When coming up with ideas for columns, I often look to men and women who possess great courage. This may be because I am oftentimes lacking in that area.
The middle ages in Europe was a time when men shaped the world as we know it today. We have heard the stories of Ghengis Khan as he rolled through the Eurasian steppes terrorizing all in his path. Attila the Hun is also well known for his accumulation of vast wealth as he attacked the edges of the Roman Empire from the Hungarian plateau.
Yet, neither of these men would shape the world in any material fashion.
The most dynamic, courageous, and Godly man was a troubled monk struggling for his own salvation through his work for the medieval Catholic Church.
His name was Martin Luther.
Born in Germany in 1483, in Eislebon, Saxony (modern southeast Germany). Martin Luther became one of the most influential figures in Christian history when he began the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century.
But, he was an unlikely candidate
In 1501, Martin Luther entered the University of Erfurt as an ordinary student, where it seemed he was on his way to becoming a lawyer. (Probably best that he didn’t follow through).
However, in July 1505, Luther had a life-changing experience that set him on a new course. Caught in a horrific thunderstorm where he feared for his life, Luther cried out to St. Anne, the patron saint of miners, “Save me, St. Anne, and I’ll become a monk.”
Become a monk he did. He showed great devotion to his new work. Yet, after a trip to Rome, he soon became disillusioned with the Church. Luther believed that the road to salvation was paved by the individual and his or her personal relationship with God.
In 1517, Pope Leo X announced a new round of indulgences (payments to the church for forgiveness of sins) to help build St. Peter’s Basilica. On October 31, 1517, an angry Martin Luther nailed a sheet of paper with 95 criticisms of the Church on a chapel door.
This one act of defiance would set off a firestorm across Europe.
In January 1521, Martin Luther was officially excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church. In March, he was summoned before a general assembly of secular authorities. Again, Luther refused to recant his statements, demanding he be shown any scripture that would refute his position. There was none. On May 8, 1521, the council released an order, banning Luther’s writings and declaring him a “convicted heretic.” This made him a condemned and wanted man.
For more than a year, he was miraculously still able to avoid capture and began organizing a new church, Lutheranism. He gained many followers and got vital support from German princes.
His actions fractured the Church into new denominations of Christianity, set in motion reform within the Church, and launched the Protestant Reformation. (To be clear, the Catholic Church today is obviously vastly different than the Church of the Middle Ages. While I am a Protestant, I know the Catholic Church is full of honorable devout Christians who love Christ. Catholics are particularly known for giving generously to the poor and their devotion to saving lives.)
We see the effects of Martin Luther’s courage in 2015 in the United States. There are many Christian denominations across America and the world. Most of the Christians in the South are Protestant. This includes, but is not limited to, Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Church of Christ, and Episcopalians.
As for Luther, remarkably, he was never arrested or burned at the stake like so many other “heretics” had been for hundreds of years. His survival is one of God’s mysteries.
Martin Luther eventually died from natural causes.
A single solitary monk would be an unlikely candidate to change the course of Western Civilization. But God chose him. That was enough.