Luther’s Attitudes on Religious Liberty (Roland H. Bainton)

Luther’s Attitudes on Religious Liberty (Roland H. Bainton) September 15, 2017





The following is an edited, abridged edition of the chapter by the same name (with a few additional non-chapter citations), by Protestant church historian Roland Bainton, who is most well-known for his famous biography of Martin Luther, Here I Stand (1950). It comes from the book, Studies on the Reformation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1963). The chapter in that work runs from pages 20-45. I shall cite from the following pages (in order of citations): 211-212, Foreword (no page number), 21-24, 26, 28-44.

Luther’s own words will be in blue; his right-hand man and successor Philip Melanchthon’s in green. All other words (after this introduction) will be Bainton’s own. Breaks in his text will be indicated by ellipses (. . .); major breaks by bracketed ellipses ( [ . . . ] ). Oftentimes, I will separate Luther’s words from the flowing text and remove quotation marks from them. Brackets and italics within the text are Bainton’s own. Footnote information will be in brackets (I won’t bother with specific footnote numbers). The frequent “WA” stands for Weimar Ausgabe, or the standard Weimar edition of Luther’s works (Werke), in German. Bainton does not cite the English edition of Luther’s Works (1955). “BR” = Briefweschel (correspondence section of WA). “CR” = Corpus Reformatorum, a collection of primary religious documents of the period.

Dr. Roland H. Bainton (1894-1984) was a congregational minister and Titus Street Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Yale University, where he taught for 42 years. He authored more than thirty books on Christianity.


The Protestant Reformation itself has at times been credited with the rise of religious liberty but such a statement can be made only with distinct reserve . . . The outstanding reformers of the sixteenth century were in no sense tolerant. Luther in 1530 acquiesced in the death penalty for Anabaptists and Calvin instigated the execution of Servetus, while Melanchthon applauded. The reformers can be ranged on the side of liberty only if the younger Luther be pitted against the older or the left wing of the Reformation against the right . . . The opinion of the dominant group was expressed with pithy brutality by Theodore Beza when he stigmatized religious liberty as a most diabolical dogma because it means that everyone should be left to go to hell in his own way.

[ . . . ]

My first study of Luther was a paper dealing with his attitude to religious liberty in 1929. It was written at a time when I felt intense resentment against him because he spoke so magnificently for liberty in the early 1520s and condoned the death penalty for Anabaptists a decade later. Having worked eight years on a biography of Luther in the 1940s, anger changed to sadness through the discovery that in this case, as often elsewhere, it is the saints who burn the saints. This essay has been thoroughly rewritten.

[ . . . ]

With regard to Luther, in former days the Catholics stressed the illiberal utterances and some of the Protestants stressed the liberal. But others – especially those in the Pietist tradition – distinguished an earlier liberal Luther battling for freedom against Rome and a later encrusted Luther suppressing the sectarians.

. . . Protestantism, because attacking the great institution, was almost inevitably virulent against the Catholics and at the same time optimistic that on the basis of Scripture a new reformed Church could be erected, unified within itself. When however this confidence was shaken by inner rifts, the initial reformers were even more disconcerted than by the blows from Rome. Luther stood at the very center of this development. His own course was a sign, a symptom and in part also a cause of the wider sequence.

[ . . . ]

Faith is inward and God-given and therefore not to be forced by outward weapons in human hands. No one said this better than Luther in his tract, On Civil Government:

Faith is a free work to which no one can be forced. It is a divine work in the Spirit, let alone then that outward force should compel or create it.

These poor blind folk do not know what a vain and impossible thing they undertake, for no matter how hard they command nor how strongly they rave, they cannot bring people any further than that they should follow with mouth and hand, but the heart they cannot compel. [WA, XI, 264 (1523) ]

Again, religious experience, being inward, is also too intangible to be the subject of a judicial examination.

