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God, the Devil, and death were everyday topics in the world into which Martin Luther was born. As a child, Luther learned that God was a Judge more righteous than merciful. The Devil was out to snatch your soul and turn women into witches. Death was not the end of life, Luther was taught, but instead it was the moment you appear before God and enter purgatory. With these dour lessons firmly in his head, is it any surprise that years later Luther would say that every mention of God was "as a clap of thunder in [his] heart"? The god that Martin Luther was told to believe in as a child was a god who signaled his righteousness chiefly through punishment.
The presence of devils and witches certainly did not make life more pleasant. Luther grew up regularly hearing and thinking about Satan. In Luther's time, stories from the Bible and folklore had been blended together to create many terrifying representations of the Devil and his cohorts. Miners, who worked in darkness deep underground, were terrified at the thought of meeting an evil spiritual being.
Among other things, Luther was taught that the pealing of the church bells would drive out demons, that the Devil influenced the weather, and that he could command the cattle. Luther also believed that a witch had poisoned his brother, almost certainly following the beliefs of his mother, who was convinced that a neighbor was secretly a witch, preying on the Luther children. The neighbor appeared again in a 1533 comment recorded in Luther's Table Talk:
Doctor Martinus told us a lot about sorcery, about anxiety, and about elves, and that his mother had had so many problems with a neighbor who was a sorceress. Therefore, his mother had to do her utmost to remain on good terms with the neighbor by being friendly and forgiving. Whenever the neighbor took one of her children onto her lap, she screamed bloody murder. This woman punished a preacher without even mentioning his name and cast a spell on him so that he had to die. He couldn't be helped with any medicine. She had taken dirt from the ground where he had walked, threw it in water, and bewitched him, because without that earth he could not become better again.
The accusation of witchcraft devastated many women in Luther's day, and some paid for the rumors with their lives. In the culture in which Martin Luther was raised, the Devil was everywhere and behind everything. Luther relates,
When I was still a boy, a story was told that there was no way that the Devil could cause a quarrel between a man and his wife who really loved each other. Nevertheless, he managed to make it happen using an old woman who put a razor under both their pillows and then told them that they were there. The man found it and murdered his wife. Then the Devil came and, using a long stick, gave the old woman a pair of shoes. When she asked why he wouldn't come near her, he answered her, "Because you are worse than I am, because you accomplished something with that man and woman that I couldn't." In this way we see once again that the Devil is always the enemy of everything that the Lord God brought about.
Luther had difficulty throwing off such superstition, but over time he eventually gained a more theologically responsible view of spiritual warfare. Luther would write that he viewed his frequent stomach ailments as direct attacks from the Devil. According to Luther, that struggle happened especially when he was sitting on the latrine, where he spent quite some time due to his intestinal issues, alternating between constipation and diarrhea. Luther experienced many physical struggles in that place, and he saw those struggles as attacks of Satan on his work. Moreover, the Devil likes nothing more than to envelop people in a noxious stench, and he manages that especially on the latrine. A person tries his utmost quietly and privately to have his bowel movement, but subsequently, Satan begins to stir in it so that everyone, especially God, will notice that there is a bad smell hanging around him. The imagery of the latrine as a place where Satan does his filthy work and where a person experiences his lowly position was not new and was already present in a medieval song. What was new was Luther's discovery that this was also the place where the Holy Spirit taught him to combat Satan by trusting in Christ. Before he would come that far, however, much would still have to take place in Luther's life.
Little can be said about Luther's earliest years, simply because we know little about them. Here is what Luther wrote in a letter about his first years:
I was born in Eisleben and also baptized there, namely, in the St. Peter's Church. Of course, I cannot remember anything about this, but I believe my parents and the other people from my native town. My parents moved to the neighborhood of Eisenach because most of my family live in Eisenach, and they all knew me and still know me because I went to school there for four years, and no other city knows me as well as this one. ... The time after this I spent at the university of Erfurt and in the monastery there, until I came to Wittenberg. I also went to Magdeburg for a year, but I was fourteen then. Here you have my life story and where I came from.
