Martin Luther

10 November 1483–18 February 1546 

Martin Luther, painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder, Wartburg (1526)

THE LITTLE TOWN of Eisleben was the honoured birth place of this Prince of the Reformation. He was born there on November 10, 1483. A few months after his birth his parents removed to Mansfeldt, that his father, who was poor, might obtain work in the mines of that neighbourhood. There his father afterwards so far prospered as to establish smelting-furnaces, and to obtain the means for Martin’s education. From his pious parents, Martin received a careful religious education; but too much severity left an unfavourable impression on the mind of the child, and his early religion was one of fear rather than of love. He learned what he could at the Latin school of Mansfeldt, and gave such promise as to awaken his father’s highest expectations of his future course.

To further his education, Martin was sent, at the age of 14, to the Franciscan school at Magdeburg, where he used to sing in the streets for his bread, as his father was not yet able to support him. A year after he was removed to a celebrated school at Eisenach. He had relatives there, and hoped for their assistance, but they neglected him. It was there that Ursula, the wife of Conrad Cotta, took compassion on the singing-boy, and not only gave him temporary relief, but received him into her house, where for some years he enjoyed one of the most pleasant and profitable periods of his life. In that hospitable home young Martin greatly extended his knowledge of literature and science, and at the same time learned to play the flute and lute to please his kind benefactress, who was passionately fond of music; and thus became confirmed in him that love to music and song which afterwards bore such good fruits.

On reaching the age of 18, Luther went to the University of Erfurt, where his father hoped he would pursue the study of the law. At Erfurt Luther made great attainments, graduated M.A. and Doctor of Philosophy, and was admired for his genius by the whole University. There, too, he was much moved by meeting for the first time with the Bible. Books were rare in those days, and he had been content with the portions of Scripture he had heard read in public worship. But in the library at Erfurt he met with the whole Scriptures, and read them with deep thought and great wonder and delight Providence also spoke to him by severe illness, by a dangerous wound received accidentally from his own sword, by the reported assassination of his companion Alexis, and by a violent storm in which his life seemed to be threatened. The effect of all these stirring events on the mind of Luther was that, before reaching the age of 22, he disappointed the hopes of his father, and entered the monastery of S. Augustine, at Erfurt. There, during three years, Luther was passing through important spiritual conflicts, from which he at length emerged into rest and peace. In these struggles he was greatly assisted by Staupitz, the vicar-general of the Augustines, who knew and loved the doctrines of the Gospel, and was able to speak from his own experience of the way of deliverance.

In 1508, on the invitation of the Elector of Saxony, Luther undertook the office of Professor of Philosophy in Wittenberg University; and soon after he became Bachelor of Divinity, and was called to expound the Scriptures daily to the University. This work he engaged in with all his heart. Speaking, not in a cold and formal manner, but experimentally, and heeding Scripture far more than tradition, his lectures attracted crowds of hearers, and produced a great impression. He was invited to preach, and then appointed chaplain to the Council of Wittenberg. Thus he began to be the leader of the Reformation, though with out as yet seeing all that was to be accomplished.

Then followed the visit to Rome, which, by what he saw, made him an enemy to the Papacy; his encounter with Tetzel’s doctrine of indulgences, in the confessional in 1516; his posting of theses against indulgences at Wittenberg in 1517; his long controversy with Rome, which was brought to a crisis by the burning of the papal bull at Wittenberg, on December 10, 1520. He was then summoned to a Diet of the Empire at Worms, but on his way was seized and carried to the castle of Wartburg. This was probably the act of a friend. Luther’s place of concealment was kept secret; but in it he laboured most usefully, notwithstanding his bodily afflictions and spiritual trials. There he produced powerful treatises to aid the Reformation, and especially furthered it by translating the New Testament into the vernacular German.

When he had received his degree of Doctor of Divinity in 1512, he had been required to swear “to defend the evangelical truth with all his might,” and the result showed that his subscription was more than a mere form. In all, his activity was sustained, as at other times in his life, by much communion with God. His New Testament was not completed till he had returned to Wittenberg, and availed himself of the assistance of his friend Melancthon. It was printed in 1522, and in Luther’s forcible and idiomatic language was soon pouring forth by thousands from die presses of Wittenberg; for the newly-discovered power of the printing-press had come just in time to circulate Luther’s stirring works through out Germany and the world. Thus one strong hand sowed widely the fruitful seeds of the Reformation. He completed the whole Bible in 1530.

In 1524 Luther threw off his monastic dress, and in 1525 he married Catherine de Bora, a nun who had left her convent. In 1529 the Reformed princes assembled at Spires, and separated from Rome by the “Protest” against the decree that was aimed at the Lutherans; and in 1530 the Lutherans presented their Confession of Faith at a diet at Augsburg.

Luther spent the remainder of his life in comparative quietude at Wittenberg, happy in his home, rendering important service by his writings, lectures, and letters, and cheered by seeing the Reformation extending into all parts of Europe. His internal sufferings were great during his later years, but his last illness continued only a few hours; and he was able to carry on his various labours almost till the day of his death. The calm Christian courage of his dying hour was in harmony with the confidence of his life. Along with other favourite passages, he thrice repeated the words, “Into Thy hands I commend my spirit; Thou hast redeemed me, O God of truth,' and so fell asleep in Jesus. He died on February 18, 1546.

Besides the works already mentioned, Luther wrote many controversial works, one of the best known of which is his reply to Henry VIII’s Defence of the Sacraments. His Table Talk and his Commentary on the Galatians are also prominent amongst his works. Besides these, he wrote Sermons on the Ten Commandments; Explanation of the Lord’s Prayer for Simple and Ignorant Laymen; Babylonian Captivity; Christian Liberty, and commentaries on several books of the Bible; and his translation was accompanied with learned annotations. Nor should we omit his Treatise on Good Works, published in 1520, in which he affirms the doctrine of justification by faith only.

Luther was exceedingly fond of music and poetry. He ranked music next in place to theology. In the “concord of sweet sounds” he found solace in trouble, and stimulus in his exhausting enterprises. He regarded it as a moral power for good, and an important element in good education. No teacher, he said, was worthy of the name who could not teach music; and he was most particular that his own son should be properly educated in it, and took care to enlist this auxiliary in the service of the Reformation. At his own house he gathered a band of men skilled in music, with whose assistance he arranged to his own heart-stirring words the old and favourite melodies of Germany, taking care to adapt them to congregational worship, so that the people might resume that place in public praise of which their Romish guides had deprived them.

To provide the people with suitable psalms and hymns in their own tongue, to be sung to these tunes, he translated some of the noblest of David’s psalms. In writing to thank Eobanus Hesse for a copy of his translation of the Psalms into Latin verse, Luther says:

I confess myself to be one of those who are more influenced and delighted by poetry, than by the most eloquent oration even of Cicero or Demosthenes. If I am thus affected by other subjects, you will believe how much more I am influenced by the Psalms. From my youth I have constantly studied them with much delight, and, blessed be God! not without considerable fruit. I will not speak of my gifts as preferable to those of others; but I glory in this, that, for all the thrones and kingdoms of the world, I would not relinquish what I have gained by meditating upon the Psalms, through the blessing of the Holy Spirit. Nor would I be guilty of such foolish humility as to dissemble the gifts of God implanted in me. For of myself there is enough, and more than enough, which humbles me; and teaches me I am nothing; but in God I may glory, and rejoice and triumph in His works. I do so with respect to my German Psalter, and I will do so still more in yours, but giving the praise and glory to God, who is blessed for ever.

Luther also translated some of the best Latin hymns, improved some of the old German popular hymns, encouraged his friends to write, and wrote some himself, including metrical versions of some parts of the Bible. Some of his hymns were printed on single sheets, with the tunes, and circulated widely. In his own preface to his Spiritual Songs, published in [1529], after showing that it is a Scriptural practice to sing psalms and hymns, he says:

Accordingly, to make a good beginning, and to encourage others who can do it better, I have myself, with some others, put together a few hymns, in order to bring into full play the blessed Gospel, which by God’s grace hath again risen.

Upon the minds of the people awakening to the new era, and already moved by reading Luther’s noble translation of the New Testament, the singing of these evangelical psalms and hymns made a very deep impression. The masses sang Luther’s tunes and Luther’s words; and the enemies of the Reformation said, “Luther has done us more harm by his songs than by his sermons.” Coleridge says, “Luther did as much for the Reformation by his hymns as by his translation of the Bible.”[1] And another modern writer says: “These hymns made a bond of union among men who knew little of Creeds and Articles: while theologians were disputing about niceties of doctrine, every devout man could understand the blessedness of singing God’s praises in good honest German, instead of gazing idly at the Mass, or listening to a Latin litany: the children learnt Luther’s hymns in the cottage, and martyrs sang them on the scaffold.”[2]

Luther’s psalms and hymns are not marked by their refined taste or their splendid imagery; but we value in them their fullness of Scripture truth, their plainness to the comprehension of all, their simple beauty and homely strength; and they are not without traces of the boldness and sublimity of the genius of the writer.

by Josiah Miller
Singers and Songs of the Church (1869) 

  1. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Specimens of the Table Talk of the Late Samuel Taylor Coleridge, vol. 1 (London: John Murray, 1835), p. 164.

  2. John Hampden Gurney, Historical Sketches: the Age of Discovery, 2nd ed. (London: Longman, Brown, Green & Longmans, 1858), pp. 260-261.

Featured Hymns:

Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott
Herr Gott, dich loben wir
Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin

Collections of Hymns:

Etlich cristlich lider Lobgesang un Psalm 

Wittenberg (1524): PDF
Bärenreiter facsimile (1957): WorldCat

Eyn Enchiridion oder Handbuchlein 

Erfurt (Maler ed., 1524): PDF
Erfurt (Loersfeld ed., 1524): PDF
Facsimile (1848): WorldCat
Bärenreiter facsimile (1929): WorldCat
Bärenreiter facsimile (1983): WorldCat

Geystliche Gesangk Buchleyn 

J. Walter, Wittenberg (1524): Images
Bärenreiter facsimile (1525 / 1979): WorldCat

Form vnd Ordnung gaystlicher Gesang vnd Psalmen (Augsburg, 1529): WorldCat

Geistliche Lieder auffs new gebessert (Wittenberg, J. Klug, 1529)

Geystlyke leder uppt nye gebetert

Slüter, Rostock (1531)
Facsimile (1858): PDF

Geistliche Lieder auffs new gebessert (Erfurt, A. Rauscher, 1531): WorldCat

Geistliche Lieder auffs new gebessert

Wittenberg. J. Klug (1533)
Bärenreiter facsimile (1954, 1983): WorldCat

Geistliche Lieder auffs new gebessert (Leipzig, V. Schumann, 1539): ? WorldCat

Christliche Geseng, Lateinisch und Deudsch, zum Begrebnis (Wittenberg, J. Klug, 1542): WorldCat

Geistliche Lieder (Wittenberg, J. Klug, 1543): Images

Geystliche Lieder 

Leipzig, V. Babst (1545): WorldCat
Bärenreiter facsimile (1966 / 1983): WorldCat

Works & Editions:

Richard Massie, Martin Luther's Spiritual Songs (London: Hatchard & Son, 1854): PDF

Leonard Woolsey Bacon & Nathan H. Allen, The Hymns of Martin Luther (NY: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1883): PDF

Philipp Wackernagel, Das deutsche Kirchenlied (Leipzig, 1870), pp. 3-31: PDF

D. Martin Luthers Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe [vol. 35 = Die Lieder Luthers] (Weimar, 1883 etc.): HathiTrust 1 | HathiTrust 2 | HathiTrust 3

Luther’s Works, 79 vols. [v. 53 = Liturgy and Hymns] (St. Louis: Concordia, 1955 etc.): Concordia | Amazon

Gerhard Hahn, Martin Luther: Die deutschen geistlichen Lieder (Tübingen, 1967): WorldCat

Markus Jenny, Luthers Geistliche Lieder und Kirchengesänge (Cologne, 1985): WorldCat

Peter C. Reske, The Hymns of Martin Luther (St. Louis: Concordia, 2016): Amazon

The Free Lutheran Chorale-Book, Chronological Index of Sources:

Find it on Amazon

Life & Hymns:

Josiah Miller, “Martin Luther,” Singers and Songs of the Church (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1869), pp. 39-44:

James Mearns, “Martin Luther,” ed. John Julian, A Dictionary of Hymnology (London, 1892), pp. 703-704: Google Books

Luther D. Reed, Luther and Congregational Song, Papers of the Hymn Society (1947): HathiTrust

Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (NY: Abingdon, 1950): Amazon

Oliver C. Rupprecht, “From exalted precept to pattern of excellence: Luther’s psalm hymns,” The Hymn, vol. 33, no. 2 (April 1982), pp. 89-93: HathiTrust

Carl Schalk, “Martin Luther’s hymns today,” The Hymn, vol. 34, no. 3 (July 1983), pp. 130-133: HathiTrust

Jaroslav Vajda, “Translations of ‘Ein feste burg,’” The Hymn, vol. 34, no. 3 (July 1983), pp. 134-140: HathiTrust

Kyle C. Sessions, “Luther in music and verse,” Pietas et Societas: New Trends in Reformation Social History—Essays in memory of Harold J. Grimm (Kirksville, MO: Sixteenth Century Journal, 1985), pp. 123-139.

Robin A. Leaver, “Figs and thistles: Luther’s hymns in English,” Thine the Amen: Essays on Lutheran Church Music in Honor of Carl Schalk (Minneapolis, MN: Lutheran University, 2005), pp. 21-41: Amazon

Gracia Grindal, “The rhetoric of Martin Luther’s hymns: Hymnody then and now,” Word and World, vol. 26, no. 2 (Spring 2006), pp. 178-187.

Robin A. Leaver, Luther’s Liturgical Music: Principles and Implications (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007): Amazon

Miikka E. Anttila, Luther’s Theology of Music: Spiritual Beauty and Pleasure (Boston: de Gruyter, 2013): Amazon

Scott H. Hendrix, Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer (Yale University Press, 2015): Amazon

Martin E. Marty, October 31, 1517: Martin Luther and the Day that Changed the World (Paraclete Press, 2016): Amazon

Robin A. Leaver, The Whole Church Sings: Congregational Singing in Luther’s Wittenberg (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017): Amazon

Eric Metaxas, Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World (Viking, 2017): Amazon

Lyndal Roper, Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet (Random House, 2017): Amazon

John Witvliet, “The interplay of catechesis and liturgy in the sixteenth century: Examples from the Lutheran and Reformed traditions,” The People’s Book: The Reformation and the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2017), pp. 110-131.

Martin Luther,

J.R. Watson & Robin A. Leaver, “Martin Luther,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology: