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Luther: An Experiment in Biography

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    Book Description:

    This work introduces us to the great leader in his fifties, a personality that was one of the most pungently alive in all history."

    Originally published in 1983.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-5530-8
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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    (pp. ix-x)
    H. G. HAILE
  2. Table of Important Events
    (pp. xi-xxxi)
    (pp. 1-4)

    What does the typical, educated reader know about Martin Luther? The child of harsh circumstances and tensions with a severe father, he experienced a crisis in young manhood. Caught in a thunderstorm, at a critical juncture in his university studies, he was so terrified by a lightning bolt that he uttered a compulsive vow to become a monk. His years in the monastery were fraught with brooding about how he might become justified in the eyes of an angry God. At last came his evangelical breakthrough, the Tower Experience, when he discovered his doctrine of salvation by grace alone. On...


    • Approach from the South
      (pp. 7-18)

      The Renaissance church was corrupt. An organization with a very long history, however, it had been able to rediscover its essential justification in earlier epochs and still nurtured the germ for its self-renewal. A reform was under way. The growing concern with reform in the 1520s and 1530s was apparent in successive meetings between high officials of the church and Doctor Martin Luther of Wittenberg, Augustinian and professor.

      They had handled him first in that offhand, brutalizing fashion of mammoth bureaucracies, later—as political expediency dictated—with generous condescension. But his reform writings became so trenchant (and popular) as to...

    • Invitation to Breakfast
      (pp. 19-30)

      Andreas Engelhard was a frequent visitor to Wittenberg’s great Black Cloister where dwelled the large Luther household. He came often on a Sunday, because the learned doctor liked to have his hair dressed and his beard shaved before climbing up to his rostrum to deliver the sermon. But when Andreas was called well before sunrise on the first Sunday in November 1535, he did not really expect to groom Luther, who had been having his headaches, dizzy spells, and ringing in the ears again. Of late he had been especially subject to those characteristic vacillations of his, “now sound, now...

    • The Calm After a Storm
      (pp. 31-44)

      “It is generally thought, and with some considerable justification,” says one of Luther’s best recent biographers when speaking of the period after 1530, “that Luther deteriorated in these years.” A Danish psychiatrist, who wrote a two-volume medical study of Martin Luther just at the time when our own century was much taken by that approach, found his subject had entered) senility around the year 1530 (Luther was born in 1483). Even the admiring compiler of the still standard nineteenth-century biography, the great scholar Julius Köstlin, spoke of Luther’sLebensabend, his “declining years,” as beginning at about this time—in his...

    • Paralipomena
      (pp. 45-46)

      The bells ringing sound very different when they toll for one you love [Elector John died in 1532]. The swashbucklers wanted power—well, they have it now.

      The bird flying through the air makes a hole in it that closes up behind him. That’s the way mice swim underground as easily as frogs in water [during a mouse plague in Wittenberg].

      The world demands six qualities of a preacher:

      1. that he have a good speaking voice,

      2. that he be learned,

      3. that he be eloquent,

      4. that he have a handsome exterior,

      5. that he take no money, but give money to preach,...


    • Song and Devotion
      (pp. 49-58)

      Before we advance beyond the dreamy courtyard of Luther’s semi-rural residence, we must try to form an image of the master as he was known to those going in and out there. He was famous far beyond Wittenberg, and they were aware of that: Martin Luther was the first in the long line of media celebrities.

      The technology assembled at the middle of the previous century, and by Luther’s time the major and prototype capitalistic enterprise, the printing press, had made him a familiar personal presence to millions who never saw him. One had some dim awareness of the fantastic...

    • Scholarship
      (pp. 59-72)

      To our own way of thinking, there is a vast difference between the popular, devotional writing exemplified byA Simple Way to Prayand serious scholarship. Luther was not unacquainted with this point of view. He associated it with Scholasticism, which he contemptuously called “sophistry.” He consciously broke away from this kind of scholarship.

      As our own era gained a more balanced view of the Reformation, many Roman Catholic writers have found sympathy with that view Luther represented to Vergerio: that he had by no means broken with the church, but was holding close to its authentic traditions. Modern historians...

