Indulgences: Buying Souls

1517 (Luther age 33) - Archbishop Albert commissioned Johann Tetzel, a member of the Dominican order, to preach papal indulgences in Saxony and Brandenberg and gave him a book of instructions. Here is a condensed version:

From Albert, Archbishop of Magdeburg and Mainz, Primate and Chancellor of the Holy Roman Empire in Germany, Elector, Administrator of the Churches in Halberstadt, Margrave in Brandenburg, etc. To all who read this letter: Salvation in the Lord.

We proclaim that our holy Lord Leo X has given to all Christian believers who lend a hand for the reconstruction of the church of St. Peter in Rome, complete indulgence as well as other graces and freedoms, which the Christian believer may obtain.

The first grace is the complete remission of all sins. Through such forgiveness the punishment which one is obliged to undergo in purgatory because of the offence is remitted and the pain of purgatory is done away with.

Everyone who is contrite in heart and has confessed with his mouth — or has the intention of confessing at a suitable time — shall visit the seven churches where the papal coat of arms is displayed and pray in each church five devout Lord's Prayers and five Ave Marias to obtain forgiveness of sins.

If persons cannot come to such a church, their confessor should bring an altar to a suitable place according to his discretion. When such persons visit this place and offer their prayers near or before the altar, they shall receive the indulgence as though they had visited the seven churches.

Those on a sick bed are to be given a holy picture, before or near which they shall offer several prayers according to the decision of the confessor. They shall receive the indulgence in this manner as though they had visited the seven churches.

Concerning the contribution to the chest for the building of St. Peter, the confessors are to ask those making confession, after having explained the full forgiveness and privilege of this indulgence: How much money or other temporal goods they would give for such full forgiveness? Because the conditions are many and diverse, it is not possible to establish a general fee. We have therefore fixed the following rates:

  • Kings, queens, and their sons, archbishops and bishops, and other great rulers should pay twenty-five Rhenish guilders.
  • Abbots, prelates of cathedral churches, counts, barons, and others of the higher nobility and their wives shall pay for each letter of indulgence ten such gold guilders.
    Other citizens and merchants, who ordinarily earn 200 such gold florins, should pay three florins.
  • Other citizens and merchants, and artisans, who have their families and income of their own, shall pay one such guilder; those of lesser means, pay only half
  • Those who do not have any money should supply their contribution with prayer. For the kingdom of heaven should be open to the poor no less than to the rich.

1517 (age 33) - Upon his commissioning by Albert, Dominican monk Johann Tetzel began selling indulgences in Jüterborg and Zerbst, small towns not far from Wittenberg, but beyond the borders of Saxony where indulgence sales were prohibited by Elector Frederick the Wise. Tetzel was a showman, the P.T. Barnum or Buffalo Bill Cody of his day. He arrived with trumpeters, an armed guard, bells, candles and flags. Staging his show in the nave of a church, Tetzel displayed a brass-bound chest, a stack of printed indulgences, an enormous cross and a banner with the papal crest. Tetzel banged a drum and launched into a chilling description of souls writhing in purgatory:

Listen to the voices of your dear dead relatives and friends, saying, 'Pity us. Pity us. We are in dire torment from which you can redeem us for a pittance. Will you delay our promised glory.

To further entice his gullible listeners to make purchases he devised a catchy slogan:

As soon a coin in coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.

Some of Luther's parishioners we're among Tetzel's customers. Luther, the parish priest, noticed fewer people coming to confession. They claimed that after purchasing Tetzel's indulgences they no longer needed to repent and change their lives in order to be forgiven of sin. After hearing what Tetzel said about indulgences in his sermons, Luther began to investigate the issue more carefully. He preached against indulgences several times that year, explaining that true repentance was better than purchasing an indulgence.

Printed indulgence sold by Johann Tetzel. The German text reads, "In the authority of all the saints, and in compassion towards you, I absolve you from all sins and misdeeds, and remit all punishment for ten days."

indulgence chest

Indulgence chest, 16th century with a padlock from 20th century, displayed at the Minneapolis Institute of Art in 2016. Trunks like this were used by Johann Tetzel and other indulgence preachers to collect money from those who wanted a reduced time in purgatory. To Martin Luther this was a corrupt, misleading and non-biblical practice.

April to October 1517 - Luther presumably began writing his 95 Theses, expressing his objections to the practice of selling indulgences. He was merely using a means by which other scholars brought issues to the attention of others.

Hammer Blows

October 31, 1517 (the eve of All Saints Day) - Elector Frederick placed his collection of reliquaries on display in Wittenberg's All Saints Church (aka Castle Church). Reliquaries were elaborate precious-metal pieces made by artists to enshrine holy objects. Frederick's Castle Church housed one of the largest collections of relics in Europe. In the Middle Ages, treasured relics at sites of pilgrimage were regarded as holy items. Those who paid to venerate the thousands of items in Frederick's collection were promised indulgences granting a significant reduction of time in purgatory. The event greatly benefited the Elector financially, and helped support his university.

reliquary book from wittenberg

Pilgrims could purchase reliquary books, i.e. catalogues of relics, when they came to the Castle Church. The books acted as souvenirs of their pilgrimage, aids for meditation and prayer, and even as advertisements for the display of the relics and the pilgrimage site. The illustrations by Lucas Cranach in this Wittenberg Reliquary Book paint a vivid picture of the sheer number of objects in the Wittenberg treasure of relics, which had been collected by Elector Frederick the Wise. At the same time, it was intended to show the abundance of the Elector's political, religious and intellectual power.

On or before October 31, 1517 - Luther, who was acutely aware of church authority, sent a letter to Albert of Brandenburg, Archbishop of Mainz ( his "boss"), objecting to the sale of indulgences:

Under your most distinguished name, papal indulgences are offered over all the land for the construction of St. Peter ... I do not so much complain about the quacking of the preachers which I haven't heard, but I bewail the gross misunderstanding among the people which comes from these preachers ... Evidently the poor souls believe that when they have bought indulgence letters they are assured salvation. They are likewise convinced that souls escape purgatory as soon as they have placed a contribution in the chest ...The first and only duty of the bishops is to see that the people learn the gospel and the love of Christ ... for on no occasion has Christ ordered that indulgences should be preached ... what a horror, what a danger for a bishop to permit the loud noise of indulgences among his people, while the gospel is silenced ...

With his letter, Luther enclosed a copy of his Treatise on Indulgences, along with his Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences, which became known as the 95 Theses. Luther assumed that Albert would want to know about church abuses in his jurisdiction and was thoroughly convinced that after he read his theses that the scope of the scandal of indulgences would reach him and he'd kick out all the indulgence sellers.

According to Luther he was unaware at the time that Albert had cut a deal with the pope and had a vested interest in the ongoing selling of indulgences. He needed the revenue they produced to repay the loan he secured from the Fuggers to purchase his offices.

October 31, 1517 (Luther age 28) - According to a preface to the second volume of Luther's Latin works, written by Philip Melanchthon in June 1546, Luther nailed a copy of his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg on the eve of All Saints Day.

Scholars have questioned Melanchthon's account, noting that Luther's colleague didn't arrive in Wittenberg until 1518, so wasn't an eyewitness. Nearly 30 years had passed by the time Melanchthon wrote, and few if any eyewitnesses existed to verify his statement. We are further handicapped because Luther never mentioned any public posting of his theses, not in his own writings reviewing the beginning of the controversy, nor in his later Table Talk. Luther did recall preaching to the people about grace and remission of sins against the shallow proclamations of indulgence hawkers.

Undoubtedly Melanchthon and Luther had countless conversations not recorded elsewhere, so that Melanchthon could simply have reported what Luther had told him, namely, that on October 31, 1517, Luther posted a copy of his 95 Theses on the Castle Church door.

Furthermore, Luther seems to also have held private discussions with other associates and to have sent copies of the theses to friends.

Also, a handwritten note recorded before Luther's death in a book owned by Georg Rörer (1492–1557), Luther's faithful scribe who preserved many of his lectures and sermons, mentions how the Theses were published on all the church doors in Wittenberg.

But none of this has the visual impact of a robed monk hammering a set of theses to church doors and calling for a debate. Luther scholars have rushed to defend the historicity of the hammer blows stating that posting announcements on church doors was regularly used for exactly the kind of announcement Luther made:

Out of love for the truth and from desire to elucidate it, the Reverend Father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and Sacred Theology, and ordinary lecturer at Wittenberg, intends to defend the following statements and to dispute on them in that place. Therefore he asks that those who cannot be present and dispute with him orally shall do so in their absence by letter.

But whether the "hammering" event happened on a specific date — or at all — is not the point. In 21st century terminology the theses "went viral." They were translated from their original Latin, the language of scholars, diplomacy and the church, into German, the language of everyday people, and given to a printer (or printers?) for publication and distribution. In an amazingly short time — two weeks — they spread throughout Germany, within two months throughout Europe, and an obscure Augustinian monk, a nobody in a backwater university in a little town, become a household name. It was one of the first events in history profoundly affected by a revolutionary new technology: the printing press with moveable metal type, invented by Johannes Gutenberg around 1439. Luther commented:

I only intended to submit [the Theses] to a few close friends for discussion ... I wanted to publish them, only if they met with approval. But now they are being printed and spread everywhere far beyond my expectation ... Still, the spread of my Theses shows what people everywhere really think of Indulgences.

Key points of Martin Luther's 95 Theses (debate points):

Luther's Theses were sharp, witty and to the point. They made Germans every here think, laugh and nod their heads. Here are some examples:

  • When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, says "Repent" he means that the entire life of the faithful should be repentance.
  • Those who suppose that because they have purchased letters of indulgence they are sure of salvation will be eternally damned along with their teachers.
  • Every Christian who truly repents has full forgiveness both of punishment and guilt bestowed on him, without letters of indulgence.
  • True Christians, whether living or dead, have a share in all the benefits of Christ and the Church, for God has granted these to them without letters of indulgence.
  • Christians should be taught that whoever sees a person in need and, instead of helping him, uses his money to buy an indulgence, earns the displeasure of God.
  • Christians should be taught that the pope should give his own money to the poor, from whom certain preachers of indulgences extract money, even if he had to sell St. Peter's Cathedral to do it.
  • Why doesn't the pope empty purgatory for the sake of love … after all, he releases countless souls for the sake of money contributed for the building of a cathedral?
  • Indulgence preachers are in error when they people are absolved from every penalty and saved by papal indulgences.
  • Indulgence preachers speak human doctrines when they say that as soon as the money clinks into the money chest, the soul flies out of purgatory.
  • Those who believe that they can be certain of their salvation because they have purchased indulgence letters will be eternally damned, together with their teachers.
  • Any truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without indulgence letters.
  • Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better deed than he who buys indulgences.
  • Christians are to be taught that, unless they have more than they need, they must reserve enough for their family's needs and not squander it on indulgences.
  • Christians are to be taught that if the pope knew the exactions of the indulgence preachers, he would rather that the basilica of St. Peter were burned to ashes than built up with the skin, flesh and bones of his sheep.
  • Christians are to be taught that the pope would and should wish to give of his own money, even though he had to sell the basilica of St. Peter, to many of those from whom certain hawkers of indulgences plead for money.
  • To consider papal indulgences so great that they could absolve a man even if he had done the impossible and had violated the mother of God is madness.
  • Why does not the pope, whose wealth is greater than the wealth of Croesus build the basilica of St. Peter with his own money rather than with the money of poor believers?

The doors of Wittenberg's Castle Church today. The church was seriously damaged by fire in 1760 after a French bombardment during the Seven Years War. The church was quickly rebuilt, and later (1885-1892) further restored. In 1858, to commemorate the 375th anniversary of Luther's birth, the doors were replaced with ones of bronze with the original Latin text of the 95 Theses.

Luder/Ludher becomes Luther

About the time Martin authored his 95 Theses, he briefly changed his ancestral surname from Luder to Eluetheros, Greek for "free," reflecting his new-found understanding of the Gospel. Luder or Ludher, it seems had some negative meanings: hussy, whore. Soon, however, he dropped all but the "th," and inserted it into his birth name, calling himself "Luther," a more proper sounding name in academic circles.

War of the Pamphlets: And the Winner Is...

December 1, 1517 - Archbishop Albert forward the copies of Luther's 95 Theses and his Treatise on Indulgences on to the faculty of the University of Mainz, asking their opinion as to the orthodoxy of the documents. Later that month the Mainz professors sent a brief report and advised the Archbishop to send Luther's writings on to Pope Leo in Rome—which the Archbishop had already done.

January 20, 1518 - Three hundred Dominicans met at their regional chapter meeting in Frankfurt for a disputation (debate) concerning Luther's 95 Theses. In an attempt of refute Luther's theses indulgence preacher Johann Tetzel presented 106 Theses written by Konrad Koch (also known as Konrad Wimpina), a fellow Dominican and professor at Frankfort University.

At first Pope Leo tried to ignore what was happening in Wittenberg. He reportedly commented:

Brother Martin is a man of fine genius, and this outbreak is a mere squabble of envious monks."

Still later he said,

It is a drunken German who wrote the Theses; when sober he will change his mind.

January–March, 1518 In response to Tetzel’s 106 Theses, Luther wrote Resolutiones (in Latin) to further clarify his understanding of indulgences and penance. However, it was not published until early summer 1518. Luther also was increasingly aware of a campaign waged against him by Dominican preachers, who attacked him from various pulpits as a heretic and one who deviates from established Church practice.

February 1518 – It took Pope Leo three months to realize that he had to act, and he instructed the victor-general of the Augustinian Order, Gabriel Venetus, to quiet the restless monk.

March 1518 – Pope Leo appointed a commission of inquiry headed by scholar Silvester Mazzolini, known as Priero or Prierias after his birthplace (Priero, Italy). Mazzolini, a monk in the influential Dominican Order, didn't know what he was getting into. He wrote a dialogue in Latin concluding that Luther was an ignorant and blasphemous arch-heretic (not in agreement with the standard teachings of the Church).

March (latter part) 1518 A bookseller arrived in Wittenberg to sell printed copies of Tetzel’s 106 Theses. University students, enthusiastic supporters of Luther, took the copies and burned them in the town square.

March 26, 1518 (age 34) Another disputation was held at Heidelberg to debate Luther's ideas at a meeting of the Augustinian Order. Luther joined the debate in April. Several of the brothers accepted his way of thinking.

April 1518 - Luther published his Sermon on Indulgences and Grace (Eynn Sermon von dem Ablasz und Gnade), an 8-page pamphlet, to make his 95 Theses easier to understand by non-scholars. It was written in German rather than the scholarly Latin, avoiding regional vocabulary to ensure that his words were intelligible to all Germanic peoples. It stressed good works and sincere repentance over indulgences, which Luther criticized as non-scriptural. He blasted the Catholic clergy for wasting money on St. Peter's Basilica when it could be better spent on the poor in their own neighborhoods.

An instant hit, it was reprinted 14 times in 1518 alone in print runs of at least 1,000 copies each. Many regard it as the true starting point of the Reformation. The sermon swept through the major centers of the Holy Roman Empire, and the broader reading public first came to know something of Luther. It has been described as "the world's first printed best-seller."

No one can defend the position with with any passage from Scripture that God's righteousness desires or demands any punishment or satisfaction from sinners except for their heartfelt and true contrition alone with the condition that from that moment on they bear the cross of Christ and practice works, but not as imposed by anyone. For this is what God said through Ezekiel: "But if a wicked person turns away from all the sins they have committed and keeps all my decrees and does what is just and right, I will no longer remember their sins." (Ezekiel 18:21 together with 33:14-16)

Sermon on indulgences and grace

This was just the beginning of a media war between Luther and various opponents. And Luther and his colleagues soon proved they were as comfortable with the modern technology of their time as a 9-year-old child is with a smart phone today.

