Luther & Veneration of Mary: James Swan’s Revisionism

Luther & Veneration of Mary: James Swan’s Revisionism April 22, 2016

. . . His Anti-Catholic Nonsense with Regard to Martin Luther’s Mariology & Also My Related Research


Illustration of the famous windmill scene from Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote, by Gustave Dore (1832-1883) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


James Swan is a Reformed Protestant anti-Catholic polemicist, who does a lot of research on Martin Luther: the founder of Protestantism. His confessed specialty or great interest is in observing how Catholic apologists approach Luther and analyzing that in extreme detail. One of his favorite sub-topics in that vein is the Catholic apologetic regarding Luther’s Mariology

He basically started this “pastime” or “hobby” of his, in reaction to me. This is a matter of historical record. We had a huge debate on Luther’s Mariology in 2003. He’s been writing about Luther ever since (on his blog affectionately known as Boors All; aka Beggar’s All), with the constant opinion that Catholic apologists (above all, yours truly) are relentlessly nefarious and dishonest, when it comes to anything about Luther. I made a massive three-part reply to his paper on this topic, in April 2003 (one / two / three).  He responded to that, and I made another lengthy rebuttal in June 2003. His ego and pride simply couldn’t handle the latter, since he thought his massive tome, with 201 footnotes or so, was supposedly unanswerable.

Ever since then, our relations have been on a rock-bottom level (I tried to reconcile several times, to no avail whatever). Swan hit his lowest point (tiring of losing in debate after debate) when he maintained with a straight face that I am a psychotic. He has lobbed an almost infinite variety of insults my way these past 13 years. Mostly, his implication is that I am a dishonest, incompetent researcher, “self-appointed” pseudo-apologist and hack, whom no one should take seriously (despite the fact that he devoted — in 2003 — two huge papers to my opinions on Luther’s Mariology, and literally scores and scores of nearly obsessed articles about me since then).

Since 2003 he has picked over virtually anything I write about Luther. Sometimes I replied; much more often, I tired of his sophistical nonsense and ignored it. Recently, I have compiled most of our past exchanges, if anyone is interested in perusing that. It makes for extremely tedious reading, because of Swan’s anti-Catholicism and personal hostility. But someone may enjoy one or two of ’em. Who knows?

Tonight, bored, I wandered over to his site. I hadn’t been there in months. But sure enough, here he was writing about one Luther quote, and as usual, cited my dealing with it (though not by name; this is the game he has played for some time now: I am the Valdemort-like He Who Shall Not be Named). I’d like to take a little time to demonstrate how shoddy his own Luther research is, and how he misrepresents mine. This has happened hundreds of times. What you see here is entirely representative and altogether typical of his pathetic and atrocious method.

First, I’ll go back to his earlier article on the same topic, from 19 October 2008. Swan’s words will be in green. Both articles were about a citation attributed to Martin Luther: “The veneration of Mary is inscribed in the very depths of the human heart.” Swan opines:

So where did this quote come from? This quote was probably first brought into cyberspace by a Catholic apologist:

Luther held to the idea and devotional practice of the veneration of Mary and expressed this on innumerable occasions with the most effusive language:

The veneration of Mary is inscribed in the very depths of the human heart. (Sermon, September 1, 1522)

The “Catholic apologist” is, of course, yours truly. The quotation is from my article entitled, “Martin Luther’s Devotion to Mary”: now hosted on the Catholic Culture site. It was originally published (on paper) in The Coming Home Journal (January-March 1998, 12-13; scroll down a bit for my article). That is the origin of the full quote above. But I had also included the Luther quote in my very first published article (three years before I went on the Internet): “The Real Martin Luther” (The Catholic Answer, Jan/Feb 1993, 32-37).

Swan then (very typically) goes on to speculate as to where I found this quote. He guesses wrongly in this 2008 article. But in his 2016 article he locates the correct source I drew from (still not realizing that it was my source): William Cole, Was Luther a Devotee of Mary?” (Marian Studies, Volume XXI, 1970, p.131 [entire article: pages 94-202] ). Through the years, Swan has been a stickler for the most minute documentation: quite often with a double standard: everyone else has to document to a tee; while he does not. I was, in fact, highly concerned with full bibliographical documentation in my first book, A Biblical Defense of Catholicism, completed in 1996, but largely written initially in the early 1990s (and published by Sophia Institute Press in 2003). It has 275 footnotes in 297 pages.

