Thursday, 20 February 2014
Today I visit Wittenberg for some sightseeing. Unfortunately, the Castle Church is currently encased in scaffolding and closed to the public because it is getting a thorough makeover for the approaching 500-year anniversary of the Reformation.
Still visible behind the fence surrounding the building site is the famous church door on which Martin Luther posted his ninety-five theses. These days, we see a bronze door that dates from 1858 and commemorates the original, devoured by fire in the Seven Years’ War.
At the moment, Luther’s tomb inside the church is only accessible via a guided tour while the builders take a break. I choose to visit his house instead, situated at the other end of the street that runs the length of the old town.
This former Augustine monastery where he once lived has been turned into an attractive museum, and soon I am reading my way into Luther’s life, his beliefs, his work and the history of the Reformation. It is a gripping story full of dramatic twists, and if it had been told as such at school I would probably have retained a clearer memory of the facts as they are presented here:
Wittenberg, the town most intimately connected with Luther’s life and work, rises to importance in the late fifteenth century with the building of a new, improved wooden bridge across the River Elbe. It facilitates the trade between east and west, and the Elector Friedrich III of Saxony, known as ‘The Wise’, chooses to extend his residence in the town. He has the gloomy old castle converted to a splendid palace in the new Renaissance style, and since his silver mines in the Erzgebirge yield abundant riches, the best artists from all over Germany are hired to decorate it. Attached to the castle is the new Schlosskirche, the Castle Church, consecrated in 1499, just before the turn of the century. Here, the pious elector displays his collection of roughly five thousand holy relics. (Footnote: Electors were the ruling four princes and three archbishops of the various German realms that made up the Holy Roman Empire. Together, they elected an emperor to be crowned by the pope. There was no such thing as a German nation yet.)
Three years later, Wittenberg’s importance increases further with the founding of a university. One of its professors will be the eminent humanist Philipp Schwarzerdt, also known as Melanchthon. He shall become a close friend of Luther’s, as well as one of his main supporters. Wittenberg is now a town on the upswing; new houses are built and further floors added to the old ones to accommodate the influx of students, and the Castle Church is at the heart of the all-important religious life of the times.
The scene is set: Enter Martin Luther. He becomes first a student and then a doctor of theology in Wittenberg. Living the life of an Augustine monk, he is intimately familiar with Catholicism and its rules, and his experience of monastic life has already raised certain doubts in his keen mind. But it is the widespread use of ‘indulgences’ that makes him spiritually uncomfortable: Why should the congregation be ordered to buy forgiveness for their sins from the Holy Roman Church, he asks himself, when Jesus Christ already purchased that forgiveness with his blood on the cross? This money-spinning operation, transparently masked with threats of eternal hellfire, raises a question that begs discussion.
He is thirty-one years of age in 1514, the year he receives the mandate to hold sermons regularly at the Castle Church. In 1517, Luther begins to preach against indulgence payments publicly, voicing his doubts from the pulpits of both Castle and Town Church. But this is not far-reaching enough, and so he takes action: On the 31st October 1517, the banging of Luther’s hammer becomes the starting gun to a process that will soon be known as the Reformation, when he nails his ninety-five theses to the great wooden door of the Castle Church in the manner used for all public announcements. Lacking a facebook wall and a blog, he resorts to this coarse yet effective method of publicizing his thoughts – in Latin of course – so that his learned colleagues and students may appreciate his reasoning.
“He who takes to heart the words ‘Anyone who believes in me …’ has no reason to fear the Last Judgement.” This quote, in essence, is the reason why Luther is convinced that Rome is wrong to deal in indulgences. “The gospel is so clear that it does not need much interpretation, but wants to be carefully looked at and deeply taken to heart.”
His words fall on fruitful ground. The ninety-five theses cause a tremendous stir, a sensation. Luther reported later that “the theses circulated in no more than a fortnight through the whole of Germany.” This in an age that is wholly without telecommunications, where messages travel no quicker than the fastest available horse can run. Martin Luther is so convinced that the Vatican must and will mend its ways, he even sends a copy of his theses to the archbishop. And Archbishop Albrecht loses no time in conveying them by mule across the Alps to Rome, for there is a strong scent of heresy clinging to these papers. Pope Leo X in his turn immediately orders a trial of the pesky preacher. (One can imagine his sentiments when he sees the lucrative stream of income from the widely used indulgences under threat.)
