Luther & Melanchthon: Bigamy of Philip of Hesse is Biblical

Luther & Melanchthon: Bigamy of Philip of Hesse is Biblical November 2, 2017

PhilipHesse

(edited on 2-14-07 and abridged and reformatted on 11-2-17)

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From: Hartmann Grisar, S. J.: Luther (translated by E. M. Lamond, edited by Luigi Cappadelta, London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., Ltd., 1915)

[these excerpts are from Vol. 4 of 6, pp. 3-30, 36-63, 71-79. It is available online. Luther’s words will be in blue; Melanchthon’s in green.; Philip of Hesse’s in purple. I haven’t included elaborate source footnoting to German collections; readers may seek out those in the linked book if they like. Some straightforward references, however, are included in brackets.]

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CHAPTER XXI

1. Luther and Henry VIII of England. Bigamy instead of Divorce

. . . In the summer, 1531, Luther was drawn into the controversy raging round the King’s marriage, by an agent of King Henry: Robert Barnes, an English Doctor of Divinity . . .

Luther pointed out to the King a loophole by which he might be able to succeed in obtaining the object of his desire ; . . . At the conclusion of his memorandum to Barnes [3 Sep. 1531] he has the following: “Should the Queen be unable to prevent the divorce, she must accept the great evil and most insulting injustice as a cross, but not in any way acquiesce in it or consent to it. Better were it for her to allow the King to wed another Queen, after the example of the Patriarchs, who, in the ages previous to the law, had many wives ; but she must not consent to being excluded from her conjugal rights or to forfeiting the title of Queen of England.” 

It has been already pointed out that Luther, in consequence of his one-sided study of the Old Testament, had accustomed himself more and more to regard bigamy as something lawful. [Vol. 3, 259] That, however, he had so far ever given his formal consent to it in any particular instance there is no proof. In the case of Henry VIII, Luther felt less restraint than usual. His plain hint at bigamy as a way out of the difficulty was intended as a counsel (“suasimus“). Hence we can understand why he was anxious that his opinion should not be made too public. . . .

Melanchthon, too, had intervened in the affair, and had gone considerably further than Luther in recommending recourse to bigamy and in answering possible objections to polygamy.

In a memorandum of Aug. 23, Melanchthon declared that the King was entirely justified in seeking to obtain the male heirs with whom Catherine had failed to present him; this was demanded by the interests of the State. He endeavours to show that polygamy is not forbidden by Divine law; in order to avoid scandal it was, however, desirable that the King “should request the Pope to sanction his bigamy, permission being granted readily enough at Rome.” Should the Pope refuse to give the dispensation, then the King was simply and of his own authority to have recourse to bigamy, because in that case the Pope was not doing his duty, for he was “bound in charity to grant this dispensation.” “Although I should be loath to allow polygamy generally, yet, in the present case, on account of the great advantage to the kingdom and perhaps to the King s conscience, I would say: The King may, with a good conscience (tutissimum est regi), take a second wife while retaining the first, because it is certain that polygamy is not forbidden by the Divine law, nor is it so very unusual.” Melanchthon’s ruthless manner of proceeding undoubtedly had a great influence on the other Wittenbergers, even though it cannot be maintained, as has been done, that he, and not Luther, was the originator of the whole theory; there are too many clear and definite earlier statements of Luther’s in favour of polygamy to disprove this. Still, it is true that the lax opinion broached by Melanchthon in favour of the King of England played a great part later in the matter of the bigamy of the Landgrave of Hesse. . . .

The Strasburg theologians, Bucer and Capito, as well as the Constance preacher, Ambrosius Blaurer, also stood up for the lawfulness of bigamy. . . .

After the King had repudiated Catherine, Luther told his friends: “The Universities [i.e. those which sided with the English King] have declared that there must be a divorce. We, however, and the University of Louvain, decided differently. . . . We [viz. Luther and Melanchthon] advised the Englishman that it would be better for him to take a concubine than to distract his country and nation; yet in the end he put her away.” . . . 

It is equally impossible to trace the suggestion of bigamy back to the opinions prevailing in mediaeval Catholicism. No mediaeval pope or confessor can be instanced who sanctioned bigamy, while there are numbers of theologians who deny the Pope’s power to grant such dispensations . . .

