Martin Luther

Martin Luther's break with Rome and connections between Luther and the Wesley brothers.

Episode 2

Hello, I'm Wilson Pruitt, and you are listening to the History of Methodism Podcast. Today’s episode, Martin Luther. John & Charles Wesley were preacher's kids, a phrase that would have been scandalous for most of Christian History. Assuredly, there were many priests who had illegitimate children in the Middle Ages, but, since the Second Lateran Council in 1189, they could not be legally married. A son could not follow in his father's footsteps in ordained ministry (most definitely a daughter could not).

This is but a small part of the myriad of influences that Martin Luther had upon John & Charles Wesley and the Methodist movement, which is why the background history to the Methodist movement begins with Luther. Luther was not the first reform minded Christian in Europe. John Wycliffe in England and Jan Hus in Bohemia had each sought reform in similar ways, but it was Luther who started the reform movement that changed the face of Europe and the Christian Church.

Martin Luther was born in 1483 in Eisleben in the Electorate of Saxony, a semi-autonomous region of the Holy Roman Empire. Martin was the eldest child of a moderately wealthy family. His father wished him to become a lawyer and so sent him off to school at Magdeburg when he was 19 and later to the University in Erfurt. In 1505, Luther was returning to school when he was stuck in a storm near Stotternheim. He feared for his life and cried out, "Help, Saint Anna, I will become a monk." Soon thereafter, he entered the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt against the wishes of his father. Scholars have debated the importance of this event for hundreds of years. Some would soon portray the moment in the storm in a similar manner to St. Paul's conversion on the Damascus road. Luther’s moment on the road, as well, has multiple points of resonance with the life of John Wesley. First, on the ship bound for Georgia, when Wesley was frightened as a storm whirled around, he was struck by the faith of the Moravians on the ship who prayed with out fear. At that time, Wesley did not have the kind of faith to face the storm. Then, a few years later, on Aldersgate Road, after hearing a reading of the preface of the Romans written by Martin Luther, Wesley felt his heart strangely warmed. He wrote about the event, “I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” Whereas Luther radically changed the direction of his life, moving from a worldly lawyer to a monk and priest, Wesley shifted the character of his life. He was still a priest in the Church of England, but no longer could he be satisfied with parish life. Justification by faith in Christ had set him free in a new way and gave him a freedom that he must share.

For Luther, once he had committed to the priesthood, he took to the ordained life like a bull. He was eventually named Professor of Theology at the University of Wittenberg and it was in this capacity that he hammered his 95 thesis to the Wittenberg door. This event was not his split with the Roman Catholic Church, but it was the first direct confrontation of what would later be called the Reformation or the Magisterial Reformation. Luther did not see himself as a schismatic but he felt that he could not remain silent in the face of such corruptions as the selling of indulgences.

Were this the History of Lutheranism podcast, we most likely would spend the next 56 episodes on Martin Luther, but alas we must move on. Before that, though, I must lay out three more points from his life and work that resonated with Wesley and the people called Methodist.

The first, I already alluded to, was the centrality of the doctrine of Justification by Faith alone, the idea that we cannot be made right with God by our own effort but only by the free grace of God in Jesus Christ. The centrality of Justification by Faith comes directly from Luther. In his sermon ‘On God’s Vineyard’, Wesley wrote, “Who has wrote more ably than Martin Luther on Justification by faith alone?” Though many accused Wesley of Pelagianism for his promotion of holiness and the means of Grace, the doctrine of Justification by Faith undergirded everything that he wrote and believed.

The next point is Luther's view that people should be able to read the Bible and worship God in their own language. He emphasized the importance of all people in the church (not just The priests or the choir) participating in worship in ways that they could understand. Not only did this help lead to the development of Church of England but Luther's practice of writing hymns to the tunes of bar songs was later taken up by John and Charles Wesley. Hymn singing was a central practice of the Methodist movement, a practice that would not be possible without Luther's promotion of vernacular and full congregational worship.

Finally, in 1525, Luther married the former nun, Katharina von Bora. After being excommunicated in 1521, Luther did not see the need to follow church teaching about priestly celibacy, especially since he did not find described in the Bible. Their marriage was long and happy, Katharina being a partner around the house, farming land and hosting boarders to support her husband's work. They had six preacher's kids, four living past childhood. If John and Charles had not been the children of Samuel Wesley (a priest in the Church of England and son of another priest) and Susanna Wesley (daughter of the puritan pastor Samuel Annesley) there would be no Methodist movement.

The spark that Luther lit could not be contained in Saxony. With the recent invention of the printing press only 70 years before, a true movement began that spread across Europe, eventually to England itself. On our next episode, we will look at the spread of the Reformation across northern Europe, and begin to see it take shape in England during the reign of Henry VIII. Next time, on the History of Methodism.


John Wesley, "On God's Vineyard", Sermons, Wesley Works 4:505.

John Wesley, "Journal from May 24, 1738", Wesley Works 18:249-250.