Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Luther Favored the Death Penalty for Anabaptists

If I hear another Lutheran try to deny that this is true, I think I'll scream. It's happened once again, and comically (for those who love irony as I do), from one who has been a vocal critic lately with regard to my supposed profound ignorance about Luther. He wrote on the Catholic Message Board:

. . . he was imperfect too. But not all the stuff you have read is true. He was not a fornicator, he was a good father and husband. His language was sometimes enough to make your skin crawl. He was "rough", but not evil. There were Lutherans who took things too far and yes they killed people for their beliefs. Not a good thing, not Luther either.


Here are the documented facts:

Luther sanctioned capital punishment for doctrinal heresy most notably in his Commentary on the 82nd Psalm (vol. 13, pp. 39-72 in the 55-volume set, Luther's Works, edited by Jaroslav Pelikan et al), written in 1530, where he advocated the following:

If some were to teach doctrines contradicting an article of faith clearly grounded in Scripture and believed throughout the world by all Christendom, such as the articles we teach children in the Creed -- for example, if anyone were to teach that Christ is not God, but a mere man and like other prophets, as the Turks and the Anabaptists hold -- such teachers shuold not be tolerated, but punished as blasphemers . . .

By this procedure no one is compelled to believe, for he can still believe what he will; but he is forbidden to teach and to blaspheme.

(Luther's Works [LW], Vol. 13, 61-62)

Is this merely my interpretation of his words and thoughts? Hardly. The famous Luther biographer Roland Bainton wrote:

In 1530 Luther advanced the view that two offences should be penalized even with death, namely sedition and blasphemy. The emphasis was thus shifted from incorrect belief to its public manifestation by word and deed. This was, however, no great gain for liberty, because Luther construed mere abstention from public office and military service as sedition and a rejection of an article of the Apostles' Creed as blasphemy.

In a memorandum of 1531, composed by Melanchthon and signed by Luther, a rejection of the ministerial office was described as insufferable blasphemy, and the disintegration of the Church as sedition against the ecclesiastical order. In a memorandum of 1536, again composed by Melanchthon and signed by Luther, the distinction between the peaceful and the revolutionary
Anabaptists was obliterated . . .

Melanchthon this time argued that even the passive action of the Anabaptists in rejecting government, oaths, private property, and marriages outside the faith was itself disruptive of the civil order and therefore seditious. The Anabaptist protest against the punishment of blasphemy was itself blasphemy. The discontinuance of infant baptism would produce a heathen society and separation from the Church, and the formation of sects was an offense against God.

Luther may not have been too happy about signing these memoranda. At any rate he appended postscripts to each. To the first he said,

I assent. Although it seems cruel to punish them with the sword, it is crueler that they condemn the ministry of the Word and have no well-grounded doctrine and suppress the true and in this way seek to subvert the civil order.

. . . In 1540 he is reported in his Table Talk to have returned to the position of Philip of Hesse that only seditious Anabaptists should be executed; the others should be merely banished. But Luther passed by many an opportunity to speak a word for those who with joy gave themselves as sheep for the slaughter.

. . . For the understanding of Luther's position one must bear in mind that Anabaptism was not in every instance socially innocuous. The year in which Luther signed the memorandum counseling death even for the peaceful Anabaptists was the year in which a group of them ceases to be peaceful . . . By forcible measures they took over the city of Munster in Westphalia . . .

Yet when all these attenuating considerations are adduced, one cannot forget that Melanchthon's memorandum justified the eradication of the peaceful, not because they were incipient and clandestine revolutionaries, but on the ground that even a peaceful renunciation of the state itself constituted sedition.

(Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, New York: Mentor, 1950, 295-296)

Moreover, Luther wrote in a 1536 pamphlet:

That seditious articles of doctrine should be punished by the sword needed no further proof. For the rest, the Anabaptists hold tenets relating to infant baptism, original sin, and inspiration, which have no connection with the Word of God, and are indeed opposed to it . . . Secular authorities are also bound to restrain and punish avowedly false doctrine . . . For think what disaster would ensue if children were not baptized? . . . Besides this the Anabaptists separate themselves from the churches . . . and they set up a ministry and congregation of their own, which is also contrary to the command of God. From all this it becomes clear that the secular authorities are bound . . . to inflict corporal punishment on the offenders . . . Also when it is a case of only upholding some spiritual tenet, such as infant baptism, original sin, and unnecessary separation, then . . . we conclude that . . . the stubborn sectaries must be put to death.

(Martin Luther: pamphlet of 1536; in Johannes Janssen, History of the German People From the Close of the Middle Ages, 16 volumes, translated by A.M. Christie, St. Louis: B. Herder, 1910 [orig. 1891]; Vol. X, 222-223)

The person who denied this has been urging others to now "ignore" and "forget" Luther because he has been dead for 450 years and his life "shouldn't mean a thing."

I found this to be a quite curious and surprising development, since a search on that site revealed that he had talked about Luther in posts 96 times in the last 42 days, for an average of 2.29 times a day. In the same time period he mentioned our Lord Jesus only 58 times, faith 43 times, and the Bible 25 times. Aren't search engines a load of fun?

Utterly unable to resist (due to the incorrigible influence of Malcolm Muggeridge and G.K. Chesterton) the inherent and rather spectacular comedic possibilities of this turn of events, I wrote:

One can readily see, then, what a revolution this newfound realization will be in [so-and-so's] day-to-day life. Luther has nothing to do with one's faith; should be forgotten and ignored, yet he has talked about him in the last six weeks more than twice as much as "faith" and almost twice as much as Jesus, and nearly four times as much as the Holy Bible. He mentioned him ten times yesterday alone, or almost four times more than his average frequency. So this will be quite a change. Just in time for Lent . . .

People have tried to discredit my Luther research before, with the same dismal and semi-humorous result.

1 comment:

speculativefictionweblog said...

Thank you. Luther does need to be marginalized, if not forgotten altogether, because of his treatment of the Anabaptists.