Society

Martin Luther - Important Figures in World History

Perhaps no one person had a greater impact on the Protestant Reformation movement in Western Christianity than a German by the name of Martin Luther.

5. Early Life

Martin Luther, the famed theologian of 16th century Europe, was born to Hans and Margarette Luther in Eisleben, Saxony (today part of modern southeast Germany on November 10th, 1483. Even though his parents were of peasant lineage, his father had some experience as a miner and an ore smelter. A year after his birth, his family relocated to Mansfield, where his father was a leaseholder of copper mines and smelters. He also had several siblings and was known to be close to one of them named Jacob. Martin’s father knew that mining was a tough job, and wanted his son to become a lawyer instead. Martin Luther started visiting school at the age of seven, and in 1498 he joined a school in Eisleben to learn grammar, logic, and rhetoric. After school, in 1501 at the age of 19, he joined the University of Erfurt from where he received a Master's Degree in the Arts in 1505. He also enrolled himself at the law school in the same university that year. Until this time, he seemed to be straight on his way to fulfill his father’s dreams of him becoming a lawyer. However, a life changing event, occurring on the 2nd of July, 1505, changed the entire course of his career. On this fateful day, when caught in a terrible thunderstorm, Martin Luther prayed to St. Anne, the Patron Saint of miners, to save him from imminent death. He promised to become a monk if his wish was granted. He did manage to survive the storm, and thus kept his promise, much to his father’s disappointment. Historians believe that his decision to be a monk was not a spontaneous act on that single day, but an idea that had for long been building up in the mind of young Martin Luther.

4. Career

On the 17th of July, 1505, Martin Luther left his law school and joined an Augustinian friary, also in Erfurt. Martin Luther’s first few years at the monastery were not easy ones, and he became quite disillusioned by the immorality and corruption which he witnessed within the Church community during these years. To subdue the turmoil he was undergoing, he joined the University of Wittenberg where he completed his education to receive a Doctorate and become a Professor of Theology at the same university. Beginning in 1513, Luther’s duties as a professor gradually led him to a new enlightenment. As he prepared lectures on Theology, he focussed on the interpretation of verses from the Bible. In so doing, he said that he finally realized that fearing God or following religious dogma was not the path to salvation. Faith alone, rather, would be enough to work wonders.

3. Major Contributions

In 1517, Pope Leo X of the Roman Catholic Church announced the need of indulgences (penance achieved trough purchase) in order to build the St. Peter’s Basilica. This angered Luther and, on October 31st, 1517, he nailed a copy of his work ‘The Ninety-Five Theses’ on the doors of his university’s chapel and also sent a copy of it to the Archbishop Albert Albrecht of Mainz. This work of his attempted to make a scholarly objection to the Church's practices of collecting money at the expense of the common man in order to build and expand the Church and its outward appearance. Soon thereafter, starting in January of 1518, Luther’s followers translated his work into German, and copies of ‘The Ninety-Five Theses’ spread throughout Europe an began to reach the masses within a period of two months. Students started thronging the university to hear Luther speak, and in 1520 he published some of his other best known works, which included ‘On the Freedom of a Christian’, ‘To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation’, and ‘On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church’. On a more personal front, in 1525 Martin Luther married a former nun, Katharina von Bora, and they would go on to have six children together. This act of Luther also was a major reform, which acted as a model for clerical marriage, paving the way as a precendent for other Protestant clergy to follow to freely enter into the bonds of marriage themselves.

2. Challenges

In October of 1518, at a meeting with Roman Catholic Cardinal Thomas Cajetan, Luther was asked to denounce his Ninety-Five Theses. He refused doing so until there was sufficient grounds to prove him wrong. He also went as far as to say that the Papacy did not have significant authority to be the lone interpreters of the holy scriptures. Throughout 1519, Luther continued his original teachings, and publicly declared his views on the interpretation of scriptures by the Papacy. The Church's authorities could bear this no longer, and finally issued an ultimatum on June 15th, 1520, with a letter threatening him with excommunication. Unperturbed, Luther burned this letter publicly in December of 1520. Thenceforth, in January 1521, he was formally excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church. In March of that same year, he was summoned to provide an explanation of his teachings before the Diet of Worms (a general assembly under the jurisdiction of the Holy Roman Empire in the German city-state of Worms), where Luther bravely refused to back down from, or amend, his statements.

On the 8th of May, 1521, Luther’s writings were officially banned by the Diet of Worms, and he was declared a ‘convicted heretic’ (a purveyor of beliefs contradicting those already well-established and customary). He was forced to go into hiding, and his friends helped him take refuge at the Wartburg Castle, in Eisenach. During this period at Wartburg, Luther translated the New Testament into German, in a manner that it would reach out to the common people of his country who could not speak and read the Latin used by the Catholic Church. In May of 1522, he returned to the Wittenberg Castle Church and, somehow, still managed to avoid being captured. He started receiving increased levels of support from German princes to build his own church and, during the Peasant Revolts of 1524, he supported the rulers instead of the peasants since it was the former who were financing his now rapidly growing church.

1. Death and Legacy

Marin Luther served as the Dean of Theology at the University of Wittenberg from 1533 until his death in 1546. During this period, he suffered from both physical and mental stress, and came under the grasp of such diseases as arthritis, a heart condition, and digestive disorders. His works during this period reflected his mental agony, and contained strict, and negatively opinionated, writings against certain opposing segments of religious society, such as Jews and Muslims. Martin Luther died on February 18th, 1546, at the age of 62, while he was visiting his hometown of Eisleben. To this day, he remains famous as one of the most influential personalities of the Protestant Reformation Movement in Europe. His works and actions shook the foundations of the Roman Catholic Church, and divided its following between it and new sects of Christianity, and forced the introduction of major reforms within the Catholic Church itself. A highly able theologian, Luther interpreted the teachings of the Bible in new ways, and made it more accessible to the common man. Thusly, he forever changed the relationship dynamics between the followers of the Catholic Church and their leaders in the clergy.

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