Martin Luther in Eisenach

This is part one of a series written by Rev. Donavon Riley that orginally appeared on the HIgher Things - Dare To be Lutheran website.

When Martin was sent to school in Eisenach, his mother's relatives helped him settle in. However, they were poor people, so life for him stayed pretty much the same as it had been in Magdeburg. He focused on his studies and sang in children's choirs for food and a few coins. At some point, however, he met a woman named Schalbe. She was from a family of wealthy merchants. She arranged for Martin to stay in the home of a relative and eat his meals with another. This meant that after 1498, life became a bit better for Luther.

Another change that happened at Eisenach was that Martin caught the attention of the school's headmaster, John Trebonius. He took Luther under his wing and stirred up the young student's imagination. Trebonius, as Luther later recalled, was a gifted teacher. At the same time, Martin began a friendship with another teacher, Weigand Geldennupf. This friendship lasted up to Geldennupf's death.

Geldennupf introduced Martin to ancient authors, like Aesop, Terence, and Virgil. The importance of this for Luther was so far reaching that later he translated Aesop's fables into German. And, he then urged students, friends, and family to read, learn, and memorize the wonderful, wisdom-teaching fables.

It was Trebonius and Geldennupf who recognized Luther's gifts, and it was they who paved the way for him to attend a university. Martin's father, Hans, was very encouraged by this turn of events and did whatever he could to secure his son's future learning, which he hoped would result in a career in church, law or medicine. Even though Hans barely earned enough to feed and support the family back home, when the time came, he made sure Martin had enough money to attend classes at the University of Erfurt.

It may be easy for us in the present to assume Martin's intellectual skills lent themselves to excelling at his studies, and religious life and piety, but they didn't. When he arrived at Erfurt, he was no different than any other student. And, as far as his religious life, Luther was an ordinary Roman Catholic—a believer who attended church regularly, but showed no particular excitement or desire to pursue religious studies.

Martin had learned a great deal about the Christian faith from the Schalbe's, who were devout people, and they taught him much about monasticism. But, again, this didn't appear to especially influence Martin's view of the church or religion. Singing in choirs, attending church, and the like was considered a good work, a part of Luther's Christian duty, and the way to gain spiritual security in his daily life. Salvation for Martin Luther, and everyone, was something earned. It was a religion of works.

Next week, we'll dig into what sin, confession, and penance at the end of the 15th century contributed to a Christian's "spiritual security" and daily life.

Rev. Donavon Riley is the pastor of St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church in Webster, Minnesota. He is also the online content manager for Higher Things.