The Homes and Haunts of Martin Luther (3)

from “The Sunday At Home: A Family Magazine for Sabbath Reading”

issue No. 1066–October 3, 1874

by John Stoughton, D.D.

The Schloss Kirche–The Castle Church at Wittenberg

But we must hasten on to the Schloss Kirche, or Castle Church, at the end of the town, opposite to the Elster Gate and the Augustinian Monastery. It is much smaller than the church we have just left; but, on approaching it, the doors arrest our attention from the circumstance of their being connected with one of the boldest acts of Luther’s life. We well remember the doors of the church at Milan, said to have been closed by St. Ambrose against the entrance of the Emperor Theodosius–significant of the courage of a renowned ecclesiastic in the maintenance of discipline. They occur to our recollection as we step up to the threshold of the Schloss Kirche, where the doors are significant of the courage of our Saxoon Reformer in attacking the dogmas on which had rested the reign of ecclesiastical despotism age after age. Against these very doors Luther affixed his ninety-five theses, now world-known–a challenge given to Papal Christendom–a gauntlet thrown down before the Romanised world. It was in the autumn of 1517, on the eve of the feast of All Saints, that Luther, agitated by the sale of indulgences, took certain counter-propositions, which he had elaborated with all the logical skill of the age, so as to cover the whole ground of the controversy as he then apprehended it, and fastened the papers to the panel of the church gate. There it was displayed to public gaze. There it was read. There it was even pondered. The proposition, which serves as a key to the rest, runs thus: “Every Christian who feels a true sorrow, a sincere repentance for his sins, has a plenary remission for his fault, even without an indulgence.” Again: “The true and precious treasure of the Church is the holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.” On that church threshold the public proceedings of the Reformation may be said to have begun. There sounded the trupet-note which rolled over Germany from end to end.

As at Milan, the old doors shut against Theodosius have disappeared; so with the old doors to which Luther’s theses were affixed. No fragment of the panelling even remains, as at Milan. The old doors of the Schloss Kirche were burnt by the French; the present are of bronze, from a design by Quast.

Most visitors to Wittenberg complain of the difficulty of gaining access to the Augustinian Monastery and the Schloss Kirche, from the circumstance of the same person being custodian of the keys to both buildings. When we had surmounted the difficulty, and entered the church, we found ourselves in the presence of a worthy old German couple, who manifested a common interest in the edifice and its memorials, and vied with each other in the office of cicerone. That interest was equalled only by the zeal of the old man in exhibiting photographs, facsimiles, and seal impressions, which form a staple of merchandise on this sacred spot, and the zeal of the old woman in providing for the creature comforts of her husband and lord. The hour of the mid-day meal having arrived, she showed a most exemplary desire that the object of her affections should find rest and refreshment amidst his toils; and, therefore, having sent him to his neighbouring hom, to dine in quiet, she undertook his duties, and, conducting us round the building, pointed out to us the several objects of interest which it contains. Here are the tombs of Frederick the Wise and John the Steadfast, both friends of the Reformer. The monument of Frederick is, as the guide-book says, “a fine work of art, by Peter Vischer, 1527: his bronze statue is full of life, and of a noble character.” The Gothic work of the niche is very beautiful.

But the two main objects are the graves of Martin Luther and Philip Melancthon. They are covered by tablets of bronze inserted in the stone pavement, and preserved by modern trap-doors opening over them. Two such graves are worth coming a long way to see; and he who cares to take the journey for that purpose will not fail to be moved in spirit, as he gazes on the last home of the earthly remains of these two, who, in spite of transient jars, were lovely and pleasant in their lives, and in the tomb, rather than in death, not divided.

