Luther Led the Way, Did You Know?

Michelangelo, music, and Mass

  • Christopher Columbus set sail when Luther was a schoolboy, and Michelangelo was completing his Sistine Chapel ceiling when Luther began teaching theology as a young man.
  • Luther preferred music to any other school subject, and he became very skilled at playing the lute. Upon becoming a monk at age 21, he had to give the lute away.
  • When Luther celebrated his first Mass as a priest in 1507, he trembled so much he nearly dropped the bread and cup. He was so terrified of the presence of Christ in the sacrament that he tried to run from the altar.
  • Luther raised so much hostility that it was rumored—and taken seriously by some—that he was the product of a bathhouse liaison between his mother and the devil. At the Diet of Worms, he was condemned as a “demon in the appearance of a man.” Singing congregants, striking pastor
  • Luther made singing a central part of Protestant worship. In his German Mass (1526), he dispensed with the choir and assigned all singing to the congregation. He often called congregational rehearsals during the week so people could learn new hymns. Luther and his fellow reformers also took religious education seriously—here are sermon subjects for a sample week:
Sunday, 5 a.m.—Pauline Epistles
Sunday, 9 a.m.—Gospels
Sunday afternoon—Catechism
Monday and Tuesday—Catechism
Wednesday—Gospel of Matthew
Thursday and Friday—Epistles
Saturday—Gospel of John
  • Though preaching was shared during the week, Luther often spoke at all the Sunday services. He became frustrated with his congregation: despite his admonitions and instruction, he felt his people remained godless. “It annoys me to keep preaching to you,” he said, and in 1530 he actually went on strike and refused to preach for a time.

At home with Luther

  • Luther had a mug with three rings. The first, he said, represented the Ten Commandments, the second the Apostles’ Creed, and the third the Lord’s Prayer. Luther was amused he could drain a mug of wine through the Lord’s Prayer while a friend could not get beyond the Ten Commandments. 
  • The Luthers continually had people in their large house, a former Augustinian cloister (in fact, the very cloister where Martin had lived as a monk). Students, visiting clergy, and friends mingled with boarders who paid rent—or who were supposed to pay rent but were let off by the generous Luther. 
  • In 1527 a terrible plague struck Wittenberg, and virtually all of Luther’s students fled for their lives. Leaders begged Martin to leave town also, but he felt pastors should stay and help the afflicted. Because he and Katie took in so many sick and dying, their house had to be quarantined even after the plague ended.
  • Lutheran minister and teacher Johannes Mathesius and some of his pupils lived with the Luthers for a while in 1540. As this motley group dined together, Mathesius recorded Luther’s memorable sayings, resulting in the book Table Talk (1566). Eventually Mathesius acquired so many pupils that Luther had to tell them all to find somewhere else to live.

Why should the devil have all the good music?

Luther’s colorful sayings helped spread his ideas:

  • “The devil should not be allowed to keep all the best tunes for himself.”“Next after theology, I give to music the highest place and the greatest honor.”
  • “Human nature is like a drunk peasant. Lift him into the saddle on one side, over he topples on the other side.”
  • “If our Lord is permitted to create nice large pike and good Rhine wine, presumably I may be allowed to eat and drink.”
  • “The Bible is alive, it speaks to me; it has feet, it runs after me; it has hands, it lays hold of me.”
  • “When I preach I regard neither doctors nor magistrates . . . I have all my eyes on the servant maids and on the children. And if the learned men are not well pleased with what they hear, well, the door is open.”
  • “Think of all the squabbles Adam and Eve must have had in the course of their 900 years. Eve would say, ‘You ate the apple,’ and Adam would retort, ‘You gave it to me.’”
  • “Because we cannot prevent the birds [of temptation] from flying over our heads, there is no need that we should let them nest in our hair.”
  • “What lies there are about relics! One claims to have a feather from the wing of the angel Gabriel, and the Bishop of Mainz has a flame from Moses’ burning bush. And how does it happen that 18 apostles are buried in Germany when Christ had only 12?”
  • “Farewell to those who want an entirely pure and purified church. This is plainly wanting no church at all.” CH

mag covers

Christian History’s 2015–2017 four-part Reformation series is available as a four-pack. This set includes issue #115 Luther Leads the Way; issue #118 The People’s Reformation; issue #120 Calvin, Councils, and Confessions; and issue#122 The Catholic Reformation. Get your set today. These also make good gifts.

By the editors and others

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #115 in 2015]

Some of this “Did you know?” was adapted from items written or collected by Herbert Jacobsen, Mark Galli, and Mary Ann Jeffreys for CH issues 34 and 39. On our cover, some of the Protestant reformers are pictured gathered around a miracle of Christ. You can see the whole picture on p. 42.
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