Soon after Luther's Sermon on Indulgences and Grace was published, indulgence preacher Johann Tetzel wrote Vorlegung gemacht von Bruder Johan Tetzel Prediger Ordens Ketzermeister (Rebuttal Made by Brother Johann Tetzel, the Order of Preachers' Inquisitor of Heretics), his attempt to refute Luther's popular Sermon. Like Luther, Tetzel wrote in German, attempting to show how heretical Luther's statements were and warning Christians not to be seduced by what Luther wrote. In contrast to Luther's sermon, no one reprinted Tetzel's rebuttal.

End of April/beginning of May 1518 - Luther called Tetzel’s Vorlegung “an unparalleled example of ignorance” and produced a second printed response: Eine Freiheit des Sermons Päpstlichen Ablass und Gnade Belangend (A Defense of the Sermon on Papal Indulgence and Grace). Also a best-seller, it was reprinted 11 times between 1518 and 1520.

May, 1518 - Tetzel issued another rebuttal, 50 Theses in Latin, with himself as the author. While he discussed indulgences, his emphasis was on the authority of the Church. The Rebuttal was well-structured; showed an understanding of Scripture and Catholic doctrines. This was his last publication.  Later that year he retired to a monastery in Leipzig, deserted by the public, broken in spirit and in ill health.

May 30, 1518 - Luther wrote a letter to Christoph von Scheurl, town clerk of Nurnberg:

As you are surprised that I did not send [the 95 Theses] to you, my purpose was not to publish them, but first to consult a few of our associates and neighbors about them, then either destroy them (if condemned) or publish them (if approved). But now they have been printed again and again and circulated far beyond my expectation.

August 1518 - Wittenberg University was allowed to add seven chairs to its faculty. The chair in Greek was awarded to then 21-year-old Philipp Melanchthon, who earlier that year published a Greek grammar that was to remain in constant demand as a textbook for many decades. It was "subsequently used for 200 years, even in Catholic schools." At the time he came to Wittenberg it was considered a back-country village with mud streets and a severe climate, with a second-rate university. Despite many opportunities to serve at other universities, he called Wittenberg home for the remaining 42 years of his life. He became Luther's close friend and collaborator.

August 5, 1518 - Emperor Maximilian I denounced Luther as a heretic.

August 1518 – Pope Leo again turned to his advisor, Dominican monk Mazzolini, requesting that he denounce Luther's 95 Theses. Mazzolini said of Luther's Theses that they bite like a cur (a mixed-breed dog). He argued that the pope was the head of the church, that he could not err and that anyone who denied the teaching of the church and the pope was a heretic.

Luther simply dismissed Mazzolini's work. He republished it with an introduction, calling it supercilious, thoroughly Italian and in agreement with the teachings of Thomas of Aquinas, a 13th century Dominican monk and theologian.

Mazzolini answered Luther with another document, which Luther republished with a short preface, bluntly advising Mazzolini to not make himself any more ridiculous by continuing to write.

August 7, 1518 - Luther was summoned to Rome within sixty days to answer charges against him.

August 23, 1518 – Pope Leo demanded that Elector Frederick "the Wise" of Saxony deliver up the "child of the devil."

Elector Frederick intervened on Luther's behalf, asking that he be allowed to meet with the Pope's representative at the governing council (Diet) at Augsburg in southwestern Germany rather than travel to Rome. Frederick took this action because he felt it was his responsibility as a prince to ensure his subject was treated fairly. Pope Leo acceded to Frederick's wishes because he needed German financial support for a planned military campaign that he hoped to sponsor against the Ottoman Empire—whose forces were poised to invade central Europe from Hungary—and because Frederick was one of the seven electors who would choose the successor of the ailing Holy Roman emperor Maximilian I. Pope Leo had a vital interest in the outcome of this election.

Cardinal Cajetan vs. Luther

August 23, 1518 - Pope Leo X ordered his representative, Thomas Cardinal Cajetan, to meet with Luther at the governing council (Diet) at Augsburg in southwestern German, and demand he retract his position on indulgences.

October 12-14, 1518 - The meeting began with Luther showing great respect toward the cardinal but it soon turned contentious. It was made more difficult by the fact that neither had great respect for the other. Cajetan observed that Luther had "ominous eyes and wondrous fantasies in his head," while Luther remarked that Cajetan was "an evasive, obscure and unintelligible theologian." Luther wrote home that the cardinal was no more fitted to handle the case than an ass to play on a harp.

The cardinal reminded Luther that the Pope was the interpreter of Scripture and that he was above a council, above everything in the Church.

Luther explained that Peter, who was considered the first Pope, was rebuked by Paul and was thus not infallible, then surely any successor to Peter was not infallible.

The cardinal said, "I don't wish to talk more with this beast; he has a deep eye, and marvellous speculations in his head." He bellowed that Luther should leave and never come back unless he was ready to recant.

Luther refused.

Word reached Luther that Cajetan was planning to arrest him and taken to Rome for further examination. The gates of the walled city were guarded. With help from some his supporters Luther escaped Worms during the night of October 20. The head of his Augustinian order Johann Staupitz furnished him with a horse and guide. Disguised in a long mantle, barefooted and unarmed, Luther rode until the evening of the next day. He dismounted and fell helpless on a bed of straw. At Gräfenthal, about 130 miles south-southwest of Wittenberg, he was overtaken by count Albert of Mansfeld, who laughed heartily at Luther's horsemanship, and insisted on having him as his guest.

On the one-year anniversary of posting his 95 Theses he arrived back in Wittenberg a hunted man and placed himself under the protection of Elector Frederick III. Luther wrote a letter to Pope Leo stating that Cajetan had not treated him fairly and that he would still retract his statements if he could be shown his errors from the Bible. He issued an appeal that his case be heard by a general council.

November 9, 1518 - Pope Leo X issued the Papal bull, Cum Postquam ("When After"), defining the church's doctrine of indulgences. It directly contradicted Luther's position.

*bull (so-called because it was sealed with a red seal or bulla).

December 18, 1518 - Luther was ready to go into exile. But Elector Frederick chose not to banish him, despite requests by the Pope (via his representative Carl von Miltitz) to do so. Instead, Frederick called for a debate on the questions raised by Luther and indicated he would not banish Luther or send him to Rome until he is convicted of heresy.

January 4, 1519 (age 35) – For reasons unknown Pope Leo chose to attempt diplomacy before taking harsher actions against Luther. He sent his chamberlain, Carl von Miltitz to Elector Frederick "the Wise" with a gift and arranged to meet with Luther in Altenburg. During his journey to Altenburg Miltiz discovered a wide-spread and growing sympathy for Luther among the people—three to one in his favor.

January 6, 1519 – The meeting between Luther and Miltitz went well. Miltitz blamed much of the controversy on indulgence hawker Johann Tetzel. Luther made certain concessions: to send a letter of apology to the Pope, and to lay his case before Matthias Lang, the archbishop of Salzburg.

January 12, 1519 - Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I died. In choosing his successor the German electors preferred one of their own. But they agreed to accept the head of one of the great powers, either Francis I of France or Charles I of Spain. The pope objected to both on the grounds that the choice of either would upset the balance of power upon which the church's security rested. Instead the pope preferred Frederick the Wise, the Elector of Saxony, and Luther was his prized professor. Given this circumstance, the pope had to tread lightly until the election was settled.

March 13, 1519 – Luther wrote Georg Spalatin, Frederick the Wise's advisor:

I know not whether the Pope is antichrist himself, or his apostle; so wretchedly is Christ corrupted and crucified by him in the Decretals.

