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Martin Luther
1483–1546, German leader of the Protestant Reformation

Born in Eisleben, Saxony, of a family of small, but free, landholders.

Early Life and Spiritual Crisis

Luther was educated at the cathedral school at Eisenach and at the Univ. of Erfurt (1501-5). In 1505 he completed his master's examination and began the study of law. Several months later, after what seems to have been a sudden religious experience, he entered a monastery of the Augustinian friars at Erfurt. There, devoutly attentive to the rigid discipline of the order, he began an intensive study of Scripture and was ordained a priest in 1507. In 1508 he was sent to the Univ. of Wittenberg to study and to lecture on Aristotle. In 1510, Luther was sent to Rome on business for his order, and there he was shocked by the spiritual laxity apparent in high ecclesiastical places.

Upon his return he completed the work for his theological doctorate and became a professor at Wittenberg. This period was the beginning of the intimacy between Luther and John von Staupitz, whose influence led Luther to say in 1531, "I have received everything from Staupitz." For Luther these years were times of profound spiritual and physical torment. Obsessed with anxieties about his own salvation, he sought relief in frequent confession and extreme asceticism. His search for peace of mind led him, under the guidance of Staupitz, to further study of the Scriptures.

In preparation for his university lectures in 1513, especially on the letters of Paul, Luther resolved his turmoil. In the Scriptures Luther found a loving God who bestowed upon sinful humans the free gift of salvation, to be received through faith, against which all good works were as nothing. Luther devoted himself with increasing vigor to the work of the church, and in 1515 he became district vicar.

The 95 Theses

From 1516 on, as a consequence of his new convictions, Luther felt compelled to protest the dispensation of indulgences (see indulgence). The arrival of Johann Tetzel in Saxony in 1517 to proclaim the indulgence granted by Leo X prompted Luther to post his historic 95 theses on the door of the castle church. The abuse of indulgences had been condemned by many Catholic theologians, but it had had great financial success, and ecclesiastical authorities had not halted it. Luther's theses were widely distributed and read, finding sympathy among the exploited peasantry and among the civil authorities, who deplored the drainage of funds to Rome. The propositions were brought to the attention of the pope, who ordered the head of the Augustinians to keep peace in his order. Meanwhile Tetzel was committed to the struggle against Luther, and he found an able colleague in Johann Eck.

Although Luther still considered his activities as directed toward reforms within the church, his opponents found his ideas heretical. In the following years several attempts were made to reconcile Luther to the church, but the basis of compromise was lacking on both sides. At a meeting with the papal legate at Augsburg in 1518, Luther refused to recant, and in 1519 in a public disputation with Eck in Leipzig he was forced to declare his stand as one at variance with some of the doctrines of the church.

Break with the Church

As the break with Rome became inevitable, Luther broadened his position to include widespread reforms. In his Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation (1520) he supported the new nationalism by advocating German control of German ecclesiastical matters and appealed to the German princes to help effect the reformation in Germany. He attacked the claim of the papacy of authority over secular rulers and denied that the pope was the final interpreter of Scripture, enunciating the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. He assailed the corruption of the church and attacked usury and commercialism, recommending a return to a primitive agrarian society.

Catholic theologians were further aroused with the publication of The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, in which Luther, in an uncompromising attack on the papacy, denied the authority of the priesthood to mediate between the individual and God and rejected the sacraments except as aids to faith. He followed this work with a tract entitled The Freedom of a Christian Man. in which he reiterated his doctrine of justification by faith alone and presented a new ideal of piety-that of the Christian man, free in conscience by virtue of faith and charged with the duty of conducting himself properly in a Christian brotherhood.

By the time the papal bull Exsurge Domine, condemning his views and threatening excommunication, reached Germany, Luther's position was well understood and widely supported. In a dramatic renunciation of papal authority, Luther held a public burning of the bull and of the canon law. In 1521 formal excommunication was pronounced. In the same year Luther was given a safe-conduct and was summoned before the Diet of Worms (see Worms, Diet of). The opinions at the diet were divided, but when an edict of the diet called for Luther's seizure, his friends placed him for safekeeping in the Wartburg, the castle of Elector Frederick III of Saxony. There Luther translated the New Testament into German and began the translation of the entire Bible, a work not completed until 10 years later.

Growth of Lutheranism and His Last Years

At Wittenberg the iconoclasts under Carlstadt had instituted radical changes that Luther greatly deplored. Fearing that his movement was endangered, Luther disregarded his personal safety and returned to Wittenberg, where he spent most of the remainder of his life organizing and spreading the new gospel. Luther suffered a loss of popular appeal when he stoutly opposed (1524-25) the Peasants' War, a revolt that his own spirit of independence had helped to foster. His position was further weakened by a break with the humanists brought about by Erasmus's work, Freedom of the Will (1524), in which Erasmus attacked Luther's doctrine of the enslaved will. Nevertheless, through his forceful writings and preaching his doctrines spread to many towns and free cities, strengthened by the support of many German nobles.

He married (1525) a former nun, Katharina von Bora, and raised six children. His closest friends and associates, Philip Melanchthon and Justus Jonas, helped carry forward his endeavors, and after the death of Frederick III he enjoyed the active support of John Frederick I, who succeeded to the electorate. Luther worked actively to build a competent educational system; his extensive writing on church matters included the composition of hymns, a liturgy, and two catechisms that are basic statements of the Lutheran faith.

His attitude hardened toward various sects, especially the Anabaptists, whose growth presented a serious challenge to his conception of the church. His uncompromising attitude in doctrinal matters helped break up the unity of the Reformation that he was anxious to preserve; the controversy with Huldreich Zwingli and later with Calvin over the Lord's Supper divided Protestants into the Lutheran Church and the Reformed Churches. After attempts at union, the Lutherans drew up their own articles of faith in the Augsburg Confession (see creed4), which was written by Melanchthon at the Diet of Augsburg in


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