Martin Luther

Also found in: Dictionary, Thesaurus, Wikipedia.
Related to Martin Luther: Protestant Reformation, John Calvin
Martin Luther
BirthplaceEisleben, Saxony, Holy Roman Empire
Monk, Priest, Theologian, Professor

Luther, Martin

Luther, Martin, 1483–1546, German leader of the Protestant Reformation, b. Eisleben, Saxony, of a family of small, but free, landholders.

Early Life and Spiritual Crisis

Luther was educated at the cathedral school at Eisenach and at the Univ. of Erfurt (1501–5). In 1505 he completed his master's examination and began the study of law. Several months later, after what seems to have been a sudden religious experience, he entered a monastery of the Augustinian friars at Erfurt. There, devoutly attentive to the rigid discipline of the order, he began an intensive study of Scripture and was ordained a priest in 1507. In 1508 he was sent to the Univ. of Wittenberg to study and to lecture on Aristotle. In 1510, Luther was sent to Rome on business for his order, and there he was shocked by the spiritual laxity apparent in high ecclesiastical places.

Upon his return he completed the work for his theological doctorate and became a professor at Wittenberg. This period was the beginning of the intimacy between Luther and John von Staupitz, whose influence led Luther to say in 1531, “I have received everything from Staupitz.” For Luther these years were times of profound spiritual and physical torment. Obsessed with anxieties about his own salvation, he sought relief in frequent confession and extreme asceticism. His search for peace of mind led him, under the guidance of Staupitz, to further study of the Scriptures. Staupitz called upon Luther to succeed him as the university's professor of the Bible, a post he held for the rest of his life.

In preparation for his university lectures in 1513, especially on the letters of Paul, Luther resolved his turmoil. In the Scriptures Luther found a loving God who bestowed upon sinful humans the free gift of salvation, to be received through faith, against which all good works were as nothing. Luther devoted himself with increasing vigor to the work of the church, and in 1515 he became district vicar.

The 95 Theses

From 1516 on, as a consequence of his new convictions, Luther felt compelled to protest the dispensation of indulgences (see indulgence). The arrival of Johann Tetzel in Saxony in 1517 to proclaim the indulgence granted by Leo X prompted Luther to write and distribute his historic 95 theses (which probably were not posted on the castle church door as tradition states). The abuse of indulgences had been condemned by many Catholic theologians, but the sale of indulgences had had great financial success, and ecclesiastical authorities had not halted it. Luther's theses were widely distributed and read, finding sympathy among the exploited peasantry and among the civil authorities, who deplored the drainage of funds to Rome. The propositions were brought to the attention of the pope, who ordered the head of the Augustinians to keep peace in his order. Meanwhile Tetzel was committed to the struggle against Luther, and he found an able colleague in Johann Eck, who drove Luther into more and more radical positions.

Although Luther still considered his activities as directed toward reforms within the church, his opponents found his ideas heretical. In the following years several attempts were made to reconcile Luther to the church, but the basis of compromise was lacking on both sides. At a meeting with the papal legate at Augsburg in 1518, Luther refused to recant, and in 1519 in a public disputation with Eck in Leipzig he was forced to declare his stand as one at variance with some of the doctrines of the church.

Break with the Church

As the break with Rome became inevitable, Luther broadened his position to include widespread reforms. In his Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation (1520) he supported the new nationalism by advocating German control of German ecclesiastical matters and appealed to the German princes to help effect the reformation in Germany. He attacked the claim of the papacy of authority over secular rulers and denied that the pope was the final interpreter of Scripture, enunciating the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. He assailed the corruption of the church and attacked usury and commercialism, recommending a return to a primitive agrarian society.

Catholic theologians were further aroused with the publication of The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, in which Luther, in an uncompromising attack on the papacy, denied the authority of the priesthood to mediate between the individual and God and rejected the sacraments except as aids to faith. He followed this work with a tract entitled The Freedom of a Christian Man. in which he reiterated his doctrine of justification by faith alone and presented a new ideal of piety—that of the Christian man, free in conscience by virtue of faith and charged with the duty of conducting himself properly in a Christian brotherhood.

By the time the papal bull Exsurge Domine, condemning his views and threatening excommunication, reached Germany, Luther's position was well understood and widely supported. In a dramatic renunciation of papal authority, Luther held a public burning of the bull and of the canon law. In 1521 formal excommunication was pronounced. In the same year Luther was given a safe-conduct and was summoned before the Diet of Worms (see Worms, Diet of). The opinions at the diet were divided, but when an edict of the diet called for Luther's seizure, his friends placed him for safekeeping in the Wartburg, the castle of Elector Frederick III of Saxony. There Luther translated the New Testament into German and began the translation of the entire Bible, a work not completed until 10 years later.