Fortunately, we know more about the young Luther than these few sentences indicate. He recounted a lot in his letters but also in his so-called Table Talk, which is as famous as it is notorious. Luther did leave us some memory of his earliest years, though it is debatable how much of what he says about himself is accurate.
Name and Face
In Luther's time, surnames varied more in spelling and pronunciation than they do today. Luther's father, Hans, wrote his surname as Luder, Loder, Ludher, Lotter, Lutter, or Lauther, reflecting the cultural habit of spelling names as they sound. When Martin Luther himself began publishing, it was more important to have a consistently spelled name; thus, from 1517 onward, he used Luther exclusively, save for a brief time in which he indulged a mildly elitist habit of using a pen name, Eleutherios, a wordplay on the Greek for "free man."
In time, Luther would feel the need to distance himself yet again from his name. He was bothered that he had become synonymous with the Reformation. Luther wrote that everyone who realized that he was bound to the rediscovered Christian truth
must be silent concerning my name and should not call himself Lutheran but Christian. What is Luther? Does the doctrine belong to me? I have not been crucified for anyone. ... How would I as a poor, sinful bag of maggots [this is the way Luther viewed his body] allow people, the children of Christ, to bear my unwholesome name? I am no master and don't want to be one either. Together with the congregation I share in the universal doctrine of Christ, and he alone is our master.
Regardless of Luther's sentiment, those who followed in his theological legacy would continue to bear his name: Lutherans.
What did Luther look like? In a time in which we are awash with photographs, it's almost unimaginable that someone would reach thirty-seven years of age before appearing in his first portrait. In Luther's time, however, most people were never painted. The images we have of Martin Luther were all made by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), the famous court painter of the elector. The first shows us a scrawny monk with tonsure and serious-looking eyes (see fig. 1.1). This is an image with a message: here stands a serious man and not a heretic with wild plans. Then as now, portraits and images were part of the public relations division. Gradually, Luther becomes fatter. It seems as if the insight that a person cannot earn his way into heaven by means of fasting had convincingly tempted Luther into a calorie-rich lifestyle. It would also become evident that his innards would have difficulty adapting to these foods. He continues to look serious in the portraits, both the ones portraying him as professor and those in which he appears as a married man — clearly, a man you could trust. At least that is the message conveyed in the portraits. They also picture a man whose look makes you restless. In the spring of 1523, a representative from the Polish king visiting Luther wrote, "His face is like his books; his eyes are penetrating and glitter almost fearfully, as you sometimes see with lunatics."
I am the son of a farmer; my great grandfather, my grandfather, and my father were real farmers. Actually, I should have become a village head, a sheriff or whatever they would have in a village, a function that would have placed me just a bit higher than others. But my father moved to Mansfeld, and he became a miner. That's where I come from.
Now and again, Luther would recount something about his origins and his childhood, but as those descriptions were almost totally dependent on his memory, the images he created did not always fit with reality. Luther said, for example, that his parents were not well off: "In his youth, my father was a poor miner. On her back my mother carried all the firewood home. That's the way we were brought up. They endured a lot of difficulty, difficulty that the world today does not want to endure anymore."
In reality, it appears that the poverty suffered by his parents was not as bad as he claimed. Hans Luther (1459–1530) was not a simple miner as portrayed by his son but rather was the enterprising son who had come out of a fairly prosperous farmer's family. He lived in Mohra in Thuringia, and at twenty years old he married Margarethe Lindemann (1460–1531), also twenty (see fig. 1.2). She came from a middle-class family in Eisenach; her brothers were jurists. She was neither the child of bitter poverty mentioned by some of Luther's more romantic biographers nor the whore of the bathhouse invoked by some of Luther's theological enemies.
Luther's father had a younger brother, and in accordance with local inheritance customs, the farm went to the youngest brother, not the eldest. Subsequently, Hans sought employment in copper mining, a growing industry in the county of Mansfeld, which was rich with copper and would thus see a major economic resurgence. Like many other families, the Luthers moved to Mansfeld and purchased a mine. On November 10, the Luthers' second son was born. He was baptized the next day, November 11, on the Feast of St. Martin — Hans and Margarethe named their newborn son after the saint. The baptism took place close by, in the St. Peter and Paul Church. In that time a child's birthday was associated with a saint's day and was deemed to be more important than the actual birth year. Hence it is not definite that Luther was born in 1483, as virtually every biography has claimed. According to newer research, there are good reasons to believe that Luther was actually born a year later, in 1484.
Whatever year he was born, a year after his birth the family moved a couple of miles farther, to Mansfeld, a small city with approximately two thousand inhabitants. There Hans received a leadership position in the copper mines, thanks to one of Margarethe's uncles. Seven years later he owned three copper smelters, two hundred acres of land, a large farm, a number of buildings, and enough capital to become a prodigious lender. It's not clear exactly how large the family became, but we do know that Martin had four brothers and four sisters. The family's relative prosperity has been confirmed by archeological analyses of the family refuse pit, in which was found seven thousand food remains that clearly testify to the diverse and luxurious meals they would have often enjoyed.
Nevertheless, the times were not always plentiful. Hans was weighted by significant debt, which accrued in the down seasons of the mining business. It would be a mistake to assume that the Luthers lived like royalty. While they enjoyed some variety of food, they also faced economically challenging times. Without any question, Luther experienced periods of poverty at home. That his parents had to work hard, even when they were financially better off, is obvious from the look on their faces in their portraits. As mentioned above, Luther would recollect years later that his mother gathered firewood and carried it home every day. This shouldn't be interpreted as a sign of destitution but as a typical life for this era's middle-class family.
Why did Luther give the impression that he had lived his early life in extreme poverty? The best answer is that this description of his life fit his image of himself. Luther wanted to be known as a man who, though the son of a poor, ignoble father, was nevertheless able to successfully oppose a powerful pope and emperor. Luther enjoyed drawing this kind of contrast about himself: "I admit that I am the son of a farmer from Mohra near Eisenach, and yet I am a doctor in the Holy Scriptures and an enemy of the pope." Luther knew that this "David and Goliath" narrative was appealing. At the same time, it would be a mistake, as we will see later, to simply dismiss Luther's account as untrustworthy.
Tourists today can visit the town of Eisleben, where Luther was born and where he died (see fig. 1.3). Shortly before his birth, Luther's family came to Eisleben, and only a few months later they had already left. The house that is now shown as his birthplace is the correct location but is not actually the house in which he was born (which burned down in 1689). Moreover, Luther did not die in the house that they now show as his place of death (he died a few houses down the street, and immediately after his death, they brought him to the house that is now claimed to be the place of his death). Not everything fits, but it is close enough to make a good story. All in all, Eisleben did not actually play a primary role in Luther's life like Mansfeld did. It was there that he grew up until he was fourteen. When he went to Erfurt to study, approximately fifty-five miles from home, he was registered as "Martin Ludher from Mansfelt" (Martinus ludher ex mansfelt).
While Luther's claims of family poverty were exaggerated, his claims of strictness and discipline in his upbringing almost certainly were not. A common form of corporal punishment in Luther's day was a rap on the knuckles. Whether this was an effective method of discipline is questionable, but it certainly made an impression on the young Luther:
My parents brought me up so strictly that it sometimes scared me. My mother once hit me until I bled simply because I had secretly taken a nut. Because of this hard-nosed discipline, they finally drove me into the monastery. Even though they meant well, it made me scared. They did not know the appropriate relationship between someone's character and the manner in which one should be disciplined. You should punish in such a way that you place the apple beside the rod.
Luther would later record that his father had once berated him in frustration for over an hour. The reformer was not bitter about such parenting, and he even admitted that his father had the right to do that, because this little hour was insignificant over against the ten years of work that his father had to devote to him. Besides, this outburst of rage had not harmed him. This should call into question the very common claim that Luther's strict upbringing had imparted to him a psychological problem that had shaped his idea of God. Aside from the fact that four remarks about a person's upbringing are rather meager data on which to build a psychological profile, there is little evidence of neuroses or other complexes when Luther talks with and about his parents later on. The comforting letter he wrote to his father when he was afraid to die says enough. Luther was relieved to hear that his father, shortly after the reading of this letter, died peacefully and in faith. Luther's opinion of his father is made clear in a letter dated June 5, 1530, to his colleague Philipp Melanchthon, when he heard that his father had passed away:
Today Hans Reinicke wrote me that my dear father Hans Luther, the old man, has left this life, on Sunday, Exaudi (May 29), exactly at one o'clock. His death has made me extremely sad, not only because of my father's nature but also because of his unique affectionate love and because through him, my Creator has given me everything that I am and have. And even though it comforts me that he writes that he died in Christ in the strength of his faith, the grief and the memories of that extremely loving relationship with him, has affected me intimately so much that I have hardly ever despised death as now. But "the righteous perish ...," Isaiah 57:1, because before we really die, we die so frequently. I am now the one who will function as the heir of the Luther name, and I am almost the oldest Luther in the family. Not only coincidentally, but also in a legal perspective I have the right to follow him through death into Christ's kingdom. He graciously grants us that right, though we are the most miserable among humanity and a shame of the whole world.
Excerpted from "Martin Luther"
Copyright © 2017 Herman Selderhuis.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
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Table of Contents
Timeline of Luther's Life 11
List of Illustrations 15
1 Child (1483-1500) 21
2 Student (1501-1505) 37
3 Monk (1505-1511) 55
4 Exegete (1511-1517) 73
5 Theologian (1517-1519) 93
6 Architect (1520-1521) 135
7 Reformer (1521-1525) 169
8 Father (1525-1530) 215
9 Professor (1530-1537) 249
10 Prophet (1537-1546) 273
Primary Sources and Literature 315
General Index 335
Scripture Index 345
What People are Saying About This
“Herman Selderhuis gives a well-organized, source-based short account of Luther’s life, putting him into his context. Written by one of the most respected international scholars in Reformation history, this book may be fruitfully used as an introduction to Luther’s life.”
Volker Leppin, Theologian and Professor of Church History, Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen; President, Interdisciplinary Medieval Association
“With a keen eye for the details that make Luther come alive for twenty-first-century readers, and with an ear for those often-false rumors spread by other scholars about the man, Selderhuis guides us through the life of the Wittenberg professor, depicting his genius and his temperament within the context of his time and its challenges. This well-balanced journey at the reformer’s side provides readers with insights into the development of his thought and his path toward prominence and influence that shaped the last quarter century of his life. The often-slighted later years, in which his writings and personality created a sphere of influence equaled by few in any age, are here given due attention, with helpful explanations of the setting in which Luther’s reform movement matured.”
Robert Kolb, Emeritus Professor of Systematic Theology, Concordia Seminary
“The complexity of Luther is staggering, but Herman Selderhuis has given us a detailed portrait of the reformer that captures both his blemishes and the beauty of his faith in Christ. This book is a fascinating read about one of the most significant figures of history. Both students of Christian history and admirers of Reformation theology will find it helpful.”
Joel R. Beeke, President and Professor of Systematic Theology and Homiletics, Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary; author, Reformed Preaching; coauthor, Reformed Systematic Theology
“There have been more books written about Martin Luther than any other figure in the last millennium of church history. With such a Luther-glutted market, what more could possibly be said about him? Well, this latest volume from the hand of the gifted Reformation scholar Herman Selderhuis does indeed give us a fresh perspective on the German reformer. With his own translations of Luther’s writings and his comprehensive knowledge of Luther’s world, both theological and social, this new biography is both deeply instructive about the things that mattered most to Luther and a delight to read. This is how biography should be written!”
