A series on the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation

Martin Luther was the son of German parents, Hans and Margareta Luder (Luther).  He was born at Eisleben in Saxony, on November 10, 1483 [D. 1546]. Luther’s grandparents had peasant roots, and His dad worked hard to elevate the family status. Luther’s father was a miner and later owned several small mines. Ultimately, he became a small-scale businessman.

Young Martin’s upbringing was harsh. In his stern German home there was no spoiling the child by sparing the rod. This family experience spilled over into Luther’s childhood concept of God as harsh and stern, and certainly not loving; reasoning that continued into his adulthood. This perception of God was true of medieval culture at large, and Martin’s parents strictly reinforced the discipline. Luther’s parents, and especially his dad, definitely influenced Luther’s almost bull-headed determination, and it bode him so well later in life in his struggle with the papacy.

Luther wrote that his father once whipped him so harshly he ran away. Young Luther harbored anger toward his dad and did not go back home until Hans took some pains to bring him back. Luther also said his mother caned him so severely for stealing a nut that she drew blood. Luther later observed he realized Margareta meant well, and that she also instilled in him a fond love for music. That affection for song would become very important in his later years as the Reformation began to blossom.

Hans and Margareta realized their Martin was an intelligent and gifted young man. Like so many parents in American culture today, they were willing to spare nothing to give their child a better life than they enjoyed. For Hans, this meant Luther would go to university and become a lawyer, which would certainly enhance the family’s image and, hopefully, its wealth. As for Martin, he had no voice in this career choice; his father decided it – no questions allowed!

All education at the time began with mastering Latin, and Hans and Margareta sent Martin to a Latin school at Mansfeld in 1490; then in 1497 to Magdeburg, and in 1498 to Eisenach. His early education was typical of late-fifteenth-century customs. A young man in Martin Luther’s world had basically two choices to escape poverty, the law and the church.

Martin enrolled at the University of Erfurt in 1501. He earned a Master of Arts degree in 1505.

It was at this time that Luther’s commitment to pursue law was about to change.

Luther walked home for a visit after graduation in the summer of 1505. His parents were glad to see him and had no reason not to believe he would become a lawyer. After the visit was over, Martin headed back to the University at Erfurt in the company of his good friend, Alexius. As their journey neared Erfurt, the clouds began to blacken and lightning started exploding in ear-shattering thunder. One bolt electrocuted Alexius in seconds as he fell to the ground. Fearing for his life Luther cried out to St. Anne to save him and in desperation promised he would enter a monastery and become a monk. [St. Anne, in Catholic thought, was the mother of Mary, the mother of Jesus.]

That storm changed Martin Luther’s life and in its own way helped launch the Protestant Reformation.

Two weeks later, against his father’s wishes and to the dismay of his friends, Luther entered the Augustinian monastery at Erfurt. There he took the vow of poverty and chastity, and dedicated himself to appeasing the wrath of God as he labored to earn his salvation.

One can only imagine what a great moment in Luther’s life it was when the truth of Scripture finally dawned on him that he could not pacify God’s righteous requirements and he had no reason even to try. Instead, salvation comes by grace through faith alone; Jesus loves all people and forgives all who repent and accept Him as the Son of God.

Augustus Toplady summarized this great Biblical revelation in a poem a couple of centuries after Luther. “Rock of Ages” soon became one of the most beloved hymns the Protestant Reformation has produced.  The second stanza says:

Nothing in my hand I bring
Simply to the cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Savior, or I die.
From “Rock of Ages” by Augustus Toplady (1776).

When Luther’s father learned of his son’s decision to walk away form a career in law and instead join a monastery, he went into a tirade of cursing and swearing. But Luther had made his choice and never changed his mind.

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) lived two centuries before Luther and was another great medieval scholar. He made a decision similar to Luther’s when, against his parent’s wishes, he forsook the wealth of his family and the privileged comforts of home, and joined the Dominican monastic order. In Aquinas’ case it was his mother, Theodora, who “went into orbit” when she learned it, and angrily demanded that Pope Innocent IV reverse the decision. He did not.

Aquinas was asked “whether duties toward parents are to be set aside for the sake of religion?” Aquinas quoted Jesus first: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy to follow me” (Matthew 10:37). Then he cited St. Jerome (ca. 347–420 A.D.): “Though your father fling himself down on the doorstep, trample him underfoot, go your way and fly with dry eyes to the standard of the Cross.”

The reader who desires to learn more about Luther’s life before and after his break with Rome will easily find a wealth of quality information on computer by typing into your search engine “Martin Luther’s early years.”

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