lutherMartin Luther
Born in Germany in 1483, Martin Luther became one of the most influential figures in Christian history when he began the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. He called into question some of the basic tenets of Roman Catholicism, and his followers soon split from the Roman Catholic Church to begin the Protestant tradition.

Spiritual Anguish and Enlightenment
Luther came from humble beginnings. He entertained the possibility of becoming a lawyer; however, during a thunderstorm he had an apparent change of heart and decided to become a monk. The decision to become a monk was difficult and greatly disappointed his father, but he felt he must keep a promise. Luther was also driven by fears of hell and God’s wrath, and felt that life in a monastery would help him find salvation.

The first few years of monastery life were difficult for Luther because he did not find the religious enlightenment he was seeking. A mentor told him to focus his life exclusively on Christ and this would later provide him with the guidance he sought. At age 27, he was given the opportunity to be a delegate to a church conference in Rome. He came away from that experience even more disillusioned. In particular, he was very discouraged by the immorality and corruption he witnessed there among the Catholic priests. Upon his return to Germany, he enrolled in the University of Wittenberg in an attempt to suppress his spiritual turmoil. He excelled in his studies and received a doctorate, becoming a professor of theology at the university.

Through his studies of scripture, Martin Luther finally gained religious enlightenment. Beginning in 1513, while preparing lectures, Luther read Psalm 22, which recounts Christ’s cry for mercy on the cross, a cry similar to his own disillusionment with God and religion. Two years later, while preparing a lecture on Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, he read, “The just will live by faith.” He dwelled on this statement for some time. Finally, he realized the key to spiritual salvation was not to fear God or be enslaved by religious dogma but to believe that faith alone would bring salvation. This period marked a major change in his life and set in motion the Reformation.

Rejection of the Roman Catholic Church
In 1517, Pope Leo X announced a new round of indulgences to help build St. Peter’s Basilica. On October 31, 1517, an angry Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses on the university’s chapel door. He intended the Theses to be simply something to get discussion on reform going; however, in this piece of writing Luther laid out a devastating critizue of how the practice of selling indulgences corrupted people's faith. Aided by the printing press, copies of the Ninety-Five Theses spread throughout Germany within two weeks and throughout Europe within two months.

The Church eventually moved to stop Luther's act of defiance. In October 1518, at a meeting with Cardinal Thomas Cajetan in Augsburg, Martin Luther was ordered to recant his Ninety-Five Theses by the authority of the pope. Luther said he would not recant unless scripture was used to prove him wrong. Luther went even further: he stated that the pope had no exclusive right to interpret scripture. The meeting ended in a shouting match and initiated his ultimate excommunication from the Church. The only reason Luther was not arrested on the spot was because his security was guaranteed by his protector, Frederick III of Saxony.

Throughout 1519, Martin Luther continued to lecture and write in Wittenberg. In June and July of that year he publicly declared that the Bible did not give the pope the exclusive right to interpret scripture, which was a direct attack on the authority of the papacy. Finally, in 1520, the pope had had enough and on June 15 issued an ultimatum threatening Luther with excommunication. On December 10, 1520, Luther publicly burned the letter.

Excommunication
In January 1521, Martin Luther was officially excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church. In March, he was summoned before the Diet of Worms, a general assembly of secular authorities. Again, Luther refused to recant his statements, demanding he be shown any scripture that would refute his position. There was none. On May 8, 1521, the council released the Edict of Worms, banning Luther’s writings and declaring him a “convicted heretic.” This made him a condemned and wanted man. Friends helped him hide out at the Wartburg Castle. While in seclusion, he translated the New Testament into the German language, to give ordinary people the opportunity to read God’s word for themselves.

Though still under threat of arrest, Martin Luther returned to Wittenberg Castle Church, in Eisenach, in May 1522. Miraculously, he was able to avoid capture and began organizing a new church, Lutheranism. He gained many followers and was supported by German princes. Luther's ideas not only challenged the power of the Church but also placed certain ideas about society in to question: the early Christian community was not structured in to classes or a heirarchy as it was during the feudal period; instead, these early Christians shared their wealth and were relatively dempeasant revoltocratic; therefore, Luther's challenge to the Church's authority also led peasants to want greater freedom and liberty for themselves.

When a peasant revolt began in 1524, Luther denounced the peasants and sided with the rulers, whom he depended on to keep his church growing. Thousands of peasants were killed, but Luther’s church grew over the years. In 1525, he married Katharina von Bora, a former nun who had abandoned the convent and taken refuge in Wittenberg. Together, over the next several years, they had six children.

Later Years
From 1533 to his death in 1546, Martin Luther served as the dean of theology at University of Wittenberg. During this time he suffered from many illnesses, including arthritis, heart problems and digestive disorders, and the physical pain and emotional strain of being a fugitive might have been reflected in his writings. Some works contained strident and offensive language against several segments of society, particularly Jews and Muslims. During a trip to his hometown of Eisleben, he died on February 18, 1546, at age 62.

Legacy
Martin Luther is one of the most influential and controversial figures in the Reformation movement. His actions fractured the Roman Catholic Church into new sects of Christianity and set in motion reform within the Church. A prominent theologian, his desire for people to feel closer to God led him to translate the Bible into the language of the people, radically changing the relationship between church leaders and their followers.