the imperial idea and divided by internal jealousies, remained apart. Within them the free cities, insisting upon their rights and disputing with nobles and princes, constituted another element of independence, another obstacle to union. In addition the great spiritual states, answerable only to the Pope, opposed all interests but their own.

In the cities German life was most rich and varied and the German spirit most free. Here, churches, public buildings of all kinds in the Gothic style, towered city walls and private houses with tall, peaked roofs and projecting stories, delighted the artist's eye. Here the great guilds provided for the laboring-man a life as interesting and varied as that of the noble. Here was to be found the most keen and active intellectual life. The Minnesingers were gone, but didactic and satiric poets had taken their place and the Meistersingers were beginning to express the sturdy and cheerful life of the artisan.

Outside of the cities existence was for the most part dull and bitter, especially among the poor, upon whom was laid an insupportable burden of taxes. The forests might abound in game, but the peasant was not permitted to hunt; the streams be filled with fish, but he dared not cast a line. Sometimes an enemy sowed weeds in productive fields so as to make them useless, and frequently he destroyed the ripened crops. A love of adventure carried about the country thousands who neither possessed nor desired a home, and who by their vagrant life and moral looseness influenced disastrously the character of the people.

To add to the confusion of spirit a hideous pestilence visited Europe in the fourteenth century, the "Black Death," carried thither from the East. Few authentic statistics of its destruction remain, but it is the opinion of conservative historians that one fourth of the inhabitants of Europe and one half of the inhabitants of Germany perished. Upon the remnant the effect was appalling. All restraint was thrown aside, all moral obligation forgotten. As in France and other countries, so in Germany, Jews were tortured and murdered by the thousand because the terrified and ignorant populace held them responsible for the calamity. A widespread religious movement seemed about to start under the terror of the plague, but when the plague ended)the anxiety of men about their souls ended also.

In the vast ecclesiastical circle, that segment which was first traced by the hand of Boniface had never been so closely bound to the center as many other portions of the Church. Independent and freedom-loving, insisting upon the right of private judgment, the Germans, who had never united into a real nation, had still less allowed themselves to come entirely under the domination of the See of Rome which controlled and shaped the course of the Christian Church and had made its bishop Pope. While there were gradually imposed upon the Germans the superstition, the useless and worse than useless ordinances of the Roman Church, there persisted a true evangelical religion which found its expression in writings like those of Tauler and the author of A German Theology. The unwillingness of many hearts to accept in their entirety the teachings of Rome and their horror at her corruption are seen in the eagerness with which they enlisted under the banner of reform when it was once lifted.

That the Church had forgotten the behests of her great Founder may be proved from her own records. The plain and simple teaching of Christ had been overlaid and obscured by misconception and perversion. Men went no longer directly to the Scriptures for the source and authority for their belief, and they applied no more directly in faith to Christ for the healing of their souls. Generations of theologians had believed and had taught that man could win God's forgiveness for sin by his own good works,—his penances, his fasts, his journeys to sacred shrines, his gifts to charity and to the Church, and his own holiness of life,—whereas the Founder of the Church had taught that man was forgiven solely because of his faith in Christ.

Each great or small departure from the pure doctrine of the early Church had brought about evils 'peculiar to itself. The acceptance of the Pope as the Vicar of Christ, with sole power to bind and loose, with spiritual and temporal over-lordship in all the world, not only made men slaves, but bred dangerous confusion in the minds which saw a human being, fallible, sometimes immoral and even basely corrupt, in a position so lofty and so powerful. The seven sacraments, administrable only by the clergy and supposed to be necessary for man's salvation, became the instruments of an almost unendurable tyranny. The doctrine of transubstantiation gave rise to sensual and gross ideas of a holy mystery. The confession required of the laity put the conscientious into the power of an ignorant and sometimes evil priesthood, and did not profit the indifferent or wicked. The celibacy of the clergy, the exaltation of a life of so-called "chastity," resulted harmfully, not only in the reproach which it cast upon married life, but in the evils arising from the suppression of the natural affections of the human heart. The monasteries, which had blessed the world with many saints and uncounted deeds of charity and mercy, and which had performed a noble work in the preservation of learning which would otherwise have perished, frequently sheltered large numbers of shameless men who, separated from the world, idle, deprived of the occupations natural to mankind, became a menace instead of a blessing.

The enormous wealth of the Church founded upon her landed possessions and increased by tribute from every hamlet of the Christian world, her luxury and her pomp had been for many years sharply condemned by protesting though devoted sons. In the twelfth century St. Bernard held before the Papacy "the mirror in which it could recognize its deformities." Said he: "I do not find that St. Peter ever appeared in public loaded with jewels and clad in silk, mounted on a white mule, surrounded by soldiers, and followed by a brilliant retinue. In the glitter that environs thee, rather wouldst thou be taken for the successor of Constantine than for the successor of Peter." Warning the Pope against lust for power, he reminded him that he was "a man, naked, poor, miserable, made for toil and not for honors."

Among the new and growing abuses were the worship of the Virgin Mary and the saints and the reverencing of countless and often revolting relics of which churches boasted, pieces of bone, locks of hair, or bits of wood and stone to which was attributed not only a holy history, but miraculous power to heal. The opening of the catacombs created a supply of fragments of the human body so great that individual churches counted their gruesome treasures by the thousand and collected vast sums from those who came to gaze upon them and to pay them honor.

Another abuse which grew to large proportions, and which was the source of great wealth to the Church and the reason for great scandal, was the selling of so-called "indulgences." In the early Church the wrongdoer confessed his sins in the presence of the congregation and accompanied his confession with a promise to perform certain acts to prove his penitence. Later, private confession took the place of public confession, and penances, such as fasting, or a journey to a distant shrine, were imposed by the priest. Still later, prayers, almsgiving, or even the paying of money were substituted for more burdensome tasks. Such penalties were supposed to free only from those punishments which the Church imposed on earth; they could not release the soul from the punishments appointed by God.

Finally the ignorant laity, uncorrected by an ignorant priesthood, attributed an almost unlimited power to the indulgences or pardons which one could buy. Not only did the indulgence cover the sins of the past, but those of the future; not only did it free from ecclesiastical punishment, but from punishment in purgatory. Contrition ceased in the minds of many men to be a part of the process by which one secured forgiveness; all that was required was the appointed sum of money.

The Bible was a sealed book, not by any fiat of the Church, but because it was regarded with indifference. Theologians had interpreted it with such skill and perspicuity that their comments were believed to be more valuable for the priest than acquaintance with the original. In far greater degree was the interpretation of the Church all that the layman needed to concern himself with.

Thus by human authority and by the power of superstition, and not by love and reasonable faith, did the Church rule her subjects.

In all parts of Christendom there were signs of an approaching revolt, signs which were at first unheeded, then quenched by all the power of the Church's wide-reaching arms. In England Wycliffe, "the Morning Star of the Reformation," translated the entire Bible into the English tongue. His translation, widely circulated in manuscript copies, was diligently read. When his doctrines reached Bohemia, John Huss, who received them and began to spread them abroad, was burned at the stake. Later, another convert, Jerome of Prague, met a similar fate, and many others were cruelly persecuted and slain. In Italy, Savonarola, an earnest preacher of righteousness who pleaded for a reform within the Church, was executed and his body burned. In the south of France the Albigenses paid with their lives for doubting the infallibility of the Pope. Everywhere the theory that laymen might rule where only priests had ruled was gaining credence, and here and there peasant uprisings, as yet feeble and unorganized, were showing that even the serf had begun to think. The young nations became more and more unwilling to allow the Church to exercise that control over their affairs which she claimed as her right. Between the Pope and Germany especially there was constant irritation and strife.

