October 31st, 2017 will mark the 500th Anniversary of the world changing event when religious reformer Martin Luther nailed his arguments against the practices of the Catholic Church, his 95 Theses to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany beginning the Protestant Reformation. For Lutherans and other devout, the story of Martin Luther is familiar, but to others perhaps not. Luther’s ideas changed not only a religious practice, but reshaped the world as we know it. For the traveler, it might seem following the trail of the most famous reformer would seem a fascinating way to explore a beautiful country, but also journey through history and culture.
Very few men or women change the world forever with an idea. Martin Luther was one of them. If you type in a search engine these days, you mostly get Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who also changed the world with an idea, but his name sake is a little further in the past. The Lutheran Church which bears his name, has also faded a bit with all the other variations that have sprouted from that one new idea. A giant of a religious figure, now 500 years on serves as a travel guide on the Martin Luther Trail.
If Martin Luther‘s life was a movie (and it’s been made into a few), here’s the outline. He was born the son of a lower middle class family, taking in as a young boy by a kindly wealthy woman and sent to law school. One dark and stormy night while traveling, caught in a raging torrent, he nearly drowns and vows to a saint that if she will save him, he will swear himself to the life of a monk. He survives and joins the Augustinian Order and continues his studies in theology, taking a position as Professor of Theology at the University in Wittenberg. As a young man he walks a fifteen hundred mile pilgrimage to Rome, to witness the Catholic Church at the height of the Renaissance under the “Warrior Pope“ Julius II, and the building of the great basilica of the Vatican, where Michelangelo was only half-way through painting the Sistine ceiling. He returns home to Wittenberg to teach Theology and discovers a practice going around that ties into what he has seen in Rome.
The wealthy Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg, the Archbishop of Mainz, (when church and state were under one crown), who had essentially bribed his way to his position as archbishop, needed money to pay off the debts. Using the building project of St. Peter’s in Rome as a pitch, he was “selling“ tickets to heaven, “indulgences“, where for a price, the wealthy could buy off their sins, or at least get a seat in first class through trials of purgatory, for themselves or family members. Luther sees this as a fraudulent scheme of hucksterism, and preaches his vision that the way to heaven should be only through faith alone and not for sale. He writes a long letter with 95 points of his argument to the Archbishop, and like any determined young rebel, in case his letter was ignored or “mislaid“, he boldly nailed a copy to the doors of the church (today we would use staples).
The 95 Theses, points of argument with the practices of the Catholic Church, obviously caused a sensation and here his many travels begin. Charged with heresy, he has to defend himself at the Imperial Council (Diet) of Augsburg (the parliament meeting of Electors in the German Holy Roman Empire). He is only there for three days when he realizes he could be arrested. He escapes and returns back home to Wittenberg where he is under the Protection of the ruling Prince Elector Frederick III, the Wise, who is sympathetic to his ideas.
Formally excommunicated from the church, he is summoned to another council at Worms (in the Rhineland district of his nemesis). It is demanded that he recant, but he refuses, standing more firm in his ideas than ever in the face of the power arrayed against him. He escapes again and hurries back homeward. On the road, like any good episode of “Game of Thrones“, he is confronted by armed men and kidnapped, but in a twist, the kidnappers are in the service of his benefactor, Frederick.
He is allowed to hide out at Wartburg Castle, where to disguise himself, he lets his monk’s hair grow long and grows a beard like a knight, calling himself the “Knight George“. Over ten months in hiding, he acts on his real idea that would turn the world upside down, and here it is, that the way to heaven should be only based on the words in the bible and not interpreted through priests and Pope, the people should be able to read the words for themselves. He set out to translate the New Testament from the original Greek into German. This had been done before, but Luther had a turn for language that could be understood by the common man. He struggled with his own demons as well, battling in arguments in his head with the devil as he wrote feverishly.
Luther encourages monks and nuns to leave their Catholic abbeys. One of them is Katharina von Bora. She catches his heart, and leaving behind the celibacy demanded of Catholic priests, he marries her. On Christmas Day of 1525, Luther holds the very first Protestant service of the Mass in German. With his bible achieving the popularity of a best seller, and the protection of his ruler in Saxony and Thuringia, he begins to preach his ideas throughout the region, and they catch on among the royal friends and allies of Frederick III of Saxony, looking to challenge the powers of the Catholic German Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (ruling his empire from Prague). Luther begins to develop his catechism and the formal tenets of his new faith in 38 points. In 1530, he travels again to present his ideas of a new faith to the Council in Augsburg. He can’t go to the city in Bavaria as he might be arrested, so he stays in a fortress across the border in Coburg and sends his friend, Philipp Melanchthon, to present his “Confession” at Augsburg.
Again, the Catholic Bishops and leaders refuse to accept his ideas for a change in the church. But now, the support of the northern nobles, looking to form their own power center in opposition to dictates from the south, grows. A great council is called to meet in the town of Schmalkalden. The leading families from the north lead by John of Saxony, heir to Frederick, form the Schmalkaldic League, where the new “protestant” Articles of Faith of Luther would be the official religion. Luther was aging at this point and gaining his notoriously familiar rotund shape, and suffering from passing a kidney stone.
In 1546 Luther would die at 63, while visiting the town where he was born, Eisleben. While his body is carried back home to Wittenberg, during a stop in Halle, his friend Lukas Furtenagel makes a plaster cast death mask of his face and his hands. The castings are used for a life-like figure of Luther for almost 300 years. Luther is buried at the Castle Church in Wittenberg where he had reputedly nailed his 95 Thesis.
He would not live to see the outcome of what he had set in motion. Over the next years the League fights a war with the Emperor Charles. The war comes to defeat for the League, but the new faith is so firmly established in their territories and with the threat of the Turkish Ottomans under Suleiman the Magnificent, to better face a common enemy, the Emperor agrees in the Peace of Augsburg in 1555, that the ruling dukes and princes will remain in the empire but can choose which version of the Christian religion they want to allow in their own lands, cementing the Reformation, with all its wars and variations for the next five centuries.
Martin Luther Sites and Cities
Wittenberg – Where he lived, taught and preached for 35 years and where he nailed his 95 Theses to the Castle Church Door.
Eisleben – Where he was born and where he died 63 years later.
Halle (Saale) Where he preached and where his death mask can be found in the Market Church and the Moritzburg Castle of Archbishop Albrecht.
Eisenach – Where he went to Latin School as a young man and later where he hid out in Wartburg Castle and began his translation of the Bible into German.
Schmalkalden – Where the Schmalkaldic League met and Luther hid out in the St Georg’s Church.
Coburg – Where Luther continued work on his Bible at the Veste Coburg castle while awaiting the judgement of the Augsburg Diet to his “Confession”.
Augsburg – Where he went to answer the charges of heresy before the Cardinal Cajetan and where his Augusta Confession was presented.
Worms – Where he went before the Imperial Council at the Cathedral of Worms to argue against his excommunication before escaping to Wartburg.