The History of the Reformation, Martin Luther
Written by: D'Aubigne, Merle Posted on: 03/17/2003
****************** S H A R E W A R E ******************
The Story of Martin Luther
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THE SIXTEENTH CENTURY
BY J. H. MERLE D'AUBIGNE, D.D.,
President of the Theological School of Geneva, and
Vice President of the Societe Evangelique.
FROM THE AUGUST 1835 EDITION
VOL. I. BK. II. CHAPS. I-XI.
REVISED JUNE 1989.
REVISION COPYRIGHT JUNE 1989 BY ANGELA C. PITTS.
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
THE YOUTH, CONVERSION, AND EARLY LABORS OF LUTHER.
Luther's Descent--His Parents--His Birth--His Poverty--Paternal Home--
Severity--First Knowledge--School of Magdeburg--Hardships--Eisenach--The
Shunamite--House of Cotta--Arts--Recollections of these Times--His Studies--
The University--Scholastic Divinity and the Classics--Luther's Piety--
Discovery of the Bible--Illness--Luther admitted M.A.--Conscience--Death of
Alexis--The Thunder Storm--Providence--Farewell--Luther enters a Convent.
His Father's Anger--Pardon--Humiliation--The Sack and the Cell--Endurance--
Luther's Studies--St. Augustine--Peter d'Ailly--Occam--Gerson--The Chained
Bible--Lyra--Hebrew and Greek--Daily Prayers--Asceticism--Mental Struggles--
Luther during Mass--Useless Observances--Luther in a Fainting-fit.
Pious Monks--Staupitz--His Piety--Visitation--Conversations--The Grace of
Christ--Repentance--Power of Sin--Sweetness of Repentance--Election--
Providence--The Bible--The aged Monk--Forgiveness of Sins--Ordination--The
Dinner--Festival of Corpus Christi--Luther made Professor at Wittemberg.
The University of Wittemberg--First Instructions--Biblical Lectures--
Sensation--Luther Preaches at Wittemberg--The Old Chapel--Impression produced
by his Sermons.
Journey to Rome--Convent on the Po--Sickness at Bologna--Recollections of
Rome--Julius II--Superstitious Devotion--Profanity of the Clergy--
Conversations--Roman Scandals--Biblical Studies--Pilate's Staircase--Effects
on Luther's Faith and on the Reformation--Gate of Paradise--Luther's
Luther returns to Wittemberg--Made Doctor of Divinity--Carlstadt--Luther's
Oath--Principle of the Reformation--Luther's Courage--Early Views of
Reformation--The Schoolmen--Spalatin--Reuchlin's Quarrel with the Monks.
Faith--Popular Declamations--Academic Teaching--Luther's Purity of Life--
German Theology or Mysticism--The Monk Spenlein--Justification by Faith--
Luther on Erasmus--Faith and Works--Erasmus--Necessity of Works--Luther's
Luther's First Theses--The Old Adam and Grace--Visitaton of the Convents--
Luther at Dresden and Erfurth--Tornator--Peace and the Cross--Results of
Luther's Journey--His Labors--The Plague.
The Relics--Relations of Luther with the Elector--Advice to the Chaplain--Duke
George--His Character--Luther's Sermon before the Court--Dinner at Court--
Evening with Emser.
Return to Wittemberg--Theses--Free Will--Nature of Man--Rationalism--Proposal
to the University at Erfurth--Eck--Urban Regius--Luther's Modesty--Effect of
All was ready. God who prepares his work through ages, accomplishes
it by the weakest instruments, when His time is come. To effect great results
by the smallest means--such is the law of God. This law, which prevails
everywhere in nature, is found also in history. God selected the reformers of
the Church from the same class whence he had taken the apostles. He chose
them from among that lower rank, which, although not the meanest, does not
reach the level of the middle classes. Everything was thus intended to
manifest to the world that the work was not of man but of God. The reformer
Zuingle emerged from an Alpine shepherd's hut; Melancthon, the theologian of
the Reformation, from an armorer's shop; and Luther from the cottage of a poor
The first period in man's life--that in which he is formed and molded
under the hand of God--is always important. It is eminently so in the career
of Luther. The whole of the Reformation is included in it. The different
phases of this work succeeded one another in the soul of him who was to be the
instrument for effecting it, before they were accomplished in the world. The
knowledge of the change that took place in Luther's heart can alone furnish
the key to the reformation of the Church. It is only by studying the
particulars that we can understand the general work. Those who neglect the
former will be ignorant of the latter except in its outward appearance. They
may acquire a knowledge of certain events and certain results, but they will
never comprehend the intrinsic nature of that revival, because the principle
of life, that was its very soul, remains unknown to them. Let us therefore
study the Reformation in Luther himself, before we proceed to the events that
changed the face of Christendom.
In the village of Mora, near the Thuringian forests, and not far from
the spot where Boniface, the apostle of Germany, began to proclaim the Gospel,
had dwelt, doubtless for many centuries, an ancient and numerous family of the
name of Luther. As was customary with the Thuringian peasants, the eldest son
always inherited the dwelling and the paternal fields, while the other
children departed elsewhere in quest of a livelihood. One of these, by name
John Luther, married Margaret Lindemann, the daughter of an inhabitant of
Neustadt in the see of Wurzburg. The married pair quitted the plains of
Eisenach, and went to settle in the little town of Eisleben in Saxony, to earn
their bread by the sweat of their brows.
Seckendorf relates, on the testimony of Rebhan, superintendent at
Eisenach in 1601, that Luther's mother, thinking her time still distant, had
gone to the fair of Eisleben, and that contrary to her expectation she there
gave birth to a son. Notwithstanding the credit that is due to Seckendorf,
this account does not appear to be correct: in fact, none of the oldest of
Luther's historians mention it; and besides, it is about twenty-four leagues
from Mora to Eisleben, and in the condition of Luther's mother at that time,
people do not readily make up their minds to travel such a distance to see a
fair; and, lastly, the evidence of Luther himself appears in direct opposition
to this assertion.
John Luther was an upright man, diligent in business, frank, and
carrying the firmness of his character even to obstinacy. With a more
cultivated mind than that of most men of his class, he used to read much.
Books were then rare; but John omitted no opportunity of procuring them. They
formed his relaxation in the intervals of repose, snatched from his severe and
constant labors. Margaret possessed all the virtues that can adorn a good and
pious woman. Her modesty, her fear of God, and her prayerful spirit, were
particularly remarked. She was looked upon by the matrons of the neighborhood
as a model whom they should strive to imitate.
It is not precisely known how long the married pair had been living at
Eisleben, when, on the 10th of November, one hour before midnight, Margaret
gave birth to a son. Melancthon often questioned his friend's mother as to
the period of his birth. "I well remember the day and the hour," replied she,
"but I am not certain about the year." But Luther's brother James, an honest
and upright man, has recorded, that in the opinion of the whole family the
future reformer was born on St. Martin's eve, 10th November, 1483. And Luther
himself wrote on a Hebrew Psalter which is still in existence: "I was born in
the year 1483." The first thought of his pious parents was to dedicate to
God, according to the faith they professed, the child that he had given them.
On the morrow, which happened to be Tuesday, the father carried his son to St.
Peter's church, where he received the rite of Infant Baptism and was called
Martin in commemoration of the day.
The child was not six months old, when his parents quitted Eisleben to
repair to Mansfeldt, which is only five leagues distant. The mines of that
neighborhood were then very celebrated. John Luther, who was a hard-working
man, feeling that perhaps he would be called upon to bring up a numerous
family, hoped to gain a better livelihood for himself and his children in that
town. It was here that the understanding and strength of young Luther
received their first development; here his activity began to display itself,
and here his character was declared in his words and in his actions. The
plains of Mansfeldt, the banks of the Wipper, were the theater of his first
sports with the children of the neighborhood.
The first period of their abode at Mansfeldt was full of difficulty to
the worthy John and his wife. At first they lived in great poverty. "My
parents," said the Reformer, "were very poor. My father was a poor wood-
cutter, and my mother has often carried wood upon her back, that she might
procure the means of bringing up her children. They endured the severest
labor for our sakes." The example of the parents whom he revered, the habits
they inspired in him, early accustomed Luther to labor and frugality. How
many times, doubtless, he accompanied his mother to the wood, there to gather
up his little faggot!
There are promises of blessing on the labor of the righteous, and John
Luther experienced their realization. Having attained somewhat easier
circumstances, he established two smelting furnaces at Mansfeldt. Beside
these furnaces little Martin grew in strength, and with the produce of this
labor his father afterwards provided for his studies. "It was from a miner's
family," says the good Mathesius, "that the spiritual founder of Christendom
was to go forth: an image of what God would do in purifying the sons of Levi
through him, and refining them like gold in his furnaces." Respected by all
for his integrity, for his spotless life, and good sense, John Luther was made
councillor of Mansfeldt, capital of the earldom of that name. Excessive
misery might have crushed the child's spirit: the competence of his paternal
home expanded his heart and elevated his character.
John took advantage of his new position to court the society which he
preferred. He had a great esteem for learned men, and often invited to his
table the clergy and schoolmasters of the place. His house offered a picture
of those social meeting of his fellow-citizens, which did honor to Germany at
the commencement of the sixteenth century. It was a mirror in which were
reflected the numerous images that followed one another in the agitated scene
of the times. The child profited by them. No doubt the sight of these men,
to whom so much respect was shown in his father's house, excited more than
once in little Martin's heart the ambitious desire of becoming himself one day
a schoolmaster or a learned man.
As soon as he was old enough to receive instructions, his parents
endeavoured to impart to him the knowledge of God, to train him up in His
fear, and to mold him to christian virtues. They exerted all their care in
this earliest domestic education. The father would often kneel at the child's
bedside, and fervently pray aloud, begging the Lord that his son might
remember His name and one day contribute to the propagation of the truth. The
parent's prayer was most graciously listened to. And yet his tender solicitude
was not confined to this.
His father, anxious to see him acquire the elements of that learning
for which he himself had so much esteem, invoked God's blessing upon him, and
sent him to school. Martin was still very young. His father, or Nicholas
Emler, a young man of Mansfeldt, often carried him in their arms to the house
of George Emilius, and afterwards returned to fetch him home. Emler in after-
years married one of Luther's sisters.
His parents' piety, their activity and austere virtue, gave the boy a
happy impulse, and formed in him an attentive and serious disposition. The
system of education which then prevailed made use of chastisement and fear as
the principal incentives to study. Margaret, although sometimes approving to
too great severity of her husband, frequently opened her maternal arms to her
son to console him in his tears. Yet even she herself overstept the limits of
that wise precept: He that loveth his son, chasteneth him betimes. Martin's
impetuous character gave frequent occasion for punishment and reprimand. "My
parents," said Luther in after-life, "treated my harshly, so that I became
very timid. My mother one day chastised me so severely about a nut, that the
blood came. They seriously thought that they were doing right; but they could
not distinguish character, which however is very necessary in order to know
when, or where, or how chastisement should be inflicted. It is necessary to
punish; but the apple should be placed beside the rod."
At school the poor child met with treatment no less severe. His master
flogged him fifteen times successively on one morning. "We must," said Luther,
when relating this circumstance--"we must whip children, but we must at the
same time love them." With such an education Luther learnt early to despise
the charms of a merely sensual life. "What is to become great, should begin
small," justly observes one of his oldest biographers; "and if children are
brought up too delicately and with too much kindness from their youth, they
are injured for life."
Martin learnt something at school. He was taught the heads of his
Catechism, the Ten Commandments, the Apostles' Creed, the Lord's Prayer, some
hymns, some forms of prayer, and a Latin grammar written in the fourth century
by Donatus who was St. Jeromes's master, and which, improved in the eleventh
century by one Remigius, a French monk, was long held in great repute in every
school. He further studied the calendar of Cisio Janus, a very singular work,
composed in the tenth or eleventh century: in fine, he learnt all that could
be taught in the Latin school of Mansfeldt.
But the child's thoughts do not appear to have been there directed to
God. The only religious sentiment that could then be discovered in him was
fear. Every time he heard Jesus Christ spoken of, he turned pale with
affright; for the Saviour had only been represented to him as an offended
judge. This servile fear--so alien to true religion--may perhaps have
prepared him for the glad tidings of the Gospel, and for that joy which he
afterwards felt, when he learnt to know Him who is meek and lowly in heart.
John Luther wished to make his son a scholar. The day that was
everywhere beginning to dawn, had penetrated even into the house of the
Mansfeldt miner, and there awakened ambitious thoughts. The remarkable
disposition, the persevering application of his son, made John conceive the
liveliest expectations. Accordingly, in 1497, when Martin had attained the
age of fourteen years, his father resolved to part with him, and send him to
the Franciscan school at Magdeburg. His mother was forced to consent, and
Martin prepared to quit the paternal roof.
Magdeburg was like a new world to Martin. In the midst of numerous
privations, for he scarcely had enough to live upon, he inquired--he listened.
Andrew Proles, provincial of the Augustine order, was at that time warmly
advocating the necessity of reforming religion and the Church. It was not he,
however, who deposited in the young man's heart the first germ of the ideas
that were afterwards developed there.
This was a rude apprenticeship for Luther. Thrown upon the world at
the age of fourteen, without friends or protectors, he trembled in the
presence of his masters, and in the hours of recreation he painfully begged
his bread in company with children poorer than himself. "I used to beg with
my companions for a little food," said he, "that we might have the means of
providing for our wants. One day, at the time the Church celebrates the
festival of Christ's nativity, we were wandering together through the
neighboring villages, going from house to house, and singing in four parts the
usual carols on the infant Jesus, born at Bethlehem. We stopped before a
peasant's house that stood by itself at the extremity of the village. The
farmer, hearing us sing our Christmas hymns, came out with some victuals which
he intended to give us, and called out in a high voice and with a harsh tone,
Boys, where are you? Frightened at these words, we ran off as fast as our
legs would carry us. We had no reason to be alarmed, for the farmer offered
us assistance with great kindness; but our hearts, no doubt, were rendered
timorous by the menaces and tyranny with which the teachers were then
accustomed to rule over their pupils, so that a sudden panic had seized us. At
last, however, as the farmer continued calling after us, we stopped, forgot
our fears, ran back to him, and received from his hands the food intended for
us. It is thus," adds Luther, "that we are accustomed to tremble and flee,
when our conscience is guilty and alarmed. In such a case we are afraid even
of the assistance that is offered us, and of those who are our friends, and
who would willingly do us every good."
A year had scarcely passed away, when John and Margaret, hearing what
difficulty their son found in supporting himself at Magdeburg, sent him to
Eisenach, where there was a celebrated school, and in which town they had many
relatives. They had other children; and although their means had increased,
they could not maintain their son in a place where he was unknown. The
furnaces and the industry of John Luther did little more than provide for the
support of his family. He hoped that when Martin arrived at Eisenach, he
would more easily find the means of subsistence; but he was not more fortunate
in this town. His relations who dwelt there took no care about him, or
perhaps, being very poor themselves, they could not give him any assistance.
When the young scholar was pinched by hunger, he was compelled, as at
Madgeburg, to join with his schoolfellows in singing from door to door to
obtain a morsel of bread. This custom of Luther's days is still preserved in
many German cities: sometimes the voices of the youths form an harmonious
concert. Often, instead of food, the poor and modest Martin received nothing
but harsh words. Then, overwhelmed with sorrow, he shed many tears in secret,
and thought with anxiety of the future.
One day, in particular, he had already been repulsed from three
houses, and was preparing to return fasting to his lodgings, when, having
reached the square of St. George, he stopped motionless, plunged in melancholy
reflections, before the house of a worthy citizen. Must he for want of bread
renounce his studies, and return to labor with his father in the mines of
Mansfeldt?......Suddenly a door opens--a woman appears on the threshold: it
is Ursula, the wife of Conrad Cotta, and daughter of the burgomaster of
Ilfeld. The Eisenach chronicles style her "the pious Shunamite," in
remembrance of her who so earnestly constrained the prophet Elisha to stay and
eat bread with her. The christian Shunamite had already more than once
remarked the youthful Martin in the assemblies of the faithful; she had been
affected by the sweetness of his voice and by his devotion. She had heard the
harsh words that had been addressed to the poor scholar, and seeing him stand
thus sadly before her door, she came to his aid, beckoned him to enter, and
gave him food to appease his hunger.
Conrad approved of his wife's benevolence: he even found so much
pleasure in the boy's society, that a few days after he took him to live
entirely with him. Henceforward his studies were secured. He is not obliged
to return to the mines of Mansfeldt, and bury the talents that God has
intrusted to him. At a time when he knew not what would become of him, God
opened the heart and the house of a christian family. This event disposed his
soul to that confidence in God which the severest trials could not afterwards
Luther passed in Cotta's house a very different kind of life from that
which he had hitherto known. His existence glided away calmly, exempt from
want and care: his mind became more serene, his character more cheerful, and
his heart more open. All his faculties awoke at the mild rays of charity, and
he began to exult with life, joy, and happiness. His prayers were more
fervent, his thirst for knowledge greater, and his progress in study more
To literature and science he added the charms of the fine arts; for
they also were advancing in Germany. The men whom God destines to act upon
their contemporaries, are themselves at first influenced and carried away by
all the tendencies of the age in which they live. Luther learned to play on
the flute and on the lute. With this latter instrument he used often to
accompany his fine alto voice, and thus cheered his heart in the hours of
sadness. He took delight in testifying by his melody his lively gratitude
towards his adoptive mother, who was passionately fond of music. He himself
loved the art even to old age, and composed the words and airs of some of the
finest hymns that Germany possesses. Many have even passed into our language.
These were happy times for young Luther: he could never think of them
without emotion. One of Conrad's sons coming many years after to study at
Wittemberg, when the poor scholar of Eisenach had become the first doctor of
the age, was received with joy at his table and under his roof. He wished to
make some return to the son for the kindness he had received from the parents.
It was in remembrance of this christian woman who had fed him when all the
world repulsed him, that he gave utterance to this beautiful thought: "There
is nothing sweeter on earth than the heart of a woman in which piety dwells."
Luther was never ashamed of these days in which, oppressed by hunger,
he used in sadness to beg the bread necessary for his studies and his
livelihood. Far from that, he used to reflect with gratitude on the extreme
poverty of his youth. He looked upon it as one of the means that God had
employed to make him what he afterwards became, and he accordingly thanked him
for it. The poor children who were obliged to follow the same kind of life,
touched his heart. "Do not despise," said he, "the boys who go singing
through the streets, begging a little bread for the love of God (panem propter
Deum): I also have done the same. It is true that somewhat later my father
supported me with much love and kindness at the university of Erfurth,
maintaining me by the sweat of his brow; yet I have been a poor beggar. And
now, by means of my pen, I have risen so high, that I would not change lots
with the Grand Turk himself. Nay more, should all the riches of the earth be
heaped one upon another, I would not take them in exchange for what I possess.
