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Martin Luther – A man who changed the world

October 28, 2017

DSC_2921This Tuesday marks the 500th anniversary of one of the most significant events in European and, indeed, the whole of Western history.  On 31st October 1517 Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses on the power and efficacy of indulgences to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg and set in train the set of events which led to the Protestant Reformation, and it could easily be argued, the emergence of western thought and values in the form we know today.

Having studied the Reformation and the 16th century as part of A Level history I took the advantage, earlier this year, to reacquaint myself with the story of Luther, both by visiting Wittenberg as part of my cycle trip on the Elbe and by reading an excellent modern biography of Luther by Scott Hendrix.

In our post religious age the figure of Luther is less familiar than it would have been for most of the last 500 years. Many people would more likely think of the American Civil Rights Leader Martin Luther King than the German religious reformer, although the former was named after and inspired by Luther.  However, whatever one’s approach to formal religion, Luther is a man whose story has a much wider historical and intellectual importance.

Luther is a wonderful example of the interaction between the actions of individuals and the wider forces and trends which generate historical change. In 1517 the ingredients for the Protestant Reformation were all in place.  There was a deep seated dislike of the Catholic Church and, in particular, the corruption of its leadership.  Wider social changes were happening, such as the introduction of printing, which made it easier for new ideas to spread and take hold.  Nonetheless it took the actions of one man to make it happen and, in this case, the actions of that one man over the next 30 years were more than usually significant in influencing events. When I was doing my A level history I came across a wonderful analogy comparing the actions of Luther to Beethoven’s 4th Piano Concerto, where uniquely for that musical form at the time, it was the pianist who played the opening theme on their own before the orchestra joined in.   In the same way in the first years of the Reformation Luther’s personality and actions were crucial in determining what happened.

There were a number specific attributes which made Luther’s contribution so special. He was a brave individual who was prepared to stand up to the most powerful men in the world and stick to his principles under duress and under threat to his life, being forced to spend a year in hiding in the Wartburg Castle in Eisenach. Similarly, while not always prepared to compromise, he had a broader view than many had at the time about how his changes might go with the grain of popular belief. Unlike other reformers he did not argue for the abolition of all traditional practices such as the veneration of images. He was prepared to work with secular supporters while not losing the ability to challenge them.

More than anything else it was his power as a communicator which was at the heart of Luther’s success as reformer. Luther’s written and spoken output, in particular in German, was phenomenal and he out wrote his Catholic opponents by a margin of 2 to 1.  By 1520 250,000 copies of his writing were in circulation, a massive number for the time.   Luther’s communication also embraced a range of forms.  Unlike other Reformers, he believed strongly in the value of music as an adjunct to religious worship and wrote a number of hymns including the famous “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott.”  We have much to thank him for that as it was the Lutheran tradition which spawned some of the greatest work of J.S. Bach (in one of those lovely historical coincidences they both attended, at 200 years remove, the same school in Eisenach).

Luther has his detractors. He could be an obstinate and angry man.  His views on some issues, in particular the anti-Semitism he expressed in his later writings are unattractive.  However what also came over from my reading and visit is man of great human warmth, who loved the company of others, who developed strong relationships and partnerships with others.  He was a man who was aware of his own faults and short comings, famously saying of himself “At the same time saint and sinner” and was someone who was acquainted with mental distress, suffering from periods of depression.

Luther, despite the depth of his religious beliefs, struggled in the cold celibacy of the cloister and his marriage to Katharine von Bora was based on a deep and mutual respect for each other and for the comfort and mutual support a married couple can bring each other. Katarina’s comments on Luther’s death are genuine and moving  “If I had owned a principality or empire I would not have felt as bad had I lost it as I did when our dear Lord God took from me, and not only from me but form the whole world – this dear and worthy man.”

At the heart of Luther’s world view is the importance of individuals, all equal before God, all responsible for their own actions and beliefs. This, for me, is Luther’s greatest legacy to western thought and as important today as it was that day 500 years ago when he nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg.



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