Opening with a sly encounter in a “flea-infested, weak-beered inn”, with a narrator deploying terms such as “smack-dab”, “smelling fishy”, “wheedling”, “bootlicking”, “hustling”, “oozing”, and “vinegary”, plucked from the first hundred pages of this brisk retelling of Martin Luther’s half decade spent in the first flush of reforming zeal, this tone conveys its spirited clip. It takes its title from a letter from Luther to Pope Leo early in 1518, when the friar proclaims “lo, this is the fire with which they complain all the world is now ablaze!” How a provincial professor emboldened his stance may seem an oft-told tale.
As Brigham Young University historian Craig Harline sighs, more has been written about his subject than any other personage save Jesus. Yet, A World Ablaze burns with righteous heat. For readers vaguely aware of Luther’s rejection of Rome, tension and doubt enter as often as boasts and assertions. Harline dramatizes the historical record, so we witness verified events as they occur. His style carries one into the considerable courtly power plays, keeping erudite ideas vivid.
Harline explains his range. He narrows it to 1517-1522, the “first few trembly years of fame.” His study is “meant for those who know the name of Luther but aren’t exactly sure why.” Harline neatly relates the formative stages of a law student as “chronic soul-fretter”. Spooked into entering the Augustinian Order, the only one founded by a pope, Luther’s academic career at first appears routine.
Obsessed by the need to place faith first and to claim justification by grace alone redeems a believer, rather than the acquisition of merit by custom and good works, Luther’s insistence on scriptural primacy over Catholic teaching and tradition, Harline documents, had predecessors within the Church. But Luther criticized sales pitches targeting the desperate and the credulous to abuse the system of indulgences, which enriched rival friars such as Dominicans who claimed with a clink of the coin in the box that the suffering soul from purgatory sprang into heaven. He clashed with the might of the papacy, which raked in donations exchanged for dubious releases of departed loved ones along with absolution for living supplicants. Luther denied that the wages of sin could be paid off in so mercenary a fashion.
This intricate argument benefits from Harline’s presentation. Likewise, he patiently interprets Luther’s gradual disenchantment with the tainted system underwriting non-scriptural sanctioned shortcuts and loopholes for ransomed souls. For a while, Luther lobbied within the Church for change. Politically and ecclesiastically, he edged into tricky terrain. The Holy Roman Empire’s German-speaking principalities and restive taxpayers resented Rome’s exaction of wealth. Grassroots support for the 28-year-old priest grew after he refused to let the initial disinterest in his legendary 95 Theses at Wittenberg discourage him. Peter Marshall’s new book 1517 proves that the bold bang of Luther’s hammer to post the proclamation on the church door cannot be corroborated. He may have made it up a quarter-century later. Harline reminds us how public notice of academic disputations was university routine, and as an aside that nobody showed up at that cancelled event, All Hallows Eve, 1517.
However, that canny city preacher knew that All Saints Day attracted pilgrims. Even if few bothered to register their reaction then to his insolent arguments about indulgences and grace, this “purely academic tiff” capitalized on the printing trade. Enriched by busy presses churning out indulgences, they translated a learned Luther sermon into the vernacular. Prelates and potentates at first ignored the cleric’s scholarly challenges. The people did not, making that pamphlet a bestseller. Luther’s bent for teasing Rome tangled with his risk of taunting papal pride. “I have provoked all the people, the great, the average, the mediocre, to hate me thoroughly.” Luther’s confidence gained a boost. He credited his recent keenness of mind and pen to faith.
By placing the bible before tradition, he found reward from the grace he championed. Nobody, he admitted, could obey the laws of God perfectly. But by suffering, a despairing human might be driven to hope. This teaching irritated authorities.
Its anti-papal tendency also pleased the local prince, who protected him from a summons to Rome to recant. Tormented by the devil when he through diplomatic compromise had to report to those assembled at the Diet of Augsburg, Luther quailed. He imagined the Adversary’s attack: “Are you alone wise and all the ages in error?” A year after those 95 theses, he anticipated excommunication.
Fortuitously, imperial interests delayed Pope Leo’s crackdown. Harline chronicles debates between Luther and his longtime sparring partner, the loyal theologian Johann Eck. Attention grew as did papal accusations against the new dean of heresy and sympathy with the persecuted “Bohemian” remnant which survived underground after their leader, Jan Hus, burned at the stake a century before.
Eck egged on Rome to silence the false preacher. Hardliner Eck went further than Luther’s hesitant disciplinarians, who preferred to nudge him to back down from increasingly insistent tracts against papal supremacy. Leo issued a bull against Luther, condemning his lies and boasts. By autumn of 1520, news of this interdiction reached Saxony. His princely protector, Frederick Wettin, received his own threats from St. Peter’s. Rome ordered The Netherlands to burn Luther’s writings; a quarter of the student body at his university in Wittenberg quit when the bull meant they’d also be under a ban.
Turning to his native language, Luther rallied the native nobility as his allies. For “the pope eats the fruit; the Germans play with the peels.” Protests multiplied against the pope’s pomp, enforced celibacy for clergy, pilgrimages, miracles, saints, and the curricula of Aristotle and of canon law. The bishop of Rome now found himself called the Antichrist. Faith rather than priests made the sacraments work. These were reduced to baptism and the Eucharist; the bread and wine stayed as such, symbolically rather than transubstantially. The Mass transformed into God’s gift to mankind.
Harline admits such critiques were not without precedent, but the timing and the temerity of Luther’s assertions drew him into a showdown. Judged in absentia in Rome already, Luther had to recant or face arrest. The Church expected German rulers to follow its lead. Erasmus, brought in as a consultant, suggested a fair tribunal. The upcoming Diet of Worms accommodated this legal hearing.
Thirty silly excerpts from canon law, collected by Luther, fed his own bonfire alongside that papal bull the date Rome’s grace period expired. Excommunication did not faze him; one ally, after the rebel’s texts were kindled, penned a “Lament Over the Lutheran Conflagration at Mainz”. Their rabble-rouser added more: by the end of 1520 over 60 of his writings were published. The brevity of many hastened their spread to Strasbourg and Basel, Paris and beyond, outselling Erasmus himself. Eck became the brunt of his foil’s attack: “Doesn’t your whorish forehead blush that your inane smoke is withstanding the lightning of the divine Word?” Its wry author now acted as “the co-heir of Christ”.
Pressured to produce an apology to Leo, Luther’s 50-page letter asserted: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” Not any law but faith in the Son of God as a “passive trust” that Christ would justify one if one let Him: this stands as Luther’s summation of justification. Laws provided needed restraint for sinful humans. God’s righteousness filled a believer, so that one obeyed divine rules by choice instead of obligation.
Harline shows how Luther’s appeal lay in his direct approach, honed as a preacher and perfected on the page, as well as the look he gave his books. His fellow friars shared them across the Empire. Knights liked them too, interpreting the language of warfare between God and the Devil accordingly.
Two thousand people welcomed Luther into Worms. Holy Roman Emperor Charles V presided over the Diet, where a fractious friar did not even get a mention on the agenda. Catholic disciplinarians implied an “obstinate heretic” equaled a revolutionary. Technical difficulties had delayed the official expulsion of Luther, but Eck and papal nuncios vowed penalties. Germans preferred his fair hearing.
Luther managed to obtain if not that than at least a safe passage home, after the Catholic delegates failed to exact his confession of error. But now an outlaw, he slipped off to a castle for ten months. Rome’s officials leaned enough on Charles V for him to agree to a denunciation of the enemy priest. Charles’ subsequent war against the King of France, for the next decade, left this edict less urgent for other German nobles to worry about. Frederick had enabled Luther to hole up in Wartburg, where he soon complained “my ass is sore” in one of his first letters out. He continued to encourage dissent.
Some followers lashed out with violence. Luther rejected this but promoted the renunciation of monastic vows. His confreres began to quit the priesthood. At the end of 1521, he translated the New Testament, altering key terms to suit his aims of using scripture so that the faithful could accept the promise of salvation. He arranged biblical books to support his preference for the gospels. His teachings continued to inspire novelty. Back in Wittenberg, certain leaders blamed brawls against “old style” priests on burghers and students labelled as “ignorant Martinists”. Christmas mass altered, as communion was taken in the hands by congregants who had not confessed or fasted in advance.
Defecting Augustinians sparked iconoclasm against the citizens. Altars and images were smashed up in the municipal church. Cautious Luther decided to return, for these reformers were more radical than him when it came to dismantling Catholic rituals and rites. Dressed as a red-hooded knight and accompanied by such for protection, the activist friar in March 1522 arrived. In a new habit, “freshly tonsured and barbered”, he took the pulpit and restored order which the past four years had undone.
The Peasant’s War confirmed the rapidity of revolt. Over a hundred thousand died at the hands of knights and nobles by the cessation of hostilities in 1525. Luther’s heresy bore the blame to many in control of the German lands. The first martyrs of the new form of the faith were Augustinians immolated in Antwerp in 1523. Under the care of Frederick, Harline reveals, Luther had benefited from royal security. An edict soon went into place that whatever the prince of the realm chose as his denomination, so his subjects would follow suit. Luther kept teaching and preaching before marrying an ex-nun who had escaped her convent. His next two decades flash past in about the same number of pages, for A World Ablaze highlights the first fiery roar rather than the steadily hotter firestorms as the Reformation sundered Calvinists from Lutherans, and as German rulers fought and plundered.
Compressed, the final chapter sums up much which would suggest Harline return to Luther, so an audience could learn more about him in this biographer’s deft fashion. Harline shares with his titular theme’s instigator a knack for everyday expressions in the service of a higher form of instruction. Those who finish this book will have to remain satisfied with a suggested reading list appending this. It’s testimony to the verve of this version that Harline stays on a steady course through turbulent times.