At the end Rockwell sums up as follows (p. 222): “The expedient of bigamy . . . was approved by Luther, Melanchthon, Grynseus, Bucer and Capito, but repudiated by Oecolampadius and Zwingli. Hence we cannot be surprised that Luther, Melanchthon and Bucer should regard favourably the Hessian proposal of bigamy, whereas Zwingli s successors at Zurich, viz. Bullinger and Gualther, opposed it more or less openly.” . . .

2. The Bigamy of Philip of Hesse

As early as 1526 Philip of Hesse, whose conduct was far from being conspicuous for morality, had submitted to Luther the question whether Christians were allowed to have more than one wife. The Wittenberg Professor gave a reply tallying with his principles as already described; instead of pointing out clearly that such a thing was divinely forbidden to all Christians, was not to be dispensed from by any earthly authority, and that such extra marriages would be entirely invalid, Luther refused to admit unconditionally the invalidity of such unions. Such marriages, he stated, gave scandal to Christians, “for without due cause and necessity even the old Patriarchs did not take more than one wife”; it was incumbent that we should be able “to appeal to the Word of God,” but no such Word existed in favour of polygamy, “by which the same could be proved to be well pleasing to God in the case of Christians”“hence I am unable to recommend it, but would rather dissuade from it, especially for Christians, unless some great necessity existed, for instance were the wife to contract leprosy or become otherwise unfit.”  It is not clear whether Philip was interested in the matter for personal reasons, or simply because some of his subjects were believers in polygamy.

Luther’s communication, far from diverting the Prince from his project, could but serve to make him regard it as feasible; provided that the “great necessity” obtained and that he had “the Word of God on his side,” then the step could “not be prevented.” By dint of a judicious interpretation of Scripture and with expert theological aid, the obstacles might easily be removed.

The Hessian Prince also became acquainted with Luther’s statements on bigamy in his Commentary on Genesis published in the following year. To them the Landgrave Philip appealed expressly in 1540; the preacher Anton Corvinus having suggested that he should deny having committed bigamy, he replied indignantly: “Since you are so afraid of it, why do you not suppress what Luther wrote more than ten years ago on Genesis; did he and others not write publicly concerning bigamy: Advise it I do not, forbid it I cannot? If you are allowed to write thus of it publicly, you must expect that people will act up to your teaching.”

The question became a pressing one for Luther, and began to cast a shadow over his wayward and utterly untraditional interpretation of the Bible, when, in 1539, the Landgrave resolved to take as an additional wife, besides Christina the daughter of George of Saxony, who had now grown distasteful to him, the more youthful Margeret von der Sale. From Luther Margeret’s mother desired a favourable pronouncement, in order to be able with a good conscience to give her consent to her daughter’s wedding. . . .

The above-mentioned instructions [from Philip of Hesse to Martin Bucer] contain a sad account of the “dire necessity” which seemed to justify the second marriage: The Landgrave would otherwise be unable to lead a moral life; he was urged on by deep distress of conscience; not merely did he endure temptations of the flesh beyond all measure, but, so runs his actual confession, he was quite unable to refrain from “fornication, unchastity and adultery.”  The confession dealt with matters which were notorious. It also contains the admission, that he had not remained true to his wife for long, in fact not for more than “three weeks”; on account of his sense of sin he had “not been to the Sacrament.” As a matter of fact he had abstained from Communion from 1526 to 1539, viz. for thirteen years, and until his last attack of the venereal disease.

But were the scruples of conscience thus detailed to the Wittenbergers at all real? Recently they have been characterised as the “outcome of a bodily wreck.” “I am unable to practise self-restraint,” Philip of Hesse had declared on another occasion, “I am forced to commit fornication or worse, with women.” His sister Elisabeth had already advised him to take a concubine in place of so many prostitutes. In all probability Philip would have abducted Margaret von der Sale had he not hoped to obtain her in marriage through the intervention of her relations and with Luther’s consent. A Protestant historian has recently pointed this out when dealing with Philip’s alleged “distress of conscience.”

