Martin Luther, Part 12: The Knight (continued)

The Writer and Translator

Martin Luther was not a man who could remain idle. There was work to be done. He couldn’t preach, but he could write. And it was here, in the “Land of the Birds,” that he did some of his most important writing. At first he had only his Hebrew and Greek Testaments, which he managed to put in his knapsack just before he was kidnapped near Eisenach. At various times Melanchthon and Spalatin secretly provided him with some of the books that he requested. 

The amount of writing he did is amazing. In his little room in the Wartburg he wrote many letters, books, and articles. They were sent to Spalatin, who had them printed. One article was titled “Concerning Confession.” In this article Luther pointed out that the Roman Catholic Church was wrong when it demanded private confessions from all people. Confession, Luther believed, was a personal matter between the Christian and his God. He should feel free to confess his sins to God whenever he wanted to do so. Another treatise was on monastic vows. He also translated Psalms and wrote sermons that he could preach after he would be released. His greatest accomplishment while at the Wartburg was his translation of the entire New Testament from Greek into German. His one great desire was to produce the Bible in a language that the common people in Germany could read and understand. This was not easy, because Germany did not have one, but many German languages, or dialects. In translating the Bible he had to find German words and expressions that most of the common people could understand. As a result, Luther’s German eventually became the unifying language of the German people. When Luther returned to Wittenberg, he kept on reviewing and refining his translation. In the fall of 1522, Luther’s German New Testament appeared in print. Copies were bought and eagerly read throughout Germany.  More than five thousand copies were sold in two weeks. The printing presses could not keep up with the demand.

Luther found it hard to leave his books and writings, but he knew he needed some recreation. He was suffering from insomnia and stomach trouble. The warden urged him to leave his work and to make himself known in the area as Knight George. After his beard and hair were long enough to conceal his identity, he occasionally roamed the woods, which he enjoyed. Sometimes he was asked to join a hunting party. He didn’t mind the riding, but he found no satisfaction in chasing and killing helpless animals. Once when a little rabbit was cornered, Luther caught it, quickly covered it with his jacket, and hid it in some thick shrubbery, but the dogs found it and killed it. He said, “O pope, and you too, Satan, just as this helpless rabbit was killed, so you want to destroy souls of men that have been saved by Jesus Christ.” Most of all, Luther enjoyed walking though the countryside, visiting with the peasant neighbors. They learned to know him as the kind knight who understood their problems and sympathized with them.

Troubles in Wittenberg

Almost ten months had gone by since Luther entered the Wartburg. Except for a brief, unannounced visit to Wittenberg in December, he had not been able to guide the developments there. But soon his knighthood days would be over, and he would enter another important period of his busy life. Martin Luther had hoped that his coworkers in Wittenberg would faithfully carry on the work of the reformation during his absence. But all was not well in Wittenberg.

For some of the leaders in Wittenberg things were progressing too slowly. They wanted to eliminate, or at least change, almost everything that had been customary in the Catholic Church. One of those leaders was Dr. Carlstadt, a professor at the Wittenberg University. Many of the changes he wanted to make were very extreme, even radical. He insisted that all monks, nuns, and priests should marry and that all cloisters and monasteries should be closed. He told the people that statues, religious paintings, stained glass windows, and side altars should be removed from the  churches. He changed the Mass by saying part in Latin and part in German and by giving both the wine and bread to the communicants. This change in the Mass and a few other changes were necessary, but the people were not yet prepared for them. Many therefore were confused and offended. Others were eager to go along with all his extreme ideas.

Matters became worse when some fanatics from Zwickau came to Wittenberg and told the people that they had received a special revelation from the Holy Spirit. Bible reading, they said, was not necessary. God, they said, spoke directly to his people. Infant baptism was wrong. They said that all people have the same rights, no matter whether they are emperors, princes, priests, or peasants, and that education is not desirable or necessary. Unfortunately many of these radical and revolutionary ideas were accepted by some of the people. The result was confusion and disorder in the church and in the city. Riots broke out. Students and citizens interfered with the church services. Altars, statues, windows, and other church furnishings were destroyed. No one seemed to know what to do to bring people to their senses and to restore order. The soft-spoken, timid Melanchthon was helpless. He did not agree with Carlstadt and the other fanatics, but there was little he could do. Spalatin kept Luther informed about these disturbances. Luther was greatly distressed by what was happening. Should he return to Wittenberg to stop Carlstadt and his followers and restore order?

Back to Wittenberg

Elector Frederick was disturbed by the confusion and rioting, but he did not want to do anything that would possibly be contrary to the Word of God. The Wittenberg town council met to decide what should be done. The members soon came to the conclusion that Martin Luther was needed back in Wittenberg. They were convinced that he was the only one to whom the people would listen and the only one who had the leadership ability to restore proper, God-pleasing order. They were sure that the people would respect his judgment. A letter was written and sent to Luther asking him to return to Wittenberg as soon as possible.

When Luther received the letter at the Wartburg, he felt he had no choice. He was needed in Wittenberg. He must go there at once. The elector knew that Luther would be inclined to risk the journey to Wittenberg. He wrote to him and reminded him that he was under the Edict of Worms, and as an outlaw of the state anyone had the right to seize him and kill him. “I advise you,” he wrote, “to remain at the Wartburg for the present. If you leave, I cannot give any assurance that I can protect you on the way to or in Wittenberg.”

Luther had made up his mind. Still disguised as a knight, he rode out of the Wartburg on March 1 toward Wittenberg, one hundred fifty miles away. When he arrived in the town of Borna, he wrote a letter to the elector. In it he stated that he did not expect the elector to protect him. He closed his letter with these words, “I am going to Wittenberg under a far higher protection than that of the elector. I do not intend to ask your Grace’s protection. . . . If I thought your Grace could and would defend me by force, I should not come. The sword ought not and cannot decide a matter of this kind. God alone must rule it without human care and operation.” Those brave words written to the elector came from a heart that had complete faith and trust in God. He rode alone and unarmed at the risk of his life. He firmly believed that this is what God wanted him to do and that God would protect him.


From The Life and Faith of Martin Luther, by Adolph F. Fehlauer. © 1981 Northwestern Publishing House. All rights reserved.

Image credit: Thierry Ehrmann (used under CC BY 2.0)