    • Gloss
      (pp. 73-80)

      The figure of Martin Luther stands upon a divide in the history of communications, astride two quite different traditions. On the one side, he is history’s most voluble representative of the spoken word, dominant in human culture until the invention of printing, and for a good while thereafter. Sermon and debate—these were the forms in which Luther felt most at home. Whether he wrote Latin or German, he remained in the medieval, oral tradition. Yet at the same time he is the author who developed his written style in closest collaboration with the embryonic printing industry. As a consequence,...

    • On Behalf of Children and Youth
      (pp. 81-92)

      Immediately after his friends had left him at the Coburg in that spring of 1530, themselves to journey on to Augsburg, Luther began a letter to them:

      I have nothing to do but write this, my trunk and effects not yet having arrived … We have everything that solitude might require: an entire huge wing of the castle and keys to all the rooms. Thirty men are said to eat bread here, twelve watchmen by night and two buglers in opposite towers by day. But what is all that to you? I just don’t have anything else to do but...

    • The German Machiavelli
      (pp. 93-106)

      The mature Luther was a churchman with an unswerving sense of mission. Reform meant to him preserving the teachings of his great predecessors. Had not faith by grace been the simple core of Christianity since the beginning? Paul, Augustine, even moderns like Gabriel Biel († 1495) had made this abundantly clear. Only those ignorant of the Bible and the fathers would find anything new in Luther, he was fond of saying. Yet there was a new element. No previous reform had occurred within a church so tightly intertwined with political and economic institutions. At an early point Luther had therefore...

    • Satire
      (pp. 107-118)

      Thus Luther begins that treatise on “the very heart of the Christian faith,” the mass.² It is also a fine piece of satirical writing which holds special interest for Luther biography. The early notes survive to show how the author’s thoughts developed in the process of writing. The work began as an objection to the priesthood, but before it was finished it had become a statementAgainst the Private Mass. As such it eventually had a positive influence on the Roman church (which today disavows the private mass).

      Luther regarded the priesthood (which he called an innovation by Pope Gregory...

    • Paralipomena
      (pp. 119-120)

      I wrote it after dining—but a Christian can speak better inebriated than a papist can sober.

      I don’t want my books published, especially the early writings. I’d rather they be destroyed. All the church is being filled with books. The Bible is being neglected. Many of Augustine’s works don’t amount to anything. The same is true of all Jerome’s works, save his histories—and they could be collected on four quarto sheets. The world is vain, always wants something new and neglects the good. The bookstores draw a profit, and my example is used by others: everybody wants to...


    • The Omnipresence of God
      (pp. 123-132)

      The most serious weakness among the reformers, when one contemplated their prospects at the anticipated general church council, was the stigma attached to them as “protesters.” If a splinter group themselves, were they not vulnerable to further defections? Luther had early been warned that his flouting of papal supremacy must eventually undermine all authority. Sure enough, proliferation of sects became a major plague of the 1520s. Vergerio had not failed, immediately upon being introduced at the castle, to thump upon this sore. Asked how his trip had been, he said he had been assaulted by rabid sectarians near Halle.


    • Approach from the West
      (pp. 133-148)

      During the course of 1535, Martin Bucer tirelessly cajoled agreement to the Cassel compact from one south German city after another. By early 1536, all was prepared for the personal meeting with Luther, to seal these articles of concord. The last station was Augsburg, among whose theologians the winter had been one of squabbling. Bucer himself smoothed out an amicable settlement, and the sweet-smelling Swabian springtime now gave this traveler every reason for optimism. Only, he had as yet heard nothing from Luther himself, to whom he had written in early February. At last, on 11 April, a brief note...

    • Knocking the Grand Heads
      (pp. 149-164)

      Luther’s proverbial wrath is a sin of which he is easily convicted by his own testimony. The fact is of course that his very candor enjoins us to caution in the use of such admissions. Few people ever examine their “sins” as exactingly as he did. Fewer then speak so openly about them. “I have a lot of spiritual failings,” he might remark, “but I am about beyond my sins of the flesh. Avarice does not trouble me, because I have enough money. Lust doesn’t trouble me either.” He looked impishly over at Kate—

      I get plenty of what it...

