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History of the Christian Church, Volume VII. Modern Christianity. The German Reformation.
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§ 18. Luther’s Youth and Training.


In order to understand the genius and history of the German Reformation we must trace its origin in the personal experience of the monk who shook the world from his lonely study in Wittenberg, and made pope and emperor tremble at the power of his word.

All the Reformers, like the Apostles and Evangelists, were men of humble origin, and gave proof that God’s Spirit working through his chosen instruments is mightier than armies and navies. But they were endowed with extraordinary talents and energy, and providentially prepared for their work. They were also aided by a combination of favorable circumstances without which they could not have accomplished their work. They made the Reformation, and the Reformation made them.

Of all the Reformers Luther is the first. He is so closely identified with the German Reformation that the one would have no meaning without the other. His own history is the formative history of the church which is justly called by his name, and which is the incarnation and perpetuation of his genius. No other Reformer has given his name to the church he reformed, and exercised the same controlling influence over its history. We need not discuss here the advantages and disadvantages of this characteristic difference; we are only concerned with the fact.

Martin Luther was born Nov. 10, 1483, an hour before midnight, at Eisleben in Prussian Saxony, where he died, Feb. 18, 1546.112112    His name is differently spelled: Luder, Ludher, Lutter, Luttherr, Luther. The Reformer himself varied. In his first book, on the Penitential Psalms, 1517, he signed his name after the preface Martinus Luder, but soon afterward he adopted the spelling Luther. In the University records of Erfurt he was inscribed as Ludher in the Wittenberg records, first as Luder and Lüder. He derived his name from lauter, clear, afterward from Lothar, which means laut (hlut), renowned, according to others Leutherr, i.e.: Herr der Leute, lord of the people. See Erfurter Matrikel; Album Acad. Viteberg., and Lib. Decanorum facultatis theol. Acad. Viteb. ed. Förstemann; Walch, L.’s Werke I., 46 sqq.; Jürgens I., 11-13: Knaake, in "Zeitschr, f. hist. Theol.," 1872, p. 465; Köstlin, Mart. Luther, I. 21 (2d ed. 1883). The year of Luther’s birth rests on the testimony of his brother James; his mother distinctly remembered the day and the hour, but not the year. Melanchthon’s Vita Luth. 2; Köstlin, 1. 25 and 776.

On the day following he was baptized and received the name of the saint of the day.

His parents had recently removed to that town113113    The story that they went to the fair at Eisenach cannot be proven. from their original home at Mahra near Eisenach in Thuringia, where Boniface had first preached the gospel to the Germans. Six months after Luther’s birth they settled at Mansfeld, the capital of a rich mining district in the Harz mountains, which thus shares with the Thuringian forest the honor of being the home of the Luther family. They were very poor, but honest, industrious and pious people from the lower and uncultivated ranks.

Luther was never ashamed of his humble, rustic origin. "I am," he said with pride to Melanchthon, "a peasant’s son; my father, grandfather, all my ancestors were genuine peasants."114114    "Ich bin eines Bauern Sohn; mein Vater, Grossvater, Ahnherr sind rechte Bauern gewest. Darauf ist mein Vater gen Mansfeld gezogen und ein Berghauer worden: daher bin ich." Mathesius wisely remarks with reference to the small beginnings of Luther: "Wass gross soll werden, muss klein angehen; und wenn die Kinder zärtlich und herrlich erzogen werden, schadet es ihnen ihr Leben lang." His mother had to carry the wood from the forest, on her back, and father and mother, as he said, "worked their flesh off their bones," to bring up seven children (he had three younger brothers and three sisters). Afterward his father, as a miner, acquired some property, and left at his death 1250 guilders, a guilder being worth at that time about sixteen marks, or four dollars.115115    Köstlin, I., 26; II., 498. In his small biography, pp. 6 and 7 (Engl. ed.), Köstlin gives the pictures of Hans and Margaret Luther. There is a striking resemblance between Luther and his mother, whom Melanchthon describes as a modest, God-fearing, and devout woman. Her maiden name was Ziegler (not Lindemann, as usually given). Luther’s father is said to have escaped by flight trial for murdering a peasant at Möhra in a fit of anger; but this tradition rests only on the testimony of J. Wicel (Epist. libri quatuor, Lips., 1537), who fell away from Protestantism. It is discredited by Köstlin (I., 24). Janssen (II. 66) leaves it in doubt.

Luther had a hard youth, without sunny memories, and was brought up under stern discipline. His mother chastised him, for stealing a paltry nut, till the blood came; and his father once flogged him so severely that he fled away and bore him a temporary grudge;116116    Table Talk (Erl. Frkf. ed. LXI. 213): "Man soll die Kinder nicht zu hart staüpen; denn mein Vater stäupet mich einmal so sehr, dass ich ihn flohe und ward ihm gram, bis er mich wieder zu ihm gewöhnete." but Luther recognized their good intentions, and cherished filial affection, although they knew not, as he said, to distinguish the ingenia to which education should be adapted. He was taught at home to pray to God and the saints, to revere the church and the priests, and was told frightful stories about the devil and witches which haunted his imagination all his life.

In the school the discipline was equally severe, and the rod took the place of kindly admonition. He remembered to have been chastised no less than fifteen times in one single morning. But he had also better things to say. He learned the Catechism, i.e.: the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments, and several Latin and German hymns. He treasured in his memory the proverbial wisdom of the people and the legendary lore of Dietrich von Bern, of Eulenspiegel and Markolf.

He received his elementary education in the schools of Mansfeld, Magdeburg, and Eisenach. Already in his fourteenth year he had to support himself by singing in the street.

Frau Ursula Cotta, the wife of the wealthiest merchant at Eisenach, immortalized herself by the benevolent interest she took in the poor student. She invited him to her table "on account of his hearty singing and praying," and gave him the first impression of a lady of some education and refinement. She died, 1511, but he kept up an acquaintance with her sons and entertained one of them who studied at Wittenberg. From her he learned the word: "There is nothing dearer in this world than the love of woman."117117    He says in his Table-Talk: "Darumb sagte meine Wirthin zu Eisenach recht, als ich daselbst in die Schule ging:
   ’Es ist kein lieber Ding auf Erden

   Als Frauenlieb’, wem sie mag werden.’ "

   See Works, Erl. Frkf. ed. LXI., 212; Jürgens, I., 281 sqq.; Kolde, I., 36; Janssen, II., 67. The relation of Luther to this excellent lady has been made the subject of a useful religious novel by Mrs. Eliz. Charles, under the title: Chronicles of the Schönberg-Cotta Family. By two of themselves. London and New York (M. W. Dodd), 1864. The diary is fictitious.

The hardships of Luther’s youth and the want of refined breeding show their effects in his writings and actions. They limited his influence among the higher and cultivated classes, but increased his power over the middle and lower classes. He was a man of the people and for the people. He was of the earth earthy, but with his bold face lifted to heaven. He was not a polished diamond, but a rough block cut out from a granite mountain and well fitted for a solid base of a mighty structure. He laid the foundation, and others finished the upper stories.



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