Born in 1483, Luther was the son of a miner. Originally he planned to be a lawyer, but on a summer night in 1505 he was caught in a terrible thunderstorm. Fearful of his life, he vowed to St. Anna that if he survived he would become a monk. Luther joined an Augustinian monastery in Erfurt (much to the disappointment of his father) and soon out-monked even the most zealous of monks. Luther was determined to save his soul through rigid discipline and penitence.
In 1510 he went to Rome. This wasn’t a good year to visit Rome if you were an idealistic monk, as the church was in the middle of building St. Peter’s Basilica and needed to raise a lot of money fast. The selling of indulgences—which were said to release a soul from purgatory—was the primary means of doing so. In addition to the selling of these worthless pieces of paper, Luther was appalled by the power, wealth, and corruption of the church hierarchy.
Back in Germany, Luther struggled with the role of the church in salvation, finally finding his answer in Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Through Paul’s words he came to understand that we are saved by faith, not works. Luther launched a campaign to reform the church, which included nailing his famous 95 Theses on the church door in Wittenberg. He didn’t intend to start a new church, but when the bishops and Pope opposed him, he turned on his former superiors with vehement passion. In return the Pope threatened to excommunicate him if he didn’t recant.
And then comes Luther’s finest moment. Any of us would be lucky to get something like this on our resume, for really it’s quite remarkable. Luther is brought before the authorities, who give him the chance to renounce what he has preached and published. If he refuses, he faces excommunication and death. Luther stands up and says this: “Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.”
And there, beyond a doubt, is a profile in courage. What he did at that moment was remarkable. He stood up for the right of one person to claim a direct relationship with God. He stood in opposition to corruption and brute force. He claimed the primacy of conscience over political expediency. Here I stand. I can do no other.
That moment was Luther’s finest. His historical legacy is not without blemish, particularly his writings about the Jews of his day and his reaction to the Peasants Rebellion, but no one can deny his influence or courage.
Luther would go on to lead the Protestant Reformation. He married a former nun, Katharina von Bora, and taught at Wittenberg University. He died in 1546 during a visit to Eisleben and is buried in the Castle Church at Wittenberg.