Bucer went on to say that the Landgrave had firmly “resolved” to make use against his unchastity which he neither could nor would refrain from with his present wife of “such means as God permitted and did not forbid,” viz. to wed a second wife. The two Wittenbergers had perforce to listen while Bucer, as the mouthpiece of the Landgrave, put forth as the grounds of his client’s firm resolve the very proofs from Scripture which they themselves had adduced in favour of polygamy; they were informed that, according to the tenor of a memorandum, “both Luther and Philip had counselled the King of England not to divorce his first wife, but rather to take another.” It was accordingly the Landgrave’s desire that they should “give testimony” that his deed was not unjust, and that they should “make known in the press and from the pulpit what was the right course to pursue in such circumstances”; should they have scruples about doing this for fear of scandal or evil consequences, they were at least to give a declaration in writing: “That were I to do it secretly, yet I should not offend God, but that they regard it as a real marriage, and would meanwhile devise ways and means whereby the matter might be brought openly before the world”; otherwise, the instructions proceeded, the “wench” whom the Prince was about to take to himself might complain of being looked upon as an improper person; as “nothing can ever be kept secret,” “great scandal” would indeed arise were not the true state of the case known. Besides, he fully intended to retain his present wife and to consider her as a rightful spouse, and her children alone were to be the “lawful princes of the land”; nor would he ask for any more wives beyond this second one. The Landgrave even piously reminds Luther and Melanchthon “not to heed overmuch the opinion of the world, and human respect, but to look to God and what He has commanded or forbidden, bound or loosened”; he, for his part, was determined not to “remain any longer in the bonds of the devil.”

Philip was careful also to remind them that, if, after putting into execution his project, he was able to “live and die with a good conscience,” he would be “all the more free to fight for the Evangelical cause as befitted a Christian”; “whatever they [Luther and Melanchthon] shall tell me is right and Christian whether it refers to monastic property or to other matters that they will find me ready to carry out at their behest.” On the other hand, as an urgent motive for giving their consent to his plan, he broadly hinted, that, “should he not get any help from them” he would, “by means of an intermediary, seek permission of the Emperor, even though it should cost me a lot of money”; the Emperor would in all likelihood do nothing without a “dispensation from the Pope”; but in such a matter of conscience neither the Pope nor the Emperor were of any great account, since he was convinced that his “design was approved by God”; still, their consent (the Pope and Emperor’s) would help to overcome “human respect”; hence, should he be unable to obtain “consolation from this party [the Evangelical],” then the sanction of the other party was “not to be despised.” Concerning the request he felt impelled to address to the Emperor, he says, in words which seem to convey a threat, that although he would not for any reason on earth prove untrue to the Evangel, or aid in the onslaught on the Evangelical cause, yet, the Imperial party might “use and bind” him to do things “which would not be to the advantage of the cause.” Hence, it was in their interest to assist him in order that he might “not be forced to seek help in quarters where he had no wish to look for it.”

After again stating that he “took his stand on the Word of God” he concludes with a request for the desired “Christian, written” testimony, “in order that thereby I may amend my life, go to the Sacrament with a good conscience and further all the affairs of our religion with greater freedom and contentment. . . .”

The Wittenberg theologians now found themselves in a quandary. Luther says: “We were greatly taken aback at such a declaration on account of the frightful scandal which would follow.” [Letter of June 1540, to the Elector of Saxony] . . .

It is much more likely that the lengthy favourable reply of the Wittenbergers was composed by Melanchthon. It was signed with the formula: “Wittenberg, Wednesday after St. Nicholas, 1539. Your Serene Highness’s willing and obedient servants [and the signatures] Martinus Luther, Philippus Melanchthon, Martinus Bucerus.” . . .

The rest of the document [following fawning boilerplate], apart from pious admonitions, consists of the declaration, that they give their “testimony that, in a case of necessity,” they were “unable to condemn” bigamy, and that, accordingly, his “conscience may be at rest” should the Landgrave “utilise” the Divine dispensation. In so many words they sanction the request submitted to them, because “what was permitted concerning matrimony in the Mosaic Law was not prohibited in the Gospel.” Concerning the circumstances of the request they, however, declined “to give any thing in print,”
because otherwise the matter would be “understood and accepted as a general law and from it [i.e. a general sanction of polygamy] much grave scandal and complaint would arise.” The Landgrave’s wish that they should speak of the case from the pulpit, is also passed over in silence. Nor did they reply to his invitation to them to consider by what ways and means the matter might be brought publicly before the world.

