Martin Luther is one of the most important figures in European history, who through his bold and unwavering faith made a lasting change to the religious landscape of the continent.
Largely viewed as the founder of the Protestant Reformation, Luther transformed the role of the Bible within the Christian faith and launched a religious reform movement to rival the most powerful force in Europe – the Catholic Church.
Here are 10 Facts about Martin Luther and his extraordinary yet controversial legacy:
1. A near-death experience pushed him to become a monk
Martin Luther was born on 10 November 1483 to Hans and Margarethe Luther, in the small town of Eisleben, Saxony. The eldest of a large family, Luther was given a rigorous education and at 17 enrolled at the University of Erfurt.
On 2 July 1505 however, Luther would experience one of the most defining moments of his life when he was caught in a vicious thunderstorm and almost struck by lightning.
Terrified to die without earning his place in heaven, he pledged at that moment that if St Anna would guide him through the storm he would endeavour to become a monk and devote his life to God. Two weeks later he had left university to join the St. Augustine Monastery in Erfurt, melancholically telling friends who dropped him off at the Black Cloister,
“This day you see me, and then, not ever again”
2. While lecturing on theology he made a religious breakthrough
While at the monastery Luther began teaching theology at the University of Wittenberg, and in 1512 achieved a Doctorate in the subject. He lectured on the Bible and its teachings, and between 1515-1517 undertook a set of studies on the Epistle to the Romans.
This effectively encouraged the doctrine of justification on faith alone or sola fide, and claimed that righteousness could only be achieved by faith in God, not through buying indulgences or good works alone.
This had a profound effect on Luther, who described it as:
“the most important piece in the New Testament. It is purest Gospel. It is well worth a Christian’s while not only to memorize it word for word but also to occupy himself with it daily, as though it were the daily bread of the soul”
3. His Ninety-five Theses changed the course of Christianity
When in 1516 Dominican friar Johann Tetzel was sent to Germany to sell indulgences to its peasants in order to fund the grand reconstruction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Luther’s studies suddenly had practical use.
Luther wrote to his bishop protesting this practice in a large tract that would come to be known as his Ninety-five Theses. Though likely intended as a scholarly discussion on church practices rather than an all out attack on Catholic Rome, his tone was not without accusation, as seen in Thesis 86 which boldly asked:
“Why does the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of St. Peter with the money of poor believers rather than with his own money?”
The popular story tells that Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg – an action largely cited as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.
4. He founded the Lutheran faith
Luther’s theses spread like wildfire through Germany when in 1518 they were translated from Latin into German by his friends. Aided by the newly-invented printing press, by 1519 they had reached France, England, and Italy, during which time the term ‘Lutheranism’ first came into use.
Initially coined by his enemies as a derogatory term for what they deemed to be heresy, over the course of the 16th century Lutheranism became instilled as the name for the first real Protestant doctrine in the world.
Luther himself disliked the term and preferred to call his philosophy Evangelism, from the Greek term meaning good news, yet as new branches of Protestantism arose it became more important to distinguish exactly to which faith one subscribed.
Today Lutheranism remains one of the largest branches of Protestantism.
5. When he refused to renounce his writing he became a wanted man
Luther soon became a thorn in the papacy’s side. In 1520 Pope Leo X sent a papal bull threatening him with excommunication should he refuse to recant his views – Luther responded by publicly setting it alight, and the following year was indeed excommunicated from the Church on 3 January 1521.
Following this he was summoned to the city of Worms to attend a Diet – a general assembly of the Holy Roman Empire’s estates – where it was again demanded that he renounce his writing. Luther stood by his work however, delivering a rousing speech where he exclaimed:
“I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.”
He was immediately branded a heretic and outlaw by Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. His arrest was ordered, his literature was banned, it became illegal to shelter him, and killing him in broad daylight would bring no consequences.
6. His translation of the New Testament helped to popularise the German language
Luckily for Luther his long-time protector Prince Frederick III, Elector of Saxony had a plan, and arranged for his party to be ‘kidnapped’ by highwaymen and secretly whisked away to Wartburg Castle in Eisenach. Whilst there he grew a beard and took up the disguise of ‘Junker Jörg’, and resolved to undertake what he believed to be a vitally important task – translating the New Testament from Greek into German.
Over an astounding 11 weeks Luther single-handedly finished the translation, averaging around 1,800 words per day. Published in 1522 in the common German language, this made the Bible’s teachings more accessible to the German public, who in turn would be less dependant on priests to read the word of God in Latin during Catholic ceremonies.
Moreover, the popularity of Luther’s translation helped to standardise the German language, at a time when many different tongues were spoken throughout the German territories, and encouraged a similar English translation – the Tyndale Bible.
7. The German Peasants’ War was partly built on his rhetoric, yet he vehemently opposed it
While Luther was in exile at Wartburg Castle, radical reform swept through Wittenberg on an unpredicted scale with relentless unrest felt throughout. The town council sent Luther a desperate message to return, and he felt it was his moral duty to follow through, writing:
“During my absence, Satan has entered my sheepfold, and committed ravages which I cannot repair by writing, but only by my personal presence and living word.”
Through his preaching the revolts in the city quietened, however in the surrounding areas they only continued to grow. A series of Peasants’ Wars resulted, incorporating some of the Reformation’s rhetoric and principles in their demand for influence and freedom. Many believed Luther would support the revolts, yet he was instead enraged by the peasants’ conduct and publicly decried their actions, writing:
“Fine Christians they are! I think there is not a devil left in hell; they have all gone into the peasants. Their raving has gone beyond all measure.”
8. His marriage set a powerful precedent
In 1523 Luther was contacted by a young nun from the Cistercian monastery of Marienthron in Nimbschen. The nun, named Katharina von Bora, had learnt of the growing religious reform movement and sought to escape her mundane life in the nunnery.
Luther arranged for von Bora and several others to be smuggled out of Marienthron amongst barrels of herring, yet when all were accounted for in Wittenberg only she was left – and she had her sights set on marrying Luther.
Despite much deliberation on its repercussions, the two were married on 13 June 1525 and took up residence in the “Black Cloister”, where von Bora quickly took over administration of its vast holdings. The marriage was a happy one, with Luther calling her the ‘morning star of Wittenberg’, and the pair had six children together.
Though clergy had married before, Luther’s influence set the precedent for the marriage of religious men in the Protestant Church, and helped to shape its views on spousal roles.
9. He was a hymnodist
Martin Luther believed music to be one of the key methods of developing faith and as such was a prolific hymnodist, penning dozens of hymns over his lifetime. He combined folk music with high art and wrote for all classes, ages, and genders, writing lyrics on the subjects of work, school, and public life.
His hymns were highly accessible and written in German, with communal song in Protestant church services highly encouraged, as Luther believed music ‘controls our hearts, minds and spirits’.
10. His legacy is mixed
Despite Luther’s revolutionary role in founding Protestantism and helping to stamp out the abuses of the Catholic Church, his legacy also had some extremely sinister repercussions. An aspect often overlooked in Luther’s story of devout Christian faith was his violent decries of other religions.
He was particularly damning of the Jewish faith, buying into the cultural tradition that the Jews had betrayed and murdered Jesus Christ, and often advocated brutal violence against them. Due to these violent anti-Semitic beliefs many historians have since made links between his work and the growing anti-Semitism of the Nazi Party during the Third Reich.
Though Luther’s damnation came on religious grounds and the Nazis’ on racial, his intrinsic position in Germany’s intellectual history allowed members of the Nazi Party to use it as a reference to support their own anti-Semitic policies.