It is fitting here first to read the account of Luther’s death:

“Luther had arrived at Eisleben on the 28th of January, 1546, and , although very ill, he took part in the conferences which ensued, up to the 17th of February. He also preached four times, and revised the eclesiastical regulations for the territory of Mansfeldt. On the 17th he was so ill that the counts entreated him not to quit his house. At supper, on the same day, he spoke a great deal about his approaching death; and some one having asked him whether we should recognise one another in the next world, he said he thought we should. On retiring to his chamber, accompanied by Maltre Caelius and his two sons, he went to the window, and remained there for a considerable time engaged in silent prayer. Aurifaber then entered the chamber, to whom he said, ‘I feel very weak, and my pains are worse than ever.’ They gave him a soothing draught, and endeavoured to increase the circulation by friction. He then addressed a few words to Count Albert, who had joined him, and lay down on the bed, saying, ‘If I could manage to sleep for half an hour I think it would do me good.’ he did fall asleep, and remained in gentle slumber for an hour and a half. On awaking about eleven, he said to those present, ‘What! are you still there? Will you not go, dear friends, and rest yourselves?’ On their replying that they would remain with him, he began to pray saying with fervour, ‘Into Thy hands I commend my spirit: Thou hast redeemed me, oh Lord God of Truth.’ He then said to those present, ‘Pray, all of you, dear friends, for the gospel of our Lord; pray that its reign may extend, for the Council of Trent and the Pope menace it round about.’ He then fell asleep again for about an hour. When he awoke, Dr. Jonas asked him how he felt. ‘Oh my God,’ he replied, ‘I feel very ill. My dear Jonas, I think I shall remain here at Eisleben, here–where I was born.’ He took a turn or two in the room, and then lay down again, and had a number o clothes and cushions placed upon him to produce perspiration. Two physicians, with the count and his wife, entered the chamber. Luther said to them feebly, ‘Friends, I am dying; I shall remain with you here at Eisleben.’ Dr. Jonas expressing a hope that perspiration would, perhaps, supervene and relieve him; ‘No, dear Jonas,’ he replied, ‘I feel no wholesome perspiration, but a cold dry sweat; I get worse and worse every instant.’ He then began praying again: ‘Oh my Father! Thou, the God of our Lord Jesus Christ; Thou, the source of all consolation, I thank Thee for having revealed unto me Thy well-beloved Son, in whom I believe; whom I have preached and acknowledged, and made known; whom I have loved and celebrated, and whom the Pope and the impious persecute. I commend my soul to Thee, oh my Lord Jesus Christ! I am about to quit this terrestrial body, I am about to be removed from this life; but I know that I shall abide eternally with Thee.’ He then thrice repeated, ‘Into Thy hands I commend my spirit; Thou hast redeemed me, oh Lord God of truth.’ All at once his eyes closed, and he fell back in a swoon. Count Albert, and his wife, and the physicians, made every effort to bring him to life, but for some time altogether in vain. When he was somewhat revived, Dr. Jonas said to him, ‘Reverend father, do you die firm in the faith you have taught?’ he opened his eyes, which were half closed, looked fixedly at Jonas, and replied, firmly and distinctly, ‘Yes.’ He then fell asleep; soon after, those nearest to him saw him grow paler and paler: he became cold: his breathing was more and more faint: at length he sent forth one deep sigh, and the great Reformer was dead.”

The corpse was brought to Wittenberg with great honours. In the procession, first went four deacons, then the officers of the Elector, on horseback; next the Counts of Mansfeldt, with their attendants. The corpse followed, in a leaden coffin covered with black velvet, and conveyed on a funeral car. Luther’s widow (who was not with him when he died), in an open chariot, accompanied her husband’s remains as chief mourner. The three sons, a brother, and his wife, and friends, two and two, including Philip Melanchthon and Justus Jonas, brought up the rear.

The coffin being carried into the Schloss Kirche, and placed on a bier in front of the altar, two funeral orations were pronounced; one by Pomer and one by Melanchthon. The latter remarked: “Often have I myself gone to him unawares, and found him dissolved in tears and prayers for the Church of Christ. He devoted a certain portion of almost every day to the reading of the Psalms of David, with which he mingled his own supplications amidst sighs and tears; and he has frequently declared how indignant he felt against those who hastened over devotional exercises, through sloth or the presence of other occupations. When a variety of great and important deliberations respecting public dangers have been pending, we have witnessed his prodigious vigour of mind, his fearless and unshaken courage. Faith was his sheet-anchor, and by the help of God, he was resolved never to be driven from it.”

