Martin Luther, Part One

I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against my conscience is neither right nor safe. – Martin Luther at his hearing, 1521

From Will Durant’s Heroes of History, abbreviated from his Story of Civilization Volume 6, The Reformation. Read more

Luther Growing (1483-1517)

The man who was to have more influence upon subsequent history than anyone but Copernicus and Columbus was born in Eisleben, Germany, to a peasant-then-miner named Hans Luther and his wife Margarethe. Frightened by a theology of terror and punishment, they brought up their children with such rigor of word and rod that the “severe and harsh life I led with them,” recalled Luther, “was the reason that I afterward took refuge in the cloister and became a monk.”

Parents and children believed in angels, witches, and demons roaming in the air, and in a God condemned the larger part of his human creations to an everlasting hell. Martin met his tribulations with a vigor of body and will that molded his rough features and kept him undefeated to his death.

At school in Mansfeld there were more rods and catechism. martin was flogged (we are told) fifteen times in a day for misdeclining a noun. At fourteen he was transferred to the School of St. George at Eisenach, and had three relatively happy years in the comfortable home of Frau Cotta.

He never forgot her remark that there was nothing on earth more precious than the love of a good woman. In this atmosphere he developed the natural charms of youth—health, cheerfulness, sociability, frankness. He sang well and played the lute.

In 1501 his prospering father sent him to the University of Erfurt. There he learned a little Greek and less Hebrew, and read the more reputable Latin classics. He found Scholasticism so disagreeable that he complimented a friend on “not having to learn the dung” that was offered as philosophy.

in 1505 he received the degree of master of arts. His father sent him, as a graduation present, an expensive edition of the Corpus iuris civilis and rejoiced when his son began to study law. But after two months Martin throe aside his law books as shedding no light on the problems that haunted him.

Vigorous to the edge of sensuality, visibly framed for a life of normal instincts, and yet so infused at home and school with the conviction that man is by nature sinful, and that sin offends an omnipotent and punishing God, he had never been able to reconcile his natural impulses with his acquired beliefs.

The God who had been taught to him inspired more terror than love; and Jesus was not only the “gentle Jesus meek and mild” of the Beatitudes, but also the Christ of the Last Judgment, threatening sinners with everlasting fire. One day, caught in a storm of thunder and lightening and longing for protective cover, he made a vow to St. Anne that if he survived he would become a monk.

Surviving, he applied for acceptance as a novice by the Augustinian Eremites, the strictest of the twenty cloisters in Erfurt. Received, he performed the lowliest duties with a proud humility. He froze in an unheated cubicle, recited prayers in hypnotic repetition, fasted, and scourged himself in the hope of exorcising the devils that seemed to inhabit his body. In 1506 he took irrevocable vows, and in 1507 he was ordained a priest.

His fellow friars, fearing for his sanity, gave him a Latin Bible, and urged him to read it unquestioningly. But in St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (1:17) he came upon a passage that added to his wonderment: “The just shall live by faith.”

And in St. Augustine he found the disturbing thought that God, before the creation, had chosen some souls for salvation and paradise, others for eternal damnation, and that the elect had won salvation only through the merits earned by the sufferings of Christ.

These ideas – election by God for salvation, and salvation not through one’s own good works but through faith in the merits earned for man by Christ – became the basic tenets of Luther’s theology, and that of his followers.

In 1505 he was transferred to a monastery in Wittenberg, was given the post of instructor in logic and physics in the university, and then the chair of philosophy and theology. When reports were brought to him of [Johann] Tetzel’s way with indulgences, he felt that the time had come to speak out about the merchandising of religion.

Rapidly he composed in Latin ninety-five theses, which he entitled Disputation for Clarification of the Power of Indulgences. On October 11, 1517, he affixed a copy of these theses to the main door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg.

The practice of announcing theses – and offering to defend them against all challenges – had long been established in medieval universities, and the door that Luther chose had regularly been employed as an academic billboard. He prefixed to the theses an amiable invitation:

  • “Out of love for the faith, and the desire to bring it to light, the following propositions will be discussed at Wittenberg under the chairmanship of the Reverend Father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and Sacred Theology, and lecturer in Ordinary on the same at that place. Wherefore he requests that those who are unable to be present and debate orally with us may do so by letter.”

