IN 1501, at eighteen, Luther entered the University of Erfurt. This seat of learning had been founded about a century before; it owed its rise to the patronage of the princely houses of Brunswick and Saxony. It was already one of the more famous schools of Central Europe.
Erfurt is an ancient town. Journeying from Eisenach eastward, along the Thuringian plain, it makes an imposing show as its steeples, cathedral towers, and ramparts rise before the eye of the traveller. Thirsting for knowledge, the young scholar came hither to drink his fill. His father wished him to study law, not doubting that with his great talents he would speedily achieve eminence, and fill some post of emolument and dignity in the civic administration of his country. In this hope John Luther toiled harder than ever, that he might support his son more liberally than heretofore.
At Erfurt new studies engaged the attention of Luther. Scholastic philosophy was still in great repute. Aristotle, and the humbler Aquinas, Duns, Occam, and others dominated the schools. Luther studied them avidly. He was gathering grapes of thorns and figs of thistles but he profited by the effort. The stringent discipline of Aristotelian philosophy strengthened his faculties and tested his logical understanding. This would be a valuable weapon later in the discussion of subtle questions. Two years of his university course were now run. From the thorny yet profitable paths of the scholastics, he would turn aside at times to regale himself in the greener and richer fields opened to him in the orations of Cicero and the lays of Virgil. His progress was great and he became par excellence the scholar of Erfurt.
He was now twenty. Fond of books, like his father, he went day by day to the library of the university and spent hours amid its treasures and revelled in the riches around him. One day opening books one after another, he came to a volume unlike all the others. To his surprise found that it was a Bible - the Vulgate, Jerome's Latin translation of the Scriptures. The Bible he had never seen till now. His joy was great. There are certain portions which the Church prescribes to be read in public on Sundays and saints' days. Luther presumed these were the whole Bible. Great was his surprise to find in it whole books and epistles of which he had never before heard. He read as one to whom the heavens had been opened. The part of the book which he read was the story of Samuel, dedicated to the Lord from his childhood by his mother, growing up in the Temple, and becoming the witness of the wickedness of Eli's sons, the priests of the Lord, who made the people to transgress, and to abhor the offering of the Lord. In all this Luther could fancy that he saw no very indistinct image of his own times.
Day after day Luther devoured some Gospel of the New or story of the Old Testament, gazing upon its page as Columbus may be supposed to have gazed on the plains and mountains of the New World. A change began to pass upon Luther by the reading of that book. Other books had developed and strengthened his faculties, this book was awakening new powers within him. The old Luther was passing away, another Luther was coming in his place. From that moment began those struggles in his soul which were destined never to cease till they issued not merely in a new man, but a new age - a new Europe. Out of the Bible at Oxford came the first dawn of the Reformation: out of this old Bible at Erfurt came its second morning.
A near fatal illness
It was the year 1503. Luther now took his first academic degree. But his Bachelorship in Arts had nearly cost him his life. So close had been his application to study that he was seized with a dangerous illness, and for some time lay at the point of death. Among others who came to see him was an old priest, who seems to have had a presentiment of Luther's future distinction. "My bachelor take heart, you shall not die of this sickness; God will make you one who will comfort many others; on those whom he loves he lays the holy cross, and they who bear it patiently learn wisdom." Luther heard God calling him back from the grave. He recovered but now had a lasting impression that his life been prolonged for a special purpose.
After an interval of two years he became Master of Arts and Doctor of Philosophy. The laurels of the first scholar at Erfurt University, then the most renowned in Germany, was no unimportant event, and it was celebrated by a torch-light procession. Luther saw that he already held no mean place in the public estimation, and might aspire to the highest honours of the State. As the readiest road to these, he devoted himself, in conformity with his father's wishes, to the bar, and began to give public lectures on the physics and ethics of Aristotle. The old book seems in danger of being forgotten, and the Reformer of Christendom of being lost in the wealthy lawyer or the learned judge.
Two incidents that now befell him brought back those feelings and convictions of sin which were beginning to be effaced amid the excitements of his distinctions and the fascinations of Aristotle. One morning he was told that his friend Alexius had been overtaken by a sudden and violent death. The intelligence stunned Luther. His companion had fallen as it were by his side. Conscience, first quickened by the old Bible, again awoke. Soon after this, he paid a visit to his parents at Mansfeld. He was returning to Erfurt. Nearing the city gate suddenly black clouds gathered overhead. It began to thunder and lighten in an awful manner. A bolt fell at his feet. Some accounts say that he was thrown down. The Great Judge, he thought, had descended in this cloud, and he lay momentarily expecting death. In his terror he vowed that should God spare him he would devote his life to His service. The lightning ceased, the thunders rolled past, and Luther, rising from the ground and pursuing his journey with solemn steps, soon entered the gates of Erfurt.
[Note by Dr Gillis. Following the Luther trail across the fields of Stotternheim was pleasant in brilliant sunshine in 1991. In a trice the air grew thick and stifled breathing. The sky became dark grey brown obliterating the skyline. A blinding lightening bolt lit the plain from east to west . A few huge drops of rain came from nowhere followed by a deafening crash of thunder shaking everything followed by a terrifying wind making it impossible to stand. There was nothing for it but flee. We all feel we are familiar with summer storms but it must be stressed how much more violent these are in the vast expanses of eastern Europe. The curious can see Luther's shelter at
A living grave
The vow must be fulfilled. And to serve God to this age was to wear a monk's hood and so too did Luther. To one so fitted to enjoy the delights of friendship and the plaudits of honour it was a terrible wrench to leave the world and enter the monastery - a living grave. But his vow was irrevocable. The greater the sacrifice, the more the merit. He must pacify his conscience. Of the more excellent way he knew nothing. Once he sees his friends. He prepares a frugal supper and regales them with music. He converses with apparent gaiety. Then the feast at an end and the party broken up, Luther walks straight to the Augustinian Convent, on the 17th of August, 1505. He knocks at the gate; the door is opened, and he enters.
To Luther, groaning under sin, and seeking deliverance by the works of the law, that monastery - so quiet, so holy, so near to heaven, as he thought - seemed a very Paradise. Soon as he had crossed its threshold the world would be shut out; sin, too, would be shut out; and that sore trouble of soul which he was enduring would be at an end. At this closed door the "Avenger" would be stayed. So thought Luther as he crossed its threshold. There is a city of refuge to which the sinner may flee when death and hell are on his track, but it is not that into which Luther had now entered.
Taken from Wylie's History of Protestantism, and edited by Dr Clive Gillis