A reluctant hero full of self-doubt on the one hand, yet a vociferous and sometimes cruel writer on the other, Martin Luther was a man driven into unknown territory by fate and his times.
Born to a copper miner in Eisleben, Germany, in 1483, he had an unhappy early life, his father wanting him to become a lawyer and often brutalising him. When he was 23 he had a spiritual experience during a thunderstorm and in 1507 was ordained a priest. Spending several years in a monastery, he brutalised himself, denying desires of the body.
Eventually he was to visit Rome, and became disgusted with the corruption he found there – in particular the sale of indulgences by Johann Tetzel to raise funds for the Church.
By this time he was a teacher at Wittenberg University, and upon his return he nailed 95 theses against the sale of indulgences to the church door. The year was 1517, and the world was never to be the same again.
The various principalities of Germany were approaching revolt against the Catholic Church and the Church itself was digging in its heels. Summoned to Rome to defend his actions, he increased his attacks on the Church, seeing the pope as the anti-Christ himself. The pope responded with his excommunication in 1520. When Luther received the papal bull showing this, he publicly burned it, contemptuous of the pope’s authority.
Eventually, he was called to the Diet of Worms, a meeting of the Holy Roman Emperor and the regional leaders. Refusing to recant, public opinion was with him and they fudged a declaration of his guilt. On his way home, Luther was taken into protective custody by the Elector of Saxony for his own safety, whilst moves began to remove the authority of Rome from the slowly growing Protestant Church which Luther had given life to.
By 1530, Luther retired from public life, marrying an ex-nun and having children, although his writings continued. And central to those writings were the central premises of the Protestant – that Scripture, freely interpreted, was the only rule of faith; and that faith was justified by itself without intermediaries to God. In other words, it was the words of the Bible and the faith held within the individual that were important, not the authority and doctrine of the Catholic Church.
Martin Luther died in 1546, unsure of what he had let loose into the world, but sure that his life had been right. The Catholic and Protestant were to debate and fight for centuries, forging the modern world in the process – a modern world of which Luther was so vital a part.
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