But when I had my first article published in print, I specifically asked the editor, the prominent Catholic apologist, Fr. Peter M. J. Stravinskas, if I needed to document the primary sources for every Luther citation. He said that it wasn’t necessary in an article of this sort. So Swan can blame him for my not mentioning Cole. I just did what I was told, as a green rookie Catholic apologist, thrilled about my debut in print.

In fact, anyone can see in that book, that I use the same citation, prefaced by “Luther also thought it altogether proper to venerate Mary”: on page 205. On that page, in footnote 213 is the full source information from Cole (just as you see it above). This could have been accessed on Amazon since June 2003, in the “Look Inside” feature. It was also in my first, self-published version of my book, which came out in 2001 (p. 148, footnote 40). I know from my records of my earliest Catholic apologetics, that this chapter was completed on 10 April 1993, almost four years before I started my website, and ten years before Swan and I clashed over Luther’s Mariology.

Those are the actual facts of my use of the quotation, where I got it from, and it’s history of publication on paper in 1993, 1998, 2001 and 2003 (but the latter two actually having been written in 1993). Yet here is Swan picking at it in April 2016: 23 years after I first used it. This article is a revision of an earlier one from 19 April 2012, so he has basically written three times about one quote from Luther (the first from 19 October 2008). He’s still wondering and speculating about where I got the quote almost 13 years after I included it in my first book. Swan prides himself on digging into obscure, outdated past versions of papers. Yet he couldn’t figure this out.

He also always makes a big deal about using secondary sources without consulting the original (even arguing at times that one must read Luther’s original German — which he himself doesn’t know — to properly cite him). This is hogwash. Secondary sources are fine, as long as they are from reputable scholars. An article in Marian Studies is certainly trustworthy.

Swan himself, for example, loves a book called What Luther Says, by Ewald M. Plass, a 1667-page goldmine of Luther information. I have the book in my library, as well as the 55-volume set of Luther’s Works and many other primary and secondary Luther books. Unfortunately, Plass wouldn’t help anyone seeking to understand Luther’s Mariology, since (for some inexplicable reason) among the 200 subjects, “Mary” never appears. I guess ol’ Plass thought topics like “Dreams”, “Drink” and “Music” were more important than the Mother of God.

But anyway, Swan loves this book. But it’s a secondary source: no different from Cole or Hartmann Grisar: the Catholic biographer of Luther, whom I often draw from, or a famous, often used book like Paul Althaus’ Theology of Luther. According to his almost constant double standard in these matters, he condemns me for using a secondary source, while he does so himself and it;s fine and dandy. A primary source would be the German editions (esp. Weimar), or the English Luther’s Works, or the older six-volume set from Philadelphia in the 1930s. Swan agrees. It’s not even clear who translated the tidbits in Plass into English.

Swan’s illegitimate complaints (beyond this primary / secondary business), which he drones endlessly on about, amount to three things:

1. Catholic apologists invariably cite Luther out of context and thus distort his meaning, out of a party and apologetics bias.

2. If Luther gives a warning about excesses of a doctrine or practice (e.g., Mariology), then he also rejects the thing itself: throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Thus, if Luther warns about excesses in Marian veneration (our topic), he must therefore be against it altogether.

3. If a Catholic apologist cites Luther in some degree of agreement, Swan erroneously assumes that the apologist must be arguing for exact equivalency of Luther’s views with Catholic ones.

I shall now show how Swan commits all three of these egregious errors in connection with the present topic. The first is a factual statement, and must be refuted on a case-by-case basis (some apologists may be guilty of it; others, like myself, are not). The second and third are simply basic (and rather stupid) logical fallacies. Swan thus falls short both in his facts (in my case and in his analyses of Luther’s overall theological views) and in his lack of fundamental logical skills (very strange for one who majored in philosophy).

