Julius Köstlin.

Life of Luther online

. (page 2 of 44)
Online LibraryJulius KöstlinLife of Luther → online text (page 2 of 44)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

own youth.

It is said that childhood is a Paradise. Luther in after
years found it joyful and edifying to contemplate the
happiness of those little ones who know neither the cares
of daily life nor the troubles of the soul, and enjoy with


light hearts the good thing which God has given them.
But in his own reminiscences of life, so far as he has given
them, no such sunny childhood is reflected. The hard
time, which his parents at first had to struggle through at
Mansfeld, had to be shared in by the children, and the lot
fell most hardly on the eldest. As the former spent their
days in hard toil, and persevered in it with unflinching
severity, the tone of the house was unusually earnest and
severe. The upright, honourable, industrious father was
honestly resolved to make a useful man of his son, and
enable him to rise higher than himself. He strictly main-
tained at all times his paternal authority. After his death,
Martin recorded, in touching language, instances of his
father's love, and the sweet intercourse he was permitted
to have with him. But it is not surprising, if, at the period
of childhood, so peculiarly in need of tender affection, the
severity of the father was felt rather too much. He was
once, as he tells us, so severely flogged by his father that
he fled from him, and bore him a temporary grudge. Luther,
in speaking of the discipline of children, has even quoted
his mother as an example of the way in which parents,
with the best intentions, are apt to go too far in punishing,
and forget to pay due attention to the peculiarities of each
child. His mother, he said, once whipped him till the blood
came, for having taken a paltry little nut. He adds, that,
in punishing children, the apple should be placed beside
the rod, and they should not be chastised for an offence
about nuts or cherries as if they had broken open a
money-box. His parents, he acknowledged, had meant it
for the very best, but they had kept him, nevertheless,
so strictly that he had become shy and timid. Theirs,
however, was not that unloving severity which blunts the
spirit of a child, and leads to artfulness and deceit. Their
strictness, well intended, and proceeding from a genuine
moral earnestness of purpose, furthered in him a strictness
and tenderness of conscience, which then and in after years


made him deeply and keenly sensitive of every fault com«
mitted in the eyes of God ; a sensitiveness, indeed, which,
so far from relieving him of fear, made him apprehensive on
account of sins that existed only in his imagination- It
was a later consequence of this discipline, as Luther him-
self informs us, that he took refuge in a convent. He adds,
at the same time, that it is better not to spare the rod
with children even from the very cradle, than to let them
grow up without any punishment at all ; and that it is
pure mercy to young folk to bend their wills, even though it
eosts labour and trouble, and leads to threats and blows.

We have a reference by Luther to the lessons he learned
in childhood from his experience of poverty at home, in his
remarks in later life, on the sons of poor men, who by
sheer hard work raise themselves from obscurity, and have
much to endure, and no time to strut and swagger, but
must be humble and learn to be silent and to trust in God,
and to whom God also has given good sound heads.

As to Luther's relations with his brothers and sisters we
have the testimony of one who knew the household at
Mansfeld, and particularly his brother James, that from
childhood they were those of brotherly companionship,
and that from his mother's own account he had exercised
a governing influence both by word and deed on the good
conduct of the younger members of the family.

His father must have taken him to school at a very
early age. Long after, in fact only two years before his
death, he noted down in the Bible of a ' good old friend,'
Emler, a townsman of Mansfeld, his recollection how, more
than once, Emler, as the elder, had carried him, still a
weakly child, to and from school ; a proof, not indeed, as a
Catholic opponent of the next century imagined, that it
was necessary to compel the boy to go to school, but that
he was still of an age to benefit by being carried. The
school-house, of which the lower portion still remains, stood
at the upper end of the little town, part of which runs


with steep streets up the hill. The children there were
taught not only reading and writing, but also the rudiments
of Latin, though doubtless in a very clumsy and mechanical
fashion. From his experience of the teaching here, Luther
speaks in later years of the vexations and torments with
declining and conjugating and other tasks which school
children in his youth had to undergo. The severity he
there met with from his teacher was a very different thing
from the strictness of his parents. Schoolmasters, he says,
in those days were tyrants and executioners, the schools
were prisons and hells, and in spite of blows, trembling,
fear, and misery, nothing was ever taught. He had been
whipped, he tells us, fifteen times one morning, without any
fault of his own, having been called on to repeat what he
had never been taught.