There came about through Europe at this time a great awakening and quickening of the human mind, as though a Spirit of Enlightenment had touched the nations with a magic wand. The various phases of this awakening are so closely related that none can be said to be the cause or the effect of any other, but all are parts of a vast movement. Great stores of valuable scientific knowledge were opened to the West by the Saracens. The lost and forgotten writings i of Greece and Rome were once more read and admired. The modern languages which were taking shape offered a new vehicle for fresh literature. The invention of printing from type and the substitution of paper for parchment made possible the broad spreading of knowledge of all kinds.

Upon the spiritual rule of the Pope this searching after knowledge had an incalculable effect. Men thought more, they began to compare with the mediaeval formulas of Rome the scientific theories of which they heard now for the first time. The printing-press enabled those bold thinkers who questioned the worship of the Virgin Mary, the use of images, and the confession to a priest to spread their objections widely. The moral standards of the Church were attacked, and her purification was freely discussed. But the discussion was for the most part that of private conversation. Against the evils which many deplored few dared to lift a public voice.

Into the Church as well as into the world was now born Martin Luther, the son of peasants, Hans and, Margareta (Ziegler) Luther. His birthplace, Eisleben, was the principal village in the thickly forested county of Mansfield in the Duchy of Thuringia, where his father operated a small furnace for the smelting of copper. On the second day of his life the little boy was baptized in the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, being given the name Martin in honor of the saint whose day it was.

The Luthers were poor; indeed, in their early married life only the narrowest of margins separated them from want. They had, however, as much as their neighbors, and their hearts were content. Their house was tiny; its windows were filled with horn and not with glass, and its floor was of earth. When Margareta went to the forest for wood for her fire, it was probably with no complaint, but with rejoicing that there was wood to be had.

Their honesty and industry were presently rewarded by a fair measure of success. When Martin was six months old, his father left Eisleben for Mansfield, where he expected to better his fortunes, and here he and his wife lived until their death. From the renter of a single furnace, Hans came to be the owner of two. The Counts of Mansfield respected him and he was made a member of the village council. Beside being honest and industrious, he was full of common sense and sturdy independence, traits which were a part of the inheritance which he gave his son. This independence was shown in his attitude toward the Church and the priests. When he was urged during an illness to leave money to the Church, he answered that he would leave his money to his children who needed it more.

Margareta was a true daughter of the Church. To her every monk was a holy man, every transgression of the rules of the Church a transgression of the laws of God. She was not only pious, but deeply superstitious. The strange and awful dwellers in the Thuringian woods, which crowded close upon the little town,—gnomes, demons, and evil spirjts,—had not been wholly banished by the good Boniface, but were still likely to threaten those who stayed too late away from home. Beneath the ground were the dim caverns of the mines, where even the Evil One himself might dwell. Fear of the Turk and a lingering terror of the plague found place also in the heart of Margareta and were by her impressed upon her children. Nevertheless she was a cheerful soul, who told her little boy again and again, "If the world smiles not on you and me, the fault is ours."

To Martin she taught the simple faith which the peasants cherished, that faith which was to be kindled in his keeping from a spark to an enlightening flame. He learned the Ten Commandments, the Lord's Prayer, the Creed, and a few simple hymns. He learned to respect the holy monks, to reverence the Holy Father in distant and sacred Rome, and to gaze with trembling awe upon the fragments of the skeletons of saints and the tiny pieces of their garments. He learned that God and Christ were stern judges, who looked with loathing upon sin, who could be placated by pilgrimages and penances, and who could be best served in monasteries and convents. He saw in the church at Mansfield a painted window which represented Christ, armed with a sword, his face stern, coming to judge the world. Deep in his heart there lay constantly a fear that he would have no happy fate in that day.

Like other children of pious parents he was trained with the most careful strictness. Both at home and at school he was punished with the rod. He records that his mother, who loved him so dearly, beat him until the blood came for having taken a nut from the household stores. He tells also of fifteen whippings received during one morning in school. It is a relief to remember that he was in youth, as well as in later life, full of a mischievous playfulness and that the beatings could not all have been severe. To his parents he gave the warmest affection as long as they lived, therefore their punishments were not so terrible as to leave him bitter or unfilial.

