The Life and Times of Martin Luther is a 44-page picture book written by Meike Roth-Beck in German, translated to English by Laura Watkinson, and illustrated by Klaus Ensikat. It was published in English by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers and is intended for readers 7 and up

I was excited to read and review this because I’ve studied Luther and the Reformation in college courses and through my international travels. I’ve read (okay, skimmed) several biographies of Martin Luther, and I lived in Wittenberg, Germany, for two months and visited the Wartburg Castle, Eisenach, and Erfurt.

What’s in The Life and Times of Martin Luther

The book covers some of the major events in Luther’s life, including: 

  • Birth
  • Childhood and schoolingEntering the monastery
  • Travel to Rome
  • Move to Wittenberg
  • Writing the Ninety-Five Theses
  • Breakdown of the Ninety-Five Theses
  • Augsburg meeting with Cardinal Cajetan
  • Banishment from the Church
  • Diet of Worms and abduction
  • Hiding at the Wartburg Castle
  • Marriage to Katharina von Bora
  • Brief summary of writing the Augsburg Confession and printing first German Bible
  • Death
  • Legacy

The book ends with two pages of notes on the illustrations.

Age appropriateness

The publisher’s website notes that The Life and Times of Martin Luther is intended for children ages 7 and up. While there are certainly sentences that cater to this age (“Martin Luther was born into a world where life was very different than it is today…”), the text is a bit heavy and lacks the context necessary for younger readers. (See “Religious vs. secular” section below for examples). This book is probably best suited for ages 10-12 and up. Unfortunately, most children this age don’t want to read picture books, but I think this concern can be mitigated by the quality of the illustrations.

Illustrations

The illustrations in The Life and Times of Martin Luther are not childish or cartoonish; rather, they’re realistic and very detailed. Older children can appreciate them for the depth of symbols and characters that they included. The town hall depicted alongside the Stadtkirche was actually built after 1517, and its inclusion on page 4 implies that it existed in 1517, but other than that, the details are impressive.

Ensikat details the Exsurge Domine and the bridge leading into the Wartburg Castle quite well. The colors and depictions of German churches and towns are true to life. Ensikat obviously studied drawings of Luther extensively, as Luther’s face throughout the book looks very similar to the many portraits we have of him. The likenesses of other figures, including Katharina von Bora and Philip Melanchthon, are also historically accurate. There was only one anachronistic detail that I could find: The town hall depicted on page 4 alongside the Stadtkirche was actually built after 1517. Its inclusion on page 4 implies that it existed before or during 1517, but other than that, the details in Ensikat’s illustrations are stunning.

Religious vs. secular

There seems to be some confusion in the text as to who the ideal audience is and what they already know. For example, in “The Twilight of the Middle Ages,” Roth-Beck writes about the Catholic Church, the pope, and bishops without giving much context as to what these institutions and roles are. Likewise, the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica was mentioned before the context for it was properly given. These references assume some previous religious knowledge as the vocabulary is not explained, but readers as young as 7 will not know what these are. Roth-Beck also takes an entire paragraph after Luther’s birth to explain that in November, both Martin Luther and Saint Martin of Tours are celebrated and that neither should be forgotten. Asides like this distract from the main focus of the book and will confuse younger readers, especially those who are not religious.

But despite these references that imply religious knowledge, Scripture isn’t quoted directly, although Roth-Beck mentions that Luther studies the Bible. This makes the book ideal for those who don’t want an overly theological study of Luther. But I wouldn’t describe the book as secular. There are plenty of secular talking points surrounding Luther’s accomplishments (his influence on the German language, printing, and the political turns in Germany), but this book focuses on the religious beats of his life.

ninety-five theses

Roth-Beck’s explanation of Luther’s theses

 

Ninety-Five Theses breakdown

The most interesting part of The Life and Times of Martin Luther is the extensive breakdown of key ideas in the Ninety-Five Theses. Roth-Beck provides both the text of the actual theses as well as a one- or two-paragraph summary of the theses cited. This section of the book breaks from the book’s narrative structure, but it presents the key ideas of Luther’s theses clearly and accurately. For example, Roth-Beck cites theses 54, 55, 65, and 66 and explains: “Martin Luther cared deeply about the Church. He was troubled that, in thinking only about money, it had forgotten its task—to preach the good news that Jesus taught and showed by his example…” While these explanations don’t specifically endorse Luther’s views, they do fairly explain what Luther intended in his writings.

Fact check

I’ll give the author the benefit of the doubt: It’s hard to condense all the information we have about Luther into a book for kids, and with so much written about Luther, it’s difficult to verify the accuracy of all these sources. But here are some factual inconsistencies I noted throughout The Life and Times of Martin Luther:

  • Page 11: Roth-Beck writes that Martin Luther was the oldest of nine children. Various biographies of Luther disagree whether he was the oldest and how many children there were. Martin Brecht’s biography of Luther notes that he may have had an older brother who had died. James M. Kittelson says in his biography that Luther was the second son born to Hans, but doesn’t say how many children there were in the family. Andrew Pettegree writes in Brand Luther that there were eight children. There isn’t agreement on the number of children and Martin Luther’s birth order, so this fact can’t be verified, although its inclusion in the text seems harmless.
  • Page 11: Roth-Beck writes that Luther stayed with the Cotta family in Eisenach. Brecht and Kittelson both agree that Luther stayed with the Schalbe family, but Brecht notes that Ursula Cotta, who took Luther in according to Eisenach tradition, was born into the Schalbe family. Websites about Eisenach and the Luther House in Eisenach state that Luther did in fact stay with the Cotta family. So it seems that Luther did in fact stay with the Cotta family as well as the Schalbe family.
  • luther rose

    Luther’s Rose wasn’t created until a decade after the Ninety-Five Theses.

    Page 19: Roth-Beck writes, “Martin Luther had become a respected theologian” before he published his Ninety-Five Theses. While it seems that those in Wittenberg did respect his work, it’s an overstatement to say that before 1517 Luther was a “respected theologian.” Pettegree notes in Brand Luther that Luther’s first attempt in September 1517 to publish his theses on Scholastic theology and spark discussion beyond Wittenberg failed. Even after 1517, his writing and arguments were controversial, and many in the Church did not consider him a respected theologian.

  • Page 21: Roth-Beck writes that Luther signed his letters with the Luther Rose in the wake of the Ninety-Five Theses (before his meeting with Cardinal Cajetan in Augsburg in 1518). Luther’s Rose wasn’t made into a seal until 1530, so this detail is anachronistic.
  • Page 35: Roth-Beck writes that at the Diet of Worms, Luther “is said to have spoken these famous words: ‘Here I stand. I can do no other! God help me. Amen.’” The wording here correctly calls out the uncertainty of whether Luther actually said this at Worms. I love that the author points out this nuance!

Usefulness to Christian parents or teachers

Overall, is The Life and Times of Martin Luther a useful resource for Christian parents and teachers? It’s certainly a beautifully illustrated and well-designed book, and despite its minor problems, it can be a good teaching tool for some. For those looking for a good decent book to introduce Martin Luther and his significance to children, this is sufficient. The breakdown of the Ninety-Five Theses is valuable for people looking to explain their significance to children in an easy-to-understand way. As with any media source you share with your children, be sure to clarify any inconsistencies you perceive, whether factually or theologically, with what the text says.

If you’re a Lutheran parent or teacher, I recommend Concordia Publishing House’s graphic novel Luther: Echoes of the Hammer. While the “graphic novel” aspect of this book is not quite accurate, as it is quite text-heavy, the text does a much better job of going into detail about Luther’s life—especially beyond just 1517—and talking about the theological implications behind his ideas.

What are your favorite books about Martin Luther (children’s books or otherwise)? Tell me in the comments!

I received The Life and Times of Martin Luther from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

 

Citations

Brecht, Martin. Martin Luther: His Road to Reformation 1483-1521. Fortress Press, 1993.

Kittelson, James M. Luther the Reformer: The Story of the Man and His Career. Fortress Press, 2003.

Pettegree, Andrew. Brand Luther: How an Unheralded Monk Turned His Small Town into a Center of Publishing, Made Himself the Most Famous Man in Europe–and Started the Protestant Reformation. Penguin Books, 2016.