Biography Martin Luther
LUTHER, MARTIN (1483-1546), the great German religious reformer, was born at Eisleben on the 10th of November 1483. His father, Hans Luther (Lyder, Luder, Ludher), a peasant from the township of Möhra in Thuringia, after his marriage with Margarethe Ziegler, had settled in Mansfeld, attracted by the prospects of work in the mines there. The counts of Mansfeld, who, many years before, had started the mining industry, made a practice of building and letting out for hire small furnaces for smelting the ore. Hans Luther soon leased one, then three. In 1491 he became one of the four elected members of the village council (vier Herren von der Gemeinde); and we are told that the counts of Mansfeld held him in esteem. The boy grew up amid the poor, coarse surroundings of the German peasant life, imbibing its simple beliefs. He was taught that the Emperor protected the poor people against the Turk, that the Church was the “Pope's House,” wherein the Bishop of Rome had all the rights of the house-father. He shared the common superstitions of the time and some of them never left him.
Young Martin went to the village school at Mansfeld; to a school at Magdeburg kept by the Brethren of the Common Lot; then to the well-known St George's school at Eisenach. At Magdeburg and Eisenach Luther was “a poor student,” i.e. a boy who was received into a hospice where he lived rent-free, attended school without paying fees, and had the privilege of begging for his bread at the house-doors of the town; in return for which he sang as a chorister in the church to which the school was attached. Luther was never a “wandering student”; his parents were too careful of their child to permit him to lead the life of wandering licence which marked these pests of medieval German scholastic life. At Eisenach he attracted the notice of the wife of a wealthy merchant of Eisenach, whom his biographers usually identify as Frau Cotta.
After three happy years at Eisenach, Luther entered the university of Erfurt (1501), then the most famous in Germany. Hans Luther had been prospering, and was more than ever resolved to make his son a lawyer. Young Luther entered his name on the matriculation book in letters which can still be read “Martinus Ludher ex Mansfelt,” a free student, no longer embarrassed by great poverty. In Luther's time Erfurt was the intellectual centre of Germany and its students were exposed to a variety of influences which could not fail to stimulate young men of mental ability.
Its theology was, of course, scholastic, but of what was then called the modern type, the Scotist; its philosophy was the nominalist system of William of Occam, whose great disciple, Gabriel Biel (d. 1495), had been one of its most famous professors; Nicholas de Lyra's (d. 1340) system of biblical interpretation had been long taught there by a succession of able teachers; Humanism had won an early entrance to the university; the anti-clerical teaching of John of Wessel, who had himself taught at Erfurt for fifteen years (1445-1460), had left its mark on the place and was not forgotten. Hussite propagandists, even in Luther's time, secretly visited the town and whispered among the students their anti-clerical Christian socialism. Papal legates to Germany seldom failed to visit the university and by their magnificence bore witness to the majesty of the Roman church.
A study of the scholastic philosophy was then the preliminary training for a course of law, and Luther worked so hard at the prescribed studies that he had little leisure, he said, for classical learning. He attended none of the Humanist lectures, but he read a good many of the Latin authors and also learned a little Greek. He never was a member of the Humanist circle; he was too much in earnest about religious questions and of too practical a turn of mind. The young Humanists would have gladly welcomed him into their select band. They dubbed him the “philosopher,” the “musician,” recalled in after days his fine social disposition, his skill in playing the lute, and his ready power in debate. He took the various degrees in an unusually brief time. He was bachelor in 1502 and master in 1505. His father, proud of his son's steady application and success, sent him the costly present of a Corpus Juris. He may have begun to study law. Suddenly he plunged into the Erfurt Convent of the Augustinian Eremites and after due noviciate became a monk.
The action was so unexpected that his contemporaries felt bound to give all manner of explanations which have been woven into accounts which are legendary. Nothing is known about the cause of the sudden plunge but what Luther has himself revealed. He has told us that he entered the monastery because he doubted of himself, and that his action was sudden because he knew that his father would have disapproved of his intention.
The word “doubt” has made historians think of intellectual difficulties — of the “theological scepticism” taught by Occam and Biel, of the disintegrating criticism of Humanism. But there is no trace of any theological difficulties in Luther's mind in the struggles which sent him into the convent and distracted him there. He was driven to do what he did by the pressure of a practical religious need, the desire to save his soul. The fires of hell and the shades of purgatory, which are the constant background of Dante's “Paradise,” were present to Luther from childhood.
Luther was the greatest religious genius which the 16th century produced, and the roots of the movement in which he was the central figure must be sought for in the popular religious life of the last decades of the 15th and opening decades of the 16th centuries — a field which has been neglected by almost all his biographers. When it is explored traces of at least five different types of religious sentiment can be discovered. Pious parents, whether among the burghers or peasants, seem to have taught their children a simple evangelical faith. Martin Luther and thousands of children like him were trained at home to know the creed, the ten commandments, the Lord's prayer, and such simple hymns as Ein Kindelein so lobelich, Nun bitten wir den Heiligen Geist and Crist ist erstanden; and they were taught to believe that God for Christ's sake freely pardons sin. They learned that simple faith which Luther afterwards expounded in his Small Catechism and called the Kinderlehre. When lads trained like himself entered school and college they came in contact with that religious revival which characterized the last half of the 15th century. Fear seemed to brood over the peoples of Western Europe. The plague devastated the badly drained towns, new diseases spread death, the fear of the Turks was permanent. All this went to feed revival, which, founded on fear, refused to see in Jesus Christ anything but a stern judge, and made the Virgin Mother and Anna the “grandmother” the intercessors; which found consolation in pilgrimages from shrine to shrine; which believed in crude miracles, and in the thought that God could be best served within convent walls. Luther's mind was caught in this current of feeling. He records how it was burnt into him by pictures which filled his boyish imagination. Jesus in the painted window of Mansfeld church, stern of face, sword in hand, sitting on a rainbow, coming to judge; an altarpiece at Magdeburg, in which a ship with its crew, was sailing on to heaven, carrying no layman on board; the deeds of St Elizabeth emblazoned on the window of St George's parish church at Eisenach; the living pictures of a young nobleman who had turned monk to save his soul, of a monk, the holiest man Luther had ever known, who was aged far beyond his years by his maceration; and many others of the same kind.