How does the senseless government know how to judge and conquer such a secret, spiritual, and hidden thing as faith? [WA, XI, 264 (1523) ]


Heresy is a spiritual thing, which cannot be cut with steel nor burned with fire nor drowned with water. [WA, XI, 268 (1523) ]

. . . Satan is a spirit who has neither flesh nor bone, so that one cannot touch him with steel or fist. We must tear him from the hearts with the Word of truth. That is our sword and fist which no one can withstand. [WA, X, 167 (July 10, 1522) ]

. . . If one judges the tree by its fruits, it is evident who are the true Christians. We do not kill, banish, and persecute any one who teaches other than we or starts a sect. But the fruit of their [the papists’] faith is killing, burning, banishment, and persecution. It is clear enough that they are the devil’s Christians. [WA, XIX, 263 (1526) ]

We are persecuted in all places, slain, burned, and hanged for the sake of the Word. We are as the early Church, like Christ upon the cross. No one can deny that we do not shed blood, kill, hang, and revenge ourselves. [WA, LI, 484-485 (1541) ]

We must suffer, and leave vengeance to God. Otherwise we have an evil spirit in us. [WA, XLV, 409]

Some of these passages are from the later years, for Luther never forgot to talk in this fashion against the papists.

[ . . . ]

Not only was Scripture the source for the concrete formulation for the faith, but tradition likewise.

This testimony of the universal holy Christian Church, even if we had nothing else, would be a sufficient warrant for holding this article [on the sacrament] and refusing to suffer or listen to a sectary, for it is dangerous and fearful to hear or believe anything against the unanimous testimony, belief, and teaching of the universal holy Christian churches, unanimously held in all the world from the beginning until now over fifteen hundred years. [WA, XXX, 552 (1532) ]

[ . . . ]

You say that I am not merciful in this [his attitude to the peasants]. I answer, mercy is neither here nor there. We are talking about God’s Word.  [WA, XVIII, 386 (1525) ]

“Love your enemies.” Yes, but God’s enemies must be my enemies. [WA, XXXII, 400 (1530-1532) ]

. . . I do not approve of burning heretics nor of killing any Christian – this I well know does not accord with the Gospel . . . [WA, VII, 645 (1521) ]

. . . The nobles should go to Rome and smite with the sword all who, like Sylvester Prierias, make Scripture subject to the pope, and declare that the pope should go unpunished though he take the whole world to the devil. [WA, VI, 585 (1520) ]

Again, in the Address to the German Nobility Luther urged that the papists be severely punished

because they have blasphemously abused the ban and the name of God and want to make us participators by consent in their blasphemy. We are bound before God to withstand them. Paul treats as worthy of death those who do such things and those who suffer them to be done. [WA, VI, 585 (1520) ]

But these sayings were unguarded outbursts. Luther’s sober opinion is revealed in the following quotation.

All predict a revolution like that in Bohemia and that there will be an attack on our clergy. I am not to blame, for I tried to get the German nobility to put bounds to the Romanists not with the sword but with counsels and edicts, which they easily could, for to make war on this unarmed crowd of clergy is like fighting women and children. [BR, 378 (Feb. 27, 1521) ]

In December 1521 [WA, VIII, 673] Luther wrote

It looks as if it might come to revolution, and the papists, monks, bishops, and clergy be slain or driven out. But no revolution is to be made for God. Scripture gives the pope a very different end. He is to be ‘destroyed without hand,’ (Dan. 8:25) that is without the sword and bodily force. The Lord Jesus ‘will slay him with the Spirit of his mouth’ (II Thess. 2:8). But because it is God’s affair is no reason why the magistrate should not do his part and with the sword anticipate a portion of God’s anger, just as Moses allowed three thousand of the people to be slain. Not that one should now slay the papists, which is not needful, but that one should forbid them with words and restrain them by force from what they do against the Gospel. One can do more than enough with words and letters, so that neither hewing nor stabbing is necessary. [WA, VIII, 676-677, 680 (December 1521) ]

[ . . . ]

Don’t tear the priests from the altar. Tell the people to withdraw financial support, and with such preaching the masses will in time fall of themselves. 
[WA, X, 32, condensed (April 1522) ]

. . . In a word I will preach, speak, write, but I will force and drive no one, for faith must be willing and unconstrained. [WA, X, 18 (April 1522) ]

Christians fight only with the Word against the devil’s teaching and work. First take hearts and consciences away from him and then all will fall of itself. [WA, X, 37 (April 1522) ]

[ . . . ]

