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You Are Here: History > Why Luther Went to Rome

Why Luther Went to Rome

Moti­va­tion is one of the most dif­fi­cult things to deter­mine, even for peo­ple who are alive, as any ther­a­pist will tell you. The shelves of Luther biogra­phies have accu­mu­lated more than their fair share of psy­cho­an­a­lysts. And not with­out rea­son. Luther’s fer­vent piety, the intense anx­i­ety he showed over his own sal­va­tion, the degree to which he desired—yet con­stantly failed—to achieve any peace with God, the later demo­niza­tion of his oppo­nents: all these sug­gest an extra­or­di­nar­ily rich and com­pli­cated char­ac­ter. Why was he in par­tic­u­lar so unable to tol­er­ate a the­o­log­i­cal and eccle­si­as­ti­cal sys­tem that plenty of others—even reform­ers of the past themselves—managed to work within and around?

But all this is yet to come for Luther. In 1510 his moti­va­tions were some­what sim­pler. That’s why his pil­grim­age is eas­ier to recre­ate than so many of the other bits of his his­tory, tied as they were to words and meet­ings. The land remains to a greater degree than any of the per­son­al­i­ties he inter­acted with. Luther was sent to Rome by his order. Other moti­va­tions would have been quite sec­ondary to his pri­mary obedience.

He was, of course, curi­ous about the land between Erfurt and Rome. Notes from his later con­ver­sa­tions at table show a healthy inter­est in the peo­ple, cus­toms, and flora of his jour­ney. More par­tic­u­lar was his atten­tion to tech­ni­cal and orga­ni­za­tional dif­fer­ences: a mechan­i­cal clock in Nurem­berg, the foundling house in Flo­rence. Absent seems to be any inter­est in the visual cul­ture of the Renais­sance that would have sur­rounded him in Bologna or Siena.

And he would have been moti­vated by the chance to do pious works in Rome—the most holy city of all Chris­ten­dom (with the pos­si­ble excep­tion of the difficult-to-reach, Mameluk-controlled Jerusalem). Con­trary to pop­u­lar opinion—created, in all like­li­hood, by later Ref­or­ma­tion polemics—Rome wasn’t thought holy pri­mar­ily because of the Pope. The papacy was a con­flicted insti­tu­tion in 1510; the popes of Luther’s time were respected in pub­lic but the sub­jects of scathing satire and cri­tique by many promi­nent church­men for their glar­ing shortcomings.

No, for West­ern Chris­tians, Rome was first of all the city of mar­tyrs. When Luther saw the steeples and domes in the dis­tance he reports him­self to have descended to his knees and cried, “Be greeted, most holy Rome.” Holy because it was bathed in the blood of what was believed at the time to have been hun­dreds of thou­sands of Chris­tians slain by pagan offi­cials for con­fess­ing Christ. The merit of these most holy believ­ers was acces­si­ble through count­less holy acts. Luther surely would have looked for­ward to these opportunities.

But even this was a sec­ondary pur­pose. His pri­mary reason—if not motivation—was a rather arcane errand of his order. The Erfurt house and its prior, Johann Nathin, belonged to a reform move­ment among the Augus­tini­ans that sought to expand a more strict obser­vance of the rule. The houses in Nurem­berg, Kulm­bach, and Erfurt were par­tic­u­larly fer­vent, and they objected strongly to an effec­tive merger of the reformed with the province at large announced on Sep­tem­ber 30, 1510—a union forced upon them by Luther’s later friend and influ­en­tial advi­sor John Staupitz, who was at the time head of the Saxon congregation.

Union would water down the reform­ing cause, the strict obser­vants believed. And so an alliance of the strict decided to appeal to the vicar gen­eral, Giles (Egidio) of Viterbo, in Rome. There was clearly some urgency about the appeal. It seems likely they wanted to try and get to Rome before the passes of the Alps became com­pletely… well, impassable.

Five years of study and earnest reli­gious life had brought Luther to the atten­tion of his broth­ers. A com­bi­na­tion of his demon­strated poten­tial and vig­or­ous youth made him an ideal can­di­date for what was sure to be a demand­ing jour­ney. And so in Novem­ber of 1510 he left Erfurt. He would not have trav­eled alone, for such was for­bid­den by the rule. He was likely accom­pa­nied by Anton Kresz, from the obser­vant house in Nurem­berg, who is believed to have been the one in charge of the appeal.

As to their mode of trans­port: they walked. Such was their lot as fri­ars. Horses and car­riages belonged to sol­diers and nobil­ity. Despite being among the best edu­cated and respected peo­ple of the time, walk­ing fit their vol­un­tary low­li­ness. Suf­fer­ing and humil­i­a­tion were part of the pro­gram. Pil­grim­age was penance, after all.

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8 Responses to Why Luther Went to Rome

    GORDON says:


    paul sailhamer says:

    My wife and I just returned from help­ing to lead a Ref­or­ma­tion Tour of 300 peo­ple from Prague (Jan Hus), through the Ger­man Luther Lands, includ­ing a night at Ober­am­mer­gau, on to Zurich (Zwingli) and Geneva (Calvin). It was our third time to make the trip. The spon­sor was the Evan­gel­i­cal Chris­t­ian Radio Min­istry, Insight for Living.

    I have been a char­ter sub­scriber of First Things but I am not a Roman Catholic. I sub­scribed when RJ Neuhaus was still a Lutheran but stayed with the mag­a­zine and always find it help­ful. I per­son­ally am not con­vinced that the issue that Luther said “the church stands or falls on”, jus­ti­fi­ca­tion by faith alone, is shared by the Roman Church and evan­gel­i­cal Luther­ans. I will be inter­ested to fol­low your journey…I am a walker, and have often thought about the jour­ney you are tak­ing. Thanks for invit­ing us to vir­tu­ally go along!

    paul sailhamer says:

    I for­got to mention…Those that would like a sam­ple of our own recent Ref­or­ma­tion Tour can go to Insight.org and click on Ref­or­ma­tion Tour Blog to see a short, daily review of our own journey.

    Fred Schumacher says:

    Dear Sarah and Andrew:

    Will be fol­low­ing your pilgrimage.

    The Lord Be With you.


    Albert de Pury says:

    A great project, a promis­ing start, and a very stim­u­lat­ing way of putting things into focus ! Anne and I are in thoughts with the three of you start­ing out on your fab­u­lous trek ! A.+ A. de Pury

    Shirley Midthun says:

    I am read­ing with great inter­est your des­ig­nated journey.At 73 years old, I
    have for­got­ten much of this infor­ma­tion since my con­fir­ma­tion classes.

    Con­sid­er­ing that the pur­pose of Luther’s jour­ney was to pre­vent unity, your walk plot cer­tainly thick­ens. We’re pray­ing along with you.

    Pingback: Ecumenists Cross the Tiber » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog

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