I. Introduction and Statement of Purpose
II. Luther's Own Words, in Chronological Order
SUMMARY: APOCALYPTIC WRATH AND TEMPORAL REVOLUTION
Opinions of Church Historians:
III. Roland Bainton
IV. Philip Schaff
V. Will Durant
VI. Owen Chadwick
VII. Warren H. Carroll
VIII. Gunther Franz
IX. Joseph Lortz
X. Johannes Janssen
XI. Hartmann Grisar, S.J.
XII. James Mackinnon
XIII. Kyle C. Sessions
XIV. R.H. Murray
XV. Alister E. McGrath
XVI. Henri Daniel-Rops
XVII. Philip Hughes
XVIII. Preserved Smith
XIX. H.G. Koenigsberger
XX. Harold J. Grimm
IV. Philip Schaff
V. Will Durant
VI. Owen Chadwick
VII. Warren H. Carroll
VIII. Gunther Franz
IX. Joseph Lortz
X. Johannes Janssen
XI. Hartmann Grisar, S.J.
XII. James Mackinnon
XIII. Kyle C. Sessions
XIV. R.H. Murray
XV. Alister E. McGrath
XVI. Henri Daniel-Rops
XVII. Philip Hughes
XVIII. Preserved Smith
XIX. H.G. Koenigsberger
XX. Harold J. Grimm
I. Introduction and Statement of Purpose
No Catholic (or Protestant) historian I have found -- not even Janssen -- asserts that Luther deliberately wanted to cause the Peasants' Revolt, or that he was the primary cause of it. Quite the contrary . . . My long-held position on this agrees, therefore, with the consensus opinion of historians of all stripes. I think Luther had the typical naivete of many sincerely, deeply-committed and (what might be called) "super-pious" religious people. It is also undeniably true that Luther's thought is highly complex, nuanced, sometimes vacillating or seemingly or actually self-contradictory, and often difficult to understand.
Thus, for him to say the sort of extreme (seemingly straightforward) things that he said, have such opinions distributed by the tens of thousands in pamphlets, and to expect everyone (even uneducated peasants) to understand the proper sense and take into consideration context and so forth, is highly unreasonable and irresponsible. I should like to quote some reputable Protestant or secularist historians in this regard, with whom I wholeheartedly agree:
Roland Bainton: "A movement so religiously minded could not but be affected by the Reformation . . . Luther certainly had blasted usury . . . His attitude on monasticism likewise admirably suited peasant covetousness for the spoliation of cloisters. The peasants with good reason felt themselves strongly drawn to Luther . . . a complete dissociation of the reform from the Peasants' War is not defensible."
Gordon Rupp: "Luther had indeed laid himself open to misrepresentation."
Owen Chadwick: "his simple and enclosed upbringing prevented him from realizing the effect of violent language upon simple minds. Luther, not an extremist, often sounded like an extremist."
Will Durant: "Luther, the preachers, and the pamphleteers were not the cause of the revolt; . . . But it could be argued that the gospel of Luther and his more radical followers "poured oil on the flames," and turned the resentment of the oppressed into utopian delusions, uncalculated violence, and passionate revenge . . . The peasants had a case against him. He had not only predicted social revolution, he had said he would not be displeased by it . . . He had made no protest against the secular appropriation of ecclesiastical property."
H.G. Koenigsberger: "Only someone of Luther's own naive singleness of mind could imagine that his inflammatory attacks on one of the great pillars of the established order would not be interpreted as an attack on the whole social order, or on that part of it which it suited different interests, from princes to peasants, to attack."
James Mackinnon: "To threaten the princes with the wrath of God was all very well, but such a threat would have no effect in remedying the peasants' grievances, and they might well argue that God had chosen them, as he practically admitted, to be the effective agents of His wrath."
Preserved Smith: "Luther, indeed, could honestly say that he had consistently preached the duty of obedience and the wickedness of sedition, nevertheless his democratic message of the brotherhood of man . . . worked in many ways undreamt of by himself. Moreover, he had mightily championed the cause of the oppressed commoner against his masters. 'The people neither can nor will endure your tyranny any longer,' said he to the nobles; . . ."Luther believed that the papacy and the entire edifice of institutional Catholicism would come to an end, not by an insurrection or rebellion, but by a direct intervention of God Himself (in fact, by nothing less than the Second Coming, as he states more than once). In 1521 and 1522 he was caught up into and (arguably) obsessed by an apocalyptic vision of what was about to happen, in God's providence. This being the case, at first he didn't feel it was necessary to oppose even those who threatened a rebellion (later he changed his mind, when the resulting societal chaos required swift action). Thus he wrote in December, 1521 (source information below):
The spiritual estate will not be destroyed by the hand of man, nor by insurrection. Their wickedness is so horrible that nothing but a direct manifestation of the wrath of God itself, without any intermediary whatever, will be punishment sufficient for them. And therefore I have never yet let men persuade me to oppose those who threaten to use hands and flails. I know quite well that they will get no chance to do so. They may, indeed, use violence against some, but there will be no general use made of violence . . . it will not come to violence, and there is therefore no need that I restrain men's hands . . .The relationship between this divine wrath and judgment and those whom God uses to execute it, however, remains somewhat obscure, unclear, and ambiguous in Luther's writings. Perhaps the key to this conundrum is found in a remarkable statement he made in a private letter, dated 4 May 1525: "If God permits the peasants to extirpate the princes to fulfil his wrath, he will give them hell fire for it as a reward."
So, while Luther opposed insurrection on principle, there is a tension in his seemingly contradictory utterances between opposition to the populace taking up arms against spiritual and political tyranny, and a deluded confidence and at times almost gleeful wish that apocalyptic judgment was soon to occur, regardless of the means God used to bring it about (one recalls the ancient Babylonians, whom God used to judge the Hebrews). This produces an odd combination of sincere disclaimers against advocating violence, accompanied by (often in the same piece of writing) thinly-veiled quasi-threats and quasi-prophetic judgments upon the powers of the time, sternly warning of the impending Apocalypse and destruction of the "Romish Sodom" and all its pomps, pretenses, corruptions, and vices.
On a more earthly, mundane, practical plane, however, it is astonishing to note how cavalierlry Luther sanctions wholesale theft of ecclesiastical properties (see proofs of this in the passages listed under 12 December 1522 and Spring 1523), on the grounds that the inhabitants had forsaken the "gospel" (as he -- quite conveniently in this case -- defined it, of course). This was to be a hallmark of the "Reformation" in Germany and also in England and Scandinavia, and was justified as a matter of "conscience" by the Protestants at the Diet of Augsburg in 1530, who flatly refused to return stolen properties, as a gesture of good will and reconciliation with the Catholics. Luther was still rationalizing this outrageous and unjust criminal theft in 1541:
If they are not the church but the devil's whore that has not remained faithful to Christ, then it is irrefutably and thoroughly established that they should not possess church property.
(Wider Hans Wurst, or Against Jack Sausage, LW, vol. 41, 179-256, translated by Eric W. Gritsch; citation from p. 220)But back to our more immediate subject: Generally speaking, Luther had a problem with his tongue. And the social repercussions were massive and tragic. The Bible speaks a lot about an unbridled tongue. It is no small sin at all. How German peasants (Luther was of rural peasant stock) may have habitually expressed themselves in the 16th century might be an interesting historical tidbit, but it has no bearing on Christian ethics, where the tongue and slander and causing uproar and divisions are concerned. One doesn't "get off" in God's eyes for real sins because of cultural context. It is all the more serious when such remarks are arguably a major cause in both provoking and violently quelling a rebellion in which some 130,000 human beings lost their lives: almost all violently and cruelly.
Luther might indeed mean one thing when he utters his impassioned hyper-polemical, quasi-prophetic jeremiads (I have no problem with that), but he was (by the looks of it) so naive and lacking in practical wisdom about human nature and human affairs ("worldly" or "real-life" considerations) that he apparently had no idea what harm and ill consequences his words might cause. I agree that this gets him "off the hook" to some extent (I certainly freely grant him his good intentions and sincerity), but not all that much, in my opinion. I still think he bears much responsibility for the resulting extent of the sad division by virtue of his constant polemics (often involving much lying about the Catholic Church).
