The Peasant's Son
Out of the dungeon in which John Huss was imprisoned before he was burned at the stake in the year 1415 he wrote the words: "They may kill a goose [the word Huss meaning in the Bohemian language a goose] but a hundred years from now a swan will arise which they will not be able to kill."
Those were prophetic words. Not a hundred years elapsed when the man of destiny was born, whose voice, mighty and penetrating, could not be stifled by fire and smoke; whose words ran like wildfire through Europe, and shook the very foundations of the most stupendous ecclesiastico-political system that the world had ever seen.
The ancestors of Martin Luther lived near the little village of Möhra in the Thuringian Mountains. They were sturdy, honest, hard-working peasants, possessing the elements that make for strength of character, power of will, firmness of purpose under the pressure of adverse circumstances, although lacking the more subtle traits of refined culture and gentleness. "I am the son of a peasant," Luther was often heard to say; "my father, my grandfather, and all my ancestors were genuine peasants; afterwards my father turned to be a miner."
Hans and Margaretha Luther, Lutherr, Luder, or Lüdher—the name is spelled differently—moved to the little town of Eisleben, where, on November 10, 1483, a son was born to them. He was baptized on the following day, receiving the name of the saint of that day, Martinus. A few months later we find the family in Mansfeld, where the elder Luther found work in the mines.
In that quaint old town, perched on the side of a steep mountain, Martin Luther was reared in poverty and amid hardships. "My father was a poor miner and my mother carried the wood from the forest on her back; they both worked their flesh off their bones in order to bring up their children." Martin had three younger brothers and as many sisters, and the care of their household was a heavy burden for the parents. The pictures which we possess of them show faces into which toil and exposure and care had written deep furrows and many wrinkles, and features which were made hard by incessant work.
The home training was exceedingly stern, even cruel. The rod reigned supreme. "On account of a paltry nut," the mother punished the boy, "till the blood flowed." It was the experience of his early childhood that taught him in later years to advise parents "to join kindness to sternness, and place the apple next to the rod." "Children ought not to be beaten too severely. My father once flogged me so cruelly that I fled away from him, and came to bear a grudge against him. It was a long time until he again won my confidence."
When Martin was five years of age he was sent to school. School life in those days was far from being a delightful episode. With many a blow of hand and rod the schoolmaster hammered into the young minds the Decalogue, the Lord's Prayer, the Apostles' Creed, the elements of reading and writing, and also the rudiments of Latin grammar. Martin tells us that in the course of a single morning he was beaten not less than fifteen times.
But we never hear a word of complaint, nor do we read that he ever found fault with his parents. "They meant it well from the depth of their hearts," he says; "but they did not know how to distinguish the dispositions to which punishment is to be adapted."
It would be a great mistake to look upon Luther's parents as cruel, heartless, void of all feelings of love and sympathy for their children. They were ready to take upon themselves all sorts of hardships, and to make sacrifices for the benefit of their family. But they could not break away from the stern, legal spirit of the Dark Ages which was ruling everywhere; in the family and in the school. It was their famous son who, in later years, preached and lived the gospel of love and sunshine, of happiness and mirth in the home life. His ideal was that the mutual relations between parents and children ought to be the reflection of the relation between the Father in heaven and His children on earth.
Luther's training was intensely religious. His parents were pious people, and they desired to bring up their children in the fear of the Lord. It was fear, indeed, that was implanted into the young minds. The popular religion of those days was by no means a source of joy and happiness. It was full of the remnants of ancient heathendom, which the Church had not succeeded or had not cared to drive out. Christianity was interwoven with crude superstitions. Figures of devils and witches perpetrating terrible deeds, tormenting the bodies and souls of children and grown persons, bewitching the cattle, causing sickness and misfortune of every kind, filled the minds of the common people. Many a dreadful story of diabolical influences and deeds was told by Luther's parents and their friends at the fireside, and the children, shivering with fear and with eyes wide open, listened to those tales and believed them literally true, as did their elders.
And how distorted were the ideas about Christ! He was not the children's Friend, the revealer of God's love and mercy; He was looked upon as the terrible avenger of disobedience and wrong. Says Luther: "From early childhood I was accustomed to turn pale and tremble whenever I heard the name of Christ mentioned, for I was taught to look upon Him as a stern and wrathful Judge. We were taught that we ourselves had to atone for our sins, and since we could not make sufficient amends or do acceptable works, our teachers directed us to the saints in heaven, and made us call upon Mary the Mother of Christ and implore her to avert from us Christ's wrath, and make Him inclined to be merciful to us." He also prayed to St. Anna, the mother of the Virgin, and to St. George, these being the special patron saints of the city of Mansfeld. The story of St. George's fight with the dragon made a deep and lasting impression upon Martin's mind, and filled him with the ambition likewise to fight the foes of God and of the Church.
Thus grew up the youth who, in the future, was to fight the Church and her visible head, and was destined to be a leader of men. The severe discipline at home and in school, in connection with the wrong notions of God inculcated on his mind, cast a gloom over the early years of Martin Luther's life. It made him a timid boy. It wounded his soul. It crushed his spirit for a while. But it also gave him a keen sense of sin, it made his conscience highly sensitive, and thus became part of the preparation for his life's work.