Martin Luther

During the days of Valentinian (A.D. 364), the Roman Empire was divided into the Eastern and Western sections. The Turks eventually came to control the Eastern Empire, but proved unable to conquer Western Europe. Largely as a result of the efforts of the pope to revive the Empire in the west, the nations were grouped into a body, or federation of confederate states. From the kings of these various states, one was chosen to rule over them collectively and was given the title Emperor.

Charlemagne, the first head, succeeded in giving the confederation empire a show of power, but true to the words of prophecy: “And whereas thou sawest iron mixed with miry clay, they shall mingle themselves with the seed of men: but they shall not cleave one to another, even as iron is not mixed with clay.” Daniel 2:43. It was extremely difficult to introduce universal laws or to bring the nations together, even in matters of mutual interest. It was only the terror inspired by Mahomet II that led the princes of Germany to unite themselves in an empire.

Pope Gregory, about the year 997, is believed to have instituted seven electors. Of these, three were churchmen and three lay princes, to which one of kingly rank was added. The three churchmen were the Archbishop of Treve, Chancellor of France; the Archbishop of Mainz, Chancellor of Germany; and the Archbishop of Cologne, Chancellor if Italy. The four laymen were the King of Bohemia, the Duke of Saxony, Count Palatine of the Rhine, and the Marquis of Brandenburg. The election was to take place in Frankfort; and no elector was permitted to enter the city attended by more than 200 horsemen, of which only 50 were to be armed.

The emperor had no special revenue to support the imperial dignity and no power to enforce the imperial commands. The princes were careful not to make the emperor too powerful, lest he should infringe on their independent sovereignty. In the end, the Empire had only two elements of cohesion—Roman Catholicism and their fear of the Turks.

With the death of Maximilian, in 1519, the imperial crown became vacant. There were two powerful contenders who came forward to claim the prize—Francis I of France and Charles of Austria, the grandson of Maximilian and King of Spain. Henry VIII had an interest; but finding his chances of winning small, he early withdrew. In the end, the Germans chose Charles.

The Turks, hovering on their frontier, helped the German princes to recognize the benefit of a strong central government. They were not, however, unaware that the hand which could be strong to protect them could as easily crush out their rights. In order to protect themselves, they drew up an instrument called a Capitulation, or claim of rights, enumerating and guaranteeing the privileges and immunities of the Germanic Body, which the representatives of Charles signed. At the time of his coronation, Charles confirmed the agreement with an oath. In so doing, these men were, quite unconsciously, creating an asylum to which Protestantism might retreat when the emperor would later raise his hand to crush it.

Charles V was more powerful than any emperor had been for centuries. To the imperial dignity he added the substantial power of Spain, which was, at that time, by far the mightiest nation in Europe. In order to better understand how Spain had achieved this position, we will briefly look at the events that had taken place to bring Spain to the pinnacle of power and grandeur that it then enjoyed.

Spain Emerges

In 711, a Berber Muslim army crossed the Strait of Gibraltar from northern Africa into the Iberian Peninsula. By 719, Moorish rule was established in Spain. Their progress northward was arrested, however, at a battle fought in France, between Tours and Poitiers, in 732 by the Frankish ruler Charles Martel.

Charles Martel at Tours

During the centuries of Moorish supremacy, numerous schools were built, many of them free and for the education of the poor. At the great Muslim universities, medicine, mathematics, philosophy, and literature were cultivated, placing Spanish civilization far in advance of that experienced by the rest of the continent.

With the death of Hisham III, the dynasty ended and the dissolution of the central Moorish power began, enabling the Christian kings of northern Spain to gain the advantage and subdue some Moorish states, while making others tributary. The Christian kings, in a great battle fought on the plains of Toledo in July 1212, won a decisive victory and shortly thereafter largely expelled the Muslims from Spain.

Except for small areas that were still under Moorish control, Spain, for the next two centuries, consisted of various principalities. As the Reformation approached, this suddenly changed with the merging of the various kingdoms into the two kingdoms of Castile and Aragon. Only one step remained to make Spain one monarchy, and that step was taken in 1469 by the marriage of Princess Isabella of Castile and Prince Ferdinand of Aragon. They became joint rulers of Castile in 1474 and of Aragon in 1479.

