CRF Blog

Martin Luther’s Revolution

by David De La Torre

In Martin Luther’s Revolution for The Nation, Elizabeth Bruenig reviews these three books: Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet by Lyndal Roper, The Protestants: The Faith That Made the Modern World by Alec Ryrie, and Luther and His Progeny: 500 Years of Protestantism and Its Consequences for Church, State, and Society by John C. Rao, ed.

Martin Luther was born in 1483 and grew up in the small German mining town of Mansfeld. “The son of a peasant,” by his own account, Luther spent his childhood in Mansfeld’s muddy, coal-dusted, and pugilistic streets, which introduced him early to the culture of vicious insults and brutal argumentation that would later characterize — and help to popularize — many of his famous polemics.

Luther’s story has been told many times, but Roper handles it with special sensitivity, offering both an engrossing narrative and capturing the ways in which Luther’s early life and education contributed to the fixations that would occupy him in his later years. After a dreary childhood in Mansfeld, the young Luther set off to attend school in Magdeburg in 1497. He went on to study at the University at Erfurt and entered law school uneasily at his father’s behest.

It didn’t last. Luther instead was drawn to the church and took vows as an Augustinian monk in 1505. He was particularly attracted to the order’s learned friary and intellectual tradition, and Augustine’s political theology — at least its rhetorical shape — would go on to form an important dimension of Luther’s own. In 1512, he received his doctorate in theology. Now a thoroughly educated and opinionated man of God, Luther began teaching theology at the University of Wittenberg, giving sermons in the local church, and tallying the errors of his peers and superiors.

By 1517, Luther had established himself as an accomplished, if quarrelsome, preacher. He was known to have a particular (and entirely reasonable) animus toward indul-gences, the means by which certain church authorities parted faithful Catholics from their money with theologically specious promises of salvation and other favors. It was during one such dispute over the sale of indulgences that Luther finally met his destiny, on the last day of October 1517, at the doors of a Wittenberg church. There, he posted his 95 theses disputing established Catholic teaching — and launched a revolution that would transform the Christian world. [more]

For a free classroom lesson on Luther, see Luther Sparks the Protestant Reformation from CRF’s Bill of Rights in Action Archive.