Martin Luther died on 18 February 1546 at the age of 62 in Eisleben, Saxony, the city where he was born. Luther’s actions had sparked a revolution that divided Europe and changed the course of history. Modern European identities were fundamentally shaped by the religious changes that he set in motion. The years of struggle, against the Catholic Church and amongst his fellow reformers, took their toll and Luther suffered from periods of depression and illness. One of the more poignant items in our Reformation exhibition is a letter written by Luther on 1 January 1528.
The letter is addressed to Gerhard Vilskamp, Rector of the community of Brethren of the Common Life at Herford in Westphalia. It is one of a number to survive from correspondence between the two men dating from 1527 to 1534. Luther’s contact with the community began with Jacob Montanus, a friend of the German Lutheran reformer Philipp Melanchthon, who had moved there in 1522 to assist in their teaching activities. Vilskamp, along with his prorector, had been arrested in 1525 ‘as Lutherans and heretics’ by Bishop Eric of Paderborn and Osnabrück. After the city adopted the new faith in 1530, Luther supported the community in their appeals to the city authorities to maintain their communal life. The subject matter of the letter is particularly personal as Luther reflects on his recent struggles with depression and illness.
Grace and peace in Christ. I have received your most recent letter of consolation, my Gerard, with much pleasure and gratitude. May Christ reward you in eternity. In truth, this temptation was by far the most severe ever, and although it was not unknown to me from my youth, still so troublesome attack as this I had not expected. Nevertheless Christ triumphed, though my life was hanging by a most slender thread. I commend me to your prayers and [those] of your brothers. I have saved others, but I cannot save myself. My blessed Christ, who passed through the depth of despair, death and blasphemy, will enable us to meet in his kingdom. In the meantime we must make sure that we serve Him in word and deed, but it is not in this that we are justified – we are truly useless as servants , but our glory is to live in the world for Christ, forgetting our former evil life. What remains is that Christ is our life and our justification (ah, how hard and unknown to the flesh!), although hidden in God . Now I rejoice that I understand Peter (with you as witness) that we must fulfill the experience of suffering that strikes our brethren in this world, however severe, until the end of this world.
Greetings to my Montanus and all the brothers. [Day] of the Circumcision, 1528.
Yours Martin Luther
Luther letter transcription and translation (with thanks especially to Professor Ulrich Bubenheimer and Dr Irene O’Daly).
Unfortunately we do not know the circumstances for the acquisition of the letter. However it does appear in a ‘List of Purchased Books 1893’, an alphabetical listing written by Mrs Rylands herself. It is one of two items under the heading ‘Luther’, the other being our copy of the 95 theses. You can see both of these treasures on display in our Reformation exhibition until Sunday 4 March.