Could Johannes Gutenberg have known when he first conceived the idea of moveable type that it would contribute to the spread of the Reformation and the Renaissance and lead to the education of all levels of society? One might question his presence in the “Faces of the Reformation” series. But considering that his presses printed not only Luther’s 95 Theses but also the papal indulgences that sparked Luther’s polemic pen, it seems fitting that he should be included.
Gutenberg was born about 1395 as the son of a metalsmith, and he became acquainted with the printing business at a very young age. His invention of the moveable type press made the mass production of books a reality that would change the world. By 1450, his new invention was operating. As with most new ideas of this scale, the road was not smooth. In 1446, Johann Fust, Gutenburg’s financial backer, won a lawsuit against him regarding repayment of the funds. Gutenberg’s employee and son-in-law, Peter Schoffer, testified against him. Before this lawsuit was finalized, Gutenberg had printed a Latin Bible that contained 42 lines of Scripture per page. This “42-line Bible” is known as the Gutenberg Bible. The press for the Bible, Gutenberg’s masterpiece, along with a second book containing only Psalms, was lost to Fust in the court case. The Psalter was published after the court case with no mention of Gutenberg; only Fust’s and Schoffer’s names appear as the printers.
Gutenberg never really bounced back financially from losing his press to Fust. He set up another printing press and continued to print, but because he did not put his name in the books and papers he produced, it is not known how much was produced as he competed with his old press shop. In 1465, an honorific title was bestowed on Gutenberg in recognition for his invention. This was accompanied by a salary that supported him until his death three years later. Gutenberg is often thought of as a contemporary of Luther, but in fact he died 15 years before Luther was born. In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he declares that “we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). The stage was set for the coming battle between Luther and his followers and the pope and his supporters.
The Reformation has often been called the war of pamphlets. Pamphlets, the quickest and most economical form of printing with moveable type, had been around for decades before Luther started to employ them, but the volume of pamphlets increased as much as one-thousandfold in the first few years after Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the church door. Printing shops sprang up all over Germany, and many came to Wittenberg like moths to a flame. Even the artist Lucas Cranach partnered in a printing business there.
Gutenberg’s invention made books more obtainable for the first time in history. The book that helped codify the German language and that was used as a tool in teaching reading was Luther’s German Bible. For the first time, Germans could read the Scriptures in their own language at a cost that was within reach for the common man.
Surely Gutenberg would have been amazed at the world-altering events that resulted from the works planned in advance for him to do.
“As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs!” So went the sales pitch of the Dominican monk Johann Tetzel, who hawked forgiveness of sins like a carnival barker. Tetzel was born in 1465 in Saxony, Germany, and joined the order of Dominican monks in 1489. His specialty was selling indulgences, and by the spring of 1517, he was selling indulgences authorized by the pope in the territories of Albrecht, archbishop of Mainz, just over the border from Wittenberg. He claimed that the papal cross, under which these indulgences were sold, held as much power as the cross of Christ.
Why was Tetzel selling papal indulgences in Albrecht’s lands? Some years earlier, when Albrecht was already the archbishop of Magdeburg, he also wanted to become the archbishop of Mainz. Appointments like these came at a cost, and Pope Leo X was in dire need of money to build St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The two churchmen struck a deal: Tetzel would go into Albrecht’s territories and raise funds through the sale of indulgences. Half of the money would go toward the building of St. Peter’s and the other half would pay off Albrecht’s loan, secured to buy the new archbishopric.
An indulgence was a cancellation, imparted by the Roman Catholic Church, of all or part of the punishment for sin suffered here or in purgatory. Indulgences had originated as an inducement for men to fight for the Church as Crusaders. Soon a lucrative business of selling indulgences arose to fund construction of churches and other pious purposes. They also funded not-so-pious purposes, like the buying of church offices. Concordia Historical Institute has a papal indulgence issued in 1482. This indulgence states that the bearer has paid the indulgence price and is entitled to full remission of sins upon confession. The priest is instructed to say, “I absolve you from each and every transgression, wickedness and sin, however great and serious they are.”
When Martin Luther’s parishioners asked him about indulgences, he was concerned that there would no longer be any true repentance. He was afraid people would reason that if pardon from all sin could be purchased, there was no need for further concern about their souls.
Luther knew he must protect his flock from this dangerous practice. Luther thought that church officials would certainly do something about this after he alerted them. Imagine his surprise when the pope didn’t correct but defended such abuses! Furthermore, it was Pope Leo’s extravagant lifestyle that exacerbated his financial situation and prompted Tetzel’s activities.
Tetzel may have been Luther’s first target, but it soon became clear that Tetzel was just a greasy cog in a large, corrupt machine.
Frederick the Wise was the son of Ernest of Wettin. Only a year before Ernest’s death in 1486, the land of the House of Wettin was divided between Ernest and his younger brother, Albert. Albert took the title of “duke” and ruled over his half (Ducal Saxony, or Albertine Saxony). Ernest, who adopted the title of “elector,” had the larger but poorer area of Saxony that would be known as Electoral Saxony, or Ernestine. At the age of 22, Frederick assumed his father’s title of elector of Saxony. The chief castle was in Torgau, but Frederick had other castles in Saxony, including Wittenberg, Coburg and Wartburg. These would be important landmarks in Luther’s life.
Frederick was a devout Catholic with an extensive relic collection. His relics included fragments of the cross, the cradle, the swaddling cloths and others. At the end of his life, Frederick had more than 19,000 relics. He had been taught that venerating relics would aid in getting to heaven. He made his relics available to the public for this purpose. They served another use, though: They were a tourist attraction and moneymaker. He also believed in indulgences, the practice of purchasing remission of sins. The idea was that Christ and the saints had accrued more good works than were necessary for their entrance into heaven. You could purchase an indulgence that would move some of the saints’ line of credit to your account and thus take some of the years off your sentence in purgatory. Frederick used some of the money from indulgences to build a bridge near Torgau and to fund the building of his university at Wittenberg. He employed a monk named Johann Tetzel to sell indulgences.
Tetzel came around again in 1517 selling indulgences for the building of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. It was here that Frederick drew the line. It was one thing to “tax” the citizens for internal usage, but it was quite another to let good German money leave the area for Rome! Nevertheless, Tetzel could conduct business just over the border. The parishioners of Luther’s church in Wittenberg queried their priest about Tetzel’s practice, prompting Luther to post his 95 Theses. His theses were an invitation to debate the practice of selling indulgences, among other theological concerns. The theses were posted Oct. 31, 1517, the day before Frederick put his relics on display for All Saints’ Day.
Frederick kept an open mind and listened to Luther’s thoughts, which were based on Scripture. His motives may not have been purely theological, but instead more political. Luther’s ideas fit well into Frederick’s ideas of German nationalism, and protecting his young monk/professor was beneficial to both parties. To ensure his safety, Frederick arranged to have Luther “kidnapped” and hidden in the Wartburg castle after the Diet of Worms, at which Luther refused to recant. Frederick was respected amongst princes and popes for his wisdom. This respect was possibly a reason that other nobility listened to and supported Luther’s ideas at the Diet of Augsburg.
Although there is no evidence that Luther and Frederick ever met face to face, the two had a symbiotic relationship. At the end of his life, Frederick, who never openly renounced his Catholic faith, received the Lord’s Supper in the manner of the Reformation, in two kinds (the body and blood of Christ in, with and under the bread and wine of the altar).
Hans Luder (Luther) was the son of a peasant farmer. Due to inheritance laws, he was not eligible to come into the land of his father. He left his home village in Möhra to work in Eisleben, where Margarethe gave birth to a son. According to the Catholic tradition, they had the baby baptized the next day, November 11, which also was the Feast Day of St. Martin of Tours. Thus he was christened Martin. While he was still a baby, the family moved to Mansfield. One can assume that Hans was a smart, hard-working man. He advanced from a common laborer in the copper mines to the owner of his own copper mine.
