Reading legacies of vibrant believers from long ago is a rewarding and especially inspiring experience if those writings are biblically sound and edifying. Such is the biography “The Life and Times of Martin Luther” by J.H.Merle D’Aubigné.
D’Aubigné was one of the many biographers of Martin Luther; however, no other biography throbs with the same spiritual vigor as D’Aubigné’s work. For instance, take the Luther biography Here I Stand by great Yale University professor and well-known Luther scholar Dr. Roland Bainton. This is an excellent work for its vast, intriguing detail, but it was written by a scholar outside of the Reformation looking into the great movement. D’Aubigné, on the other hand, wrote from inside the continuing Reformation in Europe. He had been a hopelessly lost seminarian, who had even led a student protest against another who believed in the deity of the Lord Jesus Christ. So how did he become Luther’s foremost biographer?
The bold reform movement begun by Martin Luther in the sixteenth century continued on into nineteenth century Europe where the salvation of two Scottish infidels caused momentous impact. They were James and Robert Haldane, once wicked sailors, but converted to zealous evangelists. In 1801, Robert visited Geneva, Switzerland. Like Paul in his visit to Athens, Haldane found the city “wholly given to idolatry.” The Swiss clergy was engrossed with a fictionalized Christianity because the French Revolution had done its deadly work on the Swiss churches. When Robert shared the Gospel with the young theological students, his words were as foreign to them as Paul’s had been to the Athenians. Haldane immediately began to lecture on Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, the same Epistle that had brightly beamed salvation into Luther’s heart. About twenty Genevan ministerial students attended those lectures, and many of them were genuinely converted through the lectures. One day, a seminary professor stood outside the lecture room, recording the names of the students in attendance. As a consequence, those same students were denied lucrative positions in the Swiss churches of whom was Adolphe Monod and his brother Theodore, Cesar Malan, and Jean-Henri Merle D’Aubigné.
In 1817, Merle d’Aubigné went abroad to further his education during the time that Germany was preparing to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the Reformation. That was what inspired him to write the history of that great movement, which has become a classic of church history. The following is an excerpt of D’Aubigné’s moving account of Luther’s famous stand at the Diet of Worms:
“When he had ceased speaking, the Chancellor of Treves, the orator of the Diet, said indignantly: ‘You have not answered the question put to you. You were not summoned hither to call in question the decisions of councils. You are required to give a clear and precise answer. Will you, or will you not, retract?’ Upon this Luther replied without hesitation: ‘Since your most serene majesty and your high mightinesses require from me a clear, simple, and precise answer, I will give you one, and it is this: I cannot submit my faith either to the pope or to the councils, because it is clear as the day that they have frequently erred and contradicted each other. Unless therefore I am convinced by the testimony of Scripture, or by the clearest reasoning, unless I am persuaded by means of the passages I have quoted, and unless they thus render my conscience bound by the Word of God, I cannot and I will not retract, for it is unsafe for a Christian to speak against his conscience.’ And then looking round on this assembly before which he stood, and which held his life in its hands, he said: ‘HERE I STAND, I CAN DO NO OTHER; MAY GOD HELP ME! AMEN!’
“Luther, constrained to obey his faith, led by his conscience to death, impelled by the noblest necessity, the slave of his belief, and under this slavery still supremely free, like the ship tossed by a violent tempest, and which, to save that which is more precious than itself, runs and is dashed upon the rocks, thus uttered these sublime words which still thrill our hearts at an interval of three centuries: thus spoke a monk before the emperor and the mighty ones of the nation; and this feeble and despised man, alone, but relying on the grace of the Most High, appeared greater and mightier than them all.”
Merle D’Aubigné’s biography is still in print; new and used copies are available from Amazon and ABE. It can also be found in his History of the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century.
Rev. Myron Mooney is minister of Trinity FPC in Decatur, Alabama and presently serves as Moderator of the FPCNA.