Martin Luther (November 10, 1483 – February 18,1546) was a German monk,[1] priest, professor, theologian, and church reformer. His teachings inspired the Reformation and deeply influenced the doctrines and culture of the Lutheran]] and Protestant]] traditions, as well as the course of Western civilization. Luther's hymns, including his best-known "A Mighty Fortress is Our God", inspired the development of congregational singing within Christianity.[2] His marriage on June 13, 1525, to Katharina von Bora reintroduced the practice of clerical marriage within many Christian traditions.[3]

Martin Luther's translation of the Bible furthered the development of a standard version of the German language and added several principles to the art of translation. His translation significantly influenced the English King James Version of the Bible. Due to the recently developed printing press, his writings were widely read, influencing many subsequent Protestant Reformers and thinkers, giving rise to diversifying Protestant traditions in Europe and elsewhere. Today, nearly seventy million Christians belong to Lutheran churches worldwide, with some four hundred million Protestant Christians tracing their history back to Luther's reforming work.

Early LifeEdit

Early lifeEdit

Luther was born to Hans and Margarethe Luther (Ziegler), on November 10, 1483, in Eisleben, Germany. He was baptized the next morning, on the feast day of St. Martin of Tours, after whom he was named. His family moved to Mansfeld in 1484, where his father first worked in, then later operated, copper mines. Having risen from the peasantry, Hans Luther was determined to see his eldest son become a lawyer. Luther was sent to schools in Mansfeld and later, in 1497, Magdeburg, where he attended a school operated by a lay group called the Brethren of the Common Life. In 1498, he attended school in Eisenach.

In 1501, at the age of seventeen, he entered the University of Erfurt where he played the lute and was nicknamed "the philosopher." He received a B.A. in 1502 and an M.A. in 1505, placing second out of seventeen candidates.[4] In accordance with his father's wishes, Luther enrolled in the law school at the same university.

According to Luther, the course of his life changed during a thunderstorm in the summer of 1505, when a lightning bolt struck near him as he was returning to school. Terrified, he cried out, "Help! Saint Anna, I'll become a monk!" His life spared, he left law school, sold his books (save Virgil and Plautus), and entered the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt on July 17, 1505.

Monastic and academic life Edit

Luther dedicated himself to monastic life. He devoted himself to fasts, long hours in prayer and pilgrimage, and constant confession. Luther tried to please God through this dedication; instead however, it increased his awareness of his own sinfulness. He would later remark, "If anyone could have gained heaven as a monk, then I would indeed have been among them." Luther described this period of his life as one of deep spiritual despair. He said, "I lost hold of Christ the Savior and Comforter and made of him a stock-master and hangman over my poor soul."

Johann von Staupitz, Luther's superior, concluded that the young monk needed more work to distract him from excessive rumination and ordered Luther to pursue an academic career. In 1507 he was ordained to the priesthood, and in 1508 he began teaching theology at the University of Wittenberg.[5] He received a Bachelor's degree in biblical studies on March 9, 1508, and another Bachelor's degree in the Sentences by Peter Lombard in 1509.[6] On October 19, 1512, he was awarded his Doctor of Theology and, on October 21, 1512, was received into the senate of the theological faculty of the University of Wittenberg, having been called to the position of Doctor in Bible.[7] He spent the rest of his career in this position at the University of Wittenberg.

Justification by faithEdit

From 1510 to 1520, Luther lectured on the Psalms, the books of Hebrews, Romans and Galatians. As he studied these portions of the Bible, he came to understand terms such as penance and righteousness in new ways. He began to teach that salvation is a gift of God's grace through Christ received by faith alone. The first and chief article is this, Luther wrote, "Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, died for our sins and was raised again for our justification ... herefore, it is clear and certain that this faith alone justifies us...Nothing of this article can be yielded or surrendered, even though heaven and earth and everything else falls." Another essential aspect of his theology was his emphasis on the "proper distinction" between Law and Gospel. He believed that this principle of interpretation was an essential starting point in the study of the scriptures and that failing to distinguish properly between Law and Gospel was at the root of many fundamental theological errors.[8]

The 95 ThesesEdit

On 31 October 1517 Luther wrote to Albert, Archbishop of Mainz and Magdeburg, protesting the sale of indulgences in his episcopal territories and inviting him to a disputation on the matter. He enclosed 95 Theses, a copy of which he traditionally posted that day to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg.

Luther had already preached against indulgences, but he wrote the 95 Theses partly in reaction to the promotion of indulgences by Johann Tetzel, papal commissioner for indulgences in Germany, to raise funds for the renovation of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. In thesis 28 Luther objected to a saying attributed to Tetzel: "As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs". The 95 Theses not only denounced such transactions as worldly but denied the pope's right to grant pardons on God's behalf in the first place: the only thing indulgences guaranteed, Luther said, was an increase in profit and greed, because the pardon of the Church was in God's power alone.

While Luther did not deny the pope’s right to grant pardons for penance imposed by the Church, he made it clear that preachers who claimed indulgences absolved buyers from all punishments and granted them salvation were in error.The final two theses exhorted Christians not to slacken in following Christ, but to be confident of entering heaven through many tribulations rather than through an assurance of peace.[9] Others had attacked abuses in the Church, but Luther's approach unleashed a doctrinal revolution in the reform movement. By rejecting papal and ecclesiastical practices that conflicted with Scripture, Luther asserted the primacy of scriptural authority over the Church; and by dismissing the scriptural mandate for papal authority, the power of the keys (Matt:16:18–19), “which he [the Pope] does not possess”,[10]he took, possibly unintentionally, a step towards the break with Rome.

The 95 Theses were quickly translated into German, printed, and widely copied, making the controversy one of the first in history to be fanned by the printing press.[11]Within two weeks, the theses had spread throughout Germany; within two months throughout Europe. In contrast, the response of the papacy was painstakingly slow.

Marriage and familyEdit

In May or early June 1525, it became known in Luther's circle that he intended to marry Katharina von Bora. Forestalling any objections from friends against Katharina, Luther acted quickly: on the evening of Tuesday, June 13, 1525, Luther was legally married to Katharina, whom he would soon come to affectionately call "Katy". Katy moved into her husband's home, the former Augustinian monastery in Wittenberg, and they began their family: The Luthers had three boys and three girls:

  • Hans, born June 7, 1526, studied law, became a court official, and died in 1575.
  • Elizabeth, born December 10, 1527, died on August 3, 1528.
  • Magdalena, born May 5, 1529, died in her father's arms September 20, 1542. Her death was particularly hard to bear for Luther and his wife.
  • Martin, Jr., born November 9, 1531, studied theology but never had a regular pastoral call before his death in 1565.
  • Paul, born January 28, 1533, became a physician. He fathered six children before his death on March 8, 1593 and the male line of the Luther family continued through him to John Ernest, ending in 1759.
  • Margaretha, born December 17, 1534, married George von Kunheim of the noble, wealthy Prussian family, but died in 1570 at the age of 36. Her descendants have continued to the present time.


In 1528 Luther took part in the Saxon visitation of parishes and schools to determine the quality of pastoral care and Christian education the people were receiving. Luther wrote in the preface to the Small Catechism,

Mercy! Good God! what manifold misery I beheld! The common people, especially in the villages, have no knowledge whatever of Christian doctrine, and, alas! many pastors are altogether incapable and incompetent to teach.[12]

In response, Luther prepared the Small and Large Catechisms. They are instructional and devotional material on the Ten Commandments; the Apostles' Creed; the Lord's Prayer; Baptism; Confession and Absolution; and the Lord's Supper. The Small Catechism was supposed to be read by the people themselves, the Large Catechism by the pastors. Luther, who was modest about the publishing of his collected works, thought his catechisms were one of two works he would not be embarrassed to call his own:

Regarding [the plan] to collect my writings in volumes, I am quite cool and not at all eager about it because, roused by a Saturnian hunger, I would rather see them all devoured. For I acknowledge none of them to be really a book of mine, except perhaps the one On the Bound Will and the Catechism.[13]
The two catechisms are still popular instructional materials among Lutherans.

Luther's German BibleEdit

Luther translated the Bible into German to make it more accessible to the common people, a task he began alone in 1521 during his stay in the Wartburg castle, publishing The New Testament in September 1522 and, in collaboration with Johannes Bugenhagen, Justus Jonas, Caspar Creuziger, Philipp Melanchthon, Matthäus Aurogallus, and George Rörer, the whole Bible in 1534. He worked on refining the translation for the rest of his life. The Luther Bible contributed to the emergence of the modern German language and is regarded as a landmark in German literature. The 1534 edition was also profoundly influential on William Tyndale's translation [14], a precursor of the King James Bible[15].

Augsburg ConfessionEdit

Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, convened an Imperial Diet in Augsburg in 1530 with the goal of uniting the empire against the Ottoman Turks, who had besieged Vienna the previous autumn.

To achieve unity, Charles required a resolution of the religious controversies in his realm. Luther, despised by emperor and empire, was left behind at the Coburg fortress while his elector and colleagues from Wittenberg attended the diet. The Augsburg Confession, a summary of the Lutheran faith authored by Philipp Melanchthon but influenced by Luther,[16] was read aloud to the emperor. It was the first specifically Lutheran confession included in the Book of Concord of 1580, and is regarded as the principle confession of the Lutheran Church.

Final yearsEdit

Luther's rhetoric became more severe in his final years concerning Jews and Christians alike. In the context of the opening of the Council of Trent in 1545, Luther wrote a pamphlet entitled, Against the Roman Papacy an Institution of the Devil.[17] It was his bitterest attack against the institution of the papacy.[18] In some of his later writings, popes, bishops, and cardinals were referred to as "Roman sodom." He once blessed a group of followers, saying: "May the Lord fill you with His blessings and with hatred of the Pope."[19]</blockquote>

Luther's health declined in the years before his death. Throughout his years as a reformer, Luther had suffered from a variety of ailments, including constipation, hemorrhoids, heart congestion,[20] fainting spells, dizziness and roaring in the ears. From 1531-1546 Luther experienced a series of more severe health problems,[21] including ringing in the ears, and, in 1536-1537, Luther began to experience kidney and bladder stones, which caused him particular agony during the rest of his life. He also suffered from arthritis, and experienced a ruptured ear drum due to an inner ear infection. In December 1544, he suffered from severe angina and finally suffered a heart attack which ended his life in February 1546.[22]

During the later years of his life, Luther remained busy and active, with lecturing at the university on the Biblical book of Genesis, serving as dean of the theological faculty, making many visitations to churches. During the final nine years of his life Luther wrote 165 treatises and nearly ten letters a day, examined many candidates for doctoral degrees in theology, hosting doctoral feats for the successful candidates. His later years were marked by continuing illnesses and physical problems, making him short-tempered and even more pointed and harsh in his writings and comments. His wife Katie was overheard saying, "Dear husband, you are too rude," and he responded, "They teach me to be rude."[23]

Luther's final journey, to Mansfeld, was taken due to his concern for his siblings' families continuing in their father Hans Luther's copper mining trade. Their livelihood was threatened by Count Albrecht of Mansfeld bringing the industry under his own control. The controversy that ensued involved all four Mansfeld counts: Albrecht, Philip, John George, and Gerhard. Luther journeyed to Mansfeld twice in late 1545 to participate in the negotiations for a settlement, and a third visit was needed in early 1546 for their completion.

Accompanied by his three sons, Luther left Wittenberg on January 23. The negotiations were successfully concluded on February 17. After 8:00 p.m. that day, Luther experienced chest pains. When he went to his bed, he prayed, "Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God" (Ps. 31:5), the common prayer of the dying. At 1:00 a.m. he awoke with more chest pain and was warmed with hot towels. Knowing his death was imminent, he thanked God for revealing His Son to him in Whom he had believed. His companions, Justus Jonas and Michael Coelius, shouted loudly, "Reverend father, are you ready to die trusting in your Lord Jesus Christ and to confess the doctrine which you have taught in His name?" A distinct "Yes" was Luther's reply. He died 2:45 a.m., February 18, 1546, in Eisleben, the city of his birth. Luther was buried in the Castle Church in Wittenberg, underneath the pulpit.[24]

A piece of paper was found in Luther's pocket with his last known written statement:

No one who was not a shepherd or a peasant for five years can understand Virgil in his Bucolica and Georgica. I maintain that no one can undersand Cicero in his letters unless he was active in important affairs of state for twenty years. Let no one who had not guided the congregations with the prophets for one hundred years believe that he has tasted Holy Scripture thoroughly. For this reason the miracle is stupendous (1)in John the Baptist, (2) in Christ, (3) in the Apostles. Do not try to fathom this divine Aeneid, but humbly worship its footprints. We are beggars. That is true.[25]


  1. Ewald Plass, "Monasticism", in What Luther Says: An Anthology (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1959), 2:964.
  2. "The last and greatest reform of all [in music] was in congregational song. In the Middle Ages the liturgy was almost entirely restricted to the celebrant and the choir. The congregation joined in a few responses in the vernacular. Luther so developed this element that he may be considered the father of congregational song." from Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: a Life of Martin Luther (New York: Penguin, 1995), 269; Martin Luther, Luther: Hymns, Ballads, Chants, Truth (4 compact disks)(St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2005).
  3. "If he could not reform all Christendom, at any rate he could and did establish the protestant parsonage" from Bainton, 223.
  4. E.G. Schwiebert, Luther and His Times (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1950), 128.
  5. Bainton, 44-45.
  6. a major Mediæval textbook of theology; Brecht, 1:93.
  7. Brecht, 1:12-27.
  8. Preus, Robert D. "Luther and the Doctrine of Justification" Concordia Theological Quarterly 48 (1984) no. 1:11-12.
  9. Exhortandi sunt Christiani, ut caput suum Christum per penas, mortes infernosque sequi studeant. Ac sic magis per multas tribulationes intrare celum quam per securitatem pacis confidant.(Theses 94 and 95)
  10. ...quod non potestate clavis (quam nullam habet)... (Thesis 26)
  11. Brecht, 1:204-205.
  12. Martin Luther, "Preface," Small Catechism.
  13. LW 50:172-173. Luther compares himself to the mythological Saturn, who devoured most of his children. Luther wanted to get rid of many of his writings except for the two mentioned. The Large and Small Catechisms are spoken of as one work by Luther in this letter.
  14. Tyndale's New Testament, Tr. William Tyndale, Ed. David Daniell (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), xv, xxvii.
  15. Tyndale's New Testament, ix-x.
  16. Schaff-Herzog, "Luther, Martin", 74.
  17. LW 41:259-376.
  18. LW 41:259.
  19. Emanuel Valenza, "Christ Among Us? No. Heresy and Revolution, Yes!" The Angellus 8 (1985) No. 3.
  20. In January of 1527, Luther was overcome by "a violent rush of blood to the heart, which well-nigh killed him." For an account of this event, see: Wilhelm Rein, The Life of Martin Luther, New York, Funk & Wagnalls (1883), pp.139-146.
  21. Some of these may have been stress related; the years of struggle with Rome, the various antagonisms with and among his fellow reformers, and the scandal which ensued from the bigamy of Philip of Hesse incident, in which Luther had played a leading role, all may have contributed to Luther's declining health.
  22. Edwards, 9.
  23. Spitz, 354.
  24. cf. Brecht, 3:369-379.
  25. Orig. German and Latin of Luther's last written words is: "Wir sein pettler. Hoc est verum." Heinrich Bornkamm, Luther's World of Thought, tr. Martin H. Bertram (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1958), 291.

Select BibliographyEdit

For the works of Luther himself, see List of books by Martin Luther
For books and films about Martin Luther, see List of books and films about Martin Luther

External linksEdit

Original writings of Luther and contemporaries

Online information on Luther and his work

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