Martin Luther (1483–1546) Founder of Protestantism and the Protestant Reformation. For much of his life, Martin Luther was concerned with the influence and action of evil and the Devil in the world. Luther was born on November 10, 1483, in Eiselben, Germany, the oldest son of Johan and Margarita (Margarethe) Luther, a wealthy Catholic couple. He was given the name Martin because the feast of St. Martin occurred on the day after he was baptized. In 1484, the family moved to Mansfeld. Martin was given a good education as his father hoped that he would become a lawyer. Luther tried to follow that path and studied law at the University of Erfurt but felt no heart in it and left. He joined the Augustinian order in Erfurt in 1505 and devoted himself to an austere monastic life.
Luther became increasingly disenchanted with Catholicism, especially the church’s practice of selling indulgences. In 1516, the church undertook a major campaign to sell indulgences to raise money to refurbish St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. Luther felt strongly that forgiveness for sins could not be purchased; it could be obtained only directly from God.
Luther developed his arguments and on October 31, 1517, supposedly posted them as Ninety-five Theses by nailing them to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg. The story may be more legend than fact, for Luther never commented about nailing anything to a church door, and the story arose after his death. However, he did write a letter to his superiors on that date, denouncing the sale of indulgences. The letter included the Ninety-five Theses. The document aroused instant sensation, and quickly spread throughout Germany, and was translated into other languages. He was in demand as a public speaker, and he spoke out against the corruption he saw in the church.
The church, under Pope Leo X, was slow to respond. Leo dismissed Luther as “a drunken German” and thought the fuss would soon die down. Instead, a movement grew. In 1519, Leo demanded an explanation from Luther of his theses. Luther responded, and the pope summoned him to Rome. Frederick III, the Saxon elector, intervened and attempted to arrange a compromise. In 1520, Leo issued a bull demanding that Luther recant 41 points in his writings, including the Ninety-five Theses, or be excommunicated. On December 20, 1520, Luther publicly burned the bull in defiance. Leo excommunicated him on January 3, 1521. The Diet of Worms declared him an outlaw, banned his works, and called for his arrest. Luther disappeared into exile, sheltered at the castle of Frederick III at Wartburg. He secretly returned to Wittenberg in 1521 and preached several sermons about trust in God and Christian values. He opposed the use of violence to spread the gospel and to further the ends of the church. At the time, the Inquisition was gaining force, witchcraft was considered a heresy, and fears about Demonic interference and Pacts were rampant.
In 1523, Luther helped a group of nuns to escape from a Cistercian convent in Nimbschen by hiding them in herring barrels. He fell in love with one of them, Katharina von Bora, and married her in 1525. He was 42 and she was 26. They made a former monastery their home and tilled the land to earn a living. They had five children and enjoyed a happy marriage.
Despite Luther’s opposition to violence, Protestantism became embroiled in other factors of social and political unrest. In 1524, the Peasants’ War broke out, with lower classes revolting against the upper classes, many of them believing that religious reform would lead to other reforms as well. Luther refused to support the revolt, and the peasants were quelled in 1525.
Luther was opposed to Jews throughout his life, calling them “the Devil’s people” and worse. His anti-Semitism is believed by some scholars to have influenced the Nazi movement centuries later. The Lutheran Church repudiates his anti-Jewish views today.
During his later years, Luther suffered from a variety of health problems, and his health steadily declined. He preached his last sermon, against the Jews, on February 15, 1546, and died three days later, after suffering chest pains and a stroke.
In developing his reformist ideas, Luther devoted more attention to the Devil than had been seen in Christianity since the early days of the religion. He believed firmly in predestination, that a human being has no free will but can follow only the will of God for good or the will of Satan for evil. God embraces both good and evil. God is good but allows, even wills, evil. God uses the Devil to weed out the unworthy; therefore, the Devil is actually the servant of God. Even though God allows evil, God fights evil at every opportunity.
From childhood, Luther felt attacked by Demons and evil spirits; attacks increased as he grew older and reached great intensity while he was exiled at Wartburg and was at work on translating the Bible into German. He attributed his mood swings and depressions to the operations of Demons, as well as his ongoing health problems. He said he combated them with prayer and “happy song.” Reportedly, he was pestered one night by the Devil and drove him away by throwing his inkwell at him. An ink stain remained in his room at the castle for a long time. He also said that he drove the Devil away with ink, which may have been a reference to his writings.
He was completely believing of the evil nature and powers of witches and their allegiance to the Devil, stating, “I should have no compassion on these witches; I would burn all of them. We read in the old law that the priests threw the first stones at these malefactors. . . . Does not witchcraft, then, merit death, which is a revolt of the creature against the Creator, a denial to God of the authority which it accords to the Demon?”
Luther said his mother had been harassed by a witch, who had cursed him and his siblings to cry themselves to death. The Curse was broken by a preacher who collected the witch’s footprints and threw them into a river. Luther believed that witches shape shifted into animal forms and flew through the air to Sabbats. The Devil caused diseases, he said, by making them appear to have natural causes. Many physicians do not realize this, he said, and should add faith and prayer to their medical treatments. All mentally ill people are under Possession by the Devil, Luther said, and are possessed with God’s permission. They are capable of blasting crops, brewing tempests and storms, and causing pestilence, fires, fevers, and severe diseases.
He said people do engage in pacts with the Devil to further their selfish gains, but there is always a heavy price to pay. He related a case of a sorcerer in Erfurt who tried to escape his poverty by making such a pact. The Devil gave him a crystal for divination, which the sorcerer used to become rich. But he accused innocent people of theft and was arrested. He confessed to his pact and repented but was burned at the stake anyway. Luther also said the Devil raped maidens bathing in water and impregnated them, then took their infants and exchanged them for others, much as in lore of the Fairies and their changelings. The changelings never lived beyond 18 or 19 years of age.
According to one story, the Devil himself visited Luther while he was studying at the University of Wittenberg. He arrived disguised as a monk and asked for Luther’s advice on “papal errors.” The “monk” continued interrogating Luther, who grew impatient. Then Luther saw that his visitor had hands like bird talons, and he ordered him to depart. The Devil gave out a great stinking fart and left. The stench lasted for days. Luther performed at least one Exorcism, on a pastor from Torgau who went to him for advice. The Devil had been tormenting him for a year, the pastor said, by throwing around pots and dishes, breaking them, and laughing at him while remaining invisible. The pastor’s wife and children wanted to move. Luther told him to have patience and to pray. He ordered the Demon to depart.
Luther also believed that as one advances in faith, the Devil increases attacks upon him. He felt this in his own life, enduring physical distress, poltergeist disturbances, and mental interferences that he attributed to the Devil. He considered the pope to be the ANTICHRIST. After the start of the Reformation, tales circulated that Luther had been born of the Devil, a common accusation levied against religious and political enemies of all kinds. According to one, the Devil disguised himself as a merchant of jewelry and went to Wittenberg, where he encountered Margarita, his mother, and seduced her. After Luther’s birth, the Devil counseled him in how to advance himself in the world. He did well at school, became a monk, ravished a nun, and then rejected his monastic life. He went to Rome, where he was treated poorly by the pope and his cardinals. He asked his father how to exact revenge and was told to write a commentary upon the Lord’s Prayer. The commentary vaulted him into the spotlight, and he became the chief purveyor of the heresy that became Protestantism.
- Bainton, Ronald. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. New York, Penguin, 1995.
- Lea, Henry Charles. Materials toward a History of Witchcraft. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1939.
- Russell, Jeffrey Burton. Mephistopheles: The Devil in the Modern World. Ithaca, N.Y., and London: Cornell University Press, 1986.
- Weyer, Johann. On Witchcraft (De praestigiis daemonum). Abridged. Edited by Benjamin G. Kohl and H. C. Erik Midelfort. Asheville, N.C.: Pegasus Press, 1998.