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Who was Martin Luther?

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Ninety-five theses, allegedly nailed to the wooden door of Wittenberg’s castle church in 1517, became one of the main symbols for the Protestant Reformation. Their author was a German theologian: Martin Luther. 500 years on, we take a closer look at the life of this important figure of German history.

Ninety-five Theses, allegedly posted to the wooden door of Wittenberg’s castle church in 1517, became one of the main symbols for the Protestant Reformation. Their author was a German theologian: Martin Luther. 500 years on, we take a closer look at the life of this important figure of German history.

Statue of Martin Luther in Dresden
Statue of Martin Luther in Dresden© picture alliance / Winfried Roth

Martin Luther was born on 10 November 1483 in Eisleben, Saxony, then part of the Holy Roman Empire. He was baptised as a Catholic. From 1498 to 1501 he went to Latin school in Eisenach. In 1501, at the age of 19, he entered the prestigious University of Erfurt to study Artes liberales. After finishing his master’s degree in 1505, he followed his father’s advice and switched to law studies.

On 2 July 1505 Luther was caught in a severe thunderstorm and almost struck by a lightning, whereupon he pledged to become a monk. Later that month he joined a monastic order, becoming an Augustinian friar in Erfurt. In 1508 he began lecturing on moral philosophy at the University of Wittenberg and finished his studies with a doctorate in philosophy in October 1512.

Dispute with the Roman Catholic Church

Following a visit to Rome in 1510, Luther came to reject several teachings and practices of the Roman Catholic Church. He strongly disputed the claim that freedom from God's punishment for sin could be purchased with money, proposing an academic discussion of the practice and efficacy of indulgences in his famous Ninety-five Theses of 1517. In 1518-1520 he published a series of pamphlets developing his ideas - 'On Christian Liberty', 'On the Freedom of a Christian Man', 'To the Christian Nobility' and 'On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church'. He attacked papal abuses and the sale of indulgences, denied the papacy’s divine law and relativised the Vatican councils. Luther’s views were a sensational success and copies of his work spread rapidly throughout Europe.

Rome saw Luther as a heretic. He was summoned before an assembly of the Holy Roman Empire in the City of Worms in April of 1521 where he refused to renounce his writings. Pope Leo X excommunicated Luther and afterwards Holy Roman Emperor Charles V condemned him as an outlaw. The Lutheran doctrine/teaching was forbidden. On the 4 May 1521 Luther went hiding as ‘Junker Jörg’ in Wartburg Castle. In March 1522, Luther returned to Wittenberg, again propagating his ideas and publications.

Marriage & Bible translation

In 1525, he married Katharina von Bora, a former nun, which can be seen as a model for the practice of clerical marriage, allowing Protestant clergy to marry. His translation of the Bible in September 1522 (finished in 1534) into the vernacular (instead of Latin) made it more accessible to the laity, an event that had a tremendous impact on both the church and German culture. It fostered the development and spread of a standard version of the German language, added several principles to the art of translation, and influenced the writing of an English translation, the Tyndale Bible.

Controversies and death

In 1524-1525 Luther became involved in the Peasants’ War. He rejected the leaders’ demands to use his arguments to justify their revolt and upheld the right of the authorities to suppress the uprising, which lost him many supporters. In 1543, Luther published statements and writings against Jews, like “On the Jews and Their Lies”. In doing so he had a significant influence on German anti-Semitism.

Luther died on the 16 February 1546 in Eisleben.

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