At this school he remained till he was fourteen, when
his father resolved to send him to a better and higher-class
place of education. He chose for that purpose Magdeburg ;
but what particular school he attended is not known. His
friend Mathesius tells us that the town-school there was
' far renowned above many others.' Luther himself says
that he went to school with the Null-brethren. These Null-
brethren or Noll-brethren, as they were called, were a
brotherhood of pious clergymen and laymen, who had com-
bined together, but without taking any vows, to promote
among themselves the salvation of their souls and the
practice of a godly life, and to labour at the same time
for the social and moral welfare of the people, by preaching
the Word of God, by instruction, and by spiritual ministra-
tion. They undertook in particular the care of youth.
They were, moreover, the chief originators of the great
movement in Germany, at that time, for promoting in-
tellectual culture, and reviving the treasures of ancient
Eoman and Greek literature. Since 1488 a colony of them
had existed at Magdeburg, which had come from Hildesheim,
one of their head-quarters. As there is no evidence of their


having had a school of their own at Magdeburg, they may
have devoted their services to the town-school. Thither,
then, Hans Luther sent his eldest son in 1497. The idea
had probably been suggested by Peter Reinicke, the overseer
of the mines, who had a son there. With this son John,
who afterwards rose to an important office in the mines at
Mansfeld, Martin Luther contracted a lifelong friendship.
Hans, however, only let his son remain one year at
Magdeburg, and then sent him to school at Eisenach.
"Whether he was induced to make this change by finding
his expectations of the school not sufficiently realised, or
whether other reasons, possibly those regarding a cheaper
maintenance of his son, may have determined him in the
matter, there is no evidence to show. What strikes one
here only is his zeal for the better education of his son.

Ratzeberger is the only one who tells us of an incident
he heard of Luther from his own lips, during his stay at
Magdeburg, and this was one which, as a physician, he
relates with interest. Luther, it happened, was lying sick
of a burning fever, and tormented with thirst, and in the
heat of the fever they refused him drink. So one
Friday, when the people of the house had gone to church,
and left him alone, he, no longer able to endure the thirst,
crawled off on hands and feet to the kitchen, where he
drank off with great avidity a jug of cold water. He could
reach his room again, but having done so he fell into a deep
sleep, and on waking the fever had left him.

The maintenance his father was able to afford him was
not sufficient to cover the expenses of his board and lodging
as well as of his schooling, either at Magdeburg or after-
wards at Eisenach. He was obliged to help himself after
the manner of poor scholars, who, as he tells us, went
about from door to door collecting small gifts or doles by
singing hymns. ' I myself,' he says, ' was one of those
young colts, particularly at Eisenach, my beloved town.'
He would also ramble about the neighbourhood with his


school-fellows ; and often, from the pulpit or the lecturer's
chair, would he tell little anecdotes about those days. The
boys used to sing quartettes at Christmas-time in the
villages, carols on the birth of the Holy Child at Bethlehem.
Once, as they were singing before the door of a solitary
farmhouse, the farmer came out and called to them roughly,
* Where are you, young rascals ? ' He had two large sausages
in his hand for them, but they ran away terrified, till he
shouted after them to come back and fetch the sausages.
So intimidated, says Luther, had he become by the terrors
of school discipline. His object, however, in relating this
incident was to show his hearers how the heart of man too
often construes manifestations of God's goodness and mercy
into messages of fear, and how men should pray to God
perseveringly, and without timidity or shamefacedness. In
those days it was not rare to find even scholars of the
better classes, such as the son of a magistrate at Mansfeld,
and those who, for the sake of a better education, were sent
to distant schools, seeking to add to their means in the
manner we have mentioned.

