There is more than one storm in the story of the Reformation and the eventual writing of “A MIGHTY FORTRESS IS OUR GOD,” and storms, as we know in this age of global warming, are messy, unpredictable things that can cause dramatic changes in the landscape.
One storm caught Martin Luther by surprise in July 1505 as he headed back to law school after a visit with his folks. He was crossing an open field when a lightning bolt hit so close he cried out a promise to St. Anne that, if he lived, he’d devote his life to Jesus. He lived and kept his word.
Another storm was the one that had been raging across the face of Europe. Emerging from the clouds of ignorance and superstition that marked the Middle Ages came the dazzling upheaval of the Renaissance. Winds of change had ushered in an age of scientific discovery (Copernicus!), bold new art (Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo!), explorers (Magellan!) humanist thinkers (Petrarch), and inventions, from bottled beer to flush toilets. Gutenberg’s printing press inspired a thirst for learning and literacy among the common people. The written word was no longer reserved for the educated elite.
Still another storm raged in the heart and soul of Luther, tormented by sin and guilt. He prayed, fasted, and fretted. Brilliant and hard-working, he was rarely calm, but bounced from cantankerous to charismatic.
In 1510, on a trip to Rome, the passionate young friar was sickened to find church authorities living in luxury, steeped in decadence, corruption, and immoral life choices. Back in Wittenberg, where he taught theology at the university, Luther was newly outraged by the Church’s selling of indulgences to raise funds for the extravagant cathedrals in Rome. In particular, one overly-ambitious and vulgar priest, Father Tetzel, blatantly took advantage of grieving workers, poor and illiterate. He promised to get their loved ones out of Purgatory for the right price. Luther was outraged at the scam.
FROM WHISTLEBLOWER TO REBEL
After great personal struggle, Luther had come to the conclusion that God’s grace couldn’t be bought with money, guilt, or good works. God’s love was free to all believers, the deserved and undeserving. He began to preach and teach “justification by faith alone” and the priesthood of all believers, that ordinary people should have direct access to the Bible in their own language to determine the teachings for themselves.
Luther still loved the Roman Catholic Church, but he now believed that it was Christ, not the Pope, who was the head of the faith. He wanted to save the Church by getting it back on track.
Did he nail his “95 theses” to the church door in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517? It’s not likely, but no one knows for sure.
What we do know is that the 33-year-old sent his long list of grievances to an archbishop. Let loose on the world, Luther’s words were translated from Latin into German and quickly distributed throughout the land.
Luther’s objections struck a chord with many who’d kept their doubts and desires bottled up for centuries. They were eager for a break with Rome. Seeds of protest took root, cultivated by new ideas about literacy and human rights. It was the start of the “Protestant Reformation.” Church fathers didn’t like any of it, but tried to appease their disgruntled congregants by curbing clergy abuses. It wasn’t enough for those demanding major change.
Luther’s life was suddenly in danger. Other priests before him, like John Wycliffe and Jan Hus, had been burned at the stake for advocating radical change. In 1520, Pope Leo X issued a “papal bull.” He ordered Luther’s excommunication from the Church for heresy and insubordination and his writings burned. In response, Luther set fire to the Pope’s order. Crowds cheered as sparks flew into the night sky.
In 1521, the Holy Roman Emperor joined forces with the Pope and summoned Luther to the Diet of Worms to apologize for all the trouble he was causing. By now, the outspoken friar was a celebrity. The road to Worms was lined with his supporters. When he finally appeared before the assembly of bishops and princes, Luther refused to recant. Instead, he famously declared, “Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God. Amen.”
ACCIDENTAL AGENT FOR RADICAL CHANGE
The Emperor ordered Luther’s death, but high-powered friends faked a kidnapping and whisked Luther to safety in Wartburg Castle. For a year, he disguised himself as a knight named “Junker Jörg,” grew a beard, wore a sword. He used the long lonely hours in his tower room to write letters and pamphlets. He also translated the New Testament from Greek into German.
Meanwhile, back in Wittenberg, all hell was breaking loose. Priests, monks, nuns, and the faithful took Luther’s ideas and ran with them, much farther than he had ever dreamed or desired. He’d only meant to blow the whistle and inspire reform, not revolution, redeem the Church, not destroy it. A catalyst for change, he’d accidentally fostered rebellion.
In March, 1522, at his own peril, Luther left the safety of the castle and returned home to restore order. He even tried to find husbands for nuns who had escaped from a convent in herring barrels. He married one, Katharina von Bora. They grew fond of each other, to their mutual surprise, and raised a family together.
The Reformation split Europe and splintered the Church, resulting in decades of violence. Blood was shed in the name of the Prince of Peace as individual Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, were martyred for their understanding of the faith. All of it was beyond Luther’s control. Sometimes he flailed in the chaos, lashing out with appalling vehemence at Jews, penning lines later embraced and used by Nazis. He also turned his back on some of the working people who rose up and were killed by the thousands in the “Peasant Wars.”
Luther lived only long enough to see the stormy beginnings of the Reformation. He spent those years writing books and pamphlets outlining a new “Protestant” theology. He continued to teach at the university. And we wrote 37 hymns to promote his ideas, 21 in the year 1524 alone.
His most famous hymn, intended as a song of comfort, was a paraphrase of Psalm 46. He set “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” to a lively tune, in the style of Renaissance folk tunes popular at the time.
When it first appeared in print in 1529, it became the hymn of the protesters, so is commonly considered “the Battle Hymn of the Protestant Reformation.” People sang it in the streets and on the way to their deaths. In these verses, Luther expressed his belief that, as Christians, we must place our confidence, not in elaborate rituals, but in God, and our trust, not in church authorities, but in Jesus.
In the 21st century, as the world seems to be unraveling yet again, Christians, both Protestant and Catholic, continue to open our music books and hymnals to sing in one voice the song that led a movement of reform 500 years ago. We are a church, reformed and always reforming, still trying to get it right. As we survey the cruel hate evident in our current crisis, we sing with determination the words Luther gave us about the one who is “from age to age the same.” God’s love, as exemplified by Christ Jesus, “must win the battle.”
TO GO DEEPER
“History of Hymns — A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” by C. Michael Hawn on the UMC Discipleship Ministries website
“In Search of Martin Luther” Fascinating account of finding the marker for the lightning bolt legend in a remote field, written by Dr. Hans Rollmann, a religion professor at the Memorial University of Newfoundland
Psalm 46, NRSV from the Bible Gateway website
500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation by Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly