Major Player: Martin Luther

Of all the historical characters referenced in my series, Martin Luther is the only one who doesn’t fit in the time period. But I have an excuse, aside from it being fantasy so I can do what I want. While writing an early draft of Rise of the Storm, I tried sticking closer to real events and found myself spending a lot of time on exposition, trying to explain the religious reformation that had taken place nearly a hundred years earlier, while still playing a huge role in the Thirty Years War. I couldn’t find a way to make it seem interesting or relevant and frankly, the book was about to die on the vine. Then I had the brilliant idea of simply making the Protestant Reformation kick off the war directly. That problem solved, I got to add one of my favorite historical characters: Martin Luther. This year also marks 500 years since the start of the Reformation, so it’s even more fitting. Sorry, this is really long, even though I feel like I’m leaving out tons.

Born to a humble though moderately prosperous  family in Saxony, Germany, Martin showed early academic aptitude. His father Hans hoped that education would give his son a better life and saw that he received thorough early schooling, then sent him to the University of Erfurt where he studied a variety of subjects in preparation for a legal career. Young Luther never did become a lawyer. Caught in a terrifying storm one night, he swore to St. Anne that if she saved his life, he would become a monk. He survived the storm and had to make good on his vow, much to his father’s disappointment.

Even before entering the church, Luther was on a quest for spiritual clarity. Unfortunately for him, he didn’t find it as a monk, and became even more disillusioned after a trip to Rome where he witnessed first-hand the corruption of the Roman Catholic church. Hoping that further study might help him come to grips with his spiritual anxiety, Luther attended Wittenberg University, eventually receiving a doctorate in theology and becoming a professor there. During this time, Luther engaged in intense study of the scriptures, finally coming to the conclusion that faith, rather than following church rules, was the key to salvation.

This belief was soon put to the test when Pope Leo X announced the sale of indulgences to raise funds for the church. Roughly stated, an indulgence is a way to reduce punishment for sin already committed and forgiven. The original idea of an indulgence was simply additional prayers or specified good works, but in the late middle ages, they became commercialized, essentially requiring people to pay for reduced “sentences” in purgatory.

Luther believed strongly that the sale of indulgences was a corruption of faith and wasn’t afraid to say so. On October 31, 1517, he nailed his famous 95 theses on the door of Wittenberg cathedral. By publicly displaying his arguments against indulgences, Luther intended to draw attention to the matter and bring about debate. Thanks to the relatively new invention of the printing press, the 95 Theses went viral and  spread to most of Europe within months.

Things went downhill from there. A cardinal met with Luther, asking him to recant and Luther refused, eventually leading to his excommunication. In 1521, he was summoned the Diet (assembly) of Worms and asked to publicly recant. Once again, he refused, sticking to his original argument that nowhere in the scripture was the pope given the sole right of interpretation. At this point he was condemned as a heretic and essentially became an outlaw. Fortunately, the ruler of Saxony, Frederick the Wise, rescued Luther and let him hide out in Wartburg castle. It was during this period of seclusion that Luther translated the New Testament into German, so the people no longer needed priests to tell them what the scriptures said.

While Luther was hidden in Wartburg,  his movement threatened to get away from him in Wittenberg. Other reformers, rebel priests and weird apocalyptic prophets were taking over the show, so Luther decided to risk arrest and returned to Wittenberg.  Making it clear that radical behavior wouldn’t be tolerated, Luther even went so far as to  side with the German ruling class in the brutal suppression of a peasant revolt. As a conservative rebel, Luther found favor with a great many German princes who saw a break with the Roman Catholic church as an excellent opportunity to gain independence from the Holy Roman Empire.

While religious reform swept northwestern Europe, Luther also took a stand against clerical celibacy by marrying  former nun Katharina von Bora.  In spite of his notoriety,Luther spent most of his life struggling financially, though marriage took a weight off. Katharina was an industrious householder, raising their six children and pigs, making beer and hosting an endless stream of visitors, freeing her husband to study and write.

By the time he died in 1546, Luther had not only changed the world forever, but produced a prodigious amount of written material. In addition to his translation of the New Testament, his most notable works were the large and small Lutheran catechisms, the books On the Freedom of a Christian, The Bondage of the Will, and dozens of hymns, many of which are still sung today. Many branches of Protestantism stem directly from the Reformation, and there’s no question that Luther was the key to changing forever the relationship between the people, the church and their God.

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7 comments on “Major Player: Martin Luther
  1. calensariel says:

    ” Luther even went so far as to side with the German ruling class in the brutal suppression of a peasant revolt.” That’s interesting. Did you deal with that in the books so far? I don’t recall unless it was just in passing? I have a great respect for Luther, but he kind of turned into a fanatic toward the end of his life, railing against the Jews for one thing, if I’m not mistaken, where as his attitude toward them early on had been pretty inclusive?

    • Christina says:

      No, I really didn’t get into that aspect of it. I mostly included the peasant revolt because they were such a common feature of the Thirty Years War. I’m sometimes sorry I never gave Edric a POV in this story; so much interesting stuff to explore! I feel the same way about Luther- later in life his views on several things seemed to shift and become a lot less tolerant.

    • Andrea R Huelsenbeck says:

      I did a little research on the Luther-Jew relationship many years ago. Luther was a supporter of the Jews, advocating tolerance. The harsh statements he made were in reaction to some Jewish animosity toward Christians, specifically some comments made about the virgin birth (I’ll leave it to your imagination).

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