And yet I should not be where I am, if I had not gone to school--if I had not
learnt to write."--Thus did this great man see in these his first humble
beginnings the origin of all his glory. He feared not to recall to mind that
the voice whose accents thrilled the empire and the world, once used to beg
for a morsel of bread in the streets of a small town. The Christian finds a
pleasure in such recollections, because they remind him that it is in God
alone he should glory.
The strength of his understanding, the liveliness of his imagination,
the excellence of his memory, soon carried him beyond all his schoolfellows.
He made rapid progress especially in Latin, in eloquence, and in poetry. He
wrote speeches and composed verses. As he was cheerful, obliging, and had
what is called "a good heart," he was beloved by his masters and by his
Among the professors he attaches himself particularly to John
Trebonius, a learned man, of an agreeable address, and who had all that regard
for youth which is so well calculated to encourage them. Martin had noticed
that whenever Trebonius entered the schoolroom, he raised his cap to salute
the pupils. A great condescension in those pedantic times! This had delighted
the young man. He saw that he was something. The respect of the master had
elevated the scholar in his own estimation. The colleagues of Trebonius, who
did not adopt the same custom, having one day expressed their astonishment at
his extreme condescension, he replied (and his answer did not the less strike
the youthful Luther): "There are among these boys men of whom God will one
day make burgomasters, chancellors, doctors, and magistrates. Although you do
not yet see them with the badges of their dignity, it is right that you should
treat them with respect." Doubtless the young scholar listened with pleasure
to these words, and perhaps imagined himself already with the doctor's cap
upon his head!
BOOK 2 CHAPTER 2
The University--Scholastic Divinity and the Classics--Luther's Piety--
Discovery of the Bible--Illness--Luther admitted M.A.--Conscience--Death of
Alexis--The Thunder-Storm--Providence--Farewell--Luther enters a Convent.
Luther had now reached his eighteenth year. He had tasted the sweets
of literature; he burnt with a desire of knowledge; he sighed for a university
education, and wished to repair to one of those fountains of learning where he
could slake his thirst for letters. His father required him to study the law.
Full of hope in the talents of his son, he wished that he should cultivate
them and make them generally known. He already pictured him discharging the
most honorable functions among his fellow-citizens, gaining the favor of
princes, and shining on the theatre of the world. It was determined that the
young man should go to Erfurth.
Luther arrived at this university in 1501. Jodocus, surnamed the
Doctor of Eisenach, was teaching there the scholastic philosophy with great
success. Melancthon regrets that at that time nothing was taught at Erfurth
but a system of dialectics bristling with difficulties. He thinks that if
Luther had met with other professors, if they had taught him the milder and
calmer discipline of true philosophy, the violence of his nature might have
been moderated and softened. The new disciple applied himself to study the
philosophy of the Middle Ages in the works of Occam, Scotus, Bonaventure, and
Thomas Aquinas. In later times all this scholastic divinity was his aversion.
He trembled with indignation whenever Aristotle's name was pronounced in his
presence, and he went so far as to say that if Aristotle had not been a man,
he should not have hesitated to take him for the devil. But a mind so eager
for learning as his required other aliments; he began to study the
masterpieces of antiquity, the writings of Cicero, Virgil, and other classic
authors. He was not content, like the majority of students, with learning
their productions by heart: he endeavoured to fathom their thoughts, to
imbibe the spirit which animated them, to appropriate their wisdom to himself,
to comprehend the object of their writings, and to enrich his mind with their
pregnant sentences and brilliant images. He often addressed questions to his
professors, and soon outstripped all his fellow-students. Blessed with a
retentive memory and a strong imagination, all that he read or heard remained
constantly present to his mind; it was as if he had seen it himself. "Thus
shone Luther in his early years. The whole university," says Melancthon,
"admired his genius."
But even at this period the young man of eighteen did not study merely
to cultivate his intellect: he had those serious thoughts, that heart
directed heavenwards, which God gives to those of whom he resolves to make his
most zealous ministers. Luther was sensible of his entire dependence upon
God,--simple and powerful conviction, which is at once the cause of deep
humility and of great actions! He fervently invoked the divine blessing upon
his labors. Every morning he began the day with prayer; he then went to
church, and afterwards applied to his studies, losing not a moment in the
whole course of the day. "To pray well," he was in the habit of saying, "is
the better half of study."
The young student passed in the university library all the time he
could snatch from his academical pursuits. Books were as yet rare, and it was
a great privilege for him to profit by the treasures brought together in this
vast collection. One day--he had then been two years at Erfurth, and was
twenty years old--he opens many books in the library one after another, to
learn their writers' names. One volume that he comes to attracts his
attention. He has never until this hour seen its like. He reads the title--
it is a Bible! a rare book, unknown in those times. His interest is greatly
excited: he is filled with astonishment at finding other matters than those
fragments of the gospels and epistles that the Church has selected to be read
to the people during public worship every Sunday throughout the year. Until
this day he had imagined that they composed the whole Word of God. And now he
sees so many pages, so many chapters, so many books of which he had had no
idea! His heart beats, as he holds the divinely inspired volume in his hand.
With eagerness and with indescribable emotion he turns over these leaves from
God. The first page on which he fixes his attention narrates the story of
Hannah and of the young Samuel. He reads--and his soul can hardly contain the
joy it feels. This child, whom his parents lend to the Lord as long as he
liveth; the song of Hannah, in which she declares that Jehovah "raiseth up the
poor out of the dust, and lifteth the beggar from the dunghill, to set them
among princes;" this child who grew up in the temple in the presence of the
Lord; those sacrificers, the sons of Eli, who are wicked men, who live in
debauchery, and "make the Lord's people to transgress;"--all this history, all
this revelation that he has just discovered, excites feelings till then
unknown. He returns home with a full heart. "Oh! that God would give me such
a book for myself," thought he. Luther was as yet ignorant both of Greek and
Hebrew. It is scarcely probable that he had studied these languages during
the first two or three years of his residence at the university. The Bible
that had filled him with such transports was in Latin. He soon returned to
the library to pore over his treasure. He read it again and again, and then,
in his astonishment and joy, he returned to read it once more. The first
glimmerings of a new truth were then beginning to dawn upon his mind.
Thus had God led him to the discovery of his Word--of that book of
which he was one day to give his fellow countrymen that admirable translation
in which Germany has for three centuries perused the oracles of God. Perhaps
for the first time his precious volume has now been taken down from the place
it occupied in the library of Erfurth. This book, deposited upon the unknown
shelves of a gloomy hall, is about to become the book of life to a whole
nation. In that Bible the Reformation lay hid.
It was in the same year that Luther took his first academical degree--
that of bachelor.
The excessive labor to which he had devoted himself in order to pass
his examination, occasioned a dangerous illness. Death seemed approaching
him: serious reflections occupied his mind. He thought that his earthly
existence was drawing to an end. The young man excited general interest. "It
is a pity," they thought, "to see so many expectations so early blighted."
Many friends came to visit him on his bed of sickness. Among their number was
a venerable and ages priest, who had watched with interest the student of
Mansfeldt in his labors and in his academic career. Luther could not conceal
the thoughts that occupied his mind. "Soon," said he, "I shall be called away
from this world." But the old man kindly replied, "My dear bachelor, take
courage; you will not die of this illness. Our God will yet make of you a man
who, in turn, shall console many. For God layeth his cross upon those whom he
loveth, and they who bear it patiently acquire much wisdom." These words
struck the young invalid. It was when he was so near death that he heard the
voice of a priest remind him that God, as Samuel's mother said, raiseth up the
miserable. The old man had poured sweet consolation into his heart, had
revived his spirits; never will he forget it. "This was the first prediction
that the worthy doctor heard," says Mathesius, Luther's friend, who records
the fact, "and he often used to call it to mind." We may easily comprehend in
what sense Mathesius calls these words a prediction.
When Luther recovered, there was a great change in him. The Bible,
his illness, the words of the aged priest, seem to have made a new appeal to
him: but as yet there was nothing decided in his mind. Another circumstance
awakened serious thoughts within him. It was the festival of Easter, probably
in the year 1503. Luther was going to pass a short time with his family, and
wore a sword according to the custom of the age. He struck against it with
his foot, the blade fell out, and cut one of the principal arteries. Luther,
whose only companion had run off in haste to seek for assistance, finding
himself alone, and seeing the blood flowing copiously without being able to
check it, lay down on his back, and put his finger on the wound; but the blood
escaped in despite of his exertions, and Luther, feeling the approach of
death, cried out, "O Mary, help me!" At last a surgeon arrived from Erfurth,
who bound up the cut. The wound opened in the night, and Luther fainted,
again calling loudly upon the Virgin. "At that time," said he in after-years,
"I should have died relying upon Mary." Erelong he abandoned that
superstition, and invoked a more powerful Saviour. He continued his studies.
In 1505 he was admitted M.A. and doctor of philosophy. The university of
Erfurth was then the most celebrated in all Germany. The others were but
inferior schools in comparison with it. The ceremony was conducted, as usual,
with great pomp. A procession by torchlight came to pay honor to Luther. The
festival was magnificent. It was a general rejoicing. Luther, encouraged
perhaps by these honors, felt disposed to apply himself entirely to the law,
in conformity with his father's wishes.
But the will of God was different. While Luther was occupied with
various studies, and beginning to teach the physics and ethics of Aristotle,
with other branches of philosophy, his heart ceased not from crying to him
that religion was the one thing needful, and that above all things he should
secure his salvation. He knew the displeasure that God manifests against sin;
he called to mind the penalties that his Word denounces against the sinner;
and he asked himself, with apprehension, whether he was sure of possessing the
divine favor. His conscience answered, No! His character was prompt and
decided: he resolved to do all that might ensure him a firm hope of
immortality. Two events occurred, one after the other, to disturb his soul,
and to hasten his resolution.
Among his university friends was one named Alexis, with whom he lived
in the closest intimacy. One morning a report was spread in Erfurth that
Alexis had been assassinated. Luther hastens to ascertain the truth of this
rumor. This sudden loss of his friend agitated him, and the question he asked
himself, What would become of me, if I were thus called away without warning?
fills his mind with the keenest terrors.
It was in the summer of the year 1505 that Luther, whom the ordinary
university vacations left at liberty, resolved to go to Mansfeldt, to revisit
the dear scenes of his childhood and to embrace his parents. Perhaps also he
wished to open his heart to his father, to sound him on the plan that he was
forming in his mind, and obtain his permission to engage in another
profession. He foresaw all the difficulties that awaited him. The idle life
of the majority of priests was displeasing to the active miner of Mansfeldt.
Besides, the ecclesiastics were but little esteemed in the world; for the most
part their revenues were scanty; and the father, who had made great sacrifices
to maintain his son at the university, and who now saw him teaching publicly
in a celebrated school, although only in his twentieth year, was not likely to
renounce the proud hopes he had cherished.
We are ignorant of what passed during Luther's stay at Mansfeldt.
Perhaps the decided wish of his father made him fear to open his heart to him.
He again quitted his father's house to take his seat on the benches of the
academy. He was already within a short distance of Erfurth, when he was
overtaken by a violent storm, such as often occurs in these mountains. The
lightning flashed--the bolt fell at his feet. Luther threw himself upon his
knees. His hour, perhaps, is come. Death, the judgment, and eternity summon
him with all their terrors, and he hears a voice that he can no longer resist.
"Encompassed with the anguish and terror of death," as he says himself, he
made a vow, if the Lord delivers him from this danger, to abandon the world,
and devote himself entirely to God. After rising from the ground, having
still present to him that death which must one day overtake him, he examines
himself seriously, and asks what he ought to do. The thoughts that once
agitated him now return with greater force. He has endeavoured, it is true,
to fulfil all his duties, but what is the state of his soul? Can he appear
before the tribunal of a terrible God with an impure heart? He must become
holy. He has now as great a thirst for holiness, as he had formerly for
knowledge. But where can he find it, or where can he attain it? The
university provided him with the means of satisfying his first desires. Who
shall calm that anguish--who shall quench the fire that now consumes him? To
what school of holiness shall he direct his steps? He will enter a cloister:
the monastic life will save him. Oftentimes has he heard speak of its power
to transform the heart, to sanctify the sinner, to make man perfect! He will
enter a monastic order. He will there become holy: thus will he secure
Such was the event that changed the calling, the whole destiny of
Luther. In this we perceive the finger of God. It was his powerful hand that
on the highway cast down the young master of arts, the candidate for the bar,
the future lawyer, to give an entirely new direction to his life. Rubianus,
one of Luther's friends at the university of Erfurth, wrote thus to him in
after-life: "Divine Providence looked at what you were one day to become,
when on your return from your parents, the fire from heaven threw you to the
ground, like another Paul, near the city of Erfurth, and withdrawing you from
our society, drove you into the Augustine order." Analogous circumstances
have marked the conversion of the two greatest instruments that Divine
Providence has made use of in the two greatest revolutions that have been
effected upon the earth: Saint Paul and Luther.
Luther re-enters Erfurth. His resolution in unalterable. Still it is
not without a pang that he prepares to break the ties so dear to him. He
communicates his intention to no one. But one evening he invites his
university friends to a cheerful but frugal supper. Music once more enlivens
their social meeting. It is Luther's farewell to the world. Henceforth,
instead of these amiable companions of his pleasures and his studies, he will
have monks; instead of this gay and witty conversation--the silence of the
cloister; and for these merry songs--the solemn strains of the quiet chapel.
God calls him, and he must sacrifice everything. Still, for the last time,
let him share in the joys of his youth! The repast excites his friends:
Luther himself is the soul of the party. But at the very moment that they are
giving way without restraint to their gaiety, the young man can no longer
control the serious thoughts that fill his mind. He speaks--he makes known
his intention to his astonished friends. They endeavour to shake it, but in
vain. And that very night Luther, fearful perhaps of their importunate
solicitations, quits his lodgings. He leaves behind him all his clothes and
books, taking with him only Virgil and Plautus; he had no Bible as yet.
Virgil and Plautus! an epic poem and comedies! striking picture of Luther's
mind! There had in effect taken place in him a whole epic--a beautiful,
grand, and sublime poem; but as he had a disposition inclined to gaiety, wit,
and humor, he combined more than one familiar feature with the serious and
stately groundwork of his life.
Provided with these two books, he repairs alone, in the darkness of
night, to the convent of the hermits of St. Augustine. He asks admittance.
The gate opens and closes again. Behold him separated for ever from his
parents, from the companions of his studies, and from the world! It was the
17th August 1505: Luther was then twenty-one years and nine months old.
BOOK 2 CHAPTER 3
His Father's Anger--Pardon--Humiliations--The Sack and the Cell--Endurance--
Luther's Studies--St. Augustine--Peter d'Ailly--Occam--Gerson--The chained
Bible--Lyra--Hebrew and Greek--Daily Prayers--Asceticism--Mental Struggles--
Luther during Mass--Useless Observances--Luther in a Fainting-fit.
Luther was with God at last. His soul was in safety. He was now
about to find that holiness which he so much desired. The monks were
astonished at the sight of the youthful doctor, and extolled his courage and
his contempt of the world. He did not, however, forget his friends. He wrote
to them, bidding farewell to them and to the world; and on the next day he
sent these letters, with the clothes he had worn till then, and returned to
the university his ring of master of arts, that nothing might remind him of
the world he had renounced.
His friends at Erfurth were struck with astonishment. Must so eminent
a genius go and hide himself in that monastic state, which is a partial death?
Filled with the liveliest sorrow, they hastily repair to the convent, in the
hope of inducing Luther to retrace so afflicting a step; but all was useless.
For two whole days they surrounded the convent and almost besieged it, in the
hope of seeing Luther come forth. But the gates remained closely shut and
barred. A month elapsed without anyone being able to see or speak to the new
Luther had also hastened to communicate to his parents the great
change that had taken place in his life. His father was amazed. He trembled
for his son, as Luther himself tells us in the dedication of his work on
monastic vows addressed to his father. His weakness, his youth, the violence
of his passions, all led John Luther to fear that when the first moment of
enthusiasm was over, the idle habits of the cloister would make the young man
fall either into despair or into some great sin. He knew that this kind of
life had already been the destruction of many. Besides, the councillor-miner
of Mansfeldt had formed very different plans for his son. He had hoped that
he would contract a rich and honorable marriage. And now all his ambitious
projects are overthrown in one night by this imprudent step.
John wrote a very angry letter to his son, in which he spoke to him in
a contemptuous tone, as Luther informs us, while he had addressed him always
in a friendly manner after he had taken his master-of-arts degree. He
withdrew all his favor, and declared him disinherited from his paternal
affection. In vain did his father's friends, and doubtless his wife,
endeavour to soften him; in vain did they say: "If you would offer a
sacrifice to God, let it be what you hold best and dearest,--even your son,
your Isaac." The inexorable councillor of Mansfeldt would listen to nothing.
Not long after, however (as Luther tells us in a sermon preached at
Wittemberg, 20th January 1544), the plague appeared, and deprived John Luther
of two of his sons. About this time some one came and told the bereaved
father the monk of Erfurth is dead also!......His friends seized the
opportunity of reconciling the father to the young novice. "If it should be a
false alarm," said they to him, "at least sanctify your affliction by
cordially consenting to your son's becoming a monk!"--"Well! so be it!"
replied John Luther, with a heart bruised, yet still half rebellious, "and God
grant he may prosper!" Some time after this, when Luther, who had been
reconciled to his father, related to him the event that had induced him to
enter a monastic order: "God grant," replied the worthy miner, "that you may
not have taken for a sign from heaven what was merely a delusion of the
There was not then in Luther that which was afterwards to make him the
reformer of the Church. Of this his entrance into the convent is a strong
proof. It was a proceeding in conformity with the tendencies of the age from
which he was soon to contribute his endeavours to liberate the Church. He who
was destined to become the great teacher of the world, was as yet its slavish
imitator. A new stone had been added to the edifice of superstition by the
very man who was erelong to destroy it. Luther looked to himself for
salvation, to human works and observances. He knew not that salvation cometh
wholly from God. He sought after his own glory and righteousness, unmindful of
the righteousness and glory of the Lord. But what he was ignorant of as yet,
he learnt soon after. It was in the cloister of Erfurth that this immense
transformation was brought about, which substituted in his heart God and his
wisdom for the world and its traditions, and that prepared the mighty
revolution of which he was to be the most illustrious instrument.
When Martin Luther entered the convent, he changed his name, and
assumed that of Augustine.
