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Martin Luther

Luther, born in 1483 in the village of Eisleben, sprang from the people, for he was the son of a pious and honest, but stern peasant. He had known want and hardships in childhood, and terrible mental conflicts in later years. One of these drove him into a monastery, and there they did not cease. "Of a truth I was a pious monk, and kept the rule of my order more strictly than I can tell. If ever a monk got to heaven by monkery, I was determined to get there. I strained myself to the very utmost, and tormented and plagued my body with fastings, vigils, prayers, and other exercises, far more than my bitterest enemies can torment me now. I, and others too, have toiled to the utmost, with a deadly sincerity, to bring our hearts and consciences to rest and peace before God, and yet could never find that same peace amid such horrible darkness." "For I knew Christ no more, save as a severe judge, from whom I sought to escape, and yet could not." In this distress of mind he was comforted by an aged monk, who taught him that Christ was the atonement for all our sins, and that this was proclaimed by the Church in the Apostles' Creed, and directed him to the study of the Epistle to the Romans.

From this time he was a zealous preacher and professor of theology, and he had always been an earnest Romanist. Even his visit to Rome in 1510, though he had been greatly shocked at the infidelity and immorality he met there, had not led him to think for a moment of such a thing as setting himself in opposition to the Papal authority. Nothing short 104 of seeing that the authorities of the Roman Church in that day countenanced a practice so clearly contrary to the Gospel, and ruinous to men's souls, as this sale of indulgences, could have moved him to take a step of such tremendous import. Many years afterwards he said, "I entered on this affair with great fear and trembling. I was alone, and had entangled myself in the contest without forethought, and on many and weighty points I gave way to the Pope; not only because I could not draw back, but because I sincerely and earnestly worshipped him from the bottom of my soul . . . . How and what my heart suffered and underwent in those first two years, and in what a sense of unworthiness (not false and affected, but true and sincere), nay, in what sheer despair I was plunged, is little conceived by those who have since assailed the Pope's majesty with great pride and arrogance. But I, alone in the breach, was none so joyous and sure of my cause."

It was in 1517 that he published his Theses, and during the next three years, while engaged in disputes with Cajetan and Eck, he wrote and brought out several of his most important works, among them his Commentary on the Galatians, his Address to the Christian Nobles of Germany, and his sermon on the Liberty of a Christian Man. In 1520 came his open breach with the Pope, when he burnt the Papal bull of excommunication. Then followed his appearance before the Diet of Worms in 1521; his concealment on the Wartburg, and return to Wittenberg in 1522; his marriage in 1525; and his life at Wittenberg, until the year 1546, when he died on a journey, at Eisleben, at the age of sixty-three.


Luther was a true representative of the German people, in the depth and force and honesty of his nature, in his keenness of intellect and his occasional coarseness, in his love of art and humour and domestic life. Hence all he said and did was caught up by the people with an enthusiasm which can scarcely be conceived. "His Theses flew over Germany," says a contemporary, Myconius, "as if the angels of God had been his messengers, and carried them to all men's eyes." The works that so quickly followed them, seemed to utter the very words for which men's souls were thirsting. His great doctrine of justification by faith in Jesus Christ, the one Mediator between God and man, gave peace to the conscience by delivering it from the burden of past sins, and a new spring of life to the soul by showing men that their dependence was not on anything in themselves, no works of their own performance, but on the infinite love and mercy of God which He had manifested to all mankind in His Son. And again, his doctrine of the universal priesthood of all believers put a new spirit into the Church, by vindicating for every member of it his right and duty to offer for himself the sacrifice of praise and prayer, and to study for himself God's word in the Scriptures.

Luther's Bible

It was on the Wartburg that he began his translation of the Bible, the first part of which, the New Testament, was published in 1522, and the whole Bible in 1534. "In this work," says Grimm, "Luther has made use of his mother-tongue with such force, purity, and beauty, that his style, from its powerful influence on our whole language, must be considered to have been the germ and laid the basis of the 106 modern high German language, from which, up to the present day, but few deviations have taken place, and those mostly to the detriment of its force and expressiveness."

Luther's Hymns

His next effort was to give the people the means of worshipping God in their own language. In 1523 he published a treatise "on the ordering of Divine Service in the Church;" and at Christmas 1525, service was celebrated in the parish church of Wittenberg according to this new German rendering of the mass. In 1526 came out a complete new German liturgy, and now was felt the want of German psalms and hymns to fill the place of the Latin hymns and sequences. Luther at once set to work to supply it. He was intensely fond of both music, and poetry, and was himself a master of vigorous and simple German. What he thought of music may be seen from the preface to this work; and long before Shakespeare he had said, "He who despises music, as all fanatics do, will never be my friend." He would have all children taught to sing: "For I would fain see all arts, specially music, in the service of Him who has given and created them."

From this time onwards, throughout his life, he was an active reformer of church music and hymns, and enlisted in the same work the large circle of friends whom he gathered round him. At Wittenberg he kept open house, and many who came from a distance to see and consult with the great reformer, or poor students who came to attend his lectures, found a place at his table. After dinner, whether he dined at home or abroad, it was his custom to take a lute and sing and play for half an hour or more with his friends. In 1524 he invited Conrad Rupf, choir-master 107 to the Elector of Saxony, and Johann Walther, then choir-master to Frederick the Wise at Jorgau, to live with him until the work of reforming and readapting the liturgy for popular use should be completed. With this "house-choir," as he calls it, he studied the old stores of church music, with which he had already considerable acquaintance from his own education as chorister, and selected those tunes which lent themselves best to their new purpose. A large number of chorales belonging to the old Latin hymns, others of German origin--whether sacred, or, in some cases, secular--were thus appropriated; a still larger number of new tunes were composed. Luther himself composed several;1212He is the undisputed author of three chorales, and about fifteen may in all probability be ascribed to him. among others, the splendid chorale to his own hymn, "A sure stronghold our God is He," and that to his Christmas carol, "From heaven above to earth I come." But it was in the composition of the hymns that his own chief work lay. "It is my intention," he writes to his friend Spalatin, "after the example of the prophets and the ancient fathers, to make German psalms for the people; that is, spiritual songs, whereby the Word of God may be kept alive among them by singing. We seek, therefore, everywhere for poets. Now, as you are such a master of the German tongue, and are so mighty and eloquent therein, I entreat you to join hands with us in this work, and to turn one of the psalms into a hymn, according to the pattern (i.e. an attempt of my own) that I here send you. But I desire that all new-fangled words from the Court should be left out; that the words may be all quite plain and common, such as the common 108 people may understand, yet pure, and skilfully handled; and next, that the meaning should be given clearly and graciously, according to the sense of the psalm itself." Luther himself had recourse to this most ancient treasury of sacred song, and wrote versions of various psalms, choosing them, as we may observe, from their adaptation to his own circumstances and feelings. He also translated afresh many of the Latin hymns, which he counted among the good things that God's power and wonderful working had kept alive amid so much corruption, and gave new versions of several of the early German hymns.

Altogether he wrote certainly thirty-seven hymns. More are frequently ascribed to him, but with doubtful accuracy. Of these, twelve were translations from the Latin, and four were new renderings of the old German Leisen; the remainder were purely original compositions. The intention with which they were written is clearly enough to be discerned. They were not so much outpourings of the individual soul, as the voice of the congregation meant for use in public worship, or to give the people a short, clear confession of faith, easily to be remembered. But they are not written from the outside; Luther throws into them all his own fervent faith and deep devotion. The style is plain, often rugged and quaint, but genuinely popular. So, too, was their cheerful trust and noble courage; their clear, vigorous spirit, that sprang from steadfast faith in a Redeemer. All the many conflicts, inward and outward, of Luther's life, had only deepened his experience; they had by no means damped his courage or his power of enjoyment. Since he himself had once found peace in Christ, 109 and could trust in God, he was at leisure to feel all the delightfulness of music, of children, of birds and flowers, of the society of pleasant friends; he had, too, a strong sense of humour, which, in his polemical writings, shows itself in very downright, and often coarse forms, but which gives a peculiar raciness and life to his letters and sayings.

In the years when he was composing most of his hymns, four printers in Erfurt alone were entirely occupied in printing and publishing them. Nor could they be prevented from penetrating where his printed works were carefully excluded; they were carried over the country by wandering students and pedlars, and here and there found their way even into Roman Catholic churches. "The whole people," writes a Romanist of that day, "is singing itself into this Lutheran doctrine." Collections of hymns sprang up at this time with astounding rapidity, and in several of these Luther took part. The four principal ones, which have prefaces written by him, and contain most of his hymns, passed through many editions, and are known by the names of their printers.1313They are the "Erfurter Enchiridion," the hymn-book of Johann Walther, that of Joseph Klug, and that of Valentin Babst. Of these, the earliest, the "Enchiridion," published at Erfurt in 1524, was at first placed in the people's hands for reading while the choir were singing, for the congregation was so unused to joining in the public service, that they could not at once adopt the new practice. It was some four or five years before Luther taught the people in his own parish church of Wittenberg to sing in church, but then the custom spread very swiftly.


The best known of all Luther's hymns is that founded on the forty-sixth Psalm, which has been already mentioned. It is supposed to have been written on his way to the Diet of Worms, from the coincidence of the third verse with Luther's answer to Spalatin, who tried to dissuade him from the journey: "If there were as many devils in Worms as there are tiles on the roofs, I would go, and would not be afraid. If Huss was burnt to ashes, the truth was not burnt with him." Some, however, think that it was composed at the close of the Second Diet of Spires--that in 1529, which revoked the religious liberty granted in the previous one of 1526, and against which five sovereign princes and fifteen free cities protested, and so earned the name of Protestants, a title which is, however, very rarely used in Germany, as "Evangelical" is the word used there in contradistinction to Roman Catholic.

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