If it is allowed by God to punish a reckless scamp who blasphemes in the market-place, it is also permitted to drive this horrid antichristian blasphemy out of your town. (WA, XV, 774 (1523) ]

As a result, representatives of the university and city authorities urgently besought the clergy to abolish the mass, informing them that a priest who celebrated it was worthy of death. [Walch, Luthers sammtliche Schriften 19, 1453]

. . . We may sum up Luther’s attitude to the Catholics during this period by saying that in his sober moments, at least, he objected to taking their lives. He was opposed to mob violence, would have the magistrate confine himself to the elimination of abuses, and would leave the work of positive reformation to the clergy. At the same time Luther indulged in incendiary utterances likely to inspire the very lawlessness which he deplored.

. . . You ask whether the prince should suppress the abominations, since no one is to be forced to faith, and the power of princes extends only to externals. Answer: our princes do not compel to faith, but merely suppress external abominations. Princes should prohibit public crimes such as perjury, manifest blasphemy of the name of God, and the like . . . [BR, 946, to Spalatin; condensed (Nov. 11, 1525) ]

. . . In his later years Luther was guilty of virulent and indecent fulminations against the papacy. He wished that there were more English kings to kill cardinals [BR, 2276 (c. Dec. 3, 1535) ], and was pleased with a rumor that bishops had been executed in Denmark [1536. See Paulus, Protestantismus und Toleranz, 18]. The year before his death he raked together such a pile of “Gutter-muck” in the tract Against the Papists at Rome, that he was himself compelled to halt . . . He could afford to stop, after having already expressed the hope that the princes would rise up, destroy the papal state, tear out the tongues of pope and cardinals, and nail them to the gallows like seals on a bull. [WA, XLIV, 243 (1545) ]. And after having stopped he still went on to say that if he were the emperor, he would tie up together the blasphemous pope and cardinals and take them not more than three miles from Rome to Ostia, where he would not drown them, as Paulus states, but give them a bath of half an hour in the Tyrrhenian sea, a precious bath of salvation; and that, he guaranteed, would clean them up. [WA, XLIV, 283 (1545) ]

At the same time one must remember that there was nothing personal in Luther’s attack. He railed at Henry VIII, yet on hearing that he was inclined to the reform sent a conciliatory letter and likewise in the case of Duke George. But when such hopes proved illusory, Luther started again to blast. Some of his bluster was deliberately adopted for effect.

. . . But in the end one must remember that Luther was so adverse to violence as to endorse the territorial principle of one religion only in one region lest the existence of two should endanger the civil peace. This meant that his followers would have to abstain from missionary endeavors in catholic lands [WA, XXXI, 211] and that such areas could come over to the reform only if they did so as a whole, with and under the authority of the prince. It meant also that minorities would not be tolerated, but there was this gain for liberty that all such could emigrate with household and goods. It was the refusal on the part of the Catholics to recognize this as a two-way arrangement which provoked the famous protest at Speyer.

. . . We fight with the Word of God alone. If they don’t want it, we let them go and separate ourselves from them and let them cleave to any belief they like. We do the best we can toward them and let them live among us. Whom do the papists treat like that? They fight only with the sword like the Turk.
[WA, XIX, 263 (April 1526) ]

[ . . . ]

They are not Christians who besides the Word resort to fists, be they filled to overflowing with ten Holy Ghosts. [WA, XV, 218-221 (Aug. 21, 1524) ]

[ . . . ]

. . . the world and the mass of men are and remain unchristian, though they have all been baptized and are called Christians. [WA, XI, 251 (1523) ]

[ . . . ]

He was by no means so swift to condone the penalty of death as was Zwingli, who sanctioned its use against the Anabaptist Felix Manx in Zurich in 1526. At least two years afterward, in 1528, Luther wrote:

You ask whether the magistrate may kill false prophets. I am slow in a judgmnt of blood even when it is deserved. In this matter I am terrified by the example of the papists and the Jews before Christ, for when there was a statute for the killing of false prophets and heretics, in time it came about that only the most saintly and innocent were killed. I cannot admit that false teachers are to be put to death. It is enough to banish. [BR, 1294. The Weimar editors think this section was interpolated into a letter to Link of July 14, 1528 from a later reply to Brenz but earlier than the commentary on the 82nd Psalm of 1530]

Yet six months earlier the elector had suppressed the writings of the Anabaptists and Zwinglians and all unauthorized assemblies, even for a wedding or a baptism, on pain of imprisonment. [Wappler, Inquisition und Ketzerprozesse, Anhang 1, No. 1, cf. pp. 8-11] Luther made no protest.

There was however in the Visitation Articles of that same year a survival of the older liberalism in that the weak might be allowed for a time to receive the sacrament in one kind only, since no one is to be forced to faith. [WA, XXVI, 185, 214 and note (1528) ] And to the death penalty Luther still strenuously objected.

It is not right and I am deeply troubled [he wrote with regard to the Anabaptists] that the poor people are so pitifully put to death, burned, and cruelly slain. Let every one believe what he likes. If he is wrong, he will have punishment enough in hell fire. Unless there is sedition one should oppose them with Scripture and God’s Word. With fire one will get nowhere. [WA, XXVI, 145 (1528) ]

The very next year appeared the imperial edict of the diet of Speyer, whereby the Anabaptists were condemned to fire and sword without previous ecclesiastical examination. [April 23, 1529. Wappler, ibid., 56] We have no immediate comment from Luther, but he was tightening up. In August he recommended that everybody should be compelled to attend church on the ground that politics and household economy are taught in the decalogue and catechism. Those who wish to live in the land must learn these laws. [BR, 1467 (August 26, 1529). Cf. WA, XXX, 349, 461] By the beginning of March 1530 Luther gave his consent to the death penalty for Anabaptists, but on the ground that they were not only blasphemers, but highly seditious.

[“Seditiossimi.” BR, 1532 (end of Feb. 1530). Luther to Menius and Mykonius commending their plan to write against the Anabaptists. When the work appeared, Luther wrote a preface, WA, XXX, p. 211 f. Neither Menius nor Luther was specific as to penalties. Menius’ tract is in the Wittenberg edition of Luther’s works, Vol. 2, pp. 299b-301a (1551) ]

Those who rush into the temple and blaspheme, should, on a second offense, receive the penalty of sedition. Here blasphemy seems to constitute the sedition. [BR, 1578 (June 1, 1530) ] In August he was pleased with the rumor of the execution of Campanus. [BR, 1672 (Aug. 3, 1530) ] In The Exposition of the Eighty-second Psalm in the same year blasphemy was put on a par with sedition. [WA, XXXI, 207] Nothing was said definitely as to the punishment, but death was almost certainly intended, for Luther had long recognized it as the current penalty for blasphemy. [WA, VI, 229. Cf. Volker, p. 91 and Paulus, p. 36, note 4] A direct appeal was made to the example of Moses, who commanded blasphemers to be stoned. [WA, XXXI, 209 (1530) ] Luther was no longer deterred because the Jews persecuted the true prophets. That was no reason for not stoning the false. [WA, XXXI, 213] The executioner should dispose of unauthorized preachers even though orthodox. [WA. XXXI, 212] It is not likely that the unorthodox would fare better, however authorized.

[ . . . ]

Any doors which Luther might have left open in the second period from 1525 to 1530 were closed by Melanchthon in the memorandum of 1531. Rejection of the ministerial office was described as insufferable blasphemy, and destruction of the Church was considered sedition against the ecclesiastical order, punishable like other sedition. Luther added his assent,

for though it seems cruel to punish them with the sword, it is more cruel that they damn the ministry of the Word, have no certain teaching, and suppress the true, and thus upset society. [CR, IV, 739-740 (1531). Wappler, Inquisition, 61-62; Paulus, 41-43]

The second memorandum composed by Melanchthon and signed by Luther in 1536 is of extreme importance in making clear what was involved. The circumstance was that Philip of Hesse who steadfastly refused to go beyond banishment and imprisonment in matters of faith, invited the theologians in a number of localities to give him advice. One of the most severe among the replies was that which came from Wittenberg. In this document the Anabaptists were declared to be seditious and blasphemous, but in what did their sedition consist? The answer was: not by reason of armed revolution, but on the contrary, by reason of pacifism.

They teach that a Christian should not use a sword, should not serve as a magistrate, should not swear or hold property, may desert an unbelieving wife. These articles are seditions and the holders of them may be punished with the sword. We must pay no attention to their avowal ‘we did no one any harm’, because if they persuaded everybody there would be no government. If it be objected that the magistrate should not compel anyone to the faith the answer is that he punishes no one for his opinions in his heart, but only on account of the outward word and teaching.

The memorandum goes on to say that there were other tenets of the Anabaptists touching upon spiritual matters such as their teaching about infant baptism, original sin and illumination apart from God’s Word.

What now would happen if children were not baptized, if not that our whole society would become openly heathen? If then one holds only the articles in spiritual matters on infant baptism and original sin and unnecessary separation, because these articles are important, because it is a serious matter to cast children out of Christendom and to have two sets of people, the one baptized and the other unbaptized, because then the Anabaptists have some dreadful articles, we judge that in this case also the obstinate are to be put to death. [WA, L, 12]

Luther signed.

This document makes it perfectly plain that the Anabaptists were revolutionary, not in the sense of physical violence, but in the sense that their program entailed a complete reorientation of Church, state and society. For this they were to be put to death.

Luther himself took the initiative in treating absence from Church as blasphemy, to be met with the threat of banishment and excommunication. [BR, 2075 (1533) ] In 1536 he had come to regard imprisonment and death as preferable to banishment, which simply spread the infection elsewhere, [BR, 3034 (June 7, 1536) ] and in 1538 he himself revised the Visitation Articles, omitting the passage which gave consideration to the weak. [WA, I, 625]

[ . . . ]

In assessing the entire situation one must of course remember that Luther was not writing in the midst of a religiously pluralistic society in which diversity of religions has long since been shown to be compatible with public order. He lived in the era of hot war when no one was as yet ready for co-existence. Luther was at war with himself and, alongside some of the savage blasts, one should set a statement from his last decade taken from the commentary on Genesis:

. . . All histories show that the true Church has always endured suffering at the hands of the false. There can be no doubt, therefore, today that the pope’s Church is that of Cain, but we are the true Church. As Abel did not harm Cain so we not only do not harm, but rather, endure vexation, condemnation, and death from the Church of the pope. It is not only useful but exceeding joyous to have this most certain means of judging between the two Churches, between the purple harlot disguised as the true Church and the other despised, suffering, hungry, thirsty, and oppressed, as Christ recalled in Matthew 25 that he was hungry . . . [WA, XLII, 188-189 (1536-1546) ]

This picture does not appear unrealistic when applied to the situation of the Lutheran churches as over against the papacy and the empire, but Luther strikes us as naive in his claim to have been persecuted also by the sectaries by reason of their odious accusation that he was worse than the papists.[WA, XL, 681]

* * * * *

Related Reading:

Protestantism: Historic Persecution & Intolerance (My Web Page)

Luther Favored the Death Penalty for Anabaptists

Reply to Reformed Luther Apologist James Swan’s Request for Documentation of Executions of Anabaptists Sanctioned by Luther, in the 1530s

Luther’s Inflammatory Rhetoric & the Peasants’ Revolt (1524-1525)

Was Luther “Bloodthirsty” & Violent? (James Swan & I Agree!)

Luther Film (2003): Detailed Catholic Critique

Zwingli, Bucer, Oecolampadius: Luther & Lutherans Not Christians

Philip Melanchthon: Death for Denying the Real Presence (He Later Denied the Real Presence Himself)

John Calvin: Capital Punishment for “Heretics” (Anabaptists, Etc.)

John Calvin: Torment of an Inept Execution “Special Will of God”

Calvin the “Destroyer” of Servetus: James Swan Misses Forest for Trees

Calvin Supports Death Penalty for Heresy After Servetus

Early Protestant “Unity”: Calvin vs. Westphal vs. Luther

444 Irish Catholic Martyrs & Heroic Confessors

“Reformation” Theft of Thousands of Catholic Churches

16th Century Theft of Church Properties (vs. Lutheran Historian)

Dialogue on Jihadist & 16th Century Calvinist Iconoclasm (vs. David Scott)

Protestant Inquisitions: “Reformation” Intolerance & Persecution


Photo Credit: Double portrait of Martin Luther and Philipp Melanchthon, attributed to Lucas Cranach the Younger (1515-1586) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

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