If you stand outside the door of the house where Martin Luther was born in Eisleben, you can see above the rooftops the towers of St. Andreas Church. You can walk to it in 5 to 10 minutes.
St. Andreas is still in use today. It rises up on a hill in the center of the city, behind the late-Gothic old town hall and above the market square. It is the city’s highest church tower.
Luther had returned to Eisleben to settle a dispute over an inheritance between two local counts. He was feeling tired, old, and worn down. His sons accompanied him on this trip. While there, he nevertheless delivered four sermons at St. Andreas Church but delivered them sitting down. He cut short his last one, finishing early. He went to his chambers some 50 feet across the street. After dinner, complaining of chest pains and the cold, he lay upon a daybed as word got out that he was dying. Several times, he repeated the prayer from Psalm 31:5
“Into your hands I commit my spirit. You have redeemed me, God of truth.”
After he breathed his last he was placed in a coffin to be returned to Wittenberg for burial, at the insistence of his Prince. Large crowds gathered at the city gates of the towns the funeral procession passed through. Finally, the procession arrived in Wittenberg and he was buried in the Castle Church, almost under the very pulpit where he had preached so many sermons.
Today, on the tower of the Castle Church appear the words “Ein feste Burge ist unser God” the title of Luther’s hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” On the black bronze doors of the church are Luther’s 95 Theses inscribed in Latin. When you walk in, you see them on the wall in German. Before the pulpit, you see Luther’s coffin.
Luther’s wife was devastated by Luther’s death in 1546, and wrote:
“For who would not be sad and afflicted at the loss of such a precious man as my dear lord was? He did great things not just for a city or a single land, but for the whole world. Therefore I am truly so deeply grieved that I cannot … eat or drink, nor can I sleep. And if I had a principality or an empire and lost it, it would not have been as painful as it is now that the dear Lord God has taken from me this precious and beloved man, and not from me alone, but from the whole world”
Luther’s Final Words
In the pockets of Luther’s clothing was found a piece of paper. Upon it was written something from both the classical Renaissance during which he studied and the Scriptures that he taught:
Virgil’s shepherd poems cannot be understood, except by one who has been a shepherd for five years. Virgil’s poetry about agriculture cannot be understood, except by one who has been a farmhand for five years. Cicero’s letters cannot be understood, except by one who has participated and lived within a large community for 25 years. The Holy Scriptures do not have a satisfactory taste for me or anyone else, unless he has spent 100 years ruling a community as the prophets Elijah and Elisha, John the Baptist, Christ and the Apostles. “Lay not your hand on this divine Aeneid, but bow in reverence before its footprints!”
And then below that:
“We are beggars. This is true.”
It is difficult to overstate Luther’s accomplishments during his life that impacted Europe, the Western world, and modern thought. Here are a few:
The German Bible
Perhaps Luther’s most important and most enduring contribution was to place into the hands of the common man the Scriptures in the common language. Germans no longer needed an intermediary to understand the Bible, they could read it for themselves.
Luther encouraged lay people to sing, in German. This was not for a professional choir, but lay people. They even had lay music rehearsals during the week. He wrote over 30 songs – to teach the 10 Commandments, the Apostles Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the doctrine of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. He said that “Music is next to theology.”
I wish to see all arts, principally music, in the service of Him who gave and created them. I would not for the world forgo my humble share of music. Singers are never sorrowful, but are merry, and smile through their troubles — in song. Music makes people kinder, gentler, more staid and reasonable. I am strongly persuaded that after theology there is no art that can be placed on a level with music; for besides theology, music is he only art capable of affording peace and joy of the heart… the devil flees before the sound of music almost as much as before the Word of God.
He taught girls and boys catechism. He said they could burn all his other books, but his children’s catechism was one of his most important.
Luther maintained that marriage was just as important as monasticism and accorded greater honor to a woman’s role in marriage. He toppled celibacy for the clergy, and for himself, though he didn’t marry until he was 42.
Status of Women
Luther raised the status of women and broke new ground in “estate planning” by willing everything to his wife Katie, not to his oldest son, as was the custom.
Some 110 volumes of Luther’s works have survived and hundreds of his letters. He preached thousands of sermons. He wrote scores of influential treatises using the newly popular medium of pamphlets, written in the common German tongue, not Latin.
Continued on October 31
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian