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§ 20. Luther’s Conversion.

In the summer of 1505 Luther entered the Augustinian convent at Erfurt and became a monk, as he thought, for his life time. The circumstances which led to this sudden step we gather from his fragmentary utterances which have been embellished by legendary tradition.

He was shocked by the sudden death of a friend (afterward called Alexius), who was either killed in a duel,123123    Mathesius: "da ihm ein guter Gesell erstochen ward." or struck dead by lightning at Luther’s side. Shortly afterward, on the second of July, 1505, two weeks before his momentous decision, he was overtaken by a violent thunderstorm near Erfurt, on his return from a visit to his parents, and was so frightened that he fell to the earth and tremblingly exclaimed: "Help, beloved Saint Anna! I will become a monk." His friend Crotus (who afterward became an enemy of the Reformation) inaptly compared this event to the conversion of St. Paul at the gates of Damascus.124124    In a letter which Crotus wrote to Luther from Bologna, Nov., 1519: "Perge, ut coepisti, relinque exemplum posteris. Nam ista facis non sine numine divum. Ad haec respexit divina providentia, cum te redeuntem a parentibus coeleste fulmen veluti alterum Paulum ante oppidum Erfurdianum in terram prostravit, atque inter Augustiana septa compulit e nostro consortio." Döllinger I. 139. But Luther was a Christian before he became a monk.

On the sixteenth of July he assembled his friends who in vain tried to change his resolution, indulged once more in social song, and bade them farewell. On the next day they accompanied him, with tears, to the gates of the convent. The only books he took with him were the Latin poets Vergil and Plautus.

His father almost went mad, when he heard the news. Luther himself declared in later years, that his monastic vow was forced from him by terror and the fear of death and the judgment to come; yet he never doubted that God’s hand was in it. "I never thought of leaving the convent: I was entirely dead to the world, until God thought that the time had come."

This great change has nothing to do with Luther’s Protestantism. It was simply a transition from secular to religious life—such as St. Bernard and thousands of Catholic monks before and since passed through. He was never an infidel, nor a wicked man, but a pious Catholic from early youth; but he now became overwhelmed with a sense of the vanity of this world and the absorbing importance of saving his soul, which, according to the prevailing notion of his age, he could best secure in the quiet retreat of a cloister.

He afterward underwent as it were a second conversion, from the monastic and legalistic piety of mediaeval Catholicism to the free evangelical piety of Protestantism, when he awoke to an experimental knowledge of justification by free grace through faith alone.

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