I have recently become fascinated by the backstories of great leaders throughout history.
Growing up, I studied in school the presidency of Abraham Lincoln and the political influence of Martin Luther King, Jr. Today, students around the world research Gandhi’s brave pacifism and Wangari Maathai’s contribution to democracy and sustainable development. These are history-makers, and we rightly need to know when and how they transformed entire nations.
However, oftentimes there is very little attention given to the making of these giants. Did anyone know who they would become? Could they see in a child or young adult the seed of something great? And how was that seed sown and watered so that its fruit would be evident to all decades later?
Essentially, I am asking, “Who were these world-changers before the world even knew it was being changed?”
During the month of October 2017, we are celebrating the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. The one man most responsible for this revolution is Martin Luther. We know about the 95 Theses and the Lutheran Church. His proclamation at the Diet of Worms (“Here I stand!”) is renowned and we can read his extensive writings. But how did he become what he became?
Holly Hausler explores Martin’s childhood and education more extensively, but for our purposes I will highlight three interesting parts of Luther’s upbringing.
First, all accounts agree that Luther grew up with strict parents and stringent schooling. He was taught to follow rules and was punished harshly if he did not. This environment certainly fostered the essential discipline necessary for Martin to later examine the Scriptures deeply and meticulously. Why did the Church he loved not adhere to what he saw in Scripture?
I also wonder what his strict education had to do with his understanding of grace. Success in studies, and perhaps all of life, came down to following the rules, and “Martin’s teachers did not consider him a model pupil.” Having grown up with parents and teachers – and then his Church! – all telling him to sit straight and stop questioning authority undoubtedly cultivated in him a longing to be freed from day-to-day validation based on works. How marvelous for him to discover that “toeing the line” would not save him, but only grace alone!
Second, as a young student in Eisenach, Germany, Luther loved music and actually put this love to a practical use. He and his classmates would sing door to door welcoming small donations and bread crumbs. He had to sing for his supper, so to speak. There we find little Martin on the street corner saying, Panum propter Deum, “Bread, for God’s sake.” Martin Luther a beggar?! Martin Luther singing humbly with an empty stomach?! It is not the view we have of the iconic Reformer. Yet, how did those moments on the street corner mold and shape him in his faith and later ministry?
Third, on July 2, 1505, he was caught in a terrible thunderstorm on his way to Erfurt, Germany. Some accounts claim that he was even struck by lightning. Stephen Nichols writes that Luther thought that God was out to get him, to take his very soul. He cried out, “Help me, and I will become a monk,” calling on the patron saint of miners (his father was a miner). Despite his extensive studies in law (he had earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees) and the anger of his father, Luther kept his vow. He turned over his law books to his friends, threw a party, and two weeks later entered the Augustinian monastery.
This is Luther before he became LUTHER. These are moments in his early years that left an indelible mark on his character and calling. They are glimpses into the Reformer while he was still being formed.
Could there be a reformer in your midst disguised as a hungry child who has trouble following the rules?
Have you had trouble seeing how God has been leading you through seemingly insignificant experiences? What are the instances in your formative years that have drawn you into a higher calling?