When Martin Luther came into the world November 10, 1483, there was no way that his parents could have foretold the tremendous impact that their son and his work would have on the lives of people in their time or on the lives of generations of people yet to come.
Martin was born in Eisleben, Saxony, which later became part of the German Empire. His father, Hans, who worked as a miner, moved a short time after Martin’s birth to Mansfeld, a city near the heart of the copper industry. Life there was meager for the Luthers, and there never seemed to be enough money for their growing family. Martin’s mother, Margaret, often gathered firewood from the nearby forest for the family’s household needs.
Hans Luther worked hard, and within a few years he was able to lease several mines and small smelting furnaces. Soon the Luthers owned the house in which they lived. Hans and Margaret had four boys and four girls, but they took a special pride in Martin and recognized their son’s bright and inquiring mind. Hoping that Martin would become a lawyer, his parents enrolled him in a Mansfeld school to learn Latin when he was seven years old.
In spite of their love for their children, discipline in the Luther household could be severe. Years later Martin remembered an occasion when he was punished: “My mother caned me for stealing a nut,” he wrote, “until the blood came.” And at school one day when Martin hadn’t done his lessons, his schoolmaster’s treatment was equally harsh: “In a single morning I received fifteen strokes with the birch rod for nothing at all.”
Still, there were happy memories of his school days. Martin and several of his schoolmates formed a choir and sang Latin chants at St. George’s Church across the square from the school. Among Martin’s good friends at school were some older boys who would carry their young friend to school on their backs when the wintry roads became clogged with mud. Many years later, as a fond remembrance, Martin gave one of those boys a Bible in which he had written: “To my dear old friend, Nicolas Oemler, who often carried me, a schoolboy, on his back to and from school.”
When Martin was thirteen, he was sent to a boarding school in Magdeburg. A year later he attended another, St. George’s School in Eisenach. It was here that Martin learned still more about the religious orders, especially that of the Franciscan monks.
Meanwhile Hans Luther had prospered, and when Martin was eighteen, his father sent him to the university at Erfurt. The studies there were difficult, and the discipline was rigorous. Martin was diligent, however, and his classmates nicknamed him “the Philosopher.” Only Latin was allowed to be spoken when the students did their lessons in a large common room that was supervised by a tutor.
Martin stayed on at the university to prepare for a law degree. But in July 1505, on his way back to the university from a visit to his home, Martin was caught in a violent thunderstorm. A blinding lightning bolt sent him sprawling onto the ground, and terror-stricken, he turned his face toward the heavens and pleaded for his safekeeping. He promised that if his life was spared, he would join a religious order and become a monk.
Disregarding his father’s bitter disappointment and the shock of his friends, Martin kept his vow, and a short time later entered the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt. Life in the monastery was hard and disciplined, but Martin was zealous in his efforts to become a good friar. No task was too menial for him to perform; often he carried the begging sack through the streets to obtain food for his religious order. He fasted, prayed, and often attended chapel services seven times a day. Martin became a student of the Bible and became known among his fellows as a scholar. In time he was given a teaching post in Wittenberg, and in 1512 the university there made him a doctor of theology.
In spite of his search for truth, his diligence as a teacher, and his penances to achieve a blameless life, Martin was troubled. He had no assurance that the life he was living was pleasing to God.
Then one day as Martin was studying the epistles of Paul, the words the just shall live by faith took on a new meaning. A great weight seemed to have been lifted from his soul—Martin now understood that the justice of God as revealed through His holy scriptures means that God freely grants forgiveness of sin and eternal life to all who earnestly repent, believe in His teachings, and have faith in Him through Jesus Christ.
Martin Luther was a dedicated and outspoken teacher and pastor, but he was not a revolutionary. However, there were certain practices and abuses within the medieval church that distressed him and that he felt needed reforming. On the eve of All Saints’ Day, October 31, 1517, Martin fastened ninety-five theses, or propositions, to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg. Three of the main points of his declaration were that (1) Germans should not have to pay for the building of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome; (2) papal indulgences (a practice of paying money to have sins forgiven) did not remove guilt—people were assured of absolute forgiveness through their faith in Christ and their efforts to repent; (3) buying indulgences made people feel that being good was not very important.
This was the beginning of the Reformation, a movement that proposed changes in Catholic doctrine and that became the beginning of Protestantism.
Copies of Luther’s propositions were soon published and widely circulated. Colleagues, countrymen, and students at the university supported his teachings, and his lectures were well attended. Luther entered public debates and wrote several small books expressing his ideas about reforming the church.
In January 1521, Luther was excommunicated from the church, and soon after he was summoned to the city of Worms to meet before an assembly of princes and representatives from the free cities of Germany. At the meeting Luther was given the opportunity to deny that he had written certain books against the church, but Luther refused. He replied, “… I cannot and will not retract anything, since to act against one’s conscience is neither safe nor right. God help me, Amen!”
Luther received safe-conduct from the meeting and for the next twenty-one days. After that he would be considered an outlaw and could be killed on sight. Midway on the trip back to Wittenberg, Luther was “kidnapped” by prearrangement with his friend, Frederick of Saxony, and taken to Wartburg Castle where Luther would be safe.
Disguised as a knight, and wearing a sword and a beard, Luther spent several months in the castle studying, writing letters to friends, and translating the New Testament from Latin into German. He completed the translation of the whole Bible thirteen years later, which allowed the common people to read that sacred book for the first time. More than three centuries later, Joseph Smith said of Luther’s Bible: “I find it to be the most correct that I have found.”
In 1525 Luther married Katherine Von Bora, a former nun, whom he had befriended during the time of a peasant uprising. The Luthers were given a large stone building for a home at the university in Wittenberg as a wedding present from Prince Frederick. It was called Black Cloisters, and there the couple had six children, two of whom died before they reached adulthood. Because of the Luthers’ generosity, there was always a number of relatives, students, and boarders to share meals, accommodations, and the philosophy of their brilliant host.
Music was another important part of Martin Luther’s life. He had taught himself to play the lute (similar to a mandolin) and believed that “music is the greatest gift, indeed it is divine. It puts to flight all sad thoughts.” He wrote at least two dozen hymns, the most popular being “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” He also wrote a delightful Christmas carol for two of his children, Hans and Lenchen.
It was never Martin Luther’s intention to start a new church, least of all one bearing his name. But because of his search for truth and his desire to change abuses within the church he belonged to, the floodgates of the Reformation were opened, and the unrest in people’s hearts would not be stilled.
President Joseph F. Smith said that “Calvin, Luther, Melanchthon, and all reformers, were inspired in thoughts, words, and actions to accomplish what they did for the liberty, and advancement of the human race. They paved the way for the more perfect gospel of truth to come.” (Improvement Era, “Editor’s Table: Fountain of Truth,” June 1907, page 629.)
Luther died in 1546 at the age of sixty-two. And to the end of his life the valiant advocate of truth could declare, “I would rather lose my life and head than desert the crystal-clear word of God.”