. . . in view of the examples of the Old Covenant, they “were unable to condemn it,” if, in a quite exceptional case, “recourse were had to a dispensation . . . and a man, with the advice of his pastor, took another wife, not with the object of introducing a law, but to satisfy his need.” . . . 

They are at great pains to impress on the Landgrave that he must “take every possible care that this matter be not made public in the world,” otherwise the dispensation would be taken as a precedent by others, and also would be made to serve as a weapon against them and the Evangel. “Hence, seeing how great scandal would be caused, we humbly beg your Serene Highness to take this matter into serious consideration.” They also admonish him “to avoid fornication and adultery”; they had learnt with “great sorrow” that the Landgrave “was burdened with such evil lusts, of which the consequences to be feared were the Divine punishment, illness and other perils”; such conduct, outside of matrimony, was “no small sin” as they proceed to prove from Scripture; they rejoiced, however, that the Prince felt “pain and remorse” for what he had done. Although monogamy was in accordance with the original institution of marriage, yet it was their duty to tell him that,“seeing that your Serene Highness has informed us that you are not able to refrain from an immoral life, we would rather that your Highness should be in a better state before God, and live with a good conscience for your Highness’s own salvation and the good of your land and people. And, as your Serene Highness has determined to take another wife, we consider that this should be kept secret, no less than the dispensation, viz. that your Serene Highness and the lady in question, and a few other trustworthy persons, should be apprised of your Highness’s conscience and state of mind in the way of confession.” “From this,” they continue, “no great gossip or scandal will result, for it is not unusual for Princes to keep concubines, and, though not everyone is aware of the circumstances, yet reason able people will bear this in mind and be better pleased with such a manner of life than with adultery or dissolute and immoral living.” . . .

This theological document, the like of which had never been seen, is unparalleled in the whole of Church history. Seldom indeed has exegetical waywardness been made to serve a more momentous purpose. The Elector, Johann Frederick of Saxony, was, at a later date, quite horrified, as he said, at “a business the like of which had not been heard of for many ages.” . . .

Although the Landgrave was careful to preserve secrecy concerning the new marriage already known to so many persons, permitting only the initiate to visit the “lady,” and even forbidding her to attend Divine Worship, still the news of what had taken place soon leaked out.  . . . Bucer, the first to be summoned to the aid of the Hessian Court, advised the Landgrave [8 July 1540] to escape from his unfortunate predicament by downright lying. He wrote: If concealment and equivocation should prove of no avail, he was to state in writing that false rumours concerning his person had come into circulation, and that no Christian was allowed to have two wives at the same time . . .

The Landgrave’s reply was violent in the extreme. He indignantly rejected Bucer’s suggestion; the dissimulation alleged to have been practised by others, notably by the Patriarchs, Judges, Kings and Prophets, etc., in no wise proved the lawfulness of lying; . . . Philip wrote to the same effect to the Lutheran theologians, Schnepf, Osiander and Brenz, who urged him to deny that Margaret was his lawful wife: “That, when once the matter has become quite public, we should assert that it was invalid, this we cannot bring ourselves to do. We cannot tell a lie, for to lie does not become any man. And, moreover, God has forbidden lying. . . .” . . .

Luther s Embarrassment on the Bigamy becoming Public.

At the commencement of June, 1540, Luther was in great distress on account of the Hessian bigamy. His embarrassment and excitement increased as the tidings flew far and wide, particularly when the Court of Dresden and his own Elector began to take fright at the scandal, and the danger of complications arising with the Emperor. . . . he proceeded to explain the case to his sovereign in the lengthy letter [probably 10 June 1540] in which he appeals to Confession and its secrecy. “Before the world and against the laws of the Empire it cannot be defended,” but “we were desirous of glossing it over before God as much as possible with examples, such as that of Abraham, etc. All this was done and treated of as in Confession, so that we cannot be charged as though we had done it willingly and gladly, or with joy and pleasure. … I took into consideration the unavoidable necessity and weakness, and the danger to his conscience which Master Bucer had set forth.” . . . 