Until he was thirteen years old he attended school at Mansfield. The lower schools were everywhere poor; Martin described them afterwards as "hell and purgatory" and their examinations as trials for murder. The children spent a long time learning the little Latin which was the chief subject of instruction.

If he had ever wished to leave school and its stern and stupid master, he would have received no encouragement from home. For his boy, Hans Luther had a great ambition. He himself had been a miner, but his son was to have a profession, the law, and was to become a man of influence. All the future was clear even to the day when Martin should establish himself with a rich wife selected by his father and should become magistrate of Mansfield.

When Martin was thirteen he was sent to Magdeburg to school. Here he was a "poor student," that is, he had the sort of free scholarship which the schools of the day offered. He paid neither rent nor tuition and was given the privilege of begging his bread in the streets. In turn, he sang as a chorister in the church. Of the experiences of the year we know little except that his life was hard and that he had a severe illness. It is probable that his learning was not much increased.

Various events which he spoke of afterwards strengthened the deep concern of his heart for his salvation. In the streets of Magdeburg he saw "with my own eyes”—so he writes— "a Prince of Anhalt who went in a friar's cowl on the highways to beg bread, and carried a sack like a donkey, so heavy that he bent under it. He did all the works of the cloister like any other brother, watched and mortified his flesh so that he looked like a death's head, mere skin and bones." Here was a way to satisfy the stern Judge of heaven!

He saw each Sunday and many times in the week a picture over the altar in the Magdeburg church in which a boat filled with monks and nuns was sailing heavenward. Here was perhaps the only way to satisfy the stern Judge! Associating constantly with the monks, he had doubtless laid before him many times the earthly blessings and the heavenly rewards of a religious life.

After a year at Magdeburg, Martin was sent to Eisenach, which was his mother's birthplace. A relative of hers, Conrad Hutter, was the sexton of St. Nicolas Church, and she hoped for his help for her boy. Here again Martin was a "poor 'student" and begged his bread from house to house. Now, in response Rot only to his knock, but to his clear, high treble voice and the appeal of his dark eyes, whose deep gaze was noted by friend and enemy throughout his life, an important door was opened to him, that of the Cotta family, who thenceforth took him in as one of themselves.

In the Cotta household he lived a new life. Loved and tenderly treated, no longer pinched by hunger, surrounded by refinement, he knew happiness which he had probably never imagined. When he spoke of Eisenach in later days, it was to call it "that dear city."

Now his mind grew as well as his body and soul. St. George's School which he attended was excellent and he learned rapidly. Here ruled a different spirit from any he had known. The teachers, among them the learned Trebonius, armed themselves, not with the rod, but with kindness and consideration. Trebonius always removed his scholar's cap when he entered his classroom, because of the embryo rulers, magistrates, and scholars whom he thought he saw before him. Here Martin heard for the first time of the ancient classics which were coming to light from forgotten libraries and were being circulated among the intellectuals; here he found food for his constantly increasing mental hunger.

In Eisenach, Martin's association with monks continued, both in the Cotta household and in the church to which his duties as chorister took him daily. He saw in the church another picture, that of a devout young woman, St. Elizabeth, of whose traditional kindness to the poor and devotion to heavenly things all Eisenach spoke with awe. In his walks he must have looked many times toward the castle of Wartburg crowning a wooded hill where Elizabeth had lived. In her life was another answer to his longing question, "I am a great sinner—what must I do to be saved?"

In May, 1501, Martin left Eisenach for the University of Erfurt. The prosperity for which Hans Luther had toiled was in sight and with it his ambition for his boy grew more keen. Now Martin was no longer a "poor student," but paid his way and had, we may conjecture, money to spend. Gay and light-hearted, handsome, friendly, anxious to learn, he had upon entering the university as pleasant a prospect as any youth could wish.

