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"The most readable Luther biography in English." Time
"The most readable Luther biography in English." Time
ON A SULTRY DAY in July of the year 1505 a lonely traveler was trudging over a parched road on the outskirts of the Saxon village of Stotternheim. He was a young man, short but sturdy, and wore the dress of a university student. As he approached the village, the sky became overcast. Suddenly there was a shower, then a crashing storm. A bolt of lightning rived the gloom and knocked the man to the ground. Struggling to rise, he cried in terror, "St. Anne help me! I will become a monk."
The man who thus called upon a saint was later to repudiate the cult of the saints. He who vowed to become a monk was later to renounce monasticism. A loyal son of the Catholic Church, he was later to shatter the structure of medieval Catholicism. A devoted servant of the pope, he was later to identify the popes with Antichrist. For this young man was Martin Luther.
His demolition was the more devastating because it reinforced disintegrations already in progress. Nationalism was in process of breaking the political unities when the Reformation destroyed the religious. Yet this paradoxical figure revived the Christian consciousness of Europe. In his day, as Catholic historians all agree, the popes of the Renaissance were secularized, flippant, frivolous, sensual, magnificent, and unscrupulous. The intelligentsia did not revolt against the Church because the Church was so much of their mind and mood as scarcely to warrant a revolt. Politics were emancipated from any concern for the faith to such a degree that the Most Christian King of France and His Holiness the Pope did not disdain a military alliance with the Sultan against the Holy Roman Emperor. Luther changed all this. Religion became again a dominant factor even in politics for another century and a half. Men cared enough for the faith to die for it and to kill for it. If there is any sense remaining of Christian civilization in the West, this man Luther in no small measure deserves the credit.
Very naturally he is a controversial figure. The multitudinous portrayals fall into certain broad types already delineated in his own generation. His followers hailed him as the prophet of the Lord and the deliverer of Germany. His opponents on the Catholic side called him the son of perdition and the demolisher of Christendom. The agrarian agitators branded him as the sycophant of the princes, and the radical sectaries compared him to Moses, who led the children of Israel out of Egypt and left them to perish in the wilderness. But such judgments belong to an epilogue rather than a prologue. The first endeavor must be to understand the man.
One will not move far in this direction unless one recognizes at the outset that Luther was above all else a man of religion. The great outward crises of his life which bedazzle the eyes of dramatic biographers were to Luther himself trivial in comparison with the inner upheavals of his questing after God. For that reason this study may appropriately begin with his first acute religious crisis in 1505 rather than with his birth in 1483. Childhood and youth will be drawn upon only to explain the entry into the monastery.
At Home and School
The vow requires interpretation because even at this early point in Luther's career judgments diverge. Those who deplore his subsequent repudiation of the vow explain his defection on the ground that he ought never to have taken it. Had he ever been a true monk, he would not have abandoned the cowl. His critique of monasticism is made to recoil upon himself in that he is painted as a monk without vocation, and the vow is interpreted, not as a genuine call, but rather as the resolution of an inner conflict, an escape from maladjustment at home and at school.
A few sparse items of evidence are adduced in favor of this explanation. They are not of the highest reliability because they are all taken from the conversation of the older Luther as recorded, often inaccurately, by his students; and even if they are genuine, they cannot be accepted at face value because the Protestant Luther was no longer in a position to recall objectively the motives of his Catholic period. Really there is only one saying which connects the taking of the cowl with resentment against parental discipline. Luther is reported to have said, "My mother caned me for stealing a nut, until the blood came. Such strict discipline drove me to the monastery, although she meant it well." This saying is reinforced by two others: "My father once whipped me so that I ran away and felt ugly toward him until he was at pains to win me back." "[At school] I was caned in a single morning fifteen times for nothing at all. I was required to decline and conjugate and hadn't learned my lesson."
Unquestionably the young were roughly handled in those days, and Luther may be correctly reported as having cited these instances in order to bespeak a more humane treatment, but there is no indication that such severity produced more than a flash of resentment. Luther was highly esteemed at home. His parents looked to him as a lad of brilliant parts who should become a jurist, make a prosperous marriage, and support them in their old age. When Luther became a Master of Arts, his father presented him with a copy of the Corpus Juris and addressed him no longer with the familiar Du but with the polite Sie. Luther always exhibited an extraordinary devotion to his father and was grievously disturbed over parental disapproval of his entry into the monastery. When his father died, Luther was too unnerved to work for several days. The attachment to the mother appears to have been less marked; but even of the thrashing he said that it was well intended, and he recalled affectionately a little ditty she used to sing:
If folk don't like you and me, The fault with us is like to be.