  • The Decretals were a collection of letters containing "official decisions" by popes from Clement I (c. 90 AD) to Gregory the Great (c. 600 AD). In reality, the letters were forgeries put together around 842 by someone calling himself Isidore Mercator. With the Decretals was another fictitious document, the Donation of Constantine (8th century), purporting to be a record by the Emperor Constantine of his conversion, the profession of his new faith and the privileges he conferred on Pope Sylvester I, his clergy and their successors. They were proved to be fakes in 1440. But they had been used since ancient times by the Church to prove papal authority.
  • Luther began a study of history around this time and was incensed about the deception.

June-July, 1519 - In Leipzig, Johann Eck, a highly respected Dominican friar and a defender of Catholic doctrine, challenged Luther's colleague Andreas Karlstadt to a debate on the issues of free will and grace. It took place at Leipzig's Pleissenburg Castle and was conducted in the presence of George, Duke of Saxony, an opponent of Luther. The 18-day debate between two prominent universities drew hundreds of students. Initially, Luther was asked to participate, but Duke George wouldn't provide him with a letter of safe conduct. Instead, he came as a spectator under the safe conduct given to Karlstadt.

Eck was a man of great learning; he had a good memory and was ready in speech. But, he was overconfident, conceited and boisterous. He looked more like a butcher or soldier than a theologian. Many saw him as a charlatan, and used the nicknames pert and fop to express their contempt for his audacity and vanity.

On the other hand Karlstadt had a poor memory, depended on his notes, got embarrassed and confused.

Eck won easily.

Then, according to Luther, 'Eck came to me in my lodgings. He said he had learned that I had refused to debate. I answered, 'How can I debate if I can't secure a safe conduct from Duke George?' He answered, 'I came here to debate with you, and if I can't, then I don't want to debate with Karlstadt either. What if I get a safe conduct for you? Will you debate with me then?' I said, 'Get it and I will.' He left, and shortly thereafter I too got a safe conduct and so had the opportunity of debating."

Eck expanded the items for debate to include the existence of purgatory, the sale of indulgences, the need for and methods of penance, and the legitimacy of papal authority. Luther was superior to Eck in knowledge of the Bible, originality and depth of thought, while Eck knew history. Eck's debating skills led to Luther's open admissions of heresy in order to not be defeated. Luther asserted that scripture alone was the basis of Christian belief, that the Pope did not have the exclusive right to interpret scripture and that neither Popes nor church councils were infallible. Luther denied that membership in the Roman Catholic Church was necessary for salvation. He condemned the sale of indulgences to reduce time in purgatory, as purgatory was not mentioned in the Bible and that the Pope had no power because there was no mention of him in the Bible. Eck prodded Luther to state that even general councils can be in error when they promoted opinions that do not concern faith. This admission was perceived by the audience as damaging to Luther's cause.

The Presider of the debate, Peter Mosellanus, described Luther's appearance:

Luther is of middle stature, his body thin and so wasted by care and study that nearly all his bones may be counted. He is in the prime of his life. His voice is clear and melodious. His learning and his knowledge of Scripture are so extraordinary that he has nearly everything at his fingers' ends. Greek and Hebrew he understands sufficiently well to give his judgment on interpretations. For conversation, he has a rich store of subjects at his command; a vast forest of thoughts and words is at his disposal. He is polite and clever. There is nothing stoical, nothing supercilious, about him; and he understands how to adapt himself to different persons and times. He is lively and agreeable. He is always fresh, cheerful and at his ease, and has pleasant countenance, however his enemies my threaten him, so that one cannot believe that heaven is with him in his great undertaking.

Luther said about Eck,

I am sorry that the learned doctor only dips into the Scripture as the water-spider into the water, that he seems to flee from it as the devil to the cross. I prefer the authority of Scripture.

June 28, 1519 - While the debate in Leipzig continued Charles I, the 19-year-old king of Spain, defeated the candidacy of Francis I of France (Elector Frederick voted against himself) and was elected Holy Roman Emperor, succeeding his grandfather Maximilian I. He took the title Charles V.

July 14, 1519 – The Leipzig Debate concluded. Luther regarded it as a waste of time and he was convinced that Eck had won. But he made a deep impression on many students who left the university in Leipzig for Wittenberg.

The Luther-Rome dispute grew and Luther's ideas became difficult to ignore. During the debate a scornful Eck applied a new name to those who criticized Rome. He called them "Lutherans," as an insult. Luther was horrified that any church would be named after him. He preferred "evangelical," from the Greek euangelion "belonging to the Gospel."

With the debate concluded, Dr. Eck traveled to Rome to secure the condemnation of Luther and his followers.

August 7, 1519 – Indulgence seller Johann Tetzel died. Earlier that year Luther wrote a letter in which he tried to console him by stating "that the agitation was not [Tetzel's] creation. The child had an entirely different father."

August 10, 1519 - Five ships under the command of Ferdinand Magellan of Spain embarked on an attempt to sail around the world.

Early October 1519 - Luther declared himself to be in fundamental agreement with Jan Hus, who advocated church reform a century earlier in Bohemia, but was burned at the stake for his efforts. 

1520 (age 36) - Luther began an intensive period of writing. He also completed A Brief Form of the Ten Commandments; A Brief Form of the Creed; A Brief Form of the Lord's Prayer, which he believed contained the essentials for salvation as revealed in the Bible.

January 9, 1520 - After a delay caused by the election of Emperor Charles V, Rome restarted the inquisition against Luther and his ideas.

March 15, 1520 - A letter was sent to Johann Staupitz, the vicar of Luther's monastic order, ordering him to restrain Luther or be dismissed.  Two months later Staupitz resigned his position. He joined the Benedictines in 1522, and became Abbot of St. Peter's, Salzburg.

May 1520 - Luther wrote his Treatise on Good Works.

The first and highest, the most precious of all good works is faith in Christ, as he says, John 6. When the Jews asked Him: "What shall we do that we may work the works of God?" He answered: "This is the work of God, that you believe on him whom he hath sent." When we hear or preach this word, we hasten over it and deem it a very little thing and easy to do, whereas we ought here to pause a long time and to ponder it well.

June 15, 1520 - Pope Leo X issued another bull against Luther: Exsurge Domine (Latin "Arise O Lord") condemning 41 statements from Luther's 95 theses and other writings as "either heretical, scandalous, false, offensive to pious ears or seductive to simple minds, and against Catholic truth." (Official printed copies of the bull bore the Latin title Bulla contra errores Martini Lutheri et sequacium; English: Bull against the errors of Martin Luther and his followers.) Luther had 60 days commencing from the publication of the bull in Saxony to recant or face excommunication. In Catholic doctrine, in which salvation is only available through the church, excommunication amounted to eternal damnation. The bull also contained a directive forbidding any use of Luther's works and decreeing that they should be burned "publicly and solemnly in the presence and the clerics and people." The text of the bull contained references to animals like foxes and wild boar because Pope Leo X resided in a hunting lodge in the Italian hills during the spring of 1520.

Title page of the Papal bull Exsurge Domine

Johann Eck and Cardinal Aleandro were assigned to publish the bull in Saxony and its neighboring regions. This proved to be a mistake. While Eck and the Catholics had claimed victory at the Leipzig debate, Luther was extremely popular. Eck was Luther’s enemy and thus extremely unpopular. The bull was resisted in large parts of Germany. When Eck attempted to post the bull in Leipzig, over a hundred students accosted him, forcing him to flee to a convent. The bull was shredded. At Torgau, a copy was torn down and defaced. It took three months for the bull to reach Luther, its publication being prohibited in Wittenberg.

