Martin Luther (1483-1546), a former Augustinian monk and theology professor, began the Protestant Reformation by nailing his “Ninety-Five Theses” to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany in 1517. Or did he?
Although his original intent was only to reform the Roman Catholic Church, Luther’s actions led to a split in the Church, dividing it into the Protestant and Catholic branches. Today’s Lutheran Church (of which there are now several divisions, or “synods”) bears the name of the great Reformer (Reformator in German). Most of the countries of northern Europe soon became Protestant. Germany itself is today about evenly divided between Catholics and Protestants.
Besides his religious reforms, Luther also had an impact on standardizing the German language through his translation of the Bible into German. He was a leader in translating the Bible into the language of the people, rather than the traditional Latin.
Luther’s Early Life
Martin Luther was born on November 10, 1483 in the town of Eisleben in what is now the German federal state of Saxony-Anhalt (in East Germany before 1990). He was the son of Hans Luder (Luther), a farmer, and his wife, Margaretha née Lindemann. Hans would later prosper in a copper mining boom in nearby Mansfeld.
From Luder to Luther
Martin Luther was born with the surname “Luder” or “Ludher.” His given name was for St. Martin of Tours. The family spelled its last name several different ways, but in 1512 Martin chose the current spelling of Luther, which is pronounced LOO-TAIR in German.
In 1484 the family moved to Mansfeld, where Hans became a well-to-do businessman and a member of the city council. An ambitious man, Hans wanted his son to become a lawyer. In 1501, the 19-year-old Martin went to Erfurt to study at the university there. After receiving his master’s degree in 1505, Luther began his law studies, but soon decided he did not want to pursue that profession. He dropped out of the university to become an Augustinian monk in Erfurt, a move that greatly displeased his father.
One explanation for this career change is probably apocryphal: While returning from home to the university on horseback in 1505, a bolt of lightning struck close to him. Terrified, he cried out, “Help! Saint Anna, if you let me live, I will become a monk!” (“Heilige Anna, hilf! Lässt du mich leben, so will ich ein Mönch werden.”)
Over the next three years the Church took various steps to counter Luther’s challenge, but Luther refused to recant. In June 1520, the pope issued a papal bull (Bannbulle) that threatened to excommunicate Luther. After Luther publicly burned the pope’s edict in December, he was excommunicated in January 1521.
Luther’s name was becoming well known throughout Germany and Europe. By the end of 1520, he had published at least 81 pamphlets calling not only for religious reforms, but also for more political and social justice. Translated into many languages, Luther’s words found resonance with people who were suffering under the unjust social and econonomic conditions of the time. There was also growing tension between the various principalities and the central powers of Europe.
The Diet of Worms (Reichstag zu Worms)
Ordered to defend himself against heresy at the secular Diet of Worms (a special parliament in the German city of Worms on the Rhine), Luther may or may not have said the famous words later attributed to him: “Hier stehe ich.” (“Here I stand.”) But on April 17, 1521, appearing before the members of the Diet, he defiantly responded to the heresy charges by saying: “I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.”
The Diet of Worms was not impressed. In the Edict of Worms, signed by Emperor Charles V (Kaiser Karl V.), it condemned the “notorious heretic” and made it a crime for anyone in the Holy Roman Empire to shelter Luther or to read or print his writings. The Edict allowed anyone to kill him without facing punishment, but also granted Luther free passage, a clause that the emperor would later regret – when his realm began to be split apart by the Protestant/Catholic division.
Luther was offered protection by Frederick III (“Frederick the Wise”), the Elector of Saxony. Safely ensconced in the Wartburg Castle at Eisenach (incognito as “Junker Jörg”), Luther began his translation of the New Testament into German and continued to attack the archbishop, finally shaming him into stopping the sale of indulgences. (Johann Tetzel had died in undeserved disgrace in 1519.) But the Reformation that Luther had set in motion was soon radicalized and began to cause unrest and violence.
The German Peasants War – Deutscher Bauernkrieg (1524-1526)
The peasants Luther had encouraged were soon engaged in rebellion and violence in his name. The widespread burning of convents, monasteries, bishops’ palaces, and libraries in Thuringia particularly enraged Luther. His response was published in a pamphlet entitled “Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants” (Wider die mörderischen Rotten der Bauern). Written after his return to Wittenberg, the pamphlet explained his teachings, condemned the violence as the devil’s work, and called for the nobles to put down the rebellion.
The peasant revolts (which were not limited to just farmers and peasants) had spread like wildfire before being diminished by Luther’s condemnation. Estimates of the number of people killed in the uprisings range from 75,000 to 130,000. Very few of the revolts led to the political, religious and economic reforms the people wanted. Feudalism and monarchial rule would last centuries longer in Germany and Europe.
After the Peasants War, the Reformation was less of a people’s movement and more of a time when the new Protestant Church could flourish under the nobles and secular rulers in Germany and other parts of Europe. Luther now began to organize his new religion. With the support of the Elector, Luther helped spread his doctrines in Saxony, from whence Lutheranism spread to other states, principalities and regions. (Frederick’s successor, his brother John the Constant [Johann der Beständige], was a zealous Lutheran.) Although it was not what he had originally intended, the loss of funding from the Catholic Church and the political situation forced Luther to use a state-supported model for his new religion. In 1527 the Lutheran Church was established as the state church in Saxony.
Martin Luther King
There are several German connections for the American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. Besides sharing his name with the 16th century German reformer, King also visited East and West Berlin in 1964. King’s father toured Biblical lands and attended a world Baptist conference in Berlin in 1934. After that trip, he renamed himself and his son after Luther. For more, see our Martin Luther King bio.
One of the tenets of Lutheranism was that priests could marry. In 1525 Luther himself (a former monk) took a wife. On June 13, 1525, Luther married Katharina von Bora, one of 12 nuns he had helped escape from a convent two years earlier. Katharina was 26, Luther 41 years old. Ironically, the couple’s first home was a former monastery, a gift from John the Constant. They would have six children, four of whom lived to adulthood.
Luther published a German church service (Gottesdienstordnung) in early 1526, basing it on the Catholic mass but omitting “everything that smacks of sacrifice.” The Lutheran service became a celebration in which everyone received the wine as well as the bread, but some other reformers still considered Luther’s service too similar to the Catholic mass.
Because he felt there was a need to educate both congregations and pastors, Luther introduced the catechism to teach the basics of the Protestant faith in 1529. He also introduced changes concerning the saints, Christmas, and other Catholic celebrations, eliminating or adapting them for Lutheranism. For instance, since there were no longer saints, Saint Nicholas (Sankt Nikolaus) was replaced by the Christkindl (a Christmas child angel) as the bringer of gifts for children, in order to bring the Christmas celebration closer to the birth of Christ. But the legends concerning Luther and the Christmas tree are mostly just that – legends.
Luther and the German Language
Because he felt that the Catholic Latin Mass, the Latin Bible, and other Latin religious aspects were too far removed from the common people, Luther introduced German versions of the Bible, the mass, and hymns. It was the hymns in particular that he felt best brought together worship and family life. He wrote many hymns himself, including “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” (“Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott”).
Luther’s German translation of the New Testament appeared in 1522. Later, he and his collaborators completed the translation of the Old Testament and published the entire German Bible in 1534.
Although there had been disagreements in the efforts to establish doctrinal unity, in 1530 the Augsburg Confession (Augsburger Bekenntnis, Confessio Augustana) was a major step in establishing the Lutheran Church. But some Reformation leaders and regions refused to sign the Augsburg Confession, and the Protestant faith was divided into various denominations almost from the very beginning.
The Speyer Protestation
The term “Protestant” arose from the Protestation at Speyer. On April 19, 1529 six rulers (Fürsten) and 14 Imperial Free Cities, representing the non-Catholic (evangelisch) minority, petitioned the Reichstag at Speyer against the Imperial Ban (Reichsacht) of Charles V against Martin Luther, as well as the proscription of his works and teachings, and called for the unhindered spread of the Lutheran faith. These “Protestants” (Protestanten) thus lent their name to the Protestant faith.
As a church leader and religious writer, Martin Luther often expressed anti-Jewish, anti-Judaic views, including Von den Juden und Ihren Lügen (On the Jews and Their Lies). Modern scholars still debate the issue, but most agree that his anti-Jewish rhetoric contributed significantly to the development and continuation of anti-Semitism in Germany. Luther’s influence persisted long after his death. Throughout the 1580s, riots led to the expulsion of Jews from several German Lutheran states. In his last sermon, delivered at Eisleben, his place of birth, only three days before his death, Luther called for the expulsion of Jews from all German territory.
Since the 1980s, Lutheran Church denominations have repudiated Martin Luther’s anti-Jewish statements.
On 18 February 1546, aged 62, Luther died in Eisleben. His tomb is in the Castle Church in Wittenberg, beneath the pulpit.
Next | Religion in Germany
AT THE GERMAN WAY
- Religion in Germany
- Martin Luther King, Jr. in Germany – The civil rights reformer in East and West Berlin
- Mini Bios A-Z – Brief biographies of people from the German-speaking world
- Featured Biographies – More detailed bios of notable people from the German-speaking world
- Notable Women from Austria, Germany, Switzerland
- Famous Graves in Germany – Where are they buried?