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A law-school dropout turned Augustinian monk, Martin Luther was certainly an unlikely candidate to render the Roman Catholic Church asunder. Born to a humble family in the German hamlet of Eisleben, Luther’s formal education was entirely typical of the day, with its focus on the Medieval arts of grammar, logic and rhetoric. He soon found himself disillusioned with the narrowly philosophical preoccupations of much medieval learning, so Luther turned to biblical theology for answers to the great questions of belief and faith. This led him in turn to abandon civilian life for the hermetic serenity of the monastery. And yet, here too Luther’s mind proved too probing for its surroundings. Thus, at the recommendation of his mentor, Luther embarked upon an academic career at the University of Wittenberg, where he taught beginning in 1508.
Luther’s ascent to spokesman and figurehead of the Reformation was precipitated by a controversy of otherwise pedestrian character. In 1517, a papal emissary was dispatched to Germany to collect money in order to underwrite the restoration of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Affronted by the cynically exploitative nature of this fundraising mission, Luther drafted a letter of protest that would eventually come to be known as the Ninety-Five Theses. Luther’s objections were met coolly at first by the Catholic Church, but the unexpected appropriation of his arguments by various political and religious groups hostile to Rome soon made this laissez-faire approach untenable. In 1520, a papal edict (“Exurge Domine”) placed a number of Luther’s writings on the index of contraband literature and threatened excommunication should he not recant. Luther stood his ground. The ensuing standoff culminated in the Diet of Worms (held in the eponymous German city from January to May of 1521), where the Church formally condemned Luther.
Luther’s ideas had already taken root among much of the German populace, learned and othewise, and this sympathy from the people assured his continuing safety. Luther returned to Wittenberg and spent the rest of his days organizing the church he had unwittingly founded. Here, however, Luther encountered unforeseen sociopolitical complications. Specifically, the transformation and radicalization of his thought by others reformers, such as, Zwingli, Calvin, threatened to hijack his form of evangelical Christianity into what he considered religious fanaticism. Luther became a conservative voice within the revolutionary movement that he himself had inaugurated. The most extreme example of this paradox occurred during the German Peasants’ War of 1524-1525, a conflict sparked when the peasantry invoked Luther’s anti-authoritarian rhetoric to justify their revolt against the upper classes. While sympathetic to the plight of the common man, Luther ultimately chastised the peasants for their insubordination, reasserting the validity of worldly authority and the moral imperative of submitting thereto. Amidst such turmoil, Luther worked tirelessly to flesh out the precepts of the new confession. He translated both the New and Old Testaments into the German vernacular. Luther adapted the Roman Catholic liturgy to meet the doctrinal requirements of Protestantism. A great lover of music, he composed scads of hymns, many of which are still in use among certain denominations. Eventually such frantic activity, coupled with the ongoing social unrest engendered by his ideas, took its toll on his health. Luther died in Eisleben in 1546.
Biography of John Calvin
Jean Calvin was born in 1509 in the northern French town of Noyon. His family was prosperous and well-connected; his father worked as a clerk for the Bishop of Noyon. Calvin moved to Paris at age 14 and later began to study theology at the University of Paris in preparation for the priesthood. In 1528, he transferred to Orleans to study civil law instead, followed by further study in classics at Bourges and Paris. By 1533, Calvin experienced a religious conversion away from Roman Catholicism, and he was forced to flee Paris in 1534 because of his connections with outspoken Protestants amidst rising religious tensions. He moved among cities in Italy, France, and Switzerland for a time before resting in Geneva to assist fellow French Protestant William Farel with the government-supported reform of the town. After local resistance and shifting diplomatic alliances caused the reformers to be expelled from Geneva in 1538, Calvin settled as a minister to the exiled French Reformed community in Strasbourg. Calvin married Idelette de Bure, a widow with two children, in 1541. In that same year, Calvin accepted an official invitation to return to Geneva, where he spent the remainder of his life as a pastor. In addition to leading an ambitious reorganization of worship and social life in Geneva, Calvin continued to shape the international reform movement and participate in theological debates throughout his life. He died in Geneva in 1564.
Written by Jay Gundacker, Department of History, Columbia University; Sean Hallowell, Department of Music, Columbia University
Richard S. Dunn, The Age of Religious Wars 1559-1715, 2nd ed., (New York: Norton & Co., 1979)
Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation: A History, (New York: Viking, 2004)
Alistair E. McGrath, A Life of John Calvin: A Study in the Shaping of Western Culture, (Oxford, U.K.: Blackwell, 1990)
R. Po-Chia Hsia. The Cambridge History of Christianity VI: Reform and Expansion 1500–1660, (Cambridge University Press, 2007)