June 26, 1520 - In response to a treatise, in German, by Franciscan monk Augustine von Alveld of Leipzig, Luther published "On the Papacy in Rome," his first major publication on the nature of the church. Alveld felt it was his duty to refute Luther and defend the papacy. He stated that it was foolish to argue against the authority of Rome and its jurisdiction over the entire church. A furious Luther wrote:

This, then, is the matter in question: Whether the papacy in Rome, possessing the actual power over all of Christiandom, as they say, is derived from divine or from human order ... No one says "I believe in the Holy Spirit, one holy Roman church, the communion of Romans ... when [Christ] said to Peter three times, "Tend my sheep," he had previously asked him three times whether he really loved him; and Peter answered three times that he loved him. So it is clear that where there is no love there is no tending. The papacy must be love or it is not tending [the sheep] ... no one can tend the sheep unless he loves Christ ... I only ask that anyone who wants to get at me should be armed with Scripture...

August 1520 - Luther published To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, the first of three major publications summarizing his views. He attacked the three walls erected by the Roman church to protect itself from reform:

  • First, they have made decrees that the temporal power has no jurisdiction over them.
  • Second, when any attempt is made to prove them wrong using Scripture, they raise the objection that only the pope can interpret Scripture.
  • Third, if threatened with a council, they answer with the fable that only the pope can call a council.

It is horrible that the pope, who boasts he is the vicar of Christ and successor of St. Peter, lives in such worldly splendor that no king or emperor can equal or approach him, and that he who claims the title “most holy” wears a triple crown, when the greatest kings wear a single crown .… I believe that Germany now gives much more to the pope than it formerly gave to the Roman emperors. Some estimate that every year more than three hundred thousand gulden find their way from Germany to Rome, quite uselessly and fruitlessly; we get nothing for it but scorn and contempt .… We wonder that we still have anything to eat!”

September 1520 - Luther wrote the second of his major 1520 publications, The Babylonian Captivity for the Church, in which he compared the captivity of the church by Rome to the captivity of the Jews in Babylon in 597 BC. Luther declared that the one authority, one test for everything is the Word of God, whereas the papacy has held the church of God captive under the traditions and commandments of men … The church should have only two sacraments: baptism and the Lord's Supper. The other so-called sacraments are merely ceremonies instituted by man. Angry in tone, it was the first time Luther forthrightly accused the Pope of being the Antichrist. It set Luther irrevocably against Rome.

October 10, 1520 - Luther received the papal bull, though he probably knew about it as early as late September. He composed a response entitled Against the Execrable Bull of Antichrist:

...whoever wrote this bull, he is Antichrist. I protest before God, our Lord Jesus … that with my whole heart I dissent from the damnation of this bull, that I curse and execrate it as sacrilege and blasphemy of Christ, God's Son and our Lord. This be my recantation, O bull, thou daughter of bulls... Let them show where I am a heretic, or dry up their spittle.

Mid-October 1520 - At the University of Erfurt, students threw a copy of the papal bull into the Elbe River, calling it by the Latin word bulla (meaning bubble). “It is only a bubble,” they said, “let it float on the water.”  The university officials took no action against them.

November 12, 1520 - Luther's books were burned in Cologne. Burning of his books in other cities followed shortly thereafter.

November 20, 1520 - Undaunted, Luther wrote the third of his major 1520 writings, Freedom of the Christian Man. Unlike his other two major books published that year its style and language wSere uplifting, reassuring:

A Christian is a free lord, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant, subject to all ... We are justified (made right with God) by faith alone; salvation cannot be earned by good works. Good works follow from that faith. The tree bears fruit, the fruit does not bear the tree.

Luther attached a copy to an open letter of apology to Pope Leo X:

I understand that I am accused of great rashness, and that this rashness is said to be my great fault, in which, they say, I have not spared even your person. For my part, I will openly confess that I know I have only spoken good and honorable things of you whenever I have made mention of your name ... I have truly despised your see, which is called the court of Rome. Neither you nor anyone else can deny that it is more corrupt than any Babylon or Sodom ever was. As far as I can see, it is marked a completely depraved, hopeless, and notorious godlessness ... You would all perish by poison, before you could undertake to decide on a remedy. It is all over with the Court of Rome; the wrath of God has come upon her to the uttermost. She hates councils, she dreads to be reformed...

November 29, 1520 – Luther published a second response to the papal bull Exsurge Domine entitled Assertion of All the Articles Wrongly Condemned in the Roman Bull:

Wherefore I, Doctor Martin Luther by name, have undertaken, with joyful heart, to prove by Scripture all the articles, for the further instruction and the exposure of the false and pretended Church, so that everyone may be able to protect himself against the blind feints that these tricksters are wont to make. Perhaps even they will sometime come to themselves and consent to exchange their hypocrisy for truth, their trickery for serious earnest, their pretensions for proofs.” He also said “…Indulgences are the most pious frauds and imposters of the most rascally pontiffs, by which they deceive the souls and destroy the goods of the faithful.

December 10, 1520 - Luther and Melanchthon invited faculty and students of Wittenberg University to assemble at Wittenberg's Elster Gate. A bonfire was lit and Luther burned his copy of the bull Exsurge Domine and other papal documents, including books of church law and books written by his enemies. Luther later explained his actions.

Since they have burned my books, I burn theirs. The canon law was included because it makes the pope a god on earth. So far I have merely fooled with this business of the pope. All my articles condemned by Antichrist are Christian. Seldom has the pope overcome anyone with Scripture and with reason.

Modern evaluations of the bull threatening Luther with excommunication:

  • Protestant author Philip Schaff notes that Exsurge Domine “was the last bull addressed to Latin Christendom as an undivided whole, and the first disobeyed by a large part of it."
  • Contemporary scholars widely agree that this bull was a strange document and an evasive assessment of Luther's theological concerns. The positive views of the Reformer were not stated, or distorted.
  • Catholic author John M. Todd called the bull "contradictory, lacking in charity, and incidentally far less effective than it might have been."
  • The text failed to identify precisely how each proposition was censured, but also avoided direct engagement with numerous issues that were central to Luther's theology, including Faith Alone and Scripture Alone.
  • Some of the censured propositions were ambiguous, peripheral to Luther's main concerns or were misunderstood or misrepresented. At least twelve of the 41 propositions failed to accurately quote Luther or misrepresented his beliefs.

January 3, 1521 (age 37) - Luther was excommunicated by a third bull, Decet Romanum Pontificem ("It Pleases the Roman Pontiff"):

It gives us grievous sorrow and perplexity to say this: the slave of a depraved mind, has scorned to revoke his errors within the prescribed interval and to send us word of such revocation, or to come to us himself; nay, like a stone of stumbling, he has feared not to write and preach worse things than before against us and this Holy See and the Catholic faith, and to lead others on to do the same. He has now been declared a heretic.

Bull of Excommunication

Decet Romanum Pontificem, the bull excommunicating Luther

A Diet at Worms

January 1521 - Diet (an official governing council) of Worms convened, the first real test of the recently elected emperor Charles V. Five problems had to be dealt with:

  • Charles wanted the Pope's blessing for his coronation and needed money from the German princes.
  • Frances I of France kept him in check and he needed both money and troops to counter him.
  • The German princes wanted Charles to appoint a council to rule whenever he was absent.
  • The princes presented him with a list of complaints against the pope and wanted them dealt with.
  • Last, but not least, there was the Luther problem.

February 1521 - Elector Frederick III of Saxony, where Luther lived, believed Luther was being treated unfairly. He reminded Emperor Charles that the constitution of the empire, which he signed at his coronation, said that no German would be taken out of Germany for trial.

March 1, 1521 - In a pamphlet published in German, Luther said:

The Pope is more wicked than all devils; for he damned the faith, which no devil had ever done. Therefore, because I call the Pope the greatest murderer that has ever been since the beginning of the world, in that he kills souls as well as bodies, I am, God be praised, a heretic.

March 6, 1521 - Emperor Charles V summoned Luther to appear before the Diet ("dee-it" from Latin dies, meaning "day"), at the ancient city of Worms (pronounced "vorms") in southwest Germany. He promised Luther safe conduct.