Erfurt was at this time the intellectual center of Germany. Hither came students, not only from all sections of the Empire, but from outside its bounds. Here there was a fine library, here were famous teachers, here a keen and eager intellectual life. A proverb, current throughout Germany, expressed the fame of the university, "He who would study rightly must go to Erfurt." It is likely that the lad sighed often over the .shortness of the days.

Like many other cities of Germany, Erfurt was picturesque and beautiful. It lay on the bank of the river Gera and had within its walls noble examples of mediaeval art, among them the cathedral and the great Church of .St. Severinus. Tall towers, beautiful sculptures and bronzes, exquisite stained glass, and fine bells attracted the heart to the beauties of the religion which they set forth. The university was a low, monastic building, with a steep roof and a handsomely carved portal.

The city offered a gay social life to those who wished it. In this Martin took some part, though study was his chief occupation. His companions recalled in after years his merry disposition and his skill in song and in playing the lute.

In preparation for the law, he studied the general course offered by the university, logic, grammar and rhetoric, arithmetic, natural sciences, ethics and metaphysics. The accepted authority was Aristotle, whose teachings were held to be infallible. The investigation and experimentation which is the foundation of modern scientific training was unheard of. The philosophers debated dull and profitless questions which had little relation to life. To them, however, Luther applied himself earnestly. Of his other studies he enjoyed most keenly astronomy, "whose subject-matter was the starry sky," and logic, which "teaches one to say a thing distinctly and plainly and in short, clear words."

The study of the new classics must have been tempting to the young Luther, but his strongest inclination was toward more serious subjects. Still the relation of man to God was the chief concern of his mind, and in the solution of this problem he expected the help of the philosophers. One day in the library at Erfurt he found a copy of the Bible and opening it read the story of Hannah and Samuel. But the book was connected in his mind with none of his difficulties, though he rejoiced to have found the volume from which the Scripture lessons of the missal and breviary were taken. Closing it, he thought of it no more.

Through his years at Erfurt, Luther could not have escaped hearing attacks upon the Church in which he hoped to be saved. The tendency of the humanists was away from the Church, many of whose practices they ridiculed. Followers of Huss, still holding in secret their belief, came quietly into the town and stole quietly away. Though the city had within its walls over a hundred buildings owned by the Church and devoted to religious purposes, including eight monasteries, and though it was known as "Little Rome," it could not have been free from the scornful or bitter comments which were finding their way into print. The lives of individual monks, sung in coarse verse and pointed in vulgar epigram, must have been in the eyes of Luther a scandal and a shame. But he did not condemn the Church for the unworthy behavior of a few. He remained her devout son, believing all she taught. The very wickedness of those who were dedicated to God brought more and more clearly and constantly before him the awfulness of human sin and the dreadful fate of those who were not saved. A visitation of the plague in which friends and companions died about him, and a great storm to which he was exposed, quickened his consciousness of God's wrath.

In an unusually short time he received, first, his bachelor's, then his master's, degree. His father was pathetically proud of him. He ceased to address him with the familiar "thou" of daily speech and substituted for it the "you" of formality. He saw near at hand the goal of his ambition for his boy, his graduation in the law. He bought for him a copy of the costly Corpus Juris, or "Body of the Law," and Martin returned to Erfurt to begin his final studies.

But in these studies he did not long continue. He found them dull, dry, utterly unprofitable. His contempt for the profession he expressed many times in later life. "Jurists commonly dispute and discuss about words. They alter the facts and fail to go to the bottom of them that the truth may be discovered." It was not strange that the profession proved distasteful to one whose chief delight it was to go to the bottom of things that truth might be discovered! But Luther had a more serious charge to make against the lawyers: "They take the money of the poor, and with their tongue thresh out their pocket and their purse."

Distaste for the work which was chosen for him for life proved to be the last straw on a load already heavy. Against his father's will, cruelly disappointing his father's hopes, to the horror of his companions who had no good opinion of the monastery, he announced that he was about to become a monk. Summoning his friends to feast and sing with him once more, he bade them farewell, and went the next morning to the monastery of the Augustinian to kneel at the feet of the prior and to beg for God's mercy upon his sinful soul.