The monks had received him with joy. It was no slight gratification
to their vanity to see one of the most esteemed doctors of the age abandon the
university for a house belonging to their order. Nevertheless they treated him
harshly, and imposed on him the meanest occupations. They wished to humble
the doctor of philosophy, and to teach him that his learning did not raise him
above his brethren. They imagined, besides, by this means to prevent him from
devoting himself so much to his studies, from which the convent could reap no
advantage. The former master of arts had to perform the offices of porter,
to open and shut the gates, to wind up the clock, to sweep the church, and to
clean out the cells. Then, when the poor monk, who was at once doorkeeper,
sexton, and menial servant of the cloister, had finished his work: Cum sacco
per civitatem! Away with your wallet through the town! cried the friars; and
laden with his bread-bag, he wandered through all the streets of Erfurth,
begging from house to house, obliged perhaps to present himself at the doors
of those who had once been his friends or his inferiors. On his return, he
had either to shut himself up in a low and narrow cell, whence he could see
nothing but a small garden a few feet square, or recommence his humble tasks.
But he put up with all. Naturally disposed to devote himself entirely to
whatever he undertook, he had become a monk with all his soul. Besides, how
could he have a thought of sparing his body, or have had any regard for what
might please the flesh? It was not thus that he could acquire the humility,
the sanctity which he had come to seek within the walls of the cloister.
The poor monk, oppressed with toil hastened to employ in study all the
moments that he could steal from these mean occupations. He voluntarily
withdrew from the society of the brethren to give himself up to his beloved
pursuits; but they soon found it out, and surrounding him with murmurs, tore
him from his books, exclaiming, "Come, come! It is not by studying, but by
begging bread, corn, eggs, fish, meat, and money that a monk renders himself
useful to the cloister." Luther submitted: he laid aside his books, and took
up his bag again. Far from repenting at having taken upon himself such a
yoke, he is willing to go through with his task. It was then that the
inflexible perseverance with which he always carried out the resolutions he
had once formed, began to be developed in his mind. The resistance he made to
these rude assaults gave a stronger temper to his will. God tried him in
small things, that he might learn to remain unshaken in great ones. Besides,
to be able to deliver his age from the miserable superstitions under which it
groaned, it was necessary for him first to feel their weight. To drain the
cup, he must drink it to the very dregs.
This severe apprenticeship did not however last so long as Luther
might have feared. The prior of the convent, at the intercession of the
university to which Luther belonged, freed him from the humiliating duties
that had been laid upon him. The youthful monk then returned to his studies
with new zeal. The works of the Fathers of the Church, especially of St.
Augustine, attracted his attention. The exposition of the Psalms by this
illustrious doctor, and his book On the letter and the Spirit, were his
favorite study. Nothing struck him more than the sentiments of this Father on
the corruption of man's will and on Diving Grace. He felt by his own
experience the reality of that corruption and the necessity for that grace.
The words of St. Augustine corresponded with the sentiments of his heart. If
he could have belonged to any other school than that of Jesus Christ, it would
undoubtedly have been to that of the doctor of Hippo. He almost knew by rote
the works of Peter d'Ailly and of Gabriel Biel. He was much taken with a
saying of the former, that, if the Church had not decided to the contrary, it
would have been preferable to concede that the bread and wine were really
taken in the Lord's supper, and not mere accidents.
He also carefully studied the theologians Occam and Gerson, who both
express themselves so freely on the authority of the popes. To this course of
reading he added other exercises. He was heard in the public discussions
unravelling the most complicated trains of reasoning, and extricating himself
from a labyrinth whence none but he could have found an outlet. All his
auditors were filled with astonishment.
But he had not entered the cloister to acquire the reputation of a
great genius: it was to seek food for his piety. He therefore regarded these
labors as mere digressions.
He loved above all things to draw wisdom from the pure source of the
Word of God. He found in the convent a Bible fastened by a chain, and to this
chained Bible he was continually returning. He had but little understanding
of the Word, yet was it his most pleasing study. It sometimes happened that
he passed a whole day meditating upon a single passage. At other times he
learned fragments of the Prophets by heart. He especially desired to acquire
from the writings of the Prophets and of the Apostles a perfect knowledge of
God's will; to grow up in greater fear of His name; and to nourish his faith
by the sure testimony of the Word.
It would appear that about this time he began to study the Scriptures
in their original languages, and to lay the foundation of the most perfect and
most useful of his labors--the translation of the Bible. He made use of
Reuchlin's Hebrew Lexicon, that had just appeared. John Lange, one of the
friars of the convent, a man skilled in Greek and Hebrew, and with whom he
always remained closely connected, probably was his first instructor. He also
made much use of the learned commentaries of Nicholas Lyra, who died in 1340.
It was from this circumstance that Pflug, afterwards bishop of Naumburg, said:
Si Lyra non lyrasset, Lutherus non saltasset.
The young monk studied with such industry and zeal that it often
happened that he did not repeat the daily prayers for three or four weeks
together. But he soon grew alarmed at the thought that he had transgressed
the rules of his order. He then shut himself up to repair his negligence, and
began to repeat conscientiously all the prayers he had omitted, without a
thought of either eating or drinking. Once even, for seven weeks together, he
scarcely closed his eyes in sleep.
Burning with desire to attain that holiness in quest of which he had
entered the cloister, Luther gave way to all the rigor of an ascetic life. He
endeavoured to crucify the flesh by fasting, mortifications, and watching.
Shut up in his cell, as in a prison, he struggled unceasingly against the
deceitful thoughts and the evil inclinations of his heart. A little bread and
a small herring were often his only food. Besides he was naturally of very
abstemious habits. Thus he was frequently seen by his friends. Long after he
had ceased to think of purchasing heaven by his abstinence, content himself
with the poorest viands, and remain even four days in succession without
eating or drinking. This we have on the testimony of Melancthon, a witness in
every respect worthy of credit. We may judge from this circumstance of the
little value we ought to attach to the fables that ignorance and prejudice
have circulated as to Luther's intemperance. At the period of which we are
speaking, nothing was too great a sacrifice that might enable him to become a
saint,--to acquire heaven. Never did the Romish church possess a more pious
monk. Never did cloister witness more severe or indefatigable exertions to
purchase eternal happiness. When Luther had become a reformer, and had
declared that heaven was not to be obtained by such means as these, he knew
very well what he was saying. "I was indeed a pious monk," wrote he to Duke
George of Saxony, "and followed the rules of my order more strictly than I can
express. If ever monk could obtain heaven by his monkish works, I should
certainly have been entitled to it. Of this all the friars who have known me
can testify. If it had continued much longer, I should have carried my
mortifications even to death, by means of my watching, prayers, reading, and
We are approaching the epoch which made Luther a new man, and which,
by revealing to him the infinity of God's love, put him in a condition to
declare it to the world.
Luther did not find in the tranquillity of the cloister and in monkish
perfection that peace of mind which he had looked for there. He wished to
have the assurance of his salvation: this was the great want of his soul.
Without it, there was no repose for him. But the fears that had agitated him
in the world pursue him to his cell. Nay, they were increased. The faintest
cry of his heart re-echoed loud beneath the silent arches of the cloister.
God had led him thither, that he might learn to know himself, and to despair
of his own strength and virtue. His conscience, enlightened by the Divine
Word, told him what it was to be holy; but he was filled with terror at
finding, neither in his heart nor in his life, that image of holiness which he
had contemplated with admiration in the Word of God. A sad discovery, and one
that is made by every sincere man! No righteousness within, no righteousness
without! all was omission, sin, impurity!......The more ardent the character
of Luther, the stronger was that secret and constant resistance which man's
nature opposes to good; and it plunged him into despair.
The monks and divines of the day encouraged him to satisfy the divine
righteousness by meritorious works. But what works, thought he, can come from
a heart like mine? How can I stand before the holiness of my judge with works
polluted in their very source? "I saw that I was a great sinner in the eyes
of God," said he, "and I did not think it possible for me to propitiate him by
my own merits."
He was agitated and yet dejected, avoiding the trifling and stupid
conversation of the monks. The latter, unable to comprehend the storms that
tosses his soul, looked upon him with surprise, and reproached him for his
silence and his gloomy air. One day, Cochloeus tells us, as they were saying
mass in the chapel, Luther had carried thither all his anxiety, and was in the
choir in the midst of the brethren, sad and heart-stricken. Already the priest
had prostrated himself, the incense had been burnt before the altar, the
Gloria sung, and they were reading the Gospel, when the poor monk, unable any
longer to repress his anguish, cried out in a mournful tone, as he fell on his
knees, "It is not I--it is not I." All were thunderstruck: and the ceremony
was interrupted for a moment. Perhaps Luther thought he heard some reproach
of which he knew himself innocent; perhaps he declared his unworthiness of
being one of those to whom Christ's death had brought the gift of eternal
life. Chochloeus says, they were then reading the story of the dumb man's cry
from whom Christ expelled a devil. It is possible that this cry of Luther, if
the account be true, had reference to this circumstance, and that, although
speechless like the dumb man, he protested by such an exclamation, that his
silence came from other causes than demoniacal possession. Indeed, Cochloeus
tells us that the monks sometimes attributed the sufferings of their brother
to a secret intercourse with the devil, and this writer himself entertained
A tender conscience inclined Luther to regard the slightest fault as a
great sin. He had hardly discovered it, before he endeavoured to expiate it
by the severest mortifications which only served to point out to him the
inutility of all human remedies. "I tortured myself almost to death," said
he, "in order to procure peace with God for my troubled heart and agitated
conscience; but surrounded with thick darkness, I found peace nowhere."
The practices of monastic holiness, which had lulled so many
consciences to sleep, and to which Luther himself had had recourse in his
distress, soon appeared to him the unavailing remedies of an empirical and
deceptive religion. "While I was yet a monk, I no sooner felt assailed by any
temptation than I cried out--I am lost! Immediately I had recourse to a
thousand methods to stifle the cries of my conscience. I went every day to
confession, but that was of no use to me. Then bowed down by sorrow, I
tortured myself by the multitude of my thoughts.--Look! exclaimed I, thou art
still envious, impatient, passionate!...It profiteth thee nothing, O wretched
man, to have entered this sacred order."
And yet Luther, imbued with the prejudices of his time, had from early
youth considered the observances, whose worthlessness he had now discovered,
as a certain remedy for diseased souls. What can he think of the strange
discovery he has just made in the solitude of the cloister? It is possible,
then, to dwell within the sanctuary, and yet bear in one's bosom a man of
sin!......He has received another garment, but not another heart. His
expectations are disappointed. Where can he stop? Can all these rules and
observances be mere human inventions? Such a supposition appears to him, at
one time, a temptation of the devil, and at another, an irresistible truth.
By turns contending with the holy voice that spake to his heart, and with the
venerable institutions that time had sanctioned, Luther passed his life in a
continual struggle. The young monk crept like a shadow through the long
galleries of the cloister, that re-echoed with his sorrowful moanings. His
body wasted away; his strength began to fail him; it sometimes happened that
he remained like one dead.
On one occasion, overwhelmed with sorrow, he shut himself up in his
cell, and for several days and nights allowed no one to approach him. One of
his friends, Lucas Edemberger, feeling anxious about the unhappy monk, and
having a presentiment of the condition in which he was, took with him some
boys who were in the habit of singing in the choirs, and knocked at the door
of the cell. No one opens--no one answers. The good Edemberger, still more
alarmed, breaks open the door. Luther lies insensible upon the floor, and
giving no sign of life. His friend strives in vain to recall him to his
senses: he is still motionless. Then the choristers begin to sing a sweet
hymn. Their clear voices act like a charm on the poor monk, to whom music was
ever one of his greatest pleasures: gradually he recovers his strength, his
consciousness, and life. But if music could restore his serenity for a few
moments, he requires another and a stronger remedy to heal him thoroughly: he
needs that mild and subtle sound of the Gospel, which is the voice of God
himself. He knew it well. And therefore his troubles and his terrors led him
to study with fresh zeal the writings of the prophets and of the apostles.
BOOK 2 CHAPTER 4
Pious Monks--Staupitz--His Piety--Visitation--Conversations--The Grace of
Christ--Repentance--Power of Sin--Sweetness of Repentance--Election--
Providence--The Bible--The aged Monk--Forgiveness of Sins--Ordination--The
Dinner--Festival of Corpus Christi--Luther made Professor at Wittemberg.
Luther was not the first monk who had undergone such trials. The
gloomy walls of the cloister often concealed the most abominable vices, that
would have made every upright mind shudder, had they been revealed; but often
also, they hid christian virtues that expanded there in silence, and which,
had they been exposed to the eyes of the world, would have excited universal
admiration. The possessors of these virtues, living only with themselves and
with God, attracted no attention, and were often unknown to the modest convent
in which they were enclosed: their lives were known only to God. Sometimes
these humble solitaries fell into that mystic theology,--sad disease of the
noblest minds! which in earlier ages had been the delight of the first monks
on the banks of the Nile, and which unprofitably consumes the souls of those
who become its victims.
Yet if one of these men was called to some high station, he there
displayed virtues whose salutary influence was long and widely felt. The
candle was set on a candlestick, and it illumined the whole house. Many were
awakened by this light. Thus from generation to generation were these pious
souls propagated; they were seen shining like isolated torches at the very
times when the cloisters were often little other than impure receptacles of
the deepest darkness.
A young man had been thus distinguished in one of the German convents.
His name was John Staupitz, and he was descended from a noble Misnian family.
From his tenderest youth he had had a taste for knowledge and a love of
virtue. He felt the need of retirement to devote himself to letters. He soon
discovered that philosophy and the study of nature could not do much towards
eternal salvation. He therefore began to learn divinity; but especially
endeavoured to unite practice with knowledge. "For," says one of his
biographers, "it is in vain that we assume the name of divine, if we do not
confirm that noble title by our lives." The study of the Bible and of the
Augustine theology, the knowledge of himself, the battles that he, like
Luther, had had to fight against the deceits and lusts of his heart, led him
to the Redeemer. He found peace to his soul in faith in Christ. The doctrine
of election by grace had taken strong hold of his mind. The integrity of his
life, the extent of his knowledge, the eloquence of his speech, not less than
a striking exterior and dignified manners, recommended him to his
contemporaries. Frederick the Wise, elector of Saxony, made him his friend,
employed him in various embassies, and founded the university of Wittemberg
under his direction. This disciple of St. Paul and St. Augustine was the
first dean of the theological faculty of that school whence the light was one
day to issue to illumine the schools and churches of so many nations. He was
present at the Lateran council, as proxy of the Archbishop of Saltzburg,
became provincial of his order in Thuringia and Saxony, and afterwards vicar-
general of the Augustines for all Germany.
Staupitz was grieved at the corruption of morals and the errors of
doctrine that were devastating the Church. His writings on the love of God,
on christian faith, and on conformity with the death of Christ, and the
testimony of Luther, confirm this. But he considered the former evil of more
importance than the latter. Besides the mildness and indecision of his
character, his desire not to go beyond the sphere of action he thought
assigned to him, made him fitter to be the restorer of a convent than the
reformer of the Church. He would have wished to raise none but distinguished
men to important offices: but not finding them, he submitted to employ others.
"We must plough," said he, "with such horses as we can find; and with oxen, if
there are no horses."
We have witnessed the anguish and the internal struggles to which
Luther was a prey in the convent of Erfurth. At this period a visitation of
the vicar-general was announced. In fact Staupitz came to make his usual
inspection. The friend of Frederick, the founder of the university of
Wittemberg, and chief of the Augustines, exhibited much kindness to those
monks who were under his authority. One of these brothers soon attracted his
attention. He was a young man of middle height, whom study, fasting, and
prolonged vigils had so wasted away that all his bones might be counted. His
eyes, that in after-years were compared to a falcon's, were sunken; his manner
was dejected; his countenance betrayed an agitated mind, the prey of a
thousand struggles, but yet strong and resolute. His whole appearance was
grave, melancholy, and solemn. Staupitz, whose discernment had been exercised
by long experience, easily discovered what was passing in his mind, and
distinguished the youthful monk above all who surrounded him. He felt drawn
towards him, had a presentiment of his great destiny, and entertained quite a
paternal interest for his inferior. He had had to struggle, like Luther, and
therefore he could understand him. Above all, he could point out to him the
road to peace, which he himself had found. What he learnt of the
circumstances that had brought the young Augustine into the convent, still
more increased his sympathy. He requested the prior to treat him with greater
mildness, and took advantage of the opportunities afforded by his station to
win the confidence of the youthful brother. Approaching him with affection, he
endeavoured by every means to dispel his timidity, which was increased by the
respect and fear that a man of such exalted rank as Staupitz must necessarily
Luther's heart, which harsh treatment had closed till then, opened at
last and expanded under the mild beams of charity. "As in water face
answereth to face, so the heart of man to man." Luther's heart found an echo
in that of Staupitz. The vicar-general understood him, and the monk felt a
confidence towards him, that he had as yet experienced for none. He unbosomed
to him the cause of his dejection, described the horrible thoughts that
perplexed him, and then began in the cloister of Erfurth those conversations
so full of wisdom and of instruction. Up to this time no one had understood
Luther. One day, when at table in the refectory, the young monk, dejected and
silent, scarcely touched his food. Staupitz, who looked earnestly at him,
said at last, "Why are you so sad, brother Martin?"--"Ah!" replied he, with a
deep sigh, "I do not know what will become of me!"--"These temptations,"
resumed Staupitz, "are more necessary to you than eating and drinking." These
two men did not stop there; and erelong in the silence of the cloister took
place that intimate intercourse, which powerfully contributed to lead forth
the future reformer from his state of darkness.
"It is in vain," said Luther despondingly to Staupitz, "that I make
promises to God: sin is ever the strongest."
"O my friend!" replied the vicar-general, looking back on his own
experience; "more than a thousand times have I sworn to our holy God to live
piously, and I have never kept my vows. Now I swear no longer, for I know I
cannot keep my solemn promises. If God will not be merciful towards me for the
love of Christ, and grant me a happy departure, when I must quit this world, I
shall never, with the aid of all my vows and all my good works, stand before
him. I must perish."
The young monk is terrified at the thought of divine justice. He lays
open all his fears to the vicar-general. He is alarmed at the unspeakable
holiness of God and his sovereign majesty. "Who may abide the day of his
coming? and who shall stand when he appeareth?" (Mal. iii. 2.)
Staupitz resumes: he knows where he had found peace, and he will
point it out to the young man. "Why," said he, "do you torment yourself with
all these speculations and these high thoughts?......Look at the wounds of
Jesus Christ, to the blood that he has shed for you: it is there that the
grace of God will appear to you. Instead of torturing yourself on account of
your sins, throw yourself into the Redeemer's arms. Trust in him--in the
righteousness of his life--in the atonement of his death. Do not shrink back;
God is not angry with you, it is you who are angry with God. Listen to the
Son of God. He became man to give you the assurance of divine favor. He says
to you, You are my sheep; you hear my voice; no man shall pluck you out of my
But Luther does not find in himself the repentance which he thinks
necessary for salvation: he replies, and it is the usual answer of distressed
and timid minds: "How can I dare believe in the favor of God, so long as
there is no real conversion in me? I must be changed, before he will accept
His venerable guide shows him that there can be no real conversion, so
long as man fears God as a severe judge. "What will you say then," asks
Luther "to so many consciences to which a thousand insupportable tasks are
prescribed in order that they may gain heaven?"
Then he hears this reply of the vicar-general, or rather he does not
believe that it comes from man: it seems to him like a voice from heaven.
"There is no real repentance except that which begins with the love of God and
of righteousness. What others imagine to be the end and accomplishment of
repentance, is on the contrary only its beginning. In order that you may be
filled with the love for God. If you desire to be converted, do not be
curious about all these mortifications and all these tortures. Love him who
first loved you!"
Luther listens--he listens again. These consolations fill him with
joy till then unknown, and impart new light. "It is Jesus Christ," thinks he
in his heart; "yes, it is Jesus Christ himself who so wonderfully consoles me
by these sweet and healing words."
These words, indeed, penetrated to the bottom of the young monk's
heart, like the sharp arrow of a strong man. In order to repent, we must love
God. Guided by this new light, he begins to compare the Scriptures. He looks
out all the passages that treat of repentance and conversion. These words,
till then so dreaded, to use his own expression, "are become to him an
agreeable pastime and the sweetest of recreations. All the passages of
Scripture that used to alarm him, seem now to run to him from every part,--to
smile and sport around him."
"Hitherto," exclaims he, "although I carefully dissembled the state of
my soul before God, and endeavoured to express towards him a love which was a
mere constraint and a fiction, there was no expression in Scripture so bitter
to me as that of repentance. But now there is none so sweet or more
acceptable. Oh! how delightful are all God's precepts when we read them not
only in books, but also in our Saviour's precious wounds!"
Although Luther had been consoled by Staupitz' words, he nevertheless
fell sometimes into despondency. Sin was again felt in his timid conscience,
and then all his previous despair banished the joy of salvation. "O my sin!
my sin! my sin!" cried the young monk one day in the presence of the vicar-
general, with a tone of profound anguish. "Well! would you only be a sinner
in appearance," replied the latter, "and have also a Saviour only in
appearance? Then," added Staupitz with authority, "Know that Jesus Christ is
the Saviour even of those who are great, real sinners, and deserving of utter
It was not alone the sin he discovered in his heart that agitated
Luther; the troubles of his conscience were augmented by those of reason. If
the holy precepts of the Bible alarmed him, some of the doctrines of that
divine book still more increased his tortures. The Truth, which is the great
medium by which God confers peace on man, must necessarily begin by taking
away from him the false security that destroys him. The doctrine of Election
particularly disturbed the young man, and launched him into a boundless field
of inquiry. Must be believe that it was man who first chose God for his
portion, or that God first elected man? The Bible, history, daily experience,
the works of Augustine,--all had shown him that we must always and in every
case ascend to that first cause, to that sovereign will by which everything
exists, and on which everything depends. But his ardent spirit would have
desired to go still further; he would have wished to penetrate into the secret
counsels of God, unveiled his mysteries, seen the invisible, and comprehended
the incomprehensible. Staupitz checked him. He told him not to presume to
fathom the hidden God, but to confine himself to what he has manifested to us
in Jesus Christ. "Look at Christ's wounds," said he, "and then will you see
God's counsel towards man shine brightly forth. We cannot understand God out
of Jesus Christ. In him, the Lord has said, you will find what I am, and what
I require. Nowhere else, neither in heaven nor in earth, will you discover
The vicar-general did still more. He showed Luther the paternal
designs of Providence in permitting these temptations and these various
struggles that his soul was to undergo. He made him view them in a light well
calculated to revive his courage. By such trials God prepares for himself the
souls that he destines for some important work. We must prove the vessel
before we launch it into the wide sea. If there is an eduction necessary for
every man, there is a particular one for those who are destined to act upon
their generation. This is what Staupitz represented to the monk of Erfurth.
"It is not in vain," said he to him, "that God exercises you in so many
conflicts: you will see that he will employ you, as his servant, for great
These words, to which Luther listened with astonishment and humility,
inspired him with courage, and led him to discover strength in himself which
he had not even suspected. The wisdom and prudence of an enlightened friend
gradually revealed the strong man to himself. Staupitz went further: he gave
him many valuable directions for his studies, exhorting him, henceforward, to
derive all his theology from the Bible, and to put away the systems of the
schools. "Let the study of the Scriptures," said he, "be your favorite
occupation." Never was good advice better followed out. What particularly
delighted Luther, was the present Staupitz made him of a Bible: but it was
not that Latin one, bound in red leather, the property of the convent, and
which it was all his desire to possess, and to be able to carry about with
him, because he was so familiar with its pages, and knew where to find each
passage. Nevertheless, at length he is master of the treasure of God.
Henceforward he studies the Scriptures, and especially the epistles of St.
Paul, with ever-increasing zeal. To these he adds the works of St. Augustine
alone. All that he reads is imprinted deeply in his mind. His struggles have
prepared his heart to understand the Word. The soil has been ploughed deep:
the incorruptible seed sinks into it with power. When Staupitz quitted
Erfurth, a new dawn had risen upon Luther.
But the work was not yet finished. The vicar-general had prepared the
way: God reserved its accomplishment for an humbler instrument. The
conscience of the young Augustine had not yet found repose. His body gave way
at last under the conflict and the tension of his soul. He was attacked by an
illness that brought him to the brink of the grave. This was in the second
year of his abode in the convent. All his distresses and all his fears were
aroused at the approach of death. His own impurity and the holiness of God
again disturbed his mind. One day, as he lay overwhelmed with despair, an
aged monk entered his cell, and addressed a few words of comfort to him.
Luther opened his heart to him, and made known the fears by which he was
tormented. The venerable old man was incapable of following up that soul in
all its doubts, as Staupitz had done; but he knew his Credo, and had found in
it much consolation to his heart. He will therefore apply the same remedy to
his young brother. Leading him back to that Apostles' creed which Luther had
learnt in early childhood at the school of Mansfeldt, the aged monk repeated
this article with kind good-nature: I believe in the forgiveness of sins.
These simple words, which the pious brother pronounced with sincerity in this
decisive moment, diffused great consolation in Luther's heart. "I believe,"
he repeated to himself erelong on his bed of sickness, "I believe in the
forgiveness of sins!"--"Ah!" said the monk, "you must believe not only in the
forgiveness of David's and of Peter's sins, for this even the devils believe.
It is God's command that we believe our own sins are forgiven us." How
delightful did this commandment seem to poor Luther! "Hear what St. Bernard
says in his discourse on the Annunciation," added the aged brother: "The
testimony of the Holy Ghost in thy heart is this: Thy sins are forgiven
From this moment light sprung up in the heart of the young monk of
Erfurth. The word of grace had been pronounced: he had believed in it. He
disclaims all merit of salvation, and resigns himself confidingly to the grace
of God in Jesus Christ. He does not at first perceive the consequences of the
principle he has admitted; he is still sincere in his attachment to the
Church, and yet he has no further need of her; for he has received salvation
immediately from God himself, and henceforth Roman-catholicism is virtually
destroyed in him. He advances,--he seeks in the writings of the apostles and
prophets for all that can strengthen the hope which fills his heart. Each day
he invokes support from on high, and each day also the light increases in his
Luther's mental health restored that of his body, and he soon rose
from his bed of sickness. He had received a new life in a twofold scene. The
festival of Christmas, that soon came, gave him an opportunity abundantly
tasting all the consolations of faith. He took part in these holy solemnities
with sweet emotion; and when in the ceremonial of the day he had to chant
these words: O beata culpa, quae talem meruisti Redemptorem! his whole being
responded Amen, and thrilled with joy.
Luther had been two years in the cloister, and was to be ordained
priest. He had received much, and saw with delight the prospect afforded by
the sacerdotal office of freely distributing what he had freely received. He
wished to take advantage of the ceremony that was about to take place to
become thoroughly reconciled with his father. He invited him to be present,
and even requested him to fix the day. John Luther, who was not yet entirely
pacified with regard to his son, nevertheless accepted the invitation, and
named Sunday, 2d May, 1507.
Among the number of Luther's friends was the vicar of Eisenach, John
Braun, who had been a faithful counsellor to him during his residence in that
city. Luther wrote to him on the 22d April. This is the oldest letter of the
reformer, and it bears the following address: "To John Braun, holy and
venerable priest of Christ and Mary." It is only in Luther's two earliest
letters that the name of Mary is found.
"God, who is glorious and holy in all his works," says the candidate
for the priesthood, "having most graciously condescended to raise me up--me, a
wretched and in all respects unworthy sinner, and to call me by his sole and
most free mercy to his sublime ministry; I ought, in order to testify my
gratitude for such divine and magnificent goodness (as far at least as mere
dust and ashes can do it) to fulfil with my whole heart the duties of the
office intrusted to me."
At last the day arrived. The miner of Mansfeldt did not fail to be
present at his son's ordination. He gave him indeed no unequivocal mark of
his affection and of his generosity by presenting him on this occasion with
The ceremony took place. Hieronymus, bishop of Brandenburg,
officiated. At the moment of conferring on Luther the power of celebrating
mass, he placed the chalice in his hands, and uttered these solemn words,
"Accipe potestatem sacrificandi pro vivis et mortuis: receive the power of
sacrificing for the quick and the dead." Luther at that time listened calmly
to these words, which conferred on him the power of doing the work of the Son
of God; but he shuddered at them in after-years. "If the earth did not then
open and swallow us both up," said he, "it was owing to the great patience and
long-suffering of the Lord."
The father afterwards dined at the convent with his son, the young
priest's friends, and the monks, The conversation fell on Martin's entrance
into the monastery. The brothers loudly extolled it as a most meritorious
work; upon which the inflexible John, turning to his son, asked him: "Have
you not read in Scripture, that you should obey your father and mother?"
These words struck Luther; they presented in quite a new aspect the action
that had brought him into the bosom of the convent, and they long re-echoed in
Shortly after his ordination, Luther, by the advice of Staupitz, made
little excursions on foot into the neighboring parishes and convents, either
to divert his mind and give his body the necessary exercise, or to accustom
him to preaching.
The festival of Corpus Christi was to be celebrated with great pomp at
Eisleben. The vicar-general would be present, and Luther repaired there also.
He had still need of Staupitz, and sought every opportunity of meeting this
enlightened guide who directed his soul into the path of life. The procession
was numerous and brilliant. Staupitz himself bore the consecrated host,
Luther following in his sacerdotal robes. The thought that it was Jesus
Christ himself whom the vicar-general carried, the idea that the Saviour was
there in person before him, suddenly struck Luther's imagination, and filled
him with such terror that he could scarcely proceed. The perspiration fell
drop by drop from his face; he staggered, and thought he should die of anguish
and affright. At length the procession was over; the host, that had awakened
all the fears of the monk, was solemnly deposited in the sanctuary; and
Luther, finding himself alone with Staupitz, fell into his arms and confessed
his dread. Then the good vicar-general, who had long known that gentle
Saviour, who does not break the bruised reed, said to him mildly: "It was not
Jesus Christ, my brother; he does not alarm; he gives consolation only."
Luther was not destined to remain hidden in an obscure convent. The
time was come for his removal to a wider stage. Staupitz, with whom he always
remained in close communication, saw clearly that the young monk's disposition
was too active to be confined with so narrow a circle. He spoke of him to the
Elector Frederick of Saxony: and this enlightened prince invited Luther in
1508, probably about the end of the year, to become professor at the
university of Wittemberg. This was the field on which he was to fight many
hard battles. Luther felt that his true vocation was there. He was requested
to repair to his new post with all speed: he replied to the call without
delay, and in the hurry of his removal he had not time to write to him whom he
styled his master and well-beloved father,--John Braun, curate of Eisenach.
He did so however a few months later. "My departure was so hasty," said he,
"that those with whom I was living were almost ignorant of it. I am farther
away, I confess: but the better part of me remains with you." Luther had been
three years in the cloister at Erfurth.
BOOK 2 CHAPTER 5
The University of Wittemberg--First Instructions--Biblical Lectures--
Sensation--Luther preaches at Wittemberg--The Old Chapel--Impression produced
by his Sermons.
In the year 1502, Frederick the Elector founded a new university at
Wittemberg. He declared in the charter confirming the privileges of this high
school, that he and his people would look to it as to an oracle. At that time
he had little thought in how remarkable a manner this language would be
verified. Two men belonging to the opposition that had been formed against
the scholastic system,--Pollich of Mellerstadt, doctor of medicine, law, and
philosophy, and Staupitz--had had great influence in the establishment of this
academy. The university declared that it selected St. Augustine for its
patron,--a choice that was very significant. This new institution, which
possessed great liberty, and which was considered as a court of final appeal
in all cases of difficulty, was admirably fitted to become the cradle of the
Reformation, and it powerfully contributed to the development of Luther and of
On his arrival at Wittemberg, he repaired to the Augustine convent,
where a cell was allotted to him; for though a professor, he did not cease to
be a monk. He had been called to teach physics and dialectics. In assigning
him this duty, regard had probably been paid to the philosophical studies he
had pursued at Erfurth, and to the degree of Master of Arts which he had
taken. Thus Luther, who hungered and thirsted after the Word of God, was
compelled to devote himself almost exclusively to the study of the
Aristotelian scholastic philosophy. He had need of that bread of life which
God gives to the world, and yet he must occupy himself with human subtleties.
What a restraint! and what signs it called forth! "By God's grace, I am
well," wrote he to Braun, "except that I have to study philosophy with all my
might. From the first moment of my arrival at Wittemberg, I was earnestly
desirous of exchanging it for that of theology; but," added he, lest it should
be supposed he meant the theology of the day, "it is of a theology which seeks
the kernel in the nut, the wheat in the husk, the marrow in the bones, that I
am speaking. Be that as it may, God is God," continues he with that confidence
which was the soul of his life; "man is almost always mistaken in his
judgments; but this is our God. He will lead us with goodness for ever and
ever." The studies that Luther was then obliged to pursue were of great
service to him, in enabling him in after-years to combat the errors of the
But he could not stop there. The desire of his heart was about to be
accomplished. That same power, which some years before had driven Luther from
the bar into a monastic life, was now impelling him from philosophy towards
the Bible. He zealously applied himself to the acquisition of the ancient
languages, and particularly of Greek and Hebrew, in order to draw knowledge
and learning from the very springs whence they gushed forth. He was all his
life indefatigable in labor. A few months after his arrival at the
university, he solicited the degree of bachelor of divinity. He obtained it
at the end of March 1509, with the particular summons to devote himself to
biblical theology,--ad Biblia.
Every day, at one in the afternoon, Luther was called to lecture on
the Bible: a precious hour both for the professor and his pupils, and which
led them deeper and deeper into the divine meaning of those revelations so
long lost to the people and to the schools!
He began his course by explaining the Psalms, and thence passed to the
Epistle to the Romans. It was more particularly while meditating on this
portion of Scripture, that the light of truth penetrated his heart. In the
retirement of his quiet cell, he used to consecrate whole hours to the study
of the Divine Word, this epistle of St. Paul lying open before him. On one
occasion, having reached the seventeenth verse of the first chapter, he read
this passage from the prophet Habakkuk: The just shall live by faith. This
precept struck him. There is then for the just a life different from that of
other men: and this life is the gift of faith. This promise, which he
received into his heart, as if God himself had placed it there, unveils to him
the mystery of the christian life, and increases this life in him. Years
after, in the midst of his numerous occupations, he imagined he still heard
these words: The just shall live by faith.
Luther's lectures thus prepared had little similarity with what had
been heard till then. It was not an eloquent rhetorician or a pedantic
schoolman that spoke; but a Christian who had felt the power of revealed
truths,--who drew them forth from the Bible,--poured them out from the
treasures of his heart, --and presented them all full of life to his
astonished hearers. It was not the teaching of a man, but of God.
This entirely new method of expounding the truth made a great noise;
the news of it spread far and wide, and attracted to the newly established
university a crowd of youthful foreign students. Even many professors
attended Luther's lectures, and among others Mellerstadt, frequently styled
the light of the world, first rector of the university, who already at
Leipsic, where he had been previously, had earnestly combated the ridiculous
instructions of scholasticism, had denied that "the light created on the first
day was Theology," and had maintained that the study of literature should be
the foundation of that science. "This monk," said he, "will put all the
doctors to shame; he will bring in a new doctrine, and reform the whole
church; for he builds upon the Word of Christ, and no one in the world can
either resist or overthrow that Word, even should he attack it will all the
arms of philosophy, of the sophists, Scotists, Albertists, Thomists, and with
all the Tartaretus."
Staupitz, who was the instrument of God to develop all the gifts and
treasures hidden in Luther, requested him to preach in the church of the
Augustines. The young professor shrunk from this proposal. He desired to
confine himself to his academical duties, he trembled at the thought of
increasing them by those of the ministry. In vain did Staupitz say solicit
him: "No! no!" replied he, "it is no slight thing to speak before men in the
place of God." What affecting humility in this great reformer of the Church!
Staupitz persisted; but the ingenious Luther, says one of his biographers,
found fifteen arguments, pretexts, and evasions to defend himself against this
invitation. At length, the chief of the Augustines persevering in his attack,
Luther said: "Ah, doctor, by doing this you deprive me of life. I shall not
be able to hold out three months."--"Well! so be it in God's name," replied
the vicar-general, "for our Lord God has also need on high of devoted and
skilful men." Luther was forced to yield.
In the middle of the square at Wittemberg stood an ancient wooden
chapel, thirty feet long and twenty wide, whose walls propped up on all sides
were falling into ruin. An old pulpit made of planks, and three feet high,
received the preacher. It was in this wretched place that the preaching of
the Reformation began. It was God's will that that which was to restore his
glory should have the humblest beginnings. The foundations of the new
Augustine Church had just been laid, and in the meanwhile this miserable place
of worship was made use of. "This building," adds Myconius, one of Luther's
contemporaries, who records these circumstances, "may well be compared to the
stable in which Christ was born. It was in this wretched enclosure that God
willed, so to speak, that his well-beloved Son should be born a second time.
Among those thousands of cathedrals and parish churches with which the world
is filled, there was not one at that time which God chose for the glorious
preaching of eternal life."
Luther preaches: everything is striking in the new minister. His
expressive countenance, his noble air, his clear and sonorous voice, captivate
all his hearers. Before his time, the majority of preachers had sought rather
what might amuse their congregation, than what would convert them. The great
seriousness that pervaded all Luther's sermons, and the joy with which the
knowledge of the Gospel had filled his heart, imparted to his eloquence an
authority, a warmth, and an unction that his predecessors had not possessed.
"Endowed with a ready and lively genius," says one of his opponents, "with a
good memory, and employing his mother tongue with wonderful facility, Luther
was inferior to none of his contemporaries in eloquence. Speaking from the
pulpit, as if he were agitated by some violent emotion, suiting the action to
his words, he affected his hearers' minds in a surprising manner, and carried
them like a torrent wherever he pleased. So much strength, grace, and
eloquence are rarely found in these children of the North."--"He had," says
Bossuet, "a lively and impetuous eloquence that charmed and led away the
Soon the little chapel could not hold the hearers who crowded to it.
