In 1505, Martin Luther was here in Erfurt. He had received his master’s degree in January, and he just spent a few months studying law. He thought he’d go home and pay a visit to his family, so he traveled about 90 kilometers to the north to the town of Mansfeld. On the way back, Luther was caught in a violent thunderstorm, in fact, he thought God had unleashed the very heavens to take his life. So Luther tried to get shelter, and he found this big granite rock, and he grasped it, and he cried out, “Help me, Saint Anne, and I will become a monk.”The Ligonier link goes on, in essence, to describe the deficiencies of Luther's medieval Roman Catholic worldview. This dramatic story captures Luther's unwavering youthful dedication to the church of Rome (via his reliance on a mediator other than Christ, Saint Anne), his fear of God, his anfechtungen, and his ultimate need for the Gospel. It's a powerful way to begin his story. Some have gone so far as comparing the story to Paul on the way to Damascus. This author goes to the extreme of speculating that perhaps Luther was also thrown off his horse during the storm! But is is true? Recently, I came across one of Rome's defenders challenging it:
What I can't fathom is that most protestants know very little about their "father", Martin Luther. He was a disobedient Augustinian monk; obedience to their Superiors and the Church is a vow he took. He was, in today's language, a wayward Catholic. This unbelievably arrogant man, who only became entered the Church after (as the fairytale goes) not being struck by lightning during a storm. He, apparently, saw this as a sign from God that he was protected to enter clerical life. This same man (the protestant father) had debates with the Devil. Imagine that a "good man" debating with Satan himself.Each sentence drips with blatant disdain for Luther. Such vitriol is symptomatic of an absence of rational Reformation research. The "fairy-tale" statement though on Luther's vow to Saint Anne is intriguing: it unwittingly challenges a popular Protestant historical narrative used by professional historians. It can be found in the opening paragraph of Roland Bainton's of Here I Stand, as well as Heiko Obermann's Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, to name only two of perhaps thousands who treat the story credibly. Let's dig into Reformation history and figure out where this event was recorded and if the details are trustworthy or a fairy-tale.
Whether it's books or web-pages, the story is often told without a reference. Unlike a lot of Luther tidbits used by Rome's defenders, the primary source for this one isn't too hard to track down. The story comes from the Tischreden, in English, the Table Talk. The Table Talk is a collection of second-hand comments written down by Luther's friends and students, published after his death. Luther didn't write the Table Talk. Since the statements contained therein are purported to have been made by Luther, they should serve more as corroborating second-hand testimony to something Luther is certain to have written.
The statement can be found in WA TR 4: 440, entry 4707. The text reads,
This comment was taken down by Anthony Lauterbach, an eyewitness to the actual statement, whose collection dates from 1538-1539. LW 54 posits that he wasn't trying to document Luther's life, but rather his own! According to LW, Lauterbach was good with recording dates. The dating of this story does play a role in its veracity.
The dating of the story is tricky. As per WA, the date of the remark is listed as July 16,1539 ("16. Iulii"). In the actual remark, Luther says, "Today is the anniversary of my entrance into the monastery at Erfurt" (July 16). There's sometimes confusion here. Some sources say he entered on July 16, while the overwhelming majority say it was July 17. Most biographies point out he announced his intentions to join the monastery to his friends on July 16, in fact this very Table Talk comment mentions the gathering of Luther and friends on July 16. Technically, Luther is referring to the night before he entered the monastery as the anniversary date.
This story recorded by Lauterbach in 1539 is thirty-four years removed from when it was said to have occurred in 1505. In many of the accounts, the thunderstorm date is calculated as July 2, 1505 because in the Table Talk comment itself, the story of the storm and his vow to Saint Anne is said to take place "two weeks earlier on his way through Stotternheim." That would therefore place the date at or around July 2, 1505.
Some scholars try to infer a dating error on the statement of July 16. Ironically, St. Anne's feast day was on July 26. Grisar appears to follow this. When he cites the story, he references it as "Luther to his friends on the feast day of St. Anne, July 16 (?26), 1539." He refers to Bindseil's third volume of Luther's Colloquia, p.187, but that text clearly says it was the feast day of St. Alexius, July 16, 1539 (though the feast is on July 17!). Oddly, Grisar elsewhere notes it was the Feast for Alexius. On the other hand, with the date of the storm on July 2, 1505, Franz Posset simply says "Oddly enough, the feast day of St. Anne is celebrated not on July 2, but on July 26" (p.53).
To my knowledge, there's been no "official" English translation of this Table Talk statement by the keepers of Luther's writings. Typically, the story has been used by authors expressing the comment in their own words. Some have extensive embellishments. For instance, this author tells the story in a much greater detail than the actual original context provides. Even the Ligonier version that began this entry has details not in the original context: "Luther tried to get shelter, and he found this big granite rock, and he grasped it...". The "granite rock" and shelter seeking is not in the original context.
There are though extended English versions found here and here. These will serve as the English translation.
