Did Luther Regret Anything About His “Reformation”?

Did Luther Regret Anything About His “Reformation”? December 18, 2017


Luther never said that the “Reformation” as a whole was a failure, or shouldn’t have happened, but he said quite a bit about how the new Protestants were miserably failing in manifesting the  superiority of their system over Catholicism.

The following is taken from the book by Henry O’Connor, S. J.: Luther’s Own Statements Concerning His Teaching and Its Results (New York: Benzinger Brothers, 1884, second edition).

The author provides a wealth of information, straight from Luther’s primary works in German (translated by himself). I will cite only those statements that directly connect Protestant teaching to the negative results observed in his own lifetime: where he himself observes that there is some causal connection, or when he unfavorably compares Protestant behavior to Catholic.

When, on the other hand, he states, for example, that popular morals are going to pot, I haven’t cited those statements, if they don’t express the notion that the result was due (partially or wholly) to the new Lutheran teachings. I would contend that there were probably many different causes (as in most questions of history). All material below is from Fr. O’Connor, excepting the purple sub-titles, that are my own, and my bracketed footnotes. Fr. O’Connor uses italics a lot. I have omitted those. Luther’s words will be in blue.

* * * * *

Source Documentation and Trustworthiness


I. — Works Consulted

1. Nearly two-thirds of the matter contained in this pamphlet is taken from the original editions of Luther’s own Works, as published in Wittenberg, under the very eyes of the Reformer of Germany himself. . . . They were printed between 1513 and 1546 and are bound together in chronological order, in 15 volumes. . . .

2. The remaining part is, in great measure, taken from De Wette’s collection of Luther’s Letters, in 5 volumes: . . . Berlin . . . 1825-1828.

De Wette was a Professor of Protestant Divinity at Basle, in Switzerland, and a staunch supporter of Luther. In his introductory remarks he assures us, that whenever it was in any way possible, he invariably consulted Luther’s manuscripts and the first editions that Luther himself had revised. . . . [p. 3]

3. A certain amount of information is also taken from the complete edition of Luther’s German Works. This was published at Erlangen in 1826, etc. and comprises no less than 67 volumes . . .

4. The Walch edition is referred to in the “Moral Results” of Luther’s teaching. This edition was published by Gebauer, Halle, in 24 volumes, between 1740 and 1753. The work was carried on under the supervision of Professor D. Johann Georg Walch, of Jena. . . . [p. 4]

II. — Accuracy and Trustworthiness

1. Not a single second-hand quotation is to be found from beginning to end of my little work.

2. I have not quoted any one passage . . . which I have not seen with my own eyes in the book referred to.

3. Not one of my quotations has been taken from a Catholic author. . . .

4. I have taken special care not to quote anything, that would have a different meaning, if read with the full context. . . .

5. In every single case the translation from the German or the Latin is my own. The fact that I have spent seventeen years, either in Germany, or in the almost exclusive society of Germans, will guarantee a sufficient knowledge of German for the task which I have undertaken. The translation itself is both literal and accurate.

6. Exact foot-note references are given for every passage quoted. The old Wittenberg editions are, however, as a rule, not paged. I have, therefore, counted the pages myself . . . [p. 5]

9. It is evident that the statements made in this work can be disproved only by showing that the references are falsely given, or that the context does not support the meaning attributed to the passages quoted. No other manner of dealing with the question can be accepted as either scientific or conclusive. [p. 6]

Luther’s View of the Princes (Who Replaced the Bishops in Lutheran Polity)


11. The few quotations which follow are taken from Luther’s work: “About worldly authority: how far we are [p. 43] obliged to obey it.” . . .

[ . . . ]

13. “You must know that from the beginning of the world a wise prince is a rara avis, and still more so a pious prince; they are generally the greatest fools or the worst rascals on earththerefore, as regards them we may always look out for the worst and expect little good from them . . .”

[Philadelphia edition: A. J. Holman Company and the Castle Press, 1930; reprinted by Baker Book House (Grand Rapids, Michigan), 1982, Vol. III; work translated by J.J. Schindel, p. 258:

You must know that from the beginning of the world a wise prince is a rare bird indeed; still more so a pious prince. They are usually the greatest fools or the worst knaves on earth; therefore one must constantly expect the worst from them and look for little good from them, especially in divine matters, which concern the salvation of souls. . . . If a prince becomes wise, pious or a Christian, it is one of the great wonders . . . The world is too wicked, and does not deserve to have many wise and pious princes.]

14. “There are very few princes who are not looked upon as fools or rascals . . .”

[Philadelphia edition, III, pp. 260-261:

such a world as this deserves such princes, none of whom do their duty . . . . For there are very few princes that are not reckoned fools or knaves.

Later in the same work (p. 265), Luther writes:

I do not speak because I have any hope that princes will give heed, but because there might possibly be one of them who would fain be a Christian and would like to know what he ought to do . . . it is enough for me to point out that it is not impossible for a prince to be a Christian, though it is a rare thing and surrounded with difficulties.

[ . . . ]

[the source for the above two citations is unclear. It is apparently from the Wittenberg edition]

[ . . . ]


17. . . . he published a book, the title of which is: [p. 44] “Two Imperial, Inconsistent, and Disgusting Orders Concerning Luther.” [Erlangen Ausgabe XXIV. 210]

[ . . . ]

19. Nor are the last words of this work very complimentary to the German princes. Luther writes: “From the bottom of my heart I bewail such a state of things in the hearing of all pious Christians, that like me they may bear with pity such crazy, stupid, silly, furious, mad fools . . . May God deliver us from them, and out of mercy give us other rulers. Amen.” [Ibidem, 236-237] [p. 45]

[Luther later had far less misgivings about princes, provided they did things as he preferred. Hence, he was happy about the secular power in England, that put holy men like St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More to death, for daring to assert that the Church was higher in authority than the King. Luther’s best friend and successor Philip Melanchthon had the same attitude, as Catholic historian Hartmann Grisar noted:

Melanchthon took no offence at the cruel execution of Sir Thomas More or at the other acts of violence already perpetrated by Henry VIII ; on the contrary, he gave his approval to the deeds of the royal tyrant, and described it as a commandment of God “to use strong measures against fanatical and godless men.” 

[” Corp. ref.,” 2, p. 928. Melanchthon’s language, and Luther’s too, changed when, later, Henry VIII caused those holding Lutheran opinions to be executed] (Luther, translated by E. M. Lamond, edited by Luigi Cappadelta, London: 1915, Vol. IV, 9)

But More and Fisher believed scarcely any differently than Luther himself had, as seen in this 1523 work. For example, Luther stated:

This the bishops should do, to whom, and not to the princes, such duty is entrusted. Heresy can never be prevented by force. That must be taken hold of in a different way, and must be opposed and dealt with otherwise than with the sword. Here God’s Word must strive; if that does not accomplish the end it will remain unaccomplished through secular power, though it fill the world with blood.

(Philadelphia edition, III, p. 259)

The worldly princes, in their turn, are to permit usury, theft, adultery, murder, and other evil works, and themselves do them; and then allow bishops to punish with the ban. Thus they turn things topsy-turvy, and rule souls with iron and the body with bans, so that worldly princes rule in a spiritual, and spiritual princes in a worldly way. What else does the devil have to do on earth than thus to play the fool and hold carnival with his folk? These are our Christian princes, who defend the faith and devour the Turk. Fine fellows, to be sure, whom we may well trust to accomplish something by such refined wisdom, namely, break their necks and plunge land and people into suffering and want. (Ibid., p. 260)

Yet a few years later, Luther would give the place formerly occupied by bishops to these same princes, and sanction the death penalty (after 1530) for peaceful Anabaptists. And in 1539, Luther and Melanchthon had strayed so far from condemning the sins of princes, that they capitulated in the famous case of Philip, Landgrave of Hesse and sanctioned his bigamy. When Henry VIII in his religious revolution went in a direction unfavorable to Lutheranism, Luther and Melanchthon promptly “dissed” him, as Grisar noted, so that Luther wrote in 1539:

The devil himself rides astride this King . . . I am glad that we have no part in his blasphemy. (Grisar, ibid., 12)

Obviously, then, Luther and his party loved princes when they did their bidding, and despised them when they did not. ]

Morals and Piety of the New Protestants Compared to Catholics

I. — Contempt of the Word of God

[ . . . ]

2. “Peasants and nobles know the Gospel better than St. Paul or D. M. Luther; they are wise and they think themselves better than all their clergy.” [Walch. XIV. 1360] [p. 50]

6. Already in 1524 Luther tells us, why the preachers of the new Gospel were so thoroughly despised. He says: “They lead such a bad life . . . that they do more harm than good.” [Epp. ed. Aurifaber. II. 191]

II. — Contempt of the Sacrament

1. “People have now so little esteem for the Holy Sacrament of the Body and Blood of our Lord . . . it is as if there was nothing on earth that they were less in want of.” [Walch. X. 2666]

2. “Formerly under the Pope, when we were forced and urged to receive the Sacrament, we went in crowds . . . now . . . our behavior towards it is as disgusting and shameless, that it is as if we were not human beings (still less Christians), but only sticks and stones, that stand in no need of it.” [Walch. X. 2715]

III. — Want of Generosity in Supporting the Clergy, Churches, and Schools

1. Luther says: “Under the Pope, people were very fervent in building churches . . . Now that the true religion is taught, and that the people are properly instructed concerning good works, everybody is cold, so much so that we cannot help being surprised at it.” [Walch. VI. 1211]

2. “Formerly, they could build convents and churches, with an outlay which was quite unnecessary; now they cannot repair a hole in the roof . . .” [Walch. XIII. 8]

3. “Tell me where is there a town at present with sufficient means or piety, to contribute enough for the support of a schoolmaster or a clergyman?” [Walch. XI. 2522]

4. “Such is the fate of the beloved Gospel, when it is preached, nobody is willing to give anything towards feeding [p. 51] and supporting the persons who ought to take charge of the pulpits and schools.” [Walch. VIII. 2815]

5. “Formerly, when we served the Devil . . . all purses were open, and there was no measure in giving to churches, schools . . . But now . . . all purses are bound up as with iron chains.” [Walch. X. 530]

6. “According to its size every town could formerly support with ease several convents . . . now that in one town two or three persons only are to be supported, who preach the Word of God, administer the Sacraments, visit and console the poor, instruct the youth . . . everybody finds that too much, although (the money has to come), not out of their own pocket, but from the property of others, for which we are indebted to Popery.” [Walch. XI. 1758]

7. “Our peasants want a Christian liberty, that will bring them a temporal gain, but if on the other hand they are to give a penny to their clergyman, or do the least thing for the Gospel, even the Devil cannot make them stir.” [Walch. XIII. 89]

IV. — Neglect of the Poor

1. Luther informs us that his followers used to say, “If we are not saved on account of our good works, why should we give alms to the poor?” [Walch. VIII. 2683] . . .

2. “Formerly, under the Pope people gave very largely indeed and beyond measure . . . then they gave in heaps for they looked . . . upon the reward . . . But now that with the light of the Gospel we are told nothing about our merits, nobody is willing to give and to help.” [Walch. VIII. 946-947]

3. “Formerly, when we served the Devil under Popery, everybody was merciful and kind; then they gave with both hands, joyfully and with great devotion . . . Now that we ought to be merciful, to give willingly, and to show [p. 52] ourselves thankful to God for the Holy Gospel . . . nobody is willing to give, but only to take.” [Walch. XI. 1758]

[ . . . ]

[p. 53]

[ . . . ]

IX. — Lower State of General Morality

1. Luther says: “As soon as our Gospel began . . . decency . . . and modesty were done away with, and everybody wished to be perfectly free to do whatever he liked.” [Walch. V. 114]

2. “We deserve that our Evangelicals (the followers of the new Gospel) should now be seven times worse than they were before. Because after having learnt the Gospel, we steal, tell lies, deceive, eat and drink (to excess), and practice all manner of vices.” [Walch. III. 2727]

3. “After one Devil (Popery) has been driven out of us, seven worse ones have come down upon us, as is the case with Princes, Lords, Nobles, Citizens and Peasants.” [Walch. III. 2727]

[ . . . ]

5. “I think it must needs be the case, that those who follow the Gospel . . . should be worse after (receiving) the Gospel than they had been before, not on account of the Gospel, but on account of the people who so abuse the Gospel.” [Walch. XIII. 2193]

6. “The more and the longer we preach, the worse matters grow.” [Walch. XII. 2120]

7. “People are now possessed with seven Devils, whereas formerly they were possessed with one Devil; the Devil now enters into the people in crowds, so that men are now more avaricious, unmerciful, impure, insolent . . . than formerly under the Pope.” [Walch. XIII. 19]

8. “After the dominion and power of the Pope has ceased . . . the people, while despising the true doctrine, are now changed into mere irrational animals and beasts; [p. 55] the number of holy and pious teachers becomes constantly less.” [Walch. I. 615]

[ . . . ]

10. . . . about seven months before his death, Luther wrote to his wife, “Away from this Sodom [Wittenberg] . . . I will wander about, and sooner beg my bread than allow my poor old last days to be martyred and upset with the disorder of Wittenberg.” [July 1545. de Wette. V. 753]

11. . . . “See how foolishly the people everywhere behave towards the Gospel, so that I scarcely know whether I ought to continue preaching or not.” [Walch. XI, 3052]

12. . . . “If God had not closed my eyes, and if I had foreseen these scandals, I would never have begun to teach the Gospel.” [Walch. VI. 920]

13. In 1538, . . . Luther dwells on the same thought: “Who would have begun to preach, if we had known beforehand that so much unhappiness, tumult, scandal, blasphemy, ingratitude, and wickedness would have been the result?” [Walch. VIII. 564]

14. . . . “I confess, that I am much more negligent, than I was under the Pope, and there is now nowhere such an amount of earnestness under the Gospel, as was formerly seen among Monks and Priests.” [Walch. IX. 1311]

[ . . . ]

[p. 56]


(originally 5-13-08)

Photo credit: Luther posting his 95 theses in 1517; 1872 painting by Ferdinand Pauwels (1830-1904) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


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