In the meantime, Luther makes no secret of the fact that he can no longer believe in the infallibility of the pope. His Holiness is severely displeased, threatens Luther with excommunication and issues a ‘papal bull’ (an edict, not an animal) which announces: “We earnestly ask that Martinus himself and his supporters, adherents and accomplices desist completely within sixty days from the aforesaid errors, and burn or have burnt all books and writings which contain these errors.”
Luther, as the saying goes, is skating on very thin ice. (Only a hundred years earlier, in 1415, Jan Hus had been burnt at the stake, together with his writings, for criticizing the greedy ways of the clergy.) But he charges ahead regardless, and instead of burning his publications as instructed, he sets fire to the papal bull. Things come to a head. In Wittenberg, Luther’s close friend, the artist, printmaker, entrepreneur and apothecary Lucas Cranach (the Elder) illustrates the Life of Christ with thirteen pairs of pictures that demonstrate the unchristian behaviour of the pope. This kind of early cartoon allows an illiterate majority of the population to grasp the explosive nature of the dispute, for Luther now equates the pope with the Antichrist, of whom Psalm 21:10 declares, “He strives to burn all those who are against him”.
It is due to patient and diplomatic negotiations by the wise Elector of Saxony that Martin Luther gets a hearing before the young Emperor Karl V – certainly not the usual practice. And so, in 1521, Luther travels to Worms, where the German imperial estates meet in a kind of high court, presided over by the emperor as supreme judge. It is confidently expected by all that this lowly, loud-mouthed preacher will recognize the honour granted him by being received in this august circle, and that he will speedily recant under the pressure of expectation, the possibility of excommunication and the likelihood of execution.
Martinus, as the pope calls him, is indeed under no illusion concerning the crucial importance of this trial. His faith, his reputation and his life are at stake; and so it is quite understandable that he asks for a day’s grace to consider his answer. This is granted, and when everyone has reconvened the next day, Luther declares – according to witnesses in a quiet, thoughtful voice – that he is unable to change his mind; for he feels himself bound by the words of the holy scripture he has cited and holds his conscience to be a captive of the Word of God; therefore he can and will not recant, because it is dangerous and impossible to go against one’s conscience. “May God help me. Amen,” he ends.
Once again his words cause a tremendous stir throughout the German realms. Luther’s courageous stance is reported far and wide in hastily printed flyers. That an individual dares to offer resistance to the supreme authority of emperor and church by calling on the authority of his own conscience – this is indeed a new step in the development of mankind. And this new step is in step with the times: In view of the great public sympathy for Luther’s cause, the diet refrains from condemning him outright. Nevertheless, Emperor Karl V issues the following edict to all his subjects: “We strictly order that you shall refuse to give Martin Luther hospitality, lodging, food or drink; neither shall anyone, by word or deed, secretly or openly succour or assist him by counsel and help. But wherever you may meet him, to take him prisoner and deliver him to us. Furthermore we command that none of you dare to buy, sell, read, keep, copy, print or cause copies or prints of any writings by Martin Luther.”
A tiny nod of clemency can be read into the fact that he only signs this missive after Luther and his protector have already left. Nevertheless, the emperor’s edict is law and Luther now an outcast, but the Elector of Saxony is fond of his troublesome professor of theology and does not wish to lose him. So – what to do with this thorn in the side of the Holy Roman Catholic Church? The elector hatches a plan. He arranges to have Luther kidnapped on his way back from Worms and has him taken to the Wartburg castle, where he can be kept safe, in secret.
Rumours spread that Luther may no longer be alive. Only a few close friends, such as Melanchthon and Cranach, know of his whereabouts. In his enforced seclusion, Luther develops a passion for writing. He sets down his opinion on monastic vows and the Latin mass (unfavourable in both cases) and writes a helpful and instructive collection of sermons for pastors. In record time he also translates the New Testament from the original Greek into German, and because existing words and phrases do not always suit the purpose, he creates new ones that are still in use today (just as a certain William Shakespeare will do a few decades later). The manuscript of this, Luther’s most successful and influential book, is completed in only eleven weeks, to be published in Wittenberg in September 1522 in an edition of over three thousand copies. No more than three months later a second – and already revised – edition, illustrated by his friend Cranach, is released to meet the great demand for a good bible in the common tongue. (There had been other attempts at translation before and bibles in the German language were available, but they were unsatisfactory and clumsy in their wording.)