A brass plate was fixed upon the grave, and still remains, bearing this inscription: “Martini Lutheri, S. Theologiae Doctoris Corpus H. L. S. E. qui anno Christi MDLVI. XII. Cal. Martii Eyslebii in patria S. M. O. C. V. Ann. LXIII. MIIDX.”

Charles V entered Wittenberg after having beseiged it, and expressed a wish to see the famous tomb. Reading the inscription with folded arms, he was asked by a sycophantic attendant whether he would not have the grave opened and the ashes of the arch-heretic scattered to the winds. It is said the emperor’s cheek grew red as he replied, “I war not with the dead. Let this place be respected.”

We have scarcely time left for a visit to the Rathhaus, which is a large building with long rows of windows opening from a plain wall, the deep roof being relieved by four large dormers, each with an ornamental facing, crowned by a fluttering vane. The steps of the main entrance were, when we visited the spot, crowded with the town authorities, who were celebrating the victory of Sedan, on the anniversary of the battle. Flags were flying; bands of music were playing; trade was interrupted. Even the post-office in front of the town-hall to witness the proceedings of the magistrates in honour of the occasion.

Besides pictures and other curiosities, including a portrait of Gustavus Adolphus, and a sword he left as a memorial of his visit to the Luther shrine, the Rathhaus contains the top of the Reformer’s sacramental cup, and the rosary which he carried when he was a monk. A long catalogue might be drawn up of relics connected with the extraordinary man–now scatterred over different parts of Germany–showing the veneration in which his name is everywhere held. There is an enormous difference between pretended and genuine relics, and between the religious reverence paid to the former and the natural interest taken in the latter. The mouldering bones of mediaeval and primitive saints, exhibited in costly reliquaries within the sacristies of Roman Catholic churches, carry with them no proofs of genuineness, and in very numerous cases must be of a perfectly spurious character; whilst such objects as are shown at Wittenberg and else where, in connection with the history of Luther, are such as, for the most part, carry along with them not only accredited traditions, but manifest signs of credibility in their very form and appearance. Were they brought out to receive religious honours, to have imprinted on them the kisses of superstitious devotees, such a practice would be opposed to the design and spirit of the Reformer’s whole career; but to preserve them as memorials of an illustrious man, and to view them with deep interest when examined under that character, is in accordance with natural feelings which it would be impossible to suppress and absurd to condemn.

The memory of Martin Luther is engraven upon the town of Wittenberg more indelibly and prominently than any other memory. Even the brilliant reputation of Philip Melanchthon pales in connection with the lustre of his colleague’s fame. The fortunes of war, which have thrown shadows over this old German town–such as the Austrian bombardment in 1760, when one-third of the buildings were destroyed, and the Prussian siege in 1814, when the place was taken by storm–are events scarcely remembered even by readers of history, as they walk through the streets of Wittenberg. But everybody, on approaching the gates, thinks of the Saxon monk who there lived and there lies buried. Washington Irving concludes his essay on Shakespeare and Stratford-on-Avon, by remarking that it would have cheered “the spirit of the youthful bard that his name should become the glory of his native place; that his ashes should be religiously guarded as its most precious treasure, and that its lessening spire, on which his eyes were fixed in tearful contemplation, should one day become the beacon, towering amidst the gentle landscape, to guide the literary pilgrim of every nation to his tomb.” It is no depreciation of Shakespeare’s genius to say, that above his aspirations after fame, whatever they might be, rose the aims and desires of Luther; a man absorbed in zeal for the salvation of human souls, and for the glory of his Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ; but it would have filled him with wonder–perhaps given him pleasure–could he have forseen the place he was to occupy in the thistory of the world, and how the double tower of the Stadt Kirche, in which he preached, would become a beacon to guide tens of thousands from both hemispheres to the Augustinian monastery, where he lived, and to the Schloss Kirche, where he lies entombed.


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