Now, with the approach of the 500th anniversary (Oct. 31, 2017) of the day he nailed his 95 theses to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, Luther’s contributions are drawing new attention — with a 10-year Luther Decade celebration already under way, exploring the Reformation’s impact on music, politics, the visual arts and more.
While some might view Luther dimly through the mists of time (German reformer, long dead), the truth is he lived large. He entered the monastery, for example, against his father’s wishes (Dad insisted he become a lawyer), after having a transformative experience while being caught in a thunderstorm traveling home on horseback. Luther promised God that if he survived, he’d abandon the law for a life of faith. Later he took on the powerful Catholic Church with ferocity — at considerable personal risk.
Some also speculate that the current time might be some sort of new Reformation — with winds of change blowing through global Christianity, and with huge shifts in the role of the institutional church.
In Germany — ground zero of the Reformation — Luther’s life and contribution still ring with significance. Many visitors, Protestants and history buffs from around the world, come to Germany to walk where Luther walked. They follow the journey of an excommunicated monk, a teacher and prolific author and hymn writer, a lover of beer, the father of six children and a spiritual wrestler with God.
“He believed in a devil who manifested himself” — a literal devil, one tour guide explained. He married a former nun who was smuggled out of the convent, perhaps in the bottom of a fish barrel, and viewed sex as sacred and healthy. He confronted political and religious authorities — sort of an Occupy Church movement of the 15th century — and did not back down.
Here’s some more of what lies along the Luther trail.
Some of the German towns most closely associated with Martin Luther have been given the official designation “Lutherstadt” — meaning Luther city. Luther spent more than 35 years in Wittenberg, southwest of Berlin, “living, working and arguing,” according to a film about his life played at the city’s tourism center. He arrived in 1508, entering through one of three gates in what was then a well-fortified medieval town.
On October 31, 1517 — enraged at the Catholic church’s practice of asking people to pay for indulgences, with the hope they’d spend less time in purgatory — Luther nailed his 95 theses, or statements of belief, to the door of All Saints’ Church, commonly known as Schlossekirche or Castle Church. This was not St. Mary’s, his home church — the town church where he preached more than 2,000 sermons over 30 years and, in 1525, at age 42, married the former nun Katharina von Bora.
Castle Church was the university church — the place where new professors gave their first lectures, where the university community gathered. Posting the theses there, on a door that was considered practically a bulletin board, and writing them in Latin, the language of the university where he taught theology, was Luther’s way of drawing the entire university community into the debate, said Bettina Brett, a Wittenberg tour guide.
“Today, he would send an e-mail to everyone,” she said.
While some historians dispute whether Luther actually physically nailed the theses to the door, the image of that inflammatory act has become a central symbol of the Protestant Reformation
Visitors from all over the world take photographs of that famous door, although what they see today is not the original wooden door, which was destroyed by fire in 1760. In 1858, a new bronze door was installed, listing the 95 theses in Latin.
Brett calls it the most photographed door in Europe, with visitors inching as close as they can, as if “they are almost looking for the nail holes.”
Wittenberg is a town of about 45,000 southwest of Berlin in what was formerly East Germany. It is rich in Luther history — with historic sites including the home of his close friend, the artist and businessman Lucas Cranach, who painted Luther’s portrait. The Wittenberg English Ministry program, staffed in part by Lutheran pastors from the U.S., offers English-language worship services from spring through fall. Luther House, a former monastery where Luther and Katharina lived, is now a Luther museum.
In his study, reading the Bible, “Luther worried he was not good enough for God, that he couldn’t keep any commandment,” Brett said. It was a great relief for him to discover “that God loves you the way you are … This was the unofficial start of the Reformation. This gave him the power to do what would come later.”
This is the town where Luther, the son of a copper smelter, was born — and where, near the end of his life, he came on a three-day winter journey to take care of some business, and died about a month later at age 62. Luther made that trip in an open carriage in the cold of January, and fell ill.
“People today think he either had the flu or worse,” said Klaus Musielak, who works for the Eisleben tourist office. He wrote to his wife: “I was born here. I was baptized here. I fear I will die here.”
The church where Luther was baptized the day after his birth, St. Peter and St. Paul, is being renovated for the Luther anniversary. His birth house in Eisleben is now a museum. The house where he died also is under renovation and will open to visitors next fall, with a focus on Luther’s theology, how the Reformation “changed the art of dying” and views on salvation and the afterlife, said Christian Philipsen, head of the Luther Memorials Eisleben.
The nearby city of Mannfield, where Luther lived for about a decade with his parents, plans to open a museum in 2013 focusing on what daily life would have been like in Luther’s time.
In September 2011, Pope Benedict XVI, a native of Germany, came to Erfurt for an ecumenical meeting — visiting the city where Luther entered the monastery and made his vows as an Augustinian monk. The pontiff celebrated Mass in front of St. Mary’s Cathedral, and during his visit acknowledged Luther’s “deep passion” and the driving force of his beliefs. But he stopped short of calling for more concrete steps of reconciliation between Protestants and Catholics.
Still, some see that as progress.
“Luther was accepted by the pope as a spiritual leader,” said Thomas Seidel, a Protestant minister who is Luther Representative of the Free State of Thuringia. “Five hundred years ago he was excommunicated.”
Luther’s legacy is up for debate. Some criticize him for anti-Jewish statements he made later in life, and the Protestant Reformation he sparked has splintered into countless Protestant denominations, sometimes splitting off from one another in theological fury. Some in Erfurt were disappointed that the pope didn’t go further, so close to the anniversary of the Reformation, to signal unity between Protestants and Catholics.
Matthias Gose, a tourism official in Erfurt, said he had hoped that Benedict would say, in effect, that “Martin Luther is not the devil enemy of the Catholic church — he is one of the reformers. He didn’t do that … We hoped for more in the direction of reunification. We are all Christians.”
After the Catholic Church excommunicated Luther, he was called in 1521 to appear before Emperor Charles V, representing the civil authorities, and to account for his actions in posting the 95 theses. That proceeding was called the “Diet of Worms,” because it was held in the city of Worms and a diet was the name for a deliberative assembly. Luther — whose life was thought to be in danger — was promised safe passage to and from the proceedings.
The edict issued at the Diet of Worms banned Luther’s writings, after he refused to recant — stating that “my conscience is captive to the word of God.” And on the way home — fearful Luther would be arrested or possibly killed — Prince Frederick, a supporter, arranged for him to disappear, and hid him in Wartburg Castle, overlooking the city of Eisenach.
There, high in a tower, Luther embarked on some of his most significant work: translating the Bible from Greek to German. He worked on the translation for 300 days, about 10 months.
“It was very dangerous for him,” returning from the Diet of Worms, said Cornelia Hartleb, who works at the Bachhaus Eisenach, a museum in Eisenach dedicated to the composer Johann Sebastian Bach, and who led a tour of the Wartburg Castle.
“A kidnapping was organized. He lived here in secret … Here, in this simple little room, all the Lutherans all over the world feel their roots.”
Access to the Bible, language, education
Germans credit Luther with translating the Bible into German — which made it possible for Germans (those who could read) to read it for themselves.
Doing that also gave momentum to two other significant developments.
» Luther’s Bible translation united the various dialects in the country into one standard language — so Germans from different parts of the country could more easily communicate with one another.
» Having the Bible available in German led to a push for more education — including for girls.
“When you ask people about Luther, they will always tell you he gave us the (German) language,” Brett said. “Luther German became the basis for what we call High German” — the common language all could understand, despite regional dialects. “When we read Luther today, it sounds a little bit old-fashioned but it’s still the language we use.”
Luther loved to sing and compose music, writing dozens of hymns, including “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” Luther introduced the idea of congregational singing — “before, they only listened,” said Bärbel Grönegres, chief executive officer of the Thuringia Tourist Board. “It was revolutionary.”
Asked to describe Luther’s contribution to church music, Seidel said: “You can’t overestimate it. At first, it was only for the community, but it spread over the whole country. The hymns he composed became the music of the Reformation. There is no Bach without Luther.”
There was surely cross-pollination. Luther studied music — “the songs of Martin Luther form the core of the Lutheran songbook,” said Jörg Hansen, director of the Bachhaus Eisenach. And Bach collected theological books — some of which are on display at the Bachhaus. “Reformation and Music” will be the theme of the Luther Decade in 2012.
Technology helped too, as Johannes Gutenberg had invented the printing press in the mid-1400s, which allowed Luther’s writings to circulate. “With that it was possible to spread out the news — the idea that people could participate in worship,” Brett said. “They had a direct relationship with God. That was the difference.”