For a lot of us, the main things we learned about Martin Luther come not from church, but from high school World History class, which typically offered little else than a brief and scathing critique of the medieval Catholic Church and a casual mention of the German man who nailed some new rules to a door.
Like any other historical figure, it’s easy for Luther to become just a name, just the bald guy in our history books who did a good thing a very long time ago. To some he’s a great and ideal leader, to others he’s the man who tore apart the Catholic Church.
But with even just a little bit of research about Martin Luther the man, and not merely the name, we learn he was a man of great complexity. He was both zealous and uncertain. He was faithful and yet self-loathing; contemplative but combative. Luther’s life was one of stark contrast, full of both engrossing darkness and brilliant light. And for that reason, Luther remains a bit of a mystery.
Luther died almost 500 years ago, on Feb. 18, 1546, so, as you might imagine, some of the details of his life are murky. What we do know about him paints a much more interesting portrait than those in our history textbooks.
Here are 9 things you might not have known about Martin Luther:
His last name was originally Luder.
Luther’s father, Hans Luder, was a miner and smelter, and some have speculated that Luther altered his last name later in life because the Latin spelling of the name with a “th” instead of a “d” was more academically respectable. Others say the change was prompted by Luther’s shifting theology, as Luther is derivative of elutherius, the Greek word for freedom.
He enjoyed bathroom humor.
Luther sometimes sounded more like a 12-year-old boy than a church reformer. Due to his stomach issues, Luther did a good deal of his thinking on the toilet. Apparently, he was in the bathroom when he got inspired to argue for salvation by faith alone.
Perhaps this contributed to his tendency to refer to some the pope’s teaching as farts, and to him saying “I resist the devil, and often it is with a fart that I chase him away. When he tempts me with silly sins I say, ‘Devil, yesterday I broke wind too. Have you written it down on your list?’”
He was training to be a lawyer, but hated school.
When Luther was 14, he was sent away to begin his schooling as a lawyer. He begrudgingly endured the tedium of a traditional European education, earning a Master’s degree by the age of 22.
On the surface, things were going swimmingly. He entered Law school in 1505, but the dissatisfaction that marked his early years as a student only intensified. Later, he would remark that school was for him a literal hell on earth.
Luther’s career path took a dramatic turn one stormy night in July. While he was returning on horseback to (where else) the university, a lightning bolt struck mere feet away from him. Fearing for his life, Luther cried out, “Help! Saint Anna (the patron Saint of carpenters), I will become a monk!” Within two weeks of that fateful event, Luther dropped out of law school, sold his books and entered an Augustinian Monastery.
He was a songwriter.
Though Luther disliked the majority of his schooling, he enjoyed music more than any other subject. He played the lute and later composed hymns, such as “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” While music in the Catholic Church at that time was performed by clergy and choirs in Latin, Luther wrote his hymns in German so the congregation could sing along. Some have said he spurred the development of congregational singing in churches.
He wanted reform to the Church, not a split.
It’s easy to picture Luther standing in the pulpit, preaching Grace to his faithful, pre-Protestant flock, when a crotchety Church official starts selling get-out-of-purgatory-free cards to the confused sheep in the back pews, and Luther drives them out like Jesus drove out the money-changers. We picture Luther creeping through the night to the chapel, his infamous 95 theses in hand and a Glorious Revolution on his mind. And then he nails the theses to the door, his hammer thundering through the night. Trumpets and drums resound.
But in reality, Luther approached his efforts with tremendous fear and trembling. The door he nailed the Theses to was more like a bulletin board, where academics and Church leaders posted papers and announcements, so to nail a theologically-based thesis to the door was hardly an act of menacing defiance. Luther’s training as a biblical scholar led him to dispute what, to him, were interpretive flaws of traditional Church doctrine.
Nevertheless, what Luther intended to spark conversation and debate enflamed a tremendous controversy, thanks in large part to the recent advent of the printing press.
Until the day he died, Luther wrestled with the thought that he was in the wrong. The violence that his words inspired, which eventually reached a Crusade-like crescendo across Europe, were to him, a tragedy he could not forgive himself for.
He spent almost half his life as an outlaw.
As his 95 theses spread throughout the Empire, Luther’s fame began to grow, but so did his infamy. Pope Leo X employed a team of papal theologians to debunk his arguments. Later, appearing before a religious assembly called The Diet of Worms, they urged him to recant his writings, upon threat of excommunication. Luther would not, and is believed to have said, “Here I stand. I can do no other.” He was excommunicated and deemed a notorious heretic, which gave any person permission to kill him without punishment.
He set the precedence for clerical marriage.
Luther had spoken out against vows of celibacy for priests, but he still shocked many when he married Katharina von Bora, a nun he had helped escape from a convent. His marriage showed his approval for allowing pastors to marry.
He was increasingly short tempered.
Never one to sugar coat things, Luther’s writing got harsher as he aged and suffered from several medical issues. Especially in his later years, he said some horrid things about Jewish people in writings that some historians think later contributed to anti-Semitism in Germany.
He enjoyed good beer.
Luther wrote about beer in several of his letters, at one point writing to tell his wife how much he missed the beer they brewed at home. “I keep thinking what good wine and beer I have at home, as well as a beautiful wife … you would do well to send me over my whole cellar of wine and a bottle of thy beer.”