With characteristic audacity he sent a copy of the theses to Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz; and to make sure that they would be widely read, he had a German translation circulated among the people. Cautiously, perhaps unwittingly, he had begun the German Reformation.

Reformation as Revolution

The theses became the private talk of literate Germany. The pen-up anticlericalism of generations had found a voice. The sale of indulgences declined. But there were strong denunciations of Luther: one by the vice-chancellor of the University of Ingolstadt, another by Jakob van Hoogstraten of Cologne – who proposed that Luther should be burned at the stake.

Luther defended his view in a Latin brochure entitle Resolutiones (April 1518), of which he sent copies to the local bishop and the pope. But to Leo X privately he professed an unwonted humility:

  • Most blessed Father, I offer myself prostrate at the fee of your Holiness, with all that I am and have. Quicken, slay, call, recall, approve, reprove, as may seem to you good. I will acknowledge your voice as the voice of Christ, residing and speaking in you. If I have deserved death I will not refuse to die.

However, Leo’s councilors warned him that the Resolutiones affirmed the superiority of an ecumenical council (of all bishops) over the pope, spoke slightingly of relics and pilgrimages, and rejected all additions made by the popes in the last three centuries to the theory and practice of indulgences.

To allow such views to spread was to endanger ecclesiastical discipline and papal revenues. Leo, who had at first brushed aside Luther’s ideas as a passing ferment among theoreticians, now took the matter in hand and summoned the monk to Rome (July 7, 1518).

Fearful of being kept a hostage of prisoner in Rome, Luther wrote to Georg Spalatin, chaplain to Frederick, elector of Saxony, suggesting that German princes should protect their citizens from extradition to Italy. Frederick agreed, and Emperor Maximilian advised him to “take good care of that monk.”

Leo compromised by bidding Luther present himself at Augsburg before Cardinal Cajetan to answer charges of indiscipline and heresy.

Luther went (October 12, 1518), but found no theologian to argue with, only a stern literalist: the cardinal informed the revel that the Church, as a matter of ecclesiastical order, could not allow a monk to violate his vow of unquestioning obedience by publishing views long since condemned by the Church.


Public opinion [in Germany] increasingly acclaimed [Luther]. many of the university students were his warm defenders. Important men hardly known to Luther, like Durer the artist and Pirkheimer the respected merchant, both of Nuremberg, proclaimed their support.

Ulrich von Hutten, the rebel poet, lauded him, and called upon Frederick and all other German rulers to appropriate all monastic wealth and put to German uses the money that was usually sent to Rome.

So encouraged, Luther published, in the spring of 1520, and Epistome which met the absolutes of dogma with the ecstasies of attack:

  • “If Rome thus believes and teaches with the knowledge of popes and cardinals (which I hope is not the case), then in these writings I freely declare that the true Antichrist is sitting in the temple of God and is reigning in Rome – that empurpled Babylon – and that the Roman Curia is the Synagogue of Satan…. If the fury of the Romanists thus goes on, there will be no remedy left except that the emperors, kings and princes, girt about with force and arms, should attack these pests of the world, and settle the matter no longer by words but by the sword….”
  • “If we strike thieves with the gallows, robbers with the sword, heretics with fire, why do we not much more attack in arms these masters of perdition, these cardinals, these popes, and all this sink of the roman Sodom which has without end corrupted the Church of god, and wash our hands in their blood?”

In a bull of June 15, 1520, Leo X condemned forty-one statements by Luther, ordered the public burning of the writings containing them, and bade him come to Rome and make a public recantation. After sixty days of further refusal, Luther was to be cut off from all Christendom by excommunication, he was to be shunned as a heretic by all the faithful, and all secular authorities were to banish him from their dominions or deliver him to Rome.

Luther countered this by a declaration almost without precedent almost without precedent in history. He found someone someone to publish, not in Latin but in German, An Open letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate.

There was as yet no German nation, there were only German principalities, each independent, with its own customs, laws, army, and supportive pride; Luther overrode these boundaries and spoke to all Germans, if only through their rulers, who, in Luther’s view, were letting precious revenues slip through their frontiers into hostile Italy.