Growth of Lutheranism and His Last Years

At Wittenberg the iconoclasts under Carlstadt had instituted radical changes that Luther greatly deplored. Fearing that his movement was endangered, Luther disregarded his personal safety and returned to Wittenberg, where he spent most of the remainder of his life organizing and spreading the new gospel. Luther suffered a loss of popular appeal when he stoutly opposed (1524–25) the Peasants' War, a revolt that his own spirit of independence had helped to foster. His position was further weakened by a break with the humanists brought about by Erasmus's work, Freedom of the Will (1524), in which Erasmus attacked Luther's doctrine of the enslaved will. Nevertheless, through his forceful writings and preaching his doctrines spread to many towns and free cities, strengthened by the support of many German nobles.

He married (1525) a former nun, Katharina von Bora, and raised six children. His closest friends and associates, Philip Melanchthon and Justus Jonas, helped carry forward his endeavors, and after the death of Frederick III he enjoyed the active support of John Frederick I, who succeeded to the electorate. Luther worked actively to build a competent educational system; his extensive writing on church matters included the composition of hymns, a liturgy, and two catechisms that are basic statements of the Lutheran faith.

His attitude hardened toward various sects, especially the Anabaptists, whose growth presented a serious challenge to his conception of the church. His uncompromising attitude in doctrinal matters helped break up the unity of the Reformation that he was anxious to preserve; the controversy with Huldreich Zwingli and later with Calvin over the Lord's Supper divided Protestants into the Lutheran Church and the Reformed Churches. After attempts at union, the Lutherans drew up their own articles of faith in the Augsburg Confession (see creed (4)), which was written by Melanchthon at the Diet of Augsburg in 1530 with the sanction of Luther, who was not permitted to attend. About this time the control of the Lutheran Church had passed further into the hands of the Protestant princes.

During the last years of Luther's life he was troubled with ill health of increasing severity and the plagues of political and religious disunion within the nation. He died in Eisleben and was buried at Wittenberg, leaving behind an evangelical doctrine that spread throughout the Western world and marked the first break in the unity of the Catholic Church. In Germany his socio-religious concepts laid a new basis for German society. His writings, in forceful idiomatic language, helped fix the standards of modern German.


Luther's works have been published frequently and in many languages; the first attempt at an edition of them was in 1539–58. See H. Grisar, Martin Luther, His Life and Work (tr. 1930); H. Boehmer, Luther and the Reformation in the Light of Modern Research (tr. 1930) and The Road to Reformation (tr. 1946); R. H. Fife, The Revolt of Martin Luther (1957); J. MacKinnon, Luther and the Reformation (4 vol., 1962); V. H. H. Green, Luther and the Reformation (1964); P. Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther (tr. 1966); J. Atkinson, Martin Luther and the Birth of Protestantism (1968); E. G. Rupp, comp., Martin Luther (1970); H. G. Koenigsberger, comp., Luther (1973); A. G. Dickens, Martin Luther and the Reformation (1976); H. A. Oberman, Luther (1982); G. Brendler, Martin Luther (1989); M. Brecht, Martin Luther (3 vol., 1985–1999); A. Pettegree, Brand Luther (2015); E. Metaxas, Martin Luther (2017); L. Roper, Martin Luther (2017).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2022, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Luther, Martin


Born Nov. 10, 1483, in Eisleben, Saxony; died there Feb. 18, 1546. Head of the burgher Reformation in Germany. Founder of German Protestantism (Lutheranism). Son of a former miner who became a joint owner of a number of foundries and copper mines.

Luther graduated from the University of Erfurt in 1505 with the degree of master of arts and entered the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt. In 1508 he began to lecture at the University of Wittenberg, where he became doctor of theology in 1512. In an atmosphere of upsurge in the German social movement, which was directed primarily against the Catholic Church, Luther came forward with 95 theses against indulgences. (He posted the theses on the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church on Oct. 31, 1517.) The theses contained the main tenets of his new religious teaching, which he subsequently developed in other works and which rejected some principal dogmas and the entire structure of the Catholic Church.

Repudiating the Catholic dogma that the church and the clergy were necessary as mediators between man and god, Luther declared a Christian’s faith to be the only means for the “salvation of his soul” and that this faith is granted to man directly by god (the thesis of “justification by faith alone”). Luther affirmed that both the secular life and the entire secular system (the secular state and its institutions), providing for man the opportunity to “devote himself to his faith,” occupied an important place in the Christian religion. Luther denied the authority of papal decrees and epistles (holy tradition) and demanded the restoration of the authority of the Holy Scriptures. With his new teachings, Luther rejected the claims of the clergy to a ruling position in society. Luther limited the role of the clergy to the instruction of Christians in the spirit of “humility” and “contriteness of heart” and in the realization of man’s complete dependence on the “grace of god” in the salvation of his soul. The contradictory moods and oscillations of the German burghers of the beginning of the 16th century, conditioned by their class immaturity, were reflected in Luther’s religious views. On the one hand, there was a striving to “rehabilitate” secular activity; on the other hand, there was a conservatism, expressed in the retention of the Catholic teachings on the sinful nature of man.

Luther’s theses were received by the oppositional and revolutionary strata of the population as a signal for action against the Catholic Church and the social system sanctified by it, and the Reformation movement went beyond the limits Luther had set.

