Book Review: The Life and Times of Martin Luther
I heard once that a certain New Zealand bishop always had a children’s book among his current reading. That, perhaps, is justification enough for including a children’s book amongst the books reviewed in Stimulus. But this book, written for children from ages seven and up, is worthy of the attention even of adults.
Translated from German, it is written in simple and clear English, and tells the story of Martin Luther’s life, from his birth and upbringing, through to his becoming a monk, his increasing dissatisfaction with some of the practices of the Catholic Church, his posting of the ninety-five theses and the subsequent fall-out, to his emergence as a leader of the “Reformation”, and his marriage to Katharina von Bora, and finally his death in 1546 at the age of sixty-two. His continuing influence is also described briefly.
Along the way, the reader learns of his spiritual struggle to believe in God’s love for him, and his subsequent discovery of the fact that God’s love is an unearned gift of grace. Luther’s trip to Rome in 1510 is covered, and the shock and confusion he felt at finding so much money being raised to construct St. Peter’s Basilica, and especially his growing dissatisfaction with, and rejection of, the practice of selling indulgences. The reader also later learns of Luther’s work, during his time of hiding in Wartburg Castle, in translating the New Testament into “good, clear German that everyone could understand” (36).
An unusual feature of this book is that fully eight pages of the book are given over to a paraphrase and brief explanation of twenty-one of Luther’s ninety-five theses. In part, this is because the book is written to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the posting of these theses on the door of Wittenburg’s Castle Church, on 31st October, 1517 (and the German title of the book roughly translates as “About Martin Luther’s Wittenburg Theses”). Though written in language that children can understand, the book pretty faithfully retains the sense and even some of the wording of the theses (an English translation of which may be found in Henry Bettenson, ed. Documents of the Christian Church, 184 – 91). These are introduced with a description of what drove Luther to publish these theses, and what they are “a long list of ideas that were on his mind”, 21. The brief explanations accompanying the theses fairly represent what was Luther’s intention and thought in writing them.
Another excellent feature of this book is the wonderful illustrations by the award-winning illustrator, Klaus Ensikat. These are beautifully done, and provide a good representation of the type of architecture, clothing, and aspects of life in Luther’s day. Children will spend many enjoyable minutes studying these. And at the back of the book are a number of notes on the illustrations, which provide extra information about a number of the characters in the story, and some of the scenes depicted. It is obvious from these notes that the illustrator has taken care to try and provide good representations of the historical persons depicted (where possible), and of various aspects of the life of Luther, and his world.
If you wish to have a brief, accessible overview of Luther’s life and what he achieved, this book is an excellent starting point. Naturally, as it is written for children, it does not delve into some of the more contentious aspects of Luther’s character, such as his anti-Semitic views, or his opposition to the Peasants’ Revolt. Some statements may not seem quite accurate: I do not think that I have heard (or read) of Katharina von Bora being described as “beautiful”. Did you know that while in hiding at Wartburg Castle, Luther “disguised himself as a knight, calling himself ‘Sir George’” (35)?
The book is probably pitched at a child with a reading age of about ten. It is a book that will appeal to many children, especially those with an interest in history. And if you know of a young budding church historian, this is a book for her or him. Alternately, it might provide a good resource for a child-friendly celebration of the 500th anniversary of an act that helped launch “The Reformation”.
Note: It is published under the imprint of Eerdmans Books for Young Readers.
Derek Tovey is book review editor for Stimulus.