When Lightning Struck! The Story of Martin Luther (Book Review)

When Lightning Struck cover

If you’ve read more than one of my blog posts, you’ve probably caught onto the fact that I love history.  I love teaching it.  I love reading about it.  And I love finding great books to help my kids fall in love with it as well.

So when I heard about When Lightning Struck! The Story of Martin Luther, a new book by Danika Cooley, I knew I was going to have to check it out, especially since we’ll be covering the Reformation later this year.


When Lightning Struck! begins with his years at school studying law, followed by his dramatic decision to become a monk.  Martin feels the weight of sin acutely, but the teachings of the church do little to comfort him.  Determined to earn his salvation, he practices self-denial: starving himself, beating himself, and sleeping on the hard wooden floor (or even in the snow) to try to pay for his sins. Not only does Martin struggle with knowledge of his salvation, he is dismayed by the corruption and unbiblical practices he observes within the Church.

After receiving a Bible, Martin immerses himself in Scripture, and he at last comes to realize that Jesus has already paid for them. His lectures at the University draw grace-hungry crowds—and eventually the wrath of Rome.  Troubled by the Church’s practice of selling indulgences, Martin posts his now famous Ninety-Five Theses to open a public forum to discuss the matter, certain that the Pope and other wise religious leaders will change their position once they see the objections from Scripture laid out plainly.

The idea that theology should come from Scripture alone does not sit well with the powerful church leaders, and after Martin refuses to recant his position he is declared a heretic.  Others, however, are emboldened by Martin’s stand against the church, and a great Reformation sweeps through Germany and then other parts of Europe.  Martin spends the rest of his life trying to help maintain unity within the Protestant church, though at times he and other leaders are deeply divided over doctrine.

About the Book

Danika Cooley does not shy away from Martin Luther’s harsher side, but attempts to present an accurate portrait of the man known as the “Father of the Reformation.”  In no way does this book present Martin as a perfect man.  His temper flares often, and he stubbornly sets himself upon anyone whose interpretation of Scripture differs from his own.   I love what Cooley writes in her note at the end of the book:

Would Luther have been effective had he been a gentler, kinder soul in our contemporary estimation? No one can say. Martin Luther certainly didn’t think so. He believed God chose him because of his fiery spirit. We can trust that God is sovereign over history (p.233).

I was already familiar with Danika Cooley because of Bible Road Trip, her amazing Bible study curriculum for Preschool through grade 12.  My experience using BRT convinced me that she is a kindred spirit who shares my passion for teaching about both the Bible and what God has done in history, and that passion comes through in her presentation of Martin Luther’s life.  While the material has been painstakingly researched (as evidenced by abundant footnotes), Cooley makes sure that she tells an exciting story, with plenty of dialogue to move the story along through the entire 265-page book.

Her thorough research and enthusiasm for her subject matter are contagious, so I was excited that on her website you can find a unit study for grades 7-12 (free for subscribers) and a discussion guide (suitable for grades 3-12) to go along with When Lightning Struck! to help students get even more out of the story.

unit study   discussion guide

Final thoughts

I read through When Lightning Struck! on my own for this review in order to see if it was something I’d want to use later this year with Ian.  While I think he’d enjoy the story, I’ve decided to hold off on it for now.  I think he would have trouble understanding parts of it (such as the extreme measures Martin goes to in order to try to earn his salvation, and the issue of transubstantiation that gets Martin so upset in the later part of the story).  There are so many important discussions that can come out of this book, so I think I’m going to save it for a later study of the Reformation.  Then Elijah will be able to join us and we can enjoy deeper conversations about faith, grace, and the legacy of Martin Luther.