Heroes of Modern Europe - Alice Birkhead

Martin Luther—Reformer of the Church

The martyrdom of Savonarola gave courage to reformers and renewed the faith of the people. It had been his aim to progress steadily toward the truth and to draw the whole world after him. Unconsciously he prepared the way for the German monk who destroyed the unity of the Catholic Church. Though he was merciless to papal abuses, it had not been in the mind of the zealous Dominican to protest against the doctrines of the Papacy, nor did he ever doubt the faith which had drawn him to the convent. He had no wish to destroy—his work was to purify. But his death proved that purification was impossible. Rome had gone too far on the downward path to be checked by a Reformer. She had come at last to the parting of the ways.

Martin Luther knew nothing of the pomp of Italian cities. He was born in very humble circumstances at Eisleben, a little town in Germany, on St Martin's Eve, 1483. Harsh discipline made his childhood unhappy, for the age of educational reformers had not yet come. The little Martin was beaten and tormented, and had to sing in the streets for bread.

Ambition roused his parents to send him to the University of Erfurt that he might study law. He took his degree as Doctor of Philosophy in 1505—the event was celebrated by a torchlight procession and rejoicing, after the student-custom of those parts.

Then Martin Luther, appalled by the sudden death of a comrade in a thunderstorm, resolved to devote himself to God. Luther was a genial youth, and gave a supper to his friends before he left them; there were feasting and laughter and a burst of song. That same evening the door of a convent opened to receive a novice with two books, Vergil and Plautus, in his hand.

The novice had to perform the meanest tasks, sweeping floors and begging in the street on behalf of his brethren of the Augustinian Order. "Go through the street with a sack and get food for us," they clamoured, driving him out that they might resume their idleness.

Staupnitz, the head of the Order, visited the convent and was interested in the young man to whom fasting and penance did not bring the peace he craved. Oppressed by his sins, Luther lived a life of misery. He read the Bible constantly, having discovered the Holy Book by chance within the convent walls. At last, the words of the creed brought comfort to him "I believe in the forgiveness of sins." He despaired of his soul no longer. "It was as if I had found the door of Paradise wide open," he said joyfully, and devoted himself more closely to the study of the Scriptures.

The fame of Luther's learning spread beyond the convent of his Order. He was summoned to teach philosophy and theology at Wittenberg, a new university, founded by Frederick, the Elector of Saxony. The boldness of the lecturer's spirit was first shown in his sermons against "indulgences," one of the worst abuses of the Roman Church.

The Pope claimed to inherit the keys of St Peter, which opened the treasury containing the good works of the saints and the boundless merits of Jesus Christ. He professed to be able to transfer a portion of this merit to any person who gave a sum of money to purchase pardon for sins. "Indulgences" had been first granted to pilgrims and Crusaders. They were further extended to those who aided pious works, such as the building of St Peter's. The Pope, Leo X, had found the papal treasury exhausted by his predecessors. He had to raise money, and therefore allowed agents to sell pardons throughout Germany. Tetzel, a Dominican friar, was employed in Saxony. He was noisy and dishonest, and spent on his own evil pleasures sums that were given by the ignorant creatures upon whom he traded to secure their eternal happiness.

Luther inveighed against such practices from the pulpit of the church at Wittenberg. He was particularly angry to hear Tetzel's wicked proclamation that "when one dropped a penny into the box for a soul in purgatory, so soon as the money chinked in the chest, the soul flew up to heaven."

The papal red cross hung above Tetzel's money-counter, and he sat there and called on all to buy. Luther decided on an action that should stop the shameful traffic, declaring, "God willing, I will beat a hole in his drum." On the eve of All Saints' Day a crowd assembled to gaze at the relics displayed at the Castle church of Wittenberg. Their attention was drawn to a paper nailed on the church gate, which set forth reasons why indulgences were harmful and should be immediately discontinued.

There were other abuses in the Church of Rome which Luther now openly deplored. Hot discussion followed this bold step. Tetzel retired to Frankfort, but from there he wrote to contradict the new teaching of the Augustine monk. He burnt Luther's theses publicly, and then heard that his own had been consigned to the flames in the market-place of Wittenberg, where a host of sympathisers had watched the bonfire with satisfaction. Luther did not stand alone in his struggle to free the Church from vice and superstition. He lived in an age when men had learning enough to despise the trickery of worldly monks. The spirit of inquiry had lived through the Revival of Letters and Erasmus, the famous scholar, had discovered many errors in the Roman Church.

Erasmus joined Luther in an attempt to show men that the Holy Scriptures alone would offer guidance in spiritual matters. He knew that a reform of the Western Church was urgently needed, and was willing to use his subtle brains to confute the arguments of ignorant opponents. But soon he found that Luther's temper was too ardent, that there was no middle course for this impetuous spirit. He dreaded for himself the loss of wealth and honour, and refused to make war on those in high stations, whose patronage had helped him to the rewards of knowledge.

