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


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