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Reformators : Martin Luther

A.) Luther's Biography

MARTIN LUTHER was born in 1483 in Eisleben, Thuringia, as the son of a miner. He was sent to study in Wittenberg, when he, frightened by a thunderstorm, vowed to become an AUGUSTINIAN FRIAR. The most promising student in his monastery, he was sent to teach at the UNIVERSITY OF WITTENBERG. Luther, an ardent student of Greek, began his translation of the bible, a project which was to take decades, it was finished, with the assistance of his friend PHILIPP MELANCHTHON in 1534.
While in Wittenberg, Luther more and more became aware of what was wrong with the church, and in 1517 he nailed his 95 THESES to the church door at Wittenberg, anonymously, an event which was intended to kickstart a discussion over church reform. Luther was cited to appear in front of the IMPERIAL DIET at WORMS (1521), where he is quoted to have said : Here I stand, I can do no other, God help me. Standing to his theses, the ban was declared over him. He could return because the Emperor stood to his word, granting Luther safe conduct. But for years, Luther had to live under the assumed name JUNKER JÖRG in WARTBURG CASTLE, in hiding. The castle was property of the Duke of Saxony, FREDERICK THE WISE, who protected Luther all the way.
Meanwhile, the church province of Meissen (i.e. Saxony) proceeded with the reformation and finally Luther could return to the University of Wittenberg. He continued publishing and was regarded the unelected and unappointed leader of the Lutheran Reformation, from Lutheran church provinces in Germany, Scandinavia and the Baltic.
In 1524/25 the PEASANTS WAR broke out. Martin Luther strongly condemned the peasants, partially out of loyalty to Duke Friedrich, whose position was threatened by the event. According to Luther, the christians were to obey their authorities. Luther died in 1546.

B.) Luther's Environment

Luther was not alone in attempting to translate the bible. In France, D'ETAPLES did the same, although his translation was harshly criticized by the University of Paris. The Humanists, like Erasmus, had already stressed that the bible was the decisive source of christian belief, and equally was criticized by the established church for that.
At the University of Wittenberg, Luther found fellow teachers and students who were ardent students of Greek, like him deeply interested in what was written in the original bible manuscripts, not only in the VULGATA, the hitherto mostly used, but corrupted Latin version. Armed with their findings that many of the Catholic sacraments and dogmas, among them the CELIBACY of priests and the OATH OF POVERTY of both priests and monks are not mentioned anywhere in the holy scripts, they began publicly questioning the church. Scandals such as the sale of LETTERS OF INDULGENCE, priests openly having mistresses and/or being unable to read the bible were just adding to their arsenal of arguments. Luther excelled most of his fellow students, except PHILIPP MELANCHTHON, in his knowledge of Greek. He soon rose to be generally accepted as the leader of the Protestant Reformation, only Zwingli and radical Anabaptists going their own way.

C.) The Essence of Lutheranism

One source of the poor condition the church was in lay in the fact that the holy mass was celebrated, the bible was read in Latin, a language of which many clerics had only partial command. One of Luther's main achievements was the BIBLE TRANSLATION. He wanted every peasant to learn to read and write as much as was necessary to understand the bible, so that the parishioners could understand the priest, and make sure that he took proper care of his duties.
The other essence of Lutheran reform was that the church had to be restored in it's original condition, that only those elements of christian belief would be upheld, for which evidence could be found in the bible. The list of sacraments was shortened down to BAPTISM and the EUCHARIST. Luther emphasized SALVATION BY FAITH ALONE.

As a consequence, Lutheranism permitted the marriage of priests (thus broke with celibacy), divorce (thus negated matrimony to be a sacrament), dissolved monasteries because the oaths required of monks were not mentioned in the bible.

D.) Luther's Legacy

Martin Luther's bible translation set a standard for the German language, which, since the reformation, was increasingly used as language of writing. The bible taught in German in regions east of the Elbe river, where Slavic and Prussian minorities lived on the countryside, lead to the assimilation of many such language pockets. By the 18th century, Pommeranian, Elbslavian, Prussian had become extinct. Only the SORBIAN LANGUAGE in the LAUSITZ survived. In Silesia, protestant lower Silesia became German-speaking, the Catholic population of Upper Silesia preserved, for the larger part, it's Polish language.
Lutheran christians, overall, were better educated than their Catholic counterparts. The protestant regions of Germany were to take the lead in the development of the economy and science (although the Catholic regions were not at a standstill).
Lutheranism focussed on the individual's lifestyle and on community life. Luther's condemnation of the PEASANTS' REVOLT and his insistence of christians having to obey their authorities left a legacy, which was, in the 20th century, to prove harmful, as the Lutheran Church failed to oppose Nazism.

Martin Luther and the Reformation, essay by G. Rempel, Western New England College
Ein Feste Burg ist Unser Gott. The Martin Luther Homepage
Biographies of Martin Luther from the Open Directory Project
DOCUMENTS Selected Works of Martin Luther, from Project Wittenberg
Luther's 95 Theses, from Central Valley Christian School
REFERENCE Julius Köstlin, Life of Luther (1875), posted by Gutenberg Library Online

This page is part of World History at KMLA
First posted on May 31st 2001, last revised on October 28th 2007

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