The schools also were not tender, but neither were they brutal. The object was to impart a spoken knowledge of the Latin tongue. The boys did not resent this because Latin was useful—the language of the Church, of law, diplomacy, international relations, scholarship, and travel. The teaching was by drill punctuated with the rod. One scholar, called a lupus or wolf, was appointed to spy on the others and report lapses into German. The poorest scholar in the class every noon was given a donkey mask, hence called the asinus, which he wore until he caught another talking German. Demerits were accumulated and accounted for by birching at the end of the week. Thus one might have fifteen strokes on a single day.
But, despite all the severities, the boys did learn Latin and loved it Luther, far from being alienated, was devoted to his studies and became highly proficient. The teachers were no brutes. One of them, Trebonius, on entering the classroom always bared his head in the presence of so many future burgomasters, chancellors, doctors, and regents. Luther respected his teachers and was grieved when they did not approve of his subsequent course.
Nor was he prevailingly depressed, but ordinarily rollicking, fond of music, proficient on the lute, and enamored of the beauty of the German landscape. How fair in retrospect was Erfurt! The woods came down to the fringes of the village to be continued by orchards and vineyards, and then the fields which supplied the dye industry of Germany with plantings of indigo, blue-flowered flax, and yellow saffron; and nestling within the brilliant rows lay the walls, the gates, the steeples of many-spired Erfurt. Luther called her a new Bethlehem.
Yet Luther was at times severely depressed, and the reason lay not in any personal frictions but in the malaise of existence intensified by religion. This man was no son of the Italian Renaissance, but a German born in remote Thuringia, where men of piety still reared churches with arches and spires straining after the illimitable. Luther was himself so much a gothic figure that his faith may be called the last great flowering of the religion of the Middle Ages. And he came from the most religiously conservative element of the population, the peasants. His father, Hans Luther, and his mother, Margaretta, were sturdy, stocky, swarthy German Bauern. They were not indeed actually engaged in the tilling of the soil because as a son without inheritance Hans had moved from the farm to the mines. In the bowels of the earth he had prospered with the help of St. Anne, the patroness of miners, until he had come to be the owner of half a dozen foundries; yet he was not unduly affluent, and his wife had still to go to the forest and drag home the wood. The atmosphere of the family was that of the peasantry: rugged, rough, at times coarse, credulous, and devout. Old Hans prayed at the bedside of his son, and Margaretta was a woman of prayer.
Certain elements even of old German paganism were blended with Christian mythology in the beliefs of these untutored folk. For them the woods and winds and water were peopled by elves, gnomes, fairies, mermen and mermaids, sprites and witches. Sinister spirits would release storms, floods, and pestilence, and would seduce mankind to sin and melancholia. Luther's mother believed that they played such minor pranks as stealing eggs, milk, and butter; and Luther himself was never emancipated from such beliefs. "Many regions are inhabited," said he, "by devils. Prussia is full of them, and Lapland of witches. In my native country on the top of a high mountain called the Pubelsberg is a lake into which if a stone be thrown a tempest will arise over the whole region because the waters are the abode of captive demons."
The education in the schools brought no emancipation but rather reinforced the training of the home. In the elementary schools the children were instructed in sacred song. They learned by heart the Sanctus, the Benedictus, the Agnus Dei, and the Confiteor. They were trained to sing psalms and hymns. How Luther loved the Magnificat! They attended masses and vespers, and took part in the colorful processions of the holy days. Each town in which Luther went to school was full of churches and monasteries. Everywhere it was the same: steeples, spires, cloisters, priests, monks of the various orders, collections of relics, ringing of bells, proclaiming of indulgences, religious processions, cures at shrines. Daily at Mansfeld the sick were stationed beside a convent in the hope of cure at the tolling of the vesper bell. Luther remembered seeing a devil actually depart from one possessed.
The University of Erfurt brought no change. The institution at that time had not yet been invaded by Renaissance influences. The classics in the curriculum, such as Vergil, had always been favorites in the Middle Ages. Aristotelian physics was regarded as an exercise in thinking God's thoughts after him, and the natural explanations of earthquakes and thunderstorms did not preclude occasional direct divine causation. The studies all impinged on theology, and the Master's degree for which Luther was preparing for the law could have equipped him equally for the cloth. The entire training of home, school, and university was designed to instill fear of God and reverence for the Church.
