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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Chester David Hartranft (1839–1914)

By Martin Luther (1483–1546)

THE TRANSITION from the mediæval to the modern world was not at all violent, although we persist in making the lines of demarcation strangely sharp and abrupt. The forces that produced the changes were not all generated at once, nor did they combine in any visible contemporary or sequential unity. They were at first independent, and had been evolved by many unrelated, pent-up thoughts and far-removed energies. The fact of the fusion of all these elements was first discernible in the effects produced; gradually the higher principle became patent enough, however discordant and undesigned the human effort seemed to be; and at last they mingled in an unbroken resultant. Distinctly greater than the modifications produced in politics, literature, economics, and commerce by the currents of the time, was that introduced into religion. During centuries had the desire for freedom, simplicity, and equality sought expression. Individuals and orders had labored for these in extremest sacrifice within the very heart of the mediæval church. The Separatist fraternities, which had transmitted their beliefs and aspirations from one age to another, now suddenly found the door open. One superior voice gave utterance to that blended longing. Martin Luther felt within himself the ancient ferment, and struggled experimentally to meet the spiritual impulse and need of his day. Those primitive truths, the universal priesthood of believers, the right and responsibility of the individual to think and answer for himself, the immediacy of Divine authority, the direct union with God, the overshadowing superiority of the spiritual community of saints, were the themes which had been agitated all along; but which he discussed afresh, and sought to establish not only as concepts but as realities. He compelled their recognition for all time. The revived ideas became the basis of a new order in society and in the State, as well as in the church. They infused the spirit of progress along noble lines, and instituted endless controversies in the spheres of literature, education, discovery, and economics. None of these realms can ever rest: they must ever search after the ideal underlying these truths, which demand universal recognition and practice. They necessitated continuous growth from the lower to the higher, and violent revolution must ensue where that change is arrested.

It was not without significance that Luther was of peasant origin (born November 10th, 1483); that he was bred under severe home discipline, against which his sensitive nature revolted; that his academic training was in the central schools of Eisleben, Magdeburg, and Eisenach; that he was familiar with the poverty of student life. The University of Erfurt had felt the breath of the new learning, and was already a pioneer of humanism. It gave him his degrees in the liberal arts and philosophy. Hardly had he begun his legal studies before his religious sentiment, accentuated by a series of external experiences, led him to become a monk of the Augustinian order, in which Von Staupitz was steadily restoring the ancient regimen. Now began his studies in theology, his contact with the Bible, and those spiritual agonies which no official advancement into the priesthood, or teaching chair, could quiet or satisfy. The solution thereof, however, was found in the simple faith of and in Christ. The journey to Rome was of immense practical importance, for it destroyed many illusions.

His call to Wittenberg and final settlement there, after a temporary return to Erfurt, gave him not only authority in his order, but entrance into the office of preacher, exegete, lecturer, and author. Here he found his way to a divine life based purely on the Scriptures. From the controversy concerning indulgences, faith, and good works, and after fruitless efforts to win him back, he came to the disputation at Leipzig to find there the inevitable logic of the movement to a final rupture with the mediæval church. At the Diet of Worms that secession became fixed and political. From this time on there was urgency not only for destructive criticism, but for the reconstruction of Christendom upon the foundation of the spiritual experiences, generated and certified by Scriptural authority. In the quiet retreat of the Wartburg, the thought of this rebuilding possessed him. Among many labors he occupied himself mainly with the translation of the New Testament. He finally gave the Bible to his people in a regenerated tongue.

But the unchained thoughts of the day refused to be held in check. For some men the conservative method of reform was too slow. The incursion of radicals, particularly at Wittenberg, led to his voluntary return, and by the simple weight of his personality the iconoclastic movement was for the most part repressed in that center. The social revolution inaugurated by the peasants, involving many noble principles and aims, met with his most violent hostility because it had resorted to the sword. To his mind the juncture of battle was not a time for nice discriminations and balancings. Nor did the efforts at political union on the part of those who adopted his views receive any ardent co-operation from him. For a long time he resisted all thought of even armed defense against hypothetical imperial suppression. Nor would he affiliate with divergent religious standpoints of the Reformation, so as to bring all the moderates into a compromise, in order to widen the Torgau and Smalkald leagues. The Diet of Augsburg, 1530, witnessed a united public, and subscribed confession with its Apology, on the part of the princes and their representatives who had embraced the Lutheran ideas. Gradually the long agitated purpose of an appeal to a general council was also surrendered by him. He softened in some degree towards the formula by which Bucer sought to interpret the Lord’s Supper, so that the Wittenberg Concord might become a basis of union.

Among the reconstructive movements were the propagation of his views in many of the German States, the visitation of the churches, provision for education in the new spirit, the formulation of ecclesiastical polity and worship, and the raising of funds for the support of ministry, parishes, and benevolent institutions. His final breach with monasticism had been certified by his marriage and the creation of a beautiful home life, in which he exercised a hospitality that often overtaxed his resources and the willing heart of his wife. Relatives, students, celebrities from all lands were at his table. Some of his devoted admirers have preserved to us his talks upon leading themes and persons. He was the victim of almost uninterrupted bodily suffering, which accentuated his mental and spiritual conflicts; nor did these tend to diminish the harshness and coarseness of his polemics. Sweet-tempered at home and in his personal intercourse with men, he let go his fiercest passions against those adversaries who were worthy of his steel, or he flooded lesser minds with a deluge of satire and proverbs. He was busy with his pen after he had to restrict his teaching and lecturing. In the larger efforts at reunion with the mediæval church, whether by conference or by council, he of course could take no personal part, and indeed showed little practical sympathy with them. He had gathered about him a body of most able coadjutors, whose hearts he had touched. Spalatin, Melanchthon, Bugenhagen, Cruciger, Justus, Jonas, Eber, and others were master minds of whose careers he was the shaping genius; although as a rule he did not seek to exercise any repressive influence upon their liberty of thought and action. His last letters to his wife were as humorous and beautiful as ever. He died in the town of his birth, February 18th, 1546, while on a mission to reconcile the Counts Albrecht and Gebhard von Mansfeldt. No man ever received more generous testimony to his worth than did Luther as he was borne to his rest.

His was an extraordinary personality. No one could escape the attraction of his eye or speech. His mighty will conquered his physical ailments. Few men of history have been so prolific in authorship and correspondence. He had a side for Æsop and Terence. He had an ample culture in which the old and the new streams commingled; while it had not the minuteness and polish of the classic models affected by Erasmus and Melanchthon, it was pervaded with an essentially original spirit which vivified and deepened every sentence that he wrote or uttered. This culture was also very broad, and sought invigoration and growth from most of the fresher sources of his time; but especially drew from the perennial fountains of the people’s thought and life. He was a man of and for the people; and yet his works instructed and stimulated the wisest and noblest of his contemporaries. He was full of cheer and humor, and these kept his style sparkling and vivid. Tenderness, wrath, joy, sorrow, were always commingled. Few whom he had charmed—and he drew to him the most of men young and old—could be repelled by even the extremes of his vehemence, amounting sometimes to arrogant brutality. Whom he once loved he seldom forgot. Two widely divergent dispositions were those of Luther and Melanchthon. When his dear Philip proved too pliant, or slowly drifted to another principle of theology, the magnanimity of the lion was not violently disturbed. Even the most advanced spirits readily acknowledged their debt to the great Doctor.

His character had eminently heroic qualities, which he manifested in his obedience to the pursuit of truth, in spite of halting and deserting friends: in his attitude at Worms; in relieving his princes of all responsibility for him; in his simple leaning upon the protection of God; in his persistent residence at Wittenberg during its frequent visitations by plagues; in his handling of king and princes,—Henry VIII., Duke George, and Duke Henry,—as he did ordinary mortals. His sublime courage and independence have made him the idol of almost the entire church, and have prevented a true analysis of his character, and the acknowledgment of serious defects in his judgment and conduct.

The salient power of his movement lies in the fact that his entire conception of truth and duty was the result of inward struggle, conviction, and experience. The conscience thus educated was imperative. Step by step he won his way to conclusions, until he attained a rich understanding and appreciation of Jesus Christ as Son of man, Son of God, and Savior of the world. He spoke from his own heart: no wonder that he could appeal persuasively to the hearts of men. Each process—at Erfurt, Wittenberg, Leipzig, Worms, Coburg—added a new stone to the temple of his life. The entire man underwent a revolution: body, soul, and spirit, were devoted singly and unitedly to the one end. He sought to permeate all life with a higher life, of which certain truths were the expression.

It could not but be, that there would occur contradictions of himself both in speech and conduct during the various stages of his career. A deal of the earlier ideality disappears in the fierceness of later disputes, and in the irresponsiveness of human nature. Some features of the purer spirituality which he first inculcated are obscured and almost obliterated, when he failed to discover any substantial sensibility in the students, ministers, lawyers, citizens, and peasants about him. He practically vacated many points of liberty and equality as he came to organize those who professed adhesion to his principles.

He viewed his work as peculiarly that of a prophet. This was indeed an idea common to reformers of every period; but with him it was not a weak echo of the Old Testament, or an identification with any one of the witnesses of the Apocalypse. He was a real Vox Clamans, inspired by the Holy Spirit and by the existing conditions of that church which he regarded as anti-Christ, by the claims of society and by the confusions of State. Naturally this conception of his call grew into a certain arrogance and dictatorship; for it carried with it the feeling of finality. This accounts for his unbending hostility to every opinion or interpretation that was not in accord with what he deemed must be true. Hence the bitter violence of his letters and treatises against such typical men as Zwingli and Schwenckfeld; and his resistance to every attempt, save one, to bring upon a single platform the various groups of Protestants. It was this lofty spiritual egoism which made him turn from humanism as an ultimate source of renovation. This impelled him to draw swords with Erasmus; this made him refuse the political expedients of the knights as well as the peasants. Nor would he allow his own Elector, Frederic John or John Frederic, to dictate to him the terms and bounds of his duty; not even in cases which involved the most delicate relations, social and political. His scorn was boundless at every suggestion of surrender or silence.

His influence upon literature was greater than that of any other man of his time: for he did not seek to revive classic models after the method of humanism in its worship of form, nor to use the dead languages as vehicles for the best thought; but endeavored to spiritualize the Renaissance itself, and to build up his vernacular into a strong, fertile, and beautiful language. He distinctly says that he delved into the colloquial patois, into the Saxon official speech (which had a sort of first place), into proverbs, and into the folk literature, to construct out of these sources, under the leadership of the Saxon, one popular, technical, and literary tongue. He laid the basis thereby for the splendid literature of Germany, which not even the classical or French affectations could destroy. It is not easy to overestimate the creative influence on literature of Luther’s translation of the Bible. Hardly less potent was his influence in baptizing music and song with the new spirit; for he had a genuine artistic instinct, if little of technical ability. It is no wonder, therefore, that we find him renovating education in all its grades; and with such a radical conception of its value, comprehensiveness, and method as not even Melanchthon attained unto.

The infusion of his principles touched society and the State in ways that he little imagined. He was a devoted patriot, and longed to lift the German people out of their vices, and to remove the occasion for that contempt with which other nationalities regarded them. It was by very slow degrees, and in the end after all somewhat hazily, that the thought of the German nation as greater than the Holy Roman German Empire gained ground in his mind. It was long before his worshipful nature could read Charles V. in his true characteristics. The right of defense was denied by him until he could look upon the Emperor as a tool of the Pope. But the upheavals of the times produced by his single-hearted fight for gospel truth, slowly compelled a recognition of the independence of the States, and the claims of some kind of federation. It could not be otherwise than that the religious liberty taught by Luther should eventuate in political freedom and constitutional law; although he himself all too frequently forgot his own teaching, in his treatment of Sacramentarians, Anabaptists, and Jews. He too, like all original minds, built better than he knew. It has been the privilege of but few to initiate such penetrative and comprehensive ideas with their corresponding organizations for the regeneration of our race.