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Caught in a Storm (1504-1505)


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.

Have you ever been caught in a severe storm? It can make one feel alone and helpless. It can bring home the reality of mortality. Martin Luther experienced this when he was caught in a thunderstorm as he journeyed back to Erfurt after visiting his family in Mansfeld, a short distance away. The lightning struck so close to Luther that it may have knocked him down and injured his leg. To whom did he turn for help in this imminent danger? “Help me, St. Anne, I will become a monk.” Luther uttered these words on Wednesday, July 2, 1505. They were to change his life forever.

It wasn’t the first time that Luther had turned to a “saint” in time of need. A few years earlier he had accidentally cut an artery in his thigh with his own sword. As he waited for help to arrive, it was St Mary in whom he placed his trust. Later in life he remarked, “There I would have died trusting in Mary.” Luther had a lot yet to learn.

Doesn’t his vow to St. Anne seem a bit rash? It seems like the desperate act of someone who is afraid to die, who feels that his best chance to pacify an angry god is to promise St. Anne that he will devote his life to the church. However, evidence seems to suggest that instead of this being a spontaneous decision, Luther had felt a strong need to change his life path in the months leading up to the storm. He had been caught in a spiritual storm for quite some time already.

Why not become a lawyer? It would have been the popular decision for him to continue with his university education. He had received his bachelor’s degree in liberal arts in just three semesters. He went on to receive his master’s degree in philosophy, ranking second in his class of seventeen. A law degree is what his father wanted for him. He was popular at school, with many good friends. The Erfurt law school and faculty had a good reputation.

Conversely, his decision to enter the monastery, which he carried out just two weeks after he had taken his vow to St. Anne, was unpopular with many. His father was bitterly disappointed, and conveyed his anger in a letter to him. He also publicly announced that he disowned his son. Their relationship would be damaged for years. His schoolmates were also shocked and dismayed by what they viewed as a hasty decision. Nevertheless, on July 17, 1505, Luther bade them farewell: “Today you see me, but never again!”

The real storm that drove Luther to the monastery was an inner crisis. He was keenly aware of his moral shortcomings. An old Eisenach mentor, Johannes Braun, once admonished Luther to beware that in gaining temporal wisdom he not lose that which is eternal. Luther took that to heart, for when he entered law school he also began to study the Bible more ardently. The copy available in the Erfurt library allowed him to search for answers to his spiritual crisis. Luther was finding no such answers in his study of law. He feared losing his salvation.

After selling his law books, Luther joined the Order of Augustinian Hermits in Erfurt, where monastic rules were strictly followed. He thought that through prayer and fasting and obedience he would find comfort and assurance of meriting eternal life. The top of his head was shaved and he occupied a 10’x8’ cell. He would later reflect how his monastic experiences shook him to the core, but were essential for his eventual attack on the papacy. God was molding him for the work that lay ahead.

Joe Lau is a professor at Immanuel Lutheran College in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.