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- Last Updated: February 3, 2013
- Originally Published: July 13, 2012
Martin Luther (1483-1546), often considered the Father of the Reformation, was a German monk,, and professor of who became a religious reformer. His distribution of his now-famous Ninety-Five Theses was the incident that sparked the Reformation. Excommunicated from the Roman Church and declared an outlaw by the Holy Roman Empire, Luther began a movement that later became the Lutheran church, one of today's largest Protestant denominations, and inspired others to break from Roman Catholicism and form the Protestant .
Martin Luther was born November 10, 1483, in Eisleben, Germany, to Hans and Margaretha Luther. Hans was a miner but, after moving to Mansfield, eventually came to own the mine. Luther's upbringing was harsh; his parents and early teachers were strict disciplinarians. In modern times, such treatment would be considered felonious abuse, but it was not unreasonable for the period in which he lived.
He was educated at a Latin school in Mansfeld, starting in the spring of 1488. At 14, he was sent to a school in nearby Magdeburg that was operated by monks of the Brethren of the Common Life. There, personal piety was emphasized, which had a lasting influence on him. Luther then entered the University of Erfurt, where he studied the customary liberal arts curriculum. He received a Bachelor's degree in 1502 and a Master's degree in 1505. His studies included Scholasticism,and he later spoke of Aristotle and William of Occam as his teachers.
Luther identified two influences on his religious. The first was the harshness he experienced in childhood pushed him away from what he described as worldly things. Secondly, his father wanted him to pursue a career in law, which he began studying in 1505. Just six weeks later, he was terrified by a catastrophic thunderstorm and feared for his life. In the midst of such terror, he prayed to St. Anne to save him, and vowed that he would become a monk if his life were spared.
Following up on his promise, Luther joined the Order of the Hermits of St. Augustine and was ordained in 1507. He returned to academia after a time, studying Theology at the University of Wittenberg. His studies were interrupted by a trip to Rome, where he represented his order in an administrative dispute among certain German monasteries. The mission failed because thewas already decided on the issue and was not inclined to change his mind. However, his later comments suggest Luther found a lack of spirituality in Rome, which likely influenced his decision to break from the Roman Catholic Church. He soon transferred to the University of Erfurt, from which he received his doctorate in theology in 1512, and he became a professor of biblical studies. He also held administrative positions in the order of Augustinian Monks and preached to his and in Wittenberg's church.
The pivotal event in his philosophical development, called the "revelation in the tower" also came as a result of problems: Mentally, he was depressed by his father's disappointment over his career choice. Spiritually, he strained to understand God's justice, which he saw as harsh. Luther experienced a change of mind compared tothe Apostle's, and realized a new understanding of the justice of God.
This realization led Luther to take a closer look at what he saw as the Catholic Church’s ownership over people. His distaste for the Catholic Church and the practice of indulgences set him at odds with the Catholic Church. In 1517, Luther became aware of a friar who was selling indulgences. Luther insisted man'swas a divine gift from God and drafted a set of propositions challenging the Catholic doctrine of indulgences in order to instigate debate on the topic. A copy of the document, which came to be known the Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences was sent to Archbishop Albert of Mainz with a request that the Archbishop silence the friar. According to tradition, he nailed the theses to the door of the Wittenberg parish church. Others claim that he simply mailed copies to Church leaders. Either way, within months, the theses had been translated from Latin into German, reprinted using the printing press, and distributed widely throughout Europe.
Within a year, Rome demanded an accounting of Luther's teachings. Ultimately, Pope Leo X excommunicated him in 1521—a punishment usually followed by execution. Luther was then called before theof Worms where Holy Roman Emperor Charles V called him to recant his teachings, but he refused to come. Charles V delayed an immediate execution, while the fate of Luther was discussed. During this time, Luther left Worms, and while he returning to Wittenberg, he disappeared. His disappearance was set up by Fredrick the Wise, who commissioned soldiers to "kidnap" Luther and take him to Wartburg Castle, where he remained in hiding and began to translate the New Testament into German. Shortly after, Luther and his followers were declared outlaws. Luther published a protest against the Diet's decision, which led to his followers being labeled Protestants.
By the early 1520s, Luther had so many supporters that the Catholic hierarchy realized his cause was too strong to suppress. Part of that support began through The Peasant's War (1524-1525), which began with an uprising of the peasants who believed that the princes of Germany had taken their basic rights away. The peasants paid high taxes, could not own their own land, and had to get permission to marry. Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses gave the peasants courage, as they, too, felt as though they could stand up for their rights. The Peasant’s War is just one example of the influence Luther’s writings had on those around him. In addition, he carried his influence into his family life when he married former nun Katherine of Bora on June 13, 1525. The couple had five children.
Luther was not a man of action during his last twenty years. As an outlaw and heretic, he had to remain out of the public eye. Others became the new faces of the Protestant reformation. Some scholars characterize him during his final years as dogmatic and insecure. He expected the end of the world and made some startling declarations, such as calling the pope theand suggesting that all Anabaptists should be hanged. Eventually his health declined. His last task entailed successfully settling a disagreement between two noblemen in his hometown, shortly before his death on February 18, 1546, in Eisleben, Germany. He was buried in the Castle Church in Wittenberg.
Luther's translation of the Bible into German significantly affected the evolution of the German written language, as later scholars followed his style. His greater role in Christian history was his impact upon the Protestant Reformation, which grew into the many churches that comprise the Protestant tradition.
Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses is considered to be one of the most influential and important documents of the Reformation. The Ninety-Five Theses also became an influence for many other theologians during and after Luther’s time, including Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin. The Protestant Reformation ultimately allowed a renewed sense of religious freedom for those practicing in the Christian faith. Luther’s writings not only made an impact during his time, but also are the main source of theological commentary for the Lutheran church today.