The Lutheran Difference: Outlaw, Knight, and Husband

When last we left Martin Luther, he was leaving the city of Worms in an attempt to get home before Emperor Charles V could have him arrested or worse. But on the way back to Wittenberg, Luther was accosted in the middle of the night and carried off. His friends and supporters believed him to have been captured by his enemies and likely dead. But was he?

No. Not at all. As a matter of fact, he was safe and secure in a castle owned by Duke Frederick the Wise. The duke had guessed how the Diet of Worms would go for Martin and he made arrangements to make sure the rebellious little monk would be safe. He gave orders for his men to “kidnap” Luther in the middle of the night and secret him away…well, somewhere. He didn’t want them to tell him anything about Luther’s  sanctuary. That way, if Luther’s enemies came asking, he had plausible deniability.

Wartburg_castleSo Luther was secreted away to the Wartburg Castle, where he would remain for 10 months, living under the alias of Junker Jörg, or “Sir George.” He had to grow out his hair and beard to look the part of a German knight, and he did. He was allowed contact with the outside world, but only if he didn’t tell anyone where he was. So he referred to his location as “Patmos” or “the kingdom of the birds.”

During this time, Luther continued to write pamphlets and books so he could explain his position and teachings. But, more importantly, he also started a labor of love that would revolutionize Christianity. He started translating the Bible into German. He started with the New Testament and eventually moved on to the Old.

It’s true that other people had attempted this in the past (John Wycliffe, I’m looking at you), but with the invention of the printing press, this allowed for lots of people to be able to read the Scriptures in their own language without the need of a priest translating them out of Latin. But Luther also did one thing that has become the norm: instead of translating the Bible out of Latin, he instead went back to the original languages and translated them out of the original Greek and Hebrew.

Because of this, Luther made a decision that may seem controversial: in the Latin version of the Bible, there are “extra books” in the Old Testament. It’s a long story as to why (it has to do with how the Old Testament was translated into Greek in the second century BCE). But when Luther did his thing, he decided that if it wasn’t in the Hebrew, it wouldn’t be in his. That’s why most Protestant Bibles don’t have what’s called the Apocrypha in them. I’ve seen some people complain that this means that one person made decision about what would and wouldn’t be in the Bible and I suppose, on one level, that’s a fair criticism. But on the other hand, from what I understand, the only doctrine that’s really impacted by this exclusion is that of purgatory. If there are others, please let me know in the comments.

At any rate, Luther probably would have been willing to hide out in the kingdom of the birds for a long time, but circumstances in Wittenberg forced him to return. In his absence, the movement he started was led by a man named Andreas Carlstadt. You may remember him from a previous post; before Luther was excommunicated, Dr. Carlstadt tried to debate a man named John Eck in Liepzig and really didn’t do a good job of it.

Well, Carlstadt was as good a leader was he was a debater. He decided that Luther was moving too slowly. One Sunday, he declared that big changes were coming. The next, he led the Mass without wearing the traditional robes. More than that, when the time came for communion, he allowed the laity to partake of both the bread and the wine (up until then, Catholic practice was to give the laity only the bread; the priests got to partake of both bread and wine. It’s a long story and not really important for this overview). And shortly after that, Carlstadt did the unthinkable: he married a teenage girl. The teenage thing isn’t what surprised people. It was the marriage itself. Carlstadt was a priest. Should he even be getting married at all? Carlstadt believed he should. Celibacy of the priesthood (as well as that of monks and nuns) wasn’t Biblical and should be done away with.

Stirred up by Carlstadt’s teachings, the people of Wittenberg started defacing churches and mocking monks and nuns who clung to their old ways of life. Things were slowly descending into chaos, and so the leadership of Wittenberg wrote to Luther and asked him to come home.

Luther did, and in so doing, he established a principle that could basically be summed up like this: if a practice isn’t explicitly condemned by the Bible, it’s okay. And even if it is forbidden, it’s better to educate the people as to why a change needs to be made rather than act unilaterally. Luther reclaimed his pulpit and his place as leader of the Reformation and Carlstadt was effectively banished from Wittenberg.

But not all of Carlstadt’s changes were abandoned. Luther too had come to see that the celibacy imposed by Rome was unbiblical and so he started to encourage his friends and colleagues to marry. He himself avoided marriage for many years, but that changed after a delivery of pickle barrels.

Katharina-von-Bora-05It turns out that a group of nuns had read of Luther’s teachings and decided that they had had enough of convent living. So they hid themselves away in a bunch of empty pickle barrels and had themselves smuggled to Luther. Luther did his best to make sure that the former nuns found places of employment and even husbands, but it turned out that one nun in particular, Katherine von Bora, was determined to only marry one person: Luther himself. Luther hemmed and hawed, trying to dissuade her, but Katherine would not be deterred. Eventually, Luther gave in and the two were married.

Now this may sound like the marriage was loveless. It wasn’t. Luther and Katie came to love each other dearly. Luther even went so far as to purchase a brewery for her before he died, leaving it to her in his will, to make sure that she was taken care of after he was gone.

So Luther settled into a new life as a husband and eventually, father. But he wasn’t done yet. The Holy Roman Empire would soon come pounding on his door. The reason? Islamic terrorism. Seriously.

Well, not totally. But to see what I mean, you’ll have to come back next week.

The Lutheran Difference: Outlaw, Knight, and Husband Click To Tweet



  1. Enjoying your history of the reformation, John. One caveat: Isn’t it the case that the Apocrypha wasn’t officially part of the Catholic Bible until the Council of Trent? It may have customarily been included, but I don’t think it was formally considered part of canon until 1054.So while Luther may have decided to leave it out of his translation, he wasn’t removing canon.

    • I do believe you’re right, although from what the (admittedly very little) digging I did, while there wasn’t an official pronouncement on the Apocrypha until Trent, it was pretty much accepted as part of the canon for centuries. So there’s that. 🙂

  2. The “Knight George” period is my favorite part of the Luther story. Thanks for posting these, and sorry for being needlessly contentious in my comment before. Wasn’t thinking.

    So, I wonder if Carlstadt went away to become an Anabaptist. But I suppose Luther’s tacit permissions for Carlstadt’s type of reforms allows a great variety in ecclesiastical style in Lutheran tradition—ranging from near Catholicism on the one hand, to near non-denominational anti-liturgical on the other.

Leave a Reply