Alarmed by the spread of Luther's books and doctrines, the cardinals entreated the Pope to summon him to Rome. Printing had been invented, and poor as well as rich could easily be roused to inquire into the truth of the doctrines taught by Rome. Leo X had been disposed to ignore the sermons of the obscure German monk, for he had many schemes to further his own ambition. He yielded, at last, and sent the necessary summons. Luther was loth to go to Rome, where he was sure of condemnation. The Elector Frederick of Saxony came forward as his champion, not from religious motives, but because he was pleased to see some prospect of the exactions of the court of Rome being diminished.

Cajetan, the Papal Legate, came to preside over a Diet, summoned specially to Augsburg. He urged the monk to retract his dangerous doctrine that the authority of the Bible was above that of the Pope of Rome. "Retract, my son, retract," he urged; "it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks." But the conference ended where it had begun—Luther fled back to Wittenberg.

He began to see now that the whole system of Romish government was wrong, and that there were countless abuses to be swept away before the Church could truly claim to point the way to Christianity. Conscience or authority, the Scriptures or the Church, Germany or Rome? A choice had to be made, each man ranging himself on one side or the other. The independence of Germany was dear to Luther's heart. He wrote an address to the nobles and summoned the Christian princes of Germany to his aid. He declared that all Christians were priests, and that the Church and nation ought to be freed from the interference of the Papacy. He was becoming an avowed enemy of the Pope, losing his former reluctance to attack authority. A Bull was, of course, issued against him, but the students of Erfurt threw the paper on which it was written into the river, saying contemptuously—"It is a bubble, let it swim!"

In December, 1520, Luther himself burnt the Bull on a fire kindled for the purpose at the Elster Gate of Wittenberg. He said, as he committed the document to the flames, "As thou hast vexed the saints of God, so mayest thou be consumed in eternal fire." The act cut him off from the Papacy for ever. He had defied the Pope in the presence of many witnesses. Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, was not in a position to take up the cause of Luther against his powerful enemies. He maintained an alliance with the Pope so that he would oppose the vast schemes which his rival, Francis I of France, was maturing. At the same time, he owed a debt of gratitude to the Elector Frederick, who was one of the seven German princes possessing the right to "elect" a new emperor. He decided, after a brief struggle, to yield to the demands of the Papal Legates. He ordered Martin Luther to come to Worms and appear before the great Diet, or Assembly of German rulers, which met in 1521.

Luther obeyed at once, making a triumphant journey through many towns and villages. Music fell on his ears pleasantly, a portrait of Savonarola was sent to him that he might feel his courage strengthened. Had not his resolve been fixed, he would have turned back at Weimar, where he found an edict posted on the walls ordering all his writings to be burnt. "I am lawfully called to appear in that city," he said, "and thither will I go in the name of the Lord, though as many devils as there are tiles on the houses were there combined against me." He was stricken with illness at Eisenach, but went on as soon as he recovered. When he caught sight of the old towers of Worms, his spirit leapt with joy, and he began to sing his famous hymn, "Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott." ("A mighty fortress is our God.")

The crowded streets testified to the fame that had gone before him. Not even the Emperor had met with such a flattering reception. Saxon noblemen welcomed him, and friendly speech cheered him to meet the ordeal of the next day. The Diet was an impressive assembly, with the Emperor on his throne and the great dignitaries of State around him, clad in all the majesty of red and purple. Not the chivalry of Germany only had flocked to hear the defence of Martin Luther for Spanish warriors sat there in yellow cloaks and added lustre to the splendid gathering.

Luther's courageous stand against his adversaries won many to his cause. He would not withdraw one word he had written or spoken, nor did he consent to his opinions being tried by any other rule than the word of God.

Eric, the aged Duke of Brunswick, sent him a silver can of Einbech beer as a token of sympathy. Weary of strife, Luther drank it, saying, "As Duke Eric has remembered me this day, so may our Lord Christ remember him in his last struggle."

The reformer called in vain on the Emperor and States, assembled at Worms, to consider the parlous case of the Church, lest God should visit the German nation with His judgment. A severe edict was published against him by the authority of the Diet, and he was deprived of all the privileges he enjoyed as a subject of the Empire. Furthermore, it was forbidden for any prince to harbour or protect him, and his person was to be seized as soon as the safe-conduct for the journey had expired.

As Luther returned to Wittenberg, a band of horsemen took him and carried him off to the strong castle of Wartburg, where he was lodged in the disguise of a knight. It was a ruse of the Elector of Saxony to save him from the storm he had roused by his behaviour at the Diet. Imprisonment was not irksome, and the retreat was pleasant enough after the strife of years. He hunted in his character of gallant cavalier, and always wore a sword. Much of his time was spent in translating the Scriptures into German, that knowledge might not be denied even to the unlettered. Constant study made his imagination very vivid, and the devil seemed to be constantly before him. He had long conversations with Satan in person, as he believed, and decided that the best way to get rid of him was by gibes and mockery. One night his bed shook with the violent agitation caused by the rattling of some hazel nuts against each other after they had felt the inspiration of the Evil One! On another occasion a diabolical moth buzzed round him, preventing close attention to his labours. He hurled an inkstand at the intruder, staining the wall of the chamber with a mark that remained there through centuries.

During this confinement, Luther's opinions gained ground in Saxony. The University of Wittenberg made several alterations in the form of Church worship, abolishing, in particular, the celebration of private masses for the souls of the dead. Two events counteracted the pleasure of the reformer when the news came to him. He was told that the ancient University of Paris had condemned his doctrines, and that Henry VIII of England had written a reply to one of his books, so ably that the Pope had been delighted to confer on him the title of Defender of the Faith.

In 1522, Luther returned to Wittenberg, enjoying a harmless jest at Jena by the way. There his disguise of red mantle and doublet so deceived fellow-travellers that they told him their intention of going to see Martin Luther return, without realizing that they were speaking to the great reformer!

His next sermons were not fortunate in their results, since the peasants failed to understand them. A class war followed, in which Luther took the part of mediator, trying to show his poorer neighbours the evils their violence would bring on themselves, and reproaching the nobles with their oppressive customs. He was angry that the new religious spirit should be discredited by social disorder, and spoke bitterly of all who refused to heed his remonstrances. Erasmus was shocked by Luther's roughness of speech, and withdrew more and more from the reforming party. He hated the old monkish teaching and desired literary freedom, but he could not forgive the excesses of this thorough-going reformer.

In 1523, Luther gave grave offence to many of his own followers by marrying Catherine von Bora, a nun who had left her convent. He had cast off the Roman belief that a priest should never marry, but public feeling could not approve of a change which was in conflict with so many centuries of tradition. The Reformer's home life was happy, nevertheless, and six children were born of the marriage. As a father, Luther showed much tenderness. He wrote with a marvellous simplicity to his eldest son: "I know a very pretty, pleasant garden and in it there are a great many children, all dressed in little golden coats, picking up nice apples and pears and cherries and plums, under the trees. And they sing and jump about and are very merry; and besides, they have got beautiful little horses with golden bridles and silver saddles. Then I asked the man to whom the garden belonged, whose children they were, and he said, 'These are children who love to pray and learn their lessons, and do as they are bid'; then I said, 'Dear sir, I have a little son called Johnny Luther; may he come into this garden too?'"

[Illustration] from Heroes of Modern Europe by Alice Birkhead


Luther's translation of the Bible was read with wonderful attention by people of every rank. Other countries of Europe also were influenced by his doctrines, with the result of a diminution of the blind faith in priestcraft. Nuremburg, Frankfort, Hamburg, and other imperial free cities in Germany openly embraced the reformed religion, abolishing the mass and other "superstitious rites of popery." The secular princes drew up a list of one hundred grievances, enumerating the grievous burdens laid upon them by the Holy See. In 1526 a Diet assembled at Speyer to consider the state of religion! The Diet enjoined all those who had obeyed the decree issued against Luther at Worms to continue to observe it, and to prohibit other States from attempting any further innovation in religion till the meeting of a general council. The Elector of Saxony, with the heads of other principalities and free cities, entered a solemn "protest" against this decree, as unjust and impious. On that account they were distinguished by the name of Protestants.

At Augsburg, where priests and statesmen met together in 1530, the Protestant form of religion was established. The reformers issued there a "confession" of their faith, known as the Augsburg Confession, and which placed them for ever apart from the old Roman Catholic Church. A zeal for religion had seized on men excited by their own freedom to find the truth for themselves. Luther lamented the strife that of necessity followed, often wondering whether he had not been too bold in opposing the ancient traditions of Rome. For he had aimed at purification rather than separation, and would have preferred to keep the old Church rather than to set up a new one in its place. "He was never for throwing away old shoes till he had got new ones." Naturally reformers of less moderate nature did not love him. He detested argument for argument's sake. There was nothing crafty or subtle in his nature. He poured out the honest convictions of his heart without regard to the form in which he might express them.

In 1546, Luther had promised to settle a dispute between two nobles, and set out on his journey, feeling a presentiment that the end of worldly strife was come for him. On the way, he visited Eisleben, where he had been born, and there died. His body was taken to Wittenberg, the scene of his real life-work.

Germany had been restless before the reforms of Martin Luther, disinclined to believe all that was taught by monks and inculcated by tradition. The authority of the Pope had kept men's souls in bondage. They hardly dared to judge for themselves what was right and what was wrong. If money could free them from the burden of sins, they paid it gladly, acquitting themselves of all responsibility. Now conscience had stirred and the mind been slowly awakened. Luther declared his belief that each was responsible to God for his own soul, and there was a universal echo. "I believe in the forgiveness of sins." The truth which had shone on the troubled monk was the truth to abide for ever with his followers. "No priest can save you! no masses or indulgences can help you! But God has saved you!" The voice of the preacher came to the weary, crying out from ancient cathedrals and passionately swaying the whole nation of Germany. Europe was in need of the same moral freedom. Other countries took up the new creed and examined it, finding that which would work like a leaven in the corruptness of the age.