Alongside this we can trace the growth of another religious movement of a different kind. We can see a sturdy common-sense religion taking possession of multitudes in Germany, which insisted that laymen might rule in many departments supposed to belong exclusively to the clergy. The jus episcopale which Luther afterwards claimed for the secular authorities had been practically exercised in Saxony and Brandenburg; cities and districts had framed police regulations which set aside ecclesiastical decrees about holidays and begging; the supervision of charity was passing from the hands of the church into those of laymen; and religious confraternities which did not take their guidance from the clergy were increasing. Lastly, the medieval Brethren were engaged in printing and distributing tracts, mystical, anti-clerical, sometimes socialist. All these influences abounded as Luther was growing to manhood and laid their marks upon him. It was the momentary power of the second which drove him into the convent, and he selected the monastic order which represented all that was best in the revival of the latter half of the 15th century — the Augustinian Eremites.
In the convent Luther set himself to find salvation. The last word of that Scotist theology which ruled at the close of the middle ages was that man must work out his own salvation, and Luther tried to do so in the most approved later medieval fashion by the strictest asceticism. He fasted and scourged himself; he practised all the ordinary forms of maceration and invented new ones, all to no purpose. His theological studies, part of the convent education, told him that pardon could be had through the Sacrament of Penance, and that the first part of the sacrament was sorrow for sin. The older theology declared that such sorrow must be based on love to God. Had he this love? God always appeared to him as an implacable judge, threatening punishment for breaking a law which it was impossible to keep. He confessed to himself that he often hated this arbitrary Will which Scotist theology called God. The later theology, taught in the convent by John of Palz and John Nathin, said that sorrow might be based on a meaner motive provided the Sacrament of Penance was continually resorted to. Luther wearied his superiors with his attendance at the confessional. He was looked upon as a young saint, and his reputation extended throughout the convents of his order. The young saint felt himself to be no nearer the pardon of God; he thought that he was “gallows-ripe.” At last his superiors seemed to discover his real difficulties. Partly by their help, partly by study of the scriptures, he came to understand that God's pardon was to be won by trusting to His promises. Thus after two years of indescribable mental conflicts Luther found peace. The struggle marked him for life. His victory gave him a sense of freedom, and the feeling that life was given by God to be enjoyed. In all external things he remained unchanged. He was a faithful son of the medieval church, with its doctrines, ceremonies and usages.
Soon after he had attained inward peace, Luther was ordained. He continued his studies in theology, devoting himself to the more “experimental” portions of Augustine, Bernard and Gerson. He showed himself a good man of business and was advanced in his order. In 1508 he was sent with some other monks to Wittenberg to assist the small university which had been opened there in 1502 by Frederick the Wise, elector of Saxony. It was there that Luther began to preach, first in a small chapel to the monks of his order; later taking the place of one of the town's clergy who was in ill-health. From Wittenberg he was sent by the chiefs of the German Augustinian Eremites to Rome on a mission concerning the organization of the order. He went up with the feelings of the medieval pilgrim rather than with the intoxication of the ardent Humanist. On his return (1512) he was sent by Staupitz, his vicar-general, to Erfurt to take the necessary steps for higher graduation in theology, in order to succeed Staupitz himself as professor of theology in Wittenberg. He graduated as Doctor of the Holy Scripture, took the Wittenberg doctor's oath to defend the evangelical truth vigorously (viriliter), became a member of the Wittenberg Senate, and three weeks later succeeded Staupitz as professor of theology.
From the first Luther's lectures in theology differed from those ordinarily given at the time. He had no opinions on theological subjects at variance with the theology taught at Erfurt and elsewhere. No one attributed any heretical views to the young Wittenberg professor. He differed from others because he looked at theology in a more practical way. He thought it ought to be made useful to guide men to the grace of God and to tell them how to persevere in a life of joyous obedience to God and His commandments. His teaching was “experimental” from the beginning. Besides he believed that he had been specially set apart to lecture on the Holy Scriptures, and he began by commenting on the Psalms and on the Epistles of St Paul. He never knew much Hebrew and was not specially strong in Greek; so he used the Vulgate in his prelections. He had a huge widely printed volume on his desk, and wrote the notes for his lectures on the margins and between the lines. Some of the pages survive. They contain in the germ the leading thoughts of what became Lutheran theology. At first he expressed himself in the phrases common to scholastic theology, when these were found to be inadequate in words borrowed from the mystical writers of the 14th and 15th centuries, and then in new phrases more appropriate to the circle of fresh thoughts. Those new thoughts at first simply pushed aside the ordinary theology taught in the schools without staying to criticize it. Gradually, however, Luther began to find that there was some real opposition between what he was teaching and the theology he had been taught in the Erfurt convent. It appeared characteristically enough on the practical and not on the speculative side of theology in a sermon on Indulgences preached in July 1516. Once begun the breach widened, until Luther could contrast “our theology” with what was taught at Erfurt, and by September he began to write against the scholastic theology, to declare that it was Pelagian at heart, that it repudiated the Augustinian doctrines of grace, and neglected to teach the supreme value of that faith “which throws itself upon God.”
These lectures and the teaching they contained soon made a great impression. Students began to flock to the small obscure university of Wittenberg, and the elector grew proud of the teacher who was making his university famous. It was at this interesting stage of his own religious career that he felt himself compelled to stand forth in opposition to what he believed to be a great religious scandal, and almost unconsciously to become a Reformer.
Luther began his work as a Reformer by proposing to discuss the true meaning of Indulgences. The occasion was an Indulgence proclaimed by Pope Leo X., farmed by the archbishop of Mainz, and preached by John Tetzel, a Dominican monk and a famed seller of Indulgences. Many of the German princes had no great love for Indulgence sellers, and Frederick of Saxony had prohibited Tetzel from entering his territories. But it was easy to reach most parts of Electoral Saxony without actually crossing the frontiers. The Red Cross of the Indulgence seller had been set up at Zerbst and at Jüterbogk, and people had gone from Wittenberg to buy the Papal Tickets. Luther believed that the sales were injurious to the morals of the townsmen; he had heard reports of Tetzel's sermons; he had become wrathful on reading the letter of recommendation of the archbishop; and friends had urged him to interfere. He protested with a characteristic combination of caution and courage. The church of All Saints (the castle church) was closely connected with the university of Wittenberg. Its doors were commonly used for university proclamations. The Elector Frederick was a great collector of relics and had stored them in his church. He had procured an Indulgence for all who attended its services on All Saints' Day, and crowds commonly gathered. Luther nailed ninety-five theses on the church door on that day, the 1st of November 1517, when the crowd could see and read them.
The proceeding was strictly academic. The matter discussed, to judge by the writings of theologians, was somewhat obscure; and Luther offered his theses as an attempt to make it clearer. No one was supposed to be committed to every opinion he advanced in such a way. But the theses posted somehow touched heart and conscience in a way unusual in the common subjects of academic disputation. Every one wanted to read them. The University Press could not supply copies fast enough. They were translated into German, and were known throughout Germany in less than a fortnight. Within a month they had been heard of all over western and southern Europe. Luther himself was staggered at the way they were received. He said he had never meant to determine, but to debate.
The theses were singularly unlike what might have been expected from a professor of theology. They made no attempt at theological definition, no pretence at logical arrangement; they were anything but a brief programme of reformation. They were simply ninety-five sledge-hammer blows directed against the most flagrant ecclesiastical abuse of the age. They were addressed to the “common” man and appealed to his common sense of spiritual things.
The practice of offering, selling and buying Indulgences (see Indulgence) was everywhere common in the beginning of the 16th century. The beginnings go back more than a thousand years before the time of Luther. In the earliest church life, when Christians fell into sin, they were required to make public confession before the congregation, to declare their sorrow, and to vow to perform certain acts which were regarded as evidence of the sincerity of their repentance. When the custom of public confession before the congregation had changed to private confession to the clergy, it became the confessor's duty to impose these satisfactions. It was thought only right that there should be some uniformity in dealing with repentant sinners, and books appeared giving lists of sins and what were supposed to be suitable satisfactions. When the sins confessed were very heinous the satisfactions were correspondingly severe and sometimes lasted over many years. About the 7th century arose a custom of commuting or relaxing these imposed satisfactions. A penance of several years fasting might be commuted into saying so many prayers, or giving an arranged amount in alms, or even into a money-fine. In the last case the analogy of the Wergeld of the German tribal codes was commonly followed. The usage generally took the form that any one who visited a church, to which the Indulgence had been attached, on a day named, and gave a contribution to its funds, had his penance shortened by one-seventh, one-third or one-half, as might be arranged. This was the origin of Indulgences properly so-called. They were always mitigations of satisfactions or penances which had been imposed by the church as outward signs of inward sorrow, tests of fitness for pardon, and the needful precedents of absolution. Luther uttered no protest against Indulgences of this kind. He held that what the church had imposed the church could remit.
This old and simple conception of Indulgences had been greatly altered since the beginning of the 13th century. The institution of penance had been raised to the dignity of a sacrament, and this had changed both the place and the character of satisfactions. Under the older conception the order had been Sorrow (Contritio), Confession, Satisfaction (or due manifestation of sorrow in ways prescribed) and Absolution. Under the newer theory the order was Sorrow, Confession, Absolution, Satisfaction, and both satisfaction and sorrow took new meanings. It was held that Absolution removed guilt and freed from eternal punishment, but that something had to be done to free the penitent from temporal punishment whether in this life or in purgatory. Satisfactions took the new meaning of the temporal punishments due in this life and the substitute for the pains of purgatory. The new thought of a treasury of merits (thesaurus meritorum) introduced further changes. It was held that the good deeds over and above what were needed for their own salvation by the living or by the saints in heaven, together with the inexhaustible merits of Christ, were all deposited in a treasury out of which they could be taken by the pope and given by him to the faithful. They could be added to the satisfactions actually done by penitents. Thus Satisfactions became not merely signs of sorrow but actual merits, which freed men from the need to undergo the temporal pains here and in purgatory which their sins had rendered them liable to. By an Indulgence merits could be transferred from the storehouse to those who required them. The change made in the character of Sorrow made Indulgences all the more necessary for the indifferent penitent. On the older theory Sorrow (Contritio) had for its one basis love to God; but on the newer theory the starting-point might be a less worthy king of sorrow (Attritio) which it was held would be changed into the more worthy kind in the Sacrament of Penance. The conclusion was naturally drawn that a process of penitence which began with sorrow of the more unworthy kind needed a larger amount of Satisfactions or penance than what began with Contrition. Hence for the indifferent Christian, Attrition, Confession and Indulgence became the three heads in the scheme of the church of the later middle ages for his salvation. The one thing which satisfied his conscience was the burdensome thing he had to do, and that was to procure an Indulgence — a matter made increasingly easy for him as time went on.
