Your guide to Martin Luther, the theologian who launched the Reformation

When the 16th-century German theologian published his Ninety-five Theses, he sparked the Reformation in Europe – a movement that soon outgrew him – and drew the ire of both the Holy Roman Empire and the Catholic Church. Read on to learn more about Martin Luther, the man whose ideas would birth Protestant Christianity...

Painting of Martin Luther translating the New Testament into German vernacular in 1521 (Photo by Fine Art Photographic Library/Corbis via Getty Images)

One summer’s day in 1505, a promising student named Martin Luther was walking back to the University of Erfurt when he got caught in a fierce thunderstorm. Lightning struck nearby, and the pious young man from Eisleben, Saxony – terrified at this sign from God – cried out a vow. If spared from the almighty tempest, he would stop studying law and become a monk. The storm didn’t harm him, and so the 21-year-old kept his word – and ultimately changed the course of Christianity.

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Later that year, Luther joined an Augustinian order in Erfurt (in modern-day Germany, then part of the Holy Roman Empire). His father, Hans, who made his money from mining and smelting, had driven his son’s education in the hopes of making him a lawyer. Instead, Luther chose a life of poverty and devotion. He was ordained within two years.

Despite Luther’s commitment to his calling, he struggled constantly with his faith. A 1510 trip to Rome had exacerbated these religious concerns; he was profoundly disheartened by the corruption and vacuum of spirituality he had observed there and vowed never to return. What seems to have upset Luther most was the clergy’s money-making practice of selling indulgences – paying the Church to absolve one’s sins to reduce the time spent in Purgatory before being admitted into Heaven.

Why does not the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of St Peter with his own money rather than with the money of poor believers?
Martin Luther, in his Ninety-five Theses

What were the Ninety-five Theses?

Luther’s anger at the sale of indulgences inadvertently propelled him to the forefront of Christian thought. On 31 October 1517, he unveiled his Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences, better known as his Ninety-five Theses. According to legend, he nailed them to the door of his city’s church in a public challenge to the Catholic Church, but it’s more likely that he sent the propositions in a letter to the Archbishop of Mainz to spark a debate.

The contents of his Ninety-five Theses, Luther knew, were highly provocative. One point reads: “Why does not the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of St Peter with his own money rather than with the money of poor believers?”

The Ninety-five Theses crystallised two guiding tenets of Luther’s beliefs: the Bible must be the central religious authority; and people will be saved through faith and the grace of God alone, not by worldly deeds or rigid compliance to church dogma. While not entirely new ideas, Luther planted them at the right moment to take root.

The advent of the printing press meant his writings – not only the Ninety-five Theses, but the numerous works that followed – spread across Europe within months. His words became a polestar of the Protestant Reformation. Challenging the established teachings of the Catholic Church, however, put Luther at odds with the most powerful institution in Europe, and in 1518 he was summoned to meet with Cardinal Cajetan in Augsburg. Much to the papal legate’s anger, Luther refused to retract anything.

The Church continued to pressure Luther into renouncing his statements, but to no avail: Luther even burned an ultimatum to recant on a public bonfire. So, on 3 January 1521, Pope Leo X excommunicated Luther. That April, the reformer answered another summons by appearing at the Diet of Worms, an assembly of the Holy Roman Empire, where yet again he refused to recant: “Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen,” he said. The resulting Edict of Worms declared Luther to be a “notorious heretic”, branded his followers as outlaws and proclaimed that his books should be burned.

What happened at the Diet of Worms, and what was the Edict of Worms?

Historian Dominic Sandbrook explains…

In the spring of 1521, Europe was in ferment. A few years earlier, Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses, challenging what he saw as the abuses of the Catholic church, had sent a tremor through Germany. Now Luther had been summoned to Charles V’s imperial assembly (the ‘Diet’) in the town of Worms, on the river Rhine, for one of the pivotal encounters in world history.

On 17 April, Luther walked into the town hall, where “the emperor, the electors and the princes” were waiting. A thin, pale man of medium height, he admitted later that he was “physically fearful and trembling”. The presiding official, Dr Johann Eck, asked if Luther had indeed written the offending words, and invited him to retract them. “It would be rash and dangerous for me to reply to such a question,” Luther insisted, until he had had time to think it over. Very well, his interrogators agreed: they would meet again the following day.

The next morning, Luther was summoned to meet Charles’s bishops. He would not, he said, retract his books attacking the abuses of the church. “If I now recant these,” he explained, “I would be doing nothing but strengthening tyranny.” He was not prepared to bow to the judgment of the pope; he had “no other guide but the Bible, the Word of God”, and could not act contrary to his conscience. “My God help me,” he said firmly. “Amen.”

According to Protestant tradition, Luther ended with the words, “Here I stand, I can do no other,” but this was probably a later invention. What is certain is that a few days later, Luther disappeared, probably going into hiding. This was, it seems, a wise move: on 25 May, Charles V declared him a heretic and demanded his arrest. Though few at the time could have realised it, a great chasm had opened in Christendom.

Luther’s later life

Luther went into hiding – protected by Frederick III, elector of Saxony – but he returned to Wittenberg the next year. Despite his absence, Lutheranism was developing as a branch of Protestantism, although not all the changes pleased him. He disagreed vehemently with more radical elements of the Reformation and some of its other leading figures, including the pastor Huldrych Zwingli and the scholar Erasmus. He also denounced the peasantry during the Peasants’ War (1524-25), a mass uprising in Germany inspired by his words.

Although Luther eschewed the spotlight, in 1525 he still caused a scandal when he wed Katharina von Bora, a disgraced nun. They lived in Luther’s (now emptied) old Augustinian monastery and had six children. Luther continued to write, although he grew more irascible with age, calling the pope the Antichrist and penning anti-Semitic tracts

In 1534, he published arguably his greatest achievement: the Bible, translated into German. Its popularity helped more people learn to read and also further challenged the authority of church leaders. No longer did worshippers need to rely on Latin-speaking priests to relay the word of God: they could now read it themselves, in the vernacular. It would be his final gift to the Reformation. After years of ill health, Luther died on 18 February 1546, aged 62. He was buried in Wittenberg’s church – on whose door he had allegedly nailed his Ninety-five Theses nearly 30 years earlier.

Jonny Wilkes is a freelance writer specialising in history


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This article first appeared in the August 2020 edition of BBC History Revealed and has since been curated with content from the April 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine