Martin Luther was the first of eight children born to peasants Hans and Margaret. From a young age, it was apparent that young Martin was very intelligent. His parents sent him to school and hoped he’d someday become a lawyer, but probably not the kind of lawyer that we think of today. Luther would likely have studied canon law, the laws of the church.
Religion was the all-consuming focus of life in the late middle ages. The church was involved in every major aspect of people’s lives.
Not surprisingly, many people were somewhat obsessed about where they would end up after death. People did many things to improve their chances of getting to heaven after they died and to lessen the amount of time they would spend in purgatory being purged (or punished) for their sins.
There were seven sacraments, rituals required by the church to ensure salvation. People also hoped to reduce their time of suffering in purgatory by doing optional good works, like going on pilgrimages, or by punishing the body by whipping and fasting and other things.
After Latin school, something similar to today’s elementary school, Luther entered university where he earned his bachelor’s degree, then a master of arts, in the shortest time allowed by the university’s statutes. He then went on to get a doctor of philosophy degree at the prestigious University of Erfurt. The university put on a grand celebration for Martin when he got his PhD. Professor Luther was well-liked by students and faculty. Luther’s academic future looked bright and promising.
During his time at university, though, Luther had several brushes with death that made him even more preoccupied than ever with his eternal destiny. Being a keener and a perfectionist, Luther became so sick at one point from over-study that it looked like he might die. Another time while he was walking home to see his family at Easter, the sword he was carrying cut his foot and he almost bled to death there on the road. And then, a close friend of his was killed in a duel. These events had Luther worried about his eternal future.
Then something happened that forever changed Luther’s life and had an impact on the history of the world. He was caught in a terrible thunderstorm as he was traveling home to his family. The storm was terrifying. A bolt of lightning struck so near him that he was thrown to the ground. He cried out to St. Anne and vowed to become a monk if only she would save him.
He survived the storm and soon afterward, this celebrated doctor of philosophy, left the university to enter a monastery where he would spend the rest of his life pursuing holiness as he’d promised St. Anne. The citizens of this university town must have wondered when they saw the doctor-turned-monk in a monk’s frock, begging from door to door.
But Luther soon learned that becoming a monk did not guarantee him acceptance with God. Being a monk didn’t bring him the peace of mind and holiness he’d hoped for. He was tormented by guilt and not only feared God but hated Him for being a harsh and exacting judge. Luther didn’t see God as a loving father – his own father punished him harshly for minor infractions, which wasn’t unusual in those days. Understandably, Luther saw God as One who was just waiting for him to slip up so he could roast him in hell.
As a monk, Luther tried to please God by praying six or more hours a day and fasting rigorously. It didn’t help. He slept in his cold rooms without a blanket and even whipped himself, but he felt no holier. He later said of this period of his life, “If anyone could have earned heaven by the life of a monk, it was I.”[i]
But it was at the monastery that Luther found a Bible chained to a desk. Luther spent many hours studying the sacred Book. In fact, Bible study sometimes interfered with his ability to keep up with his self-imposed quota of praying. When that happened, he’d make up for the lapse with marathon prayer sessions that lasted all night.
His discovery of the Bible, however, was a pivot point in Luther’s life. For one thing, it led him to take up the study of Greek and Hebrew – the original Bible languages, so that he could study the early manuscripts.
But more importantly, the study of the Bible forever changed Luther’s perception of God.
[i] James M Kittleson, “The Accidental Revolutionary,” Christianity Today, https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/issues/issue-34/decisive-documents-of-1520.html?type=issuePrev&number=4&id=3868