When an Anabaptist friend told me a few years back that his birthday was November 10, my first response was to tell him that he shared that date with Martin Luther. Remembering that Luther wasn’t the most kindly disposed toward Anabaptists, I instead told him about the saint whose November 11 feast day is the reason Luther was named Martin when baptized the day after his birth. The once widely-recognized saint whose day ushered in the beginning of winter and the ensuing pre-Advent season of feasting known as Martinmas is familiar to very few these days.
So, who was this now mostly forgotten first Martin? Martin of Tours, the “St. Francis” of the early church, was born in Sabaria, Pannonia (Hungary), in 316 and named for Mars—the Roman god of war. At a young age, his family moved to Pavia, Italy. His father was a high-ranking officer in the Roman army who strongly opposed Christianity. Even as a child, Martin was drawn with intensity to Christianity, but baptism was out of the question because of his parents’ disapproval. When Martin was only fifteen, his father complied with an edict requiring veterans’ sons to be enrolled in the Roman army, and Martin was placed in chains and forced to take the military oath.
Although opposed to the duties to which he had been conscripted, Martin distinguished himself by personal discipline, selflessness, and humility—living more like a chaste monk than a rapacious soldier. One incident captures his character best of all. While passing through Amiens, France with his regiment one bitter winter day, Martin was cut to the quick by the sight of a shivering beggar in rags at the city gate. All the others had passed by, ignoring or deriding him, but Martin could do neither. The only thing he had of any help was his cloak. Knowing that he still needed some warmth for himself, he took his sword, cut it in two, and clothed the beggar with half. That night, he had a dream in which he saw Jesus wearing his half-cloak saying, “Martin, yet a catechumen, has covered me with this garment” (Walsh, 371). That vision led Martin to be baptized at the age of eighteen, even though remaining in the army was irreconcilable with his understanding of what being a follower of Christ demands. Martin continued to serve under Julian Caesar—known as “the Apostate” for his renunciation of, and militancy against, the Christian faith—until the next definitive act in the arc of his life.
After an already long military struggle—interestingly near Worms, Germany of later Luther fame—Martin appeared before Julian on the night before a campaign and refused to accept his war-bounty. “Up to this point I have served you as a soldier; let me now serve Christ. Give the bounty to the others who are going to fight, but I am a soldier of Christ, and it is not lawful for me to fight” (Walsh, 371). Julian, of course, was outraged and called Martin a coward. Defending his conviction and lack of fear, Martin challenged Julian to let him stand unarmed in the line of battle and penetrate the enemy ranks. Sure that he was out of his mind, Julian had Martin locked up. That night, a delegation came from the enemy camp, a truce was reached, and Martin was given the discharge he demanded.
Following his release, Martin sought out Hilary, Bishop of Poitiers, and came under his charge. Living as a nomadic solitary, Martin returned to Italy and saw his mother become his first convert. But all was not so easy. While in Italy, he received a series of fierce beatings for his public opposition to the thriving Arian heresy which had driven stalwart Hilary into exile. Martin returned to Poitiers when Hilary was restored as bishop in 361 and was given land in Ligugé on which he established the first monastic community in France. Martin became known for his proclamation of the Gospel alongside works of mercy to the sick and the poor and gained a wide reputation as a healer. Insisting that he become the new bishop of Tours, the people and clergy worked in concert to see him appointed in 371. Martin was reluctant but knew there was no way out. Assuming the bishopric, Martin refused to live in the lavish manner of other bishops and instead took up a simple residence near the church until the steady stream of visitors forced him to retreat to a remote abbey. Until the day of his death in 397, Bishop Martin was unrivaled for his defense of the orthodox faith and firm conviction that human blood should not be spilt—even that of heretics.
Threads of Martin’s life are woven into the biographies of both Francis of Assisi and Martin Luther: the conflict and break with an unyielding father, a life-altering experience that proved to be the turning-point, an unbending devotion to conscientious conviction, an ardent response to corruption and division in Church and society, and an existence devoted to the service of God and people. Martin and Francis were both soldiers who renounced fighting, whereas Luther never was a soldier but is renowned for his advocacy of a Christian’s right and duty to be in the military—most forcefully in “Whether Soldiers, Too, Can Be Saved” (1526). Despite this contrast, consider Luther’s seldom cited words, enmeshed with his support of the status quo, from his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount:
With an excellent title and wonderful praise the Lord here honors those who do their best to try to make peace, not only in their own lives but also among other people, who try to settle ugly and involved issues, who endure squabbling and try to avoid and prevent war and bloodshed...
(I)t is not right for a prince to make up his mind and go to war against his neighbor, even though I say, he has a just cause and his neighbor is in the wrong. The command is: “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Therefore anyone who claims to be a Christian and a child of God, not only does not start war or unrest; but he also gives help and counsel on the side of peace wherever he can, even though there may have been a just and adequate cause for going to war. (Quoted in Marty, 73–75)
Even amid an ardent defense of the government’s “God-given” right to wage war, Luther weighs in with extreme caution against it in favor of peace at all costs.
It has been a delight on a number of occasions to discover that Martin of Tours is not without recognition. Military chaplains invoke his name and award medals in his honor. But I have noticed a huge oversight consistently: his encounter with the beggar always gets mention, but his demand for and discharge from the Roman army never does. To dismiss that pivotal episode, and the change in life that followed, betrays the fullness of Martin’s witness. Such a mistake is akin to remembering the military accomplishments of General Dwight D. Eisenhower while ignoring his caution, early in his presidency, about the cost of the arms buildup in the conflict with the Soviet Union.
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children…. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron. (16 April 1953,“The Chance for Peace”—delivered to the American Society of Newspaper Editors”)
Another twentieth-century soldier also experienced battle’s brutality and managed to write with keen insight about humankind’s attempts and failures at being humane. Kurt Vonnegut was born on St. Martin’s Day in 1922, four years after the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month—Armistice Day—brought an end to the horrors of World War I. A World War II veteran, Vonnegut is well-known for surviving the American firebombing of Dresden and for dealing with it provocatively in his writings, especially in the 1969 novel Slaughterhouse Five: The Children’s Crusade. An agnostic who said that “if Christ hadn’t delivered the Sermon on the Mount, with its message of mercy and pity, I wouldn’t want to be a human being” (A Man Without a Country, 81), Vonnegut looked back on what he lived through and gave us words no less worthy of consideration: “I would have given my life to save Dresden for the World’s generations to come. That is how everyone should feel about every city on Earth” (“Wailing Shall Be in All Streets,” 45). Echoing Martin’s unequivocal commitment to compassion and peace, Vonnegut saw, like the saint long before him, that concern for the most destitute goes hand-in-hand with combating indifference and violence in ourselves.
Remember Martin and the beggar? After Martin’s death, his cloak (or chapele) was preserved as a holy relic and reminder of Christian mercy in the midst of miserable need. The shrine where it was kept became known as a chapel, and its guardian called a chaplain. Little do most people know that those words travel back to that first pivotal moment in Martin’s life which affected all that followed.
For several years, I gathered every St. Martin’s Day in a little stone chapel in the Ozarks which was acknowledged by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s smallest cathedral. My friend, Bishop Karl Pruter (1920–2007), made sure that the Cathedral of the Prince of Peace served as a place that honored the life and witness of “the forgotten saint.” This onetime Lutheran, presiding in a cathedral no doubt the size of that first chapel, with only a handful of people present, made me think I was transported back in time. So little has changed, really. Yet I can’t help but think of Martin and the beggar, and of Paul’s words to the Colossians: “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience…” (3:12). I can’t help but think of Martin and Julian, and of the words of the Persian poet Hafiz:
I have come into this world to see this:
the sword drop from men’s hands even at the height
of their arc of anger.
because we have finally realized there is just one flesh to wound
and it is His—the Christ’s,
And I can’t help but think that there is one person who can clothe the shivering, live the mercy, and heal the wounded… and that person is each of us.
Joel Kurz is pastor of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Warrensburg, Missouri and still stops to pray at that stone chapel in the Ozarks.
Hafiz. Love Poems from God. Daniel Ladinsky, trans. New York: Penguin Compass, 2002.
Marty, Martin, ed. The Place of Trust: Martin Luther on the Sermon of the Mount. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983.
Vonnegut, Kurt. A Man Without a Country. Daniel Simon, ed. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005.
Vonnegut, Kurt. “Wailing Shall Be in All Streets.” In Armageddon in Retrospect. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2008.
Walsh, Michael, ed. Butler’s Lives of the Saints (Concise Edition). San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985.