In all this there is nothing whatever to set Luther off from his contemporaries, let alone to explain why later on he should have revolted against so much of medieval religion. There is just one respect in which Luther appears to have been different from other youths of his time, namely, in that he was extraordinarily sensitive and subject to recurrent periods of exaltation and depression of spirit. This oscillation of mood plagued him throughout his life. He testified that it began in his youth and that the depressions had been acute in the six months prior to his entry into the monastery. One cannot dismiss these states as occasioned merely by adolescence, since he was then twenty-one and similar experiences continued throughout his adult years. Neither can one blithely write off the case as an example of manic depression, since the patient exhibited a prodigious and continuous capacity for work of a high order.
The explanation lies rather in the tensions which medieval religion deliberately induced, playing alternately upon fear and hope. Hell was stoked, not because men lived in perpetual dread, but precisely because they did not, and in order to instill enough fear to drive them to the sacraments of the Church. If they were petrified with terror, purgatory was introduced by way of mitigation as an intermediate place where those not bad enough for hell nor good enough for heaven might make further expiation. If this alleviation inspired complacency, the temperature was advanced on purgatory, and then the pressure was again relaxed through indulgences.
Even more disconcerting than the fluctuation of the temperature of the afterlife was the oscillation between wrath and mercy on the part of the members of the divine hierarchy. God was portrayed now as the Father, now as the wielder of the thunder. He might be softened by the intercession of his kindlier Son, who again was delineated as an implacable judge unless mollified by his mother, who, being a woman, was not above cheating alike God and the Devil on behalf of her suppliants; and if she were remote, one could enlist her mother, St. Anne.
How these themes were presented is graphically illustrated in the most popular handbooks in the very age of the Renaissance. The theme was death; and the best sellers gave instructions, not on how to pay the income tax, but on how to escape hell. Manuals entitled On the Art of Dying depicted in lurid woodcuts the departing spirit surrounded by fiends who tempted him to commit the irrevocable sin of abandoning hope in God's mercy. To convince him that he was already beyond pardon he was confronted by the woman with whom he had committed adultery or the beggar he had failed to feed. A companion woodcut then gave encouragement by presenting the figures of forgiven sinners: Peter with his cock, Mary Magdalene with her cruse, the penitent thief, and Saul the persecutor, with the concluding brief caption, "Never despair."
If this conclusion ministered to complacency, other presentations invoked dread. A book strikingly illustrative of the prevailing mood is a history of the world published by Hartmann Schedel in Nürnberg in 1493. The massive folios, after recounting the history of mankind from Adam to the Humanist Conrad Celtes, conclude with a meditation on the brevity of human existence accompanied by a woodcut of the dance of death. The final scene displays the day of judgment. A full-page woodcut portrays Christ the Judge sitting upon a rainbow. A lily extends from his right ear, signifying the redeemed, who below are being ushered by angels into paradise. From his left ear protrudes a sword, symbolizing the doom of the damned, whom the devils drag by the hair from the tombs and cast into the flames of hell. How strange, comments a modern editor, that a chronicle published in the year 1493 should end with the judgment day instead of the discovery of America! Dr. Schedel had finished his manuscript in June. Columbus had returned the previous March. The news presumably had not yet reached Nürnberg. By so narrow a margin Dr. Schedel missed this amazing scoop. "What an extraordinary value surviving copies of the Chronicle would have today if it had recorded the great event!"
So writes the modern editor. But old Dr. Schedel, had he known, might not have considered the finding of a new world worthy of record. He could scarcely have failed to know of the discovery of the Cape of Good Hope in 1488. Yet he never mentioned it. The reason is that he did not think of history as the record of humanity expanding upon earth and craving as the highest good more earth in which to expand. He thought of history as the sum of countless pilgrimages through a vale of tears to the heavenly Jerusalem. Every one of those now dead would some day rise and stand with the innumerable host of the departed before the judgment seat to hear the words, "Well done," or, "Depart from me into everlasting fire." The Christ upon the rainbow with the lily and the sword was a most familiar figure in the illustrated books of the period. Luther had seen pictures such as these and testified that he was utterly terror-stricken at the sight of Christ the Judge.