"Today is the anniversary of my entrance into the monastery at Erfurt"¬ and he began to tell the story of how he had vowed his vow. About two weeks earlier on his way through Stotternheim, not far from Erfurt, he had said in terror, "Help, Saint Anne, I promise to become a monk!" "But God heard my vow in Hebrew where Anna means by grace as opposed to by law."And also:
On July 16, the day of [St.] Alexius, he said, "Today it is the anniversary of my entry into the monastery in Erfurt." And he began to recount the story how he had made a vow almost fourteen days earlier when underway he was upset by a lightening bolt near Stotternheim, not far From Erfurt. In his fear he had called out, "'Help me holy Anna, I want to become a monk.' At that time, however, God regarded my vow in Hebrew: Anna, that is to say, in grace and not under law. I regretted my vow, and many told me that I shouldn't keep it. I persisted, however, and on the day before [St.] Alexius, I invited my best friends to say goodbye so that they could accompany me to the monastery the next day. When they wanted to hold me back, I said 'Today you will see me for the last time.' Under tears they brought me away. Also, my father was very angry about the vow, but I stuck to my decision, I never considered leaving the monastery. I was completely dead to the world."
This basic historical inquiry shows Luther did not write down anywhere that he made a vow to Saint Anne. The historical veracity of the vow is based solely on a second-hand statement recorded by a former student and friend of Luther's, thirty-four years removed from the actual event. There's no reason though that I'm aware of to doubt that Anthony Lauterbach accurately transcribed what he heard Luther say, nor is there any reason to suspect that Lauterbach put forth his own emendations. On the other hand, the evidence of Table Talk statements should serve more as corroborating second-hand testimony to something Luther is certain to have written or stated elsewhere. I'm not aware of any corroborating witnesses recording the same vow to Saint Anne, nor am I aware of any others in Luther's lifetime that credibly attest to it.
A glaring problem some see with the vow to Saint Anne is Luther's statement, "But God heard my vow in Hebrew where Anna means by grace as opposed to by law." Roman Catholic writer Franz Possett states,
A critical examination of the Table Talk shows that Luther said that God understood his "vow" as spoken in the Hebrew language because "Anna" in Hebrew means "under grace." [H]anna derived from the Hebrew root hen. Yet, is such linguistic and religious self-interpretation from hindsight in agreement with reality? One may have doubts. Luther at the time did not have an inkling of Hebrew. How could he have "spoken the vow in the Hebrew language"? Luther did not want to make a historical-biographical, but a theological statement. What he wanted to say is this: his life's journey is the outcome of God's grace" (p.53).Possett based his comments on "Angelika Dörfler-Dierken: Luther und die heilige Anna, LUJ 64 (1997) 19-47." It's a meaningful observation: that Luther links the vow to a Hebrew exposition without actually knowing Hebrew speaks loudly of theological embellishment thirty-four years removed. Even if it's only asserted that Luther spoke in German and God understood it in Hebrew, it still points to interpolation. It can't be ruled out that all of Luther's vow to Saint Anne is an embellishment, but the Hebrew aspect of it certainly raises suspicion that Luther was pouring in meaning using insights he gleaned during the course of twenty years.
While the vow to Saint Anne has only one second-hand attestation, there is evidence that Luther decided to become a monk during a storm. In a letter to his father in 1521, he says that he had been called by "terrors from heaven" and that he,
...did not become a monk of my own free will and desire, still less to gain any gratification of the flesh, but that I was walled in by the terror and the agony of sudden death and forced by necessity to take the vow. Then you said, "let us hope that it was not an illusion and deception" (LW 48:332).This testimony does have corroborating Table Talk evidence:
No. 623: Father Criticizes Luther for Becoming Monk Fall, 1533
He [Martin Luther] became a monk against the will of his father. When he celebrated his first mass and asked his father why he was angry about the step he took, the father replied reproachfully, “Don’t you know that it’s written, Honor your father and your mother?” [Exod. 20:12]. When he excused himself by saying that he was so frightened by a storm that he was compelled to become a monk, his father answered, “Just so it wasn’t a phantom you saw!” (LW 54:109)There is also a letter written to Luther from Crotus Rubeanus, October 16, 1519 that testifies to the storm. Notice that a comparison of Luther in the storm is compared to Paul on the road to Damascus. Rubeanus states,
Whenever you, Martin, are mentioned, I am wont to call you the pater patriae, worthy of a golden statue and of annual feasts, for having first dared to deliver the people of the Lord from noxious opinions and to assert true piety. Go on as you have begun, leave an example to posterity; for what you do is not without the inspiration of the gods. Divine Providence intended this when, as you were returning from your parents, a thunderbolt from heaven prostrated you like another Paul on the ground before the town of Erfurt and forced you from our company, sad at your departure, into the walls of the Augustinian fold.There is also a description of Luther's reasons for entering the monastery from Luther's friend Justus Jonas, though this testimony was taken down by an anonymous person. Similarly, the content does not mention a vow to Saint Anne, and only mentions the basic facts.
That a violent storm played a role in Luther's entering the monastery, and that it strongly influenced him seems most likely, it's at least better documented. Only the most bare historical treatments see Luther's entrance into the monastery due to a vow to Saint Anne as the sole direct cause. Better treatments mention quite a number of factors, the thunderstorm only playing a partial role.
Is Luther's vow to Saint Anne a fairy-tale? Not necessarily. Assume Luther was telling the truth, he had no reason to make up the story, and the story was transcribed correctly. It also does correspond to the better-attested storm details. The story does though demonstrate the difficulties of substantiating history. In this case, Luther's vow to Saint Anne is based on a second-hand comment thirty-four years after it happened, and is never directly tied to anything Luther ever wrote or preached. The comment itself does appear to include embellishments. In fairness to Rome's defender, he unwittingly raised an interesting issue as to the basis of particular historical facts. A happy medium would be for those using Luther's vow to Saint Anne, to do so cautiously and not as the sole reason for Luther's decision.