Luther 2017

500 years since the Reformation

Martin Luther's life and work: mixing rebellion with the spirit of his time

His was a full life, active and combative, full of conflicts and victories, restless and without peace, because Luther was a rebel and a church reformer, a thinker and a man of action, ahead of his time yet rooted in the Middle Ages.

He was born on 10 November 1483 in the small town of Eisleben but spent his childhood and youth in nearby Mansfeld. The success of his father's business endeavours made it possible for him to receive a good education and in 1501 he enrolled at the University of Erfurt. According to legend, his life took a decisive turn during a violent thunderstorm when fear prompted him to vow to become a monk if he survived. Just two weeks later, on 17 July 1505, he joined a closed Augustinian monastery in Erfurt where he studied theology before being ordained as a priest in 1507. At that time, the selling of indulgences was a flourishing business and even as a young professor Luther criticised this unholy practice of buying salvation for money. Finally, on 31 October 1517, he nailed his famous 95 theses about the subject to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. To his great surprise, word soon spread among the population – and quickly reached even Rome. In 1518, the Roman Catholic Church charged Martin Luther with heresy. Although the hearing was planned to take place in Rome, Frederick the Wise, the Elector of Saxony, insisted it be moved to Augsburg and it ended with Luther fleeting at night, having refused to recant his theses. The Pope then lost patience and threatened to banish Luther from the Church before finally excommunicating him. Luther was to have another opportunity to recant at the Diet of Worms, where the crowd greeted him with cheers, but he stood his ground and then went into hiding, initially at Wartburg Castle near Eisenach. On 13 June 1525, Martin Luther married Katharina von Bora, a former nun. He and his huge household – the Luthers had six children of their own – lived in the former Augustinian monastery with foster children, relatives, servants and students. In 1546, Luther was summoned to resolve an inheritance dispute in Eisleben, the town where he was born and where his life also ended. He died on 18 February and three days later he was laid to rest in Wittenberg – in the very church where he had nailed his fateful theses almost three decades earlier.

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