Martin Luther’s Early Years: A Gallery of Friends and Enemies

Leo X (1475–1521)

Prodigal pope who sought income from indulgences

Extravagant son of a notorious Renaissance family, Giovanni de’ Medici was made a cardinal at the age of 13 and became Pope Leo X at 38. He has been described as “a polished Renaissance prince,” and “a devious and double-tongued politician.” Pleasure-loving and easy-going, Leo went on a wild spending spree as soon as he ascended the papal throne.

Expenses for his coronation festivities alone cost 100,000 ducats—one seventh of the reserve Pope Julius had left in the papal treasury. Leo’s plans for rebuilding St. Peter’s Basilica were estimated to cost over a million ducats. Within two years as pope, Leo had squandered the fortune left by his predecessor and was in serious financial embarrassment.

To keep up with his expenditures, his officials created more than two thousand saleable church offices during his reign. The estimated total profits from such offices have been estimated at three million ducats—but still they were not enough for Leo.

The sale of indulgences provided the pope with yet another source of income. To pay for St. Peter’s, offset the costs of a war, and enable a young noble to pay for three offices to which Leo had appointed him, the pope issued an indulgence for special sale in Germany. A Dominican, Johann Tetzel, was given the task of promotion, Luther reacted with his theses, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Leo condemned Luther’s teachings in 1520 with the bull Exsurge Domine, calling the reformer “a wild boar” who had invaded “the Lord’s vineyard. ” When Luther refused to recant, Leo excommunicated him and called for the secular government to punish him as a heretic.

In 1521 Leo’s armies defeated the French at Milan. Characteristically, he celebrated the triumph with an all-night banquet, from which he caught a chill, developed a fever, and died. In a brief seven years he had spent an estimated five million ducats and left behind a debt of nearly another million. With the papal coffers empty and the papal residence plundered, Leo’s coffin had to be lit by half-burned candles borrowed from another funeral.

Johann von Staupitz (1469?—1524)

Luther’s “most beloved father in Christ”

The dean of the theological faculty at the University of Wittenberg, Johann von Staupitz, became Luther’s spiritual adviser when Luther came to study there in 1508. Staupitz, like Luther an Augustinian friar, guided his younger colleague toward Bible study and convinced him to study for the doctorate in theology. Luther addressed his esteemed mentor as his “most beloved father in Christ.” 
The older man’s personal piety and humility deeply influenced the reformer. But Staupitz couldn’t always understand the younger man’s inner struggles. Luther’s scrupulous conscience led him to unceasingly confess his sins to Staupitz. Exasperated, Staupitz exclaimed: “Man, God is not angry with you. You are angry with God. Don’t you know that God commands you to hope?” 

Summoned to Rome for a hearing in 1518, Luther longed to have his mentor nearby for moral support. So strong was the desire that he dreamed Staupitz came to him, comforted him, and promised to return. The hearing was moved to Augsburg, and Staupitz did, in fact, attend. 

When the cardinal in charge of the hearing concluded Luther was a heretic, Staupitz—who was vicar—general of Germany’s Augustinian friars—released Luther from his vow of obedience to the order. He may have been trying to distance himself from the outspoken friar, or he may have wanted to set Luther free. Whatever the case, Luther felt abandoned. “I was excommunicated three times,” he said later, “first by Staupitz, second by the pope, and third by the emperor.” In his last letter to Luther, however, Staupitz said that his love for Luther had never been broken, though he didn’t understand the direction Luther had taken. 

In later years Luther praised Staupitz for having led him into a knowledge of God’s grace. “If it had not been for Dr. Staupitz,” he said, “I should have sunk in hell.”

Johann Tetzel (1465?—1519)

Peddler of indulgences

In 1516 the Dominican friar Johann Tetzel came to Germany, preaching Pope Leo X’s indulgence to raise church funds. Soon the jingle was echoing: “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”

Tetzel’s sermons were crassly flamboyant as he played on the fears of simple people. “Listen to the voices of your dear dead relatives and friends,” he told them, “beseeching you and saying, ‘Pity us, pity us. We are in dire torment from which you can redeem us for a pittance.’”

Luther regarded Tetzel as “the primary author of this tragedy,” and it was Tetzel’s commercialism that incited Luther to post his 95 Theses. Tetzel replied with his own 106 Theses.

For his actions Tetzel earned a sharp rebuke from the papal envoy and the scorn of the local populace. As Tetzel lay dying in 1519, however, Luther wrote him a letter of comfort: “Don’t take it too hard. You didn’t start this racket.”

