By Linda de Vries
On this date in 1545 Martin Luther published the Preface to the complete edition of his Latin writings.
This event, although not the most significant in the life of Luther, provides the Bach Bagatelle for this date: Lutheranism
Yes, I know, the subject of Lutheranism is hardly a bagatelle! Even a brief examination, though, provides an important foundation for understanding the world of Bach.
It may also help to answer the question I posed on March 2nd: How was it that Thuringia produced so many world movers?
Martin Luther, by Lucas Cranach
Martin Luther was born in 1493 in the state of Saxony-Anhalt, or Thuringia, since at that time the Elector of Saxony ruled both states. Thuringia has long been considered the heart of Lutheranism.
At the age of 15 Luther attended school in Eisenach, Thuringia. In 1501, at the age of 19, he entered the University of Erfurt, also in Thuringia, where he received in master’s degree in 1505.
He enrolled in law school at Erfurt in that same year, but a close call with a lightning strike caused him to vow to serve God by becoming a monk. He dropped out of the university and entered an Augustinian friary in Erfurt.
He was ordained to the priesthood in 1507 and a year later was took up the position of teacher of theology at the University of Wittenberg, where he earned three degrees in theology and where he remained until his death.
Roman Catholic theology stated that man was justified not by faith alone, but by good works as well, and good works included donating money to the Church. Thus, in 1516 a Dominican friar was sent to Germany to raise money to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome by selling indulgences.
On October 31, 1517 Luther, following university custom, posted his 95 theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. In them he argued that the buying of indulgences would not ensure salvation. He emphasized what he saw as the central truth of Christianity—redemption by faith alone as a gift of God’s grace.
Within two years and with the aid of the newly-invented printing press, Luther’s ideas spread throughout Europe. In 1520 Pope Leo X issued a rebuttal to Luther. Luther’s popularity grew. On June 15, 1520 Pope Leo issued a papal bull denouncing Luther. Luther responded by publicly burning the bull and was excommunicated on January 3, 1521.
Luther appeared before the Diet of Worms, a general assembly the Holy Roman Empire, in 1521, which concluded with Emperor Charles V declaring Luther an outlaw punishable by death. Luther fled to sanctuary in Wartburg Castle in Eisenach, Thuringia. While there he translated the New Testament into German.
A Possible Answer to the Thuringian Question
Luther now preached that the Bible was the only source of divinely revealed knowledge from God. This dictated that every believer should be able to read and study the Bible in search of personal salvation. Emphasis was increasingly placed on education, with “charity schools” being set up so that every child could learn to read.
Luther also believed in the importance of music. He said:
“Next to the word of God, only music deserves being extolled as the mistress and governess of Human feelings. And when music is sharpened and polished by art, then one beings to see with amazement the great and perfect Wisdom of God in his wonderful work of harmony.”
Luther was a prolific hymn writer, and Sebastian Bach and others often used them as sources for chorale cantatas. Luther’s most famous hymn, ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott (A Mighty Fortress is our God), based on Psalm 46 was the source of Sebastian’s cantata BWV 80. (Which Chorale Bel Canto is singing in the Whittier College Bach Festival on April 5, 2014.)
Emphasis on literacy, education and music in the liturgy certainly helped prepare the ground for a cultural flowering in Thuringia.
Who else helped Thuringia become the center of Lutheranism?
Justus Jonas, one of Luther’s closest friends. Jodokus (Jobst) Koch (1493-1555) was born in Nordhausen, Thuringia. Following the scholarly custom of his day, he changed his name to Justus Jonas when he entered the University of Erfurt in 1506.
Jonas and Martin Luther were born in the same year, and their lives crossed both in Erfurt and in Wittenberg. Jonas took degrees in law in both universities, became an ordained priest, and returned to Erfurt. There he became canon of St. Severus Church, a position which included a professorship of law.
Martin Luther won Jonas’ allegiance at his Leipzig Disputation with Johann Eck in 1519. Jonas also accompanied Luther to the Diet of Worms. During Luther’s stay in Wartburg Castle Jonas aided him in translating the Bible into German. One of the hymns in the first Lutheran Hymnal, is attributed to Jonas, and his hymn based on Psalm 124 was the source for J.S. Bach’s cantata BWV 178.
The Market Church of Our Dear Lady in Halle, also known as The Market Church and St. Mary’s Church, had been built to defend against the spread of the Lutheranism, but on March 23, 1541, Good Friday, Jonas officially introduced the Reformation. Halle became Protestant, and in 1542 Jonas was appointed priest of the Market Church.
Luther preached in the church three times in the last two years of his life. At his death in 1546 he lay in state there, and Jonas preached his funeral sermon there.
A century later, George Frideric Handel was baptized in that church and received his first organ lessons there. In 1713 Sebastian Bach was offered a position there. Sebastian’s son Wilhelm Friedmann was organist there from 1746 to 1764. Sebastian’s Christmas cantata (BWV 63) premiered there, some say in 1717, the bicentennial of the Reformation.