    • Print and Reprint
      (pp. 165-174)

      Luther’s boldness seems incredible. He beards the king of England from afar. Close by all the powerful princes cringe—Brandenburg, Brunswick, George of Saxony. We must yet describe his rigorous disciplining of Germany’s most powerful sovereign, the cardinal of Mainz. Luther was the first writer able so freely to castigate abuse at its source, and perhaps the last.

      The sixteenth century had witnessed the concentration of enormous wealth. In this sense, the most influential European was certainly Jacob Fugger, by whose immense capital Charles V had attained to his outward show of authority. But to these sources of power, economic...

    • “That Damned Cardinal”
      (pp. 175-184)

      A church council imminent, Luther’s correspondence in the middle 1530s reveals him ever busier with church affairs, but he had numerous other concerns as well. The most sensational was the judicial murder of Hans Schönitz by Germany’s most powerful prince, the cardinal of Mainz. It eventually led to one of Martin Luther’s most significant legal papers, showing how his relatively simple theological tenets could have implications for the thinking of ordinary men about their laws and government. Luther’s relationship with Cardinal Albert of Mainz gives important insight into his character and career. It began when Albert, then a frivolous young...

    • It Is the Devil
      (pp. 185-202)

      In February of 1536 Doctor Luther presided at the wedding of Duke Philip of Pomerania. At the crucial moment, the ring slipped from a nervous hand and went bounding across the floor, provoking from Luther a cool reprimand: “Listen here, devil, this doesn’t concern you and you’re not going to accomplish one thing.”¹ It is a remark we might bear in mind whenever we consider the doctor in connection with worldly powers.

      For in his view the devil was always around. It was not merely that the devil “is deeply concerned about us and sends his servants among us …...

    • Paralipomena
      (pp. 203-204)

      What good comes of man? He eats and drinks only the best—bread, meat, wine, beer, precious spices too. He excretes nothing but corruption, snot, sputum, matter, sweat, sores, pox, scruff, slough, discharge, pus, dung, and urine. He clothes himself in satin and gold, spreads lice, nits, fleas, and other vermin.

      Why, if he had to answer everybody’s questions he would be a most wretched God. Let us look to the word of God and in it find refuge from the “Wherefore?” We ought to know his word, but should not inquire into his will, which is often hidden. That...


    • The Two Testaments of Schmalkalden
      (pp. 207-222)

      Many conditions already present, and developments long under way, became manifest only about the time of the Wittenberg Concord and shortly thereafter. During those spring days which found Bucer and Capito ambling across the Golden Meadow, heads rolled in London, first of the men accused of adultery with Anne Boleyn—then, on Friday, her own. Just two days later, on that same Sunday morning in May when the Strasbourg divines called upon Doctor Luther, Henry VIII celebrated his marriage with yet another wife. The news came as a shock to those in Wittenberg who had been negotiating with Henry in...

    • Loss of a Friend
      (pp. 223-238)

      Schmalkalden marked the turning point and steepening decline, not only in Luther’s physical powers, but also in his relationships with others. His quarrel with an old friend, John Agricola, showed the nervousness that came of his ill health, and his anxiety about the future of the church, once he was gone. The break itself was probably inevitable, determined by the structure of revolutionary intellectual movements like that which had bonded these two men together. Agricola incurred Luther’s displeasure by advocating what he claimed had been the master’s own preachments against law. That such a claim was possible points up a...

    • “Like a Horse with Blinders On”
      (pp. 239-258)

      A dozen devoted Boswells hung upon every utterance by Doctor Luther, from about his fiftieth year forward recording his colorful pronouncements in an abundance and with a degree of fidelity never attained with any other man (nor should it be supposed that the magnetic tape recorder equals the Renaissance quill of a Veit Dietrich, a John Schlaginhauffen, or a George Rörer—to single out only a few names which occur elsewhere in these pages). This invaluable record has been abused over the centuries in at least two ways. The present chapter is the best place to acknowledge that my own...

