Amazing articles on just about every subject...

Martin Luther

( Originally Published Late 1800's )

One day, in Berlin, a traveled-stained tourist stood, enraptured, gazing at a picture. He had come across the Atlantic to see, among other things, the great paintings in the Royal Museum of Berlin. On the grand stairway, in the centre, hangs Kaulbach's Era of the Reformation," and there the tourist stood for a moment, lost in admiration, before this wonderful creation of genius. The artist has gathered in a vast hall poets and philosophers, rulers and warriors, scholars and artists. Here are Kepler and Copernicus, demonstrating the truths of astronomy; yonder the face of Elizabeth looks imperiously over the scene, and near her the calm brow and deep eyes of Shakespeare. The hero-soldier, Gustavus, stands in in martial strength. Erasmus and Reuchlin are walking slowly, clad in scholar's robes. Albert Dürer is here, and with him the great Italians of the age, so famous in art and literature. Great rulers, with their crowns and sceptres ; great warriors leaning on their swords, with the insignia of their callings, are here in grandest power ; a race of giants successfuly portrayed upon canvas. But in the centre, in the focus of the greatest of earth, stands a plainly robed, monk, and over sovereign and soldier, over poet and painter, over scholar and statesman, falls the shadow of the great Luther, standing in the sunlight splendors of the Reformation. The sceptre of Elizabeth, the sword of Gustavus, the brush of Dürer, and the magic pen of Shakespeare are implements, nobly used ; but in the hands of Luther lies the open Bible.

In what consisted the greatness of Martin Luther? What was it that makes us feel that it is right for Shakespeare to sit in silent shadow, and that a great soldier like Gustavus should look up to him in reverence ? Why does Luther's name stir us as that of Erasmus and Reuchlin do not ? Why do other men seem small beside him ? He was a scholar ; yes, but there are greater in the picture. He was an eloquent preacher, but others was more eloquent than he. His table-talk and such works as he wrote are wonderful for their originality, brilliancy, and force. But in all these things he was surpassed by the great Shakespeare. Gustavus was brave and good—a great ruler and a great warrior. Elizabeth was wise and powerful, with a genius for government rarely ever equaled. Why, then, does Luther tower above them all and every heart admit that pre-eminence among earth's great one's is his by divine right? There can be but one answer: others were great scholars, great soldiers, great rulers, great philanthropists, great poets, but Luther was a great man, a successful man, a hero in the truest sense of that word. Since the world began there has been but one Confucius, one Mohan Rai, one Socrates, one Apostle Paul, one Savonarola, one Martin Luther, and he the greatest of them all.

Luther was born at Eisleben on the tenth of November, 1483. His father was a free peasant and slate cutter by trade. When Martin was six years of age the family removed to Mansfelt and set up a forge, the small profits of which enabled the young Luther to attend the Latin school of that place. The genius of the boy soon exhibited itself, and the father determined to make him a lawyer. He was accordingly sent to the Franciscan school at Magdeburg and then to Eisenach. He supported himself by singing for alms in the street. His fine tenor voice and gentle manners attracted great attention and finally gained for him the motherly care of Ursula Cotta, the wife of the burgomaster of Eisenach. He took his bachelor's degree in 1502, and his master's in 1505. While attending school at Erfurt, his mind was deeply impressed by the preaching of Pastor Weiseman. This and some other circumstances so wrought upon his sensitive heart that he resolved to give up the legal profession and become a monk. This he did in 1505, taking with him two favorite books, Plautus and Virgil, as the solitary mementos of the life he had abandoned. The first years of his monastic life were years of great gloom and misery. He passed the time in reading the Scriptures and in a fierce mental struggle over the fact of universal human sinfulness. He lived a life of the severest mortification and invented new forms of penance continually, but his heart and head told him that these outward acts could do nothing to banish the sense of sin. A strong friendship grew up between him and the vicar-general of his order. In May, 1507, Luther had regained his mental health and was ordained a priest. The Elector of Saxony appointed him to the University of Wittenberg. He became one of the most popular lecturers of the University He read widely and thought profoundly, and from the very first was a great power among his fellow-professors and the students. He was also ordered by the officers of his order to preach in the Cathedral of Wittenberg. His marvelous eloquence attracted great crowds to hear him and made him a most popular man. In 151 I he made a journey to Rome, which was a marked event in his life. He went there a mediaeval Catholic: and came back a Protestant. The pious German was horrified with what he saw at Rome, and he afterward made telling use of what he saw at the capital of the popes. On his return to the University he was made a doctor of divinity and took an oath to devote his whole life to study and faithfully to expound and defend the Holy Scriptures." This was the seal of his mission.