April 6, 1521 - Luther began the journey to Worms, stopping along the way to preach in Erfurt, Eisenach, Gotha and Frankfurt. Traveling with him was fellow professor Nikolaus von Amsdorf. As Luther approached Worms he was warned to hurry back to Wittenberg. He answered:

Though there was as many devils in Worms as there are tiles on the roofs, I will go there.

April 15, 1521 - Luther entered Worms in a triumphal procession. A large crowd gathered to cheer him.

Gate on Nibelungen bridge, the symbol of Worms

April 17, 1521 - First hearing of the Diet of Worms began. Luther's enemies were numerous and powerful, and eager for his destruction: Emperor Charles V, the archduke Ferdinand, six electors, twenty-four dukes, eight margraves, thirty bishops, and other princes and prelates of the realm — the most remarkable assembly ever convened against one man.

An official of Trier, Johann Eck (not the same man who debated Luther in Leipzig) asked if a collection of 25 writings displayed on a table was Luther's and if he was ready to acknowledge their heresies. The documents probably included the 95 Theses, Resolutions Concerning the 95 Theses, On the Papacy at Rome, Address to the Christian Nobility, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, and On the Freedom of a Christian. Luther requested more time for a proper answer, and was given until the next day.

April 18, 1521 - During the second hearing of the Diet, Luther said,

Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason, I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other, my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.

According to tradition, he concluded his statement with the often quoted words:

Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.

Painting depicting Luther speaking before emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms.

April 24, 1521 - Elector Frederick the Wise informed his brother John about his decision to support Luther.

April 25, 1521 - Diet of Worms was dismissed. Luther left the negotiations room and said, "I am finished."

Luther had been granted a safe conduct to travel to and from the hearing, but remembering how a similar promise had been violated in the case of Jan Hus, Luther's friend George Spalatin, secretary to Elector Frederick, advised him to escape before he too was seized and executed. The next day Luther left Worms for Wittenberg, stopping at Möhra, the Luder ancestral home, to visit his grandmother.

"My Patmos"

May 4, 1521 - At Altenstein, in the Thuringian forest, Luther's carriage was halted by armed horsemen. Elector Frederick the Wise, who left the Diet of Worms early because of illness, anticipated the outcome and arranged Luther's "abduction." Luther was seized and taken to the Wartburg, a fortress overlooking Eisenach.

The Wartburg, high on a hill outside Eisenach.

Only a few trusted men knew where he was kept. Not even Elector Frederick, who devised the plan, was aware of Luther's location. The ruse allowed Frederick to escape charges of harboring a heretic. Luther hid there for 11 months (May 1521 to March 1522) during which time he grew his hair and a beard and called himself Junker Jorg (Knight George). He referred to the ancient castle, founded c.1067, as "my Patmos."

They have taken away my habit and dressed me in houseman's apparel. I am letting my hair and beard grow. You would be hard put to recognize me, for I no longer recognized myself. I live in Christian liberty, free from all the laws of that tyrant.

Luther disguised as Junker Jorg (knight George)

At the Wartburg Luther was provided a room to continue his studies and writing. He stayed in touch with events in Wittenberg, writing over 40 letters to friends, colleagues and others. In May 1521 he wrote to his friend George Spalatin: "I have nothing to do here and sit around all day as if in a daze. I am reading the Greek and the Hebrew Bibles."

Luther showed his gentler side when he wrote of enjoying the singing birds, "sweetly lauding God day and night with all their strength." Exulting in the beauty of the nighttime sky he said: "He who has built such a vault without pillars must be a master workman!" He also penned many sermons (more like sermon starters to help preachers reflect on biblical texts), four major papers (On Monastic Vows, On the Abolition of Private Masses, Address to the German Nobility and A Blast Against the Archbishop of Mainz), commentaries on the psalms and the Magnificat (the song of Mary).

But life at the Wartburg was not as rosy as some letters implied. He was ill for months. To Nicholas von Amsdorf at Wittenberg he wrote: "My constipation is bad!" Luther also suffered loneliness and depression. Legend says that while working in his study at the Wartburg Luther threw an inkwell at the devil.

Luther room at Wartburg. Luther's original ink stain has long since vanished. Many fingers have faded the wall behind the heater in his room, and pilgrims have chipped away pieces as relics.

May 25, 1521 - Edict of Worms was issued. It called Luther a devil in monk's clothing and accused him of destroying the sacraments and encouraging war, murder, robbery and other crimes.

Those who will help in his capture will be rewarded generously for their good work.

June 1521 – During Luther’s absence, leadership of the reform cause in Wittenberg passed to Philip Melanchthon, Gabriel Zwilling and Andreas Karlstadt, a professor and archdeacon at the Castle Church. Rather than slowing down, the pace of reform quickened. Karlstadt performed the first reformed communion service. He did not elevate the elements of communion, wore street clothing during the service, and purged all references to sacrifice from the traditional mass. He shouted the words of institution ("This is my body....", etc.) in German rather than whispering them in Latin, declared that confession before communion was unnecessary and he let the people take both the bread and wine on their own during the Communion. On a more radical level Karlstadt taught that sculptures and paintings were dumb idols, forbidden by the second commandment (which led to widespread destruction of altars and images).

November or December 1521 - Luther began translating the New Testament into German so that all his countrymen could read the word of God for themselves. He worked steadily for three months, carefully translating from Erasmus' second edition (1519) of the Greek New Testament. To aid his work Luther went into nearby towns and markets to listen to people speak, so the butcher, baker and

November 1521 - Luther published The Judgment of Martin Luther on Monastic Vows. He assured monks and nuns that they could break their vows without sin, because vows were an illegitimate and vain attempt to win salvation.

December 1, 1521 - Pope Leo X died of malaria, so suddenly that the last sacraments could not be administered; contemporary suspicions of poison were unfounded. He was succeeded by Adrian Florenszoon Boeyens, who took the name Adrian VI.

December 3, 1521 - Angered by the violence and destruction in the name of reform, Luther secretly returned to Wittenberg, still disguised as Junker Jorg. Though pleased that the people were receiving both bread and wine at communion, he didn't approve of the destructive acts. Back at the Wartburg he wrote A Sincere Admonition by Martin Luther to All Christians to Guard Against Insurrection and Rebellion.

Reform Takes a Wrong Turn

After Christmas 1521 - The situation in Wittenberg became even more volatile with the arrival of three zealots—Nicholas Storch, Thomas Drechsel and Marcus Stubner—from Zwickau (64 miles to the south). Philipp Melanchthon was alarmed by the ideas of the so-called Zwichau Prophets, especially on baptism. Like the Anabaptists (literally "baptize again") the "prophets" taught that people should only be baptized as adults, when they fully understood the meaning of the sacrament. Anyone baptized as an infant must be baptized again. They also held the Bible was secondary to dreams and revelations and that Christ's return was imminent. Many in Wittenberg were swayed by their teachings.

January 19, 1521 - Karlstadt married Anna von Mochau, the fifteen-year-old daughter of a poor nobleman, asserting that priests should be allowed to marry. Others left their monasteries to follow his example. Some were arrested. Luther said he was "pleased over Karlstadt's marriage, I know the girl."

March 1522 – Luther completed the first draft of his New Testament translation.

March 6, 1522 - At the request of the Wittenberg town council, and at grave risk to himself because of the Edict of Worms, Luther left Wartburg. He wrote to Elector John:

During my absence, Satan has entered my sheepfold, and committed ravages which I cannot repair by writing, but only by my personal presence and living word.

Beginning on Sunday, March 9, Luther preached eight sermons on eight successive days, calling for calm and patience, reminding the citizens to trust God's word rather than resort to violence to bring about necessary change.