Michael A. G. Haykin, Chair and Professor of Church History, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
“Among the many new biographies of Martin Luther, this one stands out for its fresh engagement with Luther’s own assessment of his life and work. Well researched and engagingly presented.”
Timothy George, Research Professor of Divinity, Beeson Divinity School, Samford University; general editor, Reformation Commentary on Scripture
“What makes this Luther biography distinct is its explicit attention to Martin Luther’s spiritual journey as a sixteenth-century person haunted by his demons and driven by his passions, and the way it presents Luther’s own voice and reflection throughout, paired with a restrained but poignant analysis that invites the reader to dig deeper. Luther is introduced as a ‘problem’ in his church context with evolving roles in which he is shaped by his relationships. He is assessed as a ‘unique phenomenon’ on the one hand, while as a flesh-and-blood human being with a temperament, strong emotions, and tragic ailments on the other. Selderhuis’s clearly written and immediately engaging narrative, with wit, offers an abundance of detail and apparatus for the reader to understand one of the most fascinating personalities in Christian history and the complexities of his Reformation hermeneutics.”
Kirsi Stjerna, First Lutheran, Los Angeles / Southwest Synod Professor of Lutheran History and Theology, Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary; author, Women and the Reformation
“This richly illustrated and succinctly written book, based on anything but superficial knowledge, is very much a life of Luther for everyone. While announcing itself as a ‘spiritual biography,’ it actually presents Luther in body and soul in his day-to-day contexts. Selderhuis catches very well Luther as a reformer stumbling daily from one unconcealed existential crisis to another, often beset with spiritual, mental, religious, family, political, physical, and personality problems. Here we have the real Lutherpotent prophet of God, astonishing theologian, prolific writer, and phenomenal communicator indeed, but also a flawed genius whose attributes included buffoonery, vulgarity, vindictiveness, and downright rudeness. While many have viewed the reformer as a Hercules of the faith and the thirteenth apostle, this book reminds us that Luther was also no saint and that he had no pretensions to be one.”
W. Ian P. Hazlett, Honorary Professorial Research Fellow, University of Glasgow; Editor in Chief, Reformation and Renaissance Review; author, The Reformation in Britain and Ireland; coauthor, A Useable Past
“At this half-millennium anniversary of the birth of the Protestant faith, there is scarcely a better place to (re)discover Martin Luther than in this fresh biography by internationally recognized Reformation scholar Herman Selderhuis. Here is where to start your investigation of an amazing man whose remarkable courage, controversial ministry, and persuasive writings changed the worldfor good and for ill. Don’t miss reading this fascinating, fun, and poignant foray into the spiritual life and tumultuous times of the one who, as Calvin described, ‘gave the Gospel back to us.’”
Peter Lillback, President and Professor of Historical Theology and Church History, Westminster Theological Seminary
“Martin Luther: A Spiritual Biography offers a new and fascinating approach to Luther’s life. In this book, political and theological contexts are paid attention to, but priority is given to the story of Luther’s religious life, from childhood to old age. The account is based on an extensive use of primary sourcesnot least Luther’s letters and Table Talkand the reformer’s own words are frequently quoted. At the same time, the interpretation of Luther’s texts is closely related to specific places and concrete situations in his life. In this way, the reader is brought closer to Luther’s person than what is often the case in other biographies.”
Tarald Rasmussen, Professor of General Church History and Research Director, University of Oslo; editor, Teologisk Tidsskrift
“Herman Selderhuis is a fine scholar but also a churchman and a teacher. Thus, he writes with an enviable, conversational ease, which makes his teaching accessible to the nonspecialist audience. In this brief biography of Martin Luther, he brings the reformer alive, from his birth in humble circumstances to his death as the most (in)famous man in Europe. Those who have never encountered the narrative of Luther’s life before will find this an accessible and satisfying introduction that wears its learning lightly and points to the deep truths to which Luther’s life and thought testified.”
Carl R. Trueman, Professor of Biblical and Religious Studies, Grove City College