Aside from Martin Luther, Philipp Melanchthon is considered Germany’s most important Protestant reformer. He was born as Philipp Schwarzerdt in Bretten on February 16, 1497. Even as a child, he impressed others through his extraordinary aptitude for ancient languages. His mentor, Johannes Reuchlin, recognised this talent in 1509 by translating Philipp’s last name, 'Schwarzerdt’ (literally ‘black earth’), into the Greek ‘Melanchthon’.
Melanchthon’s first publications included poems, translations of historical texts, and a handbook of Greek grammar. Frederick III (the Wise) invited him to join the faculty of the recently founded University of Wittenberg shortly after Melanchthon turned twenty-one. In his inaugural lecture, he was already pleading for reforms to the Scholastic system of education and challenging his students:
‘Have the courage to make use of your own reason!’ He began to implement the necessary reforms after becoming the head of the University of Wittenberg in 1523.
Over the years, he became one of Luther’s trusted collaborators in the cause of the Reformation. Together they composed countless Protestant treatises, developed educational and liturgical regulations, and worked on the translation of the Bible. Accordingly, Melanchthon also accompanied the Saxon electors to the decisive imperial diets (‘Reichstage’) in Speyer (1529) and in Augsburg (1530). He composed the most important Protestant confession, the Augsburg Confession, while in that city. Melanchthon became the leading figure among Wittenberg’s Protestant reformers following Luther’s death in 1546. He became an influential theological advisor for Maurice I, the new elector of Saxony; this position allowed him to insure the University of Wittenberg’s preservation after the Schmalkaldic War.
Luther introduced Melanchthon to Katharina Krapp, the daughter of a respected citizen of Wittenberg – whom he married in 1520. They had four children together: Anna, Georg, Philipp, and Magdalena. Despite attractive offers from other universities, Melanchthon retained true to Wittenberg for the rest of his life. He died there on April 19, 1560, in the ‘Melanchthon House’, where he had lived with his family since 1536.
Melanchthon founded numerous schools and universities in his lifetime; he also wrote countless texts and maintained contact with scholars throughout Europe. Almost no one had as powerful an influence over the educational system of the sixteenth century. History has appropriately remembered him as ‘Praeceptor Germaniae’ (the ‘Teacher of Germany’).