Furthermore, he seemed to be absolutely naive as to how his own principles would be interpreted, extended, and applied by others. He asserted a more or less absolute primacy of private judgment and conscience at the Diet of Worms in 1521 ("unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason . . ., " etc.). But four years later (precisely because of the fruit and implications of the Peasants' Revolt) he renounced this -- for all practical intents and purposes -- and adopted the largely caesaropapist State Church model where secular princes decided what whole regions had to believe (rather than individuals).
The Anabaptists had gone on to apply his initial principle more consistently than he himself. They advocated non-violence and toleration, whereas the Lutherans and Calvinists and Zwinglians tortured, drowned, and otherwise murdered these fellow Protestants by the thousands (persecution and capital punishment of the Anabaptists was adopted in 1529 at the Diet of Speyer -- where the term "Protestant" originated -- with Luther's consent). Luther's support of a notion that earlier he had believed was wicked, unbiblical, and held only by non-Christians, was further reiterated in his Commentary on the 82nd Psalm and in a 1536 pamphlet.
I have contended for a dozen years that Luther's philosophical, epistemological, and socio-political naivete and shortsightedness made him blind to the predictable, probable results of his rhetoric (both angry and calmly theological). So when other groups like the Anabaptists and the Zwinglians differed from him on baptism and the Eucharist (using his own principles of private judgment in so doing),
Luther thought this was ineffably scandalous and inexcusable -- never noting the irony that it was no less (in fact, much more) absurd or unwarranted for fellow Protestants to disagree with him (as simply one self-anointed man who claimed to be speaking only for God) than it was for he himself to dissent from longstanding Catholic tradition.
To then advocate the death penalty for such "dissidents" was highly ironic and odd (to put it mildly), given his earlier ethical positions on the use of force.
Things like these are what continue to fascinate me about Luther. He was an undeniably courageous man and a passionately-committed Christian, but he was also a greatly-flawed man, and such persons often cause much harm in society, to the extent that they are culturally influential (as Luther obviously was). Since the myths and lionization of Luther as the Great Super-Hero and Slayer of Corrupt Catholicism/Babylon and Restorer of the Bible and the Gospel from Romish Darkness persist, I take it as part of my duty to explore and make more known other lesser-known aspects of the man (and of the Catholic Church that he so slandered and falsely portrayed), so people will get the whole picture, and not a tremendously one-sided, slanted one.
My purpose is not (at ALL) to demonize Luther or make him out to be bad, evil, or the devil incarnate, but only to present a fuller historical picture (whatever the truth is: "positive" or "negative") and to make some criticisms where I think they are warranted (with the background support of historians on all sides). This doesn't amount to equating Luther with Attila the Hun, Vlad the Impaler, or Joseph Stalin; it is simply viewing him as a fallen, flawed man, as all of us are. He shouldn't "get a pass" simply because he opposed the Catholic Church: the thing that so many people detest and loathe.
Nor does every Catholic criticism of Luther or early or later Protestantism amount to deliberate slander, with a propagandistic, "I must always make my own side come off looking righteous and saintly, at all costs" intent. There is such a thing as legitimate historiography and reasonable opinions drawn therefrom. And (thankfully) such scholarship can (and very often does, at least on a scholarly level) unite Protestants and Catholics where it concerns certain verified facts. I write as a mere lay apologist and non-scholar, but I enlist reputable historians and copious quotations from Luther himself in order to arrive at my conclusions, both "positive" and "negative" -- as the case may be (just as the professional historians do).
Red = "inflammatory, violent" statements of Luther (not intended on my part to imply in any way, shape, or form that he was necessarily calling for literal violence, but rather, to highlight remarks which were of a nature that arguably, understandably could easily be interpreted -- even if wrongly -- as advocating violence and insurrection of the sort characteristic of the Peasants' Revolt)
Blue = statements of Luther indicating his fundamental opposition to insurrection of the non-governmental masses and resort to physical violence for spiritual or ecclesiastical ends and goals
Green = statements by historians having a particular relevance to the question at hand: the relationship between Luther's rhetoric (and also theology, to a lesser extent) and the Peasants' Revolt of 1524-1525
Affiliations of historians will be noted where known (with question marks in cases where affiliation is suspected but not known for sure):
P = Protestant
C = Catholic
S = Secular
Citations will simply refer to the author of books in the bibliography, and page number. Whatever doesn't appear there will be fully-documented after the quote itself.
II. Luther's Own Words, in Chronological Order
(O'Connor, 41; LL, I, 417; Letter to Georg Spalatin)
I have an idea that a revolution is about to take place unless God withhold Satan . . . The Word of God can never be advanced without whirlwind, tumult, and danger . . . One must either despair of peace and tranquillity or else deny the Word. War is of the Lord who did not come to send peace. Take care not to hope that the cause of Christ can be advanced in the world peacefully and sweetly, since you see the battle has been waged with his own blood and that of the martyrs.
(Smith, 72; same letter to Georg Spalatin)
(Bainton, 115; Carroll, 1; WA, VI, 347; EA, II, 107; PE, IV, 203; in reply to arguments of the Dominican Sylvester Prierias, Master of the Sacred Palace at Rome; On the Pope as an Infallible Teacher, or On the Papacy at Rome. Schaff gives its Latin title as De juridica et irrefragabili veritate Romanae Ecclesiae Romanique Pontificis)
(Durant, 351; from WA, VIII, 203)
Rupp (pp. 93-94, citing WA: Br. 2.272.35): "Yet a few weeks later Luther made his meaning plain when he described Hutten's anti-clerical plans as 'to make war on women and children'.
30 JULY 1520
(Smith, 77; letter to Gerard Listrius at Zwolle, from Wittenberg)
(Smith, 86; letter to John Lang at Erfurt, from Wittenberg)
(Schaff, VII, § 46, "Christian Freedom — Luther's Last Letter to the Pope"; Letter to Pope Leo X)
Janssen (III, 136) noted how Luther's friend, the minor "reformer" Wolfgang Capito, wisely and prophetically warned Luther on on this date about his bone-chilling invective:
"You are frightening away from you your supporters by your constant reference to troops
and arms. We can easily enough throw everything into confusion, but it will not be in our
power, believe me, to restore things to peace and order."
That is a blessed dissension, disturbance, and commotion which is produced by the Word of God; it is the beginning of true faith and of war against false faith; it is the coming again of the days of suffering and persecution and the right condition of Christendom.
(Reply to the Answer of the Leipzig Goat [Jerome Emser], PE, III, 287-305, translated by A. Steimle; citation from p. 303)
(PE, III, 204, translated by W.A. Lambert; LL, I, 543; Letter to Georg Spalatin)
(Grisar , 172; Wider die Bulle des Endchrists; / Assertion of All the Articles Condemned by the Last Bull of Antichrist; WA, VI, 614 ff.; EA, XXIV-2, 38 ff.)
(Bainton, 115; from WA, VII, 645-646)
But tell me, dear Emser, since you dare to put it down on paper that it is right and necessary to burn heretics and think that this does not soil your hands with Christian blood, why should it not also be right to take you, Sylvester, the pope, and all your adherents and put you to a most shameful death? Since you dare to publish a doctrine that is not only heretical but antichristian, which all the devils would not venture to utter -- that the Gospel must be confirmed by the pope, that its authority is bound up with the pope's authority, and that what is done by the pope is done by the church. What heretic has ever thus at one stroke condemned and destroyed God's Word? Therefore I still declare and maintain that, if heretics deserve the stake, you and the pope ought to be put to death a thousand times. But I would not have it done. Your judge is not far off, He will find you without fail and without delay.
. . . what would become of the papacy . . . ? Christ Himself must abolish it by coming with the final judgment; nothing else will avail.
(Dr. Martin Luther's Answer to the Superchristian, Superspiritual, and Superlearned Book of Goat Emser of Leipzig, With a Glance at His Comrade Murner, PE, III, 307-401, translated by A. Steimle; citations from 343-344, 366)
Grisar [I] (193): "Spalatin he informed [12 May 1521] that he was aggrieved at this procedure [the edict of outlawry], not for his own sake, but because his opponents thereby heaped disaster upon their heads and the time of their punishment was evidently at hand . . . In these first letters he also rejoices in the unchained power of the masses (moles vulgi imminentis), who were, he said, preparing terror for the authors of the edict and all his persecutors; it is evident, he adds, that the people are unwilling and unable to tolerate any longer the yoke of the pope and the papists ...
(Grisar , 193; EA, Br. III, 153)
14 MAY 1521
(Smith, 122; letter to Georg Spalatin at Worms from the Wartburg)
Now, I am not at all displeased to hear that the clergy are brought to such a state of fear and anxiety. perhaps they will come to their senses and moderate their mad tyranny. Would to God their terror and fear were even greater. But I feel quite confident, and have no fear whatever that there will be an insurrection, at least one that would be general and affect all the clergy . . .
. . . any man who can and will may threaten and frighten them, that the Scriptures may be fulfilled, which say of such evil doers, in Psalm xxxvi, "Their iniquity is made manifest that men may hate them" . . .
According to the Scriptures such fear and anxiety come upon the enemies of God as the beginning of their destruction. Therefore it is right, and pleases me well, that this punishment is beginning to be felt by the papists who persecute and condemn the divine truth. They shall soon suffer more keenly . . . Already an unspeakable severity and anger without limit has begun to break upon them. The heaven is iron, the earth is brass. No prayers can save them now. Wrath, as Paul says of the Jews,is come upon them to the uttermost. God's purposes demand far more than an insurrection. As a whole they are beyond the reach of help . . . The Scriptures have foretold for the pope and his followers an end far worse than bodily death and insurrection . . .
These texts [having cited Dan 8:25, 2 Thess 2:8, Is 11:4, Ps 10:15] teach us how both the pope and his antichristian government shall be destroyed . . .
If once the truth is recognized and made known, pope, priests, monks, and the whole papacy will end in shame and disgrace . . .
. . . these texts [2 Thess 2:8, 1 Thess 5:3] have made me certain that the papacy and the spiritual estate will not be destroyed by the hand of man, nor by insurrection. Their wickedness is so horrible that nothing but a direct manifestation of the wrath of God itself, without any intermediary whatever, will be punishment sufficient for them. And therefore I have never yet let men persuade me to oppose those who threaten to use hands and flails. I know quite well that they will get no chance to do so. They may, indeed, use violence against some, but there will be no general use made of violence . . .
. . . it will not come to violence, and there is therefore no need that I restrain men's hands . . . what is done by constituted authority cannot be regarded as rebellion . . . But the mind of the common man we must calm, and tell him to give way not even to the passions and words which lead to insurrection, and to do nothing at all unless commanded to do so by his superiors or assured of the co-operation of the authorities . . . there will be no real violence. All that men are saying and thinking on the subject amounts to nothing more than wasted words and idle thoughts . . .
. . . princes and nobles . . . ought to do their part, oppose the evil with all the power of their sword, in the hope that they might turn aside and moderate at least some of the wrath of God, as Moses did according to Exodus xxxii . . . I do not mean that the priests ought to be killed, for that is not necessary, but that whatever they do beyond and contrary to the Gospel should be forbidden by commands properly enforced. Words and edicts will more than suffice in dealing with thm; there is no need of more material weapons.
. . . insurrection is an unprofitable method of procedure, and never results in the desired reformation. For insurrection is devoid of reason and generally hurts the innocent more than the guilty. Hence no insurrection is ever right, no matter how good the cause in whose interest it is made. The harm resulting from it always exceeds the amount of reformation accomplished.
. . . My sympathies are and always will be with those against whom insurrection is made, however wrong the cause they stand for . . . God has forbidden insurrection . . . insurrection is nothing else than being one's own judge and avenger, and that God cannot endure . . . God will have nothing to do with it . . .
. . . the devil . . . wants to stir up an insurrection through those who glory in the Gospel, and hopes in this way to bring our teaching into contempt, as if the devil and not God were its author. Some men are already making much of this interpretation in their preaching, as a result of the attack on the priests which the devil inspired at Erfurt . . . Those who read and understand my teaching correctly will not make an insurrection. They have not so learned from me . . .
. . . we must slay him ["the pope and his papists"] with words; the mouth of Christ must do it . . . This will do more good than a hundred insurrections. Our violence will do him no harm at all, but rather make him stronger, as many have experienced before now . . .
Therefore you need not desire an armed insurrection. Christ has Himself already begun an insurrection with His mouth which will be more than the pope can bear . . .
(An Earnest Exhortation for all Christians, Warning Them Against Insurrection and Rebellion, PE, III, 201-222, translated by W.A. Lambert, citations from pp. 206-213, 215-216; also in LW, vol. 45, 57-74 [revised translation by Walther I. Brandt]; WA, VIII, 676-687, EA, XXII, 44-59; )
(Janssen, III, 266)
The spiritual powers . . . also the temporal ones, will have to succumb to the Gospel, either through love or through force, as is clearly proved by all Biblical history.
(Janssen, III, 267; Letter to Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony)
5 MARCH 1522
(Smith, 145; letter to Frederick, Elector of Saxony, at Lochau)
(LW, vol. 45, 58; also WA, Br. 2, 461, 469; letter to Frederick, Elector of Saxony)
(Schaff, VII, § 68, "Luther Restores Order in Wittenberg," second of eight sermons preached upon his return from the Wartburg; also in a different translation in Smith, 148; the sermons appear in PE, II, 395 ff.)
(Smith, 149; letter to Nicholas Hausmann at Zwickau, from Wittenberg)
(LW, vol. 45, 58; also WA, Br. 2, 479; letter to Wenceslaus Link)
We are triumphing over the papal tyranny, which formerly crushed kings and princes; how much more easily, then, shall we not overcome and trample down the princes themselves!
(Durant, 378 / Janssen, III, 268; Letter to Wenzel Link -- presumably the same as the one above)
4 JULY 1522
But if they say that one should beware of rebelling against spiritual authority, I answer: Should God’s word be dispensed with and the whole world perish? Is it right that all souls should be killed eternally so that the temporal show of these masks is left in peace? It would be better to kill all bishops and to annihilate all religious foundations and monasteries than to let a single soul perish, not to mention losing all souls for the sake of these useless dummies and idols. What good are they, except to live in lust from the sweat and labor of others and to impede the word of God? They are afraid of physical rebellion and do not care about spiritual destruction. Are they not intelligent, honest people! If they accepted God’s word and sought the life of the soul, God would be with them, since he is a God of peace. Then there would be no fear of rebellion. But if they refuse to hear God’s word and rather rage and rave with banning, burning, killing, and all evil, what could be better for them than to encounter a strong rebellion which exterminates them from the world? One could only laugh if it did happen, as the divine wisdom says, Proverbs 1[:25–27], “You have hated my punishment and misused my teaching; therefore I will laugh at your calamity and I will mock you when disaster strikes you.”
Not God’s word but stubborn disobedience [to God's word] creates rebellion. Whoever rebels against it shall get his due reward. Whoever accepts God’s word does not start unrest, although he is no longer afraid of the masks and does not worship the dummies.
(Against the Spiritual Estate of the Pope and the Bishops Falsely So-Called; LW, vol. 39, 239-299; translated by Eric W. and Ruth C. Gritsch. Quotation from pp. 252-253; WA, vol. 28, 142-201)
12 DECEMBER 1522
Grisar  (228): "Count Johann Heinrich of Schwarzburg became the founder of Lutheranism in his territories in virtue of a decree authorized by Luther . . . Luther replied on December 12, 1522 that Count Gunther had naturally expected the monks to preach the Gospel, but if witnesses could testify that they did not preach the true Gospel (of Luther), but papistical heresies, the count would have the right, nay, the duty, to oust them from their parishes."
Here you stand against St. Paul, against the Holy Spirit; and the Holy Spirit stands against you. What will you say now? Or have you become dumb? Here you have your verdict: all the world must destroy you and your government. Whoever stands on your side falls under God’s disfavor; whoever destroys you stands in God’s favor.
By no means do I want such destruction and extinction to be understood in the sense of using the fist and the sword, for they are not worthy of such punishment—and nothing is achieved in this way. Rather, as Daniel 8[:25] teaches, “by no human hand” shall the Antichrist be destroyed. Everyone should speak, teach, and stand against him with God’s word until he is put to shame and collapses, completely alone and even despising himself. This is true Christian destruction and every effort should be made to this end . . .
