"The whole world and its history was waiting for this man."
Erasmus was sixteen years old when Martin Luther was born,—Martin Luther, the great German Reformer, whose name was soon to be known throughout the whole continent of Europe. This is the story of his life. He was born in the year 1483. His father was a humble miner, his mother was noted for her goodness and virtue. When quite a little child, his parents wished to make a "scholar " of him—so he was early taught to read and write, and at six years old he was sent to school. Both at home and at school his training was very severe; his father whipped him for mere trifles, and one day poor little Martin was beaten fifteen times! He was bright and clever, but he had a strong will of his own, and a love of fun and mischief. When he was fourteen his parents could not afford to keep him any longer, so they sent him forth into the world with his bag on his back, to seek for learning from the charity of strangers. With a boy friend he set forth to walk to Magdeburg, where there was a school for poor boys kept by the Franciscan monks. In order to get food on the way, the boys had to beg or to sing. They were thankful enough for a morsel of bread or a night's shelter. Indeed, life became such a hard struggle, that Martin told himself he would never be a scholar, and it would be better to return home and win an honest livelihood with his spade. But at this moment the tide turned. By his sweet voice he attracted the notice of a good lady, who took pity on him and gave him a comfortable home. Here he worked hard, making great progress in Latin, till he was eighteen. By this time his father had made enough money to send him to a university, where he took his degree in 1505.
And now a strange thing happened, that altered his whole life. One day he was walking with a friend, when a tremendous thunderstorm came on. A sudden vivid flash of lightning struck the friend at his side, who fell down dead at his feet. The suddenness of the young man's death made a great impression on Martin Luther. Struck to the heart, he made up his mind that henceforth he would devote his life to God and God's service. In spite of his father's protests he became a monk. For the first two years his life was a very hard one: his food was very scanty, he had to perform the lowliest tasks, and to beg for alms and bread. Whatever spare time he had, he worked hard at his books, studying the epistles and gospels diligently. In the library of the university he found a complete Bible in Latin. It was the first time he had seen one. He devoured it eagerly. A new light came into his life, and in his close study of the Bible he strengthened himself for his future work. Before long he had risen to a position of importance in the monastery. He became a priest and went to live at Wittenberg—a town which he made famous by his name. In 1509 he began to lecture on the Scriptures. Bibles were not in the hands of all as they are to-day, and Martin Luther was able to tell his countrymen a great deal that they did not know, by reason of his deep learning. His lectures made a great impression.
"This monk," said the head of the university, "will bring in a new doctrine."
He also began now to preach in the churches. He was very earnest, and the people who listened to him were deeply moved at his words.
In 1511 he was sent on a mission to Rome, where Leo X. was Pope. Now, from early times there has been a Pope (Papa) or Father of Rome, who in the Middle Ages had come to be looked on as the Head of the Christian Church by many, if not all, of the countries of Europe. At first the Pope was a Bishop of Rome, as other Bishops were in other cities, but when Rome was no longer the sole imperial city, the power of the Bishops became greater and greater until, in the twelfth century, under Innocent III., the papal authority reached its height.
Now during the Middle Ages many abuses had crept into the Church. One of these was known as the "sale of indulgences."
All feel it right that sinners should suffer for their sins, but there is no Biblical foundation for the teaching that by money payments a sinner may be saved from the punishment of his sin. Yet, in those days, persons who paid money received an "indulgence," and agents went about the country selling them.
One of these, named John Tetzel, came to Germany. He disgusted Martin Luther by his method of extorting money from ignorant people, and being a man of great courage, Luther felt it his duty to remonstrate. He stood up boldly in his pulpit and denounced the system openly.
It was a tremendous moment. It was indeed the visible beginning of the Reformation—that great movement which was to spread wider and wider until it should affect the whole Christian world.
Into the deeper causes of the Reformation we cannot enter here. The revival of Greek learning had caused men to study the Scriptures for themselves as Luther did, and this caused dissatisfaction with the mediaeval corruption of the Roman Church.