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Luther, Martin 1483–1546 German Religious Reformer

Luther, Martin
1483–1546
German religious reformer

Martin Luther was the first and most important leader of the Protestant Reformation* in Europe. Though he was born during the Renaissance, Luther's life and work rejected many of the values of that time, including the appreciation for classical* ideas, creativity in art and literature, and the willingness to trust human reason.


Luther and the Catholic Church. Luther was born in the German state of Saxony. His father, a restless miner who moved often, recognized that Martin had a brilliant mind and made sure that his son went to good schools. Martin graduated from the University of Erfurt in 1505, and his father expected him then to study law. However, in July 1505, while returning to Erfurt from a visit home, Martin was knocked down by lightning during a storm. Terrified, he vowed to become a monk. Against his father's will, Luther entered a monastery in Erfurt and became a Roman Catholic priest in 1507. The following year he went to the University of Wittenberg to teach.

In 1510, Luther traveled to Rome to represent his monastery in a religious dispute involving the Augustinian religious order. He later said that the immorality and unbelief that he found among church officials there shocked him. The sale of indulgences especially angered Luther. Indulgences promised the lifting of all or part of the punishment for a sin in return for a good action (such as giving money to the church), so long as the person was sorry for the sin. At the time, Pope Leo X permitted the sale of indulgences as a way to raise money for the construction of the church of St. Peter in Rome.

Luther returned to Wittenberg in 1512 and began lecturing on the Bible. In 1517, his anger at the papacy* erupted when a seller of indulgences came to a nearby town. Luther wrote a letter of protest to the archbishop of Mainz, who shared in the profits from the sale of indulgences. Along with the letter he sent a list of 95 theses, or issues for debate, which questioned the value of indulgences and criticized the papacy for its financial mistreatment of Germany. Contrary to legend, Luther did not nail these 95 theses to the door of the castle church.

Luther soon found himself in a battle with the Catholic Church over the issue of papal authority. In one of his works he asked German princes* to take over the duty of church reform. In another he claimed that the sacraments* of the church were part of a papal plot to enslave Christians. He rejected most of the sacraments, accepting only baptism and communion*. Luther also wrote that the true Christian performed good deeds not out of a desire for reward but out of gratitude to God for salvation. Many of his ideas contradicted Catholic teachings, and the church came to regard him as a dangerous heretic*.

In 1520, Pope Leo X threatened to excommunicate* Luther if he did not forsake his views. The next year, the pope formally excommunicated Luther from the Roman Catholic Church. However, Charles V, leader of the Holy Roman Empire*, gave Luther a hearing at a political assembly called the Diet of Worms. Luther expected a chance to debate his ideas, but the emperor asked only if he would abandon them. Luther's powerful defense of his books and views failed to persuade the emperor, and the Edict of Worms declared Luther an outlaw.


Luther and the Protestant Movement. Frederick the Wise, the leader of the German state of Saxony, helped Luther escape to Wartburg Castle, where he hid for almost a year. During that time, he wrote many works on religious beliefs and issues. He also began translating the New Testament of the Bible into German. His complete Bible, finished about a decade later, was not the first German translation, but it was so well done and Luther so important that it shaped the modern German language.

In 1522 Luther returned to Wittenberg, drawn there by unrest caused by people who had taken his ideas on religious authority to an extreme. These people wanted to destroy all religious images, and the violence and destruction they caused threatened the social order. With Frederick's help, Luther put a stop to the violence. Recognizing the need for a framework to contain the movement he had begun, Luther started to organize his own church and spread his new religious doctrine.

In the mid-1520s, Germany experienced a series of uprisings known as the Peasants' War. Oppressed* by the nobility, peasants combined demands for social justice with the language of religious reform. At first, Luther supported the peasants, but he later reacted to their armed resistance by siding with the German authorities and condemned the peasants. Increasing conflict with other reformers marked Luther's last years. He attacked those who opposed him and argued with humanists* such as Desiderius Erasmus, who criticized Luther's views on free will.

(See alsoGerman Language and Literature; Protestant Reformation; Religious Thought. )

* Protestant Reformation

religious movement that began in the 1500s as a protest against certain practices of the Roman Catholic Church and eventually led to the establishment of a variety of Protestant churches

* classical

in the tradition of ancient Greece and Rome

* papacy

office and authority of the pope

* prince

Renaissance term for the ruler of an independent state

* sacrament

religious ritual thought to have been established by Jesus as an aid to salvation

* communion

ritual sharing of bread and wine in memory of Jesus Christ, with different meanings for different Christian churches

* excommunicate

to exclude from the church and its rituals

* heretic

person who rejects the doctrine of an established church

* Holy Roman Empire

political body in central Europe composed of several states; existed until 1806

see color plate 12, vol. 4

* oppress

to exercise power over others in an unjust or cruel way

* humanist

Renaissance expert in the humanities (the languages, literature, history, and speech and writing techniques of ancient Greece and Rome

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