This doctrine of Attrition had not the undivided support of the theologians of the later medieval church; but it was taught by the Scotists and was naturally a favourite theme with the sellers of Indulgences. Nor were all theologians at one upon the whole theory of Indulgences. The majority of the best theologians held that Indulgences had nothing to do with the pardoning of guilt, but only with freeing from temporal penalties in this life or in purgatory. But the common people did not discriminate, and believed that when they bought an Indulgence they were purchasing pardon from sin; and Luther placed himself in the position of the ordinary Christian uninstructed in the niceties of theological distinctions.
His Ninety-five Theses made six different assertions about Indulgences and their efficacy: --
i. An Indulgence is and can only be the remission of a merely ecclesiastical penalty; the church can remit what the church has imposed; it cannot remit what God has imposed.
ii. An Indulgence can never remit guilt; the pope himself cannot do such a thing; God has kept that in His own hand.
iii. It cannot remit the divine punishment for sin; that also is in the hands of God alone.
iv. It can have no efficacy for souls in Purgatory; penalties imposed by the church can only refer to the living; death dissolves them; what the pope can do for souls in Purgatory is by prayer, not by jurisdiction or the power of the keys.
v. The Christian who has true repentance has already received pardon from God altogether apart from an Indulgence, and does not need one; Christ demands this true repentance from every one.
vi. The Treasury of Merits has never been properly denned; it is hard to say what it is, and it is not properly understood by the people; it cannot be the merits of Christ and of His saints, because these act of themselves and quite apart from the intervention of the pope; it can mean nothing more than that the pope, having the power of the keys, can remit ecclesiastical penalties imposed by the church; the true Treasure-house of merits is the Holy Ghost of the grace and glory of God.
The unexpected effect of the Theses was that the sale of Indulgences began to decline rapidly, and the archbishop of Mainz, disappointed in his hopes of revenue, sent a copy to Rome. The pope thinking that the whole dispute was a monkish quarrel, contented himself with asking the general of the Augustinian Eremites to keep his monks quiet. This was not easy. Tetzel, in conjunction with a friend, Conrad Wimpina, had published a set of counter-theses. John Mayr of Eck, a noted controversialist and professor of theology in the university of Ingolstadt, scented the Hussite heresy in the Theses, and denounced them in a tract entitled Obelisks. Luther at once answered in his Asterisks. A controversy raged in Germany. Meanwhile, at Rome, Silvester Mazzolini of Prierio, a Dominican monk and Inquisitor, had been studying the Theses, was profoundly dissatisfied with them, and wrote a Dialogue about the Power of the Pope, against the presumptuous conclusions of Martin Luther. This book reached Germany about the middle of January 1518, and increased the tumult.
Luther's friends had been provokingly silent about the Theses; but in April 1518, at the annual chapter of the Augustinian Eremites held at Heidelberg, Luther heard his positions temperately discussed, and found somewhat to his astonishment that his views were not acceptable to all his fellow monks. On his return to Wittenberg he began an answer to his opponents. He carefully considered his positions, found them unassailable, and published his Resolutions, the most carefully written of all his works. The book practically discarded all the ideas and practices concerning Indulgences which had come into the medieval church since the beginning of the 13th century, and all the ingenious explanations of the scholastic theologians from Bonaventura and Thomas Aquinas downwards. The effect of the controversy was a great decrease in the sale of Indulgences in Germany, and the Papal Curia saw with alarm a prolific source of revenue decaying. It was felt that Luther must be silenced. He was accordingly summoned to Rome. To obey would have meant death; to refuse in his own name would have been contumacy. But the peremptory summons could be construed as an attack on the university of Wittenberg, and both the elector of Saxony and the emperor Maximilian so regarded it. The result was that Pope Leo cancelled the summons, and it was arranged that Luther should appear before the papal Legate to the German Diet, Thomas de Vio, Cardinal Cajedtan, at Augsburg. The interview was not very successful. At its conclusion Luther wrote two appeals — one from the pope ill-informed to the pope well-informed, and the other to a General Council. True to his habit of taking the German people into his confidence, he wrote an account of his interview with the Legate, and published it under the title of the Acta Augustana.
The publication greatly increased the sympathy of almost all classes in Germany for Luther. They saw in him a pious man, an esteemed professor, who had done nothing but propose a discussion on the notoriously intricate subject of Indulgences, peremptorily ordered to recant and to remain silent. The elector Frederick shared the common feelings and resolved to defend the man who had made his university so famous. His action compelled the Roman Curia to pause. Germany was on the eve, it was believed, of an election of a king of the Romans; it was possible that an imperial election was not far distant; Frederick was too important a personage to offend. So the condemnation by the Cardinal-Legate was withdrawn for the time, and the pope resolved to deal with the matter otherwise. He selected one of his chamberlains, Charles von Miltitz, the elector's private agent at Rome, and commissioned him to deal with the matter as he best could. Miltitz received the “golden rose” to give to Frederick, and was furnished with several letters in all of which the pope spoke of Luther as a “child of the devil.” His holiness had probably forgotten the fact when he addressed Luther some months later as “his dear son.”
When Miltitz arrived in Germany he discovered that the movement was much more important than the Roman Curia had imagined. He had not to deal with the opposition of a recalcitrant monk, but with the awakening of a nation. He resolved to meet with Tetzel and with Luther privately before he produced his credentials. Tetzel he could not see; the man was afraid to leave his convent; but he had lengthy interviews with Luther in the house of Spalatin the chaplain and private secretary of the elector Frederick. There he disowned the sermons of the pardon-sellers, let it be seen that he did not approve of the action of the Legate, and so prevailed with Luther that the latter promised to write a submissive letter to the pope, to exhort people to reverence the Roman See, to say that Indulgences were useful to remit canonical penances, and to promise to write no more on the matter unless he happened to be attacked. Luther did all this. A reconciliation might have taken place had the Roman Curia supported Miltitz. But the Curia did not support Miltitz, and placed more faith in Eck, who was eager to extinguish Luther in a public discussion.