#1 Context

Do you think this apologist actually had more of the context of this quote when he wrote this? I think not. (2008)

I say, go ahead, and look at Luther’s statements about Mary (the few and sparse that they are), but read them in context, and don’t allow Catholic apologists to spin the facts to fit their worldview. If they had historical truth on their side, the Luther quotes they use, when placed in a context, wouldn’t make them look so incompetent. (2008)

Recently I took part in small discussion on Luther’s Mariology, a subject that fascinates me, not so much because I either care about learning Mariology, or even what Luther thought about it. Rather, my fascination is the way in which Roman Catholics appeal to Luther in support of Mariology, often at the expense of research and a context.  Sometimes if you track down the context for a quote being put forth showing Luther’s profound defense of Roman Catholic Mariology or veneration, the context says something different. (2012)

We’ll see that this quote in context doesn’t substantiate any of these things. Rather, the quote serves as an excellent example of why context matters. While Rome’s defenders use the quote as positive proof that Luther was devoted to Mary, in context the quote is actually saying something negative about the veneration of Mary being inscribed in the very depths of the human heart. (2016)

It’s typical of Rome’s cyber defenders that when they cut-and-paste quotes like this, even when the secondary source they’re utilizing provides accurate documentation, they often don’t bother to look up the context. This is not being “deep into history” as they so often claim. (2016)

#2 Excesses / Baby & Bathwater

Some see 1522 as one of the major transitional years in Luther’s Mariology, particularly as he was quickly heading towards the denial of prayer to the saints. (2008)

Luther’s point is that whatever respect Mary was due to her, the Church collectively had gone far beyond it. Note Luther’s qualifier: . . . (2008)

. . . a passage in which Luther chastises the church of his day for excessive Mary worship . . . (2008)

Luther says it’s the “the priests and monks” who were directly responsible for rampant Mariolatry. Luther is noting the Roman Church of his day collectively dishonored Mary by their entanglement of veneration and intercession. Such is the case today as well. (2008)

[T]his Luther quote that says “The veneration of Mary is inscribed in the very depths of the human heart” is actually part of a collection of sermons intended to wean people away from venerating saints! Amazing. (2012)

[T]his sentence placed back in its context is in regard to excessive Marian devotion. (2012)

The “veneration” rooted so deeply in the hearts of Luther’s hearers was not a positive thing, but rather the result of excessive Marian piety. (2012)

#3 Common Ground vs. Exact Equivalence 

. . . the quote is cited by a Catholic apologists to prove Luther held to similar devotional practices of today’s Roman Catholic. (2008)

One wonders if any sort of comparison between Luther’s “nice” and honoring statements about Mary, and Roman Catholic statements about Mary can be put forth. One cannot read Luther’s writings as if he’s speaking the same language as Roman Catholic Marian “veneration.” He isn’t, and 16th Century Roman Catholics knew it. (2008)

His “Mariology” was not Roman Catholic Mariology, and as his career went on, he moved further away from the idolatry present in his day. I’ve spent a lot of time on Luther’s Mariology over the years. I have done so because Roman Catholics are misusing history when they claim Luther should be looked to as a Protestant champion of Mary. (2008)

I’ll take the third fallacy first. My research was repeatedly cited and disparaged (not by name; but many of Swan’s sycophants know who he is talking about), so it is natural to determine whether I was arguing for an exact equivalence of Luther’s views on Marian veneration with a Catholic Mariology. I don’t deny that Luther became progressively less robust in his Mariology as time went on (though not in all respects). He certainly stressed veneration less as time went on.

Speaking for myself, I have never argued that his Mariology and Catholic Mariology were one and the same. Swan simply assumes this without any basis. I stated in my 1998 article, cited by Swan: “Luther held to the idea and devotional practice of the veneration of Mary.” This is not saying that he held to the full, complete, entire Catholic Mariology; simply that he did teach veneration of Mary. It’s common ground.

The central thesis of my first published article (about Luther, in January 1993) was that Luther was simultaneously orthodox in some ways and heterodox in others, according to the Catholic outlook. I wrote: “There exists in ‘the Father of the Reformation’ a curious mix of orthodoxy and heterodoxy . . .” And when introducing the present disputed quote, I used this mild description: “Luther uttered many praises of Our Lady in several contexts:”. That’s hardly a claim that he held to a full Catholic theology of veneration. Good grief! Any Protestant could praise Mary for any number of things. I’ve heard many do so.

And in my first book (portion written in 1993 and published in 2001 and 2003), I wrote: “Luther also thought it altogether proper to venerate Mary”. None of this proves what Swan claims. He is exaggerating his opponents’ arguments, and then knocking them down, which is another famous fallacy: that of the straw man. 

