The standard, accepted account of Luther's decision to become a Catholic monk at the age of 22, in 1505, holds that he was almost struck by lightning in a fearful storm, while in the woods walking near his home. The version of Roland Bainton, in the famous Luther biography, Here I Stand (1950), is typical:
On a sultry day in July of the year 1505 a lonely traveler was trudging over a parched road on the outskirts of the Saxon village of Stotternheim. He was a young man, short but sturdy, and wore the dress of a university student. As he approached the village, the sky became overcast. Suddenly there was a shower, then a crashing storm. A bolt of lightning rived the gloom and knocked the man to the ground. Struggling to rise, he cried in terror, "St. Anne help me! I will become a monk." . . .
The man who was later to revolt against monasticism became a monk for exactly the same reason as thousands of others, namely, in order to save his soul. The immediate occasion of his resolve to enter the cloister was the unexpected encounter with death on that sultry July day in 1505. He was then twenty-one and a student at the University of Erfurt. As he returned to school after a visit with his parents, sudden lightning struck him to earth. In that single flash he saw the denouement of the drama of existence. There was God the all-terrible, Christ the inexorable, and all the leering fiends springing from their lurking places in pond and wood that with sardonic cachinnations they might seize his shock of curly hair and bolt him into hell. It was no wonder that he cried out to his father's saint, patroness of miners, "St. Anne help me! I will become a monk."
Luther himself repeatedly averred that he believed himself to have been summoned by a call from heaven to which he could not be disobedient. Whether or not he could have been absolved from his vow, he conceived himself to be bound by it. Against his own inclination, under divine constraint, he took the cowl.
(pp. 20, 33)
Another more recent, prominent Protestant biography presents the same picture:
On July 2, with some four more miles to go, he was caught in a terrible thunderstorm near the village of Stotternheim. Hurled to the ground by lightning, he called out: "Help me, St. Anne; I will become a monk." There is no reason to doubt that the unsuspecting traveler became terrified when confronted with sudden death . . . A vow of this kind was neither exceptional nor proof of psychological instability; on the contrary, it was perfectly in keeping with the times and not abnormal for any young, unmarried man of tender conscience.
(Heiko A. Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, translated by Eileen Walliser-Schwarzbart, New York: Doubleday Image Books, 1992; originally 1982 in German, p. 92)
Gordon Rupp, in his well-known work, Luther's Progress to the Diet of Worms (London: S.C.M. Press, 1951; reprinted in 1964 by [New York] Harper & Row, from which I quote), echoes the standard account on pp. 13-14, but goes a bit deeper with additional speculation (which is what has fascinated me, in curiosity). He cites a second, similar incident, recorded in Table-Talk [sources given: TR 1.119; Scheel, i.320.20] and assigned to an earlier date: 16 April 1503:
Luther was on a journey home, when he fell and the short dagger which he wore struck deep into his leg, severing an artery. His companion set off to Erfurt for help, and while he was gone Luther tried to staunch the swift bleeding. In peril of death he cried 'Help, Mary!' As surgeon came and Luther was carried to Erfurt . . .
If both stories are true, then the crisis of a serious accident may have suggested reflections to Luther which recurred sharply when, a little later, he again faced the immanence of death. The death of a friend, which Melanchthon reports, and which finds some confirmation in the Wittenberg archives, may have deepened such serious consideration. But about the inward state of his mind, there is no real evidence.
Rupp had made another cryptic reference in a footnote on p. 13: "Melanchthon mentions the death of a friend." What is this about? It doesn't come from a Catholic biographer or historian, critical of Luther (in fact, the Catholic Cochlaeus, the notoriously biased contemporary and early biographer of Luther, presents the lightning-bolt story himself, as seen above). This motif derives from Philip Melanchthon, his best friend and rapt admirer.
Protestant historian Philip Schaff speculates even further:
So now this "death of a friend" may have been by lightning or by a duel (possibly with Luther himself?). This is very strange, and it is derived from solely Protestant biographical sources (Mathesius being another early Luther biographer). I had never heard of this before. Henry Worsley, in his Life of Martin Luther (1856), opines:
In the summer of 1505 Luther entered the Augustinian convent at Erfurt and became a monk, as he thought, for his life time. The circumstances which led to this sudden step we gather from his fragmentary utterances which have been embellished by legendary tradition.He was shocked by the sudden death of a friend (afterward called Alexius), who was either killed in a duel, [Mathesius: "da ihm ein guter Gesell erstochen ward."] or struck dead by lightning at Luther’s side. Shortly afterward, on the second of July, 1505, two weeks before his momentous decision, he was overtaken by a violent thunderstorm near Erfurt, on his return from a visit to his parents, and was so frightened that he fell to the earth and tremblingly exclaimed: "Help, beloved Saint Anna! I will become a monk." . . .
Luther himself declared in later years, that his monastic vow was forced from him by terror and the fear of death and the judgment to come; yet he never doubted that God’s hand was in it.
(Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. 7: Ch. 2: "Luther's Training for the Reformation (1483-1517)," § 20. Luther’s Conversion)
It was as he was returning to the University from this visit, that an event occurred which determined his future path in life. He had approached very near to Erfurth, when a violent thunderstorm overclouded the heavens, and according to some accounts a stroke of lightning struck his dear companion Alexius dead at his side.Rev. J. Wylie, in his History of Protestantism (1878) states:
[Footnote: This account is very doubtful. Melanchthon only remarks, " Hosterrores seu primum seu acerrimos sensit eo anno cum sodalem nescio quo casu interfectum amisisset." Melchior Adam says, "Fulmine, ut volunt, et commililonis violenta morte territus." Jiirgens supposes that Luther's friend met his death in a duel, and that the thunderstorm was later ; and as Luther entered the monasteiy on St. Alexius' day, the name of the Saint was given by common rumour to his friend.]
