Martin Luther became a legend in his own time. Soon after 1517, as the 95 Theses made him famous, stories and pictures began to paint him larger than life.

One early woodcut portrayed Luther as a young monk holding an open Bible, while rays of light stream from a halo surrounding his head.

After the Diet of Worms in 1521, a popular pamphlet retold the story of Luther’s appearance before Emperor Charles V—with characters and scenes from the Passion of Christ.

While Luther’s followers were eager to make him a saint, his opponents were just as eager to discredit him. One of his earliest biographers, the Catholic critic John Cochlaeus, suggested that Luther seemed peculiar to his monastic brothers because he once suffered a fit during mass. When Luther heard the Gospel lesson (Mark 9:14–29) about the boy with the deaf and dumb spirit cast out by Jesus, he allegedly fell to the floor crying, “It is not me, not me!” This legend has continued to fuel suspicion that Luther suffered from a mental disorder; psychoanalyst Erik Erikson made it the subject of an entire chapter in his popular book Young Man Luther (1958).

Most misconceptions about Luther, however, arose harmlessly and only gradually. Like all myths, they contain a kernel of truth. Here are five often told experiences from Luther’s life that need some clarification.

1. Thunderstorm “Conversion”

A Damascus-road experience?

After Luther finished his Master of Arts degree at the University of Erfurt, he embarked on the study of law. Then, in the summer of 1505, after a visit to his parents’ home, Luther returned to Erfurt. Frightened by a thunderstorm near Stotternheim, he cried out: “Help me, St. Anna! l will become a monk.”

This sudden decision made on the road in a flash of lightning ...

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