    • “No Sweeter Thing Than Love of Woman—May a Man Be So Fortunate”
      (pp. 259-280)

      Martin Luther stands above an age known for its misogyny as an almost courtly figure in his homage to woman. When putting glosses to his first complete Bible edition, he came to the famous encomium on the virtuous woman at the end of the Book of Proverbs (31:10 ff.) and set beside it those words I quoted above in the chapter title. They had been spoken to him by his land-lady in Eisenach, when he had been a schoolboy there nearly forty years earlier. His retaining them for so long bespeaks an important side of the man’s character.¹

      His treatise...

    • Shall We Receive Good at the Hand of God and Shall We Not Receive Evil?
      (pp. 281-298)

      Despite waning health and waxing moodiness Martin Luther remained Germany’s most prolific author throughout the 1530s, and even in the era of bluff and bluster, her most outspoken one. He preached his sermons and kept up university duties. So as to keep busy and to die in the work of the Lord, he had begun the lectures on Genesis which were to continue through the last ten years of his life.

      The problem of keeping Old Testament chronology straight consumed many an hour. A manuscript of eighty pages with double columns survives, where ink of different colors and all kinds...

    • Tentatio Tristitiae The Sense of Theology
      (pp. 299-310)

      “In this act, all modesty is forfeit”—thus Luther on the indignity of an enema as remedy for dysentery.¹ It was but the first of his many illnesses after the Schmalkalden attack, this present infection being complicated by arthritic pains, excruciating sciatica, and intermittent recurrences of the stone. His pulse was irregular. From time to time he ran a high fever. He fell to speculating on the multitude of our tribulations, doubting that there could be any punishment in the hereafter to exceed them—

      Let us not talk of such things. I was merely thinking. God for-fend we should ever...

    • Paralipomena
      (pp. 311-312)

      All the sufferings of Christians are the sufferings of Christ. Whatever a member suffers is suffered by the whole body.

      A short rule for preaching:

      First, you must learn to ascend to the rostrum; second, you must know how to endure there for a while; third, learn to come back down to earth.

      A sincere preacher must look to the children and to the servant men and women who crave instruction. He must give to them as a nursing mother to her babe—from the breast. They need no wine nor malmsey.

      That must be a skilled master who constructed...


    • Exspatiatur Animi Causa
      (pp. 315-328)

      Save for a baby girl which did not survive the first year, Kate succeeded in nursing her six children through all those diseases which modern medicine permits our generation to forget, but which until very recently laid the tiny low. In May of 1542, Magdalene entered her fourteenth year, time for a Renaissance father to be casting about for her earthly bridegroom. Summer’s heat nurtured a virulent infection, which brought the maiden to bed.

      A strong girl, she lay in her agony for many days, until both parents were crushed. Whatever formulaic moorings of faith had not been severed by...

    • The Legacy
      (pp. 329-340)

      Martin Luther’s influence has been so very diffuse as to be regarded differently by almost every judge. He is depicted by turns as a revolutionary, as a reformer, as champion of freedom of thought, profound religious thinker, archconservative, and reactionary. My final chapter will return to his own assessment and to that of his associates. Yet whoever may have spoken about his contribution, all have agreed that his Bible translation was at the very least his most effective vehicle for bringing his mission home to contemporaries and to posterity.

      The Luther Bible became the major classic of the German language....

    • Reconciliation
      (pp. 341-358)

      We know more detail about Doctor Luther’s last hours and “moment of bliss” than we know about the death of perhaps any other famous man. His passing was witnessed by trustworthy, articulate souls who regarded it as a turning point in history, of momentous importance. They refreshed one another’s memory and long relived the experience with loved ones. They deemed it crucial for the world to know the circumstances, for a sudden or a violent end, with no time for prayer, would have impugned the divine approval of their master’s life and work. Suicide indeed would have constituted Luther’s own...

    (pp. 359-366)

    A biography pure and simple must seem an unusual pebble cast among the towering crags of theological and historical scholarship about Martin Luther. His was a figure of such colossal importance for those disciplines, and they in turn so dominate Luther studies, that would-be biographies often turn out to be theological or historical chips themselves. As biographer, I have tried to offer no more than a characteristic impression of Doctor Luther. His personality may well have implications for current writers on those subjects, but it was not for me to argue such points.

    In an earlier biography (of the German...