Did Luther Cause the 1525 Peasants’ Revolt? (vs. Banzoli)

Did Luther Cause the 1525 Peasants’ Revolt? (vs. Banzoli) June 20, 2022

Lucas Banzoli is a very active Protestant evangelical apologist in Brazil, who writes quite a bit in opposition to the Catholic Church and Catholic doctrine. He has a Master’s degree in theology, a degree and postgraduate work in history, a license in letters, and is a history teacher, author of 25 books, as well as blogmaster for six blogs. He’s also active on YouTube.

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The words of Lucas Banzoli will be in blue. I used Google Translate to transfer his Portugese text into English.

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This is a reply to Lucas’ article, “O protestantismo é o culpado pela Revolta dos Camponeses de 1524?” [Is Protestantism to blame for the Peasants’ Revolt of 1524?] (2-8-18). Martin Luther’s words will be in green, with more incendiary or inflammatory portions in purple. Statements of non-Catholic historians and Luther scholars will be in brown.

I wrote at length (two parts: one / two, and 17,800 words) about this topic (i.e., Luther’s role) on 31 October 2003. That is approximately 62 pages long, if printed out, whereas Lucas’ chapter about it in his book (below) is about 56 pages. So I have done at least as much research as he has on this topic: all 19 years ago. First let me cite my own opinion expressed then (which hasn’t changed, and which had been held for 12 years when I wrote in 2003):

Historians on both sides are in agreement that Luther never supported the Peasants’ Revolt (or insurrection in general). Many, however (including Roland Bainton, the famous Protestant author of the biography Here I Stand), believe that he used highly intemperate language that couldn’t help but be misinterpreted in the worst possible sense by the peasants. I agree with these Protestant scholars, . . .

No Catholic (or Protestant) historian I have found — not even Janssen — asserts that Luther deliberately wanted to cause the Peasants’ Revolt, or that he was the primary cause of it. Quite the contrary . . .

My long-held position on this agrees, therefore, with the consensus opinion of historians of all stripes. I think Luther had the typical naivete of many sincerely, deeply-committed and (what might be called) “super-pious” religious people. It is also undeniably true that Luther’s thought is highly complex, nuanced, sometimes vacillating or seemingly or actually self-contradictory, and often difficult to understand.

Thus, for him to say the sort of extreme (seemingly straightforward) things that he said, have such opinions distributed by the tens of thousands in pamphlets, and to expect everyone (even uneducated peasants) to understand the proper sense and take into consideration context and so forth, is highly unreasonable and irresponsible. . . .

Luther believed that the papacy and the entire edifice of institutional Catholicism would come to an end, not by an insurrection or rebellion, but by a direct intervention of God Himself (in fact, by nothing less than the Second Coming, as he states more than once). In 1521 and 1522 he was caught up into and (arguably) obsessed by an apocalyptic vision of what was about to happen, in God’s providence. This being the case, at first he didn’t feel it was necessary to oppose even those who threatened a rebellion (later he changed his mind, when the resulting societal chaos required swift action). Thus he wrote in December, 1521 (source information below):

The spiritual estate will not be destroyed by the hand of man, nor by insurrection. Their wickedness is so horrible that nothing but a direct manifestation of the wrath of God itself, without any intermediary whatever, will be punishment sufficient for them. And therefore I have never yet let men persuade me to oppose those who threaten to use hands and flails. I know quite well that they will get no chance to do so. They may, indeed, use violence against some, but there will be no general use made of violence . . . it will not come to violence, and there is therefore no need that I restrain men’s hands . . .

The relationship between this divine wrath and judgment and those whom God uses to execute it, however, remains somewhat obscure, unclear, and ambiguous in Luther’s writings. Perhaps the key to this conundrum is found in a remarkable statement he made in a private letter, dated 4 May 1525: “If God permits the peasants to extirpate the princes to fulfil his wrath, he will give them hell fire for it as a reward.”

So, while Luther opposed insurrection on principle, there is a tension in his seemingly contradictory utterances between opposition to the populace taking up arms against spiritual and political tyranny, and a deluded confidence and at times almost gleeful wish that apocalyptic judgment was soon to occur, regardless of the means God used to bring it about (one recalls the ancient Babylonians, whom God used to judge the Hebrews). This produces an odd combination of sincere disclaimers against advocating violence, accompanied by (often in the same piece of writing) thinly-veiled quasi-threats and quasi-prophetic judgments upon the powers of the time, sternly warning of the impending Apocalypse and destruction of the “Romish Sodom” and all its pomps, pretenses, corruptions, and vices.

On a more earthly, mundane, practical plane, however, it is astonishing to note how cavalierlry Luther sanctions wholesale theft of ecclesiastical properties (see proofs of this in the passages listed under 12 December 1522 and Spring 1523), on the grounds that the inhabitants had forsaken the “gospel” (as he — quite conveniently in this case — defined it, of course). This was to be a hallmark of the “Reformation” in Germany and also in England and Scandinavia, and was justified as a matter of “conscience” by the Protestants at the Diet of Augsburg in 1530, who flatly refused to return stolen properties, as a gesture of good will and reconciliation with the Catholics (see the section on the Diet of Augsburg in my review of the 2003 movie Luther). Luther was still rationalizing this outrageous and unjust criminal theft in 1541:

If they are not the church but the devil’s whore that has not remained faithful to Christ, then it is irrefutably and thoroughly established that they should not possess church property. (Wider Hans Wurst, or Against Jack Sausage, Luther’s Works, vol. 41, 179-256, translated by Eric W. Gritsch; citation from p. 220)

Generally speaking, Luther had a problem with his tongue. And the social repercussions were massive and tragic. The Bible speaks a lot about an unbridled tongue. It is no small sin at all. How German peasants (Luther was of rural peasant stock) may have habitually expressed themselves in the 16th century might be an interesting historical tidbit, but it has no bearing on Christian ethics, where the tongue and slander and causing uproar and divisions are concerned. One doesn’t “get off” in God’s eyes for real sins because of cultural context. It is all the more serious when such remarks are arguably a major cause in both provoking and violently quelling a rebellion in which some 130,000 human beings lost their lives: almost all violently and cruelly.

Luther might indeed mean one thing when he utters his impassioned hyper-polemical, quasi-prophetic jeremiads (I have no problem with that), but he was (by the looks of it) so naive and lacking in practical wisdom about human nature and human affairs (“worldly” or “real-life” considerations) that he apparently had no idea what harm and ill consequences his words might cause. I agree that this gets him “off the hook” to some extent (I certainly freely grant him his good intentions and sincerity), but not all that much, in my opinion. I still think he bears much responsibility for the resulting extent of the sad division by virtue of his constant polemics (often involving much lying about the Catholic Church). Furthermore, he seemed to be absolutely naive as to how his own principles would be interpreted, extended, and applied by others. . . .

My purpose is not (at all) to demonize Luther or make him out to be bad, evil, or the devil incarnate, but only to present a fuller historical picture (whatever the truth is: “positive” or “negative”) and to make some criticisms where I think they are warranted (with the background support of historians on all sides). This doesn’t amount to equating Luther with Attila the Hun, Vlad the Impaler, or Joseph Stalin; it is simply viewing him as a fallen, flawed man, as all of us are. He shouldn’t “get a pass” simply because he opposed the Catholic Church: the thing that so many people detest and loathe.

Nor does every Catholic criticism of Luther or early or later Protestantism amount to deliberate slander, with a propagandistic, “I must always make my own side come off looking righteous and saintly, at all costs” intent. There is such a thing as legitimate historiography and reasonable opinions drawn therefrom. And (thankfully) such scholarship can (and very often does, at least on a scholarly level) unite Protestants and Catholics where it concerns certain verified facts. I write as a mere lay apologist and non-scholar, but I enlist reputable historians and copious quotations from Luther himself in order to arrive at my conclusions, both “positive” and “negative” — as the case may be (just as the professional historians do).

That is my view. Readers will know it before I begin citing Banzoli, then Luther himself (so folks can make up their own minds rather than simply be told what to believe), and summaries of historians.

The article below is part of my book on the Reformation (still under construction). The chapter in question covers everything about the Peasant Revolt of 1524, which Catholic apologists use to defame Luther and Protestantism.

I don’t. I simply do research to determine the historical truth of the matter. As seen above, my view is nuanced and not simplistic. But there is a virtual consensus among historians that Luther bore some blame for what happened, because his several outrageous, inflammatory comments that were widely circulated at the time.

As we clearly see, the peasant revolt was not an event that came out of nowhere instigated by a Protestant “religious novelty”. On the contrary, it concerned a larger problem that had been going on for centuries, and that was only getting worse and worse, like a bladder that gets closer and closer to bursting the more it fills with air. Just to take into account the peasant revolts in Germany in the years leading up to the Reformation, before Luther preached any thesis in Wittenberg or was excommunicated by a pope, there were riots in 1493, 1502, 1513, and 1517 – all of them. before the Peasants’ War of 1524

I basically agree. But the Protestant movement and Luther’s rhetoric — to some extent — exacerbated it or put more “gasoline on the flames” so to speak.

Cases like this are hardly or never remembered by Catholic apologetics, which is exclusively interested in exploring the Peasants’ War of 1524, just because they dishonestly think they make some profit out of it by associating this particular revolt with Luther and the Protestants and thus trying to tarnish the Reformation.

I just did remember it by agreeing with historians and Lucas’ general account, didn’t I? So I’m not what Lucas perceives (rightly or wrongly) to be the typical Catholic apologist.

[Lucas continues on detailing all kinds of revolts of peasants, going all the way back to Spartacus in 73 BC, and in Catholic countries after Protestantism arose (e.g., in France many times during the 17th century. I have no reason to doubt his accounts of various revolts, nor of the deplorable conditions that peasants everywhere usually lived in. None of this affects my own opinion of Luther’s relationship to the revolt of 1524-1525, and none of it is an “issue” that I would disagree with, excepting Lucas’ expected jaded view of the Catholic Church’s treatment of the poor]

Lucas continues his argumentation in his book, 500 Years of the Reformation: How Protestantism Revolutionized the World (Vol. 1: 2018), which he graciously offers on his blog as a free PDF. It appears in chapter 3: pages 84-140.

The general tenor of his analysis is to blame the Catholic Church for the condition of the peasants. On one hand, he objects to any broad connecting of Protestantism to the revolt (and I agree), but on the other hand he wants to blame Catholicism for it (thus committing the same error he chides us for committing). Neither is a fair portrayal. If there is anti-Protestant bias in Catholic accounts and among despised Catholic apologists (real or imagined), by the same token there is anti-Catholic bias in his account. I submit that we need to get beyond both prejudiced mentalities and simply examine the facts, with the help of scholars who don’t have an “agenda” one way or the other.

Lucas finally gets around to citing Luther writing to the German princes, on page 112 of his book (rightly noting that he sided with the peasants and their grievances at first):

There is so much equity in some of the twelve articles of the peasants, that they are a dishonor to you before God and the world; cover princes with shame, as Psalm 108 says. [I have] even more serious things to say to you with regard to the government of Germany, and I have already referred to you in my book dedicated to the German nobility. But you did not care for my words, and now all these complaints rain down on you. You must not ignore the their request for permission to choose pastors who preach the gospel; and it is up to the government alone to prevent the insurrection and rebellion from being preached; but there must be perfect freedom to preach both the true and the false gospel. The remaining articles, which deal with the social status of the peasant, are equally just. Governments are not established for their own interest, nor to make the people subservient caprices and evil passions, but to watch over the interests of the people. Your exactions are intolerable; you take from the peasant the fruit of his labor so that you may support your luxury and your pleasures. 

What Lucas doesn’t cite are the following words of Luther to the princes in early May 1525:

For you ought to know, dear lords, that God is doing this because this raging of yours cannot and will not and ought not be endured for long. You must become different men and yield to God’s Word. If you do not do this amicably and willingly, then you will be compelled to it by force and destruction. If these peasants do not do it for you, others will . . . It is not the peasants, dear lords, who are resisting you; it is God Himself . . . (An Admonition to Peace: A Reply to the Twelve Articles of the Peasants in Swabia, Philadelphia edition of Luther’s works, 1930, IV, 219-244, translated by C.M. Jacobs; citations from 220-227, 230-233, 240-244; WA, XVIII, 292 ff.; EA, XXIV, 259 ff.)

Lucas writes on pages 120-121 of his book: It is evident that on Catholic apologetics websites the only part that appears, taken [out of] context, is the one that talks about “crushing, killing and bleeding” the peasants. But as is quite clear, Luther was not saying this about all the peasants, but specifically about the revolting peasants, the “hordes of murderers and looters”.

I’m an apologist, and I included all of the relevant Luther passages I could find. To prove that I cite Luther’s inflammatory words and conciliatory words, I set up a color-coded system in my original 2003 paper, which worked as follows:

Red = “inflammatory, violent” statements of Luther (not intended on my part to imply in any way, shape, or form that he was necessarily calling for literal violence, but rather, to highlight remarks which were of a nature that arguably, understandably could easily be interpreted — even if wrongly — as advocating violence and insurrection of the sort characteristic of the Peasants’ Revolt)

Blue = statements of Luther indicating his fundamental opposition to insurrection of the non-governmental masses and resort to physical violence for spiritual or ecclesiastical ends and goals

As readers can readily observe in my Part I, there is plenty of blue text: perhaps as much as the red text, and often in the same writing of Luther. It was a very mixed bag. But I present it all: good, bad, and in-between. The problem with Lucas’ analysis is that he places his overwhelming emphasis on Luther’s words that I provide in blue-colored font (his “conciliatory” / “peaceable” words), while ignoring virtually all of the explosive rhetoric that came from Luther in the years leading up to the revolt, and which was certainly inspirational to many of the leaders of the peasants.

This is a thoroughly slanted and one-sided revisionist version of what actually occurred. Lucas presents Luther as a virtual saint, according to his agenda. I present him as the brilliant but highly flawed and contradictory person that he actually was. By providing my readers with a much fuller picture, they can see clearly how and why it is that many peasants felt that Luther was goading them on and encouraging the revolt (though they misinterpreted or exaggerated a lot of what he wrote).

Most of those who today accuse Luther in the comfort of their own homes and behind a computer would not have the courage to expose themselves to this [level of intervention] in order to seek peace in one’s own homeland. It would have been much easier to have omitted, hidden or previously suggested a massacre, than risk one’s life seeking a friendly conciliation, even after other attempts had already failed. When we analyze the peasants’ revolt in a responsible and honest way, we conclude that, far from tarnishing the Reformation or the reformers, it highlights how much Protestantism was not a “revolutionary” element in the worst sense of the term – that of the armed social revolution, which Luther opposed consistently throughout the entire process. The former Augustinian monk did not hesitate to oppose an armed revolt against the authorities “for God’s sake instituted” (Rom 13:1). (p. 125)

Shortly I will post Luther’s earlier incendiary rhetoric (that is, the great deal of relevant writing that Lucas chose to ignore and omit from his one-sided account) and let readers judge how much responsibility he bore for the revolt. It seems that Lucas feels he has to cover up what is unsavory in Luther. I feel no such need. I approach the topic as an amateur historian, and present Luther “warts and all”; not hesitating to agree with the usual Protestant “favorable” opinion of Luther, either, when the facts warrant it.

If I do say so myself, my treatment of this subject (in my original paper) is clearly far more balanced and comprehensive than Lucas’ treatment. If one seeks all of the facts (not just a Protestant-slanted or Catholic slanted perspective), my two-part article will provide it. And it’s true that strong bias is present in both camps. Catholics on the whole are far too negative against Luther, but Protestants are far too positive, and see him through rosy-colored glasses. I try to avoid both errors and to be as accurate, fair, and balanced as possible. I seek to be ecumenical, as well as to be an apologist. The first endeavor is rejoicing in what we can agree on; the second is defending our view when others disagree with it. Both are necessary and important.

In fact, when I wrote my 2008 book, Martin Luther: Catholic Critical Analysis and Praise, the final 83 pages (out of 258, or just a little under one-third) were devoted to “praise and agreement” with Luther. And when I did my second book, The “Catholic” Luther: An Ecumenical Collection of His “Traditional” Utterances (2014), it was comprised entirely of Luther’s words that Catholics would agree with. So by no means am I “anti-Luther” in a knee-jerk fashion. I “call it as I see it”: the good and the bad. I did the same with John Calvin, too, in my book, Biblical Catholic Answers for John Calvin (2010). The final 66 pages were devoted to “agreement” with Catholics. It was a lower proportion (out of 388, or 17%), but then, Calvin agreed with Catholics a lot less than Luther did.

The overwhelming majority of these slanderers have never read a book by Luther in their lifetime . . . (p. 128)

Just for the record, I possess in hardcover, the standard 55-volume set Luther’s Works in English (which set sits “proudly” in a bookshelf in one corner of my living room), as well as many other primary works and books about Luther.

Fortunately, some scholars with more patience than Job have refuted one-by-one the slanders and invective against the Protestant reformer. Among them stands out James Swan, a great Luther scholar, whose website has hundreds of such articles refuting the most diverse defamations.

I’ve been interacting with him off and on since 2003. He’s not a scholar in the usual sense of the word (academic / professor), but an amateur researcher with a philosophy degree. He does a lot of good work correcting errors, but he is also thoroughly biased and anti-Catholic (and also quite the insulter towards those who disagree: as I well know). Readers can consult my several dozen refutations of his work by searching “Swan” on my Anti-Catholicism web page.

Among them, we can mention here the legend of Luther’s “suicide” (refuted even in Catholic sources), accusations of that Christ had committed adultery, that Luther took James and other books from the canon, that he was drunk, that he was the forerunner of Hitler, that he instigated to sin, that he was an occultist, polygamist, murderer, Bible forger, demoniac and even (amazingly) who returned to Catholicism before he died! All these defamations and slanders that are widely disseminated on Catholic apologetics have already been refuted by both Swan and many others, whose point-by-point thematic refutation is available in two tables in articles from my site. (p. 128)

I agree that all of these charges are false and slanderous. I have written articles defending him against the adultery charge, have dealt with the false accusation that he removed the book of James, and have defended him in various ways when he is wrongly attacked.

On page 132, Lucas claims that Catholic Luther biographer Hartmann Grisar (1845-1932) lied about Luther being a manic-depressive (today usually called bipolar disorder). Many Protestant or otherwise non-Catholic historians agree that Luther — at the very least — suffered from severe recurring depression, if not bipolar disorder. I detailed this in my paper, Did Luther Suffer from Recurring Depression? [7-4-07]. I wrote in that article:

I cited the very eminent Protestant Luther historians Heiko A. Oberman, (citing Luther’s own description of an acute crisis in 1527-1528: “I have known these tribulations since my youth; but I never expected that they would so increase”), David C. Steinmetz (“Luther continued to suffer periods of severe spiritual anxiety”), and Roland Bainton (“[T]he recognition is inescapable that he had persistent maladies . . . The recurrence of these depressions raises for us again the question whether they may have had some physical basis . . . His whole life was a struggle against them, a fight for faith”). . . .

I also cite in my article nine additional non-Catholic Luther biographers, including Mark U. Edwards, Martin E. Marty, and Martin Brecht. This is not a false “attack”: it’s virtually established as historical fact. And it’s not Luther’s fault. Millions suffer from serious depression: including every single person in my family (myself, my wife, four children, and two daughters-in-law) at one time or another. Thankfully, I only had a single, six-month-long episode of very deep depression, in 1977, but it was quite traumatic, so that I understand depression “from the inside.”

Lucas goes on for pages, up to the end of the chapter, citing the history of some overzealous and inaccurate Catholic critics of Luther (likely deriving his material from James Swan). This is related to the topic of the Peasants’ Revolt, I grant, but technically off of it. Anti-Catholics, with their sordid and disgraceful (and continuing) history of slanderous, ridiculous, facts-free “analysis” of Catholicism are hardly the ones to talk about historical inaccuracies regarding Luther. And Lucas is, unfortunately, in this tiny minority, fringe camp among Protestants.

Now I shall cite Luther’s own words, and then some assessments of historians and scholars. It’s but a small portion of my 63-page article (part one / part two). Anyone who wants to study the topic in depth is urged to read all of my two-part article. I am highlighting his inflammatory rhetoric, for the sake of brevity, but plenty of his conciliatory words are in the original paper. Footnotes will be at the end.

25 JUNE 1520
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It seems to me that if the Romanists are so mad the only remedy remaining is for the emperor, the kings, the princes to gird themselves with force of arms to attack these pests of all the world and fight them, not with words, but with steel. If we punish thieves with the yoke, highwaymen with the sword, and heretics with fire, why do we not rather assault these monsters of perdition, these cardinals, these popes, and the whole swarm of the Roman Sodom, who corrupt youth and the Church of God? Why do we not rather assault them with arms and wash our hands in their blood? (Bainton, 115; Carroll, 1; WA, VI, 347; EA, II, 107; PE, IV, 203; in reply to arguments of the Dominican Sylvester Prierias, Master of the Sacred Palace at Rome; On the Pope as an Infallible Teacher, or On the Papacy at Rome. Schaff gives its Latin title as De juridica et irrefragabili veritate Romanae Ecclesiae Romanique Pontificis)

4 DECEMBER 1520
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Janssen (III, 136) noted how Luther’s friend, the minor “reformer” Wolfgang Capito, wisely and prophetically warned Luther on on this date about his bone-chilling invective: “You are frightening away from you your supporters by your constant reference to troops and arms. We can easily enough throw everything into confusion, but it will not be in our power, believe me, to restore things to peace and order.”

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MARCH 1521

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Emser lies again when he says that I wish the laity might wash their hands in the blood of the priests [see 25 June 1520, above] . . . I wrote against Sylvester per contentionem [footnote: “A term in rhetoric meaning a contrasting of one thought with another”], as this noble poet and rhetorician well knows; I said, if heretics are to be burned, why not rather attack the pope and his adherents with the sword and wash our hands in their blood, if he teaches what Sylvester writes, namely, that the Holy Scriptures derive their authority from the pope. And since I do not approve of burning the heretics, I likewise do not approve of killing any Christian. I know very well that it is not in accord with the Gospel. I simply showed what they deserved if heretics deserve to be burned. It is not at all necessary to attack you with the sword . . . your tactics with your burnings and bans, your raging and raving against the plain truth, look as if you were eager to stir up another Bohemian episode and bring about the fulfillment of the prophecy which is going the rounds that the priests are to be slain. If such destruction should come upon you, you must not blame me — just keep on, the road you are on leads right to it . . . I hope you realize that no one shall destroy the pope but yourselves, even his own creatures, as the prophet has said.

But tell me, dear Emser, since you dare to put it down on paper that it is right and necessary to burn heretics and think that this does not soil your hands with Christian blood, why should it not also be right to take you, Sylvester, the pope, and all your adherents and put you to a most shameful death? Since you dare to publish a doctrine that is not only heretical but antichristian, which all the devils would not venture to utter — that the Gospel must be confirmed by the pope, that its authority is bound up with the pope’s authority, and that what is done by the pope is done by the church. What heretic has ever thus at one stroke condemned and destroyed God’s Word? Therefore I still declare and maintain that, if heretics deserve the stake, you and the pope ought to be put to death a thousand times. But I would not have it done. Your judge is not far off, He will find you without fail and without delay.

. . . what would become of the papacy . . . ? Christ Himself must abolish it by coming with the final judgment; nothing else will avail. (Dr. Martin Luther’s Answer to the Superchristian, Superspiritual, and Superlearned Book of Goat Emser of Leipzig, With a Glance at His Comrade Murner, PE, III, 307-401, translated by A. Steimle; citations from 343-344, 366)

MID-DECEMBER 1521
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Now it seems probable that there is danger of an insurrection, and that priests, monks, bishops, and the entire spiritual estate may be murdered or driven into exile, unless they seriously and thoroughly reform themselves. For the common man . . . is neither able nor willing to endure it longer, and would indeed have good reason to lay about him with flails and cudgels, as the peasants are threatening to do . . .

Now, I am not at all displeased to hear that the clergy are brought to such a state of fear and anxiety. Perhaps they will come to their senses and moderate their mad tyranny. Would to God their terror and fear were even greater. But I feel quite confident, and have no fear whatever that there will be an insurrection, at least one that would be general and affect all the clergy . . .

. . . any man who can and will may threaten and frighten them, that the Scriptures may be fulfilled, which say of such evil doers, in Psalm xxxvi, “Their iniquity is made manifest that men may hate them” . . .

According to the Scriptures such fear and anxiety come upon the enemies of God as the beginning of their destruction. Therefore it is right, and pleases me well, that this punishment is beginning to be felt by the papists who persecute and condemn the divine truth. They shall soon suffer more keenly . . . Already an unspeakable severity and anger without limit has begun to break upon them. The heaven is iron, the earth is brass. No prayers can save them now. Wrath, as Paul says of the Jews, is come upon them to the uttermost. God’s purposes demand far more than an insurrection. As a whole they are beyond the reach of help . . . The Scriptures have foretold for the pope and his followers an end far worse than bodily death and insurrection . . .

These texts [having cited Dan 8:25, 2 Thess 2:8, Is 11:4, Ps 10:15] teach us how both the pope and his antichristian government shall be destroyed . . .

If once the truth is recognized and made known, pope, priests, monks, and the whole papacy will end in shame and disgrace . . .

. . . these texts [2 Thess 2:8, 1 Thess 5:3] have made me certain that the papacy and the spiritual estate will not be destroyed by the hand of man, nor by insurrection. Their wickedness is so horrible that nothing but a direct manifestation of the wrath of God itself, without any intermediary whatever, will be punishment sufficient for them. And therefore I have never yet let men persuade me to oppose those who threaten to use hands and flails. . . .

[I]nsurrection is an unprofitable method of procedure, and never results in the desired reformation. For insurrection is devoid of reason and generally hurts the innocent more than the guilty. Hence no insurrection is ever right, no matter how good the cause in whose interest it is made. The harm resulting from it always exceeds the amount of reformation accomplished.

. . . My sympathies are and always will be with those against whom insurrection is made, however wrong the cause they stand for . . . God has forbidden insurrection . . . insurrection is nothing else than being one’s own judge and avenger, and that God cannot endure . . . God will have nothing to do with it . . . (An Earnest Exhortation for all Christians, Warning Them Against Insurrection and Rebellion, PE, III, 201-222, translated by W.A. Lambert, citations from pp. 206-213, 215-216; also in LW, vol. 45, 57-74 [revised translation by Walther I. Brandt]; WA, VIII, 676-687, EA, XXII, 44-59)

Preserved Smith (p. 137): “It may be doubted whether this pamphlet was expressed in really prudent terms, and whether it would not be more likely to excite discontent than to allay it.”

4 JULY 1522

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But if they say that one should beware of rebelling against spiritual authority, I answer: Should God’s word be dispensed with and the whole world perish? Is it right that all souls should be killed eternally so that the temporal show of these masks is left in peace? It would be better to kill all bishops and to annihilate all religious foundations and monasteries than to let a single soul perish, not to mention losing all souls for the sake of these useless dummies and idols. What good are they, except to live in lust from the sweat and labor of others and to impede the word of God? They are afraid of physical rebellion and do not care about spiritual destruction. Are they not intelligent, honest people! If they accepted God’s word and sought the life of the soul, God would be with them, since he is a God of peace. Then there would be no fear of rebellion. But if they refuse to hear God’s word and rather rage and rave with banning, burning, killing, and all evil, what could be better for them than to encounter a strong rebellion which exterminates them from the world? One could only laugh if it did happen, as the divine wisdom says, Proverbs 1[:25–27], “You have hated my punishment and misused my teaching; therefore I will laugh at your calamity and I will mock you when disaster strikes. (Against the Spiritual Estate of the Pope and the Bishops Falsely So-Called; LW, vol. 39, 239-299; translated by Eric W. and Ruth C. Gritsch. Quotation from pp. 252-253; WA, vol. 28, 142-201)

Will Durant (p. 377) noted: “he branded the prelates as the ‘biggest wolves’ of all, and called upon all good Germans to drive them out by force.”

1523

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All those who work toward this end and who risk body, property, and honor that the bishoprics may be destroyed and the episcopal government rooted out are God’s dear children and true Christians. They keep God’s commandment and fight against the devil’s order. Or, if they cannot do this, at least they condemn and avoid such a government. On the other hand, all those who obey the government of the bishops and subject themselves to it in willing obedience are the devil’s own servants and fight against God’s order and law . . .

Here you stand against St. Paul, against the Holy Spirit; and the Holy Spirit stands against you. What will you say now? Or have you become dumb? Here you have your verdict: all the world must destroy you and your government. Whoever stands on your side falls under God’s disfavor; whoever destroys you stands in God’s favor.

By no means do I want such destruction and extinction to be understood in the sense of using the fist and the sword, for they are not worthy of such punishment—and nothing is achieved in this way. Rather, as Daniel 8[:25] teaches, “by no human hand” shall the Antichrist be destroyed. Everyone should speak, teach, and stand against him with God’s word until he is put to shame and collapses, completely alone and even despising himself. This is true Christian destruction and every effort should be made to this end . . .

Since it is clear, then . . . that the bishops are not only masks and idols but also an accursed people before God — rising up against God’s order to destroy the gospel and ruin souls — every Christian should help with his body and property to put an end to their tyranny. One should cheerfully do everything possible against them, just as though they were the devil himself. One should trample obedience to them just as though it were obedience to the devil; . . . (Doctor Luther’s Bull and Reformation, LW, vol. 39, 278-283; translated by Eric W. and Ruth C. Gritsch. Published in LW as part of Against the Spiritual Estate of the Pope and the Bishops Falsely So-Called; but originally published separately in two special editions in 1523, in Erfurt and Augsburg, entitled, The Bull of the Ecclesiastic in Wittenberg Against the Papal Bishops, Granting God’s Grace and Merit to All who Keep and Obey It; WA, X-11, 98-158; citations from 278-280, 283)

SPRING 1523
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Who does not see that all bishops, foundations, monastic houses, universities, with all that are therein, rage against this clear word of Christ . . .? Hence they are certainly to be regarded as murderers, thieves, wolves and apostate Christians . . .

For this thing alone they have richly deserved to be cast out of the Christian Church and driven forth as wolves, thieves and murderers . . .

. . . where there is a Christian congregation which has the Gospel, it not only has the right and power, but is in duty bound . . . under pain of forfeiting its salvation, to shun, to flee, to put down, to withdraw from, the authority which our bishops, abbots, monastic houses, foundations, and the like exercise today . . . (The Right and Power of a Christian Congregation or Community to Judge all Teaching and to Call, Appoint, and Dismiss Teachers, Established and Proved From Scripture, PE, IV, 75-85, translated by A.T.W. Steinhaeuser; WA, XI, 406 ff.; EA, XXII, 141 ff.; citations from 75-79)

EARLY MAY 1525

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To the Princes and Lords

We have no one on earth to thank for this mischievous rebellion, except you princes and lords; and especially you blind bishops and mad priests and monks . . .

. . . since you are the cause of this wrath of God, it will undoubtedly come upon you, if you do not mend your ways in time. . . the peasants are mustering, and this must result in the ruin, destruction, and desolation of Germany by cruel murder and bloodshed, unless God shall be moved by our repentance to prevent it.

For you ought to know, dear lords, that God is doing this because this raging of yours cannot and will not and ought not be endured for long. You must become different men and yield to God’s Word. If you do not do this amicably and willingly, then you will be compelled to it by force and destruction. If these peasants do not do it for you, others will . . . It is not the peasants, dear lords, who are resisting you; it is God Himself . . . There are some of you who have said that they will stake land and people on the extirpation of Lutheran teaching . . .

To the Peasants

. . . “He who takes the sword shall perish by the sword.” That means nothing else than that no one, by his own violence, shall arrogate authority to himself; but as Paul says, “Let every soul be subject to the higher powers with fear and reverence” . . .

The fact that the rulers are wicked and unjust does not excuse tumult and rebellion, for to punish wickedness does not belong to everybody, but to the worldly rulers who bear the sword . . .

. . . you do much more wrong when you not only suppress God’s word, but tread it under foot, and invade His authority and His law, and put yourselves above God . . . (An Admonition to Peace: A Reply to the Twelve Articles of the Peasants in Swabia, PE, IV, 219-244, translated by C.M. Jacobs; citations from 220-227, 230-233, 240-244; WA, XVIII, 292 ff.; EA, XXIV, 259 ff.)

C.M. Jacobs (translator and editor, PE, IV, 206): “The Peasants’ War . . . was intimately connected with the Reformation. The teaching of Luther had been taken up eagerly by the lower classes, but they gave it an interpretation that Luther had never intended it to have.”

Roland Bainton

During that summer of 1520, when the papal bull was seeking him throughout Germany, his mood fluctuated between the incendiary and the apocalyptic. In one unguarded outburst he incited to violence. A new attack by Prierias lashed Luther to rage. (Bainton, 115; see remarks of 25 June 1520 above)

His attitude on monasticism likewise admirably suited peasant covetousness for the spoliation of cloisters. The peasants with good reason felt themselves strongly drawn to Luther.

. . . a complete dissociation of the reform from the Peasants’ War is not defensible . . . Luther was regarded as a friend. When some of the peasants were asked to name persons whom they would accept as arbiters, the first name on the list was that of Martin Luther. (Bainton, 209-210, 211)

[T]he Catholic princes held Luther responsible for the whole outbreak, and color was lent to the charge by the participation on the peasants’ side of hundreds of Lutheran ministers, whether voluntarily or under constraint. (Bainton, 221)

Philip Schaff

The Reformation, with its attacks upon the papal tyranny, its proclamation of the supremacy of the Bible, of Christian freedom, and the general priesthood of the laity, gave fresh impulse and new direction to the rebellious disposition. Traveling preachers and fugitive tracts stirred up discontent. The peasants mistook spiritual liberty for carnal license. They appealed to the Bible and to Dr. Luther in support of their grievances. They looked exclusively at the democratic element in the New Testament, and turned it against the oppressive rule of the Romish hierarchy and the feudal aristocracy. They identified their cause with the restoration of pure Christianity . . . . (Schaff, Vol. VII, §75, “The Peasants’ War: 1523-1525”)

Will Durant

A Catholic humanist, Johannes Cochlaeus, warned Luther (1523) that “the populace in the towns, and the peasants in the provinces, will inevitably rise in rebellion . . . They are poisoned by the innumerable abusive pamphlets and speeches that are printed and declaimed among them against both papal and secular authority.” Luther, the preachers, and the pamphleteers were not the cause of the revolt; the causes were the just grievances of the peasantry. But it could be argued that the gospel of Luther and his more radical followers “poured oil on the flames,” and turned the resentment of the oppressed into utopian delusions, uncalculated violence, and passionate revenge. (Durant, 383; citing Janssen, III, 342 and Cambridge Modern History, 12 volumes, New York, 1907 f., II, 177)

[T]he peasants had a case against him. He had not only predicted social revolution, he had said he would not be displeased by it, he would greet it with a smile, even if men washed their hands in episcopal blood. He too had made a revolution, had endangered social order, had flouted an authority not less divine than the state’s. He had made no protest against the secular appropriation of ecclesiastical property. How otherwise than by force could peasants better their lot when ballots were forbidden them, and their oppressors daily wielded force? The peasants felt that the new religion had sanctified their cause, had aroused them to hope and action, and had deserted them in the hour of decision. Some of them, in angry despair, became cynical atheists. Many of them, or their children, shepherded by Jesuits, returned to the Catholic fold. Some of them followed the radicals whom Luther had condemned . . . (Durant, 394-395)

Owen Chadwick

Though he was well aware that his pen ran away with him, and sometimes regretted it, his simple and enclosed upbringing prevented him from realizing the effect of violent language upon simple minds. Luther, not an extremist, often sounded like an extremist. He imagined a brave citizen meeting a ravening peasant with sword in hand, and had no idea that his language could encourage men to perpetuate outrages on defenceless peasants.

Everyone who hated Roman or clerical power had gathered round him, and not every German who hated Rome was moved by the principles and the motives of Luther . . . But for a few years he was the voice of a German self-consciousness. Round Luther’s cry for religious reformation gathered men who wanted other things besides religious reformation. (Chadwick, 61)

Joseph Lortz (Catholic)

A complex, much-entangled dependence connects the resort to arms on the part of the peasants with the Reformation . . . the reforming teachings endowed each revolutionary insurrection with welcome beginnings in certain fundamentals . . .

The most significant single demonstration of the connection between peasant upheaval and Reformation is the Twelve Articles of the Peasants in Swabia . . . It was essentially religious; indeed it found its origin in the Bible . . . It was essential for outward propaganda as well as for inner procedure that all demands appear to be consecrated by higher Christian ideals . . .

Should it be, it says in the twelfth article, that one or more articles is not verified in the Word of God and if such be demonstrable on the basis of Scripture, then they will relinquish it . . . A moving, naive, Utopian confidence! . . .

Justification of their claims in the reforming doctrine is the first significant misunderstanding in world history of Luther’s views. But the term misconception applies only with a certain constraint. Luther loosed a revolutionary storm against the special status of the clergy . . . Had he not injected this irresponsible tone into the atmosphere? . . . One cannot so defiantly and dauntlessly use provocative force to demolish the old church without having some of the socially oppressed drawing conclusions in the manner of the peasants. Such teachings were destined to become far more an impulse to insurrection in an atmosphere of total hatred, unbridled criticism and demagogic excitement. From destroying images it was not far to destroying monasteries . . .

In addition there is the matter of the frightful attacks against the princes Luther presumed to make in writings of 1523 and 1524. These adversaries were painted as raging, mad fools in that God’s wrath is being laid over them, in that the people would not have been a people were it not to have elevated its just complaints even to energetic and tumultuous resort to arms. Luther’s outburst of hatred — inescapable even in sermons — against one and every worldly authority not of his mind could only result in weakening authority in general. The new Gospel created a sort of mass consciousness among all the discontented . . . without that mass awareness the peasants scarcely would have evolved even the unity they did. (“Reformation and Peasant Rebellion as Phenomena of Change,” in Sessions, 9-16; from Die Reformation in Deutschland, Freiburg: Herder, 1962; citation from 11-12,14-15)

Johannes Janssen (Catholic)

Had Luther and his followers never appeared on the scene, the spirit of discontent and insubordination, which had gained ground everywhere among the common people, would still have produced fresh tumult and sedition in the towns and provinces. But it was the special condition of things brought about — or rather developed — by the religious disturbances, which gave this revolution its characteristics of universality and inhuman atrocity . . .

Maurenbrecher (Katholische Reformation, i. 257) says frankly: “It is not true historical criticism, but a mere apologetic argument, based on false observation, which aims at disproving the fact that Luther’s evangelical preaching enormously augmented and ripened to its crisis the social agitation which had been going on in the lower strata of the nation from the beginning of the fifteenth century.” (Janssen, IV, 143-145; from Sessions, 47)

Hartmann Grisar, S.J. (Catholic)

[T]hese insurrections derived their impetus from the Lutheran ideas and slogans which had permeated the masses. It would be unhistorical to throw the entire responsibility for the gigantic movement upon Luther. Nevertheless, it cannot be gainsaid that the ideas and preachers of the new movement were intimately connected with it. The doctrine of evangelical liberty played the principal role.

In most districts the rebellious peasants . . . demanded absolute liberty to change their religion, or at least confiscation of church property and the cessation of clerical privileges . . . How often had not Luther himself summoned his followers to destroy the churches, monasteries, and dioceses of Antichrist. True he desired this to be done by the authorities, but the peasants felt that they were the authorities. Then, too, without mentioning the authorities, he repeatedly pointed out, in his violent and inconsiderate language, that an insurrection of the masses was inevitable. It appeared to the peasants that their hour for acting had now arrived. (Grisar [1], 279-280)

One of the most esteemed historians of this phase of the Reformation, Fr. von Bezold . . . [wrote] “How else but in a material sense was the plain man to interpret Luther’s proclamation of Christian freedom and his extravagant strictures on the parsons and nobles?” . . . He wonders “how he could expect the German nation at that time to hearken to such inflammatory language from the mouth of its ‘evangelist’ and “Elias’ and, nevertheless, to refuse to permit themselves to be swept beyond the bounds of legality and order.” However, like other historians who are favorable to Luther, Von Bezold sees an excuse in the latter’s “ignorance of the ways of the world and the grandiose one-sidedness,”which supposedly “attaches to an individual who is filled and actuated exclusively by religious interests.” (Grisar [1], 285; from Bezold, Geschichte der deutschen Reformation, Berlin, 1890, 447)

No one . . . will be so foolish to believe that it was really his intention to kill the Catholic clergy and monks. His bloodthirsty demands were but the violent outbursts of his own deep inward intolerance. (Grisar [2], VI, 247)

But who was it who was responsible for having provoked the war? Occasional counsels to . . . self-restraint . . . were indeed given by Luther from time to time . . . but . . . they are drowned in the din of his controversial invective. (Grisar [2], VI, 248)

James Mackinnon

To threaten the princes with the wrath of God was all very well, but such a threat would have no effect in remedying the peasants’ grievances, and they might well argue that God had chosen them, as he practically admitted, to be the effective agents of His wrath . . . (“Luther Shows His True Colors,” in Sessions, 50-54; from Luther and the Reformation, New York: Russell and Russell, 1962, III, 201-210; citation from p. 51)

Kyle C. Sessions

Luther’s revolt injected enormous impetus into a multitude of other forces of change already at work. In varying degrees the persons demanding alterations sought to identify their aspirations with those of Luther . . .

The Lutheran Reformation was deeply involved with the Peasants’ Revolt. Luther’s teachings resonated in the grievances of the rebels and Luther’s position contributed importantly to immediate events and final results . . .

The eagerness of the German peasants to embrace the Lutheran movement makes it clear that in some manner they identified their protests with the protest of Luther and their efforts for reform with those undertaken by him. (Sessions, “Introduction,” viii, xi, xiii)

R.H. Murray

His Gospel of Christian liberty proved a mighty solvent. For the spiritual freedom which he taught, multitudes substituted freedom from political oppression, from social injustice and from economic burdens . . .

The fates of theories are strange, and if the father of one of them could see the developments of some of his children he would stand aghast . . . the Anabaptist application of Luther’s was simply more thorough. The revolutionary drew back in horror. (“Political Consequences of Luther’s Doctrines of Religious Freedom,” in Sessions, 55-59; from The Political Consequences of the Reformation; Studies in Sixteenth-Century Political Thought, New York: Russell & Russell, 1960; citation from p. 58)

Preserved Smith

Luther, indeed, could honestly say that he had consistently preached the duty of obedience and the wickedness of sedition, nevertheless his democratic message of the brotherhood of man and the excellence of the humblest Christian worked in many ways undreamt of by himself. Moreover, he had mightily championed the cause of the oppressed commoner against his masters. “The people neither can nor will endure your tyranny any longer,” said he to the nobles; “God will not endure it; the world is not what it once was when you drove and hunted men like wild beasts.” (Smith, 157)

[G]enerally the peasants assume that they are acting in accordance with the new “gospel” of Luther . . . Above all they appealed to the Bible as the divine law, and demanded a religious reform as a condition and preliminary to a thorough renovation of society. Although Luther himself from the beginning opposed all forms of violence, his clarion voice rang out in protest against the injustice of the nobles. (Smith [2], 80, 79)

From his own day to the present he has been reproached with cruelty to the poor people who were partly misguided by what they believed to be his voice. And yet, much as the admirers of Luther must and do regret his terrible violence of expression, the impartial historian can hardly doubt that in substance he was right. No government in the world could have allowed rebellion to go unpunished; no sane man could believe that any argument but arms would have availed. Luther first tried the way of peace, he then risked his life preaching against the rising; finally he urged the use of the sword as the ultima ratio. He was right to do so, though he put himself in the wrong by his immoderate zeal. It would have been more becoming for Luther, the peasant and the hero of the peasants, had he shown greater sympathy with their cause and more mercy. Had he done so his name would have escaped the charge of cruelty with which it is now stained. (Smith, 166-167)

H.G. Koenigsberger

Only someone of Luther’s own naive singleness of mind could imagine that his inflammatory attacks on one of the great pillars of the established order would not be interpreted as an attack on the whole social order, or on that part of it which it suited different interests, from princes to peasants, to attack. Indeed, if this had not been so, Luther’s Reformation could not possibly have been as successful as it actually was. The first to interpret Luther’s writings as a signal for revolution were, however, not the peasants but the imperial knights . . . To them, Luther’s pamphlet addressed to the German nobility seemed a clarion call against the hated power of the princes and the Church . . .

Luther’s little tract on The Freedom of a Christian Man was interpreted — misinterpreted, so Luther thought — as an attack on all serfdom . . .

They wanted their traditional rights, and Luther and Zwingli seemed to have made their demands even more respectable by apparently giving them the sanction of Scripture . . . The peasants plundered and burnt monasteries and castles; but only on one occasion did they massacre the defenders of a castle, Weinsberg, after they had surrendered. The massacres of the Peasants’ War were nearly all perpetrated by the other side. (“The Reformation and Social Revolution,” 83-94 in Hurstfield; citations from 87-89)

Harold J. Grimm

Lutheranism also aroused considerable hope among the peasants. Their leaders soon translated religious demands for freedom, the Word of God, and divine justice into social terms, despite Luther’s warning against such action . . .

There is no doubt that Luther’s doctrines did much to raise the economic hopes of those classes not represented in the city councils, above all of the guildsmen, despite the fact that such a support was the furthest from Luther’s mind . . .

We know for certain . . . that the Reformation provided many people in all classes with a dynamic hope that their difficulties could be solved. It is reasonable to assume that Reformation doctrines, ideas, and slogans were applied to individual class interests. (“Social Forces in the German Reformation,” 85-97 in Spitz; citations from 91, 95-97)

Footnotes

WA = Weimar Ausgabe edition of Luther’s Works (Werke) in German, 1883. “Br.” = correspondence.

EA = Erlangen Ausgabe edition of Luther’s Works (Werke) in German, 1868, 67 volumes.

LW = Luther’s Works, American edition, edited by Jaroslav Pelikan (vols. 1-30) and Helmut T. Lehmann (vols. 31-55), St. Louis: Concordia Pub. House (vols. 1-30); Philadelphia: Fortress Press (vols. 31-55), 1955.

PE = Luther’s Works, Philadelphia edition (6 volumes), edited and translated by C.M. Jacobs and A.T.W. Steinhaeuser et al, A.J. Holman Co., The Castle Press, and Muhlenberg Press, 1932.

LL = Luther’s Letters (German), edited by M. De Wette, Berlin: 1828

Bainton, Roland, Here I Stand [online], New York: Mentor Books, 1950.

Carroll, Warren H. (Catholic), The Cleaving of Christendom, Front Royal, Virginia: Christendom Press, 2000 (Vol. 4 of A History of Christendom).

Chadwick, Owen, The Reformation, New York: Penguin Books, revised edition, 1972.

Durant, Will, The Reformation, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957 (volume 6 of the 10 volume work, The Story of Civilization, 1967).

Grisar, Hartmann (Catholic) [1], Martin Luther: His Life and Work, translated from the 2nd German edition by Frank J. Eble, Westminster, Maryland: The Newman Press, 1950; originally 1930.

Grisar, Hartmann [2], Luther [online: Vol. I / Vol. II / Vol. III / Vol. IV / Vol. V / Vol. VI], translated by E.M. Lamond, edited by Luigi Cappadelta, 6 volumes, London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1915.

Hurstfield, Joel, editor, The Reformation Crisis, New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1966.

Janssen, Johannes (Catholic), History of the German People From the Close of the Middle Ages, 16
volumes, translated by A. M. Christie, St. Louis: B. Herder, 1910; originally 1891.

McGrath, Alister E., Reformation Thought: An Introduction, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 2nd edition, 1993.

O’Connor, Henry (Catholic), Luther’s Own Statements, New York: Benziger Bros., 3rd ed., 1884.

Rupp, Gordon, Luther’s Progress to the Diet of Worms, New York: Harper & Row, Torchbook edition, 1964.

Schaff, Philip, History of the Christian Church, New York: Charles Scribner’s sons, 1910, 7 volumes; available online.

Sessions, Kyle C., editor, Reformation and Authority: The Meaning of the Peasant’s Revolt, Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath & Co., 1968.

Smith, Preserved, The Life and Letters of Martin Luther, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1911.

Smith, Preserved [2], The Reformation in Europe, New York: Collier Books, 1966 — Book I of the author’s work, The Age of the Reformation, New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1920.

Spitz, Lewis W., editor, The Reformation: Basic Interpretations, Lexington, Massachusetts: D.C. Heath & Co., 1962.

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Photo credit: Martin Luther (1526), by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

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