When I was a child in 1950s Catholic Ireland, Martin Luther had a nasty reputation. If not viewed as the devil incarnate, he was certainly seen as a deeply dodgy fellow. And it wasn’t uncommon to hear the tale of his alleged “bad death” put forward as proof of his iniquity.
The whole story, of course, is more complicated. Whatever the merits of the Reformation, Luther was an enormously influential historical figure. He was courageous, sincere and immensely stubborn. But he was a prodigious hater, too.
Luther was also the subject of a popular play by John Osborne. First performed in 1961 with the English actor Albert Finney in the title role, Luther went on to win a Tony award in 1964. You could even say that it invested its subject with a brief trendy cachet.
Mind you, the play sometimes puzzled people. When it was broadcast by BBC TV in October 1965, my acerbic aunt was bemused by the focus on Luther’s inconsistently functioning bowels. Could it really be true, she wondered, that constipation was the root cause of the Reformation?
It’s now 500 years since Luther threw down the gauntlet, taking on the power of the papacy in an era predating the separation of church and state. On Oct. 31, 1517, he affixed his famous 95 theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, then a small university town in the German territory ruled by the Elector of Saxony, Frederick III.
It was a gutsy thing to do, since it could have got him killed. And he knew it. Reviewing his contemporary correspondence, biographer Lyndal Roper ( read Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet) describes him as a man with “a sense of exaltation and exhilaration as he came to accept that he was likely to die a martyr.”
Luther was a member of the Hermits of Saint Augustine and a preaching friar. Rather than pursuing a quiet life of monastic contemplation, his forte was that of a professional communicator skilled at stirring 16th century emotions. He was also a professor of theology.
The primary target of the 95 theses was the Catholic practice of selling indulgences. To Luther, this was what we’d now call a pay-to-play arrangement. If you had the funds, you could buy remission for your sins. This was, he thought, an abomination.
And there were other areas where Luther parted company with established Catholicism.
He came to believe that Christians could only be saved through faith. Good works weren’t sufficient and neither was a pious life. Eternal salvation was such an enormous gift that it couldn’t be earned. Only God’s benevolence could bestow it.
Luther also had an impact on the acceptance of non-celibate Protestant clergy. Although he wasn’t the first to marry, his stature was such that his 1525 marriage to Katharina von Bora, a former nun, conveyed a general stamp of approval on the practice. Sex, he said, was a natural thing and expecting men and women to desist from indulging was “like putting straw and fire together and forbidding them to burn.”
Then there was his emphasis on the vernacular. Luther wasn’t the first person to translate the Bible into German, but what’s been described as his “direct and unadorned” style struck a populist chord. And by virtue of unifying local dialects, it’s considered to have been an important influence on the development of the German language.
To the modern mind, though, the most troublesome aspect of Luther is what Roper calls his “vicious anti-Semitism.” In an environment where such hostile sentiments were the norm rather than the exception, Luther became particularly virulent in his later years.
Whereas his 1523 essay That Jesus Christ was Born a Jew has been characterized as a “remarkably tolerant piece by the standards of the time,” the Luther of 1543 was a different kettle of fish. In two tracts published within a few months of each other, he was, in Roper’s words, “off the leash.”
Synagogues were to be burned, houses were to be destroyed, usury was to be banned and Jews were to be consigned to manual labour. To what extent, if any, this contributed to 20th century Nazism is a matter of debate.
Roper’s biography describes Luther as “a difficult hero.” Perhaps that’s putting it gently.
Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well perhaps a little bit.