After this, his father sent him to Eisenach, bearing in
mind the numerous relatives who lived in the town and sur-
rounding country, and who might be of service to him. But
of these no mention has reached us, except of one, named
Konrad, who was sacristan in the church of St. Nicholas.
The others, no doubt, were not in a position to give him any
material assistance.

About this time his singing brought him under the
notice of one Frau Cotta, who with genuine affection took
up the promising boy, and whose memory, in connection
with the great Keformer, still lives in the hearts of the
German people. Her husband, Konrad or Kunz, was one
of the most influential citizens of the town, and sprang
from a noble Italian family who had acquired wealth by
commerce. Ursula Cotta, as her name was, belonged to the
Eisenach family of Schalbe. She died in 1511. Mathesius


tells us how the boy won her heart by his singing and
his earnestness in prayer, and she welcomed him to her
own table. Luther met with similar acts of kindness from
a brother or other relative of hers, and also from an
institution belonging to Franciscan friars at Eisenach,
which was indebted to the Schalbe family for several rich
endowments, and was named, in consequence, the Schalbe
College. At Frau Cotta's, Luther was first introduced to
the life in a patrician's house, and learned to move in that

At Eisenach he remained at school for four years.
Many years afterwards we find him on terms of friendly
and grateful intercourse with one Father Wiegand, who
had been his schoolmaster there. Eatzeberger, speaking
of the then schoolmaster at Eisenach, mentions a ' distin-
guished poet and man of learning, John Trebonius,' who,
as he tells us, every morning, on entering the schoolroom,
would take off his biretta, because God might have chosen
many a one of the lads present to be a future mayor, or
chancellor, or learned doctor ; a thought which, as he adds,
was amply realised afterwards in the person of Doctor
Luther. The relations of these two at the school, which
contained several classes, must be a matter of conjecture.
But the system of teaching pursued there was praised
afterwards by Luther himself to Melancthon. The
former acquired there that thorough knowledge of Latin
which was then the chief preparation for University
study. He learned to write it, not only in prose, but
also in verse, which leads us to suppose that the school at
Eisenach took a part in the Humanistic movement already
mentioned. Happily, his active mind and quick under-
standing had already begun to develop ; not only did he
make up for lost ground, but he even outstripped those of
his own age.

As we see him growing up to manhood, the future
hero of the faith, the teacher, and the warrior, the most


important question for us is the course which his religious
development took from childhood.

He who, in after years, waged such a tremendous war-
fare with the Church of his time, always gratefully acknow-
ledged, and in his own teaching and conduct kept steadily
in view, how, within herself, and underneath all the corrup-
tions he denounced, she still preserved the groundwork of
a Christian life, the charter of salvation, the fundamental
truths of Christianity, and the means of redemption and
blessing, vouchsafed by the grace of God. Especially did
he acknowledge all that he had himself received from the
Church since childhood. In that House, he says on one
occasion, he was baptised, and catechised in the Christian
truth, and for that reason he would always honour it as the
House of his Father. The Church would at any rate take
care that children, at home and at school, should learn by
heart the Apostles' Creed, the Lord's Prayer, and the Ten
Commandments ; that they should pray, and sing psalms
and Christian hymns. Printed books, containing them,
were already in existence. Among the old Christian hymns
in the German language, of which a surprisingly rich col-
lection has been formed, a certain number, at least, were in
common use in the churches, especially for festivals. ' Fine
songs ' Luther called them, and he took care that they
should live on in the Evangelical communities. Those old
verses form in part the foundation of the hymns which we
owe to his own poetical genius. Thus for Christmas we
still have the carol of those times, Ein Kindelein so lobelich ;
and the first verse of Luther's Whitsun hymn, Nun bitten
wir den Heiligen Geist, is taken, he tells us, from one of
those old-fashioned melodies. Of the portions of Scripture
read in church, the Gospels and Epistles were given in the
mother-tongue. Sermons, also, had long been preached in
German, and there were printed collections of them for the
use of the clergy.

The places where Luther grew up were certainly better



off in this respect than many others. For, in the main,
very much was still wanting to realise what had been re-
commended and striven for by pious Churchmen, and writers
and religious fraternities, or even enjoined by the Church
herself. The -Reformers had, indeed, a heavy and an irre-
futable indictment to bring against the Catholic Church
system of their time. The grossest ignorance and short-
comings were exposed by the Visitations which they under-
took, and from these we may fairly judge of the actual state
of things existing for many years before. It appeared, that
even where these portions of the catechism were taught by
parents and schoolmasters, they never formed the subject of
clerical instruction to the young. It was precisely one of
the charges brought against the enemies of the Reformation,
that, notwithstanding the injunctions of their Church, they
habitually neglected this instruction, and preferred teaching
the children such things as carrying banners in processions
and holy tapers. Priests were found, in the course of these
visitations, who had scarcely any knowledge of the chief
articles of the faith. His own personal experience of this
neglect, when young, is not noticed by Luther in his later
complaints on the subject.

But the main fault and failing which he recognised in
after life, and which, as he tells us, was a source of inward
suffering to him from childhood, was the distorted view,
held up to him at school and from the pulpit, of the con-
ditions of Christian salvation, and, consequently, of his
own proper religious attitude and demeanour.

Luther himself, as we learn from him in later life, would
have Christian children brought up in the happy assurance
that God is a loving Father, Christ a faithful Saviour, and
that it is their privilege and duty to approach their Father
with frank and childlike confidence, and, if aroused to a
consciousness of sin or wrong, to entreat at once His for-
giveness. Such however, he tells us, was not what he was
taught. On the contrary, he was instructed, and trained up


from childhood in that narrowing conception of Christianity,
and that outward form of religiousness, against which, more
than anything, he bore witness as a Reformer.

God was pictured to him as a Being unapproachably
sublime, and of awful holiness ; Christ, the Saviour,
Mediator, and Advocate, whose revelation can only bring
judgment to those who reject salvation, as the threatening
Judge, against whose wrath, as against that of God, man
sought for intercession and mediation from the Virgin and
the other saints. This latter worship, towards the close of
the middle ages, had increased in importance and extent.
Peculiar honour was paid to particular saints, in particular
places, and for the furtherance of particular interests. The
warlike St. George was the special saint of the town and
county of Man sf eld : his effigy still surmounts the entrance
to the old school-house. Among the miners the worship of
St. Anne, the mother of the Virgin, soon became popular
towards the end of the century, and the mining town of
Annaberg, built in 1496, was named after her. Luther
records how the ' great stir ' was first made about her,
when he was a boy of fifteen, and how he was then anxious
to place himself under her protection. There is no lack of
religious writings of that time, which, with the view of
preserving the Catholic faith, warn men earnestly against
the danger of overvaluing the saints, and of placing their
hopes more in them than in God ; but we see from those
very warnings how necessary they were, and later history
shows us how little fruit they bore. As for Luther, certain
beautiful features in the lives and legends of the saints
exercised over him a power of attraction which he never
afterwards renounced ; and of the Virgin he always spoke
with tender reverence, only regretting that men wished to
make an idol of her. But of his early religious belief, he
says that Christ appeared to him as seated on a rainbow,
like a stern Judge ; from Christ men turned to the saints,
to be their patrons, and called on the Virgin to bare her



breasts to her Son, and dispose him thereby to mercy. An
example of what deceptions were sometimes practised in
such worship came to the notice of the Elector John
Frederick, the friend of Luther, and probably originated in
a convent at Eisenach. It was a figure, carved in wood, of
the Virgin with the infant Saviour in her arms, which was
furnished with a secret contrivance by means of which the
Child, when the people prayed to him, first turned away
to His mother, and only when they had invoked her as
intercessor, bowed towards them with His little arms

