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History of Protestantism, vol. 1 - Contents
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    Book 5: History of Protestantism in Germany to the Leipsic Disputation, 1519

    Chapter 1: Luther’s Birth, Childhood, and School-Days

    Geological Eras—Providential Eras—Preparations for a New Age—Luther’s Parents—Birth of Martin—Mansfeld—Sent to School at Magdeburg—School Discipline—Removes to Eisenach—Sings for Bread—Madame Cotta—Poverty and Austerity of his Youth—Final Ends

    Picture: View of Eisenach

    Picture: John Luther taking his Son to School

    Geologists tell us of the many revolutions, each occupying its cycle of ages, through which the globe passed before its preparation for man was completed. There were ages during which the earth was shrouded in thickest night and frozen with intensest cold: and there were ages more in which a blazing sun shed his light and heat upon it. Periods passed in which the ocean slept in stagnant calm, and periods succeeded in which tempest convulsed the deep and thunder shook the heavens; and in the midst of the elemental war, the dry land, upheaved by volcanic fires, might have been seen emerging above the ocean. But alike in the tempest and in the calm nature worked with ceaseless energy, and the world steadily advanced toward its state of order. At last it reached it; and then, beneath a tranquil sky, and upon an earth covered with a carpet of verdure, man, the tenant and sovereign of the world, stood up.HOPV1 226.3

    So was it when the world was being prepared to become the abode of pure Churches and free nations. From the fall of the Western Empire to the eleventh century, there intervened a period of unexampled torpor and darkness. The human mind seemed to have sunk into senility. Society seemed to have lost the vital principle of progress. Men looked back to former ages with a feeling of despair. They recalled the varied and brilliant achievements of the early time, and sighed to think that the world’s better days were past, that old age had come upon the race, and that the end of all things was at hand. Indeed a belief was generally entertained that the year One thousand would usher in the Day of Judgment. It was a mistake. The world’s best days were yet to come, though these - its true golden age - it could reach not otherwise than through terrible political and moral tempests.HOPV1 227.1

    The hurricane of the crusades it was that first broke the ice of the world’s long winter. The frozen bands of Orion being loosed, the sweet influences of the Pleiades began to act on society. Commerce and art, poetry and philosophy appeared, and like early flowers announced the coming of spring. That philosophy, it is true, was not of much intrinsic value, but, like the sports of childhood which develop the limbs and strengthen the faculties of the future man, the speculations of the Middle Ages, wherewith the young mind of Europe exercised itself, payed the way for the achievements of its manhood.HOPV1 227.2

    By-and-by came the printing-press, truly a Divine gift; and scarcely had the art of printing been perfected when Constantinople fell, the tomb of ancient literature was burst open, and the treasures of the ancient world were scattered over the West. From these seeds were to spring not the old thoughts, but new ones of greater power and beauty. Next came the mariner’s compass, and with the mariner’s compass came a new world, or, what is the same thing, the discovery by man of the large and goodly dimensions of the world he occupies. Hitherto he had been confined to a portion of it only; and on this little spot he had planted and built, he had turned its soil with the plough, but oftener reddened it with the sword, unconscious the while that ampler and wealthier realms around him were lying unpeopled and uncultivated. But now magnificent continents and goodly islands rose out of the primeval night. It seemed a second Creation. On all sides the world was expanding around man, and this sudden revelation of the vastness of that kingdom of which he was lord, awoke in his bosom new desires, and speedily dispelled those gloomy apprehensions by which he had begun to be oppressed. He thought that Time’s career was finished, and that the world was descending into its sepulcher; to his amazement and joy he saw that the world’s youth was come only now, and that man was as yet but at the beginning of his destiny. He panted to enter on the new career opening before him.HOPV1 227.3

    Compared with his condition in the eleventh century, when man was groping in the thick night, and the rising breath of the crusades was just beginning to stir the lethargy of ages, it must have seemed to him as if he had already seen the full opening of the day. But the true light had not yet risen, if we except a feeble dawn, in the skies of England and Bohemia, where gathering clouds threatened to extinguish it. Philosophy and poetry, even when to these are added ancient learning and modern discoveries, could not make it day. If something better had not succeeded, the awakening of the sixteenth century would have been but as a watch in the night. The world, after those merely terrestrial forces had spent themselves, would have fallen back into its tomb. It was necessary that God’s own breath should vivify it, if it was to continue to live. The logic of the schools, the perfume of letters, the galvanic forces of art could not make of the corpse a living man. As with man at first, so with society, God must breathe into it in order that it might become a living soul. The Bible, so long buried, was resuscitated, was translated into the various tongues of Europe, and thus the breath of God was again moving over society. The light of heaven, after its long and disastrous eclipse, broke anew upon the world.HOPV1 227.4

    Three great princes occupied the three leading thrones of Europe. To these we may add the potentate of the Vatican, in some points the least, but in others the greatest of the four. The conflicting interests and passions of these four men preserved a sort of balance, and restrained the tempests of war from ravaging Christendom. The long and bloody conflicts which had devastated Germany were ended as the fifteenth century drew to its close. The sword rested meanwhile in Europe. As in the Roman world the wars of centuries were concluded, and the doors of the temple of Janus were shut, when a great birth was to take place, and a new era to open, so was it once again at the beginning of the sixteenth century. Protestantism was about to step upon the stage, and to proclaim the good news of the recovery of the long-lost Gospel; and on all sides, from the Carpathians to the Atlantic, there was comparative quiet, that the nations might be able to listen to the blessed tidings. It was now that Luther was born.HOPV1 227.5

    First of the father. His name was John - John Luther. His family was an old one, 1Melancthon. Vita Mart. Luth., p. 4; Vratislaviae, 1819. and had dwelt in these parts a long while. The patrimonial inheritance was gone, and without estate or title, rich only in the superior qualities of his mind, John Luther earned his daily bread by his daily labor. There is more of dignity in honest labor than in titled idleness.HOPV1 228.1

    This man married a daughter of one of the villagers of Neustadt, Margaret Lindemann by name. At the period of their marriage they lived near Eisenach, a romantic town at the foot of the Wartburg, with the glades of the Thuringian forest around it. Soon after their marriage they left Eisenach, and went to live at Eisleben, a town near by, belonging to the Counts of Mansfeld. 2Melancthon, Vita Mart. Luth., p.5.HOPV1 228.2

    They were a worthy pair, and, though in humble condition, greatly respected. John Luther, the father of the Reformer, was a fearer of God, very upright in his dealings and very diligent in his business. He was marked by his good sense, his manly bearing, and the firmness with which he held by his opinions. What was rare in that age, he was a lover of books. Books then were scarce, and consequently dear, and John Luther had not much money to spend on their purchase, nor much time to read those he was able to buy. Still the miner - for he was a miner by trade - managed to get a few, which he read at meal-times, or in the calm German evenings, after his return from his work.HOPV1 229.1

    Margaret Lindemann, the mother of Luther, was a woman of superior mind and character. 3Ibid. She was a peasant by birth, as we have said, but she was truly pious, and piety lends a grace to humble station which is often wanting in lofty rank. The fear of God gives a refinement to the sentiments, and a delicacy and grace to the manners, more fascinating by far than any conventional ease or airs which a coronet can bestow. The purity of the soul shining through the face lends it beauty, even as the lamp transmits its radiance through the alabaster vase and enhances its symmetry. Margaret Lindemann was looked up to by all her neighbors, who regarded her as a pattern to be followed for her good sense, her household economy, and her virtue. To this worthy couple, both much given to prayer, there was born a son, on the 10th of November, 1483. 4Melancthon, Vita Mart. Luth., p. 5. Seckendorf, Hist. Lutheran., lib. 1, sec. 7, p. 17; Lipsiae, 1694. He was their first-born, and as the 10th of November is St. Martin’s Eve, they called their son Martin. Thus was ushered into the world the future Reformer.HOPV1 229.2

    When a prince is born, bells are rung, cannons are discharged, and a nation’s congratulations are carried to the foot of the throne. What rejoicings and splendors around the cradle where lies the heir of some great empire! When God sends his heroes into the world there are no such ceremonies. They step quietly upon the stage where they are to act their great parts. Like that kingdom of which they are the heralds and champions, their coming is not with observation. Let us visit the cottage of John Luther, of Eisleben, on the evening of November 10th, 1483; there slumbers the miner’s first-born. The miner and his wife are proud of their babe, no doubt; but the child is just like other German children; there is no indication about it of the wondrous future that awaits the child that has come into existence in this lowly household. When he grows up he will toil doubtless with his father as a miner. Had the Pope (Sextus V. was then reigning) looked in upon the child, and marked how lowly was the cot in which he lay, and how entirely absent were all signs of worldly power and wealth, he would have asked with disdain, “Can any harm to the Popedom come of this child? Can any danger to the chair of Peter, that seat more august than the throne of kings, lurk in this poor dwelling?” Or if the emperor had chanced to pass that way, and had learned that there was born a son to John Luther, the miner, “Well, what of that?” he would have asked; “there is one child more in Germany, that is all. He may one day be a soldier in my ranks, who knows, and help to fight my battles.” How greatly would these potentates, looking only at things seen, and believing only in material forces, have miscalculated! The miner’s child was to become mightier than Pope, mightier than emperor. One Luther was stronger than all the cardinals of Rome, than all the legions of the Empire. His voice was to shake the Popedom, and his strong hands were to pull down its pillars that a new edifice might be erected in its room. Again it might be said, as at the birth of a yet greater Child, “He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree.”HOPV1 229.3

    When Martin was six months old his parents removed to Mansfeld. At that time the portion of this world’s goods which his father possessed was small indeed; but the mines of Mansfeld were lucrative, John Luther was industrious, and by-and-by his business began to thrive, and his table was better spread. He was now the owner of two furnaces; he became in time a member of the Town Council, 5Melancthon, Vita Mart. Luth., p. 5. and was able to gratify his taste for knowledge by entertaining at times the more learned among the clergy of his neighborhood, and the conversation that passed had doubtless its influence upon the mind of a boy of so quick parts as the young Martin.HOPV1 230.1

    The child grew, and might now be seen playing with the other children of Mansfeld on the banks of the Wipper. His home was happier than it had been, his health was good, his spirits buoyant, and his clear joyous voice rang out above those of his playmates. But there was a cross in his lot even then. It was a stern age. John Luther, with all his excellence, was a somewhat austere man. As a father he was a strict disciplinarian; no fault of the son went unpunished, and not un-frequently was the chastisement in excess of the fault. This severity was not wise. A nature less elastic than Luther’s would have sunk under it into sullenness, or it may be hardened into wickedness. But what the father on earth did for his own pleasure, or from a mistaken sense of duty, the Father in heaven overruled for the lasting good of the future Reformer. It is good for a man to bear the yoke in his youth, for it is in youth, sometimes even in childhood, that the great turning-points of life occur. Luther’s nature was one of strong impulses; these forces were all needed in his future work; but, had they not been disciplined and brought under control, they might have made him rash, impetuous, and headlong; therefore he was betimes taught to submit to the curb. His nature, moreover, rich in the finest sensibilities, might, but for this discipline, have become self-indulgent. Turning away from the harder tasks of life, Luther might have laid himself out only to enjoy the good within his reach, had not the hardships and severities of his youth attempered his character, and imported into it that element of hardness which was necessary for the greater trials before him.HOPV1 230.2

    Besides the examples of piety which he daily beheld, Luther received a little rudimental instruction under the domestic roof. But by-and-by he was sent to school at Mansfeld. He was yet a “little one,” to use Melancthon’s phrase; so young, indeed, that his father sometimes carried him to school on his shoulders. 6Melancthon, Vita Mart. Luth., p. 6. The thought that his son would one day be a scholar, cheered John Luther in his labours; and the hope was strengthened by the retentive memory, the sound understanding, and the power of application which the young Luther already displayed.HOPV1 230.3

    At the age of fourteen years (1497) Martin was sent to the Franciscan school at Magdeburg. 7Melancthon, Vita Mart. Luth., p. 6. At school the hardships and privations amid which his childhood had been passed not only attended him but increased. His master often flogged him; for it was a maxim of those days that nothing could be learned without a free use of the rod; and we can imagine that the buoyant or boisterous nature of the boy often led him into transgressions of the rules of school etiquette. He mentions having one day been flogged fifteen times. What added to his hardships was the custom then universal in the German towns, and continued till a recent date, if even now wholly abandoned, of the scholars begging their bread, in addition to the task of conning their lessons. They went, in small companies, singing from door to door, and receiving whatever alms the good burghers were pleased to give them. At times it would happen that they received more blows, or at least more rebuffs, than alms.HOPV1 231.1

