Who Was Martin Luther? Part 1

Rev. Donavon Riley

When Martin Luther died on February 18, 1546 some people said they'd heard a rumor that demons flew out of his body. Others said witnesses at his death bed saw Martin carried into heaven by Elijah and the chariots of Israel.

But who was Martin Luther really? Was he a prophet like Elijah? A demon? A hero of the faith? A revolutionary? The man responsible for splitting Christendom once and for all?

Unlike his death, Luther's birth wasn't such a big deal. His dad, Hans Luder, was a peasant, meaning he was poor and of no importance to anyone who mattered. But Hans had plans, and he'd decided he wasn't going to be a peasant his whole life.

By the time his second son, Martin, was born on November 10, 1483, Hans had moved from his hometown of Mohra to Eiselben. Hans was a good man, a devoted husband and father, and faithful. That's why he took Martin to be baptized at the church of St. Peter on the day of his birth. Well, that and, at that time, more than sixty percent of babies died so Hans was afraid his child wouldn't be allowed into heaven if he weren't baptized. That day was also the Feast of St. Martin, so Hans named the boy "Martin."

Hans' own dad had died around the time of Martin's birth. That meant he had no support for himself or his young family. He was on his own now. With few options, Hans went to work in his brother's fields. But that didn't sit right with him, so before long he left to make his own fortune.

The family moved to Mansfeld about ten miles away from Eiselben. Hans took a job in a copper mine. It was very dangerous work. Cave-ins, poison air, and water flooding into the shafts were constant threats to the miners.

Hans' wasn't paid very well, which meant that money was tight for the Luders when Martin was young. He later recalled that his mother beat him until his hands bled for stealing a nut off the kitchen table. Another time, Hans whipped Martin with a cane for playing a trick on someone. They wouldn't tolerate bad behavior or dishonesty. The Luders were determined to be more than just peasants and to ensure that their children would enjoy a better life than them.

At the same time, the end of the 1400s were rough for everybody. The world was a hard and violent place. Plagues, peasant revolts, wars, famine, and drought were a part of ordinary life.

In spite of the conditions, Hans dreamed of a better life for his children no matter how dark and dreary the world around them. That's why, instead of dragging his son into a copper mine with him, Hans sent young Martin to the town school. Later, in 1497, Martin went on to Magdeburg, then a year later to Eisenach. After that, to the University of Erfurt.

Hans wanted Martin to succeed and he was willing to sacrifice his own comfort and happiness to make it happen. Martin, on the other hand, had nothing but criticism for his education. He was not yet five years old when he started Latin school. The students were regularly insulted, cursed, and beaten in order to motivate them. On more than one occasion, young Martin was made to wear a dunce cap and referred to as "ass" for the day. If a student got into too much trouble he was sent home to be whipped with a cane by his parents.

In spite of his treatment, Martin grew to love music above all other subjects. He became very good at performing and composing music. But he wasn't taught music so he could enjoy it. He was made to learn so he could sing in the church choir.

At Latin school, Martin learned the Lord's Prayer, Ten Commandments, and Creed by heart. Students who failed to memorize these in Latin were whipped with a cane. Martin later recalled he was beaten fifteen times in one morning for failing to memorize and recite the assigned Latin homework.

In 1497, when he thirteen, Martin had learned enough Latin to "graduate" to another school. He went to live in Magdeburg, where he lived with the Brethren of the Common Life. They were a very pious group of laity. In between classes, Martin was made to walk the streets with classmates singing hymns and begging for food. This is also where the modern practice of "caroling" at Christmas time began. But unlike today, the boys were expected to carol all year round. They were students and beggars. If they wanted to eat or drink anything they were expected to "beg for their supper."

No one looked at little Martin Luther and said "He's demon-possessed!" Or, "He's going to be the prophet of Germany!" Luther's early life was unimportant and by his own recollection, brutal and difficult.

Next week, we will read more about Martin's early education in Eisenach and the thing that happened at Erfurt that changed his life.

Rev. Donavon Riley is the pastor of St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church in Webster, Minnesota. He is also the online content manager for Higher Things.

Created: August 9th, 2016