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Picture of Martin Luther by Lucas Cranach

A Short History of the Life of
Dr. Martin Luther and the Reformation

Martin Luther was born on November 10, 1483 in Eisleben, Germany. This was not long before the time when Christopher Columbus sailed to find the new world.

In 1501 Luther entered Erfurt University to study to become a lawyer. There he received his bachelor’s degree. He returned to Erfurt to continue his study. Although he appeared happy to many, Luther was deeply concerned about his spiritual relationship with God. He saw God as an angry judge and not a loving Father.  He could not see how a holy and just God would receive him into heaven.

After surviving a terrifying experience in a thunderstorm, Luther decided to become a monk. Luther entered the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt on July 17, 1505. His desire was to find God’s grace and mercy. He was 21 years old.

At this time it was taught that doing good works, praying to the saints and making pilgrimages would help a person be sure of heaven. Luther was terrified that he could not do enough to save his soul. However, even as a monk and later as a priest, no matter how many good works Luther did, it did not bring him peace. He was terrified by the fear that he was a sinner and therefore stood condemned before God.

In 1512 Luther attained the degree of Doctor of Theology. John Staupitz, Luther’s superior at the monastery and the head of the theological faculty at the University of Wittenberg suggested that Luther become a teacher. In 1513 Luther began lecturing on the Psalms, Romans and Galatians. During this time Luther began to discover the Gospel. He read in Romans 1:17, “For in the Gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written, ‘The righteous will live by faith.’” Luther said “It was like the gates of heaven opened to me.”

He learned that God sent His own Son to take the punishment for our sins. By Jesus’ death on the cross, our sins have been paid for in full. While all of our good works could never remove sin, Jesus Christ has already done this. We receive this forgiveness from God as a gift through faith.


Realizing that many of the church’s teachings contradicted the truth of the Gospel, Luther wanted to guide the church back to the truth of the Bible.

Pope Leo X was busy collecting funds to complete the building of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. In order to raise this money, he sent John Tetzel to Germany to sell indulgences. With the purchase of these indulgences the church promised full forgiveness of all sins. It even promised the shortening of time for loved ones who were thought to be in purgatory – a non-existent place of punishment between heaven and hell.

In light of the sale of these indulgences, in which people thought they could purchase forgiveness of sins, rather than by repenting of them and trusting by faith in Jesus Christ for mercy, Luther wrote his 95 Theses. These theses were penned by Luther in Latin and raised as issues for debate. It was Luther’s desire to restore the central teaching of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. He nailed the theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. This was the usual place for the posting of notices.

Immediately the 95 Theses were translated and distributed in Germany. The sale of indulgences fell off soon after this. The people agreed with Martin Luther. Leo was not pleased. In 1521 Luther was called on trial before Emperor Charles V. He was commanded to recant what he had written – to take back everything he had said. Luther responded, “My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.”

Luther was condemned as a heretic, placed under the ban and considered a criminal. He no longer had the protection of the law. He could be hunted down and killed.

As Luther started back for Wittenberg, he was kidnapped by a group of horsemen. It turned out that the kidnappers were knights of Duke Frederick of Saxony. It was a trick to save Luther’s life. They took him to the protection of the Wartburg Castle. Luther let his beard grow in and the people referred to him as “Knight George.”

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While at the Wartburg Castle, Luther translated the Bible into German, the language of the people. He wanted everyone to be able to read God’s Word. During this time many changes took place in the churches. Some sought to bring about change by force. Some churches were vandalized and statues destroyed. Luther came out of hiding to bring calm and restore peace. He taught the people that the only weapon of the Church is the sword of the Spirit, the Word of God. It triumphs, not by power of force, but by the Holy Spirit.

On June 13, 1525, Luther married Katherine von Bora, a former nun. They had six children. Luther loved his wife, Katie, very much and affectionately called her his “rib.”

In 1530 the Emperor Charles V travelled to Augsburg to give the Protestants a hearing. Philip Melancthon, a co-worker of Luther, presented the Augsburg Confession, a summary of Lutheran beliefs and teaching. Although Charles ordered his theologians to refute it and threatened to use force to compel the Lutherans to give up their faith, the princes and those gathered who had signed the confession informed the emperor that they could not renounce their faith. Boldly they took their stand in confessing, on the basis of Scripture alone, that we are saved by God’s grace alone, through faith alone.

Luther emphasized the singing of congregational hymns in worship.  Among his most famous hymns is “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”  In addition, among his extensive writings, Luther wrote two books to teach the Christian faith, his Large and Small Catechisms.  The Small Catechism is still used to teach the faith in our Confirmation classes to this day.

In 1546 Luther died in Eisleben, Germany, the same town in which he was born. He was buried in the Castle Church in Wittenberg.

DST 2001, 2010

"Here I Stand," by Roland Bainton

Here I Stand - A Life of Martin Lutherby Roland H. Bainton

You can read this excellent biography of Luther, and learn more about the events of the Reformation, in this best-selling classic. It is available in its entirety for free reading online the Internet Archive. You can also find links there by which you can download a copy for free to your computer, phone, tablet or Kindle.  Click here to learn more.

Lutherans were in America seven years before the Pilgrims.

The first book translated into any American Indian Language was Luther’s Small Catechism.


The first “Stars and Stripes” was made by Sara Austin and the Ladies Aid Society of Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Philadelphia. It was presented to John Paul Jones and received the first salute granted to the “Stars and Spangled Banner” in Europe. It is now in the National Museum in Washington, D.C.

The Statue of Liberty was made by a French Lutheran, M. Frederic Bartholdi.

Washington’s army at the Battle of Trenton was largely composed of Lutherans.

It was a Lutheran boy who called a Lutheran sexton to ring the Liberty Bell.

The Liberty Bell was hauled from Philadelphia to Allentown, PA, by a Lutheran, Frederick Leiser, in 1777. The bell was then hidden under the floor of Zion Lutheran Church.

Statue of Liberty

The second oldest military unit in America was formed by 137 men from St. John’s Lutheran Church, Charleston, SC, in 1775.

The first president of the Continental Congress was a Lutheran, John Hanson. He served until Washington was inaugurated.

A Lutheran, Michael Higgins, became the first treasurer of the United States, serving until Alexander Hamilton took office.

A Lutheran pastor, Frederick A. C. Muhlenberg, was the first speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. With John Adams, he signed the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights.

Another Lutheran pastor, Peter Muhlenberg, was largely responsible for the Virginia Legislature’s passage of a bill establishing religious freedom in 1785. Soon other states followed. The First Amendment was the result.

Reprinted from the

August ’84 Workers Together,

Kansas District, via The Lutheran Witness, 

July 1985.

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