Swan himself also quoted my words that plainly qualified what I was trying to argue:

Luther did strongly condemn any devotional practices which implied that Mary was in any way equal to our Lord or that she took anything away from His sole sufficiency as our Savior. This is, and always has been, the official teaching of the Catholic Church.

Lastly, I wrote in the Introduction of my book, The “Catholic” Luther: An Ecumenical Collection of His “Traditional” Utterances:

I’m simply citing the portions of Luther’s writings that a Catholic would agree with. Often it will be a partial agreement, later nuanced and qualified by Luther, and sometimes contradicted by Luther, as his thought is not always necessarily logically consistent or coherent.

It should go without saying also, that Luther’s views in a number of areas develop and sometimes change over time. . . .

I cite portions of his writing that particularly appeal to Catholics, since we fully agree with them, with the understanding that Luther and Catholics don’t agree on every jot and tittle. This is not quoting “out of context.” It’s partial quotation of one truth that Luther asserts, while not necessarily always noting (as is impossible to do in a quotations book) other truths that he places alongside these. The two things are different. . . .

The ecumenical endeavor is devoted to finding things that Christians have in common. This book will do exactly that. My aim is not to exaggerate or distort anything in Luther, in order to make out that it is something it is not, or that he is different than he was.

Now, citing Swan’s lengthy “context” portions of Luther’s sermon (correct date: 8 September 1522, rather than Cole’s 1 September: which may hearken back to different German collections, which have discrepancies), will illustrate (quite strikingly, I think) how my citation from Cole is neither out of context (#1), nor contrary to Luther’s condemnation of Marian devotional excesses in the same sermon (#2).

Ironically, his lengthy citation in his 2008 paper never provides the reader with source information. It is some unknown English translation that Swan never identifies. This is passing strange, in an article that nitpicks and falsely accuses others of insufficient documentation. I tried mightily to locate this version, with no success. Luther’s sermons are particularly disjointed and scattershot in collections of his works, and most are not included in Luther’s Works. Swan identifies this one as “‘Sermon on the Day of Mary’s Birth’ . . . part of Luther’s Kirchenpostille (festival sermons). . . . [also known as]The Day of the Nativity of Mary (Matthew 1).'” But he never tells us where he got his 2008 version of his citation from.

What I will do is highlight in blue the portions where Luther positively praises / endorses veneration or honor of Mary, and highlight in red the parts where he criticizes excesses of same. The purple portion is the equivalent of my one sentence cited. Remember the “baby / bathwater” fallacy described in #2 above. The two things (red and blue portions) are perfectly consistent. They are no more inconsistent than a Christian loving the Bible while sadly acknowledging that many folks distort its teachings and even butcher it for their own ends. A distortion of a thing is not the thing itself. Therefore, Luther can support veneration while simultaneously condemning Marian excess (as he deems it to be).

Highlighting in this way will also demonstrate that the one sentence I cited is not at all out of context with the rest of the citation. Luther really did believe in veneration of Mary: just not as much as Catholics do.

You know, my friends, that deep in the heart of men is inscribed the honor with which one honors the mother of God; yes, it is even so deep that no one willingly hears anything against it, but extols her more and more. Now we grant that she should be honored since we are enjoined by the Scripture to receive one another with honor, as Paul says (Romans 12:10); so man must also honor her. Above all she must be rightly honored, but the people have “fallen” so deeply in this honor that she is more highly honored than is right and there are two harmful results of all of this: a rupture with Christ inasmuch as the hearts of men are more directed to her than to Christ himself. Christ is put behind in darkness and entirely forgotten!

