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.
If they kill me, there will be such a slaughter as neither they nor their children will be able to overcome.
(Grisar , 193; Zwei kaiserliche uneinige Gebote / Two Discordant Imperial Commandments; WA, XV, 254 ff.)
Big thieves hang the little ones . . . what will God say to this at last? He 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. We do not think of amending our lives, no matter how great our sin and wrong may be, and He cannot leave wrong unpunished . . . I have done my part to show how richly we have deserved it if God shall come with a rod.
(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)
The sole reason for my inditing this letter to your Graces is that I have gathered from the writings of these people, that this same spirit will not be satisfied to make converts by word only, but intends to betake himself to arms and set himself with power against the government, and forthwith raise a riot. Here Satan lets the cat out of the bag, that is, makes public too much. What will this spirit do, when he has won the support of the mob? Truly here at Wittenberg I have heard from the same spirit that his business must be carried through with the sword. I then marked that their plans would come out, namely, to overturn the civil government and themselves become lords of the world. But Christ says his kingdom is not of this world, and teaches the apostles not to be as the rulers of the earth . . . it is my humble duty to do my part, and humbly to pray and warn your Graces to fulfil your duty as civil governors by preventing mischief and by forestalling rebellion.
. . . 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)
And I say at the outset that according to the law of Moses no other images are forbidden than an image of God which one worships. A crucifix, on the other hand, or any other holy image is not forbidden . . .
. . . 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)
If God permits the peasants to extirpate the princes to fulfil his wrath, he will give them hell fire for it as a reward.
(Smith, 162; letter to John Ruhel at Mansfeld, from Seeburg)
To the Princes and Lords
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.)
. . . the pretences which they made in their twelve articles, under the name of the Gospel, were nothing but lies. It is the devil’s work that they are at . . .
. . . 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)
My opinion is that it is better that all the peasants be killed than that the princes and magistrates perish, because 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. Even if the princes abuse their power, yet they have it of God, and under their rule the kingdom of God at least has a chance to exist. Wherefore no pity, no tolerance should be shown to the peasants, but the fury and wrath of God should be visited upon those men who did not heed warning nor yield when just terms were offered them, but continued with satanic fury to confound everything . . . To justify, pity, or favor them is to deny, blaspheme, and try to pull God from heaven.
(Smith, 164-165; letter to Nicholas Amsdorf at Magdeburg, from Wittenberg)
Where have I ever taught that no mercy should be shown? In that self-same book do I not beg the rulers to show grace to those who surrender? Why do you not open your eyes and read it? . . . you seize upon one bit of it in which I say that those who will not surrender or listen ought to be killed without mercy; and pass by the rest of it, in which I say that those who surrender are to be shown grace . . .
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”:
. . . treat the poor people graciously and mercifully as becomes a spiritual lord even more than a temporal one . . . Alas! there are too many who treat the people horribly and so act unthankfully to God as if they would recklessly awaken the wrath of Heaven and of the people again and provoke a new and worse rebellion. God has decreed that those who show no mercy should also perish without mercy . . . It is right to show sternness when the commonality are seditious and stubborn, but now that they are beaten down they are a different people, worthy that mercy be shown them in judgment.
(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.
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.
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):
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 church 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)
In 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:
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 . . .
. . . renewed offers came from Sickingen and from a hundred knights besides. Luther was not unmoved, yet he scarcely knew whether to rely on the arm of man or solely on the Lord. During that summer of 1520, when the papal bull was seeking him throughout Germany, his mood fluctuated between the incendiary and the apocalyptic. In one unguarded outburst he incited to violence. A new attack by Prierias lashed Luther to rage.
(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 . . .
He deprecated, moreover, the resort to physical force in a spiritual warfare, and relied on the power of the Word of God, which had founded the Church, and which must reform the Church . . . 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”)
When some bishops sought to silence Luther and his followers, he emitted an angry roar that was almost a tocsin of revolution.
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 . . .