Before 25 years had passed, he owned at least six mines and two copper smelters and was a member of Mansfield’s city council. A peasant he was born, a businessman he became. Some of this rise may have been due to the fact that Margarethe (also called Hanna) was from a respected family in Eisenach. It is probable that her family loaned the money necessary for Hans to buy his own copper mine. Copper mining was a risky profession. Like today’s small business owners, they were not affluent, but hard working and frugal. Because Martin was from a family of both farmers and businessmen, he was acquainted with their struggles and could write on the condition of their lives with some accuracy.
Hans and Margarethe loved their children, but were strict in their parenting. Strictness seemed to be the order of the day. Years later Martin recalled receiving a beating from his mother so severe it drew blood. (His crime was taking a nut without permission.) School in Mansfield was equally strict. Beatings for not knowing the assigned lessons were common. The end of the week brought more beatings for any behavioral infractions recorded during the week. His lesson was learned: all transgressions must be atoned for. It is little wonder Martin advocated for education reform and treated his own children so tenderly.
He finished his last four pre-university years in Eisenach, staying with Heinrich Schalbe, a family friend on his mother’s side. Schalbe treated him like a son, causing Martin to recall those years as much more pleasant. Stories of the young Martin as a poor, practically orphaned school boy singing for his supper seem to be more legend than fact. It may stem from a time when school children sang in the streets during holidays and were often rewarded with small treats.
In 1502 Martin finished a baccalaureate degree at the University of Erfurt, and by January 1505 he completed his master’s degree. His future looked bright and his parents were optimistic about their sacrificial investment in his education. But God had other plans for Martin’s life, and a lightning storm on July 2, 1505, played a hand in the turn of events. Caught in a severe storm and fearing for his life, Martin vowed to become a monk. This was more than a simple “foxhole prayer.” For Martin it was a solemn oath to God. By September he had given away his possessions and joined the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt. Hans’ plans for his son were crushed. It was many years later when Hans and Martin made peace with the young boy’s decision. Before he died, Hans left a sizable donation to the University of Wittenberg, where Martin taught.
Katharina von Bora was born in Saxony in 1499. Not much is known about her family, though recently historians have been researching to learn more about her early life. What is known is that she was born to a family of impoverished nobility and that she was sent to live in a Benedictine convent in Brehna when she was very young, around six. Thus Katharina began her education in a convent school, leading her on the path to becoming a nun.
In 1509, Katharina’s father arranged for her to be sent to the Marienthron cloister at Nimbschen, where her aunt was the abbess. Part of the Cistercian order, these nuns lived sparse lives without any luxury and performed manual labor, especially in the field. Katharina lived there as a postulant (candidate for the order) until 1515 when, at the age of 16, she took her vows and became a novice. Katharina took her vows seriously in the coming years, living a life of poverty and manual labor.
In the meantime, Katharina’s future husband, Martin Luther, was calling for reform in the church. These writings made their way into the hands of some of the nuns at Marienthron. What impacted Katharina the most from Luther’s writings was learning of St. Paul’s teachings that grace came from faith alone, not through prayer or works. This inspired Katharina and nine other nuns to escape life in the convent. It took such courage, conviction and an incredible faith for Katharina to take the step to leave the only way of life she had ever known.
When their families were not willing to aid them (for it was against the law to do so), the sisters secretly wrote to Luther for help. He chose to help based on this reasoning: “They permit children to enter the cloister where there is no daily practice of the Word of God and they seldom or never hear the Gospel rightly preached. This is reason enough to have these persons pulled out of the cloister and snatched away by any means possible.” Luther enlisted his good friend, Leonhard Koppe, who regularly delivered supplies, including barrels of herring, to the convent. One day, the barrels he left the convent with were still full—of the escaping nuns!
Over the next year, Luther found homes for all of the nuns who had arrived in Wittenburg except one — Katharina. It was then that Katharina, 26, and Luther, 42, were married June 13, 1525. Katharina, often called “Katie” by her husband, became the helpmeet for the reformer.
Katharina ran the household for Luther, taking care of the finances and making the former monastery (Black Cloister) where they lived self-sufficient by running a boarding house and brewing beer. This allowed Luther to focus on theological issues and his family. Luther and Katharina had six children, four of whom lived to adulthood. Katharina was invaluable to her husband. Luther once wrote, “I would not exchange my Katie for France or for Venice.”
Katharina and Martin developed a love and unending bond. When her husband died Feb. 18, 1546, she was heartbroken. She wrote to her sister-in-law, “My sorrow is so deep that no words can express my heartbreak. … I can neither eat nor drink, not even sleep.”
Who was Philipp Melanchthon? Some argue that he was a staunch defender of the Lutheran faith. Others say he was a weak professor whose battle cry was, “Why can’t we all just get along?” The answer may be that he was both. All agree he was a brilliant scholar and systematical theologian.
Melanchthon attended the University of Heidelberg, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1511. At age 17, he received a master’s degree from the University of Tübingen. His great-uncle Johann Reuchlin recommended him to Fredrick the Wise, who was seeking a professor of Greek for his newly formed university at Wittenberg. Melanchthon arrived Aug. 25, 1518, ten months after Luther posted his 95 Theses. Melanchthon was young, only 21, and small and thin in stature. An imposing figure he was not, but the world would know him one day as a giant of the Reformation.
Luther saw and admired the new professor’s gifts immediately. Melanchthon’s lectures were well attended. Not only students but townspeople and nobles crowded to hear the exceptional orator. He resisted Luther’s frequent requests to pursue a doctor of theology degree but acquiesced to at least a bachelor’s degree in theology. He finished that degree in his first year at Wittenberg.
Although Melanchthon remained a layman, he and Luther were the closest of friends for the rest of their lives. They did not agree on everything, but were loyal to each other and admired and depended on the gifts the other had been given. Melanchthon was the systematician of Luther’s theology. Luther once said of Melanchthon, “I was born to go to war and give battle to sects and devils. That is why my books are stormy and warlike. … But Master Philip comes softly and neatly, tills and plants, sows and waters with pleasure, as God has abundantly given him the talents.”
He is known as Praeceptor Germaniae for his role in forming the educational system of Germany and also for his Loci Communes, a book of Lutheran theology organized by subject matter. Most significantly, he is the author of the Augsburg Confession, the primary explanation of the Lutheran faith and one of the chief documents of the Reformation.
In the spring of 1530, the Emperor called a diet to be held in Augsburg. Luther, Melanchthon and fellow reformer Johann Bugenhagen set out for Augsburg. Luther could not attend in person because the Edict of Worms made him an outlaw in that part of the country. He was instead left at Coburg to sit and stew while the others journeyed on. On June 25, chancellor Beyer read out loud the Augsburg Confession to Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Augsburg. Here the protesting princes of Germany swore their allegiance to the Confessions.
Historians often speak of Melanchthon’s desire for unity with both the Catholics and Calvinists. He is sometimes described as weak-willed in his defense of Luther’s teachings, hoping to find common ground with differing views. As time went by, he modified his earlier works, including the Augsburg Confession. This drew the ire of those that disagreed with Melanchthon’s alterations. To this day, congregations in The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod subscribe to the Unaltered Augsburg Confession or UAC. These letters may be found in the cornerstone of your church.
Luther had been called by the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, and the German princes to the diet (meeting) of the German nation, which was to be held at the city of Worms (pronounced “Vorms”). Luther’s own prince, Frederick the Wise, was among the nobility in attendance. Luther arrived under the Emperor’s guarantee of safe passage April 16, 1521. He was called not to debate, but simply to recant his writings.
“Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason, I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other. My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand; I can do no other. God help me. Amen.” With these words, Luther risked being named a heretic and thus an outlaw with a price on his head.
Charles V wasted little time in condemning Luther. True to his word, however, Charles granted Luther safe passage to return to Wittenberg. He had 21 days to return home. As he and two of his companions traveled, they were suddenly accosted by several armed horsemen. They pulled Luther from the wagon and whisked him away as his friends watched in horror, certain they would never see Luther alive again.
The elaborate plot, with the blessing of Frederick the Wise, was to “kidnap” Luther and see that he was held safely away from those who might be plotting his death. Frederick knew nothing of the details only that Luther was taken to safety. This gave him plausible deniability should the Emperor ask Frederick if he knew Luther’s whereabouts. Luther was taken to the Wartburg castle in the dark of night. He grew out his hair and beard, traded in his monk’s robe for the attire of a knight and lived under the pseudonym Knight George.
He saw no one, save the few trusted souls that attended his needs. He complained of depression, loneliness and boredom. He was not used to the rich food served there, and it did not sit well with him. Work was his deliverance. During his 10- month exile, he produced what to some would be a lifetime of work. He translated the entire New Testament from Greek into German. This work alone helped to codify the German language, and it put the Scriptures directly into the hands of the laymen. He worked at a feverish pace and accomplished this feat in 11 weeks. Among his many books written during this time were a commentary on Psalm 68 in German as a devotional for the laity, and a commentary on the Magnificat.
In Luther’s absence, several men — including Andreas Carlstadt, a professor at Wittenberg — threw all order to the wind, and the church was left in relative chaos. Altars were destroyed, and images of saints were smashed. Nothing even hinting at Catholicism was left untouched, including how the Lord’s Supper was celebrated. Luther shed his knight’s clothing, and on March 9, he returned to the pulpit in Wittenberg. Peace quickly returned to the tumultuous city following a week of sermons on the importance of teaching before any changes could be made, Law and Gospel, and the strengthening of the weaker member of the body of Christ. For all the uproar his 95 Theses caused, no one could deny that his words could be equally calming and healing.
Luther’s exile was over. For the rest of his life, the Edict of Worms that declared Luther a heretic hung over him, but Germany was not about to let an outside emperor dictate the fate of the father of the Reformation.
Luther was raised by God-fearing parents who sacrificed to give their son an education. Planning to become a lawyer, Martin Luther entered the University of Erfurt. (His courses in grammar, logic and rhetoric provided the tools Luther later used to study and interpret Scripture.) Law was a profession that was not only respected but would also ensure his ability to care for his parents in their later years. One day Luther was caught in a violent thunderstorm. He prayed to St. Anne, promising to become a monk if his life was spared. This was not a promise he took lightly. Much to the disappointment of his father, Luther shed his worldly life to enter the Augustinian monastery.
It was here that Luther fasted and prayed, constantly seeking to live a perfect and holy life for God’s approval. This attempt to live a holy life included visiting and revering holy relics. There were relics that were reputed to be a splinter from the cross, or a branch from the burning bush, the hair of this saint or a piece of cloth from that one. Even Luther’s trip to Rome, a city filled with more relics than any other in Europe, could not put his soul at ease. He could never be good enough for this righteous God. Despair set in. Luther’s vicar (or priest), Johann von Staupitz, brought him to Wittenberg where he could mentor Luther more closely.
Luther began an in-depth study of the Bible while teaching at the University of Wittenberg. He continued this study after finishing his doctorate, believing that the Bible was more important than the teachings of the Church Fathers. In 1514, while studying Paul’s letter to the Romans in his tower room, he finally saw the pure Gospel. He realized that sinners are saved not through good works but by the gift of God through faith. This insight into the Gospel and the assurance of his salvation gave him the confidence to overcome the challenges he would soon face.
The challenges began in the form of a man named Johann Tetzel. Tetzel was sent to Wittenberg to sell indulgences. After penitents confessed their sins, a priest might assign works of satisfaction as part of absolving sins. At first, indulgences were granted to Crusaders willing to sacrifice all in defense of the Church. Those who could not go could support the effort financially and also receive an indulgence, or pardon from sin.
This was so lucrative that the practice was soon used to raise funds for churches and hospitals, even infrastructure. Frederick the Wise would display his relics on All Saints Day, Nov. 1. The faithful could pay homage to the relics, pay money to Frederick and everyone would be happy at the end of the day; sins forgiven, revenues up. The three parts to penance changed from contrition, confession and absolution to contrition, confession and contribution.
Luther’s concern was that there would no longer be any sense of true contrition. If sinners could receive pardon from all sins, then they could spend the rest of their lives not worrying about the statuses of their souls. He must protect his flock from this dangerous practice.
On Oct. 31, 1517, Luther posted his 95 Theses on the Castle Church doors, seeking a scholarly debate on the sale of indulgences. Although he wrote them in Latin, they were surreptitiously translated into German and distributed throughout the land, sparking the events that began the Reformation.