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A brief history of Luther's Reformation

To realize fully the historical and cultural value of Lutherstadt-Wittenberg's churches and museums, it is advisable to get acquainted with the social and religious climate that led to Luther's Reformation.

In the early 16th-century, Germany was still a divided country governed by a number of princes and noblemen who had supreme power over their lands. In this sense, they were even more powerful than the king. On the other hand, the peasants and countrymen were treated no better than slaves and having nothing to lose except their serfdom, they were easily enticed to revolt against authority, be it civil or religious. At the same time, the Catholic Church in Germany was considered the wealthiest in Europe and it was estimated that it owned one-third of the German estate. This resulted in numerous priests being attracted towards the priesthood more for personal gain and money than to fulfill their pastoral vocation. To make matters worse, many Catholic priests forbidden by the church to marry were contrary to moral law living with a woman outside marriage. The situation among male or female members of religious communities residing in German monasteries was not much better.

Such was the general climate in Germany during the times when Martin Luther was born on the 10th November 1483 in Eisleben in the state of Saxony. Born within a miner's family where the only source of income came from manual strenuous work in the mines, Martin Luther was given a rigid form of education based upon strict discipline and religious formation. At the age of 15, he was accepted as a student in the University of Erfurt, that in those days was considered the best university in Germany. In 1502, he graduated with a degree in Philosophy. Unusual and somewhat mysterious circumstances 3 years later attracted Martin Luther towards the Augustinian Monastery in Erfurt where he joined the community of monks on the 17th July 1505. He was ordained priest in 1507 and a year later, he was transferred from the monastery in Erfurt to that in Wittenberg where he stayed for just 1 year, during that time he started teaching in the University of Wittenberg. Back in Erfurt for 3 more years, he was finally chosen as the vice-superior of Wittenberg's monastery. Consequently for a second time, he was entrusted to teach in Wittenberg's University, which by this time was making a name all over Germany.

Martin Luther was always a controversial figure, obstinate and extremely hard to convince. It was perhaps this trait in his character that led him to oppose the teaching of the Catholic Church during the pontificate of Leo X. When large amounts of money were needed for the construction of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, Pope Leo X promised the remission of sins through plenary indulgence to any Catholic who contributed towards this cause. This was considered by Luther as an outright abuse on the part of the church. How could the poor and the peasants who couldn't even afford to buy the necessities pay their contribution to the church? Martin Luther was convinced he had to preach against such teaching, that was discriminating against the working classes. On numerous occasions he did so from the pulpit of the city church of St. Marien in Wittenburg. The ever-increasing congregation consisting mostly of the needy saw in Luther's arguments the support they required to set aside social injustices.

These and other similar circumstances were just the commencement of a long struggle between Luther and the Pope. When the Pope issued the edict 'Exsurge Domine' in that it was declared that whoever opposed the church's teaching on matters of faith was to be excommunicated, Luther was arrogant enough to burn down the Pope's edict in front of the professors and students of Wittenberg's University. For obvious reasons, many German princes and Catholic noblemen were against Luther's teaching and in 1521, it was decided that Luther was to be expelled from the country. However, an intriguing plot by Prince Frederick of Saxony who favored Luther resulted in providing him with shelter and protection within the walls of Wartburg Castle. Here he stayed for 18 months, during that time he wrote numerous theses that were later valued highly among his followers. During his stay at Wartburg, some of his followers who included students, university professors and workers coordinated together to revolt against the teaching of the Catholic Church but as soon as Luther reappeared in Wittenberg in 1522, he calmed down the situation after numerous appeals from the pulpit. Soon after, he changed drastically the liturgy of the Mass and the manner in that Sacraments were administered. Less than a year later, the saying of Mass was abolished in the city.

Martin Luther's home was the Augustinian Monastery on Collegienstrasse in Wittenberg. When some Cistercian sisters from the Monastery of Nimbschen slipped away because they couldn't stick monastery life any further, Luther was kind enough to welcome them into his home. One of them was Katarina Bora whom he married secretly on the 13th June 1525 in the Church of St. Marien.

In 1530, Melanchton, a friend of Luther and professor at Wittenberg's University, compiled the teaching of Luther into a series of documents in that he explained as clearly as possible the doctrine of Lutheranism and disclosed the points of disagreement between Lutheranism and Catholicism. However, the actual religious reform was still in the hands of Luther and he continued preaching from the pulpit of Wittenberg's city church and publishing more theses about religious matters. His fervor for teaching the faith and helping the poor and the sick was carried on without interruption for many more years. His courage to defend the working classes, the needy and the unfortunate earned him deservedly more followers who flocked to Wittenberg to listen to his eloquent speeches from the pulpit of St. Marien's Church. His followers often referred to him as the Pope of Wittenberg.

In 1546, for health reasons, he was forced to leave Wittenberg for Eisleben, his birthplace, taking with him his wife and a couple of close friends. Less than 1 month later, Martin Luther died on the 18th February 1546 at the age of 63. His greatest wish was to establish the city of Wittenberg as the focus of Lutheranism. Whether he succeeded or not is uncertain but without shadow of doubt, he will definitely be remembered by anybody who visits his beloved historic city whose name was later changed from Wittenberg to Lutherstadt-Wittenberg.

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