The History of the Reformation, Martin Luther
Written by: D'Aubigne, Merle Posted on: 03/17/2003
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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 B
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