The council of Wittemberg then nominated Luther their chaplain, and invited
him to preach in the city church. The impression he there produced was greater
still. The energy of his genius, the eloquence of his style, and the
excellency of the doctrines that he proclaimed, equally astonished his
hearers. His reputation extended far and wide, and Frederick the Wise himself
came once to Wittemberg to hear him.
This was the beginning of a new life for Luther. The slothfulness of the
cloister had been succeeded by great activity. Freedom, labor, the earnest
and constant action to which he could now devote himself at Wittemberg,
succeeded in re-establishing harmony and peace within him. Now he was in his
place, and the work of God was soon to display its majestic progress.
BOOK 2 CHAPTER 6
Journey to Rome--Convent on the Po--Sickness at Bologna--Recollections of
Rome--Julius II--Superstitious Devotion--Profanity of the Clergy--
Conversations--Roman Scandals--Biblical Studies--Pilate's Staircase--Effects
on Luther's Faith and on the Reformation--Gate of Paradise--Luther's
Luther was teaching both in the academical hall and in the church,
when he was interrupted in his labors. In 1510, or according to others in
1511 or 1512, he was sent to Rome. Seven convents of his order were at
variance on certain points with the vicar-general. The acuteness of Luther's
mind, his powerful language, and his talents for discussion, were the cause of
his selection as agent for these seven monasteries before the pope. This
divine dispensation was necessary for Luther. It was requisite that he should
know Rome. Full of the prejudices and delusions of the cloister, he had
always imagined it to be the abode of sanctity.
He set out and crossed the Alps. But he had scarcely descended into
the plains of the rich and voluptuous Italy, before he found at every step
subjects of astonishment and scandal. The poor German monk was entertained in
a wealthy convent of the Benedictines on the banks of the Po, in Lombardy. The
revenues of this monastery amounted to 36,000 ducats; 12,000 were devoted to
the table, 12,000 were set apart for the buildings, and the remainder for the
wants of the monks. The splendor of the apartments, the richness of their
dress, and the delicacy of their food, confounded Luther. Marble, silk,
luxury in all its forms--what a novel sight for the humble brother of the poor
convent of Wittemberg! He was astonished and was silent; but when Friday
came, what was his surprise at seeing the Benedictine table groaning under a
load of meat. Upon this he resolved to speak. "The Church and the pope,"
said he, "forbid such things." The Benedictines were irritated at this
reprimand of the unpolished German. But Luther having persisted, and perhaps
threatened to make their irregularities known, some thought the simplest
course would be to get rid of their importunate guest. The porter of the
convent forewarned him of the danger he incurred by a longer stay. He
accordingly quitted this epicurean monastery, and reached Bologna, where he
fell dangerously ill. Some have attributed this to the effects of poison; but
it is more reasonable to suppose that the change of diet affected the frugal
monk of Wittemberg, whose usual food was bread and herrings. This sickness
was not to be unto death, but to the glory of God. He again relapsed into the
sorrow and dejection so natural to him. To die thus, far from Germany, under
this burning sky, and in a foreign land--what a sad fate. The distress of mind
that he had felt at Erfurth returned with fresh force. The sense of his
sinfulness troubled him; the prospect of Gods judgment filled him with dread.
But at the very moment that these terrors had reached their highest pitch, the
words of St. Paul, that had already struck him at Wittemberg, The just shall
live by faith, recurred forcibly to his memory, and enlightened his soul like
a ray from heaven. Thus restored and comforted, he soon regained his health,
and resumed his journey towards Rome, expecting to find there a very different
manner of life from that of the Lombard convents, and impatient of efface, by
the sight of Roman holiness, the melancholy impressions left on his mind by
his sojourn on the banks of the Po.
At length, after a toilsome journey under a burning Italian sun, at the
beginning of summer, he drew near the seven-hilled city. His heart was moved
within him: his eyes sought after the queen of the world and of the Church.
As soon as he discovered the eternal city in the distance,--the city of St.
Peter and St. Paul,--the metropolis of Catholicism,--he fell on his knees,
exclaiming, "Holy Rome, I salute thee!"
Luther is in Rome: the Wittemberg professor stands in the midst of
the eloquent ruins of consular and imperial Rome--of the Rome of so many
martyrs and confessors of Jesus Christ. Here had lived that Plautus and that
Virgil whose works he had carried with him into the cloister, and all those
great men at whose history his heart had so often beat with emotion. He
beholds their statues,--the ruins of the monuments that bear witness to their
glory. But all that glory--all that power has fled: his feet trample on
their dust. At each step he calls to mind the sad presentiments of Scipio
shedding tears as he looked upon the ruins--the burning palaces and tottering
walls of Carthage, and exclaimed, "Thus will it one day be with Rome!" "And
in truth," said Luther, "the Rome of the Scipios and Caesars has become a
corpse. There are such heaps of rubbish that the foundations of the houses
are now where once stood the roofs. It is there," added he, as he threw a
melancholy glance over these ruins, "it is there that once the riches and the
treasures of the world were gathered together." All these fragments, against
which his feet stumble at every step, proclaim to Luther within the very walls
of Rome, that what is strongest in the eyes of man may be easily destroyed by
the breath of the Lord.
But with these profane ashes are mingled other and holier ones: he
recalls them to mind. The burial-place of the martyrs is not far from that of
the generals of Rome and of her conquerors. Christian Rome with its sufferings
has more power over the heart of the Saxon monk than pagan Rome with all its
glory. Here that letter arrived in which Paul wrote, The just shall live by
faith. He is not far from Appii Forum and the Three Taverns. Here is the
house of Narcissus--there the palace of Caesar, where the Lord delivered the
Apostle from the jaws of the lion. Oh, how these recollections strengthen the
heart of the monk of Wittemberg!
But Rome at this time presented a very different aspect. The warlike
Julius II filled the papal chair, and not Leo X, as some distinguished German
historians have said, doubtless through inattention. Luther has often related
a trait in the character of this pope. When the news reached him that his
army had been defeated by the French before Ravenna, he was repeating his
daily prayers: he flung away the book, exclaiming with a terrible oath: "And
thou too art become a Frenchman......It is thus thou dost protect thy
Church?......" Then turning in the direction of the country to whose arms he
thought to have recourse, he added: "Saint Switzer, pray for us!" Ignorance,
levity, and dissolute manners, a profane spirit, a contempt for all that is
sacred, a scandalous traffic in divine things--such was the spectacle afforded
by this unhappy city. Yet the pious monk remained for some time longer in his
Having arrived about the period of the feast of St. John, he heard the
Romans repeating around him a proverb current among them: "Happy the mother
whose son performs mass on St. John's eve!"--"Oh, how should I rejoice to
render my mother happy!" said Luther to himself. Margaret's pious son
endeavoured to repeat a mass on that day; but he could not, the throng was too
Fervent and meek, he visited all the churches and chapels; he believed
in all the falsehoods that were told him; he devoutly performed all the holy
practices that were required there, happy in being able to execute so many
good works from which his fellow-countrymen were debarred. "Oh! how I
regret," said the pious German to himself, "that my father and mother are
still alive! What pleasure I should have in delivering them from the fire of
purgatory by my masses, my prayers, and by so many other admirable works!" He
had found the light; but the darkness was far from being entirely expelled
from his understanding. His heart was converted; his mind was not yet
enlightened: he had faith and love, but he wanted knowledge. It was no
trifling matter to emerge from that thick night which had covered the earth
for so many centuries.
Luther several times repeated mass at Rome. He officiated with all the
unction and dignity that such an action appeared to him to require. But what
affliction seized the heart of the Saxon monk at witnessing the sad and
profane mechanism of the Roman priests, as they celebrated the sacrament of
the altar! These on their part laughed at his simplicity. On day when he was
officiating he found that the priests at an adjoining altar had already
repeated seven masses before he had finished one. "Quick, quick!" cried one
of them, "send our Lady back her Son;" making an impious allusion to the
transubstantiation of the bread into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. At
another time Luther had only just reached the Gospel, when the priest at his
side had already terminated the mass. "Passa, passa!" cried the latter to
him, "make haste! have done with it at once."
His astonishment was still greater, when he found in the dignitaries
of the papacy what he had already observed in the inferior clergy. He had
hoped better things of them.
It was the fashion at the papal court to attack Christianity, and you
could not pass for a well-bred man, unless you entertained some erroneous or
heretical opinion on the doctrines of the Church. They had endeavoured to
convince Erasmus, by means of certain extracts from Pliny, that there was no
difference between the souls of men and of beasts; and some of the pope's
youthful courtiers maintained that the orthodox faith was the result of the
crafty devices of a few saints.
Luther's quality of envoy from the German Augustines procured him
invitations to numerous meetings of distinguished ecclesiastics. One day, in
particular, he was at table with several prelates, who displayed openly before
him their buffoonery and impious conversation, and did not scruple to utter in
his presence a thousand mockeries, thinking, no doubt, that he was of the same
mind as themselves. Among other things, they related before the monk,
laughing and priding themselves upon it, how, when they were repeating mass at
the altar, instead of the sacramental words that were to transform the bread
and wine into the flesh and blood of our Saviour, they pronounced over the
elements this derisive expression: Panis es, et panis manebis; vinum es, et
vinum manebis. Then, continued they, we elevate the host, and all the people
bow down and worship it. Luther could hardly believe his ears. His
disposition, although full of animation and even gaiety in the society of
friends, was remarkably serious whenever sacred matters were concerned. The
mockeries of Rome were a stumbling block to him. "I was," said he, "a
thoughtful and pious young monk. Such language grieved me bitterly. If 'tis
thus they speak at Rome, freely and publicly at the dinner table, thought I to
myself, what would it be if their actions corresponded to their words, and if
all--pope, cardinals, and courtiers--thus repeat the mass! And how they must
have deceived me, who have heard them read devoutly so great a number!"
Luther often mixed with the monks and citizens of Rome. If some few
extolled the pope and his party, the majority gave a free course to their
complaints and to their sarcasms. What stories had they not to tell about the
reigning pope, or Alexander VI, or about so many others! One day his Roman
friends related how Caesar Borgia, having fled from Rome, was taken in Spain.
As they were going to try him, he called for arc, and asked for a confessor to
visit him in his prison. A monk was sent to him, whom he slew, put on his
hood, and escaped. "I heard that at Rome; and it is a positive fact," says
Luther. Another day, passing down a wide street leading to St. Peter's, he
halted in astonishment before a stone statue, representing a pope under the
figure of a woman, holding a sceptre, clothed in the papal mantle, and
carrying a child in her arms. It is a young woman of Mentz, he was told, whom
the cardinals elected pope, and who was delivered of a child opposite this
place. No pope, therefore, passes along that street. "I am surprised," says
Luther, that the popes allow such a statue to remain."
Luther had thought to find the edifice of the Church encompassed with
splendor and strength, but its doors were broken down, and the walls damaged
by fire. He witnessed the desolation of the sanctuary, and drew back with
horror. All his dreams had been of holiness,--he had discovered nought but
The disorders without the churches were not less shocking to him.
"The police of Rome is very strict and severe," said he. "The judge or captain
patrols the city every night on horseback with three hundred followers; he
arrests every one that is found in the streets: if they meet an armed man, he
is hung, or thrown into the Tiber. And yet the city is filled with disorder
and murder; whilst in those places where the Word of God is preached uprightly
and in purity, peace and order prevail, without calling for the severity of
the law."--"No one can imagine what sins and infamous actions are committed in
Rome," said he at another time; "they must be seen and heard to be believed.
Thus, they are in the habit of saying, If there is a hell, Rome is built over
it: it is an abyss whence issues every kind of sin."
This spectacle made a deep impression even then upon Luther's mind; it
was increased erelong. "The nearer we approach Rome, the greater number of
bad Christians we meet with," said he, many years after. "There is a vulgar
proverb, that he who goes to Rome the first time, looks out for a knave; the
second time, he finds him; and the third, he brings him away with him. But
people are now become so clever, that they make these three journeys in one."
Machiavelli, one of the most profound geniuses of Italy, but also one of
unenviable notoriety, who was living at Florence when Luther passed through
that city on his way to Rome, has made the same remark: "The strongest
symptom," said he, "of the approaching ruin of Christianity (by which he means
Roman-catholicism) is, that the nearer people approach the capital of
Christendom, the less christian spirit is found in them. The scandalous
examples and the crimes of the court of Rome are the cause why Italy has lost
every principle of piety and all religious feeling. We Italians," continues
this great historian, "are indebted principally to the Church and the priests
for having become impious and immoral." Luther, somewhat later, was sensible
of the very great importance of this journey. "If they would give me one
hundred thousand florins," said he, "I would not have missed seeing Rome!"
This visit was also very advantageous to him in regard to learning.
Like Reuchlin, Luther took advantage of his residence in Italy to penetrate
deeper into the meaning of the Holy Scriptures. He took lessons in Hebrew
from a celebrated rabbi, named Elias Levita. It was at Rome that he partly
acquired that knowledge of the Divine Word, under the attacks of which Rome
was destined to fall.
But this journey was most important to Luther in another respect. Not
only was the veil withdrawn, and the sardonic sneer, the mocking incredulity
which lay concealed behind the Romish superstitions revealed to the future
reformer, but the living faith that God had implanted in him was there
We have seen how he at first gave himself up to all the vain
observances which the Church enjoined for the expiation of sin. One day, among
others, wishing to obtain an indulgence promised by the pope to all who should
ascend on their knees what is called Pilate's Staircase, the poor Saxon monk
was humbly creeping up those steps, which he was told had been miraculously
transported from Jerusalem to Rome. But while he was performing this
meritorious act, he thought he heard a voice of thunder crying from the bottom
of his heart, as at Wittemberg and Bologna, The just shall live by faith.
These words, that twice before had struck him like the voice of an angel from
God, resounded unceasingly and powerfully within him. He rises in amazement
from the steps up which he was dragging his body: he shudders at himself; he
is ashamed of seeing to what a depth superstition had plunged him. He flies
far from the scene of his folly.
This powerful text has a mysterious influence on the life of Luther.
It was a creative sentence both for the reformer and for the Reformation. It
was in these words God then said, Let there be light! and there was light.
It is frequently necessary for a truth to be presented many times to
our minds in order that it may produce the due effect. Luther had profoundly
studied the Epistle to the Romans, and yet the doctrine of justification by
faith there taught had never appeared so clear to him. Now he comprehends
that righteousness which alone can stand before God; now he receives for
himself from the hand of Christ that obedience which God of his free gift
imputes to the sinner, as soon as he raises his eyes with humility to the
crucified Son of Man. This was the decisive epoch of Luther's inner life.
That faith which had saved him from the terrors of death, became the very soul
of his theology, his stronghold in every danger; the principle which gave
energy to his preaching and strength to his charity; the foundation of his
peace, the encouragement to his labors, his comfort in the life and in the
But this great doctrine of a salvation proceeding from God and not
from man, was not only the power of God to save Luther's soul; it became in a
still greater degree the power of God to reform the Church:--an effectual
weapon wielded by the apostles,--a weapon too long neglected, but taken at
last, in all its primitive brightness, from the arsenal of the omnipotent God.
At the very moment when Luther uprose from his knees on Pilate's Staircase, in
agitation and amazement at those words which Paul had addressed fifteen
centuries before to the inhabitants of that metropolis,--Truth, till then a
melancholy captive, and fettered in the Church, uprose also to fall no more.
We should here listen to what Luther himself says on the matter.
"Although I was a holy and blameless monk, my conscience was nevertheless full
of trouble and anguish. I could not endure those words--the righteousness of
God. I had no love for that holy and just God who punishes sinners. I was
filled with secret anger against him: I hated him, because, not content with
frightening by the law and the miseries of life us wretched sinners, already
ruined by original sin, he still further increased our tortures by the
Gospel......But when, by the Spirit of God, I understood these words,--when I
learnt how the justification of the sinner proceeds from the free mercy of our
Lord through faith,......then I felt born again like a new man; I entered
through the open doors into the very paradise of God. Henceforward, also, I
saw the beloved and Holy Scriptures with other eyes. I perused the Bible,--I
brought together a great number of passages that taught me the nature of God's
work. And as previously I had detested with all my heart these words,--The
righteousness of God, I began from that hour to value them and to love them,
as the sweetest and most consoling words in the Bible. In very truth, this
language of St. Paul was to me the true gate of Paradise."
Thus when he was called on solemn occasions to confess this doctrine,
Luther always recovered his enthusiasm and rough energy. "I see," observed he
at an important moment, "that the devil is continually attacking this
fundamental article by means of his doctors, and that in this respect he can
never cease or take any repose. Well then, I, Doctor Martin Luther, unworthy
herald of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, confess this article, that
faith alone without works justifies before God; and I declare that it shall
stand and remain for ever in despite of the emperor of the Tartars, the
emperor of the Persians,--in spite of the pope and all the cardinals, with the
bishops, priests, monks, and nuns,--in spite of kings, princes, and nobles,--
and in spite of all the world and of the devils themselves; and that if they
endeavour to fight against this truth, they will draw the fires of hell upon
their heads. This is the true and holy Gospel, and the declaration of me,
Doctor Luther, according to the teaching of the Holy Ghost......There is no
one," continues he, "who has died for our sins, if not Jesus Christ the Son of
God. I say it once again, should all the world and all the devils tear each
other to pieces and burst with rage, that it is not the less true. And if it
is He alone that taketh away our sins, it cannot be ourselves and our own
works. But good works follow redemption, as the fruit grows on the tree. That
is our doctrine--that is what is taught by the Holy Ghost and by all the
communion of saints. We hold fast to it in the name of God. Amen!"
It was thus Luther found what had been overlooked, at least to a
certain degree, by all doctors and reformers, even by the most illustrious of
them. It was in Rome that God gave him this clear view of the fundamental
doctrine of Christianity. He had gone to the city of the pontiffs for the
solution of certain difficulties concerning a monastic order: he brought away
from it in his heart the salvation of the Church.
BOOK 2 CHAPTER 7
Luther Returns to Wittemberg--Made Doctor of Divinity--Carlstadt--Luther's
Oath--Principle of the Reformation--Luther's Courage--Early Views of
Reformation--The Schoolmen--Spalatin--Reuchlin's Quarrel with the Monks.
Luther quitted Rome, and returned to Wittemberg: his heart was full
of sorrow and indignation. Turning his eyes with disgust from the pontifical
city, he directed them with hope to the Holy Scriptures--to that new life
which the Word of God seemed then to promise to the world. This Word
increased in his heart by all that the Church lost. He separated from the one
to cling to the other. The whole of the Reformation was in that one movement.
It set God in the place of the priest.
Staupitz and the elector did not lose sight of the monk whom they had
called to the university of Wittemberg. It appears as if the vicar-general
had a presentiment of the work that was to be done in the world, and that,
finding it too difficult for himself, he wished to urge Luther towards it.
There is nothing more remarkable,--nothing, perhaps, more mysterious than this
person, who is seen everywhere urging forward Luther in the path where God
calls him, and then going to end his days sadly in a cloister. The preaching
of the young professor had made a deep impression on the prince; he had
admired the strength of his understanding, the forcibleness of his eloquence,
and the excellency of the matters that he expounded. The elector and his
friend, desirous of advancing a man of such great promise, resolved that he
should take the high degree of doctor of divinity. Staupitz repaired to the
convent, and took Luther into the garden, where, alone with him under a tree
that Luther in after-years delighted to point out to his disciples, the
venerable father said to him: "My friend, you must now become Doctor of the
Holy Scriptures." Luther shrunk at the very thought: this eminent honor
startled him. "Seek a more worthy person," replied he. "As for me, I cannot
consent to it." The vicar-general persisted: "Our Lord God has much to do in
the Church: he has need at this time of young and vigorous doctors." These
words, adds Melancthon, were perhaps said playfully, yet the event
corresponded with them; for generally many omens precede all great
revolutions. It is not necessary to suppose that Melancthon here speaks of
miraculous prophecies. The most incredulous age--that which preceded the
present one--saw an exemplification of this remark. How many presages,
without there being any thing miraculous in them, announced the revolution in
which it closed!
"But I am weak and sickly," replied Luther. "I have not long to live.
Look out for some strong man."--"The Lord has work in heaven as well as on
earth," replied the vicar-general: "dead or alive, He has need of you in his
"It is the Holy Ghost alone that can make a doctor of divinity," then
urged the monk still more alarmed.--"Do what your convent requires," said
Staupitz, "and what I, your vicar-general, command; for you have promised to
obey us."--"But my poverty," resumed the brother: "I have no means of
defraying the expenses incidental to such a promotion."--"Do not be uneasy
about that," replied his friend: "the prince has done you the favour to take
all the charges upon himself." Pressed on every side, Luther thought it his
duty to give way.
It was about the end of the summer of 1512 that Luther set out for
Leipsic to receive from the elector's treasurers the money necessary for his
promotion. But according to court custom, the money did not arrive. The
brother growing impatient wished to depart, but monastic obedience detained
him. At length, on the 4th October, he received fifty florins from Pfeffinger
and John Doltzig. In the receipt which he gave them, he employs no other
title than that of monk. "I, Martin," wrote he, "brother of the order of
Hermits." Luther hastened to return to Wittemberg.
Andrew Bodenstein of the city of Carlstadt was at that time dean of
the theological faculty, and it is by the name of Carlstadt that this doctor
is generally known. He was also called the A.B.C. Melancthon first gave him
this designation on account of the three initials of his name. Bodenstein
acquired in his native country the first elements of learning. He was of a
serious and gloomy character, perhaps inclined to jealousy, and of a restless
temper, but full of desire for knowledge, and of great capacity. He
frequented several universities to augment his stores of learning, and studied
theology at Rome. On his return from Italy, he settled at Wittemberg, and
became doctor of divinity. "At this time," he said afterwards, "I had not yet
read the Holy Scriptures." This remark gives us a very correct idea of what
theology then was. Carlstadt, besides his functions of professor, was canon
and archdeacon. Such was the man who in after-years was destined to create a
schism in the Reformation. At this time he saw in Luther only an inferior; but
the Augustine erelong became an object of jealousy to him. "I will not be
less great than Luther," said he one day. Very far from anticipating at that
period the great destinies of the young professor, Carlstadt conferred on his
future rival the highest dignity of the university.
On the 18th October 1512, Luther was received licentiate in divinity,
and took the following oath: "I swear to defend the evangelical truth with
all my might." On the day following, Bodenstein solemnly conferred on him, in
the presence of a numerous assembly, the insignia of doctor of divinity. He
was made a biblical doctor, and not a doctor of sentences; and was thus called
to devote himself to the study of the Bible, and not to that of human
traditions. He then pledged himself by an oath, as he himself related, to his
well-beloved and Holy Scriptures. He promised to preach them faithfully, to
teach them with purity, to study them all his life, and to defend them, both
in disputation and in writing, against all false teachers, so far as God
should give him ability.
This solemn oath was Luther's call to the Reformation. By imposing on
his conscience the holy obligation of searching freely and boldly proclaiming
the Christian truth, this oath raised the new doctor above the narrow limits
to which his monastic vow would perhaps have confined him. Called by the
university, by his sovereign, in the name of the imperial majesty and of the
see of Rome itself, and bound before God by the most solemn oath, he became
from that hour the most intrepid herald of the Word of Life. On that
memorable day Luther was armed champion of the Bible.
We may accordingly look upon this oath, sworn to the Holy Scriptures,
as one of the causes of the revival of the Church. The sole and infallible
authority of the Word of God was the primary and fundamental principle of the
Reformation. Every reform in detail that was afterwards carried out in the
doctrine, morals, or government of the Church, and in its worship, was but a
consequence of this first principle. In these days we can scarcely imagine
the sensation produced by this elementary and simple but long-neglected truth.
A few men of more enlarged views than the common, alone foresaw its immense
consequences. Erelong the courageous voices of all the Reformers proclaimed
this mighty principle, at the sound of which Rome shall crumble into dust:
"The Christians receive no other doctrines than those founded on the express
words of Jesus Christ, of the Apostles, and of the Prophets. No man, no
assembly of doctors, has a right to prescribe new ones."
Luther's position was changed. The summons that he had received
became to the reformer as one of those extraordinary calls which the Lord
addressed to the prophets under the Old Covenant, and to the apostles under
the New. The solemn engagement that he made produced so deep an impression
upon his soul that the recollection of this oath was sufficient, in after-
years, to console him in the midst of the greatest dangers and of the fiercest
conflicts. And when he saw all Europe agitated and shaken by the Word that he
had proclaimed; when the accusations of Rome, the reproaches of many pious
men, the doubts and fears of his own too sensible heart, seemed likely to make
him hesitate, fear, and fall into despair,--he called to mind the oath that he
had taken, and remained steadfast, calm, and full of joy. "I have gone
forward in the Lord's name," said he in a critical moment, "and I have placed
myself in his hands. His will be done! Who prayed him to make me a
doctor?..If it was He who created me such, let him support me; or else if he
repent of what he has done, let him deprive me of my office......This
tribulation, therefore, alarms me not. I seek one thing only, which is to
preserve the favor of God in all that he has called me to do with him." At
another time he said: "He who undertakes any thing without a Divine call,
seeks his own glory. But I, Doctor Martin Luther, was forced to become a
doctor. Popery desired to stop me in the performance of my duty: but you see
what has happened to it, and worse still will befall it. They cannot defend
themselves against me. I am determined, in God's name, to tread upon the
lions, to trample dragons and serpents under foot. This will begin during my
life, and will be accomplished after my death.
From the period of his oath, Luther no longer sought the truth for
himself alone: he sought it also for the Church. Still full of the
recollections of Rome, he saw confusedly before him a path in which he had
promised to walk with all the energy of his soul. The spiritual life that had
hitherto been manifested only within him, now extended itself without. This
was the third epoch of his development. His entrance into the cloister had
turned his thoughts towards God; the knowledge of the remission of sins and of
the righteousness of faith had emancipated his soul; his doctor's oath gave
him that baptism of fire by which he became a reformer of the Church.
His ideas were soon directed in a general manner towards the
Reformation. In an address that he had written, as it would seem, to be
delivered by the provost of Lietzkau at the Lateran council, he declared that
the corruption of the world originated in the priests' teaching so many fables
and traditions, instead of preaching the pure Word of God. The Word of Life,
in his view, alone had the power of effecting the spiritual regeneration of
man. Thus then already he made the salvation of the world depend upon the re-
establishment of sound doctrine, and not upon a mere reformation of manners.
Yet Luther was not entirely consistent with himself; he still entertained
contradictory opinions: but a spirit of power beamed from all his writings;
he courageously broke the bonds with which the systems of the schools had
fettered the thoughts of men; he everywhere passed beyond the limits within
which previous ages had so closely confined him, and opened up new paths. God
was with him.
The first adversaries that he attacked were those famous schoolmen,
whom he had himself so much studied, and who then reigned supreme in all the
academies. He accused them of Pelagianism, and forcibly inveighing against
Aristotle, the father of the schools, and against Thomas Aquinas, he undertook
to hurl them both from the throne whence they governed, the one philosophy,
and the other theology.
"Aristotle, Porphyry, the sententiary divines (the schoolmen)," he
wrote to Lange, "are useless studies in our days. I desire nothing more
earnestly than to unveil to the world that comedian who has deceived the
Church by assuming a Greek mask, and to show his deformity to all." In every
public discussion he was heard repeating: "The writings of the apostles and
prophets are surer and more sublime than all the sophisms and all the divinity
of the schools." Such language was new, but men gradually became used to it.
About a year after he was able to write with exultation: "God is at work.
Our theology and St. Augustine advance admirably and prevail in our
university. Aristotle is declining: he is tottering towards his eternal ruin
that is near at hand. The lectures on the Sentences produce nothing but
weariness. No one can hope for hearers, unless he professes the Biblical
theology." Happy the university of which such testimony can be given!
At the same time that Luther was attacking Aristotle, he took the side
of Erasmus and Reuchlin against their enemies. He entered into communication
with these great men and with other scholars, such as Pirckheimer, Mutianus,
and Hutten, who belonged more or less to the same party. He also, about this
period, formed another friendship that was of great importance through the
whole course of his life.
There was at that time at the elector's court a person remarkable for
his wisdom and his candour: this was George Spalatin. He was born at
Spalatus or Spalt in the bishopric of Eichstadt, and had been originally
curate of the village of Hohenkirch, near the Thuringian forests. He was
afterwards chosen by Frederick the Wise to be his secretary, chaplain, and
tutor to his nephew, John Frederick, who was one day to wear the electoral
crown. Spalatin was a simple-hearted man in the midst of the court: he
appeared timid in the presence of great events; circumspect and prudent, like
his master, before the ardent Luther, with whom he corresponded daily. Like
Staupitz, he was better suited for peaceful times. Such men are necessary:
they are like those delicate substances in which jewels and crystal are
wrapped to secure them from the injuries of transport. They seem useless; and
yet without them all these precious objects would be broken and lost.
Spalatin was not a man to effect great undertakings; but he faithfully and
noiselessly performed the task imposed upon him. He was at first one of the
principal aids of his master in collecting those relics of saints, of which
Frederick was so long a great admirer. But he, as well as the prince, turned
by degrees towards the truth. The faith, which then reappeared in the Church,
did not lay such violent hold upon him as upon Luther: it guided him by
slower methods. He became Luther's friend at court; the minister through whom
passed all matters between the Church and the State. The elector honored
Spalatin with great intimacy: they always travelled together in the same
carriage. Nevertheless the atmosphere of the court oppressed the good
chaplain: he was affected by profound melancholy; he could have desired to
quit all these honors, and become once more a simple pastor in the forests of
Thuringia. But Luther consoled him, and exhorted him to remain firm at his
post. Spalatin acquired general esteem: princes and learned men showed him
the most sincere regard. Erasmus used to say, "I inscribe Spalatin's name not
only among those of my principal friends, but still further among those of my
most honored protectors; and that, not upon paper, but on my heart."
Reuchlin's quarrel with the monks was then making a great noise in
Germany. The most pious men were often undecided what part they should take;
for the monks were eager to destroy the Hebrew books in which blasphemies
against Christ were to be found. The elector commissioned his chaplain to
consult the doctor of Wittemberg on this matter, as his reputation was already
great. Here is Luther's answer: it is the first letter he addressed to the
"What shall I say? These monks pretend to cast out Beelzebub, but it
is not by the finger of God. I cease not from groaning and lamenting over it.
We Christians are beginning to be wise outwardly, and mad inwardly. There are
in every part of our Jerusalem blasphemies a hundred times worse than those of
the Jews, and all there are filled with spiritual idols. It is our duty with
holy zeal to carry out and destroy these internal enemies. But we neglect
that which is most urgent; and the devil himself persuades us to abandon what
belongs to us, at the same time that he prevents us from correcting what
belongs to others."
BOOK 2 CHAPTER 8
Faith--Popular Declamations--Academic Teaching--Luther's Purity of Life--
German Theology or Mysticism--The Monk Spenlein--Justification by Faith--
Luther on Erasmus--Faith and Works--Erasmus--Necessity of Works--Luther's
Luther did not lose himself in this quarrel. A living faith in Christ
filled his heart and his life. "Within my heart," said he, "reigns alone (and
it ought thus to reign alone) faith in my Lord Jesus Christ, who is the
beginning, middle, and end of all the thoughts that occupy my mind by day and
All his hearers listened with admiration as he spoke, whether from the
professor's chair or from the pulpit, of that faith in Jesus Christ. His
teaching diffused great light. Men were astonished that they had not earlier
acknowledged truths that appeared so evident in his mouth. "The desire of
self-justification," said he, "is the cause of all the distresses of the
heart, But he who receives Jesus Christ as a Saviour, enjoys peace; and not
only peace, but purity of heart. All sanctification of the heart is a fruit
of faith. For faith is a divine work in us, which changes us and gives us a
new birth, emanating from God himself. It kills the old Adam in us; and, by
the Holy Ghost which is communicated to us, it gives us a new heart and makes
us new men. It is not by empty speculations," he again exclaimed, "but by
this practical method, that we can obtain a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ."
It was at this time that Luther preached those discourses on the Ten
Commandments that have come down to us under the title of Popular
Declamations. They contain errors no doubt; Luther became enlightened only be
degrees. "The path of the just is as the shining light, that shineth more and
more unto the perfect day." But what truth, simplicity, and eloquence are
found in these discourses! How well can we understand the effect that the new
preacher must have produced upon his audience and upon his age! We will quote
but one passage taken from the beginning.
Luther ascends the pulpit of Wittemberg, and reads these words: "Thou
shalt have no other gods before me" (Exod. xx. 3). Then turning to the people
who crowded the sanctuary, he says, "All the sons of Adam are idolaters, and
have sinned against this first commandment."
Doubtless this strange assertion startled his hearers. He proceeds to
justify it, and the speaker continues: "There are two kinds of idolatry--one
external, the other internal.
"The external, in which man bows down to wood and stone, to beasts,
and to the heavenly host.
"The internal, in which man, fearful of punishment or seeking his own
pleasure, does not worship the creature, but loves him in his heart, and
trusts in him......
"What kind of religion is this? You do not bend the knee before
riches and honors, but you offer them your heart, the noblest portion of
yourselves......Alas! you worship God in body, but the creature in spirit.
"This idolatry prevails in every man until he is healed by the free
gift of the faith that is in Christ Jesus.
"And how shall this cure be accomplished?
"Listen. Faith in Christ takes away from you all trust in your own
wisdom, righteousness, and strength; it teaches you that if Christ had not
died for you, and had not thus saved you, neither you nor any other creature
would have been able to do it. Then you learn to despise all those things that
are unavailing to you.
"Nothing now remains to you but Jesus Christ--Christ alone,--Christ
all-sufficient for your soul. Hoping for nothing from any creature, you have
only Christ, from whom you hope for everything, and whom you love above
"Now Christ is the one, sole, and true God. When you have him for you
God, you have no other gods."
It is in this manner Luther shows how the soul is brought back to God,
his sovereign good, by the Gospel, according to the words of Jesus Christ: I
am the way; no man cometh unto the Father but by me. The man who speaks thus
to his age aims at something more than the correction of a few abuses; he is
earnest above all things to establish true religion. His work is not merely
negative; it is primarily positive.
Luther afterwards turns his discourse against the superstitions which
then filled Christendom;--the signs and mysterious characters, the observance
of certain days and months, familiar spirits, phantoms, the influence of the
stars, witchcraft, metamorphoses, incubi and succubi, the patronage of saints,
&c. &c. &c.; one after another he attacks these idols, and with vigorous arm
overthrows all these false gods.
But it was particularly in his lecture-room, before an enlightened and
youthful audience, hungering for the truth, that he displays all the treasures
of God's Word. "He explained Scripture in such a manner," says his
illustrious friend Melancthon, "that, in the judgment of all pious and well-
informed men, it was as if a new morn had risen upon the doctrine after a long
night of darkness. He showed the difference that existed between the Law and
the Gospel. He refuted the then prevalent error of the churches and of the
schools, that men by their works merit the remission of sins, and become
righteous before God by an outward discipline. He thus led men's hearts back
to the Son of God. Like John the Baptist, he pointed to the Lamb of God that
has taken away the sins of the world; he explained how sin is freely pardoned
on account of the Son of God, and that man receives this blessing through
faith. He made no change in the ceremonies. On the contrary, the established
discipline had not in his order a more faithful observer and defender. But he
endeavoured more and more to make all understand these grand and essential
doctrines of conversion, of the remission of sins, of faith, and of the true
consolation that is to be found in the cross. Pious minds were struck and
penetrated by the sweetness of this doctrine; the learned received it with
joy. One might have said that Christ, the apostles, and the prophets were now
issuing from the obscurity of some impure dungeon."
The firmness with which Luther relied on the Holy Scriptures imparted
great authority to his teaching. But other circumstances added still more to
his strength. In him every action of his life corresponded with his words.
It was known that these discourses did not proceed merely from his lips: they
had their source in his heart, and were practiced in all his works. And when,
somewhat later, the Reformation burst forth, many influential men, who saw
with regret these divisions in the Church, won over beforehand by the holiness
of the reformer's life and by the beauty of his genius, not only did not
oppose him, but, further still, embraced that doctrine to which he gave
testimony by his works. The more men loved christian virtues, the more they
inclined to the reformer. All honest divines were in his favor. This is what
was said by those who knew him, and particularly by the wisest man of his age,
Melancthon, and by Erasmus, the illustrious opponent of Luther. Envy and
prejudice have dared to speak of his disorderly life. Wittemberg was changed
by this preaching of faith, and that city became the focus of a light that was
soon to illumine all Germany, and to shine on all the Church.
It was in 1516 that Luther published the work of an anonymous mystic
theologian (probably Ebland, priest at Frankfort), entitled German Theology,
in which the author shows how man may attain perfection by the three methods
of purification, illumination, and communion. Luther never gave himself up to
the mystic theology, but he received from it a salutary impression. It
confirmed him in his disgust for the dry teaching of the schoolmen, in his
contempt for the works and observances so much trumpeted by the Church, and in
the conviction that he felt of man's spiritual helplessness and of the
necessity of grace, and in his attachment to the Bible. "I prefer," wrote he
to Staupitz, "the mystics and the Bible to all the schoolmen;" thus placing
the former teachers in the next rank to the sacred writers. Perhaps, also,
the German Theology aided him in forming a sounder idea on the sacraments, and
above all on the mass; for the author maintains that the eucharist gives
Christ to man, and does not offer up Christ to God. Luther accompanied this
publication by a preface, in which he declared that, next to the Bible and St.
Augustine, he had never met with a book in which he had learnt more of God,
Christ, man, and of all things. Already many doctors began to speak ill of
the Wittemberg professors, and accused them of innovation. "One would say,"
continues Luther, "that there had never lived men before us who taught as we
teach. Yes, in truth, there have been many. But the anger of God, which our
sins have deserved, has prevented us from seeing and hearing them. For a long
time the universities have banished the Word of God into a corner. Let them
read this book, and then let them say whether our theology is new, for this is
not a new book."
But if Luther derived from the mystic divinity whatever good it
contained, he did not take the bad also. The great error of mysticism is to
overlook the free gift of salvation. We are about to notice a remarkable
example of the purity of his faith.
Luther had an affectionate and tender heart, and desired to see those
whom he loved in possession of that light which had guided him into the paths
of peace. He took advantage of every opportunity that occurred, as professor,
preacher, or monk, as well as of his extensive correspondence, to communicate
his treasure to others. One of his former brethren in the convent of Erfurth,
the monk George Spenlein, was then residing in the convent of Memmingen,
perhaps after having spent a short time at Wittemberg. Spenlein had
commissioned the doctor to sell various articles that he had left with him--a
tunic of Brussels cloth, a work by an Eisenach doctor, and a hood. Luther
carefully discharged this commission. He received, says he in a letter to
Spenlein, dated the 7th April 1516, one florin for the tunic, half a florin
for the book, and a florin for the hood, and had remitted the amount to the
father-vicar, to whom Spenlein owed three florins. But Luther quickly passes
from this account of a monk's wardrobe to a more important subject.
"I should be very glad to know," wrote he to friar George, "what is
the state of your soul. Is it not tired of its own righteousness? does it
not breathe freely at last, and does it not confide in the righteousness of
Christ? In our days, pride seduces many, and especially those who labor with
all their might to become righteous. Not understanding the righteousness of
God that is given to us freely in Christ Jesus, they wish to stand before Him
on their own merits. But that cannot be. When you were living with me, you
were in that error, and so was I. I am yet struggling unceasingly against it,
and I have not yet entirely triumphed over it.
"Oh, my dear brother, learn to know Christ, and him crucified. Learn
to sing unto him a new song, to despair of yourself, and to say to him: Thou,
Lord Jesus Christ, art my righteousness, and I am thy sin. Thou hast taken
what was mine, and hast given me what was thine. What thou wast not, thou
didst become, in order that I might become what I was not!--Beware, my dear
George, of pretending to such purity as no longer to confess yourself a
sinner: for Christ dwells only with sinners. He came down from heaven, where
he was living among the righteous, in order to live also among sinners.
Meditate carefully upon this love of Christ, and you will taste all its
unspeakable consolation. If our labors and afflictions could give peace to
the conscience, why should Christ have died? You will not find peace, save in
him, by despairing of yourself and of your works, and in learning with what
love he opens his arms to you, taking all your sins upon himself, and giving
thee all his righteousness."
Thus the powerful doctrine that had already saved the world in the
apostolic age, and which was destined to save it a second time in the days of
the Reformation, was clearly and forcibly explained by Luther. Passing over
the many ages of ignorance and superstition that had intervened, in this he
gave his hand to Saint Paul.
Spenlein was not the only man whom he ought to instruct in this
fundamental doctrine. The little truth that he found in this respect in the
writings of Erasmus, made him uneasy. It was of great importance to enlighten
a man whose authority was so great, and whose genius was so admirable. But
how was he to do it? His court-friend, the Elector's chaplain, was much
respected by Erasmus: it is to him that Luther applies. "What displeases me
in Erasmus, who is a man of such extensive learning, is, my dear Spalatin,"
wrote Luther, "that by the righteousness of works and of the law, of which the
apostle speaks, he understands the fulfilling of the ceremonial law. The
righteousness of the law consists not only in ceremonies, but in all the works
of the decalogue. Even if these works should be accomplished without faith in
Christ, they may, it is true, produce a Fabricius a Regulus, and other men
perfectly upright in the eyes of the world; but they then deserve as little to
be styled righteousness, as the fruit of the medlar to be called a fig. For we
do not become righteous, as Aristotle maintains, by performing righteous
works; but when we are become righteous, then we perform such works. The man
must first be changed, and afterwards the works. Abel was first accepted by
God, and then his sacrifice." Luther continues: "Fulfil, I beseech you, the
duty of a friend and of a Christian by communicating these matters to
Erasmus." This letter is thus dated: "In haste, from the corner of our
convent, 19th October 1516." It places in its true light the relation between
Luther and Erasmus. It shows the sincere interest he felt in what he thought
would be really beneficial to this illustrious writer. Undoubtedly, the
opposition shown by Erasmus to the truth compelled Luther somewhat later to
combat him openly; but he did not do so until he had sought him to enlighten
At last then were heard explained ideas at once clear and deep on the
nature of goodness. Then was declared the principle, that what constitutes
the real goodness of an action is not its outward appearance, but the spirit
in which it is performed. This was aiming a deadly blow at all those
superstitious observances which for ages had oppressed the Church, and
prevented christian virtues from growing up and flourishing within it.
"I am reading Erasmus," says Luther on another occasion, "but he daily
loses his credit with me. I like to see him rebuke with so much firmness and
learning the grovelling ignorance of the priests and monks; but I fear that he
does not render great service to the doctrine of Jesus Christ. What is of man
is dearer to him than what is of God. We are living in dangerous times. A
man is not a good and judicious Christian because he understands Greek and
Hebrew. Jerome who knew five languages, is inferior to Augustine who
understood but one; although Erasmus thinks the contrary. I very carefully
conceal my opinions concerning Erasmus, through fear of giving advantage to
his adversaries. Perhaps the Lord will give him understanding in His time."
The helplessness of man--the omnipotence of God, were the two truths
that Luther desired to re-establish. That is but a sad religion and a
wretched philosophy by which man is directed to his own natural strength.
Ages have tried in vain this so much boasted strength; and while man has, by
his own natural powers, arrived at great excellence in all that concerns his
earthly existence, he has never been able to scatter the darkness that
conceals from his soul the knowledge of the true God, or to change a single
inclination of his heart. The highest degree of wisdom attained by ambitious
minds, or by souls thirsting with the desire of perfection, has been to
despair of themselves. It is therefore a generous, a comforting, and
supremely true doctrine which unveils our own impotency in order to proclaim a
power from God by which we can do all things. That truly is a great
reformation which vindicates on earth the glory of heaven, and which pleads
before man the rights of the Almighty God.
No one knew better than Luther the intimate and indissoluble bond that
unites the gratuitous salvation of God with the free works of man. No one
showed more plainly than he, that it is only by receiving all from Christ,
that man can impart much to his brethren. He always represented these two
actions--that of God and that of man--in the same picture. And thus it is,
that after explaining to the friar Spenlein what is meant by saving
righteousness, he adds, "If thou firmly believest those things, as is thy duty
(for cursed is he who does not believe them), receive thy brethren who are
still ignorant and in error, as Jesus Christ has received thee. Bear with
them patiently. Make their sins thine own; and if thou hast any good thing,
impart it to them. 'Receive ye one another,' says the apostle, 'as Christ
also received us, to the glory of God.' (Rom. xv. 7.) It is a deplorable
righteousness that cannot bear with others because it finds them wicked, and
which thinks only of seeking the solitude of the desert, instead of doing them
good by long-suffering, prayer, and example. If thou art the lily and the
rose of Christ, know that thy dwelling-place is among thorns. Only take care
lest by thy impatience, by thy rash judgments, and thy secret pride, thou dost
to thyself become a thorn. Christ reigns in the midst of his enemies. If he
had desired to live only among the good, and to die for those only who loved
him, for whom, I pray, would he have died, and among whom would he have
It is affecting to see how Luther practiced these charitable precepts.
An Augustine monk of Erfurth, George Leiffer, was exposed to many trials.
Luther became informed of this, and within a week after writing the preceding
letter to Spenlein, he came to him with words of comfort. "I learn that you
are agitated by many tempests, and that your soul is tossed to and fro by the
waves......The cross of Christ is divided among all the world, and each man
has his share. You should not, therefore, reject that which has fallen to
you. Receive it rather as a holy relic, not in the vessel of silver or of
gold, but in what is far better--in a heart of gold,--in a heart full of
meekness. If the wood of the cross has been so sanctified by the body and
blood of Christ, that we consider it as the most venerable relic, how much
more should the wrongs, persecutions, sufferings, and hatred of men, be holy
relics unto us, since they have not only been touched by Christ's flesh, but
have been embraced, kissed, and blessed by his infinite charity."
BOOK 2 CHAPTER 9
Luther's first Theses--The Old Adam and Grace--Visitation of the Convents--
Luther at Dresden and Erfurth--Tornator--Peace and the Cross--Results of
Luther's Journey--His Labors--The Plague.
Luther's teaching produced its natural fruits. Many of his disciples
already felt themselves impelled to profess publicly the truths which their
master's lessons had revealed to them. Among his hearers was a young scholar,
Bernard of Feldkirchen, professor of Aristotle's physics in the university,
and who five years later was the first of the evangelical ecclesiastics who
entered into the bonds of matrimony.
It was Luther's wish that Feldkirchen should maintain, under his
presidence, certain theses or propositions in which his principles were laid
down. The doctrines professed by Luther thus gained additional publicity.
The disputation took place in 1516.
This was Luther's first attack upon the dominion of the sophists and
upon the papacy, as he himself characterizes it. Weak as it was, it caused him
some uneasiness. "I allow these propositions to be printed," said he many
years after, when publishing them in his works, "principally that the
greatness of my cause, and the success with which God has crowned it, may not
make me vain. For they fully manifest my humiliation, that is to say, the
infirmity and ignorance, the fear and trembling with which I began this
conflict. I was alone: I had thrown myself imprudently into this business.
Unable to retract, I conceded many important points to the pope, and I even
Some of the propositions were as follows:
"The old Adam is the vanity of vanities; he is the universal vanity;
and he renders all other creatures vain, however good they may be.
"The old Adam is called the flesh, not only because he is led by the
lusts of the flesh, but further, because should he be chaste, prudent, and
righteous, he is not born again of God by the Holy Ghost.
"A man who has no part in the grace of God, cannot keep the
commandments of God, or prepare himself, either wholly or in part, to receive
grace; but he rests of necessity under the power of sin.
"The will of man without grace is not free, but is enslaved, and that
too with its own consent.
"Jesus Christ, our strength and our righteousness, he who trieth the
heart and reins, is the only discerner and judge of our merits.
"Since all is possible, by Christ, to the believer, it is
superstitious to seek for other help, either in man's will or in the saints."
This disputation made a great noise, and it has been considered as the
beginning of the Reformation.
The hour drew nigh in which the Reformation was to burst forth. God
hastened to prepare the instrument that he had determined to employ. The
elector, having built a new church at Wittemberg, to which he gave the name of
All Saints, sent Staupitz into the Low Countries to collect relics for the
ornament of the new edifice. The vicar-general commissioned Luther to replace
him during his absence, and in particular to make a visitation of the forty
monasteries of Misnia and Thuringia.
Luther repaired first to Grimma, and thence to Dresden. Everywhere he
endeavoured to establish the truths that he had discovered, and to enlighten
the members of his order.--"Do not bind yourselves to Aristotle or to any
other teacher of a deceitful philosophy," said he to the monks, "but read the
Word of God with diligence. Do not look for salvation in your own strength or
in your good works, but in the merits of Christ and in God's grace."
An Augustine monk of Dresden had fled from his convent, and was at
Mentz, where the prior of the Augustines had received him. Luther wrote to the
latter, begging him to send back the stray sheep, and added these words so
full of charity and truth: "I know that offences must needs come. It is no
marvel that man falls; but it is so that he rises again and stands upright.
Peter fell that he might know he was but a man. Even in our days the cedars
of Lebanon are seen to fall. The very angels--a thing that exceeds all
imagination!--have fallen in heaven, and Adam in paradise. Why then should we
be surprised if a reed is shaken by the whirlwind, or if a smoking taper is
From Dresden Luther proceeded to Erfurth, and reappeared to discharge
the functions of vicar-general in that very convent where, eleven years
before, he had wound up the clock, opened the gates, and swept out the church.
He nominated to the priorship of the convent his friend the bachelor John
Lange, a learned and pious but severe man: he exhorted him to affability and
patience. "Put on," wrote he to him shortly after, "put on a spirit of
meekness towards the prior of Nuremberg: this is but proper, seeing that he
has assumed a spirit of bitterness and harshness. Bitterness is not expelled
by bitterness, that is to say, the devil by the devil; but sweetness dispels
bitterness, that is to say the finger of God casts out the evil spirit." We
must, perhaps, regret that Luther did not on various occasions remember this
At Neustadt on the Orla there was nothing but disunion. Dissensions
and quarrels reigned in the convent, and all the monks were at war with their
prior. They assailed Luther with their complaints. The prior Michael
Dressel, or Tornator, as Luther calls him, translating his name into Latin, on
his side laid all his troubles before the doctor. "Peace, peace!" said he.
"You seek peace," replied Luther; "but it is the peace of the world, and not
the peace of Christ that you seek. Do you not know that our God has set his
peace in the midst of war? He whom no one disturbs has not peace. But he
who, troubled by all men and by the things of this life, bears all with
tranquillity and joy--he possesses the true peace. Say rather with Christ:
The cross, the cross! and there will be no cross. For the cross ceases to be
a cross, as soon as we can say with love: O blessed cross, there is no wood
like thine!" On his return to Wittemberg, Luther, desiring to put an end to
these dissensions, permitted the monks to elect another prior.
Luther returned to Wittemberg after an absence of six weeks. He was
afflicted at all that he had seen; but the journey gave him a better knowledge
of the Church and of the world, increased his confidence in his intercourse
with society, and afforded him many opportunities of founding schools, of
pressing this fundamental truth that "Holy Scripture alone shows us the way to
heaven," and of exhorting the brethren to live together in holiness, chastity,
and peace. There is no doubt that much good seed was sown in the different
Augustine convents during this journey of the reformer. The monastic orders,
which had long been the support of Rome, did perhaps more for the Reformation
than against it. This is true in particular of the Augustines. Almost all the
pious men of liberal and elevated mind, who were living in the cloisters,
turned towards the Gospel. A new and generous blood erelong circulated
through these orders, which were, so to speak, the arteries of the German
church. As yet nothing was known in the world of the new ideas of the
Wittemberg Augustine, while they were already the chief topic of conversation
in the chapters and monasteries. Many a cloister thus became a nursery of
reformers. As soon as the great struggle took place, pious and able men
issued from their obscurity, and abandoned the seclusion of a monastic life
for the active career of ministers of God's Word. At the period of this
inspection of 1516 Luther awakened many drowsy souls by his words. Hence this
year has been named "the morning star of the gospel-day."
Luther resumed his usual occupation. He was at this period
overwhelmed with labor: it was not enough that he was professor, preacher,
and confessor; he was burdened still further by many temporal occupations
having reference to his order and his convent. "I have need almost
continually," writes he, "of two secretaries; for I do nothing else all the
day long but write letters. I am preacher to the convent, I read the prayers
at table, I am pastor and parish minister, director of studies, the prior's
vicar (that is to say, prior eleven times over!), inspector of the fish-ponds
at Litzkau, counsel to the inns of Herzberg at Torgau, lecturer on Saint Paul,
and commentator on the Psalms......I have rarely time to repeat the daily
prayers and to sing a hymn; without speaking of my struggles with flesh and
blood, with the devil and the world......Learn from this what an idle man I
About this time the plague broke out in Wittemberg. A great number of
the students and teachers quitted the city. Luther remained. "I am not
certain," wrote he to his friend at Erfurth, "if the plague will let me finish
the Epistle to the Galatians. Its attacks are sudden and violent: it is
making great ravages among the young in particular. You advise me to fly.
Whither shall I fly? I hope that the world will not come to an end, if
Brother Martin dies. If the pestilence spreads, I shall disperse the brothers
in every direction; but as for me, my place is here; duty does not permit me
to desert my post, until He who has called me shall summon me away. Not that
I have no fear of death (for I am not Paul, I am only his commentator); but I
hope that the Lord will deliver me from fear." Such was the resolution of the
Wittemberg doctor. Shall he whom the pestilence could not force to retire a
single step, shrink before Rome? Shall he yield through fear of the scaffold?
BOOK 2 CHAPTER 10
The Relics--Relations of Luther with the Elector--Advice to the Chaplain--Duke
George--His Character--Luther's Sermon before the Court--Dinner at Court--
Evening with Emser.
Luther displayed the same courage before the mighty of this world,
that he had shown amidst the most formidable evils. The elector was much
pleased with the vicar-general, who had made a rich harvest of relics in the
Low Countries. Luther gives an account of them to Spalatin; and this affair
of the relics, occurring at the moment when the Reformation is about to begin,
is a singular circumstance. Most certainly, the reformers had little idea to
what point they were tending. A bishopric appeared to the elector the only
recompense worthy the services of the vicar-general. Luther, to whom Spalatin
wrote on the subject, strongly disapproved of such an idea. "There are many
things which please your prince," replied he, "and which, nevertheless, are
displeasing to God. I do not deny that he is skilful in the matters of this
world; but in what concerns God and the salvation of souls, I account him, as
well as his councillor Pfeffinger, sevenfold blind. I do not say this behind
their backs, like a slanderer; do not conceal it from them, for I am ready
myself, and on all occasions, to tell it them both to their faces. Why would
you," continues he, "surround this man (Staupitz) with all the whirlwinds and
tempests of episcopal cares?"
The elector was not offended with Luther's frankness. "The prince,"
wrote Spalatin, "often speaks of you, and in honorable terms." Frederick sent
the monk some very fine cloth for a gown. "It would be too fine," said Luther,
"if it were not a prince's gift. I am not worthy that any man should think of
me, much less a prince, and so great a prince as he. Those are my best
friends who think the worst of me. Thank our prince for his kindness to me;
but I cannot allow myself to be praised either by you or by any man; for all
praise of man is vain, and only that which comes from God is true."
The excellent chaplain was unwilling to confine himself to his court
functions. He wished to make himself useful to the people; but like many
individuals in every age, he desired to do it without offence and without
irritation, by conciliating the general favor. "Point out," wrote he to
Luther, "some work that I may translate into our mother tongue; one that shall
give general satisfaction, and at the same time be useful." Agreeable and
useful!" replied Luther; "such a question is beyond my ability. The better
things are, the less they please. What is more salutary than Jesus Christ?
and yet he is to the majority a savour of death. You will tell me that you
wish to be useful only to those who love what is good. In that case make them
hear the voice of Jesus Christ: you will be useful and agreeable, depend upon
it, to a very small number only; for the sheep are rare in this region of
Luther, however, recommended to his friend the sermons of the
Dominican Tauler. "I have never read," said he, "either in Latin or in our
own language, a theology sounder, or more in conformity with the Gospel.
