A Day in the Life of Friar Martin Luther
Posted On February 06, 2017
Reflecting back on his life as a young Augustinian monk, Martin Luther wrote the now famous words, “I kept the rules of my [monastic] order so strictly that I can say: if ever a monk went to heaven on account of his monkery, I should get there too.” If we are familiar with Luther’s early life, we recall the stories of the tormented monk incessantly confessing sins, praying through the night, and fasting to the point of physical harm. Concern for Luther’s wellbeing was one of the reasons that compelled his supervisor, Johann von Staupitz, to send him off to do advanced study in theology. Four years and a doctorate later, Luther was appointed professor of biblical theology at the University of Wittenberg. What happened to the pious monk distressed about his unworthiness before a terrifyingly holy God?
Thanks to a small collection of correspondence that has survived from this period of Luther’s life, we have a fairly good idea. One letter in particular offers a peek into the day-to-day cares and responsibilities of the busy friar, priest, and professor. It was written one year, almost to the day, before Luther posted his ninety-five theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg.
On October 26, 1516, Luther wrote to his close friend and fellow friar, John Lang, who now led the very same monastery to which Luther had belonged when he first joined the Augustinian order. “I do almost nothing else than write letters,” he complained in the opening lines, and proceeded to recount for his friend the duties that made up his hectic routine. Luther served as one of the main preachers and the academic advisor at the Wittenberg monastery to which he belonged. He was the priest responsible for preaching daily at the City Church (the Stadtkirche). He held the prominent and challenging position of district vicar, which meant he oversaw the spiritual and administrative state of eleven monasteries in the region. Luther was also working to mediate a dispute with a nearby city council, as well as collect rent for a local fishpond owned by his monastery. “As I have already mentioned,” he reminded Lang, “the greater part of my time is filled with the job of letter writing.”
As if these duties weren’t enough, Luther was also a professor. When not preaching, administrating, or keeping up with correspondence, he was busy preparing and giving lectures at the university. He had recently finished a series on Romans and was about to begin one on Galatians. He was also trying to arrange a previous set of lectures on the Psalms into a commentary. All this at the age of 33.
Staupitz’s strategy to get Luther’s mind off himself was working, up to a point. Luther was preoccupied with so many monastic, ecclesiastical, and university responsibilities that he was struggling to keep up with his spiritual duties as an Augustinian friar, something that weighed heavily on him. “I hardly have any uninterrupted time to say the Hourly Prayers and celebrate [Mass],” he confessed. “Besides all this there are my own struggles with the flesh, the world, and the devil.” He ended this litany with an exclamation both exasperated and humorous: “See what a lazy man I am!”
This window into Luther’s first years in Wittenberg sets the stage for the events that would unfold only one year later. Little did this Augustinian friar know that the burden of theological, educational, and administrative responsibilities he bore was the means by which God was preparing him to lead the church in Wittenberg and beyond on the road to Reformation.
Eric T. Brandt is Instructor of Church History at Reformation Bible College.