They had at first looked askance at the idea, but, on being told that “he was unable to relinquish it, and, should we not permit it, would do it in spite of us, and obtain permission from the Emperor or the Pope unless we were beforehand, we humbly begged His Serene Highness, if he was really set on it, and, as he declared, could not in conscience and before God do otherwise, that he would at least keep it secret.” This had been promised them [by Bucer]; their intention had been to “save his conscience as best we might.” . . . “Even today, were such a case to come before me again, I should not know how to give any other advice than what I then gave, nor would it trouble me should it afterwards become known.” “I am not ashamed of the testimony even should it come before the world, though, to be spared trouble, I should prefer it to be kept secret so long as possible.” . . . Luther goes on to excuse his conduct still further to the Elector: “Still less would I have advised a public marriage” . . . “what I expected was, that, since he was obliged owing to the weakness of the flesh to follow the ordinary course of sin and shame, he would perhaps keep an honest girl in some house, and wed her secretly though even this would look ill in the sight of the world and thus overcome his great trouble of conscience; he could then ride backwards and forwards, as the great lords do frequently enough; similar advice I gave also to certain parish priests under Duke George and the bishops, viz. that they should marry their cook secretly.” . . . 

Kostlin, in his Biography of Luther, points out, speaking of the Table-Talk: “That there had been sin and scandal, his words by no means deny.” Concerning the whole affair Kostlin moreover remarks: “Philip’s bigamy is the greatest blot on the history of the Reformation, and remains a blot in Luther’s life in spite of everything that can be alleged in explanation or excuse.” . . .

“After so repeatedly describing himself as the prophet of the Germans,” says A. Hausrath, “he ought not to have had the weakness to seek a compromise between morality and policy, but, like the preacher robed in camels hair, he should have boldly told the Hessian Princelet: It is not lawful for you to have her.” Hausrath, in 1904, is voicing the opinion of many earlier Protestant historians when he regrets “that, owing to weariness and pressure from without,” Luther “sanctioned an exception to God’s unconditional command.” “The band of Protestant leaders, once so valiant and upright,” so he says, “had for once been caught sleeping. Evening was approaching and the day was drawing in, and the Lord their God had left them.” . . .

Luther at the Conference of Eisenach.

The Landgrave’s Indignation. An official conference of theologians and Councillors from Hesse and the Electorate of Saxony met at Eisenach at the instance of Philip on July 15, 1540, in order to deliberate on the best means of escaping the legal difficulty and of satisfying Philip’s demand, that the theologians should give him their open support.  . . .

During the first session of the conference, held in the Rathaus at Eisenach, Luther formally and publicly committed himself to the expedient at which he had faintly hinted even previously. He unreservedly proposed the telling of a lie. Should a situation arise where it was necessary to reply “yes” or “no,” then they must resign themselves to a downright “No.” “What harm would it do,” he said on July 15, according to quite trustworthy notes, “if a man told a good, lusty lie in a worthy cause and for the sake of the Christian Churches?” Similarly he said on July 17: “To lie in case of necessity, or for convenience, or in excuse, such lying would not be against God; He was ready to take such lies on Himself.” . . . 

He begs the Landgrave, “again to conceal the matter and keep it secret; for to defend it publicly as right was impossible”; should the Landgrave, however, be determined, by revealing it, to “cause annoyance and disgrace to our Confession, Churches and Estates,” then it was his duty beforehand to consult all these as to whether they were willing to take the responsibility, since without them the matter could not take place and Luther and Melanchthon alone “could do nothing without their authority. And rather than assist in publicly defending it, I would repudiate my advice and Master Philip’s [Melanchthon’s], were it made public, for it was not a public advice, and is annulled by publication. Or, if this is no use, and they insist on calling it a counsel and not a Confession, which it really was, then I should rather admit that I made a mistake and acted foolishly and now crave for pardon; for the scandal is great and intolerable. And my gracious Lord the Landgrave ought not to forget that his Serene Highness was lucky enough in being able to take the girl secretly with a good conscience, by virtue of our advice in Confession ; seeing that H.S.H. has no need or cause for making the matter public, and can easily keep it secret, which would obviate all this great trouble and misfortune. Beyond this I shall not go.” . . . 

Philip, moreover, from the very first, had no intention of restricting the matter to the private tribunal of conscience; the request brought by Bucer plainly showed, that he “was publicly petitioning the tribunal of the Church.” The fact is that the instructions given to Bucer clearly conveyed the Prince’s intention of making public the bigamy and the advice by which it was justified. . . .

