Out of Luther’s dark distress shined this brightest light of confidence in God. Philip Schaff marvels that this monumental hymn could issue from such deep travails, saying, “The deepest griefs and highest faith often meet.” This was the case with Luther, as “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” was “born of deep tribulation and conquering faith.” The 1520s proved to be a turbulent time for Martin Luther, one in which he found himself engaged in many battles. In the face of mounting struggles, Luther fought the good fight and remained unwavering in his devotion to the truth of the Bible. Through these sufferings, he grew deeper in the truth and stronger in faith.
In 1527, Martin Luther experienced a trial so severe that church historian Philip Schaff described that year simply as “the disastrous year.” It was the time of Luther’s “severest spiritual and physical trials.” As the leading figure of the Reformation, Luther paid a high price in the struggle for truth, and his physical condition deteriorated under the movement’s mounting demands. On April 22, 1527, Luther was so overcome by dizziness in the pulpit that he stopped preaching and was forced to retire. Other physical problems followed for the Reformer, including severe heart problems, digestive ailments, and fainting spells. He also began to wear down emotionally, suffering bouts of discouragement and depression.
On July 6, another attack struck Luther. He was entertaining friends for dinner when he felt an intense buzzing in his left ear. He had to be carried to bed, where he frantically called for water or else, he believed, he would die. Luther became so chilled that he was convinced he had seen his last night. In a desperate prayer, he surrendered himself to the will of God and prepared to meet his Maker. Though Luther remained seriously ill for days, he eventually regained his strength.
In August, the Black Plague rapidly spread among the people in Wittenberg. Many died, and others fled for their lives. The University of Wittenberg moved to Jena, Germany. Frederick urged Luther to escape to spare his own life. Adding to the danger, Katie was pregnant and they had a one-year-old child, Hans. Luther, however, considered it his moral duty to remain and minister to the sick.
Weighty trials rested heavily upon Luther’s shoulders. Death surrounded him on every side. He watched people die in his house and in the streets. He chose to transform his spacious house into a hospital to care for those suffering from the plague. Hans became desperately ill, and Luther became so heavily burdened that he could not eat for eleven days. He was deeply concerned for Katie’s safety and grew weak with despair.
In a letter to his trusted friend and coworker Philip Melanchthon, Luther acknowledged his increasing bouts of depression:
I spent more than a week in death and in hell. My entire body was in pain, and I still tremble. Completely abandoned by Christ, I labored under the vacillations and storms of desperation and blasphemy against God. But through the prayers of the saints God began to have mercy on me and pulled my soul from the inferno below.
In November, Luther wrote a theological tract titled Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague. He argued that a spiritual leader must stay with the community of believers under his care during a time of extreme duress. Certainly, the outbreak of the plague qualified as such a crisis, as extreme stress weighed heavy upon his heart and drained his body of strength. But in his weakness, Luther found new strength in God.