To the south-west of Berlin, between that city and Leipzig, is the old
town of Wittenberg. The rolling Elbe, which rises in the wild range of
the Erz Gebirge, and crosses Germany on its long course to Hamburg and
the sea, flows by the town, and spreads itself into a wide stream.
Saxony, the third in importance of the kingdoms of Germany, is a fertile
land, cultivated from an early date, and famed as a granary and orchard.
It is noted, too, for its minerals–coal, tin, cobalt, iron, lead, and
The town is still fortified, and bears a somewhat grim aspect. It was
much damaged by the Austrian artillery in 1760, and has suffered the
ravages of war before, and since the Electors of Saxony lived in the
Here was founded an important university, afterwards removed to Halle.
It was at the University of Wittenberg that Martin Luther taught as
professor of theology.
The supreme interest of these rambling streets are the associations with
the great Protestant reformer. Wittenberg is a place of pious
pilgrimage for those who revere the memory of Luther and Melanchthon.
The Schloss Kirche contains the ashes of the two preachers of the
reformed faith; and it was on the door of this church that Luther nailed
his bold indictment of papal corruption. The town abounds with memories
of that stupendous battle for religious liberty which spread into all
parts of Christendom.
How vast were the issues in the balance when Martin Luther defied the
power of Rome! Long before the theologian of Wittenberg, several
reformers had uttered protests against the sale of indulgences by the
Church of Rome. Huss, Jerome of Prague, John of Wessel, John of Goch,
all raised their fervent voices upon the evils of the system.
The Bible was now coming into the hands of the laity; Wicliff’s versions
were in use in England, and in Germany, Reuchlin and others had made
Hebrew the study of the educated. Erasmus, too, had satirised the
vicious lives of the monks. The way was prepared for a popular reformer,
such as the ardent priest and theologian of Wittenberg.
Archbishop Albert of Mayence and Magdeburg was indebted to Pope Leo X.
for his investiture, and was unable to raise the money. The Pope was in
need of funds. He therefore gave permission to the archbishop to
establish a wide sale of indulgences in Germany. The bulk of the people,
reared in obedience to Rome, made no complaint of the practice, and were
quite ready to purchase absolution for their sins. But Luther contended
that indulgences only brought the remission of penalties, and refused to
offer complete pardon for indulgences alone.
Tetzel, the agent of Leo X., was naturally enraged. He thundered
anathemas upon the presumptuous Luther. The reformer met his
denunciations by affixing his defiant propositions to the door of the
So began the historic struggle between Catholics and Protestants. Luther
merely impeached the sale of indulgences; he was still loyal to the
papal authority. The Pope was, however, headstrong and tyrannous. He
showed neither tact nor diplomacy, but issued a bill of excommunication
against the unruly priest. The document was burned in contempt by Martin
Let us glance at the character of this doughty heretic. The birthplace
of Luther was Eisleben, in Saxony, and he was born in 1483. His first
school was at Magdeburg, and he was educated for the law. But the early
trend of his mind was pietistic; he aspired to become a teacher of
religion. He joined the Augustine Order, and observed devoutly all the
canons of the Catholic creed. We read that Luther was appointed
professor at the University of Wittenberg; that he taught many students,
and discoursed eloquently.
Luther’s temperament was hostile to asceticism. He had a capacity for
enjoying life; he delighted in music, and sang daily. He was not opposed
to the custom of drinking wine with company. More than all, he
impeached, by precept and example, the teaching of the virtue of
celibacy. He said that true manhood finds joy in womanhood; and he
married an ex-nun, Catherine de Bora, who bore him children.
This sane indictment of the unnatural practice of celibacy was accounted
one of Martin Luther’s most enormous iniquities. His clerical opponents
arose and denounced him. He was described as a man of immoral life; it
was circulated that he drank wine to excess, and wrote hymns praising
drunkenness. He was labelled an atheist, a blasphemer, and a charlatan,
who did not believe in the doctrines that he taught.
But Martin Luther soon gathered about him a band of zealous followers,
and his fame went forth to the farther ends of Europe.
Philip Melanchthon, a man in some respects more admirable than Luther,
joined in the crusade of reform. “The gentle Melanchthon” had studied in
Heidelberg and Tubingen. He was the author of many religious volumes,
and it was he who composed the “Augsburg Confession.”
The effect of Luther’s teaching was not without its evils. Guided by
their own reading of the Bible, zealots found authority for violence and
persecution. There were risings of peasants, which Luther denounced,
even urging their suppression with the extremity of force. This brave
assailant of Rome was unwisely aggressive in his attitude towards those
sects that differed from him in their beliefs. He was a bitter enemy of
the followers of Zwingli, the reformer of Zurich. The sectaries were
sundered and torn with dissensions and quarrels. Melanchthon died
rejoicing that he was leaving a world made hideous by the hatreds of
the pious disputants.
For the Jews Luther had no toleration. He detested the spirit of
science, which was spreading even among the Catholics; and declared that
the study of Aristotle was “useless.” He described the great Athenian as
“a devil, a horrid calumniator, a wicked sycophant, a prince of
darkness, a real Apollyon, a beast, a most horrid impostor on mankind,
and a professed liar.” This contempt for the discoveries of science was
a mark of the ignorance that led Luther to prescribe that a “possessed”
child should be thrown into the water to sink or be restored to sanity.