From Escaped Nuns to a Knight in Disguise, 10 Facts About the Life and Legacy of Martin Luther
On the 500th anniversary of his 95 Theses, look back at some of the surprising aspects of the man who changed Christianity and the world
Throughout the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church held power across much of Western Europe. With a population that was largely illiterate and a Bible written in Latin, the church and its representatives—priests, bishops and the pope—acted as the sole intermediary between humankind and God. But on October 31, 1517, a monk named Martin Luther inadvertently launched a revolution. Although popular legend holds that he nailed his 95 Theses into the church door at Wittenberg, Luther himself disputed that notion, writes Eric Metaxas in Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World.
Instead, Luther sent a letter to the Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz on that date, writing that he was dismayed at the selling of indulgences (payments parishioners made to the church to be forgiven of their sins). At the same time, Luther had written the 95 Theses in Latin, and in the following days he posted them in Wittenberg to be debated. At the time, he had no idea how quickly his work would be translated and spread across Europe, or what the ultimate outcome of it would be. He merely wanted to better the future of Christianity by tweaking the existing system. But as Metaxas writes, this goal would “entail uprooting the very structure of European reality, one that had been growing and thriving these many centuries.”
While the 95 Theses were revolutionary in their own way, Luther went on to write multiple treatises and essays that overthrew previous notions of Christianity, including the assertions that anyone reading Scripture had the right to interpret it, that humans get to heaven through faith alone (not repenting of sins or buying of indulgences) and that the relationship with God is a personal one. These notions went in direct contradiction to the teachings of the Catholic Church.
Today there are 65 million Lutherans, and Luther’s movement also produced enough fissures in the edifice of the Catholic Church that a number of other Protestant movements sprang from it: Anglicanism, Methodism and Baptist churches are just a few examples. While there are still 1.2 billion Roman Catholics around the world, Luther’s ideas undoubtedly reshaped the world.
To learn more about Luther’s contribution to Christianity and the development of the modern world, peruse these 10 fascinating facts about his life and legacy.
Luther’s fate mirrored the life of the saint he was named for
When baby Luther was baptized on November 11, he was given the name of the saint whose feast day fell on that date—Martin. The resemblance between their two life paths was uncanny. Saint Martin, a 4th-century soldier in the Roman army, declared that killing people contradicted his Christian beliefs and was arrested. Ultimately the battle didn’t happen, and Martin was released and chose to become a monk. As Metaxas writes, “Eleven centuries from when this first Martin took his Christian stand against the Roman empire, the second Martin would take his Christian stand against the Holy Roman Empire—in exactly the same place [the city of Worms].”
A summer thunderstorm sealed Luther’s religious fate
Before he set out on the path of religion, Luther was training to be a lawyer. Yet his life at that time was also fraught with near-death accidents. In 1503, while traveling home for Easter, the sword he was carrying cut his leg and severed a main artery. He nearly bled to death before a doctor could be found to sew up the wound. Then, in 1505 and on the verge of becoming a lawyer, he was caught outside in a terrible thunderstorm. Luther called out to Saint Anne to save him and promised to become a monk if she did. He survived the storm and entered the Augustinian cloister of Erfurt several weeks later, despite his friends’ efforts to convince him not to.
He disguised himself as a knight to avoid persecution by the Catholic Church
After Luther posted his 95 Theses in 1517, he continued writing scandalous tracts against the Catholic Church, and later declared a heretic. In 1521, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, contacted Luther and promised safe passage to attend the 1521 Diet of Worms—a council of religious and political leaders—and stand on trial. Once there, religious leaders asked if he stood by the opinions he had previously espoused. Luther said that he did, knowing it might mean he would be tortured or burned at the stake. To help Luther escape these fates, Frederick III of Saxony staged Luther’s kidnapping and placed him at Wartburg Castle. Luther disguised himself as a knight named Junker Jörg and spent his time translating the New Testament from Greek into German so common people could read it.
The scandal of the century: an ex-monk marrying an ex-nun
Katharina von Bora spent more than a decade of her early life cloistered in convent schools and then as a nun herself. But in early 1523, she and other nuns were smuggled out of their convent by a merchant delivering herring. After making her way to Wittenberg, von Bora married Luther in 1525, scandalizing Catholics and opening up the possibility for married clergy in Reformation churches. But von Bora’s contribution to Luther’s work hardly ended there. She also had six children, managed the household and their finances, and participated in scholarly gatherings Luther held at their home—something unheard of for the time. Luther even named his wife his sole inheritor, something so unusual that judges ruled it illegal after Luther’s death.
A pint of homebrewed beer made Luther’s day
Not only did Luther defy Catholic teachings and get married, he was also a big fan of beer. “Sometimes we must drink more, sport, recreate ourselves, aye, and even sin a little to spite the devil,” Luther wrote. “We are conquered if we try too conscientiously not to sin at all.” He also found it helpful for falling asleep, and in one letter home to his wife said, “I keep thinking what good wine and beer I have at home, as well as a beautiful wife.”
Luther with his lute, becoming a lyricist
In addition to achieving acclaim for his religious writings, Luther was also an accomplished musician. He played the lute and the flute and used his knowledge of music to translate chants from Latin into German. Luther also composed his own original hymns, including “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” and he made communal singing a central element of Lutheran worship practice.
Thanks to pamphlets and the printing press, the Reformation spread like wildfire
The invention of Gutenberg’s printing press in 1440 set the stage for a series of social changes in Europe—and Luther made full use of that technology to spread his new teachings. Instead of writing books, Luther introduced pamphlets, small tracts of eight to 16 pages that could be printed in a day rather than weeks or months. His first German pamphlet from 1518, “Sermon on Indulgences and Grace,” was reprinted 14 times in a single year, with runs of at least 1,000 copies each time, reports The Economist. The first decade of the Reformation saw the printing of around 6 million pamphlets: more than a quarter were written by Luther.
A woodcut worth 1,000 words
Throughout his career, Luther worked closely with famed artist Lucas Cranach. The painter was hired by Frederick III (the same man who kept Luther safe from persecution) and would go on to paint and sketch Luther on multiple occasions. Since Luther was constantly at odds with the Catholic Church, he found creative ways to mock and challenge their authority—including through art. Luther commissioned Cranach to create a woodcut called The True Depiction of the Papacy in 1534, which included images of the devil defecating monks while the pope is suckled by a Medusa-like crone.
The conspiracies of death, before death arrived
The Catholic-bashing Luther indulged in was hardly one-sided; in Luther’s last year, Catholic writers repeatedly spread rumors of the monk’s death. One account claimed that the grave into which Luther’s body was placed was later found to be completely empty except for the stench of sulfur, implying he’d been taken straight to hell. In his rejoinder, Luther wrote, “I felt quite tickled on my knee-cap and under my left heel at this evidence how cordially the devil and his minions, the Pope and the papists, hate me.” When Luther did die on February 18, 1546, his last hours were closely recorded by his confessor, Justus Jonas, so that more rumors about Luther’s death could be quashed.
Luther’s legacy lived on, in the form of another famous leader
When Atlanta pastor Michael King traveled to Germany in 1934, he was so inspired by the story of Luther’s Reformation, he decided to change his name. He also changed the name of his then 5-year-old son, Michael Jr. From that day on, Michael Jr. was known as Martin Luther King, Jr.