Gateway to the Classics: Luther: The Leader by John Louis Luelsen
Luther: The Leader by  John Louis Luelsen

Student Days

A great and noble ambition filled honest Hans Luther. His oldest son, Martin, was to be a lawyer. In his day-dreams he saw him robed in the splendid gown of a high justice, perhaps the counselor of princes and kings. For this end he and his wife were willing patiently to toil along, to stint themselves even of the necessities of life and save their hard-earned pennies. For it was a long way which led to that goal; it would take many a year of schooling, and would cost many a florin.

When a boy of fourteen, Martin, together with another lad from Mansfeld, was sent to Magdeburg. There the Lollards kept a school, which was well known, not only for thorough learning, but also for sound and earnest piety. Like hundreds of students at that time, the two boys had to beg their way to Magdeburg, and while attending school they relied upon the liberality of well-meaning citizens to supply their needs. Instruction was free, but the students were required to provide their own lodgings and meals. The usual way was for a company of poor lads to band themselves together and sing in front of the houses of wealthy citizens. Sometimes they would be invited to a meal; at other times they would receive the remnants of a repast, or at least some slices of bread.

We do not know much of Luther's course of study at Magdeburg. Evidently the type of piety prevailing there made a deep impression upon his soul. "I have seen with my own eyes," he said later, "a Prince of Anhalt, a pious man, but misled by those popish murderers of souls, going about in the streets, barefooted, clad in the hood of a begging friar, bent under the load of a heavy burden, and begging for bread. He was emaciated by vigils and fasting and other mortifications, so that there was nothing left of him but skin and bones. Whoever beheld him was filled with veneration, and felt ashamed of his own worldly aspirations."

After a year had gone by his father decided to send Martin to Eisenach, probably because in that city the boy was nearer home, and also because he was in hopes that some relatives of Frau Margaretha who lived there would take a kindly interest in him. In this expectation he was mistaken. As heretofore, Martin had to sing and beg for his daily bread. Several times the embarrassments and discouragements of his poverty disheartened him so that he made up his mind to return to his home and become a miner like his father.

But Providence had mapped out a different plan of life for this boy. When he had acquired the discipline resulting from the long struggle with poverty a great change took place. Frau Cotta, the wife of a wealthy merchant in Eisenach, had often noticed the sweet, strong notes of the little scholar's voice as they rang out through the church or in her own court-yard. She took a liking to him, and offered him a place at her table and in her family. And so it happened that the stately old house facing the market-place in Eisenach became the home of Martin Luther. It is still standing; the centuries have left it unchanged, and every year it is visited by hundreds of tourists. Blessed be the memory of that noble woman, one among many who followed her, who brought into the dreary life of a poor, struggling youth the influences of gentleness and refined culture, and thus helped to give to the world a life enriched and enlarged by all that makes for purity of home-training and breadth of culture.

A new life opened to young Luther. Free from care and anxiety as to his sustenance, he was now able to devote his whole time to his studies, and the rich talents of his nature sprang forth into promising buds. More important yet for his future work were the influences which surrounded him in the Cotta home. A new element to which before this time he was a stranger entered into his education. He now learned to know the finer and gentler traits of good breeding; those subtle influences that elevate life above the mere struggle for existence and give to it its peculiar charm. He could indulge now in his love for music. It was Frau Cotta herself who put the lute into his hands and helped to develop that musical talent which afterwards brought good cheer and consolation to thousands of hearts, and stirred others to faithful fighting in the cause of the Lord.

The three years spent in the Cotta home at Eisenach were the happiest years of his youth. Sunny days those were, of quiet study and of refined associations, of the enjoyment of music and other innocent pleasures of healthy boyhood.

The time arrived when he was to enter upon his university studies, and in the summer of 1501 the name of "Martinus Ludher ex Mansfeldt" was entered upon the matriculation book of the University of Erfurt. His father's financial condition was materially improved, owing to his industry and thrift. He was now in a position to support his son, thus enabling the young student to prosecute his studies without embarrassment, and even to purchase some books of his own.

Erfurt was at that time the most renowned university in Germany. Students from all parts of Europe were attracted to this seat of learning, and it was a common saying that, "Whoever wants to study thoroughly must needs go to Erfurt." Before entering upon the professional studies, the student had to go through extended courses in logic, dialectics, rhetoric, all of them being comprised under the general term of philosophy. These studies were of a formal nature. Scholasticism had reared its imposing edifice, in which the sum total of human learning was systematized and made to serve the theology of the Church. Science was the handmaid of theology, bound to the doctrines of the Church. Her office was not to investigate in order to discover the truth. Absolute truth was contained in the doctrines of the Church, and the only work that science and philosophy were expected to do, was to expound the teaching of the Church, and, if necessary, to defend it. Whatever the Church teaches is absolutely true. The idea that philosophy or science should ever lead to results differing from the established doctrines was simply preposterous.

