Luther, Martin (1483–1546)

German monk and founder of the Protestant Reformation. Luther began his clerical career as an Augustinian monk and was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in 1507. In 1512 he earned a doctorate in theology from the University of Wittenburg, where he was named a professor of scripture. Luther’s early writings indicate that he was concerned with the concept of personal guilt over sin, and he found that none of the church-sanctioned remedies confession, penance, meditation freed him from this sense of guilt. He was also bothered by what he saw as the corrupt practices of some priests and other church officials who granted indulgences, or remission of sin or atonement for sin, in exchange for money. In 1517 Luther published a list of concerns known as the Ninety-five Theses, which he intended to be points for dispute among churchmen. According to legend Luther nailed the list to the door of the church at Witten- burg Castle, and this act sparked the protest movement known to history as the Protestant Reformation. The debate over the Ninety-five Theses inspired Luther to produce other writings such as On Good Works and The Freedom of a Christian. Luther’s criticisms of the church in these writings were severe enough, and his refusal to recant firm enough, that in 1521 he was excommunicated. Under the protection of German nobles who opposed the church’s landholding and military practices in the early sixteenth century, Luther devised what he interpreted as a simpler, purer form of Christianity that he considered to be truer to the intents of Jesus Christ and the original apostles and church fathers. His ideas formed the basis of Protestant Christianity, most directly in the formation of the Lutheran churches that emerged in much of Germany and, in later decades, in Scandinavia. Luther emphasized three ideas. First, salvation came through faith alone, not through any form of works or deeds, including confession and penitence. Second, Christian authority is derived from the Bible alone, not from the institutional Roman Catholic Church. Third, each person is his or her own priest, and responsible for his or her own salvation; in other words, he argued, no church official could grant another person salvation or forgiveness for sin. These basic premises allowed room for the reconsideration of other church practices. For example, Luther rejected the notion of priestly celibacy, and in 1525 he married a former nun named Catherine von Bora. The couple had five children. As Lutheranism took hold he also contributed to the institutional aspects of this new church. He encouraged the emergence of a Lutheran clergy educated from within communities rather than from a central authority and, as part of his larger interest in making religious knowledge common knowledge, he insisted services be held in German and other vernacular languages rather than Latin. Luther himself produced a German translation of the Bible which was to serve as the main German Bible for centuries. A political conservative, Luther also supported the state’s role in adminis- tering these new churches, and in many parts of Germany as well as Scandinavia, Lutheran churches remain state churches. Lutheranism followed German, Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish immigrants to the United States, where it remains one of the mainline Protestant denominations. SEE ALSO: Christianity; Protestantism; Reformation

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