If someone said to me at this point, "Previously you have rejected the pope; will you now also reject bishops and the spiritual estate? Is everything to be turned around?" my answer would be: Judge for yourself and decide whether I turn things around by preferring divine word and order, or whether they turn things around by preferring their order and destroying God's . . . Nobody should look at that which opposes God's word, nor should one care what the consequences may or may not be. Instead, one should look at God's word alone and not worry -- even if angels were involved -- about who will get hurt, what will happen, or what the result will be . . .
. . . Christ, Peter, Paul, and the prophets proclaimed that there would be no greater disaster on earth than the advent of the Antichrist and of the final evil . . .
Since it is clear, then . . . that the bishops are not only masks and idols but also an accursed people before God -- rising up against God's order to destroy the gospel and ruin souls -- every Christian should help with his body and property to put an end to their tyranny. One should cheerfully do everything possible against them, just as though they were the devil himself. One should trample obedience to them just as though it were obedience to the devil; . . .
(Doctor Luther’s Bull and Reformation, LW, vol. 39, 278-283; translated by Eric W. and Ruth C. Gritsch. Published in LW as part of Against the Spiritual Estate of the Pope and the Bishops Falsely So-Called; but originally published separately in two special editions in 1523, in Erfurt and Augsburg, entitled, The Bull of the Ecclesiastic in Wittenberg Against the Papal Bishops, Granting God's Grace and Merit to All who Keep and Obey It; WA, X-11, 98-158; citations from 278-280, 283)
Who does not see that all bishops, foundations, monastic houses, universities, with all that are therein, rage against this clear word of Christ . . .? Hence they are certainly to be regarded as murderers, thieves, wolves and apostate Christians . . .
. . . the hearers not only have the power and the right to judge all preaching, but are obliged to judge it under penalty of forfeiting the favor of Divine Majesty. Thus we see in how unchristian a manner the despots dealt with us when they deprived us of this right and appropriated it to themselves. For this thing alone they have richly deserved to be cast out of the Christian Church and driven forth as wolves, thieves and murderers . . .
. . . where there is a Christian congregation which has the Gospel, it not only has the right and power, but is in duty bound . . . under pain of forfeiting its salvation, to shun, to flee, to put down, to withdraw from, the authority which our bishops, abbots, monastic houses, foundations, and the like exercise today . . .
(The Right and Power of a Christian Congregation or Community to Judge all Teaching and to Call, Appoint, and Dismiss Teachers, Established and Proved From Scripture, PE, IV, 75-85, translated by A.T.W. Steinhaeuser; WA, XI, 406 ff.; EA, XXII, 141 ff.; citations from 75-79)
. . . there is need of great care, lest the possessions of such vacated foundations become common plunder and everyone make off with what he can get . . . the blame is laid at my door whenever monasteries and foundations are vacated . . . This makes me unwilling to take the additional blame if some greedy bellies should grab these spiritual possessions and claim, in excuse of their conduct, that I was the cause of it . . .
In the first place: it would indeed be well if no rural monasteries, such as those of the Benedictines, Cistercians, Celestines, and the like, had ever appeared upon earth. But now that they are here, the best thing is to suffer them to pass away or to assist them, wherever one properly can, to disappear altogether. This may be done in the following ways. first, by suffering the inmates to leave, if they choose, of their own free will . . .
[then follows an exhortation to charitably provide for those who won't or can't leave]
I advise the temporal authorities, however, to take over the possessions of such monasteries . . . it is not a case of greed opposing the spiritual possessions, but of Christian faith opposing the monasteries
. . . I am writing this for those only who understand the Gospel and who have the right to take such action in their own lands, cities and jurisdiction . . .
. . . the third way is best, namely, to devote all remaning possessions to the common fund of a common chest, out of which gifts and loans might be made, in Christian love, to all the needy in the land, whether nobles or commons . . .
I am setting down this advice in accordance with Christian love for Christians alone. We must expect greed to creep in here and there . . . it is better that greed take too much in an orderly way than that the whole thing become common plunder, as it happened in Bohemia. Let everyone examine himself to see what he should take for his own needs and what he should leave for the common chest.
In the third place: the same procedure should be followed with respect to abbacies, foundations, and chapters in control of lands, cities and other possessions. For such bishops and foundations are neither bishops nor foundations; they are really at bottom temporal lords sailing under a spiritual name . . .
In the fourth place: part of the possessions of the monasteries and foundations . . . are based upon usury, which now calls itself everywhere "interest," and which has in but a few years swallowed up the whole world . . . God says, "I hate robbery for burnt offering." [Is 61:8] . . .
But whosoever will not follow this advice nor curb his greed, of him I wash my hands.
(Preface to an Ordinance of a Common Chest, PE, IV, 92-98, translated by A.T.W. Steinhaeuser; WA, XII, 11-30; EA, XXII, 106-130; citations from 93-98)
(Grisar , 193; Zwei kaiserliche uneinige Gebote / Two Discordant Imperial Commandments; WA, XV, 254 ff.)
(PE, IV, 35; also cited in Durant, 379; On Trade and Usury, translated by C.M. Jacobs; see also LW, vol. 45, 272, in slightly revised translation by Walther I. Brandt)
. . . your Graces could not excuse yourselves before the people and the world if you allowed rebellion and crimes of violence to make headway. If they give out, as they are wont to do with their swelling words, that the spirit drives them on to attempt force, then I answer thus: It is a bad spirit which shows no other fruit than burning churches, cloisters, and images, for the worst rascals on earth can do as much . . .
If they do more than propagate their doctrines by word, if they attempt force, your Graces should say: We gladly allow any one to teach by word, that the right doctrine may be preserved; but draw not the sword, which is ours; if you do, you must leave the country . . .
Now I will close for this time, having humbly prayed your Graces to act vigorously against their storming and ranting, that God's kingdom may be advanced by word only, as becomes Christians, and that all cause of sedition be taken from the multitude (Herr Omnes) which is more than enough inclined to it already. For they are not Christians who would go beyond the word and appeal to force, even if they boast that they are full of holy spirits.
(Smith, 152-153; letter to Frederick, Elector of Saxony and Duke John of Saxony, from Wittenberg)
It is not a fruit of the Spirit to criticize a doctrine by the imperfect life of the teacher . . . I would have paid little attention to the papists, if only they would teach correctly. Their evil life would not cause much harm . . .
. . . we who are engaged in the ministry of the Word are not allowed to use force . . . Our calling is to preach and to suffer, not to strike and defend ourselves with the fist. Christ and his apostles destroyed no churches and broke no images. They won hearts with the Word of God, then churches and images fell of themselves . . . Look at what I have done. I have never disturbed a stone, broken a thing, or set fire to a cloister. yet because of my word, the monasteries are now empty in many places . . .
. . . they are not Christians who want to go beyond the Word and to use violence . . .
(LW, vol. 40, 49-59; letter to Frederick, Elector of Saxony and Duke John of Saxony, from Wittenberg, citations from 57-59)
. . . we do not request more than that one permit us to regard a crucifix or a saint's image as a witness, for remembrance, as a sign as that image of Caesar was. Should it not be possible for us without sin to have a crucifix or an image of Mary, as it was for the Jews and Christ himself to have an image of Caesar, who, pagan and now dead, belonged to the devil? . . .
I previously have also written against the Allstedtian spirit [the town where the violent radical Thomas Munzer preached], that they will assiduously see to it that preachers who do not teach peacefully, but attract to themselves the mobs and on their own responsibility wantonly break images and destroy churches behind the backs of the authorities, forthwith be exiled.
(Against the Heavenly Prophets in the Matter of Images and Sacraments, Part I, translated by Bernhard Erling; LW, vol. 40, 79-143; WA, XVIII, 62-125, 134-214; citations from 85-86, 96, 103)
(Smith, 162; letter to John Ruhel at Mansfeld, from Seeburg)
We have no one on earth to thank for this mischievous rebellion, except you princes and lords; and especially you blind bishops and mad priests and monks . . .
. . . since you are the cause of this wrath of God, it will undoubtedly come upon you, if you do not mend your ways in time. . . the peasants are mustering, and this must result in the ruin, destruction, and desolation of Germany by cruel murder and bloodshed, unless God shall be moved by our repentance to prevent it.
For you ought to know, dear lords, that God is doing this because this raging of yours cannot and will not and ought not be endured for long. You must become different men and yield to God's Word. If you do not do this amicably and willingly, then you will be compelled to it by force and destruction. If these peasants do not do it for you, others will . . . It is not the peasants, dear lords, who are resisting you; it is God Himself . . . There are some of you who have said that they will stake land and people on the extirpation of Lutheran teaching . . .
To make your sin still greater, and ensure your merciless destruction, some of you are beginning to blame this affair on the Gospel and say it is the fruit of my teaching . . . You did not want to know what I taught, and what the Gospel is; now there is one at the door who will soon teach you, unless you amend your ways. You, and everyone else, must bear me witness that I have taught with all quietness, have striven earnestly against rebellion, and have diligently held and exhorted subjects to obedience and reverence toward even your tyrannous and ravenous rule. This rebellion cannot be coming from me. But the murder-prophets, who hate me as much as they hate you, have come among these people and have gone about them for more than three years, and no one has resisted them save me alone . . .
. . . fear God and have respect for His wrath! If it be His will to punish you as you have deserved (and I am afraid that it is), then He would punish you, even though the peasants were a hundred times fewer than they are . . .
Try kindness first, for you do not know what God wills to do, and do not strike a spark that will kindle all Germany and that no one can quench . . .
To the Peasants
. . . the princes and lords . . . are worthy, and have well deserved, that God put them down from their seats . . . Nevertheless, you, too, must have a care that you take up your cause with a good conscience and with justice. If you have a good conscience, you have the comforting advantage that God will be with you, and will help you through . . .
"He who takes the sword shall perish by the sword." That means nothing else than that no one, by his own violence, shall arrogate authority to himself; but as Paul says, "Let every soul be subject to the higher powers with fear and reverence" . . .
The fact that the rulers are wicked and unjust does not excuse tumult and rebellion, for to punish wickedness does not belong to everybody, but to the worldly rulers who bear the sword . . .
. . . you do much more wrong when you not only suppress God's word, but tread it under foot, and invade His authority and His law, and put yourselves above God . . .
. . . Christ says that we are not to resist any evil or wrong, but always yield, suffer it, and let things be taken from us. If you will not bear this law, then put off the name of Christian . . . a child easily grasps that it is Christian law not to strive against wrongs, not to grasp after the sword, not to protect oneself, not to avenge oneself, but to give up life and property, and let who takes it take it . . . Suffering, suffering; cross, cross! This and nothing else, is the Christian law!
. . . I have never drawn sword nor desired revenge. I have begun no division and no rebellion . . . no matter how right you are, it is not for a Christian to appeal to law, or to fight, but rather to suffer wrong and endure evil . . .
On the Third Article
"There shall be no serfs, for Christ has made all men free." This is making Christian liberty an utterly carnal thing. Did not Abraham and other patriarchs and prophets have slaves? Read what St. Paul teaches about servants, who, at that time, were all slaves. Therefore this article is dead against the Gospel. It is a piece of robbery by which every man takes from his lord the body, which has become his lord's property . . . This article would make all men equal, and turn the spiritual kingdom of Christ into a worldly, external kingdom; and that is impossible. For a worldly kingdom cannot stand unless there is in it an inequality of persons . . .
Admonition to Both Rulers and Peasants
Therefore, dear sirs, there is nothing Christian on either side and nothing Christian is at issue between you, but both lords and peasants are dealing with heathenish, or worldly, right and wrong, and with temporal goods; since, moreover, both parties are acting against God and are under His wrath, as you have heard; . . . attack these matters . . . with justice and not with force or with strife, and do not start an endless bloodshed in Germany. For because both of you are wrong, and both of you would avenge and defend yourselves, both of you will destroy yourselves and God will use one knave to flog another . . .
. . . Germany will be laid waste., and if this bloodshed once starts, it will scarcely cease until everything is destroyed. It is easy to start a fight, but to stop it when we will is not in our power . . .
I have told you that you are both wrong and that your fighting is wrong. You lords are not fighting against Christians . . . but against open robbers and defamers of the Christian name. Those of them who die are already condemned eternally. On the other hand you peasants are not fighting against Christians, but against tyrants, and persecutors of God and man, and murderers of the holy Christ. Those of them who die are also condemned eternally. There you have God's sure verdict upon both parties; that I know. Do what you please to keep your bodies and souls, if you will not follow this verdict.
(An Admonition to Peace: A Reply to the Twelve Articles of the Peasants in Swabia, PE, IV, 219-244, translated by C.M. Jacobs; citations from 220-227, 230-233, 240-244; WA, XVIII, 292 ff.; EA, XXIV, 259 ff.)
. . . they have abundantly merited death in body and soul. In the first place they have sworn to be true and faithful, submissive and obedient, to their rulers, as Christ commands . . . Because they are breaking this obedience, and are setting themselves against the higher powers, wilfully and with violence, they have forfeited body and soul, as faithless, perjured, lying, disobedient knaves and scoundrels are wont to do . . .
. . . they are starting a rebellion, and violently robbing and plundering monasteries and castles which are not theirs, by which they have a second time deserved death in body and soul, if only as highwaymen and murderers . . . if a man is an open rebel every man is his judge and executioner, just as when a fire starts, the first to put it out is the best man. For rebellion is not simple murder, but is like a great fire, which attacks and lays waste a whole land. Thus rebellion brings with it a land full of murder and bloodshed, makes widows and orphans, and turns everything upside down, like the greatest disaster. Therefore let everyone who can, smite, slay, and stab, secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful, or devilish than a rebel. It is just as when one must kill a mad dog; if you do not strike him, he will strike you, and a whole land with you.
In the third place, they cloak this terrible and horrible sin with the Gospel, call themselves "Christian brethren," . . . Thus they become the greatest of all blasphemers of God and slanderers of His holy Name, serving the devil, under the outward appearance of the Gospel, thus earning death in body and soul ten times over. I have never heard of more hideous sin . . .
Fine Christians these! I think there is not a devil left in hell; they have gone into the peasants. Their raving has gone beyond all measure . . .
I will not oppose a ruler who, even though he does not tolerate the Gospel, will smite and punish these peasants without offering to submit the case to judgment . . .
If anyone thinks this too hard, let him remember that rebellion is intolerable and that the destruction of the world is to be expected every hour.
(Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants, PE, IV, 248-254, translated by C.M. Jacobs; citations from 248-251, 254; WA, XVIII, 357-361; EA, XXIV, 288-294)
(Smith, 164-165; letter to Nicholas Amsdorf at Magdeburg, from Wittenberg)
You cannot be a good man if you slander my little book and say that I speak in it of such conquered peasants, or of those who have surrendered, whereas I made it plain that I was speaking of those who were first approached in a friendly way, and would not. All my words were against the obdurate, hardened, blinded peasants, who would neither see nor hear, as anyone may see who reads them; and yet you say that I advocate the slaughter of the poor captured peasants without mercy . . . On the obstinate, hardened, blinded peasants, let no one have mercy . . .
They say . . . that the lords are misusing their sword and slaying too cruelly. I answer: What has that to do with my book? Why lay others' guilt on me? If they are misusing their power, they have not learned it from me; and they will have their reward . . .
If my first advice, given when the rebellion was just beginning, had been followed . . . and if they had not been allowed to get the upper hand many thousands of them, who now have to die, would have been saved, for they would have stayed at home . . .
See, then, whether I was not right when I said, in my little book, that we ought to slay the rebels without any mercy. I did not teach, however, that mercy ought not to be shown to the captives and those who have surrendered. They accuse me of having said it, but my book proves the opposite. It was not my intention, either, to strengthen the raging tyrants, or to praise their raving. For I hear that some of my knightlets are treating the poor people with unmeasured cruelty, and are very bold and defiant, as though they had won the victory and were firmly in the saddle. They are not seeking the punishment and improvement of the rebellion, but they are satisfying their furious self-will and cooling a rage, which they, perhaps, have long nursed, thinking that they have now got a chance and a cause for it . . . confounding our cause with that of the rebels. But soon they will reap what now they are sowing. He that sitteth on high sees them, and He will come before they expect Him. Their plans will fail, as they have failed before; this I know.