Do you know what the Devil thinks when he sees men use violence to propagate the gospel? He sits with folded arms behind the fire of hell, and says with malignant looks and frightful grin: "Ah, how wise these madmen are to play my game! Let them go on; I shall reap the benefit. I delight in it.

Luther’s presence and sermons succeeded in quelling the unrest. Luther stressed some similarities with Karlstadt. He agreed with him that the Mass, when performed as a sacrifice, should be abolished. It was evil and God was displeased with it. Celibacy of priests was optional. Priests and monks should be allowed to marry, but marriage was not an obligation as Karlstadt insisted. Monks and nuns who were uncomfortable with their vows of chastity, poverty and obedience, should discard their robes. Confession was helpful but not mandatory. As for images and icons, he said,

It is far better to give a poor man a gold piece than God a golden image...it is not by violence that they should be overturned. To do so would only set them more firmly.

Zwilling and Karlstadt agreed to seek pastoral positions elsewhere. Luther demanded that the Zwickau Prophets authenticate their message with a miracle, which they refused to give. They denounced Luther and left Wittenberg.

The Gospel Speaks German

Luther brought the draft of his New Testament translation with him from the Wartburg. He reworked it with the help of Philipp Melanchthon, Wittenberg University's resident Greek scholar, and others. By late spring of 1522 it was readied for publication. Using three presses, 3000 copies of Luther's New Testament, "Das Newe Testament Deutsch," were printed in secret and without his name.

August 4, 1522 - Martin Luther wrote Contra Henricum Regem Anglicum in response to King Henry VIII of England's Defense of the Seven Sacraments. Neither subtle nor tactful, it cost him most of his support in England.

But when knowingly and designedly this damnable and offensive worm forges lies against the Majesty of my King in Heaven, it is right for me, on behalf of my King, to spatter his Anglican royal highness with his own mud and filth, and cast down and trample underfoot the crown that blasphemes Christ.

September 1522 - Luther's German New Testament was distributed for sale. Known simply as the September Testament, it contained 222 pages. It promoted the understanding of the gospel and standardized the German language. Luther's translation was not literal in the truest sense of the word, because he wanted this Bible to be read aloud. Before any word or phrase could be put on paper, it had to be understood by the average German.

Title page and opening chapter of Matthew of Luther's German New Testament translation

He at once proceeded to the more difficult task of translating the Old Testament, and published it in parts as they were ready. The Pentateuch appeared in 1523; the Psalter, 1524.

In the process of translating the Bible Luther founded a Collegium Biblieum, or Bible club, consisting of his colleagues Melanchthon, Bugenhagen, Cruciger, Justus Jonas and Aurogallus. They met once a week in his home, several hours before supper. Deacon Georg Rörer, the first clergyman ordained by Luther, and his proofreader, was also present; occasionally foreign scholars were admitted; and Jewish rabbis were freely consulted. Each member of the company contributed to the work from his special knowledge and preparation. Melanchthon brought with him the Greek Bible, Cruciger the Hebrew and Chaldee, Bugenhagen the Vulgate; others the old commentators; Luther always had the Latin and German versions besides the Hebrew. Sometimes they scarcely mastered three lines of the Book of Job in four days, and hunted two, three and four weeks for a single word. No record exists of the discussions of this remarkable company, but Mathesius says that "wonderfully beautiful and instructive speeches were made."

1523 (age 39) - Luther wrote the essay That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew. It was in two parts: In part 1 he demonstrated that Jesus was a Jew, born of a seed of Abraham but conceived by a miracle. Part 2 began with an appeal to deal more kindly with the Jews in hope of converting them, and concluded with an argument from the Bible and history to convince Jews that Jesus was the Messiah.

They have dealt with the Jews as if they were dogs rather than human beings; they have done little else than deride them and seize their property. When they baptize them they show them nothing of Christian doctrine or life, but subject them to popishness and monkery ... I hope that if one deals in a kindly way with the Jews, and instructs them carefully with Holy Scripture, many of them will become genuine Christians and turn again to the faith of their fathers, the prophets and patriarchs.

1523 - Johannes Bugenhagen became Wittenberg's town priest and a theology lecturer at Wittenberg University. Throughout the years he served as Luther's personal spiritual adviser. In June 1525 he presided at the wedding of Luther and Katharina von Bora.

1523 - Wittenberg set up a community money box to deal with social services.

March 6, 1523 - Diet of Nurnberg ordered Luther and his followers to stop publishing and outlawed the preaching of anything other than established Roman Catholic doctrine.

Nuns Renounce Their Vows

Nine nuns — Magdalena von Staupitz, Elsa von Canitz, Ave Gross, Ave and Margaret von Schonfeld, Laneta von Goltz, Margaret and Catherine Zeschau and Katharina von Bora decided to leave the Cistercian Convent of Nimbschen, near Grimma. They agreed with Luther's earlier publication, The Judgment of Martin Luther on Monastic Vows, in which he assured monks and nuns that they could break their vows without sin, because vows were an illegitimate and vain attempt to win salvation. One of the nuns, Katharina von Bora, contacted Martin Luther and begged for his assistance.

Easter Eve, April 4, 1523 - Luther sent Leonhard Köppe, a merchant who regularly delivered herring to the monastery. The nuns successfully escaped by hiding in Köppe's covered wagon among the fish barrels, and fled to Wittenberg. Luther was able to arrange homes, marriages or employment for all of the escaped nuns—except for Katharina.

Ruins of the Convent of Nimbschen, near Grimma

April 18, 1523 - The General Council of the Diet of Nurnberg instructed the German princes to enforce the Edict of Worms.

June 1, 1523 - Luther published his Forma Missae et Communionis, a description of the Mass as it was celebrated in Wittenberg. It was in Latin, and was largely the traditional Mass with Evangelical touches. Congregational singing and the sermon were in German, but everything else was Latin. Luther expressed the hope that the Mass would soon be celebrated solely in German. He called on poets and musicians to develop appropriate settings.

July 1, 1523 - In Brussels, Belgium two fellow Augustinian monks, Hendrik Vos and Jan van der Eschen, were burned at the stake. Luther was severely shaken, but did not lose heart. To commemorate their martyrdom he wrote the hymn Flung to the Heedless Winds.

September 14, 1523 - Pope Adrian VI died after 18 months in office. He was best know for initiating the Catholic Reformation (or Counter-Reformation). He was aware that the Reform movement of Luther was largely attributable to the sins of the church and said, "God permits this persecution of his church on account of the sins of men, and especially of prelates and clergy. . . . Holy Scripture declares aloud that the sins of the people are the consequences of the sins of the priesthood. ... We know all too well that for many years things deserving of abhorrence have taken place around this Holy See. Sacred things have been misused, the commandments transgressed; in everything there has been a turn for the worse." Adrian was succeeded by Clement VII.

1524 (age 40) - The Third Imperial Diet of Nuremberg renewed the banishment of Luther. By this time, however, he was so popular it was unlikely he would be arrested.

1524 - Luther urged councilmen in all German cities to establish and maintain schools:

A town does not thrive in that it accumulates immense treasures, builds sturdy walls, nice houses, many muskets and suits of armor alone. On the contrary, a town's best and most prosperous progress, welfare and strength, comes from having many excellent, educated, decent, honest and well brought-up citizens

June 24, 1524 - At the invitation of Nicolaus Sturm, mayor of Magdeburg, Luther preached at the Augustinian monastery (now called the Walloon Church). The response was overwhelming. Due to the enormous crowds Luther repeated his sermon two days later in the city's St. John's Church.

July 17, 1524 - A few weeks later nearly all of Magedeburg's religious institutions embraced Protestantism and the Catholic Mass was abolished in the city's churches. Magadeburg Cathedral and the collegiate college of St. Sebastian, St. Nicolai and St. Gangulphus churches, as well as the Franciscan, Dominican and Premonstratensian cloisters were the only institutions that opposed the new practices and beliefs. Magdeburg thus became a Protestant stronghold.

1524 - Luther, with Johann Walther's assistance, published the Wittenberg Gesangbuch, a hymn book for church use. Luther wrote some of the words and tunes, adapted others from popular music. The settings were simple enough that the young could learn them as well. Luther also published the Erfurter Enchiridion which contained 26 hymns. Between 1524 and 1545, Luther composed and compiled nine hymnals. He wanted hymn books to be used at home and at church. He also advocated the teaching of music in schools.

I truly desire that all Christians would love and regard as worthy the lovely gift of music, which is a precious, worthy and costly treasure given to mankind by God.

Peasants Revolt

German peasants were the beasts of burden, no better than slaves. They worked, worked, worked with no reward, even on Sunday. They were heavily taxed, legally and illegally. Long before Luther's time rebellions by peasants took place in various parts of Germany, but they were brutally put down. The preaching of Luther and others, with their attacks on papal tyranny, proclamation of the supremacy of the Bible, of Christian freedom and the priesthood of believers, gave new impudence to the peasants' desire for change.

Summer 1524 - Large numbers of peasants in southwestern Germany staged a series of uprisings. The peasant insurrection spread to the central and eastern areas of present-day Germany. However, it faced insurmountable obstacles. There was no command structure and they lacked artillery and cavalry. Among their leaders were Huldrych Zwingli, a leading figure of the Swiss Protestant Reformation, and Thomas Müntzer, a fiery preacher who believed that the end of the world was imminent and that it was the task of true believers to aid God in ushering in a new era of history.

March 1525 - The peasants published their grievances in a manifesto titled “The Twelve Articles of the Peasants,” asking the nobility to grant them, among other things, the right to elect their own pastors, the end of bond-service, freedom to hunt and fish, restriction of compulsory service, restoration of lands and reduction of rents.

Luther sympathized with some of the peasants' grievances, as he showed in his response to the Twelve Articles in May 1525:

They set up twelve articles which of some are just ... but almost all of them are in their favour and not drawn up to the best ... But it is unbearable to tax and slave-drive people like this forever.

May 2, 1525 - Elector Frederick the Wise died. His younger brother, John the Steadfast, became Elector of Saxony who, at that time, was second in power only to the emperor. Upon his accession, John announced to the clergy of Saxony that, in the future, the word of God should be preached in its purity without human addition and that all useless ceremonies were to be abolished.

May 5, 1525 - As the Peasant’s War continued, and atrocities increased, Luther turned forcefully against the revolt and wrote Against the Rioting Peasants, a title changed by printers without his permission to Against the Murderous and Thieving Hordes of Peasants. He explained the gospel teaching on wealth, condemned the violence as the devil's work and called for the nobles to put down the rebels:

Let everyone who can smite, slay, and stab [the peasants] secretly and openly. Remember that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful or devilish than a rebel.

Luther justified his opposition to the rebels on the grounds that all authorities were appointed by God and should not be resisted, and that rebellion, robbery and plundering placed the peasants "outside the law of God and empire," so they deserved "death in body and soul, if only as highwaymen and murderers."

Luther charged the rebels with blasphemy for calling themselves "Christian brethren" and committing sinful acts under the banner of the gospel. Without his backing for the uprising, many rebels laid down their arms; others felt betrayed.

Luther Gets Engaged

May 13, 1525 - Luther was engaged to Katherina von Bora, one of the nuns he had earlier helped escape from her convent. Artist Lucas Cranach the Elder presented Luther's marriage proposal. She wanted to marry an aristocrat from Nürnberg, but his family prevented it. Luther suggested Katharina marry 60-year-old pastor Kasper Glatz. Katharina refused and said that if she could not marry Nikolas von Amsdorf or Martin Luther, she would rather remain single for the rest of her life.

A Disaster

May 15, 1525 - Thomas Müntzer lead the peasants at the Battle of Frankenhausen, where they were butchered. 50,000 peasants died and Müntzer was executed. Thereafter, radicalism was manifested in the Anabaptist and other revolutionary movements. Overall nearly 100,000 of the 300,000 poorly armed peasants and farmers were slaughtered. Most of that year's crops, hundreds of villages, castles and monasteries were destroyed.

Luther is Married

Luther struggled with the idea of marriage because of his oath of celibacy. But he soon relented. After all, he had told others that celibacy was not based on scripture. Shouldn't he practice what he preached? Besides, “his marriage,” he said, “would please his father, rile the pope, case the angels to laugh and the devils to weep.”

June 13, 1525 - Luther married Katharina von Bora before witnesses including Justus Jonas, Johannes Bugenhagen (pastor to Luther at St. Mary's church in Wittenberg) and Barbara and Lucas Cranach, in whose home Katharina was living. The next morning there was a wedding breakfast with a small company.

June 27, 1525 - A more formal public ceremony was held which was presided over by Johannes Bugenhagen. Katharina was 26 years old, Luther 42. Katharina used a gold ring given to her by Christian II, the king of Denmark, driven out of his land, who, like Katie, had been staying at the Cranach home in Wittenberg.

The couple took up residence in the "Black Cloister," the deserted (except for Luther) dormitory and educational institution for Augustinian friars who studied in Wittenberg, given them as a wedding gift by the reform-minded John Frederick, Elector of Saxony.

In the beginning their marriage was not promising. The Black Cloister was not in good condition. But, by the end of 1525 Luther was receiving a fixed annual salary of 200 guilders per year, later raised to 300. Katharina soon took on the task of managing the former monastery's estates. She turned the derelict rooms into a home and made her husband rid himself of his bachelor ways, especially the mildewed sack of dirty straw he used as a bed. Behind the cloister she planted a large vegetable garden. She took care of cows, pigs, chicken and goats, ran a brewery that produced over 1,200 gallons of beer annually, and bought large tracks of land to raise grain for the animals. Some of her property was located as far away as Leipzig. Some 30 to 40 inhabitants resided with the Luthers, including paying students, teachers and guests. Among the students where those who recorded Luther’s famed “Table Talks,” which began in 1531. The couple’s relatives came too, including Katharina’s nephew Fabian and her aunt, who evidently helped manage the household.

At times of widespread illness, Katie operated an on-site hospital, ministering to the sick alongside other nurses. Luther called her the "boss of Zulsdorf," after the name of a farm they purchased from Katie’s brother near her birthplace (Hirschfeld, Saxony, a day’s walk from Wittenberg), and the "morning star of Wittenberg" for her habit of rising at 4 AM to care for her various responsibilities. By all accounts, it was a happy and affectionate marriage. Luther wrote that he loved waking up to see pigtails on the pillow next to him. He also admired her intellect, calling her "Doctora Lutherin."

Exaggerated statements by Luther about his life have perpetuated an impression that he and his family lived at a subsistence level. Excluding the early, difficult years from 1525 to 1528/1529, the opposite is true. At his death Luther was among the richest residents in Wittenberg. The credit for this is due to Katharine’s stewardship. Her work behind the scenes made Martin Luther's reforms possible. Her knowledge of medicine maintained his health; her hospitality spawned his Table Talks; her gardening, animal husbandry and beer brewing allowed them to support a large extended family; her frugality meant they never went hungry; her quick wit and bold tongue balanced his excesses; her tireless work freed him to do his; her godliness gave him a soulmate to comfort and encourage him.

Portraits of Martin Luther and Katharina Von Bora in 1526, by Lucas Cranach the Elder

July 1525 - The scandal caused by the earlier Against the Murderous and Thieving Hordes of Peasants forced Luther to write An Open Letter on the Harsh Book Against the Peasants in an attempt to reconcile his earlier writings. He remained convinced that the peasants needed to be suppressed, but the princes were too severe and would be punished by God for their behavior.

As a result of his stand against the peasants Luther's reputation suffered great harm and the Roman Catholics seized the opportunity to blame him for the many deaths.

Luther the Church Leader>>