The Haven of the Cowl
Like everyone else in the Middle Ages he knew what to do about his plight. The Church taught that no sensible person would wait until his deathbed to make an act of contrition and plead for grace. From beginning to end the only secure course was to lay hold of every help the Church had to offer: sacraments, pilgrimages, indulgences, the intercession of the saints. Yet foolish was the man who relied solely on the good offices of the heavenly intercessors if he had done nothing to ensure their favor!
Excerpted from HERE I STAND by Roland H. Bainton. Copyright © 1978 Roland H. Bainton. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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I. The Vow
At Home and School Religious Disquiet The Haven of the Cowl
II. The Cloister
The Terror of the Holy The Way of Self-Help The Merits of the Saints The Trip to Rome
III. The Gospel
The Failure of Confession The Mystic Ladder The Evangelical Experience
IV. The Onslaught
The Indulgence for St. Peter's The Ninety-Five Theses
V. The Son of Iniquity
The Dominican Assault The Case Transferred to Germany The Interviews with Cajetan Threatening Exile
VI. The Saxon Hus
The Gauntlet of Eck The Leipzig Debate The Endorsement of Hus
VII. The German Hercules
The Humanists: Erasmus Melanchthon and Dürer The Nationalists: Hutten and Sickingen
VIII. The Wild Boar in the Vineyard
The Sacraments and the Theory of the Church Prosecution Resumed The Bull "Exsurge"
The Bull Seeks Luther
IX. The Appeal to Caesar
Publication of the Bull Against the Execrable Bull of Antichrist The Freedom of the Christian Man
X. Here I Stand
A Hearing Promised and Recalled The Emperor Assumes Responsibility Invitation to Luther Renewed Luther Before the Diet The Edict of Worms
XI. My Patmos
At the Wartburg The Reformation at Wittenberg: Monasticism The Mass The Outbreak of Violence
XII. The Return of the Exile
Turmoil The Invitation to Come Back The Return to Wittenberg
XIII. No Other Foundation
Nature, History, and Philosophy Christ the Sole Revealer The Word and the Sacraments The Menace to Morals The Ground of Goodness
XIV. Rebuilding the Walls
The Callings Economics Politics Church and State
XV. The Middle Way
Hostility of the Reformed Papacy Recoil of the Moderate Catholics: Erasmus Defection of the Puritans: Carlstadt The Revolutionary Saints: Müntzer Banishment of the Agitators
XVI. Behemoth, Leviathan, and the Great Waters
Rivals: Zwingli and the Anabaptists Religion and Social Unrest Luther and the Peasants Müntzer Foments Rebellion The Debacle and the Effect on the Reformation
XVII. The School for Character
Katherine von Bora Domesticity Children and Table Talk Views of Marriage Consolations of Home
XVIII. The Church Territorial
Dissemination of the Reform Practical Church Problems The Godly Prince The Protest Protestant Alliance: The Marburg Colloquy The Augsburg Confession
XIX. The Church Tutorial
The Bible Translation Doctrinal Problems in Translation Catechisms Liturgy Music Hymnbook
XX. The Church Ministerial
Preaching Sermon on the Nativity Exposition of Jonah Prayer
XXI. The Struggle for Faith
Luther's Persistent Struggle His Depressions The Way of Indirection Wrestling with the Angel The Rock of Scripture
XXII. The Measure of the Man
The Bigamy of the Landgrave Attitude to the Anabaptists Attitude to the Jews The Papists and the Emperor The Measure of the Man Bibliography References Sources of Illustrations Index
Posted July 11, 2003
Bainton's biography of Luther should be on every Christian bookshelf. It gives a thorough but readable account of Luther's life and his role in the Reformation, as well as his impact on history. Even if you are not a Christian, if history interests you this book will be to your liking.
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Posted March 30, 2009
This is a great book, very well written with an emphasis on Luther's life as well as the historical background of the period. It was written in the late 1800's, however it has enough relevance for even today.
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Posted April 25, 2010
Veritas Press has highly recommended Roland Bainton's thrilling treatise on the life of Martin Luther, saying, "This book is considered the most readable biography on Luther in English. A vivid portrait of the man who, because of his unshakable faith in God, helped to bring about the Protestant Reformation." I read the book in college (over thirty years ago) to prepare for writing a paper on the works of Martin Luther. One does not have to agree with all of the theological conclusions reached by Luther to admire his willingness to stand up for his convictions and to appreciate his part in helping to pave the road to religious freedom. This is a powerful book that left a great impression on me.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 6, 2009
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