On his return to Wittenberg later that year, a German liturgy is introduced to replace the Latin text of the mass, and Luther writes hymns for the congregation, also in their native tongue. These are received with enthusiasm and increase the speed with which the Reformation now spreads through German lands. Other aspects of the reform also take hold: Monks and nuns leave their monasteries and convents in droves to settle and get married. The priests follow suit, heeding Luther’s message that God intended men and women to live together, and that children are a divine gift. Owing to his own experience of monastic life, he cannot uphold sexual abstinence as holier than marriage and declares this ancient Christian tradition a profound error. The Catholic Church likes his views less and less. His critics gleefully pounce on the fact that Luther himself marries one of the nuns who left her convent, and they try to put an unsavoury spin on his intentions.
The nun in question, Katharina von Bora, is the daughter of a nobleman. She has been put into a convent when still a child, and now she escapes under the influence of Luther’s teachings with a small group of fellow-nuns.
He makes it his mission to find them all good husbands, but she wants to marry Luther, not the man he has intended for her. Their marriage in June 1525 is publicized in true damage-limiting PR-style, and the couple shows itself frequently in public, strolling through the streets of the town to underline the respectability of their union. Their home in the emptied former Augustine monastery becomes a meeting place of friends both local and foreign, and anyone prosecuted for his faith can find refuge there. Discussions at the dinner table are lively, and at times Mrs Luther caters for up to forty people. After the meal, a select circle continues these talks in Luther’s study, his wife the only woman present. Martin and Katharina are a well-matched pair and very happy together. Six children are born to them, three sons and three daughters. A touching letter by Luther tells a friend of the grief he felt upon the death of one of his little girls.
Generally, the education of children is important to him and he seeks to introduce schooling for all children, though this will not come about until after his death. Luther considers it particularly important that girls should receive an education too – which is just as revolutionary as his other ideas. “Because a town needs educated citizens, one should not wait until they come about by themselves. We must contribute to their education …,” he writes. The pope might be satisfied with illiterate flocks who, for good or ill, depend on the learning of their shepherds. But the new Christians Luther hopes to see will take responsibility for their faith and have enough learning to read the words of the gospel for themselves, taking them deeply to heart. For he envisions a renewal of the whole Church of Christ in this new age, purged of its obvious errors. It was never Luther’s intention to cause a rift in a religion so dear to his heart, and such a burning beacon to his mind. He sees the devil at work in the raging disputes over the gospel, and the controversies now breaking out between the newly forming protestant churches depress him and cast a shadow over his final years.
Martin Luther’s life comes to an end in Eisleben, the same town that saw his birth in 1483. It seems pure coincidence that he is called there to be the mediator in a dispute between a pair of quarrelsome brothers he is acquainted with, the Counts of Mansfeld. His experience of life and his knowledge of people prevail and he is able to negotiate a contract, but the strain of the journey, the cold winter weather and the effort of peace-making exhaust him terminally. He dies there, in his sixty-fourth year, as one of the outstanding figures that shaped much more than the history of their homeland. On the instructions of the new Elector of Saxony, Luther’s body is transferred to Wittenberg, to be laid to rest in the Castle Church. Bells toll throughout the land as the cart bearing his coffin makes its journey, accompanied by a great procession of grieving crowds.
Today, Martin Luther is the most frequently portrayed personage in all the history of Germany. Over two thousand of his sermons and a large number of his talks at the dinner table are preserved in writing. The Luther Bible is his greatest legacy, making a great faith newly accessible to millions and developing the German language as no other book has done. As one of his friends said: “And though he is dead – he lives!”
I emerge into the street several hours later, head and heart humming with his story. The late afternoon sun casts its dramatic light over the buildings, the cobblestones and the River Elbe.