Born Nov. 10, 1483, in Eisleben, Saxony; died there Feb. 18, 1546. Head of the burgher Reformation in Germany. Founder of German Protestantism (Lutheranism). Son of a former miner who became a joint owner of a number of foundries and copper mines.
Luther graduated from the University of Erfurt in 1505 with the degree of master of arts and entered the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt. In 1508 he began to lecture at the University of Wittenberg, where he became doctor of theology in 1512. In an atmosphere of upsurge in the German social movement, which was directed primarily against the Catholic Church, Luther came forward with 95 theses against indulgences. (He posted the theses on the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church on Oct. 31, 1517.) The theses contained the main tenets of his new religious teaching, which he subsequently developed in other works and which rejected some principal dogmas and the entire structure of the Catholic Church.
Repudiating the Catholic dogma that the church and the clergy were necessary as mediators between man and god, Luther declared a Christian’s faith to be the only means for the “salvation of his soul” and that this faith is granted to man directly by god (the thesis of “justification by faith alone”). Luther affirmed that both the secular life and the entire secular system (the secular state and its institutions), providing for man the opportunity to “devote himself to his faith,” occupied an important place in the Christian religion. Luther denied the authority of papal decrees and epistles (holy tradition) and demanded the restoration of the authority of the Holy Scriptures. With his new teachings, Luther rejected the claims of the clergy to a ruling position in society. Luther limited the role of the clergy to the instruction of Christians in the spirit of “humility” and “contriteness of heart” and in the realization of man’s complete dependence on the “grace of god” in the salvation of his soul. The contradictory moods and oscillations of the German burghers of the beginning of the 16th century, conditioned by their class immaturity, were reflected in Luther’s religious views. On the one hand, there was a striving to “rehabilitate” secular activity; on the other hand, there was a conservatism, expressed in the retention of the Catholic teachings on the sinful nature of man.
Luther’s theses were received by the oppositional and revolutionary strata of the population as a signal for action against the Catholic Church and the social system sanctified by it, and the Reformation movement went beyond the limits Luther had set.
Depending on support from the social movement in Germany, Luther refused to appear at a church trial in Rome, and at a debate in Leipzig with Catholic theologians in 1519 he openly declared that he considered many of the teachings of the Bohemian reformer Jan Hus to be correct. Luther publicly burned a papal bull excommunicating him from the church in the courtyard of the University of Wittenberg in 1520. In the same year, in The Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, Luther declared that the struggle against papal domination was a matter for the entire German nation.
However, in 1520-21, when the positions of various classes that had joined the Reformation were being defined and when T. Miintzer appeared in the political arena and demonstrated a new, popular conception of the Reformation, Luther departed from the radical position that he had originally taken, elaborating more precisely that “Christian liberty” ought only to be understood in the sense of spiritual freedom, with which the physical lack of freedom, including the condition of serfdom, was fully compatible. Luther sought protection from persecution occasioned by the Edict of Worms of 1521 not in the popular camp but among the princes, seeking shelter in the castle of Wartburg of Elector Frederick of Saxony. Luther’s sharp attacks against the radical-burgher tendency in the Reformation, represented by Carlstadt, and especially against the revolutionary struggle of the popular masses began at this time. Luther declared that the secular authorities were obliged to defend the existing social system by the power of the sword. During the Peasant War of 1524-26 he demanded the massacre of the rebellious peasants and the restoration of serfdom.
The historical significance of Luther is that, above all, his actions provided an impetus to the powerful upsurge in the movement of all the advanced and revolutionary forces of society. At the same time, the Lutheran Reformation, breaking with the general popular movement of which it was at first the center, subsequently became a base for the power of the feudal princes. The proclamation by Luther of the idea of the independence of the secular state from the Catholic Church, which in the epoch of early capitalism corresponded to the interests of the rising bourgeois elements, was of great importance.
Luther is also a cultural figure in the history of German social thought as a reformer of education, language, and music. He not only experienced the influence of the culture of the Renaissance, but in the interests of the struggle against the “papists” he strove to make use of the national culture and did much to develop it. Also very significant was Luther’s translation of the Bible into German (1522-42), in which he succeeded in establishing standards for a German national language.
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M. M. SMIRIN
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.