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Martin Luther








This illustrious German divine and reformer of the church, was the son
of John Luther and Margaret Lindeman, and born at Isleben, a town of
Saxony, in the county of Mansfield, November 10, 1483. His father's
extraction and condition were originally but mean, and his occupation
that of a miner: it is probable, however, that by his application and
industry he improved the fortunes of his family, as he afterward became
a magistrate of rank and dignity. Luther was early initiated into
letters, and at the age of thirteen was sent to school at Madgeburg, and
thence to Eysenach, in Thuringia, where he remained four years,
producing the early indications of his future eminence.

In 1501 he was sent to the university of Erfurt, where he went through
the usual courses of logic and philosophy. When twenty, he took a
master's degree, and then lectured on Aristotle's physics, ethics, and
other parts of philosophy. Afterward, at the instigation of his parents,
he turned himself to the civil law, with a view of advancing himself to
the bar, but was diverted from this pursuit by the following accident.
Walking out into the fields one day, he was struck by lightning so as to
fall to the ground, while a companion was killed by his side; and this
affected him so sensibly, that, without communicating his purpose to any
of his friends, he withdrew himself from the world, and retired into the
order of the hermits of St. Augustine.

Here he employed himself in reading St. Augustine and the school men;
but, in turning over the leaves of the library, he accidentally found a
copy of the Latin Bible, which he had never seen before. This raised his
curiosity to a high degree: he read it over very greedily, and was
amazed to find what a small portion of the scriptures was rehearsed to
the people. He made his profession in the monastery of Erfurt, after he
had been a novice one year; and he took priest's orders, and celebrated
his first mass in 1507. The year after, he was removed from the convent
of Erfurt to the university of Wittemberg; for this university being
just founded, nothing was thought more likely to bring it into immediate
repute and credit, than the authority and presence of a man so
celebrated, for his great parts and learning, as Luther. In 1512, seven
convents of his order having a quarrel with their vicar-general, Luther
was chosen to go to Rome to maintain their cause. At Rome he saw the
pope and the court, and had an opportunity of observing also the manners
of the clergy, whose hasty, superficial, and impious way of celebrating
mass, he has severely noted. As soon as he had adjusted the dispute
which was the business of his journey, he returned to Wittemberg, and
was created doctor of divinity, at the expense of Frederic, elector of
Saxony; who had often heard him preach, was perfectly acquainted with
his merit, and reverenced him highly. He continued in the university of
Wittemberg, where, as professor of divinity, he employed himself in the
business of his calling. Here then he began in the most earnest manner
to read lectures upon the sacred books: he explained the epistle to the
Romans, and the Psalms, which he cleared up and illustrated in a manner
so entirely new, and so different from what had been pursued by former
commentators, that "there seemed, after a long and dark night, a new day
to arise, in the judgment of all pious and prudent men." The better to
qualify himself for the task he had undertaken, he applied himself
attentively to the Greek and Hebrew languages; and in this manner was he
employed, when the general indulgences were published in 1517. Leo X.
who succeeded Julius II. in March, 1513, formed a design of building the
magnificent church of St. Peter's at Rome, which was, indeed, begun by
Julius, but still required very large sums to be finished. Leo,
therefore, 1517 published general indulgences throughout all Europe, in
favour of those who contribute any sum to the building of St. Peter's;
and appointed persons in different countries to preach up these
indulgences, and to receive money for them. These strange proceedings
gave vast offence at Wittemberg, and particularly inflamed the pious
zeal of Luther; who, being naturally warm and active, and in the present
case unable to contain himself, was determined to declare against them
at all adventures. Upon the eve of All-saints, therefore, in 1517, he
publicly fixed up, at the church next to the castle of that town, a
thesis upon indulgences; in the beginning of which, he challenged any
one to oppose it either by writing or disputation. Luther's propositions
about indulgences, were no sooner published, than Tetzel, the Dominican
friar, and commissioner for selling them, maintained and published at
Francfort, a thesis, containing a set of propositions directly contrary
to them. He did more; he stirred up the clergy of his order against
Luther; anathematized him from the pulpit, as a most damnable heretic;
and burnt his thesis publicly at Francfort. Tetzel's thesis was also
burnt, in return, by the Lutherans at Wittemburg; but Luther himself
disowned having had any hand in that procedure. In 1518, Luther, though
dissuaded from it by his friends, yet, to show obedience to authority,
went to the monastery of St. Augustine, at Heidelberg, while the chapter
was held; and here maintained, April 26, a dispute concerning
"justification by faith," which Bucer, who was present at, took down in
writing, and afterward communicated to Beatus Rhenanus, not without the
highest commendations. In the meantime, the zeal of his adversaries grew
every day more and more active against him; and he was at length accused
to Leo X. as a heretic. As soon as he returned therefore from
Heidelberg, he wrote a letter to that pope, in the most submissive
terms; and sent him, at the same time, an explication of his
propositions about indulgences. This letter is dated on Trinity-Sunday,
1518, and was accompanied with a protestation, wherein he declared, that
"he did not pretend to advance or defend any thing contrary to the holy
scriptures, or to the doctrine of the fathers, received and observed by
the church of Rome, or to the canons and decretals of the popes:
nevertheless, he thought he had the liberty either to approve or
disapprove the opinions of St. Thomas, Bonaventure, and other school-men
and canonists, which are not grounded upon any text."

The emperor Maximilian was equally solicitous with the pope about
putting a stop to the propagation of Luther's opinions in Saxony;
troublesome both to the church and empire. Maximilian, therefore,
applied to Leo, in a letter dated August 5, 1518, and begged him to
forbid, by his authority, these useless, rash, and dangerous disputes;
assuring him also, that he would strictly execute in the empire whatever
his holiness should enjoin. In the meantime Luther, as soon an he
understood what was transacting about him at Rome, used all imaginable
means to prevent his being carried thither, and to obtain a hearing of
his cause in Germany. The elector was also against Luther's going to
Rome, and desired of cardinal Cajetan, that he might be heard before
him, as the pope's legate in Germany. Upon these addresses, the pope
consented that the cause should be tried before cardinal Cajetan, to
whom he had given power to decide it. Luther, therefore, set off
immediately for Augsburg, and carried with him letters from the elector.
He arrived here in October, 1518, and, upon an assurance of his safety,
was admitted into the cardinal's presence. But Luther was soon convinced
that he had more to fear from the cardinal's power, than from
disputations of any kind; and, therefore, apprehensive of being seized,
if he did not submit, withdrew from Augsburg upon the 20th. But, before
his departure, he published a formal appeal to the pope, and finding
himself protected by the elector, continued to teach the same doctrines
at Wittemberg, and sent a challenge to all the inquisitors to come and
dispute with him.

As to Luther, Miltitius, the pope's chamberlain, had orders to require
the elector to oblige him to retract, or to deny him his protection; but
things were not now to be carried with so high a hand, Luther's credit
being too firmly established. Besides, the emperor Maximilian happened
to die upon the 12th of this month, whose death greatly altered the face
of affairs, and made the elector more able to determine Luther's fate.
Miltitius thought it best, therefore, to try what could be done by fair
and gentle means, and to that end came to some conference with Luther.
During all these treaties, the doctrine of Luther spread, and prevailed
greatly; and he himself received great encouragement at home and abroad.
The Bohemians about this time sent him a book of the celebrated John
Huss, who had fallen a martyr in the work of reformation; and also
letters, in which they exhorted him to constancy and perseverance,
owning, that the divinity which he taught was the pure, sound, and
orthodox divinity. Many great and learned men had joined themselves to
him. In 1519, he had a famous dispute at Leipsic with John Eccius. But
this dispute ended at length like all others, the parties not the least
nearer in opinion, but more to enmity with each other's persons. About
the end of this year, Luther published a book, in which he contended for
the communion being celebrated in both kinds; which was condemned by the
bishop of Misnia, January 24, 1520. While Luther was labouring to excuse
himself to the new emperor and the bishops of Germany, Eccius had gone
to Rome, to solicit his condemnation; which, it may easily be conceived,
was now become not difficult to be attained. Indeed the continual
importunities of Luther's adversaries with Leo, caused him at length to
publish a formal condemnation of him, and he did so accordingly, in a
bull, dated June 15, 1520; this was carried into Germany, and published
there by Eccius, who had solicited it at Rome; and who, together with
Jerom Alexander, a person eminent for his learning and eloquence, was
entrusted by the pope with the execution of it. In the meantime, Charles
V. of Spain, after he had set things to rights in the Low Countries,
went into Germany, and was crowned emperor, October the 21st, at
Aix-la-Chapelle. The diet of Worms was held in the beginning of 1521;
which ended at length in this single and peremptory declaration of
Luther, that "unless he was convinced by texts of scripture or evident
reason (for he did not think himself obliged to submit to the pope or
his councils,) he neither could nor would retract any thing, because it
was not lawful for him to act against his conscience." Before the diet
of Worms was dissolved, Charles V. caused an edict to be drawn up, which
was dated the 8th of May, and decreed that Martin Luther be, agreeably
to the sentence of the pope, henceforward looked upon as a member
separated from the church, a schismatic, and an obstinate and notorious
heretic. While the bull of Leo X. executed by Charles V. was thundering
throughout the empire, Luther was safely shut up in the castle of
Wittemberg; but weary at length of his retirement, he appeared publickly
again at Wittemberg, March 6, 1522, after he had been absent about ten
months. Luther now made open war with the pope and bishops; and, that he
might make the people despise their authority as much as possible, he
wrote one book against the pope's bull, and another against the order
falsely called "the order of bishops." He published also, a translation
of the "New Testament" in the German tongue, which was afterward
corrected by himself and Melancthon. Affairs were now in great confusion
in Germany; and they were not less so in Italy, for a quarrel arose
between the pope and the emperor, during which Rome was twice taken, and
the pope imprisoned. While the princes were thus employed in quarrelling
with each other, Luther persisted in carrying on the work of the
reformation, as well by opposing the papists, as by combating the
Anabaptists and other fanatical sects; which, having taken the advantage
of his contest with the church of Rome, had sprung up and established
themselves in several places.

In 1527, Luther was suddenly seized with a coagulation of the blood
about the heart, which had like to have put an end to his life. The
troubles of Germany being not likely to have any end, the emperor was
forced to call a diet at Spires, in 1529, to require the assistance of
the princes of the empire against the Turks. Fourteen cities, viz.
Stratsburg, Nuremberg, Ulm, Constance, Retlingen, Windsheim, Memmingen,
Lindow, Kempten, Hailbron, Isny, Weissemburg, Nortlingen, S. Gal, joined
against the decree of the diet protestation, which was put into writing,
and published the 19th of April, 1529. This was the famous protestation,
which gave the name of Protestants to the reformers in Germany.

After this, the protestant princes laboured to make a firm league and
enjoined the elector of Saxony and his allies to approve of what the
diet had done; but the deputies drew up an appeal, and the protestants
afterwards presented an apology for their "Confession"--that famous
confession which was drawn up by the temperate Melancthon, as also the
apology. These were signed by a variety of princes, and Luther had now
nothing else to do, but to sit down and contemplate the mighty work he
had finished: for that a single monk should be able to give the church
of Rome so rude a shock, that there needed but such another entirely to
overthrow it, may be well esteemed a mighty work.

In 1533, Luther wrote a consolatory epistle to the citizens of Oschatz,
who had suffered some hardships for adhering to the Augsburg confession
of faith: and in 1534, the Bible translated by him into German was first
printed, as the old privilege, dated at Bibliopolis, under the elector's
own hand, shows; and it was published in the year after. He also
published this year a book "against masses and the consecration of
priests." In February, 1537, an assembly was held at Smalkald about
matters of religion, to which Luther and Melancthon were called. At this
meeting Luther was seized with so grievous an illness, that there was no
hope of his recovery. As he was carried along he made his will, in which
he bequeathed his detestation of popery to his friends and brethren. In
this manner was he employed till his death, which happened in 1546. That
year, accompanied by Melancthon, he paid a visit to his own country,
which he had not seen for many years, and returned again in safety. But
soon after, he was called thither again by the earls of Mansfelt, to
compose some differences which had arisen about their boundaries, where
he was received by 100 horsemen, or more, and conducted in a very
honourable manner; but was at the same time so very ill, that it was
feared he would die. He said, that these fits of sickness often came
upon him, when he had any great business to undertake; of this, however,
he did not recover, but died February 18, in his 63d year. A little
before he expired, he admonished those that were about him to pray to
God for the propagation of the gospel; "because," said he, "the council
of Trent, which had sat once or twice, and the pope, will devise strange
things against it." Soon after, his body was put into a leaden coffin,
and carried with funeral pomp to the church at Iselbein, when Dr. Jonas
preached a sermon upon the occasion. The earls of Mansfelt desired that
his body should be interred in their territories; but the elector of
Saxony insisted upon his being brought back to Wittemberg, which was
accordingly done; and there he was buried with the greatest pomp that
perhaps ever happened to any private man. Princes, earls, nobles, and
students without number, attended the procession of this extraordinary
reformer; and Melancthon made his funeral oration.

We will close this account of the great founder of the reformation, by
subjoining a few opinions, which have been passed upon him, by both
papists and Protestants. "Luther," says Father Simon, "was the first
Protestant who ventured to translate the Bible into the vulgar tongue
from the Hebrew text, although he understood Hebrew but very
indifferently. As he was of a free and bold spirit, he accuses St Jerom
of ignorance in the Hebrew tongue; but he had more reason to accuse
himself of this fault, and for having so precipitately undertaken a work
of this nature, which required more time than he employed about it.
There is nothing great or learned in his commentaries upon the Bible;
every thing low and mean: and though he had studied divinity, he has
rather composed a rhapsody of theological questions, than a commentary
upon the scripture text: to which we may add, that he wanted
understanding, and usually followed his senses instead of his reason."

This is the language of those in the church of Rome who speak of Luther
with any degree of moderation; for the generality allow him neither
parts, nor learning, nor any attainment intellectual or moral. But let
us leave these impotent railers, and attend a little to more equitable
judges. "Luther," says Wharton, in his appendix to Cave's Historia
Literaria, "was a man of prodigious sagacity and acuteness, very warm,
and formed for great undertakings; being a man, if ever there was one,
whom nothing could daunt or intimidate. When the cause of religion was
concerned, he never regarded whose love he was likely to gain, or whose
displeasure to incur." He is also highly spoken of by Atterbury and
others.





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