In 1517 came a great crisis in the Reformation. Pope Leo X. sent agents through Germany to sell indulgences. John Tetzel, a Dominican friar, was appointed for Saxony. Luther had been through a terrible soul-struggle, and he knew that pardon for sin could not be purchased with money. His eloquence, always fervid, now had' the inspiration of a strong and heartfelt conviction, and he thundered against Tetzel and his indulgences from Wittenberg pulpit. He wrote anxiously to princes and' bishops for them to refuse Tetzel a passage through their lands. But when the pardon-seller came to Juterbogk, near Wittenberg, Luther could stand it no longer. He wrote out ninety-five propositions, denouncing indulgences, and on the eve of All Saints' Day nailed the paper to the door of castle church.

In these propositions and in the sermons which fol-lowed, Luther took the ground that indulgences could not pardon sin; that God alone could do that after heartfelt repentence and confession. These bold words of Luther brought Germany face to face with the real blasphemy of indulgences. Luther's public life had now opened. The Reformation had begun.

Pilgrims who came to Wittenberg to buy indulgences returned with Luther's theses in their hands and Luther's teachings in their ears. The sale of indulgences had been so shameless that the good people of Germany had been shocked, and they took hold of the matter with such earnestness that it made a vast impression, not only upon the rulers and princes; but upon the religious orders as well. But Luther had struck a greater blow than he supposed. In thundering against indulgences; he was thundering against the system that had invented and maintained them. Asa result of his theses and preaching, Luther was-cited to appear before a papal legate at Augsburg. Failing to complete an agreement with Cajetan, he met another legate of the Pope and agreed to make an apology to Pope Leo and cease all further controversy upon the matter of indulgences. During the three years following 1518, the famous Leipsic disputations took place between Luther and John Eck. The disputations began in a controversy about indulgences and endecPwith a discussion upon the authority of the church. As a result of these disputations, Luther felt that he had broken with the Romish Church, and that he must henceforth become the leader of the German nation in a searching religious reform. In 1521 the Emperor, Charles V., under the direction of the Pope, summoned Luther to appear at the Diet of Worms and answer to the charges of heresy preferred against him. Elsewhere in these pages we have described his famous journey to Worms and his conduct before the great tribunal. He refused to retract his statements and went out from the presence of the Emperor a doomed man, as far as his relations with Catholicism were concerned. But the preaching of Luther had taken deep root in Germany, and in 1529, after the Diet of Spires, the followers of Luther were called Protestants. After the Diet of Worms, Luther was driven into forced exile at Wart-burg. During his enforced idleness he began the greatest literary work of his life, in the translation. of the Scriptures from the original tongues into the popular dialect of Germany. His long absence from his chosen work at the University of Wittenberg pressed most heavily upon his spirit, and he began to hear how his zealous friends were urging on the Reformation at too rapid a rate. Their idea was to banish all crucifixes, images of saints, the ritual, mass, and other things not enjoined by the Scriptures, from all the churches in Germany. This, to Luther, seemed fraught with greatest danger. He believed the simple truth of the Gospel would triumph in the end, but he feared the reaction from a hasty discarding of the forms of Romish worship. He wrote, earnestly warning his friends against too much haste ; he was troubled and distressed, but he bore all patiently until events occurred which demanded his presence, and then he left his enforced exile and returned to Witten-berg to take charge of the Reformation in person. His life was safe nowhere in the dominion of Charles V., but the great monk went quietly to work to place such restraint as he could upon the friends and advocates of the new reform, and the attention of Charles V. was diverted to more pressing matters.

The limits of the present sketch will not permit us to track Luther through the stormy days of his subsequent life. The Reformation was now fully launched upon Germany, and for twenty-five years longer the great man stood at the helm, facing bitter controversy, malignant hate, treachery, railings and poverty, until the infant church of Germany was placed on a solid footing. He spent three years, for the most part quietly lecturing, preaching and writing, at Witten-berg. His literary activity was enormous. In a single year, 1522, he is said to have published one hundred and thirty tracts and treatises, and the following year he published eighty-three, among which was his famous pamphlet against Henry of England.

Luther is probably the greatest man that Germany has ever produced. He was one of the foremost scholars of his time, one of the most popular teachers of his own or any age, the most eloquent preacher of the century in which he lived. The versatility of his genius, the sublime courage of his character, his utter indifference to the good or evil opinion of the world, so long as the voice of conscience was obeyed, are leading traits of this remarkable man. Great he was, and greatly to be admired and praised. But he was not without his faults. That he was severe and unkind to both Melanchthon and Zwingli is beyond a doubt. That he was as intolerant of the Anabaptists as the papal legates were of him, cannot be controverted. That he had within him the spirit of intolerance. and persecution is all too evident to the careful student of his life. What man is not subject to the ordinary weakness of humanity ? But when all has ,been said and the full estimate of Luther's life and genius has been made, we are forced to see that Kaulbach is right and that Martin Luther is the greatest luminary amid the. stars of the sixteenth century. In a century of great men he held the highest place by the right of . the greatest and strongest.

We close this sketch with two pictures of Luther's private life, given by Julius Koestlin:

" His favorite child was little Lena, a pious, gentle, affectionate little girl and devoted to him with her whole heart. There remains a charming picture of her by Cranach, a friend of the family. But she died in the bloom of early youth, on September 20, 1542, after a long and severe illness. The grief he had felt at the loss of his daughter Elizabeth was now renewed and intensified. When she was lying on her sick bed he said : ' I love her very much, indeed ; but, dear God, if it is Thy will to take her hence, I would gladly she were with Thee ! ' To Magdalena herself he said : ` Lena dear, my little daughter, thou wilt rise again and shine like a star—yea, as the sun ! ' And added : ` I am happy in the spirit, but in the flesh I am very sorrowful. The flesh will not be subdued ; parting troubles are above measure. It is a wonderful thing to think that she is assuredly in peace, and that all is well with her, and yet to be so sad ! ' To the mourners he said : ' Ihave sent a saint to heaven. Could mine be such a death as hers, I would welcome such a death this moment. He expressed the same Sorrow and the same exultation in his letters to his friends. To Jonas he wrote : `You will have heard that my dearest daughter Magdalene is born again in the everlasting kingdom of Christ. Although I and my wife ought only to thank God with joy for her happy departure, whereby she escapes the power of the world, the flesh, the Turks and the devil, yet so strong is natural love that we cannot bear it without sobs and sighs from the heart, with-out a bitter sense of death within ourselves. So deeply printed on our hearts are her ways, her words, her gestures, whether alive or dying, that even Christ's death cannot drive away this agony.'

"In spite of his sufferings, he retained his peculiar bearing, with,head thrown back and upturned face His features, especially the mouth, now showed more plainly even than in earlier life the calm strength acquired by struggles and suffering. The pathos which later portraits have often given to his countenance is not apparent in the earlier ones, but rather an expression of melancholy. The deep glow and energy of his spirit, which even Cranach's pencil has failed wholly to represent, seems to have found chief expression in his dark eyes. These evidently struck the old-rector of Wittenburg, Pollich, and the legate Cajetan at Augsburg. It was with these that, on his arrival at Worms, the legatee Aleander saw him look around ` like a demon.' It was these that sparkled like stars' on the young Swiss Kessler, so that ' he could hardly endure their gaze.' After his death another acquaintance of his called them falcon's eyes,' and Melanchthon saw in the brown pupils, encircled by a yellow ring, the keen, courageous eye of a lion. The fire in Luther never died. Under the pressure of suffering and weakness it only burst forth, when stirred by opposition, into a new and fierce flame. It became, indeed, more provoked in later life, and produced in him an irritation and restless impatience with the world and all its doings. His full and clear gaze was fixed on the hereafter."

Home | More Articles | Email: