Luther: Death Penalty for Anabaptists & 1525 Peasants’ Revolt

Luther: Death Penalty for Anabaptists & 1525 Peasants’ Revolt April 21, 2020

Critique of James Swan’s Misrepresentation on the Radio Show, Iron Sharpens Iron, with Chris Arnzen

Reformed Protestant anti-Catholic polemicist James Swan’s words will be in blue.


Please list the names of the Anabaptists Luther had put to death. I do not deny he believed in the death penalty, but my emphasis was that, I know of no record, of Luther having Anabaptists put to death in Wittenberg, via public execution, like, say Calvin’s involvement with Servetus. If you have this information, I would be interested it it, and will revise my position.

I wanted to clear up something Catholic apologist Dave Armstrong is blogging on. Dave says I made a mistake on Iron sharpens Iron when I answered the question on whether or not Luther had a hand in the execution of Anabaptists.

I took the question to mean that Luther, in a similar way Calvin played a role in the execution of Sevetus, had Anabaptists killed. That being said, I don’t recall coming across anything in particular in which Anabaptists were brought to Wittenberg, and were executed. That is, I don’t recall Luther at any trials, or participating in the executions of Anabaptists.

Indeed, Luther believed in the death penalty for Anabaptists, as I have stated often in my writings, and I should have mentioned this on the show. I can see how my answer would have been clearer if I mentioned this. If by “had a hand” in executing Anabaptists, Luther’s agreement with the death penalty for Anabaptists is “having a hand”, then indeed, I did not answer the question accurately. I really did understand the question in the way I have explained.

Of course, my answer may not satisfy Dave Armstrong, but it should for those of you who know me, and know I don’t try to make Luther anything other than he was. I will indeed mention this to Chris Arnzen when I speak to him.

A while back, someone told me Luther was involved in the trial and execution two women for witchcraft, and even told me the book this information was in, but when I got the book, I did not find this information.

I just got off the phone with Chris Arnzen, and indeed, I understood the question being asked correctly. Chris was asking me if Luther was involved with executing Anabaptists, as in, being brought to trial and executed at Wittenberg.

Hope this clears things up.

I don’t have to deny what James thought internally. If that ‘s how he explains his remark and thoughts when he made it, I accept it. I don’t have to accuse anti-Catholics of dishonesty and deliberate deception the way they routinely treat me. Generally I chalk such remarks up to the joint influence of ignorance and profound ideological bias.

Nevertheless, even accepting James’ clarifications, that doesn’t let him off the hook, by any means, because now he is rationalizing the more important underlying ethical question of Luther’s responsibility.

It matters not if he was individually involved, say, doing administrative work on the case an Anabaptist about to be drowned (which was designed as a mockery of adult baptism, by the way), or going out at night with torches to seek out these dangerous rebels, so they could be killed, or spying on clandestine believers’ baptisms. He was culpable. Any ethicist would recognize this.

Secondly, whatever James and Chris had in their heads, the language they used is quite reasonably interpreted as I have described it. It’s like saying, “Bill Clinton had a hand in promoting legal partial-birth abortion, by vetoing bills prohibiting it and by appointing Supreme Court Justices who saw nothing wrong with it.”

Do we not talk like that simply because Clinton didn’t actually perform the abortion or seek out a particular baby that he wanted murdered in cold blood in an abortuary? No.

The clear impression left to the audience is that Luther was not for persecution (which is a common myth in Protestant circles, anyway, which I believed myself till I read Bainton in 1984).

This is clear all the more in the context of the program, since what was being discussed previously, as I recall, was whether Luther had the peasants killed (the big revolt of 1524-1525). Swan said no.

I have actually mostly defended Luther on that score, myself; however, I don’t let him totally off the hook, because I hold him responsible for his fiery rhetoric that played a large part in stirring up the animosities of the peasants: many of whom regarded him as a hero and figurehead. Words mean things.

So, sure, Luther didn’t literally take a peasant and strangle him or run him through with a pike or a sword, but he did sanction a pretty vigorous putting-down of the rebellion (and Bainton noted that with regret).

One can argue whether that was justified, and make a decent case in Luther’s favor, since it was a riot and anarchical situation. That’s another discussion, but it still remains true that Luther was involved by the statements he made. See my two-paper:

Martin Luther’s Inflammatory Rhetoric and the Peasants’ Revolt (1524-1525) (+ Part II) [10-31-03]

So, anyway, since no one argues that Luther personally slaughtered peasants, it is understood that the question doesn’t pertain to that aspect. The question of whether he “killed” them, therefore, means (sensibly), “did he sanction the killing of them? Did he agree with it?”

One can argue culpability in that situation. I took the position that his guilt was more so in the area of stirring up their passions in the first place and being typically naive as to the sad consequences that could and did result.

But that is one situation. A peaceful Anabaptist practicing his or her religion is quite another. Since Luther and Melanchthon expressly eliminated the legally and ethically crucial distinction between seditious and peaceful Anabaptists, by equating certain dissident doctrines as “seditious” and subversive of the very order of society, then the latter could be executed right along with the former.

And that means that James White could have been killed by Martin Luther and his cronies, for believing in adult baptism (I’ve pointed this out before), and White would have been regarded as “out of the faith” by Luther, for denying the Real Presence in the Eucharist (because that is exactly what Luther thought of Zwingli).

Catholics weren’t generally killed in Lutheran territories (in non-wartime); they were banished; but Anabaptists were killed by Lutherans, with the express consent of Luther and Melanchthon.

For further details on the persecutions of Anabaptist emanating from Wittenberg, headed by Melanchthon with Luther’s consent, see the article, “Juridical Procedures Relating to the Anabaptists” (section 3) in the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, and the article on Luther in the same work.

To be fair to Luther, he opposed Anabaptism precisely because it went against doctrines like infant baptism, that had a long pedigree in the Catholic Church. Luther even appealed to Catholic Tradition in arguing in favor of infant baptism and against Anabaptist non-sacramental adult baptism.

That’s not to justify (at all) his espousal of the death penalty in these cases, but it does, I think, exonerate him from a strict “sola me” position.

On the other hand, Protestant principles of private judgment ultimately break down, upon logical analysis, I believe, to the individual reigning supreme and judging ecumenical councils and popes, if needs be, just as Luther did at the Diet of Worms in 1521. If Luther did this, why not his followers, too? He can give no reason why they should not. If they disagree with him, he appeals to his alleged status as a sort of quasi-prophet, singularly gifted by God with divine truth.

One must distinguish in these matters between the person’s self-understanding and an argument of what their position logically reduces to, that the proponent, of course, rejects and doesn’t agree with himself.

I just got off the phone with Chris Arnzen, and indeed, I understood the question being asked correctly. Chris was asking me if Luther was involved with executing Anabaptists, as in, being brought to trial and executed at Wittenberg.

Okay; let us grant that this is what Chris Arnzen meant. Great. But what does this mean? Well, look at how he responded to Swan’s denial:

Really? See, that’s another one I keep spreading. I will stop doing that.

Now, this is extremely interesting, since if that is what Chris meant, then it follows inexorably that he had to himself hold the opinion that he now has decided to stop “spreading”. Therefore, Chris Arnzen believed, prior to 8-6-07, when he was disabused of the myth by James Swan, that Luther personally “brought to trial [Anabaptists] and executed [them] at Wittenberg” — in the manner of Calvin’s pursuing and executing of Servetus in Geneva. Arnzen must have believed this, if we are to interpret his interpretation of his question to Swan reasonably and sensibly.

The fascinating question, then, becomes: where did he hear this tidbit of false information: that Luther personally “had a hand” in persecuting Anabaptists in his own town? He himself was taken in by a myth that never even crossed my mind, and here I am regarded as a “Luther-hater” by some and as an incompetent boob in Luther research by the Eminent James Swan.