(An Open Letter Concerning the Hard Book Against the Peasants, PE, IV, 259-281, translated by C.M. Jacobs; citations from 265, 269-271, 278-279; WA, XVIII, 384-401; EA, XXIV, 295-319)
Smith (p. 165): "He never meant to urge slaughter after battle . . . That Luther really pitied the poor people after their defeat is shown by an intercessory letter":
(Smith, 166; letter to Albert, Archbishop and Elector of Mayence, from Wittenberg)
--- not to be interpreted as at all denying the necessity of considering context (which should be consulted above, for a fuller grasp of Luther's meaning) ---
Feb. 1520: I have an idea that a revolution is about to take place.Martin Luther's apocalypticism and belief in an impending divinely-ordained doom soon to annihilate the papacy and the Catholic Church, remind me of the mindset of the founder of the Jehovah's Witnesses, Charles Taze Russell. Note the similarity of the following false prophecies to the beliefs and grandiose judgmental pronouncements of Luther. The only difference is that Russell would include both Catholics and Protestants in the impending judgment (Luther's calculations were also far more erroneous -- now nearly 500 years off the mark at a minimum):
June 1520: If the Romanists are so mad the only remedy remaining is for the emperor, the kings, the princes to gird themselves with force of arms to attack these pests.
Oct. 1520:It is all over with the court of Rome: the wrath of God has come upon her to the uttermost.
March 1521:What wonder if princes, nobles and laity should smite the heads of the pope, bishops, priests, and monks, and drive them from the land?
March 1521: What would become of the papacy . . . ? Christ Himself must abolish it by coming with the final judgment; nothing else will avail.
May 1521: The people are neither able nor willing . . . to bear the yoke of the Pope and the papists; therefore let us not cease to press upon it and to pull it down.
Dec. 1521: Already an unspeakable severity and anger without limit has begun to break upon them . . . No prayers can save them now. Wrath, as Paul says of the Jews, is come upon them to the uttermost. God's purposes demand far more than an insurrection . . . Christ has Himself already begun an insurrection with His mouth which will be more than the pope can bear.
March 1522: I greatly fear that. . . there will be an uprising which will destroy the princes and rulers of all Germany and will involve all of the clergy.
July 1522: It would be better to kill all bishops and to annihilate all religious foundations and monasteries than to let a single soul perish . . . what could be better for them than to encounter a strong rebellion which exterminates them from the world? One could only laugh if it did happen.
Dec. 1522: For it is not unlawful, indeed, it is absolutely right to drive the wolf from the sheepfold . . . A preacher is not given property and tithes in order that he should do injury . . . If he does not work to the advantage of the people, the endowments are his no longer.
1523: All those who work toward this end and who risk body, property, and honor that the bishoprics may be destroyed and the episcopal government rooted out are God’s dear children and true Christians . . . all the world must destroy you and your government . . . whoever destroys you stands in God’s favor . . . every Christian should help with his body and property to put an end to their tyranny.
1523: Christ, Peter, Paul, and the prophets proclaimed that there would be no greater disaster on earth than the advent of the Antichrist and of the final evil.
June 1524: God . . . will do as he says by Ezekiel: princes and merchants, one thief with another, He will melt them together like lead and brass, as when a city burns, so that there shall be neither princes nor merchants any more. That time, I fear, is already at the door . . . I have done my part to show how richly we have deserved it if God shall come with a rod.
May 1525:If God permits the peasants to extirpate the princes to fulfil his wrath, he will give them hell fire for it as a reward.
May 1525: Since you are the cause of this wrath of God, it will undoubtedly come upon you, if you do not mend your ways in time . . . the peasants are mustering, and this must result in the ruin, destruction, and desolation of Germany by cruel murder and bloodshed, unless God shall be moved by our repentance to prevent it.
May 1525: The rustics took the sword without divine authority. The only possible consequence of their satanic wickedness would be the diabolic devastation of the kingdom of God.
With the end of A.D. 1914, what God calls Babylon, and what men call Christendom, will have passed away, as already shown from prophecy.
(Thy Kingdom Come, 1891; 1907 ed., 153)
October 1914 will witness the full end of Babylon, "as a great millstone cast into the
sea," utterly destroyed as a system.
(The Watchtower, 15 June 1911)
Also, in the year 1918, when God destroys the churches wholesale, and the churchIn both instances, a cataclysmic social upheaval occurred which was thought to be a tribulation period for the final end of the world as we know it: in the 16th century it was the Peasants' Revolt. In 1914, it was World War I. Both terrible events came and went without Armageddon and the Second Coming being ushered in, and neither person learned their lesson; nor (to my knowledge) did they admit that they had been fundamentally mistaken. Luther seemed to have ceased talking about imminent judgment and Armageddon, but he continued to rant and rave about the Catholic Church in the most extreme terms until the end of his life:
members by millions, it shall be that any that escape shall come to the works of
Pastor Russell to learn the meaning of the downfall of "Christianity."
(The Finished Mystery, 1917, 485)
They are impenitent and blinded, delivered to the wrath of God. We must give room to the wrath and let God's judgment run its course. Nor shall we any longer pray for their sin (as St. John teaches us), but pray about them and against them.
(Wider Hans Wurst, or Against Jack Sausage, 1541, LW, vol. 41, 179-256, translated by Eric W. Gritsch; citation from 255-256)Somehow, in both cases, the Catholic Church: that evil Babylonian cesspool and "Sodom," run by the Antichrist (so Luther and Russell inform us): hopelessly corrupt, deceptive, and non-Christian, managed to chug along and continue its nefarious course of the ruination of souls. On the other hand, institutional Lutheranism today is predominantly theologically liberal and espouses things such as legal abortion (which Luther would have utterly condemned, of course, along with contraception -- practiced even by the most traditional Lutherans --, which he considered to be murder). Truth is stranger than fiction . . . But God's ways are not men's ways. Job learned that long ago, and Luther and Russell eventually learned it; if not in this life, then in the next, when they stood before God. May He have mercy on their souls . . .
(Bainton, 115; see remarks of 25 June 1520 above)
A movement so religiously minded could not but be affected by the Reformation. Luther's freedom of the Christian man was purely religious but could very readily be given a social turn. The priesthood of believers did not mean for him equalitarianism, but Carlstadt took it so. Luther certainly had blasted usury . . . His attitude on monasticism likewise admirably suited peasant covetousness for the spoliation of cloisters. The peasants with good reason felt themselves strongly drawn to Luther.
. . . a complete dissociation of the reform from the Peasants' War is not defensible . . . Luther was regarded as a friend. When some of the peasants were asked to name persons whom they would accept as arbiters, the first name on the list was that of Martin Luther.
(Bainton, 209-210, 211)
Luther had long since declared that he would never support the private citizen in arms, however just the cause, since such means inevitably entailed wrong to the innocent.
. . . the Catholic princes held Luther responsible for the whole outbreak, and color was lent to the charge by the participation on the peasants' side of hundreds of Lutheran ministers, whether voluntarily or under constraint. The rulers in Catholic lands thereafter used the utmost diligence to exclude evangelical preachers . . .
Hutten was impatient. He urged matters to a crisis. Sickingen attacked the Archbishop and Elector of Trier (Treves) to force the Reformation into his territory; but he was defeated, and died of his wounds in the hands of his enemies, May 7, 1522 . . . Luther saw in this disaster a judgment of God, and was confirmed in his aversion to the use of force . . . With Hutten and Sickingen the hope of a political reconstruction of Germany through means of the Reformation and physical force was destroyed. What the knights failed to accomplish, the peasants could still less secure by the general revolt two years later.
(Schaff, VII, § 42. "Ulrich von Hutten and Luther,")
The Reformation, with its attacks upon the papal tyranny, its proclamation of the supremacy of the Bible, of Christian freedom, and the general priesthood of the laity, gave fresh impulse and new direction to the rebellious disposition. Traveling preachers and fugitive tracts stirred up discontent. The peasants mistook spiritual liberty for carnal license. They appealed to the Bible and to Dr. Luther in support of their grievances. They looked exclusively at the democratic element in the New Testament, and turned it against the oppressive rule of the Romish hierarchy and the feudal aristocracy. They identified their cause with the restoration of pure Christianity . . . .
The insurrection broke out in summer, 1524, in Swabia, on the Upper Danube, and the Upper Rhine along the Swiss frontier, but not on the Swiss side, where the peasantry were free. In 1525 it extended gradually all over South-Western and Central Germany. The rebels destroyed the palaces of the bishops, the castles of the nobility, burned convents and libraries, and committed other outrages. Erasmus wrote to Polydore Virgil, from Basel, in the autumn of 1525: "Every day there are bloody conflicts between the nobles and the peasants, so near us that we can hear the
firing, and almost the groans of the wounded." In another letter he says: "Every day priests are imprisoned, tortured, hanged, decapitated, or burnt" . . .
The fate of the peasantry depended upon Luther. Himself the son of a peasant, he had, at first, considerable sympathy with their cause, and advocated the removal of their grievances; but he was always opposed to the use of force, except by the civil magistrate, to whom the sword was given by God for the punishment of evil-doers. He thought that revolution was wrong in itself, and contrary to Divine order; that it was the worst enemy of reformation, and increased the evil complained of. He trusted in the almighty power of preaching, teaching, and moral suasion . . .
Over a thousand castles and convents lay in ashes, hundreds of villages were burnt to the ground, the cattle killed, agricultural implements destroyed, and whole districts turned into a wilderness . . . The cause of the Reformation suffered irreparable injury, and was made responsible by the Romanists, and even by Erasmus, for all the horrors of the rebellion . . . the Lutheran Church has ever since been strictly conservative in politics, and indifferent to the progress of civil liberty . . . The defeat of the Peasants' War marks the end of the destructive tendencies of the Reformation.
(Schaff, VII, §75, "The Peasants' War: 1523-1525")
Foreseeing this debacle, Luther had dissociated himself, none too soon (December 19, 1522), from the revolt.
(Durant, 377, 380)
A Catholic humanist, Johannes Cochlaeus, warned Luther (1523) that "the populace in the towns, and the peasants in the provinces, will inevitably rise in rebellion . . . They are poisoned by the innumerable abusive pamphlets and speeches that are printed and declaimed among them against both papal and secular authority." Luther, the preachers, and the pamphleteers were not the cause of the revolt; the causes were the just grievances of the peasantry. But it could be argued that the gospel of Luther and his more radical followers "poured oil on the flames," and turned the resentment of the oppressed into utopian delusions, uncalculated violence, and passionate revenge.
(Durant, 383; citing Janssen, III, 342 and Cambridge Modern History, 12 volumes, New York, 1907 f., II, 177)
The Reformation itself almost perished in the Peasants' War. Despite Luther's disclaimers and denunciations, the rebellion had flaunted Protestant colors and ideas: economic aspirations were dressed in phrases that Luther had sanctified; communism was to be merely a return to the Gospel.
. . . the peasants had a case against him. He had not only predicted social revolution, he had
said he would not be displeased by it, he would greet it with a smile, even if men washed their hands in episcopal blood. He too had made a revolution, had endangered social order, had flouted an authority not less divine than the state's. He had made no protest against the secular appropriation of ecclesiastical property. How otherwise than by force could peasants better their lot when ballots were forbidden them, and their oppressors daily wielded force?
The peasants felt that the new religion had sanctified their cause, had aroused them to
hope and action, and had deserted them in the hour of decision. Some of them, in angry despair, became cynical atheists. Many of them, or their children, shepherded by Jesuits, returned to the Catholic fold. Some of them followed the radicals whom Luther had condemned . . .
VI. Owen Chadwick (P)
Everyone who hated Roman or clerical power had gathered round him, and not every German who hated Rome was moved by the principles and the motives of Luther . . . But for a few years he was the voice of a German self-consciousness. Round Luther's cry for religious reformation gathered men who wanted other things besides religious reformation.
Luther had not intended these results of his preaching. As early as July 1524 he published a "Circular to the Princes of Saxony Concerning the Spirit of Revolt," in which he explicitly condemned the leading revolutionary, Thomas Munzer, for his incitement to armed rebellion, saying that he had never resorted to arms or favored doing so . . .
The close association between Lutheran teaching and the revolution was apparent nearly everywhere that rebellion broke out.
("Origins in the Ancient Law and the Divine Law, Defended," in Sessions, 1-8; citation from p. 7; from Der Deutsche Bauernkrieg, 4th ed., Darmstadt: Hermann Gentner Verlag, 1952)
The most significant single demonstration of the connection between peasant upheaval and Reformation is the Twelve Articles of the Peasants in Swabia . . . It was essentially religious; indeed it found its origin in the Bible . . . It was essential for outward propaganda as well as for inner procedure that all demands appear to be consecrated by higher Christian ideals . . .
Should it be, it says in the twelfth article, that one or more articles is not verified in the Word of God and if such be demonstrable on the basis of Scripture, then they will relinquish it . . . A moving, naive, Utopian confidence! . . .
Justification of their claims in the reforming doctrine is the first significant misunderstanding in world history of Luther's views. But the term misconception applies only with a certain constraint. Luther loosed a revolutionary storm against the special status of the clergy . . . Had he not injected this irresponsible tone into the atmosphere? . . . One cannot so defiantly and dauntlessly use provocative force to demolish the old church without having some of the socially oppressed drawing conclusions in the manner of the peasants. Such teachings were destined to become far more an impulse to insurrection in an atmosphere of total hatred, unbridled criticism and demagogic excitement. From destroying images it was not far to destroying monasteries . . .
In addition there is the matter of the frightful attacks against the princes Luther presumed to make in writings of 1523 and 1524. These adversaries were painted as raging, mad fools in that God's wrath is being laid over them, in that the people would not have been a people were it not to have elevated its just complaints even to energetic and tumultuous resort to arms. Luther's outburst of hatred -- inescapable even in sermons -- against one and every worldly authority not of his mind could only result in weakening authority in general. The new Gospel created a sort of mass consciousness among all the discontented . . . without that mass awareness the peasants scarcely would have evolved even the unity they did.
("Reformation and Peasant Rebellion as Phenomena of Change," in Sessions, 9-16; from Die Reformation in Deutschland, Freiburg: Herder, 1962; citation from 11-12,14-15)
Maurenbrecher (Katholische Reformation, i. 257) says frankly: "It is not true historical criticism, but a mere apologetic argument, based on false observation, which aims at disproving the fact that Luther's evangelical preaching enormously augmented and ripened to its crisis the social agitation which had been going on in the lower strata of the nation from the beginning of the fifteenth century."
(Janssen, IV, 143-145; from Sessions, 47)
In most districts the rebellious peasants . . . demanded absolute liberty to change their religion, or at least confiscation of church property and the cessation of clerical privileges . . . How often had not Luther himself summoned his followers to destroy the churches, monasteries, and dioceses of Antichrist. True he desired this to be done by the authorities, but the peasants felt that they were the authorities. Then, too, without mentioning the authorities, he repeatedly pointed out, in his violent and inconsiderate language, that an insurrection of the masses was inevitable. It appeared to the peasants that their hour for acting had now arrived.
(Grisar , 279-280)
One of the most esteemed historians of this phase of the Reformation, Fr. von Bezold . . . [wrote] "How else but in a material sense was the plain man to interpret Luther's proclamation of Christian freedom and his extravagant strictures on the parsons and nobles?" . . . He wonders "how he could expect the German nation at that time to hearken to such inflammatory language from the mouth of its 'evangelist' and "Elias' and, nevertheless, to refuse to permit themselves to be swept beyond the bounds of legality and order." However, like other historians who are favorable to Luther, Von Bezold sees an excuse in the latter's "ignorance of the ways of the world and the grandiose one-sidedness," which supposedly "attaches to an individual who is filled and actuated exclusively by religious interests."
(Grisar , 285; from Bezold, Geschichte der deutschen Reformation, Berlin, 1890, 447)
No one . . . will be so foolish to believe that it was really his intention to kill the Catholic clergy and monks. His bloodthirsty demands were but the violent outbursts of his own deep inward intolerance.
(Grisar , VI, 247)
But who was it who was responsible for having provoked the war? Occasional counsels to . . . self-restraint . . . were indeed given by Luther from time to time . . . but . . . they are drowned in the din of his controversial invective.
(Grisar , VI, 248)
XII. James Mackinnon (P?)
("Luther Shows His True Colors," in Sessions, 50-54; from Luther and the Reformation, New York: Russell and Russell, 1962, III, 201-210; citation from p. 51)
The Lutheran Reformation was deeply involved with the Peasants' Revolt. Luther's teachings resonated in the grievances of the rebels and Luther's position contributed importantly to immediate events and final results . . .
The eagerness of the German peasants to embrace the Lutheran movement makes it clear that in some manner they identified their protests with the protest of Luther and their efforts for reform with those undertaken by him.
(Sessions, "Introduction," viii, xi, xiii)
The fates of theories are strange, and if the father of one of them could see the developments of some of his children he would stand aghast . . . the Anabaptist application of Luther's was simply more thorough. The revolutionary drew back in horror.
("Political Consequences of Luther's Doctrines of Religious Freedom," in Sessions, 55-59; from The Political Consequences of the Reformation; Studies in Sixteenth-Century Political Thought, New York: Russell & Russell, 1960; citation from p. 58)
The spiritual authority of the church is thus persuasive, not coercive, and concerns the individual's soul, rather than his body or goods. The temporal authority of the state is coercive, rather than persuasive, and concerns the individual's body and goods, rather than his soul . . .
As the Peasants' Revolt loomed on the horizon, however, it seems that te deficiencies of his political thought became obvious . . . This understanding of the relation of church and state has been the object of intense criticism. Luther's social ethic has been described as 'defeatist' and 'quietist', encouraging the Christian to tolerate (or at least fail to oppose) unjust social structures. Luther preferred oppression to revolution . . . The Peasants' War seemed to show up the tensions within Luther's social ethic: the peasants were supposed to live in accordance with the private ethic of the Sermon on the Mount, turning the other cheek to their oppressors -- while the princes were justified in using violent coercive means to re-establish social order. And although Luther maintained that the magistrate had no authority in the church, except as a Christian believer, the technical distinction involved was so tenuous as to be unworkable. The way was opened to the eventual domination of the church by the state, which was to become a virtually universal feature of Lutheranism. The failure of the German church to oppose Hitler in the 1930s is widely seen as reflecting the inadequacies of Luther's political thought. Even Hitler, it appeared to some German Christians, was an instrument of God.
He roundly condemned the rebels' claim to be fighting in the name of the Gospel, and their use of force to obtain justice . . . Luther was to suffer from this terrible tragedy all his life. 'The devil has assailed me countless times, almost suffocating me to death,' he said, 'telling me that the peasants' revolt was the result of my preaching!' He never forgot the bitter words of Erasmus: 'You would not recognize the rioters, but they recognized you.'
XVII. Philip Hughes (C)
XVIII. Preserved Smith (S)
. . . generally the peasants assume that they are acting in accordance with the new "gospel" of Luther . . .
Above all they appealed to the Bible as the divine law, and demanded a religious reform as a condition and preliminary to a thorough renovation of society. Although
Luther himself from the beginning opposed all forms of violence, his clarion voice rang out in protest against the injustice of the nobles.
(Smith , 80, 79)
From his own day to the present he has been reproached with cruelty to the poor people who were partly misguided by what they believed to be his voice. And yet, much as the admirers of Luther must and do regret his terrible violence of expression, the impartial historian can hardly doubt that in substance he was right. No government in the world could have allowed rebellion to go unpunished; no sane man could believe that any argument but arms would have availed. Luther first tried the way of peace, he then risked his life preaching against the rising; finally he urged the use of the sword as the ultima ratio. He was right to do so, though he put himself in the wrong by his immoderate zeal. It would have been more becoming for Luther, the peasant and the hero of the peasants, had he shown greater sympathy with their cause and more mercy. Had he done so his name would have escaped the charge of cruelty with which it is now stained.
Luther's little tract on The Freedom of a Christian Man was interpreted -- misinterpreted, so Luther thought -- as an attack on all serfdom . . .
They wanted their traditional rights, and Luther and Zwingli seemed to have made their demands even more respectable by apparently giving them the sanction of Scripture . . . The peasants plundered and burnt monasteries and castles; but only on one occasion did they massacre the defenders of a castle, Weinsberg, after they had surrendered. The massacres of the Peasants' War were nearly all perpetrated by the other side.
("The Reformation and Social Revolution," 83-94 in Hurstfield; citations from 87-89)
There is no doubt that Luther's doctrines did much to raise the economic hopes of those classes not represented in the city councils, above all of the guildsmen, despite the fact that such a support was the furthest from Luther's mind . . .
We know for certain . . . that the Reformation provided many people in all classes with a dynamic hope that their difficulties could be solved. It is reasonable to assume that Reformation doctrines, ideas, and slogans were applied to individual class interests.
("Social Forces in the German Reformation," 85-97 in Spitz; citations from 91, 95-97)
EA = Erlangen Ausgabe edition of Luther's Works (Werke) in German, 1868, 67 volumes.
LW = Luther's Works, American edition, edited by Jaroslav Pelikan (vols. 1-30) and Helmut T. Lehmann (vols. 31-55), St. Louis: Concordia Pub. House (vols. 1-30); Philadelphia: Fortress Press (vols. 31-55), 1955.
PE = Luther's Works, Philadelphia edition (6 volumes), edited and translated by C.M. Jacobs and A.T.W. Steinhaeuser et al, A.J. Holman Co., The Castle Press, and Muhlenberg Press, 1932.
LL = Luther's Letters (German), edited by M. De Wette, Berlin: 1828
Bainton, Roland (P), Here I Stand [online], New York: Mentor Books, 1950.
Carroll, Warren H. (C), The Cleaving of Christendom, Front Royal, VA: Christendom Press, 2000 (Vol. 4 of A History of Christendom).
Chadwick, Owen (P), The Reformation, New York: Penguin Books, revised edition, 1972.
Daniel-Rops, Henri (C), The Protestant Reformation, volume 2, translated Audrey Butler, Garden City, NY: Doubleday Image, 1961.
Durant, Will (S), The Reformation, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957 (volume 6 of the 10 volume work, The Story of Civilization, 1967).
Grisar, Hartmann (C) , Martin Luther: His Life and Work, translated from the 2nd German edition by Frank J. Eble, Westminster, MD: The Newman Press, 1950; originally 1930.
Grisar, Hartmann (C) , Luther [online: volumes I / II / III / IV / V / VI], translated by E.M. Lamond, edited by Luigi Cappadelta, 6 volumes, London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1915.
Hughes, Philip (C), A Popular History of the Reformation, Garden City, NY: Doubleday Image,
Hurstfield, Joel (P), editor, The Reformation Crisis, New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1966.
Janssen, Johannes (C), History of the German People From the Close of the Middle Ages, 16
volumes, translated by A.M. Christie, St. Louis: B. Herder, 1910; originally 1891.
McGrath, Alister E. (P), Reformation Thought: An Introduction, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2nd edition, 1993.
O'Connor, Henry (C), Luther's Own Statements, New York: Benziger Bros., 3rd ed., 1884.
Rupp, Gordon (P), Luther's Progress to the Diet of Worms, New York: Harper & Row, Torchbook edition, 1964.
Schaff, Philip (P), History of the Christian Church, New York: Charles Scribner's sons, 1910, 7 volumes; available online.
Sessions, Kyle C. (P?), editor, Reformation and Authority: The Meaning of the Peasant's Revolt, Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath & Co., 1968.
Smith, Preserved (S), The Life and Letters of Martin Luther, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1911.
Smith, Preserved (S) , The Reformation in Europe, New York: Collier Books, 1966 -- Book I of the author's work, The Age of the Reformation, New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1920.
Spitz, Lewis W. (P), editor, The Reformation: Basic Interpretations, Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath & Co., 1962.
Uploaded by Dave Armstrong on "Reformation Day": 31 October 2003.
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