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Life of Luther—1498-1503


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.

When Luther reflected upon his life, he would speak of Eisenach as his “beloved town.” The town itself was not spectacular, though it was nestled prettily in the Thuringian forest and was a major city of that region. True, on its outskirts lay Wartburg Castle, but this did not endear the city to Luther. With its population of only 2,100 it was nothing to boast about. Rather, it was the people Luther met here that gave him fond memories.

Ursula Cotta

Although Luther had an aunt in Eisenach, the fourteen-year-old boy did not stay with his relatives. Instead God provided a most wonderful substitute home for him. Luther had impressed a prominent woman of the city by “his singing and praying in the church.” She befriended him and arranged to feed him. This woman is not named, but Luther identifies Henry Schwalbe, a merchant of the city, as his host, and we may conclude that his wife is the benefactor. There was this small price: Martin agreed to take young Henry Jr. to school each day and perhaps also did some tutoring.

Now Ursula Cotta was a member of the Schwalbe family, and the families were close. It was natural, then, that Luther became close to the Cottas, too. Indeed, it seems probable that young Martin lived with the Cottas, but ate his meals with the Schwalbes. These were both deeply pious families, and Martin was influenced by the examples of his adopted family. Happy memories, indeed!

Good Teachers

Martin was also happy in school and felt that he was blessed with skillful teachers. Gone were the endless drills and mindless recitations, harshly enforced by the rod. Rather, here he found teaching to sharpen his mind and engage his attention. Here were teachers who instilled understanding. Two teachers deserve mention. Of Trebonius it was later reported that he bowed respectfully to his students before class, in anticipation of the future distinction that some might achieve. Luther thought enough of Gueldennapf that he later petitioned those in power to grant him a pension.

University at Erfurt

But these happy times ended when his prep school days were completed. Now it was time for Martin to choose a university. Erfurt, a city of about twenty thousand people, and known as “little Rome” or “the city of spires” because of its many churches, chapels, and monastic houses, was chosen for its solid reputation. About two thousand students attended there.

The new student was registered as “having funds.” Hans Luther was finding his way to modest wealth. Luther joined the St. George bursa—something like a frat house but with the strict supervision of a monastery. The daily routine was rigorous: up at 4:00 A.M. for prayer, devotions read during meals, study, lights out at 8:00 P.M. No one left campus without permission.

Luther thrived here, excelling in his studies and receiving his Bachelor of Arts (1502) and his Master of Arts (1505) in the shortest time allowed. He was second in his class of seventeen.

Luther Discovers the Bible

Perhaps it was here that he first saw a complete Bible! This event is recorded several times in the Table Talks, but with differing details. We can’t be sure where or when it happened, but all agree that Luther was greatly surprised to find “far more passages, epistles, and gospels than were . . . expounded . . . from the pulpits.” The winsome account of young Samuel serving Eli and hearing a message from God caught his eye, and he thought “How fortunate I would be if I owned such a book.” Indeed! —and how fortunate for us that his prayer was answered!

Norman Greve is pastor of St. Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Iron River, Michigan.