In preparation for the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation, we are
presenting a brief survey of the life of Martin Luther. The series will culminate
in the October 2017 issue with an account of his posting of the Ninety-Five Theses.
The World into which
Luther was Born
Martin Luther has been said to have been the last to be born in the Middle Ages and the first to be born in the Modern Era. What do we know about his birth and the world into which he was born?
Although we say Martin Luther was born in Germany, the Germany we know today did not exist at that time. Germany was the largest territory within the Holy Roman Empire, a huge conglomerate of kingdoms in central Europe, founded in A.D. 962. Later in Luther’s life, it was the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V who confronted Luther at the Diet of Worms.
Within Germany was the smaller district of Saxony (similar to a state within the United States), where Luther was born and would spend the majority of his life. The Elector of Saxony would one day protect Luther from his enemies.
The Pope of the Roman Catholic Church was the head of the church in Germany at the time Luther was born. For centuries the Catholic Church had been straying from the truth of God’s Word. In addition to the false teachings of the supremacy of the Pope, purgatory (A.D. 593), the sale of indulgences (A.D. 1190), and transubstantiation in connection with the Lord’s Supper (A.D. 1215), the Catholic Church had been intent on obtaining secular power and wealth, often surpassing that of the earthly kings of the day. They had also compromised the Gospel message with the veneration of saints and penance requirements to atone for sins committed. To silence opposition they resorted to the Inquisition, which used torture and death against “heretics.”
Many exciting things were taking place in the world into which Luther was born. Born in 1451 in Genoa, Italy, Christopher Columbus was in his thirties when Luther was born, and already pestering European leaders for an opportunity to explore the world. In 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain gave him the financial backing he sought to make that now-famous voyage across the Atlantic. In a large part because of Luther, those who would seek refuge in the New World in the future would be Protestants, many of whom would be among the founders of the United States.
Around 1440 the moveable type printing press was invented by Johannes Gutenberg, a goldsmith. It would be this invention that would spread the ideas of the Lutheran Reformation throughout the known world. By A.D. 1500, printing presses in western Europe had already produced more than twenty million books. Among those writings that would soon be mass produced were translations of the Bible and Luther’s Catechism.
Not much detail is known about Luther’s early life. We do know that he was the oldest of eight children born to Hans and Margarete Luther (originally “Luder”). He was born in Eisleben, Saxony, on November 10, 1483. The following day, Luther was baptized and named Martin, after St. Martin of Tours, whose celebration day it was. Eisleben (population four thousand) has the distinction of being both the birthplace of Luther and the place he died, but he actually spent very little of his life there.
Luther’s father, Hans, although a descendant of farmers in the region, did not inherit farmland. He turned to copper mining to make a living. To advance his career, Hans moved the family to Mansfeld soon after Martin was born. In Mansfeld he seemed to have enjoyed modest success as a smeltmaster, and even became a city councilman. Frugality, however, was a way of life for the Luthers. Martin felt loved by his parents, but they were strict and used physical discipline when necessary.
There was nothing exceptional about Martin Luther when he entered this world, but God had great plans for him in proclaiming His Gospel message.
Joe Lau is a professor at Immanuel Lutheran College in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.