    The instruction was gratis, but the young scholar had not bread to eat, and though the means of his father were ampler than before, all were needed for the support of his family, now numerous; and after a year Luther was withdrawn from Magdeburg and sent to a school in Eisenach, where having relatives, he would have less difficulty, it was thought, in supporting himself. These hopes were not realized, because perhaps his relations were poor. The young scholar had still to earn his meals by singing in the streets. One day Luther was perambulating Eisenach, stopping before its likeliest dwellings, and striving with a brief hymn to woo the inmates to kindness. He was sore pressed with hunger, but no door opened, and no hand was extended to him. He was greatly downcast; he stood musing within himself what should become of him. Alas! he could not endure these hardships much longer; he must abandon his studies; he must return home, and work with his father in the mines. It was at that moment that Providence opened for him a home.HOPV1 231.2

    As he stood absorbed in these melancholy thoughts, a door near him was opened, and a voice bade him come in. He turned to see who it was that spoke to him. It was Ursula, the wife of Conrad Cotta, a man of consideration among the burghers of Eisenach. 8Seckendorf, Hist. Lutheran., lib. 1, sec. 8, p. 20; Lipsiae, 1694. Ursula Cotta had marked the young scholar before. He was accustomed to sing in the church choir on Sundays. She had been struck with the sweetness of his voice. She had heard the harsh words with which he had been driven away from other doors. Taking pity, she took him in, and made him sit down at her board; and not only did she appease his hunger for the time, but her husband, won by the open face and sweet disposition of the boy, made him come and live with them.HOPV1 231.3

    Luther had now a home; he could eat without begging or singing for his bread. He had found a father and mother in this worthy pair. His heart opened; his young genius grew livelier and lovelier every day. Penury, like the chill of winter, had threatened to blight his powers in the bud; but this kindness, like the sun, with genial warmth, awakened them into new vigor. He gave himself to study with fresh ardour; tasks difficult before became easy now. If his voice was less frequently heard in the streets, it cheered the dwelling of his adopted parents. Madame Cotta was fond of music, and in what way could the young scholar so well repay her kindness as by cultivating his talent for singing, and exercising it for the delight of this “good Shunammite?” Luther passed, after this, nearly two years at Eisenach, equally happy at school in the study of Latin, rhetoric, and verse-making, and at home where his hours of leisure were filled up with song, in which he not unfrequently accompanied himself on the lute. He never, all his after-life, forgot either Eisenach or the good Madame Cotta. He was accustomed to speak of the former as “his own beautiful town,” and with reference to the latter he would say, “There is nothing kinder than a good woman’s heart.” The incident helped also to strengthen his trust in God. When greater perils threatened in his future career, when man stood aloof, and he could descry no deliverance near, he remembered his agony in the streets of Eisenach, and how visibly God had come to his help.HOPV1 231.4

    We cannot but mark the wisdom of God in the training of the future Reformer. By nature he was loving and trustful, with a heart ever yearning for human sympathy, and a mind ever planning largely for the happiness of others. But this was not enough. These qualities must be attempered by others which should enable him to confront opposition, endure reproach, despise ease, and brave peril. The first without the last would have issued in mere benevolent schemings, and Luther would have died sighing over the stupidity or malignity of those who had thwarted his philanthropic projects. He would have abandoned his plans on the first appearance of opposition, and said, “Well, if the world won’t be reformed, I shall let it alone.” Luther, on the other hand, reckoned on meeting this opposition; he was trained to endure and bear with it, and in his early life we see the hardening and the expanding process going on by turns. And so is it with all whom God selects for rendering great services to the Church or to the world. He sends them to a hard school, and he keeps them in it till their education is complete. Let us mark the eagle and the bird of song, how dissimilar their rearing. The one is to spend its life in the groves, flitting from bough to bough, and enlivening the woods with its melody. Look what a warm nest it lies in; the thick branches cover it, and its dam sits brooding over it. How differently is the eaglet nursed! On yonder ledge, amid the naked crags, open to the lashing rain, and the pelting hail, and the stormy gust, are spread on the bare rock a few twigs. These are the nest of that bird which is to spend its after-life in soaring among the clouds, battling with the winds, and gazing upon the sun.HOPV1 231.5

    Luther was to spend his life in conflict with emperors and Popes, and the powers of temporal and spiritual despotism; therefore his cradle was placed in a miner’s cot, and his childhood and youth were passed amid hardship and peril. It was thus he came to know that man lives not to enjoy, but to achieve; and that to achieve anything great, he must sacrifice self, turn away from man, and lean only on God.HOPV1 232.1

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