Luther was born in Eisleben, Germany, the son of Hans
Luther, who worked in the copper mines, and his wife
Margarethe. He went to school at Magdeburg and Eisenach, and
entered the University of Erfurt in 1501, graduating with a
BA in 1502 and an MA in 1505. His father wished him to be a
lawyer, but Luther was drawn to the study of the scriptures,
and spent three years in the Augustinian monastery at
In 1507 he was ordained a priest, and went to the
University of Wittenberg, where he lectured on philosophy
and the Scriptures, becoming a powerful and influential
On a mission to Rome in 1510–11 he was appalled by the
corruption he found there. Money was greatly needed at the
time for the rebuilding of St. Peter’s, and papal emissaries
sought everywhere to raise funds by the sale of indulgences.
The system was grossly abused, and Luther’s indignation at
the shameless traffic, carried on in particular by the
Dominican Johann Tetzel, became irrepressible. As professor
of biblical exegesis at Wittenberg (1512–46), he began to
preach the doctrine of salvation by faith rather than works;
and on 31 October 1517 drew up a list of 95 theses on
indulgences denying the pope any right to forgive sins, and
nailed them on the church door at Wittenberg. Tetzel
retreated from Saxony to Frankfurt-an-der-Oder, where he
published a set of counter-theses and burnt Luther’s. The
Wittenberg students retaliated by burning Tetzel’s, and in
1518 Luther was joined in his views by Melanchthon.
The pope, Leo X, at first took little notice of this
disturbance, but in 1518 summoned Luther to Rome to answer
for his theses. His university and the elector interfered,
and ineffective negotiations were undertaken by Cardinal
Cajetan and by Miltitz, envoy of the pope to the Saxon
court. The scholar Johann Eck and Luther held a memorable
disputation at Leipzig (1519); and Luther began to attack
the papal system more boldly. In 1520 he published his
famous address An den christlichen Adel deutscher Nation
(Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation),
followed by a treatise De captivitate Babylonica ecclesiae
praeludium (A Prelude concerning the Babylonian Captivity of
the Church), which also attacked the doctrinal system of the
Church of Rome.
A papal bull containing 41 theses was issued against
him. He burned it before a multitude of doctors, students,
and citizens in Wittenberg. He was excommunicated, and
Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, convened the first Diet at
Worms in 1521, before which Luther was called to retract his
teachings. Luther refused to relent.
An order was issued for
the destruction of his books, and he was put under the ban
of the Empire. On his return from Worms he was seized, at
the instigation of the elector of Saxony, and lodged (for
his own protection) in the Wartburg, the elector’s fortress.
During the year he spent there, he translated the Scriptures
and composed his cogent controversial treatise, “Refutation
of the Argument of Latomus’.
Civil unrest called Luther back to Wittenberg in 1522.
He rebuked the unruly elements, and made a stand against
lawlessness on the one hand, and tyranny on the other. In
the same year Luther published his acrimonious reply to
Henry VIII’s attack on him in Assertio septem sacramentorum
adversus Martinum Lutherum (1521) about the nature of the
A divergence had gradually taken place also between the
views of the Humanist scholar Erasmus and Luther. There was
an open breach in 1525, when Erasmus published De libero
arbitrio (1524, Discourse on Free Will), and Luther followed
with De Servo arbitrio (Concerning the Bondage of Will).
the same year he married Katherine von Bora, a nun who had
withdrawn from convent life.
In 1529 he engaged with the controversial question of
transubstantiation in the famous conference at Marburg with
Zwingli and other Swiss theologians; he obstinately
maintained his view that Christ is present in the bread and
wine of the Eucharist. The drawing up of his theological
views in the Augsburg Confession (1530) by Melanchthon, ably
representing Luther at the Diet of Augsburg, marks the
culmination of the German Reformation.
Luther died in Eisleben, and was buried at Wittenberg.
Endowed with broad human sympathies, massive energy, manly
and affectionate simplicity, and a rich, if sometimes
coarse, humour, he was undoubtedly a spiritual genius. His
intuitions of divine truth were bold, vivid, and
penetrating, if not necessarily philosophical and
comprehensive; and he possessed the power of kindling other
souls with the fire of his own convictions. His voluminous
works include “Von den guten Wercken” (1520, Of Good Works),
and “Widder die hymelischen Propheten von den Bildern und