Martin Luther was German. He grew up in a part of Germany called Saxony. Luther’s father was a rich miner. He was very strict with his son. Luther went to university to study law but during his time in university, Luther decided to become a monk and so he entered a monastery.
In the monastery, Luther studied the bible. He worked hard and soon became a teacher in the University of Wittenberg. Luther worried that he was not good enough to go to heaven when he died. The Catholic Church taught that if he believed in Jesus Christ, avoided sin and did good works, he would be saved (go to heaven). Good works were things like praying, fasting, giving help to the poor or going on pilgrimage. Luther did all of these things but he was still not satisfied. No matter how hard he tried to be good, he still felt wicked. How, he asked himself, could God let someone as wicked as him into heaven? Luther was very unhappy.
One day, Luther was reading the bible. He opened a letter written by St. Paul and read the words “The good man is saved by faith”. These words comforted Luther. All he had to do to get to heaven was to have faith in Jesus Christ. This idea is called ‘salvation’ through faith alone. Now Luther felt happier. For several years Luther went on teaching in Wittenberg until a dramatic incident in 1517 changed his life.
Luther’s anger with the Catholic Church
In 1517, the pope announced ‘an indulgence’. An indulgence meant that anyone who gave money to help build St. Peter’s in Rome would find it easier to get to heaven. But just giving money was not enough. People also had to believe in Christ, pray and lead a good life before they could get an indulgence. In Luther’s part of Germany, money for the indulgence was collected by a monk called John Tetzel. Tetzel told people that if they gave money, their dead relatives would go straight to heaven. This was not what the pope had said but many Germans did not realise this. They went in their thousands to see Tetzel speak and they gave him lots of money. Luther was outraged. He believed that what Tetzel was saying was wrong.
Luther felt compelled to express his anger at the sale of indulgences. He did not believe that money could help people get to heaven. Luther drew up 95 arguments against indulgences. These arguments were called theses. They were written in Latin. Only a few well educated people, like Luther, could read them. But someone translated the 95 theses in to German and printed thousands of copies of them. Soon people all over Germany were reading Luther’s attack on indulgences. Many of the ordinary people agreed with Luther.
The Pope’s Response to Luther
Pope Leo soon heard what was happening in Germany. He arranged a debate to discuss Luther’s ideas. Luther put his own case and a man called John Eck spoke on behalf of the pope. During the debate, Luther said that the pope was wrong about indulgences. Luther had questioned the authority of the pope. Pope Leo decided he had to stop Luther. He wrote a special letter called the Papal Bull. In it he said that Luther was a heretic. The punishment for being a heretic would be being burned alive. But Luther was not afraid. He publicly burned the pope’s letter.
The emperor at the time was Charles V. Luther was a problem for Charles. The pope wanted him to arrest Luther and burn him as a heretic. But many Germans thought Luther was a hero. Prince Frederick the Wise was one of Luther’s supporters. He persuaded the emperor that Luther must have a chance to explain his ideas. Charles called all the princes of the empire to a meeting called a Diet. The Diet was held in the city of Worms in 1521.
The Diet at Worms
The emperor ordered Luther to go to Worms and explain his ideas to the princes. Luther’s friends did not want him to go. They were afraid he would be arrested and burned. But Charles promised not to harm Luther.
In April 1521 Luther appeared before the Diet. He thought he would have a chance to explain his ideas. But Charles had a different plan. He asked Luther to give up his ideas. Luther was surprised. He said he needed time to think of his answer. The next day, Luther addressed the meeting. He explained his beliefs and refused to give up his ideas. Afterwards he left the meeting and Charles kept his promise and did not arrest him.
The next day Charles gave his verdict. He issued the Edict of Worms in which he declared Luther a heretic. He offered a reward for Luther’s capture.
(Adapted from: People of the Past. The Educational Company of Ireland)