Martin Luther was a German monk who forever changed Christianity when he nailed his '95 Theses' to a church door in 1517, sparking the Protestant Reformation.
Who Was Martin Luther?
Luther called into question some of the basic tenets of Roman Catholicism, and his followers soon split from the Roman Catholic Church to begin the Protestant tradition. His actions set in motion tremendous reform within the Church.
A prominent theologian, Luther’s desire for people to feel closer to God led him to translate the Bible into the language of the people, radically changing the relationship between church leaders and their followers.
Luther was born on November 10, 1483, in Eisleben, Saxony, located in modern-day Germany.
His parents, Hans and Margarette Luther, were of peasant lineage. However, Hans had some success as a miner and ore smelter, and in 1484 the family moved from Eisleben to nearby Mansfeld, where Hans held ore deposits.
Hans Luther knew that mining was a tough business and wanted his promising son to have a better career as a lawyer. At age seven, Luther entered school in Mansfeld.
At 14, Luther went north to Magdeburg, where he continued his studies. In 1498, he returned to Eisleben and enrolled in a school, studying grammar, rhetoric and logic. He later compared this experience to purgatory and hell.
In 1501, Luther entered the University of Erfurt, where he received a degree in grammar, logic, rhetoric and metaphysics. At this time, it seemed he was on his way to becoming a lawyer.
Becoming a Monk
In July 1505, Luther had a life-changing experience that set him on a new course to becoming a monk.
Caught in a horrific thunderstorm where he feared for his life, Luther cried out to St. Anne, the patron saint of miners, “Save me, St. Anne, and I’ll become a monk!” The storm subsided and he was saved.
Most historians believe this was not a spontaneous act, but an idea already formulated in Luther’s mind. The decision to become a monk was difficult and greatly disappointed his father, but he felt he must keep a promise.
Luther was also driven by fears of hell and God’s wrath, and felt that life in a monastery would help him find salvation.
The first few years of monastic life were difficult for Luther, as he did not find the religious enlightenment he was seeking. A mentor told him to focus his life exclusively on Jesus Christ and this would later provide him with the guidance he sought.
Disillusionment with Rome
At age 27, Luther was given the opportunity to be a delegate to a Catholic church conference in Rome. He came away more disillusioned, and very discouraged by the immorality and corruption he witnessed there among the Catholic priests.
Upon his return to Germany, he enrolled in the University of Wittenberg in an attempt to suppress his spiritual turmoil. He excelled in his studies and received a doctorate, becoming a professor of theology at the university (known today as Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg).
Through his studies of scripture, Luther finally gained religious enlightenment. Beginning in 1513, while preparing lectures, Luther read the first line of Psalm 22, which Christ wailed in his cry for mercy on the cross, a cry similar to Luther’s own disillusionment with God and religion.
Two years later, while preparing a lecture on Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, he read, “The just will live by faith.” He dwelled on this statement for some time.
Finally, he realized the key to spiritual salvation was not to fear God or be enslaved by religious dogma but to believe that faith alone would bring salvation. This period marked a major change in his life and set in motion the Reformation.
On October 31, 1517, Luther, angry with Pope Leo X’s new round of indulgences to help build St. Peter’s Basilica, nailed a sheet of paper with his 95 Theses on the University of Wittenberg’s chapel door.
Though Luther intended these to be discussion points, the 95 Theses laid out a devastating critique of the indulgences - good works, which often involved monetary donations, that popes could grant to the people to cancel out penance for sins - as corrupting people’s faith.
Luther also sent a copy to Archbishop Albert Albrecht of Mainz, calling on him to end the sale of indulgences. Aided by the printing press, copies of the 95 Theses spread throughout Germany within two weeks and throughout Europe within two months.