Martin Luther was born in Eisleben on November 10, 1483. He was descended from the peasantry, a fact in which he took great pride. His father was a copper miner in the mining area of Mansfeld—but humble as he was, he determined to procure a sound education for his children. Thus, Luther received a Brethren of the Common Life education at Mansfeld, Magdeburg, and Eisenach. In 1501, he enrolled at the University of Erfurt, receiving his undergraduate degree in 1502 and his master's degree in 1505. He then intended to study law, as his father wished.
But in the summer of 1505, he suddenly abandoned his studies, sold his books, and entered the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt. The decision surprised his friends and appalled his father. Later in life, Luther explained it by recalling several brushes with death making him astutely aware of the fleeting character of life. Luther made his profession as a monk following year and was ordained as a priest the year after that.
After his ordination, Luther was asked to study theology in order to become a professor at one of the many new German universities. The following year he was assigned by Johann von Staupitz, vicar-general of the Augustinians and a friend and counselor, to the University of Wittenberg which had been founded just six years earlier. He was to give introductory lectures in moral philosophy. Two years later, he had the opportunity to visit Rome and was shocked by the worldliness of the Roman clergy.
Increasingly concerned about corruption within the church—both material and spiritual—Luther suddenly became a public and controversial figure when he published his Ninety-Five Theses, on this day in 1517. They were supremely academic in character—Latin propositions opposing the manner in which indulgences were being sold to raise money for the construction of Saint Peter's in Rome.
The Theses caused great excitement and were immediately translated into German and widely distributed. Luther's spirited defense and further development of his position through public university debates in Wittenberg and other cities resulted in an investigation by the Roman Curia that led to his condemnation three years later and his excommunication a year after that in 1521. Summoned to appear before Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms in April 1521, he was asked before the assembled secular and ecclesiastical rulers to recant. He refused firmly, asserting that he would have to be convinced by Scripture and clear reason in order to do so, “Here I stand, I can do no other.”
Condemned by the emperor, Luther was spirited away by his prince, the elector Frederick the Wise of Saxony, and kept in hiding at Wartburg Castle. There he began his translation of the New Testament from the original Greek into German, a seminal contribution to the development of a standard German language. Disorders in Wittenberg caused by some of his more extreme followers forced his return to the city in March 1521, and he restored peace through a series of sermons.
By that time, it was clear that the protesting churches—or Protestants—would not succeed in reforming the whole church as Luther had wished, and so they established a new ecclesiastical structure rooted in the idea of Sola Scriptura, (Scripture Alone). Thus was born the Reformation.