Luther had been spending the time between his interview with the Legate at Augsburg (Oct. 1518) and the Leipzig Disputation (June 1519) in severe and disquieting studies. He had found that all his opponents had pursued one line of argument: the power to issue an Indulgence is simply one case of the universal papal jurisdiction; Indulgences are what the pope proclaims them to be, and to attack them is to attack the power of the pope; the pope represents the Roman church, which is actually the universal church, and to oppose the pope is to defy the whole church of Christ; whoever attacks such a long-established system as that of Indulgences is a heretic. Such was the argument. Luther felt himself confronted with the pope's absolute supremacy in all ecclesiastical matters. It was a plea whose full force he felt. The papal supremacy was one of his oldest inherited beliefs. He re-examined his convictions about justifying faith and whether they did lead to his declarations about Indulgences. He could come to no other conclusion. It then became necessary to examine the papal claims. He set himself to study the Decretals, and to his amazement and indignation he found that they were full of frauds. It is hard to say whether the discovery brought him more joy or more grief. His letters show him half-exultant and half-terrified. While he was in this state of mind he received Eck's challenge to dispute with him at Leipzig on the papal supremacy.
This Leipzig Disputation was perhaps the most important point in Luther's career. He met Eck in June 1519. It soon appeared that the intention of that practised debater was to force Luther into some admission which would justify opponents in accusing him of holding the opinions of Huss, who had been condemned by the great German Council of Constance. In this he was eminently successful. Eck left Leipzig triumphant, and Luther returned to Wittenberg much depressed. As usual he wrote out and published an account of the Disputation, which was an appeal to his fellow Germans. The result surpassed his expectations. The Disputation made him see that his protest against the abuses of Indulgences was no criticism of an excrescence on the medieval ecclesiastical system, but an attack on its centre of existence. He saw that he stood for the spiritual priesthood of all believers and that medievalism in religion meant that man cannot approach God without a priestly mediator. The people also saw his position and rallied round him; and the Humanists discerned in him a champion against the old intolerance against which they had been revolting in vain. Luther's depression fled. Sermons, pamphlets, letters from his tireless pen flooded the land, and Luther began to be the leader of a German revolt against Rome.
The year 1520 saw the publication of his three most important works, all written at a time when he was fully convinced that he had broken for ever with Rome. They were, On the Liberty of a Christian Man, An Address to the Nobility of the German Nation, and On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church of God — the three primary treatises, as they have been called.
Meanwhile at Rome the pope had entrusted Eck and Prierias with the preparation of a bull (Exurge Domine) against Luther — bull which followed the line of Eck's charges at Leipzig. The reformer had been expecting it ever since the Disputation at Leipzig, and had resolved to answer it by one striking act which would impress the imagination of every man. He posted up a notice inviting the Wittenberg students to witness the burning of the bull (10th of December 1520). Rome had shot its last ecclesiastical bolt. Nothing remained but an appeal to the secular power, and this was at once prepared.
The emperor Maximilian had died suddenly (12th January 1519), and for long Germany was disturbed with intrigues about the succession — the papal policy being specially tortuous. The widely expressed desire for a German emperor secured the unanimous election of Charles, the grandson of Maximilian and the king of Spain. Never were a people more mistaken and disappointed. The veins of Charles were full of German blood, but he was his mother's son. It was the Spaniard, not the German, who faced Luther at Worms.
Charles was crowned at Aachen, 23rd of October 1520, and opened his first German diet at Worms, 22nd of January 1521. The pope had selected two envoys to wait on the young emperor, one of them, Jerome Aleander, being specially appointed to secure the outlawry of Luther. The agenda of the diet contained many things seriously affecting all Germany, but the one problem which every one was thinking about was how Luther would be dealt with. The Electoral College was divided. The archbishop of Cologne, the elector of Brandenburg and his brother the archbishop of Mainz were for instant outlawry, while the elector of Saxony, who was resolved to protect Luther, had great influence with the archbishop of Trier and the Count Palatine of the Rhine.
Aleander had no difficulty in persuading Charles, while both were still in the Netherlands, to put Luther under the ban within his hereditary dominions, and the papal nuncio expected that the decree would be extended to the whole German empire. But Charles at first refused to deal summarily with Luther so far as Germany was concerned. The emperor even wrote to the elector of Saxony, asking him to bring Luther with him to the diet for examination. Gradually he came to think that Luther might be condemned without appearing. The members of the diet were slow to come to any conclusion. At last they made up their minds, and presented a memorial to the emperor (19th of February 1521) in which they reminded him that no imperial edict could be published against Luther without their sanction, and proposed that he should be invited to Worms under a safe-conduct and be there examined. They also suggested that Luther should be heard upon the papal claims, and ended by asking the emperor to deliver Germany from the papal tyranny. The emperor agreed to summon Luther under a safe-conduct, and that he should be heard; but he refused to mix his case with that of grievances against Rome. He had no sooner made the promise than he seems to have repented it. He saw no need for Luther's appearance. He tried to get him condemned unheard. An edict against Luther had been drafted (15th of February) which the diet refused to sanction. A few days later a second edict was drafted which ordered the burning of Luther's books. The diet again objected. Finally four days after the safe-conduct had been despatched the emperor revised this second edict, limited it to the seizure of Luther's books, and published it on his own authority without consulting the diet (10th March).