The other result is the harm done to the common folk; for when the Mother of God and her service are held in such high esteem, poor, indigent Christians are forgotten. I gladly allow you to hold her in high respect, to praise her greatly, but only insofar as there is no law made about it. Thus the Holy Scripture itself has described nothing about her birth so that no one should set his heart on her. But now the priests and monks wish to extol the honor of women and have so highly extolled Mary that they have made out of this humble servant a goddess after the manner of the heathens. To arrive at such a position they have to use lies and to turn Scripture around to say things which do not belong to it. You see that the gospel which was read today refers to Christ’s birth and not to Mary’syes I willingly allow that one honors her, but I ask that those who honor her should not make lies out of Scripture! WA 10 (3) 313, 15 to 315, 16 [my bolding and colored emphases]

Note that “honor” and “praise” are what Catholics mean by veneration. They are synonyms. Swan goes on to quote more of the same sermon, from his mysterious English source:

“Hail, queen of mercy, our life, our sweetness and our hope.” Is not this too much? Who wishes to justify that she is our life, our sweetness and our hope when she herself indicates that she is a poor vessel? This prayer is sung through the entire world and bells are rung! It is the same with the Regina Coeli;, it is not better that she is called Queen of Heaven. Is not this a dishonor of Christ that one gives to a creature what belongs to God alone? WA 10 (3) 321, 15-18

Now we have placed Mary so far above all the choirs of angels, next to her son and Lord, that dishonor and harm is done to her loving child. This is a great injustice and I claim that if she were on earth that she would weep blood about such dishonorable honor. Man should leave her in the honor which has come to her and respect her as a child of God. Yes, even see her as mother of God and praise God in her the same way that she herself has done in Magnificat. Grimmental, Oetigan, Einsiedein, (pilgrimage centers) ach, and so on, but go into the house of the neighbor who is in need and what you would spend on a pilgrimage, give to him! This I say about the honor of the saints. WA 10 (3), 325 13 to 326, 17

One clause here is particularly striking and remarkable, as it concisely states the foundational principle of veneration of the saints: “praise God in her”: that’s it in a nutshell: praising God through His creation that He has graced and made holy and therefore worthy of honor and imitation. The masterpiece reflects the glory of the painter, not of cloth and paint per se. The moon merely reflects the glory of the sun, which is its light source, etc. One can never imagine James Swan using this sort of language. As a typical “either/or” Reformed Protestant, he probably can’t even grasp it. But Luther does, and this proves that he understands and accepts Marian veneration. He’s simply very concerned with excesses also, as a good Lutheran pastor. One doesn’t logically or theologically rule out the other. I can’t say it enough.

Another portion that Swan cites includes this positive statement: “And if she received greater grace, that did not happen because of her merit but because of the mercy of God, for we cannot all be the mother of God.” This is precisely Catholic teaching. We believe she was made full of grace by God at her conception, after all. She can hardly have merited or cooperated with that!

Luther even admits in another portion of the sermon that Mary prays for him (intercession of the saints): “Gladly will I admit that she prays for me, . . .” Of course then he qualifies it and says we can all pray, blah blah blah (which everyone knows, anyway). But that doesn’t wipe out his positive statement.

His 2012 and revised 2016 articles contain a different translation of the same 1522 sermon, from Joel Basely in 2005 (second book down). He is a Lutheran pastor from Dearborn, Michigan, which is just north of where I live. Here is what Swan cites from his version (pp. 157-158):

Today’s feast of the blessed Virgin celebrates her birth. We also read today in the beginning of Matthew the accounting of part of the family tree including the great ancestors of Jesus Christ.  But you know, my friends in Christ, that the honor given to the mother of God has been rooted so deeply into the hearts of men that no one wants to hear any opposition to this celebration. There is rather a desire to further elevate it and make it even greater. We also grant that she should be honored, since we, according to Saint Paul’s words [Romans 12] are indebted to show honor one to another for the sake of the One who dwells in us, Jesus Christ. Therefore we have an obligation to honor Mary. But be careful to give her honor that is fitting. Unfortunately, I worry that we give her all too high an honor for she is accorded much more esteem than she should be given or than she accounted to herself.

So from this comes two abuses. First Christ is diminished by those who place their hearts more upon Mary than upon Christ himself. In doing so Christ is forced into the background and completely forgotten. The other abuse is that the poor saints here on earth are forgotten.

I would allow a high regard for Mary and her praise, just so long as you do not get carried away and consider making a law out of it so that she must be honored as a condition for your salvation. For the Scriptures have recorded nothing about her birth or life. So your hearts must not be placed upon her and she must not be exalted above her proper status. The monks invented all this abuse. They wanted to praise the woman. They have used Mary as an excuse to invent all kinds of lies by which she could be used to establish their twaddle. They have used Scriptures to drag Mary by the hair and force her to go where she never intended. For the Gospel that is read today reveals Christ’s nativity, not Mary’s. See how many lies have come out of this which we can in no way tolerate. I can surely allow her to be honored but not in a way that belies the Scriptures.

As we can see, both the positive acceptance of Marian veneration and condemnation of excesses exist (harmoniously) side-by-side in Luther. It’s also clearly seen that my quotation is not at all out-of-context. It is simply from the positive portions. Here is my quote in the three versions:

The veneration of Mary is inscribed in the very depths of the human heart. (Catholic William J. Cole, probably from Catholic Thomas O’Meara: Mary in Protestant and Catholic Theology: New York: Sheed and Ward, 1966)

[D]eep in the heart of men is inscribed the honor with which one honors the mother of God . . . (Unknown, cited by Swan in 2008)

The honor given to the mother of God has been rooted so deeply into the hearts of men that no one wants to hear any opposition to this celebration. (Basely, 2005)

Where’s the beef? All of this effort from Swan is much ado about nothing. All it reveals is his own profound, grotesque ignorance of Catholic Mariology, and even of Luther’s Mariology, rightly understood. He just doesn’t get it. And believe me, this paper can’t and won’t make him get it, either. But others will, and it’s for those folks that I write. Swan has to free himself from the burden of his many false presuppositions. They are what make him think illogically, and “argue” like a sophist.

Swan claims that Luther’s views on Marian veneration essentially dwindled to nothing or very little after 1522. I have not found this to be the case (at least not universally so):

This honor belongs to none except her and it is not to be despised, for the angel said, “Blessed are you among woman!” [Luke 1:28] . (Sermons I, ed. and tr. John W. Doberstein; Sermon on the Afternoon of Christmas Day, 25 Dec. 1530; in Luther’s Works, vol. 51)

We do not want to take away from Mary any honor which is her due. . . . let the Blessed Virgin keep her place of honor. Among all the women of the world she has this privilege from God, that as a virgin she gave birth to the Son of God. (Lectures on Genesis, Chapters 1-5, Feb. 1536, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan, tr. George V. Schick; in Luther’s Works, vol. 1)

Luther’s overall Mariology remained remarkably robust, despite James Swan’s futile efforts to downplay it and act as if Catholic apologists are exaggerating and spinning it in our direction. The facts are what they are, and I have documented them for over 25 years.

Besides veneration of Mary, he always used the phrase “Mother of God” (Theotokos) and understood its meaning as Catholics and the Church fathers always had understood it. This is very unlike many of today’s Protestants, especially of the Reformed variety.

He believed in the perpetual virginity of Mary, including even her virginity in partu (miraculous, supernatural childbirth itself: without the usual process and pain). Almost all Protestants reject that, and even many Catholics reject or very dimly comprehend in partu virginity, which is actually a dogma of the Catholic faith. Luther believed in both things his entire life, and this is extremely “Catholic” indeed and quite un-Protestant today.

Earlier in his life: up to at least 1527, Luther believed in the Immaculate Conception. Many Lutheran scholars agree with this (see three papers of mine about it: one / two / three). After that time, he changed somewhat, but not completely. He still believed in a sinless Mary: at least after the time of the Annunciation. I have called this view “Immaculate Purification” because he believed (post-1527) that she was immaculate and freed from original sin, but not from the time of conception. Even this modified position is very un-Protestant and far closer to the Catholic view. How many Protestants refer to Mary as “sinless” or “immaculate” or think that God freed her from original sin at any time? Not many at all, I can assure readers, having been in both camps myself, and as an apologist in both these past 35 years.

In conclusion, it remains true as always: Luther possessed a very robust Mariology: remarkably like the Catholic view in many key ways, but also unlike it in others. It’s definitely closer to our beliefs than to those of present-day Lutherans or other Protestants. James Swan continues to desperately try to deny this by the relentless, wrongheaded employment of two major logical fallacies, as I analyzed above, and fudging or twisting of the facts regarding my own apologetic work, and that of Catholics in general.


Meta Description: Analysis of anti-Catholic polemicist James Swan’s absurd & fallacious methods & tactics, in discussing Luther’s Mariology.

Meta Keywords: Martin Luther, Luther’s Mariology, Luther & Veneration of Mary, James Swan, Anti-Catholicism, logic, facts, dumb analyses, spin, sophistry, polemics, party spirit

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