In 1483, Martin Luther was born on this day, November 10, in the town of Eisleben. He is well known for posting his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg in 1517 and sparking the Protestant Reformation. He was a leader both revered and reviled, and in his wake the trajectory of history was altered in ways that still resonate nearly 500 years later.
Many times, I have joined with other Protestant Christians to sing “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” as we have celebrated Reformation Sunday. On such occasions, it is easy to forget that, in addition to his leadership in the Reformation, Luther also was deeply human and filled with fears, joys, and frustrations.
I resonate most with Luther as the person who mixed hope with struggle, challenge with delight.
Luther’s decision to enter the monastery was made in fear. Caught in a severe thunderstorm, Luther called to St. Anne for help and promised to become a monk if he survived. True to his word, born of fear, Luther entered the monastery in Erfurt in 1505. Many of Luther’s days were consumed with fearful self flagellation and longing for salvation.
Beyond his fears, however, Luther also knew joy. Perhaps his source of greatest joy was his family. He married Katharina von Bora, a former nun, and together they had six children. By all accounts, they had a loving and happy marriage. Though finances often were tight, Luther said, “My Katie is in all things so obliging and pleasing to me that I would not exchange my poverty for the riches of Croesus.”
As a husband and father, I share Luther’s delight in his spouse and children. A few years ago, our family visited Luther’s home. I could picture him sitting around the table filling the room with music and talk.
Just a few days before his death in February 1546, Luther traveled from Wittenberg to his hometown, Eisleben, to mediate a dispute. While in Eisleben, Luther preached his final sermon.
It is estimated that Luther preached 7,000 sermons during his lifetime, but for what became his last sermon, only five people were present. Luther was mightily frustrated. He wrote to a friend despairing that he had been part of a failed Reformation. In the bitter winter of February 1546, the great preacher preached in a nearly empty church building.
Just a few days later, Luther went to bed with chest pains. He prayed the prayer found in Psalm 31:5, “Into your hand, I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me O Lord, faithful God.”
In the hours after midnight, Luther’s pain increased, and the hour of his death was near. He was asked, “Reverend father, are you ready to die trusting in your Lord Jesus Christ and to confess the doctrine you have taught in His name?”
“Yes,” he replied.