Friday, April 19, 2024

Today, on the Christian History Almanac, we have perhaps “the greatest German algebraist of the 16th century,” a man who predicted the end of the world, and a friend of Luther: Michael Stifel.

It is the 19th of April 2024. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac, brought to you by 1517 at; I’m Dan van Voorhis.


We are days away from entering our 6th season of this daily program; no skips, no repeats, or “best ofs,” and I am still finding new characters on a weekly basis and am still delighted by the corners of the world we get to visit in the service of church history. All that to say, I never thought a show would be devoted to a man considered “the greatest German algebraist of the 16th century,” and I don’t know how I never came across this curious gentleman given his story, but such is the joy of making this program.

Michael Stifel was one of the more curious characters of the Reformation era; he seems to have been brilliant and something of a headache in his circuitous and peripatetic career (that means he moved around a whole lot). Stifel was born in Esslingen, Germany, in 1487. We know his father’s name was Konrad, but nothing else is known of Michael until he attended the University of Wittenberg and received his M.A. in 1511, 3 years after Luther arrived at the school but six years before the posting of the 95 Theses.

Stifel would be ordained into an Augustinian monastery back home in 1511 but he was already troubled with what he saw as a corrupt clergy. He was punished for giving absolution to the poor without requiring an indulgence. We don’t know of any conversation or correspondence with Luther, but Stifel made his love of the reformer known with the publication of an ode to Luther, the wonderfully titled “An Extremely Beautiful Song about Luther’s Christian Teachings”. As you might imagine, he was not long for the Monastery.

He would be protected by the knight Hartmut von Kronberg as one of his “refugees for righteousness”. When that haven was attacked by the knight's enemies, Stifel made his way back to Wittenberg, where he would live in Luther’s expansive new home, the Wittenberg monastery. Luther would find the eccentric Stifel a parish to serve at the court of the Count of Mansfeld, but, as would become a pattern for Stifel, he would soon wear out his welcome and jump from parish to parish. In 1528, he returned to Wittenberg until the death of a nearby pastor, wherein Stifel would take the position and the deceased pastor's wife as his bride; Luther himself married the couple.  

With a time of relative peace, Stifel returned to the study of mathematics and was initially in the service of theology. In a manner too complicated to easily explain, he figured out, using a numerology of his own, devising that Pope Leo X could be rendered as 666- the mark of the beast. Furthermore, using the “word calculus,” he determined that the world would end on the 18th of October the following year, 1533. Luther suggested Stifel keep this to himself, but he published his findings, and when the day came, and many in his parish had sold everything, Stifel was put in prison. At the urging of Luther, who called Stifels’ work a Kleine Anfechtlein or “little issue,” he was released and even found another parish for him until the Schmalkdic War forced him back to Wittenberg where he studied Mathematics, this time with no intention of predicting the end of the world but for their own sake.

In 1551 he was in Königsberg serving as a pastor but also teaching mathematics and theology at the University. The following decade saw him on the move again, often on account of his opponents within the Lutheran Church (this was a time of deep disagreements with Luther dead and controversies over what his church and legacy would look like). By 1559, he had left the pastorate altogether and had been named a professor of mathematics at the University of Jena. It was here, finally, that he would become known not for his disruptions but his collection of mathematical texts, which he would compile and republish. At the encouragement of an old professor from Wittenberg, he would publish his own texts, one of which was his “Arithmetica integra.” As I am out of my depth in the world of math, I can tell you that the Mathematical Association of America calls “a treasure,” uses more words I don’t understand, and then tells us that “he [was] one of the first to present one combined form of the algorithm for solving quadratic equations.” And apparently, that’s a big deal. Good on Michael Stifel, whose long life saw him teach peacefully until his death on April 19th, 1567; born in 1487, he lived to the ripe old age of 80.


The last word for today is from the daily lectionary and Acts chapter 4:

The priests and the captain of the temple guard and the Sadducees came up to Peter and John while they were speaking to the people. They were greatly disturbed because the apostles were teaching the people, proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead. They seized Peter and John and, because it was evening, they put them in jail until the next day. But many who heard the message believed; so the number of men who believed grew to about five thousand.


This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 19th of April 2024, brought to you by 1517 at

The show is produced by a man who has also calculated the end of the world, which he will share with those who purchase at least 1lb of coffee at he is Christopher Gillespie.

The show is written and read by a man never so humbled than when shown numbers, that aren’t sports statistics, and expected to do something with them. I’m Dan van Voorhis.

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

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