The Saxon representatives present at the Conference were, however, ready to follow the course indicated by Luther in case of necessity, viz. to tell a downright lie; rather than that the Prince should be forced to vindicate openly his position it was better to deny it flatly. They declared, without, however, convincing the Conference, “that a flat denial was less culpable before God and in conscience as could be proved by many examples from Scripture than to cause a great scandal and lamentable falling away of many good people by a plain and open admission and vindication.”

Philip of Hesse was not particularly edified by the result of the Eisenach Conference. Of all the reports which gradually reached him, those which most aroused his resentment were, first, that Luther should expect him to tell a lie and deny the second marriage, and, secondly, his threat to withdraw the testimony, as issued in error. Luther had, so far, avoided all direct correspondence with the Landgrave concerning the disastrous affair. Now, however, he was forced to make some statement in reply to a not very friendly letter addressed to him by the Prince [18 July 1540]. In this Philip, alluding to the invitation to tell a lie, says: “I will not lie, for lying has an evil sound and no Apostle or even Christian has ever taught it, nay, Christ has forbidden it and said we should keep to yea and nay. That I should declare the lady to be a whore, that I refuse to do, for your advice does not permit of it. I should surely have had no need of your advice to take a whore, neither does it do you credit.. . . Nothing more dreadful has ever come to my ears than that it should have occurred to a brave man to retract what he had granted by a written dispensation to a troubled conscience. If you can answer for it to God, why do you fear and shrink from the world? If the matter is right in conscientia before the Almighty, the Eternal and Immortal God, what does the accursed, sodomitic, usurious and besotted world matter?” Here he is using the very words in which Luther was wont to speak of the world and of the contempt with which it should be met. He proceeds with a touch of sarcasm: “Would to God that you and your like would inveigh against and punish those in whom you see such things daily, i.e. adultery, usury and drunkenness and who yet are supposed to be members of the Church not merely in writings and sermons but with serious considerations and the ban which the Apostles employed, in order that the whole world may not be scandalised. You see these things, yet what do you and the others do?” In thus finding fault with the Wittenberg habits, he would appear to include the Elector of Saxony, who had a reputation for intemperance. He knew that Luther’s present attitude was in part determined by consideration for his sovereign. In his irritation he also has a sly hit at the Wittenberg theologians: At Eisenach his love for the “lady” (Margaret) had been looked upon askance; “I confess that I love her, but in all honour. . . . But that I should have taken her because she pleased me, that is only natural, for I see that you holy people also take those that please you. Therefore you may well bear with me, a poor sinner.”

Luther replied on July 24, that he had not deserved that the Landgrave should write to him in so angry a tone. . . . He also gives Philip to understand that he will get a taste of the real Luther should he not obey him, or should he expose him by publishing the “advice,” or otherwise in writing. He says: “If it comes to writing I shall know how to extricate myself and leave your Serene Highness sticking in the mud, but this I shall not do unless I can’t help it.” One can feel how Luther despised the man. In spite of his painful embarrassment, he is aware of his advantage. He indeed stood in need of the Landgrave’s assistance in the matter of the new Church system, but the latter was entirely dependent on Luther’s help in his disastrous affair. Hence Philip, in his reply, is more amiable, though he really demolishes Luther’s objections. This reply he sent the day after receiving Luther’s letter. . . .

As to telling a downright lie, that was impossible, because the marriage contract was in the hands of his second wife’s friends, who would at once take him to task. . . . He waxes sarcastic about Luther s remark, that the world would never acknowledge her as his wife, hinting that Luther’s own wife, and the consorts of the other preachers who had formerly been monks or priests, were likewise not regarded by the imperial lawyers as lawful wedded wives. He looked upon Margaret as his “wife according to God s Word and your advice; such is God’s will; the world may regard our wife, yours and the other preachers as it pleases.” . . . 

Melanchthon’s Complaints.