Though he was well aware that his pen ran away with him, and sometimes regretted it, 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. He imagined a brave citizen meeting a ravening peasant with sword in hand, and had no idea that his language could encourage men to perpetuate outrages on defenceless peasants.
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.
Every rebellion seemed un-Christian to him. He forbade the serfs to demand their freedom. Even the Christian who was sold to a Turk as a slave should not seek escape from his new lord. But Luther threatened the bishops and prelates that their power would have to be destroyed and hands would have to be washed in their blood. As for the secular lords, he painted them an image of the rebellion of the common man. God wanted “to put an end to them as well as to the ecclesiastical gentlemen.”
(“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)
A complex, much-entangled dependence connects the resort to arms on the part of the peasants with the Reformation . . . the reforming teachings endowed each revolutionary insurrection with welcome beginnings in certain fundamentals . . .
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)
Had Luther and his followers never appeared on the scene, the spirit of discontent and insubordination, which had gained ground everywhere among the common people, would still have produced fresh tumult and sedition in the towns and provinces. But it was the special condition of things brought about — or rather developed — by the religious disturbances, which gave this revolution its characteristics of universality and inhuman atrocity . . .
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)
. . . these insurrections derived their impetus from the Lutheran ideas and slogans which had permeated the masses. It would be unhistorical to throw the entire responsibility for the gigantic movement upon Luther. Nevertheless, it cannot be gainsaid that the ideas and preachers of the new movement were intimately connected with it. The doctrine of evangelical liberty played the principal role.
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)
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 . . .
(“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)
Luther’s revolt injected enormous impetus into a multitude of other forces of change already at work. In varying degrees the persons demanding alterations sought to identify their aspirations with those of Luther . . .
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)
His Gospel of Christian liberty proved a mighty solvent. For the spiritual freedom which he taught, multitudes substituted freedom from political oppression, from social injustice and from economic burdens . . .
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 good can be ruled by the Spirit, but the evil must be ruled by the sword. Luther insisted that the great masses of baptized Germans were not true Christians . . . Luther’s social ethic seems to suggest that two totally different moralities exist side by side: a private Christian ethic . . . and a public morality, based upon force . . . public morality is based upon coercion, in which the citizen obeys the law for fear of the consequences for failing to do so . . . It will therefore be obvious that Luther puts the Christian who is also a public figure (such as a prince or a magistrate) in the virtually impossible position of having to employ two different ethics, one for his private life, the other for his public life . . .
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 the 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.
The poor folk who took up arms to obtains more social justice were of course imperfectly acquainted with Luther’s theses; but they had heard tell that he proclaimed liberty, that he denounced the exactions of the wealthy and that he wished to see the gospel principles put into practice. That was reason enough for them to acknowledge his authority . . .
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.’
Neither Lutherans nor Anabaptists had caused the rising. The incendiary language in which preachers of all sorts spoke of “freedom now attained” helped, no doubt. Luther, to whom a statement of the peasants’ demands was sent, replied in his usual thoughtless, declamatory way, heaping blame on the lords. It was their opposition to him — “to the preaching of the Gospel” — which had brought about this war. “It is not the peasants who have risen against you, it is God Himself.” At the same time he lectured the peasants on the need to be patient and to remember that”he who takes up the sword will perish by the sword.”
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 and the excellence of the humblest Christian 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; “God will not endure it; the world is not what it once was when you drove and hunted men like wild beasts.”
. . . 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 parthly 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.
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. Indeed, if this had not been so, Luther’s Reformation could not possibly have been as successful as it actually was. The first to interpret Luther’s writings as a signal for revolution were, however, not the peasants but the imperial knights . . . To them, Luther’s pamphlet addressed to the German nobility seemed a clarion call against the hated power of the princes and the Church . . .
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)
Lutheranism also aroused considerable hope among the peasants. Their leaders soon translated religious demands for freedom, the Word of God, and divine justice into social terms, despite Luther’s warning against such action . . .
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)
WA = Weimar Ausgabe edition of Luther’s Works (Werke) in German, 1883. “Br.” = correspondence.
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
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