Approaching Wartburg Castle in Eisenach, Germany, the American pilgrims let their imagination rewind five centuries to the night when Martin Luther was “kidnapped” by masked horsemen and hustled deep into the forest.
The German monk-turned-reformer’s life was in danger after his writings were deemed heretical by Roman Catholic leaders and he gave his defiant “Here I stand” speech at the Diet of Worms, so a prince who was concerned about his safety ordered the abduction.
The pilgrims walked up the steep hill to the castle, where Luther spent 10 months from 1521 to 1522 in hiding, and one of them huffed, “No wonder they never found him!”
The group was on a 10-day tour of “Luther Country” — sites in Germany that played an important role in the reformer’s life — conducted in June by St. Paul-Reformation Lutheran Church in St. Paul, Minnesota, to coincide with the 500th anniversary year of the Reformation.
“It was amazing to imagine what it must’ve been like,” Patte Edwards of Wheaton, Illinois, said over lunch after the trek up to the castle.
“When you see the actual layout of the things that you’ve read about, it’s just amazing. It becomes so much more vivid and lifelike. It’s really emotional.”
The Americans also visited Eisleben, where Luther was born and died; Erfurt, where he studied at university and then entered the Augustinian monastery; and Leipzig, where he famously debated Johann Eck and where Johann Sebastian Bach later composed the music of the Reformation.
The irony of a Luther pilgrimage, given that it was one of the Catholic spiritual practices Luther himself was bent on reforming, was not lost on the Rev. Patrick Shebeck, pastor of St. Paul-Reformation.
“For all of Luther’s vehemence against the veneration of relics, that’s exactly what we’re doing,” Shebeck said.
Planeloads of Protestants have been visiting Germany in the year leading up to October 31. On that date in 1517 Luther reportedly nailed his 95 theses — or objections to Catholic practices — to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, sparking the Reformation.