Depending on support from the social movement in Germany, Luther refused to appear at a church trial in Rome, and at a debate in Leipzig with Catholic theologians in 1519 he openly declared that he considered many of the teachings of the Bohemian reformer Jan Hus to be correct. Luther publicly burned a papal bull excommunicating him from the church in the courtyard of the University of Wittenberg in 1520. In the same year, in The Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, Luther declared that the struggle against papal domination was a matter for the entire German nation.

However, in 1520-21, when the positions of various classes that had joined the Reformation were being defined and when T. Miintzer appeared in the political arena and demonstrated a new, popular conception of the Reformation, Luther departed from the radical position that he had originally taken, elaborating more precisely that “Christian liberty” ought only to be understood in the sense of spiritual freedom, with which the physical lack of freedom, including the condition of serfdom, was fully compatible. Luther sought protection from persecution occasioned by the Edict of Worms of 1521 not in the popular camp but among the princes, seeking shelter in the castle of Wartburg of Elector Frederick of Saxony. Luther’s sharp attacks against the radical-burgher tendency in the Reformation, represented by Carlstadt, and especially against the revolutionary struggle of the popular masses began at this time. Luther declared that the secular authorities were obliged to defend the existing social system by the power of the sword. During the Peasant War of 1524-26 he demanded the massacre of the rebellious peasants and the restoration of serfdom.

The historical significance of Luther is that, above all, his actions provided an impetus to the powerful upsurge in the movement of all the advanced and revolutionary forces of society. At the same time, the Lutheran Reformation, breaking with the general popular movement of which it was at first the center, subsequently became a base for the power of the feudal princes. The proclamation by Luther of the idea of the independence of the secular state from the Catholic Church, which in the epoch of early capitalism corresponded to the interests of the rising bourgeois elements, was of great importance.

Luther is also a cultural figure in the history of German social thought as a reformer of education, language, and music. He not only experienced the influence of the culture of the Renaissance, but in the interests of the struggle against the “papists” he strove to make use of the national culture and did much to develop it. Also very significant was Luther’s translation of the Bible into German (1522-42), in which he succeeded in establishing standards for a German national language.


Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe, parts 1-4, 1882-1972. (Publication continuing.)
Hilfsbuch zum Lutherstudium, 3rd ed. Edited by K. Aland. Weimar, 1970.


Marx, K. “K kritike gegelevskoi filosofii prava.” K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed. vol. 1, pp. 422-23.
Engels, F. “Krest’ianskaia voina v Germanii.” Ibid., vol. 7.
Smirin, M. M. Narodnaia reformatsiia Tomasa Miuntsera i Velikaia Krest’ianskaia voina, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1955.
Smirin, M. M. “Liuter i obshchestvennoe dvizhenie v Germanii v epokhu Reformatsii (k 450-letiiu nemetskoi reformatsii).” In the collection Voprosy nauchnogo ateizma, issue 5. Moscow, 1968.
Müller-Streisand, R. Luthers Weg von der Reformation zur Restauration. Halle, 1964.
Zschabitz, G. M. Luther, Grosse und Grenze, part 1 (1483-1526). Berlin, 1967.
Trebs, H. Martin Luther heute. Berlin, 1967.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Luther, Martin

(1483–1546) German leader of the Protestant Reformation. [Ger. Hist.: NCE, 1631]
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
Eric Metaxas, author of the 2017 book "Martin Luther," said earlier Luther sympathized with the Jews because of the poor way they were treated by the Catholic Church.
As part of the Freedom City 2017 legacy the annual Dr Martin Luther King public lecture is to be reinstated during the next academic year and a new dean of social justice post is to be created, providing leadership in this area.
"Martin Luther's Travel Guide" also includes stories about Luther's life and work as well as maps, timelines, full color pictures, hotel and restaurant recommendations, addresses, phone numbers, and websites.
A King's Speech - Martin Luther King on Tyneside, is narrated by Lenny Henry and tells the story of the African Ameri can civil rights activist's visit to the North East region to collect an honorary doctorate from the University of Newcastle - the only university in the UK to honour Dr King in this way during his lifetime.
The Martin Luther King building, which is owned by National Museums Liverpool, was the former location for the Dock Traffic Office.
King by the popular search engine on Martin Luther King Jr.
Rothschild's speech, which draws heavily on imagery from Genesis, is worth revisiting on the occasion of Martin Luther King Jr.
Martin Luther King dreamt of a time where the colour of a person's skin would not matter.
By GEORGE JACKSON THE son of assassinated US civil rights leader Martin Luther King described his visit here as an honour.
Martin Luther King III was in Liverpool yesterday to take part in Slavery Remembrance Day.
HeroBook, a website that contains a collection of stories about different kinds of heroes all over the world, proudly presents famous hero, Martin Luther King Jr.
Travel Business Review-August 17, 2011--Greyhound Offers Advance bookings for Martin Luther King Jr National Memorial Event(C)2011] ENPublishing -

Full browser ?