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The Life of Martin Chemnitz

The life of Martin Chemnitz (1522–1586) is unique among the Reformers. Coming from a working-class background and with very little formal education in theology, Chemnitz trod a circuitous and unusual path to become one of the most significant Lutheran fathers. Chemnitz was highly-motivated, self-taught, and industrious. Not only that, but he was also a devoted family man, whose children and grandchildren reflected their ancestor’s accomplishments.

Martin Chemnitz’s Early Life

Childhood

A piece of German paper money from 1921. In the center is a black and white woodcut-style portrait of Martin Chemnitz.

Martin Chemnitz depicted in the center of a piece of paper money from his hometown, Treuenbrietzen, printed in 1921. Source: Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Notgeld…

Martin Chemnitz (also spelled “Kemnitz”) was born on November 9, 1522 in Treuenbrietzen, about twenty miles northeast of Wittenberg to Paul and Euphemia Chemnitz. Martin was the youngest of three, having an older brother, Matthew (d. 1564), and an older sister, Ursula (d. 1548). The Chemnitzes were in the cloth trade, a business which his brother Paul eventually took over. Martin’s father died when he was eleven years old, though his mother lived until 1566.

Chemnitz was a shy child who kept to himself and studied dutifully. He fell into a brook as a young boy, an event which seems to have left him at least temporarily traumatized, as he suffered from a stammer and sleepwalking for several years as a result. This event seems not to have affected his scholastic abilities, however, as he excelled in school, especially at Latin, which he taught himself without a teacher. The young Martin attended university Magdeburg and Frankfurt sporadically, at one point recalled by his brother Paul to assist him in the family cloth business. Martin did not do well in this kind of employment, however, and so returned to school. Chemnitz enrolled at the university in Wittenberg in 1545.

Education and Librarian Experience

A black and white photo from 1901 of the Königsberg library, where Martin Chemnitz served as a librarian.

A 1901 photo of the Könisgberg library where Chemnitz worked. The Castle Library became the Royal Library (Königliche-Bibliothek) in the 19th century and the State Library (Staatsbibliothek) in the 20th century. Königsberg, today Kalingrad in the Russian exclave Kalingrad-Oblast (in-between Poland and Lithuania), was invaded by the Soviet Union during World War II. During the invasion, the library was sadly destroyed. Photo from Wikimedia Commons. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:ID003724…

At Wittenberg, Chemnitz was introduced to Philipp Melanchthon by way of a mutual relative. There he studied mathematics and astrology(!), and, though he heard Luther, who was in his final years, Chemnitz admits that he did not pay him due attention as his interests were elsewhere—for the time being.

After the death of Luther and the Schmalkaldic War caused the closure of the university, Martin Chemnitz left Wittenberg for Königsberg. Martin graduated from Königsberg with a Master of Arts degree in 1548, though he fled shortly thereafter when a plague struck the city. He returned in 1550 to serve as a tutor and librarian at the Königsberg Castle Library, during which time he began conducting studies in theology on his own, with advice and guidance from Melanchthon and others. Chemnitz’s notes from this period of intense self-study were highly detailed, and he continued to use them throughout his theological career.

Martin Chemnitz’s Theological Career

From Wittenberg to Brunswick

Chemnitz left Königsburg to return to Wittenberg in 1553, initially for continued studies and then as a member of the faculty in 1554. Chemnitz lectured on Melancthon’s Loci Communes, which ended up eventually becoming Chemnitz’s own three-volume Loci Theologici. He was ordained by Johannes Bugenhagen in November, shortly before moving to Braunschweig (often anglicized as Brunswick) in present-day Lower Saxony in order to serve as co-adjutor of Joachim Mörlin, the church superintendent in Brunswick. When Mörlin resigned in 1567, Chemnitz would take over the position and remain in it for the rest of his life.

It was during this period of Chemnitz’s life—from 1555 until his death in 1586—that he was at his most prolific, adapting his lecture notes on Melancthon’s Loci into his own eventual Loci Theologici. Additionally, Chemnitz produced over a dozen major and minor works, which have continued relevance for contemporary global Lutheranism.

Martin Chemnitz’s Family Life and Legacy

Sixteenth century oil painting of Martin Chemnitz in a talar with a coat of arms and a green behind him. Martin Chemnitz, with a dark hair and a severe, bowl-like haircut, is holding a pomander and/or prayer beads in his right hand.

Ludger tom Ring, the Younger. Portrait of Martin Chemnitz. 1569. Oil on oak panel. Wikimedia Commons. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/…Chemnitz_(1569).jpg

Matching 16th century painted portrait of Anna, wife of Martin Chemnitz. Anna also stands in from of a green background with a coat of arms behind her. She is wearing a sixteenth-century style dress with a high collar and head covering, necklace, and neck-ruff. She is holding her hands in front of her torso.

Ludger tom Ring the Younger. Portrait of Anna Chemnitz. 1569. Oil on oak panel. Wikimedia Commons. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/…_Anna_Chemnitz_(1569).jpg

Martin Chemnitz married Anna Jaeger, daughter of a lawyer, in 1555. The two had ten children together, of whom six survived into adulthood. According to contemporaries and historians, Anna was a devoted and pious woman who supported her husband and raised intelligent, successful, Christian children. Chemnitz’s sons who survived him were Martin, legal scholar and court official, Paul, a canon at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Brunswick. His daughters who survived him were Magdalena, Anna, Eva, and Julia. All four married successful men in the church or politics.

In good health for most of his life, Chemnitz experienced failing health in his final years, eventually leading him to resign from his post as superintendent. Martin Chemnitz died on April 8, 1586 at the age of 63. His wife Anna survived him by seventeen years, and his children and their children continued in his legacy of quiet faith and industry.

Next Page


Sources

Martin Chemnitz. “An Autobiography of Martin Kemnitz.” A.L. Graebner, trans. Theological Quarterly, vol. 3, no. 4 (1899). Web. Accessed September 29, 2022. https://books.google.com/books?id=fi8bAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA472&vq#v=onepage&q&f=false.

“Königsberg State and University Library.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia (English-language). Last updated December 30, 2021. Accessed September 26, 2022. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/K%C3%B6nigsberg_State_and_University_Library.

“Martin Chemnitz (Theologe).” Wikipedia: Die freie Enzyklopädie (German-language). Last updated November 10, 2020. Accessed September 26, 2022. https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Chemnitz_(Theologe).

J.A.O. Preus II. The Second Martin: The Life and Theology of Martin Chemnitz. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1994.

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