On the other hand, the sinner who was troubled with
cares about his soul and thoughts of Divine judgment, found
himself directed to the performance of particular acts of
penance and pious exercises, as the means to appease a
righteous God. He received judgment and commands
through the Church at the confessional. The Eeformers
themselves, and Luther especially, fully recognised the
value of being able to pour out the inner temptations of
the heart to some Christian father-confessor, or even to
some other brother in the faith, and to obtain from his lips
that comfort of forgiveness which God, in His love and
mercy, bestows freely on the faithful. But nothing of
this kind, they said, was to be found in the confessional.
The conscience was tormented with the enumeration of single
sins, and burdened with all sorts of penitential formalities ;
and it was just with a view that everyone should be drawn
to this discipline of the Church, should use it regularly, and
should seek for no other way to make his peace with God,
that the educational activity of the Church, both with young
and old, was especially directed.

Luther, in after life, as we have already remarked,
always recognised and found comfort in the fact that, even
under such conditions as the above, enough of the simple
message of salvation in the Bible could penetrate the
heart, and awaken a faith which, in spite of all artificial


restraints and perplexing dogmas, should throw itself, with
inward longing and childlike trust, into the arms of God's
mercy, and so enjoy true forgiveness. He received, as we
shall see, some salutary directions for so doing from later
friends of his, who belonged to the Eomish Church, nor was
that character of ecclesiastical religiousness, so to speak,
stamped everywhere, or to the same degree, on Christian
life in Germany during his youth. Nevertheless, his whole
inner being, from boyhood, was dominated by its influence ;
he, at all events, had never been taught to appreciate the
Gospel as a child. Looking back in later years on his
monastic days, and the whole of his previous life, he
declared that he never could feel assured that his baptism
in Christ was sufficient for his salvation, and that he was
sorely troubled with doubt whether any piety of his own would
be able to secure for him God's mercy. Thoughts of this
kind he said induced him to become a monk.

Men have never been wanting, either before or since
the time of Luther's youth, to denounce the abuses and
corruptions of the Church, and particularly of the clergy.
Language of this sort had long found its way to the
popular ear, and had proceeded also from the people them-
selves. Complaints were made of the tyranny of the Papal
hierarchy, and of their encroachments on social and civil life,
as well as of the worldliness and gross immorality of the
priests and monks. The Papacy had reached its lowest
depth of moral degradation under Pope Alexander VI. We
hear nothing, however, of the impressions produced on
Luther, in this respect, in the circumstances of his early
life. The news of such scandals as were then enacted at
Eome, shamelessly and in open day, very likely took a long
while to reach Luther and those about him. With regard
to the carnal offences of the clergy, against which, to the
honour of Germany be it said, the German conscience
especially revolted, he made afterwards the noteworthy re-
mark, that although during his boyhood the priests allowed


themselves mistresses, they never incurred the suspicion
of anything like unbridled sensuality or adulterous conduct.
Examples of such kind date only from a later period.

The loyalty with which Mansfeld, his home, adhered to
the ancient Church, is shown by several foundations of that
time, all of which have reference to altars and the celebra-
tion of mass. The overseer of the mines, Keinicke, the
friend of Luther's family, is among the founders : he left
provision for keeping up services in honour of the Virgin and
St. George.

A peculiarly reverential demeanour, in regard to religion
and the Church, is observable in Luther's father, and one
which was common no doubt among his honest, simple, pious
fellow townsfolk. His conduct was consistently God-fear-
ing. In his house it was afterwards told how he would often
pray at the bedside of his little Martin, — how, as the friend
of godliness and learning, he had enjoyed the friendship of
priests and school-teachers. Words of pious reflection from
his lips remained stamped on Luther's memory from his boy-
hood. Thus Luther tells us, in a sermon preached towards
the close of his life, how he had often heard his dear father
say, that, as his own parents had told him, the earth con-
tains many more who require to be fed than there are
sheaves, even if collected from all the fields in the world ;
and yet how wondrously does God know how to preserve man-
kind ! In common with his fellow- townsmen, he followed the
precepts and commands of his Church. When, in the year
in which he sent his son to Magdeburg, two new altars in
the church at Mansfeld were consecrated to a number of

Online LibraryJulius KöstlinLife of Luther → online text (page 2 of 44)