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Martin Luther (1483–1546). The Ninety-Five Theses.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

Introductory Note

MARTIN LUTHER, the leader of the Protestant Reformation, was born at Eisleben, Prussian Saxony, November 10, 1483. He studied jurisprudence at the University of Erfurt, where he later lectured on physics and ethics. In 1505 he entered the Augustinian monastery at Erfurt; two years later was ordained priest; and in 1508 became professor of philosophy at the University of Wittenberg.

The starting-point of Luther’s career as a reformer was his posting on the church door of Wittenberg the Ninety-five Theses on October 31, 1517. These formed a passionate statement of the true nature of penitence, and a protest against the sale of indulgences. In issuing the Theses, Luther expected the support of his ecclesiastical superiors; and it was only after three years of controversy, during which he refused a summons to Rome, that he proceeded to publish those works that brought about his expulsion from the Church.

The year 1520 saw the publication of the three great documents which laid down the fundamental principles of the Reformation. In the “Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation,” Luther attacked the corruptions of the Church and the abuses of its authority, and asserted the right of the layman to spiritual independence. In “Concerning Christian Liberty,” he expounded the doctrine of justification by faith, and gave a complete presentation of his theological position. In the “Babylonish Captivity of the Church,” he criticized the sacramental system, and set up the Scriptures as the supreme authority in religion.

In the midst of this activity came his formal excommunication, and his renunciation of allegiance to the Pope. He was proscribed by the Emperor Charles V and taken into the protection of prison in the Wartburg by the friendly Elector of Saxony, where he translated the New Testament. The complete translation of the Bible, issued in 1534, marks the establishment of the modern literary language of Germany.

The rest of Luther’s life was occupied with a vast amount of literary and controversial activity. He died at Eisleben, February 18, 1546.