How is it that a good Protestant believes such a thing about Luther, but Catholics like myself do not and did not? Where did he pick up that information?

Furthermore, granting that he believed this falsely and now rejects it, based on Swan’s authority as a Luther expert, what would he think about Luther advocating the death penalty in a legal / religious sense? Presumably he disagrees with that, and opposes it, like virtually anyone would, I think.

And, lastly, wouldn’t Chris Arnzen, in a program devoted to “Luther myths” [mostly deriving from Catholics], think it was important to point out to the audience the truth about Luther’s view on the death penalty for heresy (or heresy-sedition, as he would put it)?

It’s disinformation, any way you look at it. If Arnzen and Swan state on another show just what I noted: the real facts about Luther’s and Melanchthon’s persecution beliefs, and their intolerance, and related matters such as widespread theft of Catholic Church properties, rationalized on anti-Catholic theological grounds, then that would be fair for a change to the Catholic position and to history, and that is my main concern.

I’m the first to say both that Luther was a creature of his time, and that Catholics held the same views. I’ve never denied that. But Protestants have to face the scandal of Protestant persecution and intolerance. The trouble is that we only hear one side of the story all the time, and that is simply unfair and untrue to the facts of history.

Swan’s comment is in that context: making Luther out to be something he was not. It left a false impression. I accepted that Swan had in his mind what he claimed, but there are larger issues that remain, and they aren’t being squarely faced. The discussion never goes anywhere . . .

Swan later tried to argue that his remarks on the program have to be taken with a grain of salt because he had only “30 or 40 seconds” to make them. But he was merely parroting thoughts he expressed in a paper of some three weeks earlier. Since he had time then, and expressed the same stuff, the excuse falls flat. The problem is with his lousy research and presentation, not lack of time.

There is plenty of misinformation in Swan’s analysis. He claims, too (among other things), that Luther’s notorious advice had little or nothing to do with the princes’ and magistrates’ brutal suppression (in 1525). That is not how the real historical accounts read.

The irony is that Protestants decry “man-centered” religion and the Catholic notion of saints, yet when it comes to Luther they are often so afraid of showing any of his faults, that they engage in pseudo-hagiography and historical revisionism.

Many Protestant historians freely admit these faults. Indeed, it is common knowledge as a scandal, just as was the incident involving the bigamy of Philip of Hesse (and Calvin’s role in executing Servetus).

But Swan won’t because it goes against the agenda he is pushing: building up Luther more than the facts will support, and always opposing Catholics and Catholicism, no matter what.

Particular truths and even attempted semi-academic (since he is no academic, nor am I) neutrality and objectivity are quick casualties, with that mentality.


Related Reading

Luther Film (2003): Detailed Catholic Critique [10-28-03; rev. 3-6-17]

Martin Luther’s Inflammatory Rhetoric and the Peasants’ Revolt (1524-1525) (+ Part II) [10-31-03]

Luther Favored Death Penalty for Anabaptists [2-24-04]

The Real Diet of Augsburg (1530) vs. the Protestant Myth [3-3-04]

Luther’s Attitudes on Religious Liberty (Roland H. Bainton) [2-16-06]

16th Century Theft of Church Properties (vs. Lutheran Historian) [2-22-06]

Philip Melanchthon: Death for Denying the Real Presence (He Later Denied the Real Presence Himself[5-23-06]

Luther on the Deaths of Zwingli, St. Thomas More, & St. John Fisher [11-30-07; expanded on 10-31-17]

“Reformation” Theft of Thousands of Catholic Churches [4-12-08]

John Calvin’s Advocacy of Capital Punishment and Persecution of Those Whom He Considers “Blasphemers” or Heretics (Catholics, Anabaptists, Etc.) [6-1-09]



(originally 11-6-07 in comments on my blog)

Photo credit: Brück & Sohn Kunstverlag Meißen (1912): Wittenberg, Germany [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


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