After Luther had begun his journey, this edict was posted up along his route in order to intimidate him; other means were taken to make him turn aside from Worms; but he was resolved to go there and nothing daunted him. He reached the town (16th April) and was met by encouraging crowds. He was summoned to appear before the diet on the 17th and measures were taken to prevent him doing more than answering definite questions put to him. He was asked whether certain books had been written by him and whether he was prepared to maintain or to abjure what he had written. He asked time to prepare an answer to the second question. The diet was anxious to hear Luther, if the emperor was not, and his request was granted. He thus defeated the plot to keep him silent. On the 18th he made his second appearance and delivered the speech, which electrified his audience. At the close he was threatened by Spaniards in the diet. The Germans ringed him round, and, with their hands raised high in the fashion of a landsknecht who had struck a successful blow, passed out into the street and escorted him to his lodgings. Next day (April 19th) the emperor proposed to place Luther under the ban of the empire and read to the assembly a brief statement of his own views. The diet objected, and asked for a conference between Luther and some selected members. Conferences were held, but came to nothing. No compromise was possible between the declaration that man's conscience could only be bound by the Word of God and the emperor's belief in the infallibility of a general council. The commission had to report that its efforts had failed. Luther was ordered to leave Worms and to return to Wittenberg. His safe-conduct was to expire twenty-one days after the 16th of April. Then he was liable to be seized and put to death as a pestilent heretic. There only remained to draft and publish the edict containing the ban. Days passed and it did not appear. Suddenly the startling news reached Worms that Luther had disappeared, no one knew where. It was reported that his body had been found in a silver-mine pierced with a dagger.
The news flew over Germany and beyond it that he had been slain by papal emissaries. At Worms the indignation of the populace was intense. The public buildings were placarded during the night with an intimation that four hundred knights had sworn not to leave Luther unavenged, and the ominous words Bundschuh, Bundschuh, Bundschuh (the watchword of peasant revolts) were written at the foot. The combination suggested an alliance between the lesser knights and the peasants, dreaded by all the ruling classes. The true story of Luther's disappearance was not known until long afterwards. After the failure of the conference the elector of Saxony had commissioned two of the councillors to convey Luther to a place of safety without telling him where it was. Many weeks elapsed before Frederick himself learned that Luther was safe in his own castle of the Wartburg. The disappearance did not mean that Luther had ceased to be a leader of men; but it marked the beginning of an organized national opposition to Rome.
It was not till the 25th of May that the edict against Luther was presented to a small number of members of the diet, after the elector of Saxony and many important members had left Worms. It threatened all Luther's sympathisers with extermination, and practically proclaimed an Albigensian war in Germany. But few public documents prepared with so much care have proved so futile. The latter half of 1521 saw the silent spread of Lutheran opinions all over Germany. This was not unaccompanied with dangers. Every movement for reform carries within it the seeds of revolution, and Luther's was no exception to the rule.
The revolution began in Wittenberg during Luther's seclusion in the Wartburg. Andrew Boden of Carlstadt, a colleague of Luther's in the university of Wittenberg, was strongly impressed with the contradiction which he believed to exist between evangelical teaching and the usages of medieval ecclesiastical life. He denounced monastic vows, a distinctive dress for the clergy, the thought of a propitiatory mass, and the presence of images and pictures in the churches. Zwilling, a young Augustinian Eremite, added his fiery denunciations. His preaching stirred the commonalty. Turbulent crowds invaded two of the churches and rioted inside. The excitement of the people was increased by the arrival of three men known in history as the Zwickau prophets. Melanchthon felt himself powerless to restrain the tumult. The magistrates of the town were won over and issued an ordinance which attempted to express in legislation the new evangelical ideas. Duke George of Saxony, a resolute opponent of the Reformation, threatened to make the diet interfere. Luther became alarmed, and, not without a private hint from the elector of Saxony, left his retreat and appeared among his townsmen. His presence and exertions restored order, and the conservative reformation resumed its quiet course. From this time onwards to the outbreak of the Peasants' War (1525) Luther was the real leader of the German nation, and everything seemed to promise a gradual reformation without tumult.
The Peasants' War ended this anticipation. From one point of view this insurrection was simply the last, the most widespreading and the most disastrous of these revolts, which had been almost chronic in Germany during the later decades of the 15th and earlier years of the 16th century and which had been almost continuous between 1503 and 1517. All the social and economic causes which produced them were increasingly active in 1524 and 1525. But it is undoubted that the religious revolt intensified the rebellion of the lower classes. Luther's voice awoke echoes he never dreamt of. The times were ripe for revolution, and the message which spoke of a religious democracy could not fail to suggest the social democracy also. In his appeal to the Nobility of the German Nation he had stated with severe precision the causes of social discontent. Himself a peasant's son and acquainted with the grievances under which the peasant lived, he had at various times formulated most of the demands which afterwards figured conspicuously in the Twelve Articles. The insurgents had good cause to regard him as a sympathiser. But Luther, rightly or wrongly, believed that of the two ways in which wrongs can be set right — the way of war and the path of peace — the latter is the only sure road in the long run. He did his best therefore to prevent the rising and risked his life among the infuriated peasants as readily as when he stood before the emperor and the diet. When the rebellion was at its height and Thomas Münzer had sent forth fiery proclamations urging the peasantry “not to let the blood cool on their swords,” Luther issued the pamphlet, which casts a stain on his whole life, in which he hounds on the ruling classes to suppress the insurgents with all violence. In the end the rebellion, formidable as it seemed for a few months, was crushed, and a heavier yoke was laid on the shoulders of the unfortunate peasants.
This year, 1525, saw the parting of the ways in the movement for reform. It ceased to be national and became ecclesiastical. It divided into three separate parts. One, guided by Luther himself, ended, after a long struggle with pope and emperor, in the establishment of evangelical churches under the rule of the secular authorities of the territories which adopted the Lutheran Reformation. Another, remaining true to the principles, doctrines, usages and hierarchy of the medieval church, dreamt only of a purification of moral life, and saw its end realised in the reforms of the council of Trent. The third, gathering together the more revolutionary impulses, expanded into that complex movement called Anabaptism — which spread over western Europe from England to Poland and from Scandinavia to northern Italy, and endured a long and sanguinary persecution at the hands of the civil authorities in most European countries. Its strength and popularity, especially among the artizan classes, have been very much underrated by most historians.
