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Road Trip: 1510-1511


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.

I love road trips. I think it is the opportunity to experience new things and meet new people that appeals to me. I cannot say that I have been on a pilgrimage, though. A pilgrimage is a road trip specifically for religious reasons.

In November of 1510, Martin Luther embarked on the longest road trip of his life. His was a pilgrimage from Wittenberg to Rome, the “Holy City,” a journey of 850 miles. He and a fellow monk traveled by foot over several months, staying in monasteries along the way.

For Luther the journey had a twofold purpose. 

The official reason was to obtain an audience with Roman church leaders to settle a dispute within the Augustinian Order over a new set of rules by which monks were to live. In this regard the trip proved a failure. Shortly after his return, this episode in church politics resulted in Luther’s being sent permanently from Erfurt to Wittenberg, where he would carry out much of his life’s work.

The other purpose of this pilgrimage was more personal for Luther. At this time in his life he was still trying to appease what he perceived as an angry God through pious living. Praying to saints (up to three different ones each day), self-injury, fasting, isolation, and sleep deprivation were all things Luther did to try to atone for his sins. To go to Rome was the opportunity of a lifetime. Apart from the Holy Land itself, Rome contained more relics and holy places than anywhere else in the world. In January of 1511, upon seeing Rome in the distance, Luther fell to the ground and cried, “Greetings to you, Holy Rome!”

Luther was not particularly interested in seeing the ruins of a once-great city, whose population had by that time dwindled to about forty thousand. Instead, he craved seeing those churches and relics that he thought would help him spiritually. He believed, as did many, that visiting certain places in Rome would reduce time spent in purgatory for himself and his relatives. Devout visitation to these sites was said to bring forgiveness of sins.

For this reason Luther spent most of his time in Rome visiting such sites. He even commented once that he almost regretted that his parents were still living because he would have been able to free them from purgatory through his efforts. In order to shorten his grandfather’s stay in purgatory, Luther climbed the stairs of Pilate’s palace on his knees. He visited the remains of countless martyrs and over forty popes.

Luther was disillusioned, however, by what he saw and heard in Rome. He was shocked that the Italian priests were poorly educated and did not take their church duties seriously, often rattling through the mass, showing no respect for the sacrament. He saw the lavish wealth of the church hierarchy and heard of the pervasive immorality of the clergy.

On the long journey home, Luther no doubt had time to contemplate all that he had experienced. Did the visits to the relics give him the peace of mind that he sought? Did newfound doubts about the Catholic church begin to creep in? God used this road trip to Rome to prepare His servant for the road ahead.

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