Melanchthon, as was usual with him, adopted a different tone from Luther’s in the matter. He was very sad, and wrote lengthy letters of advice. As early as June 15, to ease his mind, he sent one to the Elector Johann Frederick, containing numerous arguments against polygamy, but leaving open the possibility of secret bigamy. Friends informed the Landgrave that anxiety about the bigamy was the cause of Melanchthon’s serious illness. Philip, on the other hand, wrote, that it was the Saxon Courts which were worrying him. Owing to his weakness he was unable to take part in the negotiations at Eisenach. On his return to Wittenberg he declared aloud that he and Luther had been outwitted by the malice of Philip of Hesse. The latter’s want of secrecy seemed to show the treasonable character of the intrigue. To Camerarius he wrote on Aug. 24: “We are disgraced by a horrid business concerning which I must say nothing. I will give you the details in due time.” 1 On Sep. 1, he admits in a letter to Veit Dietrich: “We have been deceived, under a semblance of piety, by another Jason, who protested conscientious motives in seeking our assistance, and who even swore that this expedient was essential for him.” He thus gives his friend a peep into the Wittenberg advice, of which he was the draughtsman, and in which he, unlike Luther, could see nothing that came under the Seal of Confession. The name of the deceitful polygamist Jason he borrows from Terence, on whom he was then lecturing. . . . Melanchthon was also fond of dubbing the Hessian “Alcibiades” on account of his dissembling and cunning. Most remarkable, however, is the assertion he makes in his annoyance, viz. that the Landgrave was on the point of losing his reason: “This is the beginning of his insanity.” . . . Melanchthon became very sensitive to any mention of the Hessian bigamy. . . .

Brooding over the permission given, the scholar sought earnestly for grounds of excuse for the bigamy. “I looked well into it beforehand,” he writes in 1543, “I also told the Doctor [Luther] to weigh well whether he could be mixed up in the affair. ” . . . We must not press the contradiction this presents to Melanchthon’s other statement concerning the Prince’s hypocrisy. [In] Melanchthon’s earlier letter dated Sep. 1, 1540, . . . [he] speaks out plainly . . . : “I blame no one in this matter except the man who deceived us with a simulated piety. Nor did he adhere to our trusty counsel [to keep the matter secret]. He swore that the remedy was necessary. Therefore, that the universal biblical precept [concerning the unity of marriage]: They shall be two in one flesh might be preserved, we counselled him, secretly, and without giving scandal to others, to make use of the remedy in case of necessity. I will not be judge of his conscience, for he still sticks to his assertion; but the scandal he might well have avoided had he chosen. Either [what follows is in Greek] love got the upper hand, or here is the beginning and foretaste of that insanity which runs in the family. Luther blamed him severely and he thereupon promised to keep silence. But . . . [Melanchthon has crossed out the next sentence: As time goes on he changes his views] whatever he may do in the matter, we are free to publish our decision; for in it too we vindicated the law.” . . . He goes on to speak of Philip as “depraved by an Alcibiadean nature,” . . . 

Opinions Old and New Regarding the Bigamy.

As more light began to be thrown on the history of the bigamy, Protestant historians, even apart from those already mentioned, were not slow in expressing their strong condemnation, as indeed was only to be expected. Julius Boehmer, in outspoken language, points to “the unfortunate fact”  that “Luther, in his old age, became weak, nay, flabby in his moral judgments and allowed himself to be guided by political and diplomatic considerations, and not by truth alone and an uncorruptible conscience.” [except that we see Luther taking the same views in 1526 and 1531, as detailed above] . . .

Another Protestant, the historian Paul Tschackert, has recently characterised the Hessian affair as “a dirty story.” “It is, and must remain,” he says, “a shameful blot on the German Reformation and the life of our reformers. We do not wish to gloss it over, still less to excuse it.” . . .

The bigamy was so strongly opposed to public opinion and thus presumably to the tradition handed down from the Middle Ages, that Nicholas von Amsdorf, Luther’s friend, declared the step taken by Philip constituted “a mockery and insult to the Holy Gospel and a scandal to the whole of Christendom.”  He thought as did Justus Jonas, who exclaimed: “Oh, what a great scandal!” and, “Who is not aghast at so great and calamitous a scandal?” Erasmus Alber, preacher at Marburg, speaks of the “awful scandal” (“immane scandalum“) which must result. . . .

Justus Menius, the Thuringian preacher, in his work against polygamy mentioned above, appealed to the universal, Divine “prohibition which forbids and restrains us,” a prohibition which applied equally to the “great ones” and allowed of no dispensation. He also pointed out the demoralising effect of a removal of the prohibition in individual cases and the cunning of the devil who wished thereby “to brand the beloved Evangel with infamy.” Philip had defiled the Church with filth (“fcedissime“), so wrote Johann Brenz, the leader of the innovations in Wiirtemberg. After such an example he scarcely dared to raise his eyes in the presence of honourable women, seeing what an insult this was to them. Not to show how reprehensible was the deed, but merely to demonstrate anew how little ground there was for throwing the responsibility on the earlier ages of the Church, we may recall that the Elector, Johann Frederick of Saxony, on first learning of the project through Bucer, expressed his “horror,” and two days later informed the Landgrave through Briick, that such a thing had been unheard of for ages and the law of the land and the tradition of the whole of Christendom were likewise against it. It is true that he allowed himself to be pacified and sent his representative to the wedding, but afterwards he again declared with disapproval, that the whole world, and all Christians without distinction, would declare the Emperor right should he interfere; he also instructed his minister at the Court of Dresden to deny that the Elector or the Wittenberg theologians had had any hand in the matter.

Other Princes and politicians belonging to the new faith left on record strong expressions of their disapproval; for instance: Elector Joachim II of Brandenburg, Duke Ulrich of Wiirtemberg, King Christian III of Denmark, the Strasburg statesman Jacob Sturm and the Augsburg ambassador David Dettigkofer. To the latter the news was frightful tidings from which would result great scandal, a hindrance to and a falling away from the Holy Evangel.” All there now remains to do is to illustrate, by statements made by Protestants in earlier and more recent times, two important points connected with the Hessian episode; viz. the unhappy part which politics played in Luther’s attitude, and what he said on lying. Here, again, during the last ten years there has been a movement in Luther’s favour amongst many Protestant theologians. . . .

Bucer declared he had himself agreed to the bigamy from fear lest Philip should otherwise be lost to the Evangelical cause, and his feelings were doubtless shared at Wittenberg. Melanchthon speaks not merely of a possible attempt on Philip’s part to obtain the Emperor’s sanction to his marriage, but of an actual threat to leave the party in the lurch. Johann Brenz, as soon as news reached him in Wiirtemberg of the Landgrave’s hint of an appeal to the Emperor, saw in it a threat to turn his back on the protesting party. All three probably believed that at heart the Landgrave would remain true to the new faith, but what Luther had chiefly in view was Philip’s position as head of the Schmalkalden League. The result was all the more tragic. The compliance wrung from the Wittenbergers failed to protect the party from the evil they were so desirous of warding off. Philip’s reconciliation with the Emperor, as already pointed out, was very detrimental to the Schmalkalden League, however insincere his motives may have been. . . .

The strongest reprobation of the evil influence exerted over Luther by politics comes, however, from Adolf Hausrath. He makes it clear, that, at Wittenberg, they were aware that Protestantism “would assume quite another aspect were the mighty Protestant leader to go over to the Pope or the Emperor; never has “the demoralising character of all politics “been more shamefully revealed; “eternal principles were sacrificed to the needs of the moment”; “Philip had to be retained at any cost.” Hence came the “great moral defeat” and Luther’s “fall.” . . .

Referring to Luther’s notorious utterance on lying, G. Ellinger, the Protestant biographer of Melanchthon, says: Luther’s readiness to deny what had taken place is “one of the most unpleasing episodes in his life and bears sad testimony to the frailty of human nature.” His statements at the Eisenach Conference “show how even a great man was driven from the path of rectitude by the blending of politics with religion. He advised a good, downright lie that the world might be saved from a scandal. … It is sad to see a great man thus led astray, though at the same time we must remember, that, from the very start, the whole transaction had been falsified by the proposal to conceal it.”

Th. Kolde says in a similar strain, in a work which is otherwise decidedly favourable to Luther, “Greater offence than that given by the advice itself is given by the attitude which the reformers took up towards it at a later date.”

“The most immoral part of the whole business,” so Frederick von Bezold says in his Geschichte der deutschen Reformation, “lay in the advice given by the theologians that the world should be imposed upon. … A man [Luther] who once had been determined to sacrifice himself and the whole world rather than the truth, is now satisfied with a petty justification for his falling away from his own principles.” And, to conclude with the most recent biographer of Luther, Adolf Hausrath thus criticises the invitation to tell a “downright lie”: “It is indeed sad to see the position into which the ecclesiastical leaders had brought themselves, and how, with devilish logic, one false step induced them to take another which was yet worse.”

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Photo credit: Portrait of the Hessian Landgrave Philip I (1504–1567) [1534?], by Hans Krell (1490-1565) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

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