From the fall of the Western Empire to the eleventh century, there intervened a period of unexampled torpor and darkness.
Indeed a belief was generally entertained that the year one thousand would usher in the Day of Judgment. It was a mistake. The world's best days were yet to come. Commerce and art, poetry and philosophy appeared, and, like early flowers, announced the coming of spring. By-and-by came the printing-press, truly a Divine gift; and scarcely had the art of printing been perfected than Constantinople fell and the tomb of ancient literature was burst open, and the treasures of the ancient world were scattered over the West. And into this renaissance was Martin Luther born.
Eisenach and Eisleben
The Luther family had long belonged to the Saxony region of Germany. Patrimonial inheritance was gone, and without estate or title John Luther, his father, earned his daily bread by labour. He married Margaret Lindemann of Neustadt. At the period of their marriage they lived near Eisenach surrounded by the glades of the Thuringian forest. Soon after their marriage they left Eisenach and went to live at nearby Eisleben belonging to the Counts of Mansfeld. They were a worthy, God fearing pair. John Luther was a lover of books. Books then were scarce but John Luther managed to get a few, which he read at meal-times, or in the calm German evenings.
Margaret Lindemann, Luther's mother was a peasant by birth but truly godly and regarded by her neighbours as a pattern of good sense, household economy, and virtue worthy of emulation. To this prayerful couple there was born a son, on the 10th of November, 1483. He was their first-born, and as the 10th of November is St. Martin's Eve, they called their son Martin. Thus was ushered into the world the future Reformer.
Let us visit the cottage of John Luther, of Eisleben, on the evening of November 10th, 1483; there slumbers the miner's first-born. The miner and his wife are proud of their babe but there is no indication about it of the wondrous future that awaits the lowly child. Had Sextus V then reigning looked in upon the child, and marked how lowly was the cot in which he lay, he would have asked with disdain, "Can any harm to the Popedom come of this child? Can any danger to the chair of Peter, that seat more august than the throne of kings, lurk in this poor dwelling?" Yet one Luther was stronger than all the cardinals of Rome, than all the legions of the Empire. His voice was to shake the Popedom, and his strong hands were to pull down its pillars that a new edifice might be erected in its room.
When Martin was six months old his parents removed to Mansfeld. At that time the portion of this world's goods which his father possessed was small indeed; but the mines of Mansfeld were lucrative and John Luther was industrious. By-and-by his business began to thrive, and his table was better spread. He was now the owner of two furnaces and in time a member of the Town Council. He educated himself by entertaining the clergy of his neighbourhood. As Martin grew he played with the other children of Mansfeld on the banks of the Wipper. But it was a stern age. John Luther was a strict disciplinarian and no fault of the son went unpunished. This severity was not wise. A nature less elastic than Luther's would have sunk under it but by balance Luther's nature was one of strong impulses, forces needed in his future work; but, had they not been disciplined in his youth self indulgence might have later emerged.
Besides the examples of piety he daily beheld, Luther received a little instruction under the domestic roof. Later he was sent to school at Mansfeld, his father often carrying him to school on his shoulders. The thought that his son would one day be a scholar, cheered John Luther in his labours. Indeed the young Luther already displayed sound understanding and retentive memory.
In 1497 aged 14 Martin was sent to the Franciscan school at Magdeburg. Here his master often flogged him. There was then a custom (only recently abandoned comments Wylie) of scholars begging their bread .They went singing from door to door, and receiving whatever alms the good burghers were pleased to give. Instruction was gratis, but not board and after a year Luther's father withdrew him to attend nearby Eisenach where he lodged with relatives but the young scholar had still to earn his meals by singing in the streets. It was at that moment that Providence opened for him a home. As he stood sadly musing by a door it opened, and a voice bade him come in. Ursula, the wife of Conrad Cotta a senior burgher had marked the young scholar before and was familiar with his singing in church. He was now to live with them.
Luther had now a home. He was freed from begging.. He had found a father and mother in this worthy pair. Penury, like the chill of winter, had threatened to blight his powers in the bud; but this kindness, like the sun, with genial warmth instead awakened them. He gave himself to study with fresh ardour; tasks difficult before became easy now. He repaid Madame Cotta's kindness by cultivating his talent for singing. After two years at Eisenach he was proficient in Latin, rhetoric, and verse-making. All his life he never forgot Eisenach or good Madame Cotta. He was accustomed to speak of the former as "his own beautiful town" and with reference to the latter he would say, "There is nothing kinder than a good woman's heart". The incident also strengthened his trust in God. He who delivered on the streets of Eisenach can deliver again.
The future Reformer was by nature loving and trustful, with a heart ever yearning for human sympathy, and a mind ever planning largely for the happiness of others. But this was not enough. These qualities must be tempered by others to confront opposition, endure reproach, despise ease, and brave peril. The first without the last would have issued in mere benevolent schemings. Yet so is it with all whom God selects for rendering great services to the Church or to the world, they are first sent to a hard school. Luther was to spend his life in conflict with emperors and Popes, and the powers of temporal and spiritual despotism; therefore his cradle was placed in a miner's cot, and his childhood and youth were passed amid hardship and peril. It was thus he came to know that man lives not to enjoy, but to achieve; and that to achieve anything great, he must sacrifice self, turn away from man, and lean only on God.
Taken from Wylie's History of Protestantism, and edited by Dr Clive Gillis