During the storm of the Peasants' War (13th of June 1525) Luther married Catherine von Bora, the daughter of a noble but impoverished family belonging to Meissen. She had been a Cistercian nun in the convent of Nimtzch near Grimma — a convent reserved for ladies of noble birth. Luther's writings, circulating through Saxony, had penetrated the convent walls and had convinced most of the inmates of the unlawfulness of monastic vows. Catherine and eight companions resolved to escape. Their relatives refused to aid them, and they applied to Luther. He entrusted the business to Leonhard Koppe of Torgau, and the rescue was safely carried out (4th of April 1523). The rescued nuns found places of refuge in the families of Wittenberg burghers. The elector John of Saxony (who had succeeded his brother Frederick) gave Luther the house which had served as the Augustinian Convent. The family gathered in this three-storeyed building, with its back windows looking over the Elbe and its front door opening on a great garden, was latterly Luther and his wife, their three sons and two daughters, Magdelena von Bora, Catherine's aunt, two orphan nieces and a grandniece. At the beginning of his married life Luther must have been in straitened circumstances. He married a portionless nun. On to 1532 his salary was two hundred gulden annually (about £160 in present money); after 1532 the stipend was increased to £240 with various payments in kind — corn, wood, malt, wine, &c. — which meant a great deal more. The town added occasional gifts to enable Luther to entertain the great personages who came to consult him frequently. Princes made him presents in money. This enabled Luther to purchase from his wife's brother the small estate of Zulsdorf. Catherine, too, was an excellent house-wife. She made the long-neglected garden profitable; kept pigs and poultry; rented other gardens; stocked a fishpond; farmed in a small way; and had her house full of boarders. Luther had a high opinion of her intelligence; she took rank among those consulted on all important occasions; in one letter to her, seldom quoted, he gives the fairest statement he ever made about the views of Zwingli on the Sacrament of the Supper.
The diet of Speyer (1526) saw Germany divided into a Protestant and a Romanist party. After much debate a compromise was arrived at, which foreshadowed the religious peace of Augsburg of 1555. It was resolved that the Word of God should be preached without disturbance, that indemnity should be given for past offences against the edict of Worms, and that meanwhile each state should live religiously as it hoped to answer for its conduct to God and the emperor. The Lutherans interpreted this to mean the right to frame ecclesiastical regulations for various principalities and to make changes in public worship. Luther busied himself in simplifying the service, in giving advice, anxiously sought for, about the best modes of organising ecclesiastical affairs. In the diet held at Speyer in 1529 a compact Roman Catholic majority faced a weak Lutheran minority. The emperor declared through his commissioners that he abolished “by his imperial and absolute authority” the clause in the ordinance of 1526 on which the Lutherans had relied when they began to organize their territorial churches. The majority of the diet supported the emperor in this, and further proceeded to decree that no ecclesiastical body was to be deprived of its revenues or authority. This meant that throughout all Germany medieval ecclesiastical rule was to be upheld, and that none of the revenues of the medieval church could be appropriated for Protestant uses. On this a portion of the Protestant minority drafted a legal protest, in which the signers declared that they meant to abide by the decision of the diet of 1526 and refused to be bound by that of 1529. From this protest came the name Protestant.
A minority in such a case could only maintain their protest if they were prepared to defend each other by force in case of an attack. Three days after the protest had been read, many of the protesting cities and states concluded “a secret and particular treaty,” and Philip of Hesse, the ablest statesman among the Protesters, saw the need for a general union of all evangelical Christians in the empire. The difficulties in the way were great. The Saxons and the Swiss, Luther and Zwingli, were in fierce controversy about the true doctrine of the sacrament of the Supper. Luther was a patriotic German who was for ever bewailing the disintegration of the Fatherland; Zwingli was full of plans for confederations of Swiss cantons with South German cities, which could not fail to weaken the empire. Luther had but little trust in the “common man”; Zwingli was a thorough democrat. When Luther thought of the Swiss reformer he muttered as Archbishop Parker did of John Knox — “God keep us from such visitations as Knox hath attempted in Scotland; the people to be orderers of things.” Above all Luther had good grounds for believing that at the conference at Memmingen friends of Zwingli had helped to organize a Peasants' War and to link the social revolution to the religious awakening. All these suspicions were in Luther's mind when he consented very half-heartedly to meet Zwingli at a conference to be held in Philip of Hesse's castle at Marburg. The debate proceeded as such debates usually do. Zwingli attacked the weakest part of Luther's theory — the ubiquity of the body of Christ; and Luther attacked Zwingli's exegesis of the words of the institution. Neither sought to bring out their points of agreement. Yet the conference did good; it showed that the Protestants were agreed on all doctrinal points but one. If union was for the present impossible, there were hopes for it in the future.
In 1530 the emperor Charles, resolved to crush the Reformation, himself presided at the diet. The Protestant divisions were manifest. Three separate confessions were presented to the emperor — one from Zwingli, one by the theologians of the four cities of Strassbourg, Constance, Lindau and Memmingen (Confessio Tetrapolitana), and the Augsburg Confession, the future symbol of the Lutheran church. The third was the most important, and the emperor seriously set himself to see whether it might not be made the basis of a compromise. He found that reconciliation was hopeless. Thereupon the diet resolved that the edict of Worms was to be enforced against Luther and his partizans; that the ecclesiastical jurisdictions were to be preserved; and that all the church property taken possession of by the Lutheran princes was to be restored; and that in all cases of dispute the last court of appeal was to be the Imperial Court of Appeals. The last provision meant that the growing Protestantism was to be fought by harrassing litigation — nicht fechten sondern rechten was the phrase.
Luther was not present at the diet nor at the negotiations. He was still an outlaw according to imperial ideas. Melanchthon took his place as leader.
The decision of the diet compelled the Protestant princes to face the new and alarming situation. They met in conference in mid-winter at the little town of Schmalkald, and laid the foundations of what became the powerful Schmalkald League, which effectually protected the Protestants of Germany until it was broken up by the intrigues of the imperial party. From the time of the formation of this league, Luther retired gradually from the forefront of a reformation movement which had become largely political, and busied himself with reforms in public worship and suggestions for an organization of the polity of the Evangelical church. In this work his natural conservatism is apparent, and he contented himself with such changes as would make room for the action of evangelical principles. He disclaimed the right of suggesting a common order of worship or a uniform ecclesiastical polity; and Lutheran ritual and polity, while presenting common features, did not follow one common use. It may be said generally that while Luther insisted on a service in the vernacular, including the singing of German hymns, he considered it best to retain most of the ceremonies, the vestments and the uses of lights on the altar, which had existed in the unreformed church, while he was careful to explain that their retention might be dispensed with if thought necessary. To the popular mind the great distinction between the Lutheran and the medieval church service, besides the use of the vernacular and the supreme place assigned to preaching, was that the people partook of the cup in the sacrament of the Lord's Supper; and the Lutheran service became popularly distinguished from the Reformed because it retained, while the Reformed did away with, most of the medieval ceremonies and vestments (see Lutherans). The variations in the details of the polity of the Lutheran churches were very numerous, but they all preserved the same distinctive principles. Two conceptions lay at the basis — the thought of the spiritual priesthood of all believers and the belief that the state was a divine ordinance, that the magistracy might represent the whole body of believers and that discipline and administration might be exercised through courts constituted somewhat like the consistorial courts of the medieval bishops, their members being appointed by the magistracy.
The last years of Luther's life were spent in incessant labour disturbed by almost continuous ill-health. He was occupied in trying to unite firmly together the whole evangelical movement; he laboured to give his countrymen a good system of schools; he was on the watch to defeat any attempt of the Roman Curia to regain its hold over Germany; and he was the confidential adviser of a large number of the evangelical princes. Luther's intimacy with his own elector, first John, then John Frederick, helped to give him the place accorded to him by the princes. The chiefs of the Houses of Anhalt and Lüneburg, Duke Henry of Saxony, Joachim II. of Brandenburg, Albert of Brandenburg and the counts of Mansfeld, were among Luther's most devoted supporters and most frequently sought his advice. Princely correspondence was not always pleasant. It took its most disagreeable form when Philip of Hesse besieged Luther with requests to give his sanction to taking a second wife while his first was still alive. Luther's weakness brought the second great blot on his career. The document sanctioning the bigamy of the landgrave was signed by Martin Bucer, Luther and Melanchthon, and is a humiliating paper. It may be thus summarized. According to the original commandment of God, marriage is between one man and one woman, and this original precept has been confirmed by our Lord; but sin brought it about that first Lamech, then the heathen, and then Abraham, took more than one wife, and this was permitted under the law. We are now living under the Gospel, which does not give prescribed rules for the external life and has not expressly prohibited bigamy. The law of the land expresses the original commandment of God, and the plain duty of the pastorate is to denounce bigamy. Nevertheless, the pastorate, in single cases of the direst need and to prevent worse, may sanction bigamy in a purely exceptional way. Such a bigamous marriage is a true marriage in the sight of God (the necessity being proved), but it is not a true marriage in the eye of public law and custom. Such a marriage and the dispensation for it ought to be kept secret; if it is made known, the dispensation becomes eo ipso invalid and the marriage is mere concubinage. The principle which underlies this extraordinary paper is probably the conception that the Protestant church has the same dispensing power which the medieval church claimed, but that it was to be exercised altogether apart from fees of any kind.
In his later years Luther became more tolerant on the sacramental question which divided him from the South German cities, although he never departed from his strong opposition to the supposed views of Zwingli himself. He consented to a conference, which, as he was too ill to leave home, met at Wittenberg (May-June 1536). After prolonged discussion the differences were narrowed to one point — the presence of the body of Christ extended in space in the sacrament of the Supper. It was agreed in the Wittenberg Concord to leave this an open question. Thus North and South Germany were united. It is possible that had Luther lived longer his followers might have been united with the Swiss. He repeatedly expressed an admiration for Calvin's writings on the subject of the sacrament; and Melanchthon believed that if the Swiss accepted Calvin's theory of the Supper, the Wittenberg Concord could be extended to include them. But the Consensus Tigurinus, which dates the adhesion of the Swiss to the views of Calvin, was not signed until 1549, when Luther was already dead.
Year by year Luther had been growing weaker, his attacks of illness more frequent and his bodily pains more continuous. Despite the entreaties of wife and elector he resolved to do what he could to end some trifling dispute about inheritance which threatened the peace of the House of Mansfeld. He left Wittenberg in bitterly cold weather on the 23rd of January 1546, and the journey was tedious and hazardous. He was accepted as arbiter and his decision brought an end to the strife. He preached in Eisleben (February 14) with all his old fervour; but suddenly said quietly: “This and much more is to be said about the Gospel; but I am too weak and we will close here.” These were his last words in the pulpit. On the 16th and 17th the deeds of reconciliation were signed and Luther's work was done. The end came swiftly. He was very ill on the evening of the 17th; he died on the early morning of the 18th of February 1546 in his sixty-third year.
The elector of Saxony and Luther's family resolved that he must be buried at Wittenberg, and on the 20th the funeral procession began its long march. The counts of Mansfeld, the magistrates of the city and all the burghers of Eisleben accompanied the coffin to the gates of their town. A company of fifty light-armed troops commanded by the young counts of Mansfeld headed the procession and went with it all the way to Wittenberg. The following was temporarily swelled as it passed through villages and towns. Delegates from the elector of Saxony met it as it crossed the boundaries of the principality. Luther was laid to rest in the Castle church on whose door he had nailed the theses which had kindled the great conflagration.