Philipp Melanchthon (1497–1560)

“The teacher of Germany”

When Philipp Melanchthon (his real name was Schwarzerd) delivered his inaugural lecture in 1518 as the new professor of Greek at Wittenberg, his fellow faculty member Luther listened expectantly. The young scholar stammered, but when he called for theologians to go “back to the sources, back to the Holy Scriptures,” Luther rejoiced. He had found a brilliant new ally. 

Melanchthon soon came under Luther’s influence, taking up the study of theology, and he accompanied the reformer to the Leipzig Debate in 1519. Before long Melanchthon was publishing his own views, strengthening the reformed position with his careful, precise reasoning. He differed with Luther on some issues. But on the whole, he took the teachings of “the charioteer of Israel,” as he liked to call the reformer, and cast them into a more rational and systematic form. 

In 1521 the first edition of Melanchthon’s Loci Communes appeared, the first ordered presentation of Reformation doctrine and a standard textbook of Lutheran theology for over a century to come. Melanchthon was also the leading figure at the Diet of Augsburg in 1530, offering there the Augsburg Confession, a Lutheran statement of faith that was largely his work.

Melanchthon was a peacemaker. With Luther he participated in the Marburg Colloquy, called in 1529 to settle religious differences between Lutherans and Zwinglians (though unsuccessful in that goal). In addition, Melanchthon’s extensive efforts to develop the German educational system earned him the title “the teacher of Germany.” 

Luther openly admitted that without Melanchthon’s methodological skills, his own, largely unsystematic work would have been lost. The depth of Luther’s love for his younger colleague was clear on the day a church interrogator at Worms warned him that if he went down, Melanchthon would be pulled down with him. Luther stood firm, but his eyes filled with tears.

Johan Maier Eck (1486–1543)

“That monster” who fiercely debated Luther

Professor of theology at the University of Ingolstadt, Johann Eck was on good terms with Luther until the controversy over indulgences broke out. Eck’s attack on Luther’s theses especially galled the reformer, not only because Eck was an old friend, but also because he was—unlike those “perfidious Italians” who opposed Luther— a fellow German.

A public debate was arranged in 1519 at the University of Leipzig, with Eck on the one side and Luther (with fellow reformer Karlstadt) on the other. The scene was tense: Leipzig’s town council provided Eck with a bodyguard of seventy-six men, while Luther and Karlstadt arrived in town with two hundred students armed with battle-axes. Charges and countercharges flew in sharp repartee for eighteen days.

The debate turned the focus of the controversy from indulgences to spiritual authority. Did the church have the right to issue indulgences? At last, the patron of Leipzig who hosted the debate, Duke George the Bearded, called it to a halt.

The next year Eck helped procure Luther’s condemnation in the papal bull Exsurge Domine. In Luther’s public response, Against the Execrable Bull of Antichrist, he suspected as much, claiming that the papal document was “the progeny of that man of lies, dissimulation, errors, heresy, that monster Johann Eck. ... Indeed, the style and the spittle all point to Eck.”

The pope appointed Eck as his nuncio and special inquisitor to publish the document in the German areas of Franconia and Bavaria. But Eck met with considerable opposition. In Leipzig he had to hide for his life in a cloister; in Wittenberg, his own works were burned by university students, along with canon law and the papal bull. Nevertheless, for the rest of his life, Eck organized Catholic opposition to the Lutheran Reformation.

Karlstadt (1480?—1541)

The reforming “Judas” more radical than Luther

Andreas Bodenstein, named Karlstadt after his birthplace, was a leading light on the faculty of the University of Wittenber. In fact, he conferred on Luther his doctor’s hood. 
In 1518 Karlstadt published his own theses setting forth reformation principles. At Leipzig the next year, he joined Luther in the debate against Eck. 

Karlstadt emerged as a radical in the Reformation. In 1521 he held the first Protestant communion service-without vestments for the clergy, and with both bread and wine served to the laity. The next day he announced his engagement, a stunning move in an age of celibate ministers. He soon opposed Luther as a proponent of compromise. 

In 1524 Luther issued a tract that attacked Karlstadt’s extreme ideas as the work of a new “Judas.” Karlstadt had to flee Wittenberg, and he denounced Luther as twice a papist and a cousin of Antichrist. 

But the next year on Luther’s wedding night, at eleven o’clock when all the wedding guests had departed, Karlstadt showed up at his door, fleeing the Peasants’ War and asking for shelter. Luther took him in. 

Karlstadt eventually joined the Zwinglian branch of the Reformation and settled in Basel, Switzerland, where he died of the plague.

Desiderius Erasmus (1466?—1536)

Star scholar of the Renaissance

Desiderius Erasmus was a moderate man in the most immoderate of times. The most famous Renaissance scholar of his day, he called for reform but remained within the Catholic church. For his criticism of the church he was denounced by the Catholics, and for his refusal to join the Reformation he was blasted by the Protestants.

Like Luther, Erasmus urged a return to Scripture, helping theologians to do just that with a new edition of the Greek New Testament along with a fresh Latin translation (1516). He too preached a simple evangelical devotion to Christ in The Handbook of the Militant Christian (1503). And his scathing critique of contemporary religion in The Praise of Folly (1500) and The Eating of Fish (1526) easily equaled Luther’s attacks on Rome in their ferocity.

Erasmus stated as late as 1524 that he believed Luther had done much good and was no heretic. But that same year he sharply and publicly parted ways with the reformer when he (Erasmus) published The Freedom of the Will. Luther responded in 1525 with a treatise insisting on The Bondage of the Will.

Luther was actually grateful to Erasmus for centering the debate at this point. “You alone,” he said, “have gone to the heart of the problem instead of debating the papacy, indulgences, purgatory, and similar trifles. You alone have gone to the core, and I thank you for it.” But he still saw Erasmus as a faint—hearted reformer who would not go far enough. Like Moses, Luther said, Erasmus could lead the people of God only so far, and he would ultimately die in the wilderness “without entering the promised land.”

But Erasmus saw the situation in quite different terms. “The wise navigator,” he observed, “will steer between Scylla and Charybdis,” between the mortal dangers of two extremes.

Other Key Figures in Luther’s Life

Thomas de Vio Cajetan (1469–1534)

Judge for Luther’s hearing

Cajetan was an Italian bishop, cardinal, theologian, and general of the Dominican Order. He was put in charge of Luther’s hearing at Augsburg in 1518, a stormy encounter that lasted three days. Cajetan had promised to proceed as a “father” rather than a “judge,” but his instructions from Rome allowed for no discussion of the issues.

On the first day of the hearing, Luther prostrated himself in a gesture of humility, and the cardinal raised him up in a gesture of reconciliation. But Cajetan then informed Luther that he must recant immediately. Cajetan finally concluded the reformer was an obstinate heretic.

Referring to Luther’s frequent rudeness in debate, Cajetan wrote confidentially to Rome, “What an animal!” For his part, Luther characterized Cajetan as a man no more fit to handle his case than an ass was fit to play a harp.

Lucas Cranach (1472–1553)

Illustrator of the Reformation

Much of what we know about the physical appearance of Luther, his family, and his friends comes from the portraiture of Lucas Cranach “the Elder,” a German master of woodcuts as well as painting. In the early days of the Reformation he joined the Lutheran cause and became Luther’s friend. 
Works of Cranach include at least five portraits of Luther; pictures of Luther’s parents, wife, and daughter Magdalena; portraits of Elector Frederick and his chaplain Georg Spalatin; and views of the town and Castle Church of Wittenberg. He also illustrated the first edition of Luther’s German translation of the New Testament. 

Cranach’s illustrations of the Book of Revelation were so impressive that one of Luther’s opponents borrowed them for his own translations of the New Testament. The ironic result: a Catholic version of the Scriptures with illustrations of Rome as the “Babylon” of the Apocalypse! 

Cranach was a banker as well as an artist. Though he loved Luther, he knew how the man’s generosity could get him in financial trouble. So he once refused to honor the reformer’s draft. Luther’s response: “At least you can’t accuse me of stinginess.”

Girolamo Aleandro (1480–1542)

Scholar and vocal enemy

Aleandro was an Italian scholar of classical languages. He worked with Erasmus, introduced Greek studies into France, became rector of the University of Paris, and helped fan the flames of Renaissance learning that contributed so much to the Reformation. Nevertheless, he became one of Luther’s most vocal enemies.

Pope Leo X sent Aleandro to present Luther with the bull Exsurge Domine, which condemned Luther’s teachings and threatened excommunication. Aleandro also led the case against Luther at the Diet of Worms, a difficult task given Luther’s popular support. As he wrote in a secret message to his superiors in Rome, “Nine-tenths of the people are shouting ‘Luther!’ and the other tenth are crying ‘Death to the Roman Court!’”

In his Ash Wednesday sermon at the Diet, Aleandro vigorously denounced the reformer, saying Luther had “brought up John Hus from hell.” Aleandro demanded a condemnation without trial and ordered Luther’s books burned in several European cities He also sent to the stake two monks preaching Luther’s ideas in Antwerp—the first martyrs of the Reformation. CH

By Paul Thigpen

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #34 in 1992]

Paul Thigpen, a professional writer, is a doctoral candidate at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.
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