Taste, then, and see how sweet the Lord is, but not till after you have first
tasted and felt how bitter is everything that we are ourselves."
It was in the course of the year 1517 that Luther entered into
communication with Duke George of Saxony. The house of Saxony had at that
time two chiefs. Two princes, Ernest and Albert, carried off in their youth
from the castle at Altenburg by Kunz of Kaufungen, had, by the treaty of
Leipsic, become the founders of the two houses which still bear their names.
The Elector Frederick, son of Ernest, was, at the period we are describing,
the head of the Ernestine branch; and his cousin Duke George, of the
Albertine. Dresden and Leipsic were both situated in the states of this duke,
whose residence was in the former of these cities. His mother, Sidonia, was
daughter of George Podiebrad, king of Bohemia. The long struggle that Bohemia
had maintained with Rome, since the time of John Huss, had not been without
influence on the prince of Saxony. He had often manifested a desire for a
Reformation. "He has imbibed it with his mother's milk," said the priests;
"he is by birth an enemy of the clergy." He annoyed the bishops, abbots,
canons, and monks in many ways; and his cousin, the Elector Frederick, was
compelled more than once to interfere in their behalf. It seemed that Duke
George would be one of the warmest partisans of a Reformation. The devout
Frederick, on the other hand, who had in former years worn the spurs of
Godfrey in the Holy Sepulchre, and girding himself with the long and heavy
sword of the conqueror of Jerusalem, had made oath to fight for the Church,
like that ancient and valiant knight, appeared destined to be the most ardent
champion of Rome. But in all that concerns the Gospel, the anticipations of
human wisdom are frequently disappointed. The reverse of what we might have
supposed took place. The duke would have been delighted to humiliate the
Church and the clergy, to humble the bishops, whose princely retinue far
surpassed his own; but it was another thing to receive into his heart the
evangelical doctrine that would humble it, to acknowledge himself a guilty
sinner, incapable of being saved, except by grace alone. He would willingly
have reformed others, but he cared not to reform himself. He would perhaps
have set his hand to the task of compelling the bishop of Mentz to be
contented with a single bishopric, and to keep no more than fourteen horses in
his stables, as he said more than once; but when he saw another than himself
step forward as a reformer,--when he beheld a simple monk undertake this work,
and the Reformation gaining numerous partisans among the people, the haughty
grandson of the Hussite king became the most violent adversary of the reform
to which he had before shown himself favorable.
In the month of July 1517, Duke George requested Staupitz to send him
an eloquent and learned preacher. Luther was recommended to him as a man of
extensive learning and irreproachable conduct. The prince invited him to
preach at Dresden in the castle-chapel, on the feast of St. James the Elder.
The day arrived. The duke and his court repaired to the chapel to
hear the Wittemberg preacher. Luther joyfully seized this opportunity of
testifying to the truth before such an assemblage. He selected his text from
the gospel of the day: Then came to him the mother of Zebedee's children with
her sons, &c. (Matt. xx. 20-23). He preached on the unreasonable desire and
prayers of men; and then spoke emphatically on the assurance of salvation. He
established it on this foundation, that those who receive the Word of God with
faith are the true disciples of Jesus Christ, elected to eternal life. He
next treated of gratuitous election, and showed that this doctrine, if
presented in union with the work of Christ, has great power to dispel the
terrors of conscience; so that men, instead of flying far from the righteous
God, at the sight of their own unworthiness, are gently led to seek their
refuge in Him. In conclusion, he related an allegory to three virgins, from
which he deduced edifying instructions.
The word of truth made a deep impression on his hearers. Two of them
in particular seemed to pay very great attention to the sermon of the
Wittemberg monk. The first was a lady of respectable appearance, who was
seated on the court benches, and on whose features a profound emotion might be
traced. It was Madame de la Sale, first lady to the duchess. The other was a
licentiate in canon law, Jerome Emser, councillor and secretary to the duke.
Emser possessed great talents and extensive information. A courtier and
skilful politician, he would have desired to be on good terms with the two
contending parties--to pass at Rome for a defender of the papacy, and at the
same time shine in Germany among the learned men of the age. But under this
pliant mind was concealed a violent character. It was in the palace-chapel at
Dresden that Luther and Emser first met; they were afterwards to break more
than one lance together.
The dinner hour arrived for the inhabitants of the palace, and in a
short time the ducal family and the persons attached to the court were
assembled at table. The conversation naturally fell on the preacher of the
morning. "How were you pleased with the sermon?" said the duke to the Madame
de la Sale.--"If I could hear but one more like it," replied she, "I should
die in peace."--"And I," replied George angrily, "would rather give a large
sum not to have heard it; for such discourses are only calculated to make
people sin with assurance."
The master having thus made known his opinion, the courtiers gave way
uncontrolled to their dissatisfaction. Each one had his censure ready. Some
maintained that in his allegory of the three virgins, Luther had in view three
ladies of the court; on which there arose interminable babbling. They rallied
the three ladies whom the monk of Wittemberg had thus, they said publicly
pointed out. He is an ignorant fellow, said some; he is a proud monk, said
others. Each one made his comment on the sermon, and put what he pleased into
the preacher's mouth. The truth had fallen into the midst of a court that was
little prepared to receive it. Every one mangled it after his own fashion. But
while the Word of God was thus an occasion of stumbling to many, it was for
the first lady a stone of uprising. Falling sick a month after, she
confidently embraced the grace of the Saviour, and died with joy.
As for the duke, it was not perhaps in vain that he heard this
testimony to the truth. Whatever may have been his opposition to the
Reformation during his life, we know that at his death he declared that he had
no hope save in the merits of Jesus Christ.
It was natural that Emser should do the honors to Luther in his
master's name. He invited him to supper. Luther refused; but Emser
persisted, and prevailed on him to come. Luther thought he should only meet a
few friends; but he soon perceived that a trap had been laid for him. A
master of arts from Leipsic and several Dominicans were with the prince's
secretary. The master of arts, having no mean opinion of himself, and full of
hatred towards Luther, addressed him in a friendly and honied manner; but he
soon got into a passion, and began to shout with all his might. The combat
began. The dispute turned, says Luther, on the trumpery of Aristotle and St.
Thomas. At last Luther defied the master of arts to define with all the
learning of the Thomists what is the fulfilling of God's commandments. The
embarrassed disputant put a good face on the matter. "Pay me my fee," said he
holding out his hand, "da pastum." One would have said that he wished to give
a regular lesson, taking his fellow-guests for his pupils. "At this foolish
reply," adds the reformer, "we all burst into laughter, and then we parted."
During this conversation a Dominican was listening at the door. He
longed to enter and spit on Luther's face: but he checked himself, and
boasted of it afterwards. Emser, charmed at seeing his guests disputing, and
appearing himself to preserve a due moderation, was earnest in excuses to
Luther for the manner in which the evening had passed. The latter returned to
BOOK 2 CHAPTER 11
Return to Wittemberg--Theses--Free Will--Nature of Man--Rationalism--Proposal
to the University of Erfurth--Eck--Urban Regius--Luther's Modesty--Effect of
Luther returned zealously to work. He was preparing six or seven
young theologians who were shortly to undergo an examination for a license to
teach. What rejoiced him most of all was, that their promotion would tend to
the discredit of Aristotle. "I could desire to multiply the number of his
enemies as soon as possible," said he. With this intent he published certain
theses about that time which merit our attention.
Free-will was the great subject treated of. He had already touched
upon it in the Feldkirchen theses; he now went deeper into the question.
There had been from the very commencement of Christianity, a struggle more or
less keen between the two doctrines of man's liberty and his enslavement.
Some schoolmen had taught, like Pelagius and other doctors, that man possessed
of himself the liberty or the power of loving God and or performing good
works. Luther denied this liberty; not to deprive man of it, but in order
that he might obtain it. The struggle in this great question is not
therefore, as is generally said, between liberty and slavery: it is between a
liberty proceeding from man, and one that comes from God. Those who style
themselves the partisans of liberty say to man: "Thou hast the power of
performing good works; thou hast no need of greater liberty." The others, who
are called the partisans of servitude, say on the contrary: "True liberty is
what thou needest, and God offers it thee in his Gospel." On the one side,
they speak of liberty to perpetuate slavery; on the other, they speak of
slavery to give liberty. Such was the contest in the times of St. Paul, of
St. Augustine, and of Luther. Those who say, "Change nothing," are the
champions of slavery: the others who say, "Let your fetters fall off," are
the champions of liberty.
But we should deceive ourselves were we to sum up all the Reformation
in that particular question. It is one of the numerous doctrines maintained
by the Wittemberg doctor, and that is all. It would be indulging in a strange
delusion to pretend that the Reformation was a fatalism,--an opposition to
liberty. It was a noble emancipation of the human mind. Snapping the numerous
bonds with which the hierarchy had bound men's minds,--restoring the ideas of
liberty, of right, of free examination, it set free its own age, ourselves,
and the remotest posterity. But let it not be said that the Reformation
delivered man from every human despotism, but made him a slave by proclaiming
the sovereignty of Grace. It desired, no doubt, to lead back the human will,
to confound it with and render it entirely subject to the Divine will; but
what kind of philosophy is that which does not know that an entire conformity
with the will of God is the sole, supreme, and perfect liberty; and that man
will be really free, only when sovereign righteousness and eternal truth alone
have dominion over him?
The following are some of the ninety-nine propositions that Luther put
forth in the Church against the Pelagian rationalism of the scholastic
"It is true that man, who has become a corrupt tree, can will or do
naught but evil.
"It is false that the will, left to itself, can do good as well as
evil; for it is not free, but in bondage.
"It is not in the power of man's will to choose or reject whatever is
offered to it.
"Man cannot of his own nature will God to be God. He would prefer to
be God himself, and that God were not God.
"The excellent, infallible, and sole preparation for grace, is the
eternal election and predestination of God.
"It is false to say that if man does all that he can, he removes the
obstacles to grace.
"In a word, nature possesses neither a pure reason nor a good will.
"On the side of man there is nothing that goes before grace, unless it
be impotency and even rebellion.
"There is no moral virtue without pride or without sorrow, that is to
say, without sin.
"From beginning to end, we are not masters of our actions, but their
"We do not become righteous by doing what is righteous; but having
become righteous, we do what is righteous.
"He who says that a divine, who is not a logician, is a heretic and an
empiric, maintains an empirical and heretical proposition.
"There is no form of reasoning (of syllogism) that holds with the
things of God.
"If the form of the syllogism could be applied to Divine things, we
should have knowledge and not belief of the article of the Holy Trinity.
"In a word, Aristotle is to divinity, as darkness to light."
"Man is a greater enemy to the grace of God than he is to the law
"He who is without God's grace sins continually, even should he
neither rob, murder, nor commit adultery.
"He sins, in that he does not fulfil the law spiritually.
"Not to kill, not to commit adultery, externally only and with regard
to the actions, is the righteousness of hypocrites.
"The law of God and the will of man are two adversaries, that without
the grace of God can never be reconciled.
"What the law commands, the will never wished, unless through fear or
love it puts on the appearance of willing.
"The law is the task-master of the will, who is not overcome but by
the Child that is born unto us. (Isaiah ix. 6.)
"The law makes sin abound, for it exasperates and repels the will.
"But the grace of God makes righteousness abound through Jesus Christ,
who causes us to love the law.
"Every work of the law appears good outwardly, but inwardly it is sin.
"The will, when it turns towards the law without the grace of God,
does so in its own interest alone.
"Cursed are all those who perform the works of the law.
"Blessed are all those who perform the works of God's grace.
"The law which is good, and in which we have life, is the love of God
shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost. (Rom. v. 5.)
"Grace is not given in order that the work may be done more frequently
and more easily, but because without grace there can be no work of love.
"To love God is to hate oneself and to know nothing out of God."
Thus Luther ascribes to God all the good that man can do. There is no
question of repairing, of patching up, if we may use the expression, man's
will: an entirely new one must be given him. God only has been able to say
this, because God alone can accomplish it. This is one of the greatest and
most important truths that the human mind can conceive.
But while Luther proclaimed the powerlessness of man, he did not fall
into the other extreme. He says in the eighth thesis: "It does not hence
follow that the will is naturally depraved; that is to say, that its nature is
that of evil itself, as the Manichees have taught." Originally man's nature
was essentially good: it has turned away from the good, which is God, and
inclined towards evil. Yet its holy and glorious origin still remains; and it
is capable, by the power of God, of recovering this origin. It is the
business of Christianity to restore it to him. It is true that the Gospel
displays man in a state of humiliation and impotency, but between the two
glories and two grandeurs: a past glory from which he has been precipitated,
and a future glory to which he is called. There lies the truth: man is aware
of it, and if he reflects ever so little, he easily discovers that all which
is told him of his present purity, power, and glory is but a fiction with
which to lull and sooth his pride.
Luther in his theses protested not only against the pretended goodness
of man's will, but still more against the pretended light of his understanding
in respect to Divine things. In truth, scholasticism had exalted his reason as
well as his will. This theology, as some of its doctors have represented it,
was at bottom nothing but a kind of rationalism. This is indicated by the
propositions we have cited. One might fancy them directed against the
rationalism of our days. In the theses that were the signal of the
Reformation, Luther censured the Church and the popular superstitions which
had added indulgences, purgatory, and so many other abuses to the Gospel. In
those we have just quoted, he assailed the schools and rationalism, which had
taken away from that very Gospel the doctrine of the sovereignty of God, of
his revelation, and of his grace. The Reformation attacked rationalism before
it turned against superstition. It proclaimed the rights of God, before it
cut off the excrescenes of man. It was positive before it became negative.
This has not been sufficiently observed; an yet if we do not notice it, we
cannot justly appreciate that religious revolution and its true nature.
However this may be, the truths that Luther had just enunciated with
so much energy were very novel. It would have been an easy matter to support
these propositions at Wittemberg; for there his influence predominated. But
it might have been said that he had chosen a field where he knew that no
combatant would dare appear. By offering battle in another university, he
would give them greater publicity; and it was by publicity that the
Reformation was effected. He turned his eyes to Erfurth, whose theologians
had shown themselves so irritated against him.
He therefore transmitted these propositions to John Lange, prior of
Erfurth, and wrote to him: "My suspense as to your decision upon these
paradoxes is great, extreme, too great perhaps, and full of anxiety. I
strongly suspect that your theologians will consider as paradoxical, and even
as kakodoxical, what is in my opinion very orthodox. Pray inform me, as soon
as possible, of your sentiments upon them. Have the goodness to declare to
the faculty of theology, and to all, that I am prepared to visit you, and to
maintain these propositions publicly, either in the university or in the
monastery." It does not appear that Luther's challenge was accepted. The
monks of Erfurth were contented to let him know that these propositions had
greatly displeased them.
But he desired to send them also into another quarter of Germany. For
this purpose he turned his eyes on an individual who plays a great part in the
history of the Reformation, and whom we must learn to know.
A distinguished professor, by name John Meyer, was then teaching at
the university of Ingolstadt in Bavaria. He was born at Eck, a village in
Swabia, and was commonly styled Doctor Eck. He was a friend of Luther, who
esteemed his talents and his information. He was full of intelligence, had
read much, and possessed an excellent memory. He united learning with
eloquence. His gestures and his voice expressed the vivacity of his genius.
Eck, as regards talent, was in the south of Germany what Luther was in the
north. They were the two most remarkable theologians of that epoch, although
having very different tendencies. Ingolstadt was almost the rival of
Wittemberg. The reputation of these two doctors attracted from every quarter,
to the universities where they taught, a crowd of students eager to listen to
their teaching. Their personal qualities, not less than their learning,
endeared them to their disciples. The character of Dr. Eck had been attacked;
but one trait of his life will show that, at this period at least, his heart
was not closed against generous impulses.
Among the students whom his reputation had attracted to Ingolstadt,
was a young man named Urban Regius, born on the shores of an Alpine lake. He
had studied first at the university of Friburg in Brisgau. On his arrival at
Ingolstadt, Urban followed the philosophical courses, and gained the
professor's favor. Compelled to provide for his own wants, he was obliged to
undertake the charge of some young noblemen. He had not only to watch over
their conduct and their studies, but even to provide with his own money the
books and clothing that they stood in need of. These youths dressed with
elegance, and were fond of good living. Regius, in his embarrassed
condition, entreated the parents to withdraw their sons.--"Take courage," was
their reply. His debts increased; his creditors became pressing: he knew not
what to do. The emperor was at that time collecting an army against the
Turks. Recruiting parties arrived at Ingolstadt, and in his despair Urban
enlisted. Dressed in his military uniform, he appeared in the ranks at their
final review previous to leaving the town. At that moment Dr. Eck came into
the square with several of his colleagues. To his great surprise he
recognized his pupil among the recruits. "Urban Regius!" said he, fixing on
him a piercing glance. "Here!" replied the young soldier. "Pray, what is the
cause of this change?" The young man told his story. "I will take the matter
upon myself," replied Eck, who then took away his halberd, and bought him off.
The parents, threatened by the doctor with their prince's displeasure, sent
the money necessary to pay their children's expenses. Urban Regius was saved,
and became somewhat later one of the bulwarks of the Reformation.
It was through Dr. Eck that Luther thought of making his propositions
on Pelagianism and scholastic rationalism known in the south of the empire.
He did not, however, send them direct to the Ingolstadt professor, but
forwarded them to a common friend, the excellent Christopher Scheurl,
secretary to the city of Nuremberg, begging him to transmit them to Eck at
Ingolstadt, which was not far from Nuremberg. "I forward you," said he, "my
propositions, which are altogether paradoxical, and even kakistodoxical, as it
would appear to many. Communicate them to our dear Eck, that most learned and
ingenious man, in order that I may see and hear what he thinks of them." It
was thus Luther spoke at that time of Dr. Eck: such was the friendship that
united them. It was not Luther that broke if off.
But it was not on this field that the battle was to be fought. These
propositions turned on doctrines of perhaps greater importance than those
which two months later set the Church in flames; and yet, in despite of
Luther's challenges, they passed unnoticed. At most, they were read within
the walls of the schools, and created no sensation beyond them. It was
because they were only university propositions, or theological doctrines;
while the theses which followed had reference to an evil that had grown up
among the people, and which was then breaking bounds on every side throughout
Germany. So long as Luther was content to revive forgotten doctrines, men
were silent; but when he pointed out abuses that injured all the world,
And yet in neither case did Luther propose more than to excite one of
those theological discussions so frequent in the universities. This was the
circle to which his thoughts were restricted. He had no idea of becoming a
reformer. He was humble, and his humility bordered on distrust and anxiety.
"Considering my ignorance," said he, "I deserve only to be hidden in some
corner, without being known to any one under the sun." But a mighty hand drew
him from this corner in which he would have desired to remain unknown to the
world. A circumstance, independent of Luther's will, threw him into the field
of battle, and the war began. It is this providential circumstance which the
course of events now calls upon us to relate.
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