One morning he was told that his friend Alexius had been overtaken by a sudden and violent death. The intelligence stunned Luther. His companion had fallen as it were by his side.B. Sears, in his article, "The Religious Experience of Luther in the Cloister of Erfurt," Bibliotheca Sacra and Theological Review (1848), elaborates:
[Footnote: Some say Alexius was killed by lightning, others that he fell in a duel. Melanchthon says “he knows not how Luther’s friend came by his death.” (Vita Mart. Luth., p. 9.) 9 Melanchthon, Vita Mart. Luth., p. 9, footnote.]
(p. 273; see alternate link for the footnote)
In 1505, Alexius, a friend of Luther in the university, was assassinated. Soon after . . . lightning struck near his feet.The most fascinating and (shall we say) "creative" or "inventive" Protestant take on all this comes from Dr. Dietrich Emme, who has done extensive research on Luther's early years at Erfurt (from 1501-1505). He is the author of Martin Luther seine Jugend- und Studentenzeit 1483-1505 : eine dokumentarische Darstellung (1986) and Martin Luthers Weg ins Kloster: Eine wissenschaftliche Untersuchung in Aufsatzen (1991: Martin Luther's Path to the Monastery: a Scientific Investigation).
[Footnote: Such is the view in which the testimony of Luther, Melanchthon, Mathesius, and other early witnesses is best united. The representation of less competent and later witnesses, that Alexius was killed by lightning is now abandoned by all the historians.]
Information on him is scattered and incomplete on the Internet, and mostly in German or other languages, but there is an article in English, from the Catholic magazine, Thirty Days: "Struck, But Not By Lightning," by Tommaso Ricci, No. 2, 1992, pp. 62-64):
"Did Luther choose to enter a monastery or was he sent to a monastery because he had killed a fellow student in a duel? This question has never left me and over the years I collated whatever useful material there was available in a bid to find the answer," . . .By now, of course many readers may be curious as to my own opinion on the matter. I have no idea. It seems pretty far-fetched, but (as a general rule, and according to the legal criteria of evidence) if there is enough circumstantial evidence for something, it becomes relatively more possible, in speculation, that perhaps it may have happened. At a bare minimum, I would have to read Dr. Emme's books to form any informed judgment at all, and they are written in German.
Although the Church and an imperial decree prohibited them, duels were a commonly deployed method of settling disputes between private citizens. Among students in particular it was not considered manly to resolve quarrels by seeking recourse to a higher authority. Emme is convinced that on April 16, 1503 Luther fought a duel and emerged from it seriously wounded. There is mention of Luther's wounds in Tischreden (Table Talk) . . .
Emme believes it unlikely that the young Martin managed to injure himself so seriously in such a casual way and the supposition is that the tale replaced the true story of a duel . . .
Dietrich Emme sustains . . . the assumption that at the outset of Luther's religious itinerary there was a tragic event. He has collated a considerable quantity of converging clues to this effect. The first is that according to the registers of the University of Erfurt for January and February 1505, when Luther sat at the examination and was then promoted to the position of magister of the Arts Faculty, a student had died, Hieronymous Buntz, it is written, was "not promoted because immediately after the examination he fell ill with pleurisy and died a short time later of natural causes". Pleurisy was one of the most frequent causes of death after a duel . . . Emme explains that the "universities were concerned to cover up deaths as a result of duels because they were anxious to keep their reputations and encourage more wealthy, highly placed students to join . . . "
Other clues are to be found, according to Emme, from an analysis of Luther's decision to enter a monastery and why he chose to join the Augustinian hermits. This monastery was one of the few which by statute were not subject to the jurisdiction of the local ecclesiastical authority (the archbishop of Mainz) but of Rome . . . there was no safer refuge. The Protestant theologian Nikolaus Selnecker (1530-1592) relates that Luther entered the Augustinian hermits' monastery at Erfurt "secretly and by night (clam et noctu) and for two days groups of his companions and friends, of students and others kept watch on the buildings and plaid siege to it to win Luther back. But the entrance was limited so strictly that for a month no one was permitted to approach Luther" (Oratio de divo Lutero, 1590). . . .
Another clue is that Luther did not enter the monastery as a postulant or as a lay brother. He, a recently promoted magister, was given the humblest jobs to do in his first six months there. He had to churn the milk to make cheese, he had to clean the latrines and he was generally treated as a slave. . . .
Emme followed the Lutheran trail according to the clues he found. But, says the author, "I made an effort to give sense and coherence to details of the life of Luther relegated to the shadows to date and left there unexplained. Others have simply skipped over these facts. But that is too easy. So whoever has criticisms and objections to raise should do so."
But this line of thought is very interesting, at any rate, so as a student of Luther and one who likes to post provocative things that make people think, and challenge them (according to my socratic modus operandi), here it is! If I am to be accused yet again of being "anti-Luther" (YAWN) simply because I believe that a Protestant researcher and his hypothesis should be considered (without even my taking a stand on it, yay or nay), so be it. What else is new? Let the dumbfounded, dense accusations fly if they must. If those things ever deterred me from doing anything, I would have left the Internet ten years ago. I'm not here to win a popularity contest.
I'd much rather be the way I am than to exhibit the tendency of so many (in academia and outside it), who attempt to downplay, mock, or even deliberately obscure or make unavailable, positions that run contrary to their own. That's the death of intellectual inquiry and exchange and growth. Not here. This is a free speech blog, and all ideas are fair game as long as they are presented intelligently and with reason. And I don't necessarily believe everything that I present (as presently), though I usually do. This information is simply . . . interesting and thought-provoking. The reader can make of it what they wish.