Surrender of the Moores

In 1492, sponsored by Ferdinand and Isabella, Christopher Columbus sailed west and landed in the West Indies. The opening of the New World made Spain the richest and most powerful European State of the sixteenth century. Through conquest and exploration, the Spanish colonies came to include the West Indies, Cuba, Mexico, all of Central America, the greater part of South America, Florida, and the Philippine Islands. In a series of Spanish campaigns from 1509 through 1511, Oran, Bougie, and Tripoli, in North Africa, became Spanish tributaries. It could then be said, as was later said of the British, that the sun never set on the Spanish Empire. Upon the death of Ferdinand, his grandson Charles became the first king of a united Spain.

In addition to Spain and the Spanish colonies, Charles inherited Naples (through his mother) and the Netherlands and Burgundy (through his father) and also acquired the duchy of Milan, including most of Lombardy. “Since the noon of the Roman power, the liberties of the world had at no time been in so great peril as now. The shadow of a universal despotism was persistently projecting itself father and yet farther upon the kingdoms and peoples of Western Europe. There was no principle known to the men of that age that seemed capable of doing battle with this colossus, and staying its advance . . . Unless Protestantism had arrived at that crisis, a universal despotism would have covered Europe, and liberty banished from the earth must have returned to her native skies.” Wylie, The History of Protestantism, vol. 1, book 2, 220.

From the fall of the Western Empire to the eleventh century, Europe experienced an era of unparalleled darkness. It was the crusades that first began to break the darkness. Though it was a feeble beginning, and of itself would not have been sufficient to bring the day that was yet to break over the world, commerce, art, and poetry began to appear to act upon society. In the passage of time, the printing press appeared, and soon after, the mariner’s compass. Men, who until this time had but a limited view of the world, suddenly awakened to discover a world larger and richer in natural resources than they had dared to dream existed.

The Bible Brings Light

Though these things could not have brought the dawn, they opened the way for the true light to make its way, scattering the darkness before it. The Bible, so long buried, was brought forth and translated into the various languages of Europe. “The light of heaven, after its long and disastrous eclipse, broke anew upon the world.” Ibid., 227.

It was into this setting that Martin Luther was born on November 10, 1483, in Eisleben, Germany. John and Margaret, Luther’s parents, were very poor. His father, however, was determined to make a scholar of his son; and at the age of fourteen, Luther was sent away to advance his education at Madeburg, and later at Eisenach. At eighteen, Luther entered the university at Erfurth where he pursued a course in law, according to his father’s wishes.

At this time, books were very rare. One day, during his second year at Erfurth, he was in the library, opening books to learn the writer’s names, when he came upon a Bible. His interest was greatly aroused to learn that there was such a book. Until this time he had thought that the fragments of the Gospels and Epistles that the Church had selected for reading made up the entire Bible. With indescribable emotion he turned the pages of the sacred Volume. The first part to which his attention was drawn was the story of Hanna and Samuel. As he read of Samuel’s dedication to the Lord, of how he witnessed the wickedness of Eli’s sons, the priests of the Lord who made the people to transgress and abhor the offering of the Lord, he fancied that he saw a parallel with his own times. Day after day he returned to read, rejoicing in the truth that began to open to his inquiring mind.

Luther continued to pursue his education until he acquired a Master of Arts, or Doctor of Philosophy; and for a time, the Bible appeared to be forgotten as he began to give public lectures on physics and ethics of Aristotle.

God did not, however, leave Luther. About this time, a very dear friend and companion, Alexius, was overtaken by a sudden and violent death. Soon after this, Luther paid a visit to his parents in Mansfield. On returning to Erfurth, as he neared the city gate, he was caught in a fierce thunderstorm. One bolt struck so close that, by some accounts, he was thrown to the ground. In his extremity, he vowed to God that if his life was spared, he would devote his life to His service. The storm passed, and a solemn Luther made his way into town.

◄List of Articles►Next Article