With chains of iron the Church had fettered to her chariot, not only the temporal power of princes and kings, but also the intellectual life at the seats of learning. Every step in the career of student and teacher was an additional tie to the Church. Matriculation and graduation, the beginning of the scholastic year and the end of it, were celebrated by Church services. Every graduate had solemnly to pledge "to teach nothing that was in contradiction to the doctrines of the Church and her approved teachers, and to report at once to the dean whenever he heard that any member of the faculty was sowing the seed of heretical opinions."

It looked as if man's intellectual faculties had no more room to assert themselves in research or discovery, and therefore they busied themselves with fruitless discussions about forms and modes of thought. Scholarship was not in contact with the life of the people; it was shut up in the cloisters and university halls. The schools trained subtle rhetoricians, who could split hairs but who had no appreciation of the needs of the masses about them. The scholars lived in a world of their own, unreal and unproductive of any good.

The years devoted to those studies might be looked upon as a dead loss, yet Luther ever afterwards was thankful for the mental discipline they gave him. His mind was clear and logical, with a trend toward abstruse reasoning. Just as St. Paul centuries before him, was versed in rabbinical learning; as John Wesley after him had cause to praise God for the honest art of reasoning, for discovering and refuting subtle fallacies, acquired in the course of his university training,—so Luther was trained in the modes of thinking and arguing to which his age was accustomed, and he became thoroughly familiar with that system of philosophy and theology which, in later years, he assailed.

No man can be a leader of men who does not in the highest degree possess a knowledge of the men of his time; not only of their manner of living and feeling, but also of their way of thinking and arguing. He must at the same time be in advance of his age and in close touch with his age. The dreamer may see visions of future betterments, the true prophet not only sees a vision as from afar, but he is also able, by virtue of his knowledge of men, to lead them on to the realization of his vision. We shall see later on how Luther gave the most important impulses to the development of modern scholarship. The modern idea of education and learning in its application to the life of the individual and of the community is a direct result of the Reformation. But the Reformation was not merely an attempt to restore old things; it marks a turning point in the history of mankind, and shows the way to new things and conditions. Luther was a Reformer, but he was more; he was a leader.

There were signs of a coming change. The new humanistic learning began slowly to wend its way into the old university halls. The Renaissance, which was in fact an intellectual reformation, was widening its sphere of influence. It was a revolt from the barren metaphysical subtleties of scholasticism, a return to the fountains of intellectual strength and aesthetic beauty as exemplified in the literature and art of the Greek and Roman civilization; a turning away from the monastic ideal of ascetic other-worldliness to the classical ideal of thorough enjoyment of everything that this life can give in its most perfect and beautiful form.

A conflict between this new scholarship and the traditional theory of life and learning was unavoidable. In Erfurt the friction was not yet apparent at the time when Luther was a student. Jodotus Truttvetter and the other venerable professors kept on discoursing upon the fine points in metaphysical distinctions, while outside of the lecture-rooms many students drank in the charming drafts of classic literature. Luther read Latin authors assiduously. He formed friendship with some young men who afterwards became renowned leaders of the Humanists, as, for instance, Crotus Rubianus, John Lange, and others. But while these studies enlarged his intellectual vision and made him feel the more keenly the inexpressible dryness and uselessness of the philosophical studies, as they were carried on at that time, in comparison with the throbbing life of the resurrected classical world, he very soon found that the deepest needs of human nature can not be satisfied by these studies. Art, beauty, sensual or intellectual enjoyment even in its most refined form, can never solve the great problems of the human soul. Martin Luther derived his strength, not from culture, but from religion. The Church cultivated religion, it is true; but it was a caricature of genuine religion, and it had no connection with culture. The Renaissance cut loose from religion, and cultivated culture pure and simple. Luther united true religion with an appreciation of true culture. Religion without culture tends to fanaticism; culture without religion easily runs into licentiousness. The right blending of both leads to ideal manhood.

Luther's religious life remained unchanged during his student days. "In all those years," said he. "I did not hear one truly Christian lecture or sermon from any one." Yet he was a conscientious and pious student. Says a contemporary of his, John Mathesius: "Although he was by nature a buoyant and frolicsome young fellow, he began his day's work every morning with prayer, taking as his motto, 'He who prays aright has finished his studies more than half.' He missed no lesson, asked questions of his teachers, and sought the opportunity to converse with them; he reviewed often with his fellows, and when there were no lectures he was found in the library."

It was in the university library that his eyes fell for the first time upon a whole Bible. He had never in his life seen a Bible, and now was greatly astonished that this Latin Bible contained many more texts and portions of the Gospels and Epistles than were contained in the prayer-books or were read in the churches. Turning over the leaves he glanced at the story of Hannah and Samuel. He had never heard it before, and on reading it he was fascinated by its simplicity and religious fervor. From the depth of his heart he prayed to God to make him as pious and as useful as was Samuel of old. Henceforth he was filled with an eager longing to own a Bible himself, and he prayed that God in His great mercy would grant him the favor to possess a copy of that wonderful Book.

Meanwhile he finished the prescribed course of study. In 1502 he received the degree of Bachelor of Philosophy, and in 1505 the higher degree of Master, taking second rank in a class of seventeen candidates. He was now to enter upon his law studies, and, in view of his gifts and his industry, everybody felt confident that a splendid career leading to distinction and fortune was opening before him.

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