  • “Some have estimated that every year more than 300,000 gulden find their way from Germany to italy… We have come to the heart of the matter … How comes it that we Germans must put up with such robbery and such extortion of our property at the hands of the pope?”
  • If we justly hang thieves and behead robbers, why should we let Roman avarice go free? For he is the greatest thief and robber that has come or can come into the world, and all in the holy names of Christ and St. Peter! Who can longer endure it or keep silence?”


Despite Luther’s uncompromising defiance, a papal agent sought him out and persuaded him to send Leo a letter disclaiming any intent to attack him personally and presenting temperately the case for reform. He expressed his respect for the pope as an individual, but condemned without compromise the corruption of the papacy in the past, and of the papal Curia in the present:

  • “Thy reputation, and the fame of thy blameless life … are too well known and too high to be assailed … But thy See, which is called the Roman Curia, and of which neither though nor any man can deny that it is more corrupt than any Babylon or Sodom ever was—… that See I have truly despised….”
  • “The Roman Church has become the most licentious den of thieves, the most shameless of all brothels, the kingdom of sin, death, and hell…. I have always grieved, most excellent Leo, that thou hast been made pope in these times, for thou wert worthy of better days….”
  • Do not listen, therefore, dear Leo, to those sirens who make thee out to be no mere man but a demigod …. Thou art a servant of servants…. They err who exalt thee above the Church universal. They err who ascribe to thee the right of interpreting Scripture, for under cover of they name they seek to set up their own wickedness in the Church; and, alas, through them, Satan has already made much headway under thy predecessors. In short, believe none who exalt thee, believe those who humble thee.

Meanwhile papal agents were spreading Leo’s bull of excommunication throughout Germany. In some cities they arranged public burnings of Luther’s books. Retaliating, luther led some of Wittenberg University’s pupils in burning a copy of the bull, along with canonical decretals and volumes of Catholic theology.

The students joyfully collected additional volumes and with them kept the fires burning till late afternoon. On December 11, Luther proclaimed that no one could be saved unless he renounced rule by the papacy.

The monk had excommunicated the pope.


On April 17, 1521, in monastic garb, Luther appeared before the Diet (hearing) [in the city of Worms] and its presiding emperor. He was confronted by a collection of his works and was asked would he reject all heresies contained therein.

For awhile, his courage failed; he asked for time to consider; Charles (the emperor) granted him a day. On April 18 he faced the court again, and agreed to recant any passage in his books that could be proved contrary to Scripture. Johann Eck, representing the archbishop of Trier [and the papal authority], challenged him in Latin:

  • “Martin, your plea to be heard from Scripture is the one always made by heretics. You do nothing but renew the errors of Wyclif and Huss…. How can you assume that you are the only one to understand the sense of Scripture? Would you put your judgment above that of so many famous men and claim that you know more than all of them?”
  • “You have no right to call into question the most holy orthodox faith, instituted by Christ the perfect Lawgiver, proclaimed throughout the world by the Apostles, sealed by the red blood of martyrs, confirmed by the sacred councils, and defined by the Church, …. and which we are forbidden by the Pope and the Emperor to discuss, lest there be no end to debate.”
  • “I ask you Martin – answer candidly and without distinction – do you or do you not repudiate your books and the errors which they contain?”

Luther made his historic reply in German:

  • “Since we your Majesty and your lordships desire a simple reply, I will answer without distinctions…. Unless I am convicted by the testimony of Sacred Scripture or by evident Reason (I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other), my conscience is captive to the word of God.”
  • I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against my conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.”


[After a brief period of seclusion and rural disguise in the remote castle of Wartburg], Luther returned to Wittenburg University, where he proceeded to expound a theology which is still in essentials the faith of Lutheran churches everywhere. Meanwhile he found himself faced with a different but related revolution as basic as his own.

To be continued…read more in Will Durant’s Heroes of History.


One Comment

  1. Liam;

    Very interesting parallels with today, although the usual punishment
    for scientific heretics is shunning. No publication. No grants. No
    debates. No speaking engagements. No consulting engagements. No free
    meals. No free trips. No graduate students. No biotech bonanza. And a
    lot of people who won’t meet your eyes, not because they’re ashamed
    of you, but because they’re ashamed that they don’t have the courage.

    – David

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *