Monday, June 01, 2009

The Lightning Bolt and Luther's Monastic Vow: Protestant Researcher Thinks Luther Killed a Man in a Duel in 1505, Then Sought Refuge as a Monk


The standard, accepted account of Luther's decision to become a Catholic monk at the age of 22, in 1505, holds that he was almost struck by lightning in a fearful storm, while in the woods walking near his home. The version of Roland Bainton, in the famous Luther biography, Here I Stand (1950), is typical:

On a sultry day in July of the year 1505 a lonely traveler was trudging over a parched road on the outskirts of the Saxon village of Stotternheim. He was a young man, short but sturdy, and wore the dress of a university student. As he approached the village, the sky became overcast. Suddenly there was a shower, then a crashing storm. A bolt of lightning rived the gloom and knocked the man to the ground. Struggling to rise, he cried in terror, "St. Anne help me! I will become a monk." . . .

The man who was later to revolt against monasticism became a monk for exactly the same reason as thousands of others, namely, in order to save his soul. The immediate occasion of his resolve to enter the cloister was the unexpected encounter with death on that sultry July day in 1505. He was then twenty-one and a student at the University of Erfurt. As he returned to school after a visit with his parents, sudden lightning struck him to earth. In that single flash he saw the denouement of the drama of existence. There was God the all-terrible, Christ the inexorable, and all the leering fiends springing from their lurking places in pond and wood that with sardonic cachinnations they might seize his shock of curly hair and bolt him into hell. It was no wonder that he cried out to his father's saint, patroness of miners, "St. Anne help me! I will become a monk."

Luther himself repeatedly averred that he believed himself to have been summoned by a call from heaven to which he could not be disobedient. Whether or not he could have been absolved from his vow, he conceived himself to be bound by it. Against his own inclination, under divine constraint, he took the cowl.

(pp. 20, 33)

Another more recent, prominent Protestant biography presents the same picture:

On July 2, with some four more miles to go, he was caught in a terrible thunderstorm near the village of Stotternheim. Hurled to the ground by lightning, he called out: "Help me, St. Anne; I will become a monk." There is no reason to doubt that the unsuspecting traveler became terrified when confronted with sudden death . . . A vow of this kind was neither exceptional nor proof of psychological instability; on the contrary, it was perfectly in keeping with the times and not abnormal for any young, unmarried man of tender conscience.

(Heiko A. Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, translated by Eileen Walliser-Schwarzbart, New York: Doubleday Image Books, 1992; originally 1982 in German, p. 92)

See also, Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: His Road to Reformation: 1483-1521, pp. 48-49, Alister McGrath, Christian Literature, p. 299, and Julius Köstlin, The Life of Martin Luther, pp. 57-58.

Gordon Rupp, in his well-known work, Luther's Progress to the Diet of Worms (London: S.C.M. Press, 1951; reprinted in 1964 by [New York] Harper & Row, from which I quote), echoes the standard account on pp. 13-14, but goes a bit deeper with additional speculation (which is what has fascinated me, in curiosity). He cites a second, similar incident, recorded in Table-Talk [sources given: TR 1.119; Scheel, i.320.20] and assigned to an earlier date: 16 April 1503:

Luther was on a journey home, when he fell and the short dagger which he wore struck deep into his leg, severing an artery. His companion set off to Erfurt for help, and while he was gone Luther tried to staunch the swift bleeding. In peril of death he cried 'Help, Mary!' As surgeon came and Luther was carried to Erfurt . . .

If both stories are true, then the crisis of a serious accident may have suggested reflections to Luther which recurred sharply when, a little later, he again faced the immanence of death. The death of a friend, which Melanchthon reports, and which finds some confirmation in the Wittenberg archives, may have deepened such serious consideration. But about the inward state of his mind, there is no real evidence.

(pp. 14-15)

Rupp had made another cryptic reference in a footnote on p. 13: "Melanchthon mentions the death of a friend." What is this about? It doesn't come from a Catholic biographer or historian, critical of Luther (in fact, the Catholic Cochlaeus, the notoriously biased contemporary and early biographer of Luther, presents the lightning-bolt story himself, as seen above). This motif derives from Philip Melanchthon, his best friend and rapt admirer.

Protestant historian Philip Schaff speculates even further:

In the summer of 1505 Luther entered the Augustinian convent at Erfurt and became a monk, as he thought, for his life time. The circumstances which led to this sudden step we gather from his fragmentary utterances which have been embellished by legendary tradition.

He was shocked by the sudden death of a friend (afterward called Alexius), who was either killed in a duel, [Mathesius: "da ihm ein guter Gesell erstochen ward."] or struck dead by lightning at Luther’s side. Shortly afterward, on the second of July, 1505, two weeks before his momentous decision, he was overtaken by a violent thunderstorm near Erfurt, on his return from a visit to his parents, and was so frightened that he fell to the earth and tremblingly exclaimed: "Help, beloved Saint Anna! I will become a monk." . . .

Luther himself declared in later years, that his monastic vow was forced from him by terror and the fear of death and the judgment to come; yet he never doubted that God’s hand was in it.

(Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. 7: Ch. 2: "Luther's Training for the Reformation (1483-1517)," § 20. Luther’s Conversion)
So now this "death of a friend" may have been by lightning or by a duel (possibly with Luther himself?). This is very strange, and it is derived from solely Protestant biographical sources (Mathesius being another early Luther biographer). I had never heard of this before. Henry Worsley, in his Life of Martin Luther (1856), opines:
It was as he was returning to the University from this visit, that an event occurred which determined his future path in life. He had approached very near to Erfurth, when a violent thunderstorm overclouded the heavens, and according to some accounts a stroke of lightning struck his dear companion Alexius dead at his side.

[Footnote: This account is very doubtful. Melanchthon only remarks, " Hosterrores seu primum seu acerrimos sensit eo anno cum sodalem nescio quo casu interfectum amisisset." Melchior Adam says, "Fulmine, ut volunt, et commililonis violenta morte territus." Jiirgens supposes that Luther's friend met his death in a duel, and that the thunderstorm was later ; and as Luther entered the monasteiy on St. Alexius' day, the name of the Saint was given by common rumour to his friend.]

Rev. J. Wylie, in his History of Protestantism (1878) states
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.

[Footnote: Some say Alexius was killed by lightning, others that he fell in a duel. Melanchthon says “he knows not how Luther’s friend came by his death.” (Vita Mart. Luth., p. 9.) 9 Melanchthon, Vita Mart. Luth., p. 9, footnote.]

(p. 273; see alternate link for the footnote)
B. Sears, in his article, "The Religious Experience of Luther in the Cloister of Erfurt," Bibliotheca Sacra and Theological Review (1848), elaborates:
In 1505, Alexius, a friend of Luther in the university, was assassinated. Soon after . . . lightning struck near his feet.

[Footnote: Such is the view in which the testimony of Luther, Melanchthon, Mathesius, and other early witnesses is best united. The representation of less competent and later witnesses, that Alexius was killed by lightning is now abandoned by all the historians.]

(p. 521)
The most fascinating and (shall we say) "creative" or "inventive" Protestant take on all this comes from Dr. Dietrich Emme, who has done extensive research on Luther's early years at Erfurt (from 1501-1505). He is the author of Martin Luther seine Jugend- und Studentenzeit 1483-1505 : eine dokumentarische Darstellung (1986) and Martin Luthers Weg ins Kloster: Eine wissenschaftliche Untersuchung in Aufsatzen (1991: Martin Luther's Path to the Monastery: a Scientific Investigation).

Information on him is scattered and incomplete on the Internet, and mostly in German or other languages, but there is an article in English, from the Catholic magazine, Thirty Days: "Struck, But Not By Lightning," by Tommaso Ricci, No. 2, 1992, pp. 62-64):
"Did Luther choose to enter a monastery or was he sent to a monastery because he had killed a fellow student in a duel? This question has never left me and over the years I collated whatever useful material there was available in a bid to find the answer," . . .

Although the Church and an imperial decree prohibited them, duels were a commonly deployed method of settling disputes between private citizens. Among students in particular it was not considered manly to resolve quarrels by seeking recourse to a higher authority. Emme is convinced that on April 16, 1503 Luther fought a duel and emerged from it seriously wounded. There is mention of Luther's wounds in Tischreden (Table Talk) . . .

Emme believes it unlikely that the young Martin managed to injure himself so seriously in such a casual way and the supposition is that the tale replaced the true story of a duel . . .

Dietrich Emme sustains . . . the assumption that at the outset of Luther's religious itinerary there was a tragic event. He has collated a considerable quantity of converging clues to this effect. The first is that according to the registers of the University of Erfurt for January and February 1505, when Luther sat at the examination and was then promoted to the position of magister of the Arts Faculty, a student had died, Hieronymous Buntz, it is written, was "not promoted because immediately after the examination he fell ill with pleurisy and died a short time later of natural causes". Pleurisy was one of the most frequent causes of death after a duel . . . Emme explains that the "universities were concerned to cover up deaths as a result of duels because they were anxious to keep their reputations and encourage more wealthy, highly placed students to join . . . "

Other clues are to be found, according to Emme, from an analysis of Luther's decision to enter a monastery and why he chose to join the Augustinian hermits. This monastery was one of the few which by statute were not subject to the jurisdiction of the local ecclesiastical authority (the archbishop of Mainz) but of Rome . . . there was no safer refuge. The Protestant theologian Nikolaus Selnecker (1530-1592) relates that Luther entered the Augustinian hermits' monastery at Erfurt "secretly and by night (clam et noctu) and for two days groups of his companions and friends, of students and others kept watch on the buildings and plaid siege to it to win Luther back. But the entrance was limited so strictly that for a month no one was permitted to approach Luther" (Oratio de divo Lutero, 1590). . . .

Another clue is that Luther did not enter the monastery as a postulant or as a lay brother. He, a recently promoted magister, was given the humblest jobs to do in his first six months there. He had to churn the milk to make cheese, he had to clean the latrines and he was generally treated as a slave. . . .

Emme followed the Lutheran trail according to the clues he found. But, says the author, "I made an effort to give sense and coherence to details of the life of Luther relegated to the shadows to date and left there unexplained. Others have simply skipped over these facts. But that is too easy. So whoever has criticisms and objections to raise should do so."
By now, of course many readers may be curious as to my own opinion on the matter. I have no idea. It seems pretty far-fetched, but (as a general rule, and according to the legal criteria of evidence) if there is enough circumstantial evidence for something, it becomes relatively more possible, in speculation, that perhaps it may have happened. At a bare minimum, I would have to read Dr. Emme's books to form any informed judgment at all, and they are written in German.

But this line of thought is very interesting, at any rate, so as a student of Luther and one who likes to post provocative things that make people think, and challenge them (according to my socratic modus operandi), here it is! If I am to be accused yet again of being "anti-Luther" (YAWN) simply because I believe that a Protestant researcher
and his hypothesis should be considered (without even my taking a stand on it, yay or nay), so be it. What else is new? Let the dumbfounded, dense accusations fly if they must. If those things ever deterred me from doing anything, I would have left the Internet ten years ago. I'm not here to win a popularity contest.

I'd much rather be the way I am than to exhibit the tendency of so many (in academia and outside it), who attempt to downplay, mock, or even deliberately obscure or make unavailable, positions that run contrary to their own. That's the death of intellectual inquiry and exchange and growth. Not here. This is a free speech blog, and all ideas are fair game as long as they are presented intelligently and with reason. And I don't necessarily believe everything that I present (as presently), though I usually do. This information is simply . . . interesting and thought-provoking. The reader can make of it what they wish.


Jordanes said...

Interesting. The story I'd always heard is that Luther was with his friend when the friend was struck by lightning and killed. I'd never heard this alternate version or hypothesis before. If true, it probably wouldn't be the first time a Catholic fled to religious life as a means of penance and sorrow for having committed some terrible offense.

Tim MD said...

Hi Dave,

For about nine months now, I have been “hosting” a thread on CARM (in the Lutheran Section) in which we have been exploring the matter of Luther’s “authority” (in God’s Eyes), to “reform” the Church of his time. As a result, we have also been examining various aspects of Luther’s life as they relate to the standard “Legend” of Luther which has been created (out of necessity), by Protestantism. Many of the “facts” of this “Legend” are of highly questionable historicity, from the “finding of a Bible” to even the actual nailing of the 95 Theses on any kind of door, with many in between. Those things which Luther did not embellish were often “filled” in by others, and in fact, many of Luther’s later recollections may have only been his manner of explaining how he “felt” at the time.

Protestant authors, including Oberman and Bainton, (non-Lutherans), actually do have a “dog in that hunt” and as such, are “required” to defend him in order to justify their own “Right to Privately Interpret” Scriptures, and choose the “correct” denomination (if nothing else). As such, we have to recognize them as being biased, just as all Christians are on Luther, whether we know it or not.

Luther’s reason for entering the monastery could be greatly misunderstood by history in general. Of course, he was alone when the lightening (supposedly) struck nearby on his journey back to Erfurt, so we do not have any witnesses to confirm his account. We only know of his extremely scrupulous nature AFTER he joined the monastery, where he was absolutely sure that a just God could not grant him everlasting salvation. (That was somewhat of a problem for him). What we do know though is that there is no record, in spite of what we hear from some Protestant biographers, that Luther was religiously “inclined” prior to his entry into the monastery.

While I cannot imagine Luther shooting someone in duel and having that event go completely unnoticed by history, the historical record that is available to us from the period prior to the monastery is, at best, extremely incomplete. At the same time, we are forced to consider Luther’s “Legendary” temper and his later refusal to be “corrected”. Clearly these traits did not spring from nothingness and could have begun to manifest themselves, in his university years, as some historical accounts “verify”.

All this being said, I believe that Luther’s reasons for entering the monastery are just another “brick in the wall” and that there are so many other things about his life and his teachings which should cause us to question whether we should all view him as being “right” in his revolt against the Church of his time.

God Bless You Dave, Tim (A Fan)

Dave Armstrong said...

Hi Tim,

Thanks much for your thoughts, and God bless you for your work at CARM and Job-like patience to withstand that (largely) bigoted crowd.

I agree with most of what you said, except your questioning of the nailing of the theses to the door. That was standard practice of those times: the church door served as a sort of community bulletin board.

I don't recall ever seeing that questioned by anyone. I'm curious: what is your source for this opinion?

Tim MD said...

Hi Dave,
I know that it was standard practice to nail various positions to the door to attract a debate partner and in some respects, whether he ever nailed his theses anywhere is not all that important. Either way, it doesn’t have any impact on the “quality” of his teachings and doctrinal positions. I did see it questioned by some author and if I find it again I’ll pass it along. When I first saw it though it did strike me as odd, given that he sent his Theses on the same day to his Bishop. It seems to me that he either wanted to debate his Theses or he wanted to get a reaction from his Bishop, but why both given that these two “options” seem somewhat at cross purposes with each other. If he really was looking for a debate, then why not wait until after the debate and then send it to his Bishop after the points had been scrutinized in debate? The Theses themselves, appear to have been written somewhat in haste in that the various issues are scattered about with very little in any organization by subject. It seems to me that someone of the Theologians at Wittenberg would have accepted that challenge if they had seen Luther’s Theses posted on the door of the Church, but from what I know, there is no record of any kind of debate, which is a little bit odd given the fact that Luther questioned the authority of the Papacy in his Theses.

If I remember correctly, the author who brought up this question said that Luther never actually claimed to have nailed his Theses to the door of the Church, but that it was Melanchthon who made it, and then only years after the “fact”. If you know differently, I would appreciate it if you could let me know. Of course, Melanchthon was not even in Wittenberg in 1517 and he was known to spin a yarn about Luther from time to time. For example, he once wrote that when Luther was at Erfurt, he astounded the whole University with his brilliance. We know though that Luther finished in the bottom half of his class for his bachelor’s degree and finished 2nd in his class of 17 (or so) for his Master’s degree.

Either way, it doesn’t really matter all that much in terms of Luther being “right” or not to Revolt against the teachings of the Church.

Tim MD said...

The reason for the thread on CARM is that vast majority of Protestants do not seem to know how much they “owe” Luther, doctrinally. My premise is that if you go back to the arguments that the Church and Luther made against each other prior to 1521 or so, you have most of the basic disagreements between Catholics and Protestants. On this thread, nobody is “allowed” to quote Scripture since neither side believes that the other does it “correctly”. Man do people HATE that!

I believe that either Luther’s or the Church’s arguments have a greater appeal to logic, reason, and True Christian history, meaning primarily the Fathers. Boiling it down further, the basic disagreements that we face today regarding authority were very well debated at Leipzig, where Luther claimed to have “proven” that the idea of an infallible Papacy was developed only in the 400 years prior to the 16th century. I have asked for that “proof” and have gotten nothing of course, which is strange. If Luther actually HAD proven what he claims to have proven, then you would think that Protestants would have been using that “proof” for the last 500 years, and yet, it appears that they have no idea what it might have been.

Luther knew that Eck had gotten the better of him at Leipzig, but then claimed to have “proven” that he was right at the same debate? Maybe he proved it only to himself. Typical Marty.

As for the CARM bunch, I have yet to find anyone there who is even remotely capable of considering the “slight” possibility that Luther was incorrect to rebuke the Church. It just does not compute for them. In general, they are more interested in criticizing my questions rather than answering them. James Swan has done his “best” to “correct” me whenever he gets up the nerve to enter the fray again. Interestingly, he claims have an opinion on Luther’s “authority”, meaning whether he was teaching as God wished him to, but then refused to post it because he “does not like to post his opinions”. I think that is fairly humorous because he has no problem posting his opinions of me and also has no problems with telling me that my opinions are faulty. Everybody seems to specialize in generalizations and nobody seems to be interested in specifics that could support their opinions. Once you eliminate Scriptural interpretations as a “weapon” to prove this or that, they are pretty much lost. All in all, it’s the standard run around, with people like James refusing to answer very simple and important questions, which is pretty revealing in it’s own way.

God Bless You James and Keep Up the Good Work, Tim

Dave Armstrong said...

I don't know how you have the patience with CARM. I was only in one decent debate there: a semi-formal one with Jason Engwer, and he left that less than halfway through. How impressive . . .

Any other "debates" were short-lived and composed mostly of insults from the anti-Catholics rather than argument: just as in your experience.

Tim MD said...

I know what you mean Dave. I have only had one too but it was great. It was with a Baptist from WA state with a degree in Theology. We covered Sola Scriptura for about a year and he was more than willing to consider my point of view and engage in a respectful dialogue. Shoot, he even answered my questions. Imagine that!

I hang out at CARM because I really want to know what Protestants think and also want to see how they answer the “tough” questions. Carm is FULL of people who are VERY sure of themselves and they are not at all bashful about offering their opinions (as facts of course). They are not very good at answering those tough questions though, very much preferring to simply criticize the questions (or the questioner), but nothing very specific. I’m sure we agree that the real test of an opinion is found in the specifics and the exact details. Generalizations and condemnations without an alternative explanation, left at that level, is about as far as most of them go.

It would be nice to find an environment where I could interact with a different type of Apologist but I don’t know where I might do that. Do you know of any other forums which are a “step up”?

God Bless You Dave, Tim (from MD, not an MD)

Dave Armstrong said...

I wouldn't know, because I became completely fed up with discussion boards almost six years ago now. I refuse to participate on them. The only one I have anything to do with is the CHNI forum, where I am a moderator, and they don't allow debate because of the nature of the CHNI mission: to help new and potential Catholics better understand Catholicism.

When I did frequent boards, I never found one that had a high level of discussion minus the insults, and/or moderator hypocrisy and double standards.

It may exist out there somewhere, but I've never found it.

Tim MD said...

Hi Dave,

I found that quote, not because I was looking for it but because I wasn't.

"The picturesque episode of Luther posting his ninety-five theses in Latin on the door of the castle church at Wittenberg is probably only a legend; what we do know for certain is that on October 31, 1517 he sent the theses to his bishop and to the bishop who had licenesed Tetze; and only when they failed to respond did he make his theses public -challenging his academic colleagues to a debate on the subject of indulgences." Thomas Bokenkotter, "A Concise History of the Catholic Church" (1977), pg 215

Again, this is not the biggest deal in the world in that it really doesn't impact the theology that was debated. I wonder if he ever really did nail anything because, to me at least, I just can't imagine why he would have written Albrecht and on the same day, nailed his theses to the door.

The bigger issue of course, is how a supposedly well trained Catholic Theologian, even in Luther's day, could have possibly believed that his Theses did not push a few buttons or so regarding the authority of the Pope.

God Bless You Dave, Tim

Dave Armstrong said...

Interesting. I had never heard that before. Who knows, huh?

Tim MD said...

Big Dave,

Astonishingly, I found the one that I remembered while looking for something else:

“Whether Luther actually posted his Ninety-Five Theses on the castle church of Wittenberg remains uncertain – Melanchthon at least talks about that only decades later.” Albrecht Beutel, “Luther’s Life”, found in “The Cambridge Companion to Martin Luther, edited by Donald K. McKim, (2003), pg 8-9

Beutel is University Professor of Church History in the Evangelisch Theologische Fakultat, Westfalische Wilhelms Universitat, Munster, German. (A German Protestant “expert")

Maybe he went to the actual door, or the fragments of the previous door, did not find glowing nail holes and concluded that it must be a myth.

Beutel at least seems to be under the impression that Luther never referred to any “nailing” and that Melanchthon, who was not even there at the time, only mentions it “decades later”.

Ahhhhhhhhh. The “Legend” of Luther and how the thick plottens.

God Bless You Dave, Tim (who is not normally this deep in the weeds)

Ps: The next time I find something incredibly important like this, I’ll let you know.

Dave Armstrong said...

Thanks so much. Glad you like it!