In the movie “Smoke Signals,” the aunt of a newborn says to her sister, “Victor is a good name. It means he will win.”
An angel tells Joseph to name his baby Jesus, “for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21 NRSV).
Hans Luder (or Luther) named his baby Martin because this baby was born on November 10, 1483, and baptized on November 11 — the feast day of St. Martin of Tours. If the baby had been baptized any earlier he might have been named after St. Leo the Great; a day later, St. Josaphat.
Luther himself put no stock in astrological considerations such as the time of one’s birth and chided his beloved friend Philip Melanchthon for considering it.
Besides, what’s in a name? Shakespeare famously asks, “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” (Romeo and Juliet; II, ii, 1-2).
I believe that if Martin Luther had been born a day earlier and named Leo or a day later and named Josaphat the progress of history would not have changed much.
Perhaps Martin Luther King and his more famous son, Martin Luther King Jr., might have had different names (Josaphat Luther King Jr.?), but Martin Luther’s reformation of the church and Martin Luther King Jr.’s reformation of American (un)civil society would not have changed.
Martin Luther’s namesake saint was Martin of Tours. In this modern information age, you can read about him simply by selecting his name with your cursor and right clicking your mouse.
My software prompts, “Search Google for ‘Martin of Tours’?” I peeked at the entry in Wikipedia as well as Catholic Online. Martin of Tours also has an excellent entry in Philip Pfatteicher’s New Book of Festivals and Commemorations.
Martin of Tours was born in 315 or 316 in what is now recognized as modern-day Hungary.
In the fourth century it was still part of the Roman Empire. Indeed, Martin’s father was a Roman legionnaire. Eventually Martin left Roman paganism and became a Christian.
He was baptized when he was 18 years old. He was a very compassionate person and very concerned for the well-being of the poor.
Martin became bishop of Tours (France). Most of his work was focused on increasing the spread of the Christian faith among the local rural population whom he visited and organized.
Through the ages, and perhaps in tribute to this humble man, Martin of Tours, many parents have named their children after him — even girls: Martina. Or, perhaps like Hans Luther, they were only given the name of the saint closest to their birthday.
Over the centuries other Martins have been canonized (recognized as saints) by the Roman Catholic Church.
St. Martin, Bishop of Tongres (France) died around the year 350.
St. Martin of Dumio (c. 520-580) was an archbishop in Portugal.
St. Martin of Vertou (527-601) was a hermit and abbot in the region of Brittany, France.
St. Martin I was elected pope in 649 and died in exile.
St. Martin of Arades heard the confessions of Charles Martel. He died in 726.
St. Martin was a seventh century founding abbot, along with St. Willigood, of the Benedictine order.
St. Martin of Leon (c. 1130-January 12, 1203) was an Augustinian like Martin Luther.
St. Martin Cid was a Cistercian abbot-founder and co-worker with St. Bernard. He was born in Zamora, Spain, and founded Val-Paraiso. He died in 1152.
St. Martin de Hinojosa was Cistercian bishop of Siguenza, Spain. He became bishop in 1185 but later returned to monastic life.
St. Martin IV was born sometime around 1210 and lived in the town of his namesake, Tours, France. He became pope in a very turbulent time in the Roman Catholic Church. He died in 1285.
St. Martin Tinh and St. Martin Tho were two Martins martyred in Vietnam. The Vatican estimates as many as 300,000 priests and lay workers were martyred over the centuries in Vietnam.
St. Martin Loynaz of the Ascension and St. Martin de Aguirre are two of the martyrs of Japan who were crucified along with 23 others on February 25, 1597, near Nagasaki.
St. Richard Martin was born in Shropshire, England, and studied at Oxford. After King Henry VIII departed the Roman Church, Richard Martin was executed as a result of religious persecution in 1588.
St. Martin de Porres was born in Lima, Peru, in 1579 and died on November 3, 1639.
The name Martin conjures up different images in people’s minds.
In the United States people are sure to think right away about Martin Luther King Jr., but also about Martina Navratilova, Martina McBride, Martin Scorsese or Martin guitars. In Peru they would think about St. Martin de Porres, and in Tours, France, people would automatically think of the city’s namesake: St. Martin of Tours.
In the Lutheran church there is pretty much just one Martin among the thousands who share his name: Martin Luther.
He has yet to be canonized as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church, but he knew he was a saint anyway — not by any works he had done, but solely by the grace of God.
Luther writes: “The Holy Scriptures call Christians saints and the people of God. It’s a pity that it’s forgotten that we are saints, for to forget this is to forget Christ and baptism. So it comes about that those who are truly sinners don’t want to be considered sinners, and those who are saints don’t want to be called saints either. The latter don’t believe the gospel which comforts them and the former don’t believe the law which accuses them.
“You say that the sins which we commit every day offend God, and therefore we are not saints. To this I reply: Mother love is stronger than the filth and scabbiness on a child, and so the love of God toward us is stronger than the dirt that clings to us.
“Accordingly, although we are sinners, we do not lose our filial relation on account of our filthiness, nor do we fall from grace on account of our sin.” (“Martin Luther’s Table Talk,” Luther’s Works 54:70.)
R. Don Wright is a 1992 graduate of Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary. He served 16 years in parish ministry in the ELCA Nebraska Synod with his wife, Donna, who is also an ordained minister of the ELCA. In 2008 Pastor Don and his family moved to Pennsylvania where he serves St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Hatboro, a congregation of the ELCA Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod.