The ROAD TO REFORMATION
In observation of the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation,
we are presenting a brief survey of the life of Martin Luther. The series continues with major events in the life of the Reformer that took place after 1517.
Historical events do not take place in a vacuum. Famous people are human, and as humans their lives are complicated. What they say and do is often influenced a great deal by their circumstances. Martin Luther is no exception.
In 1527 Luther turned forty-three years old. It had been ten years since the posting of the Ninety-five Theses. He had weathered many political and theological storms. He was living with his wife of two years, Katerina, and their young son, Hans. Luther
was preaching and teaching at the university at Wittenberg. He had developed a large following of those who agreed with him in doctrinal matters. However, many challenges yet remained. In some ways, 1527 was his most difficult year yet.
Luther had long been afflicted by poor health, particularly digestive problems. New health concerns arose in 1527. While preaching a sermon on April 22 he suffered a dizzy spell and had to stop. A few months later on July 6, he experienced a roaring in his left ear that led to an intense illness that caused him to feel his death was near. Similar attacks occurred intermittently throughout the year. He confided to Melanchthon, “I spent more than a week in death and hell. My entire body was in pain, and I still tremble.” Modern doctors believe Luther suffered from Meniere’s Disease, a chronic inflammatory disease of the middle ear that can cause fatigue, vertigo, anxiety, and depression.
To make matters worse, the bubonic plague struck Wittenberg on August 2. Many evacuated, but Luther and his family felt it their duty to stay and care for the sick. Their home became a hospital. Within a few weeks, eighteen had died, including several close to Luther. Luther’s son Hans contracted the plague, but survived. Katerina was pregnant at the time, later delivering their daughter Elizabeth on December 10. Elizabeth was a sickly child and died within a year. Some feel Katerina’s exposure to the plague was a contributing factor in Elizabeth’s death. Perhaps to come to grips with his own decision to stay in Wittenberg, Luther published an essay—“Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague.” (It is worth a read.)
Perhaps of greater significance was the ongoing depression that Luther faced. These bouts were a familiar nemesis that went back to his monastery days. His depression included profound loneliness, doubt, and despair that he called Anfechtung, an “assault” made by the devil against the hope of the Gospel. He did not lash out at God, however, for allowing such pain, but rather warned Christians to be on guard against Satan. “It is the devil who stirs up such abhorrence, fear, and loathing in his heart [and] . . . takes delight in making us deathly afraid, worried, and apprehensive.” By turning to Scripture, Luther was able not only to endure trials, but also to thank God for using them to strengthen his faith. “One Christian who has been tried is worth a hundred who have not been tried, for the blessing of God grows in trials.”
A Mighty Fortress
Luther was able to use the lessons of his own trials to write a hymn to comfort others in theirs. “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” was most likely penned in 1527. Although often referred to as the battle hymn of the Reformation, it was written at a time when the doctrinal enemies Luther faced were primarily other Protestants whose teachings threatened the truth of God’s Word. Knowing the personal trials that Luther experienced in 1527 may give one a new appreciation for this hymn, based on Psalm 46.
Joe Lau is a professor at Immanuel Lutheran College in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.