Luther’s “wise Turk” quote that he didn’t say

Luther’s “wise Turk” quote that he didn’t say August 31, 2012

Now that a Mormon is running for president and tends to be favored by Christian conservatives over his Christian liberal opponent, we are hearing more and more that famous quotation from Martin Luther:  “I’d rather be ruled by a wise Turk than by a foolish Christian.”  The problem is, no one has been able to find that famous quotation in any of the voluminous works of Luther.  It appears that the quotation is apocryphal.  I suspect it may have originated as an attempt to explain the implications of Luther’s doctrine of the Two Kingdoms, as in, “Luther would have rather been ruled by a wise Turk. . .” which then was recalled as “Luther said he would rather have been. . . .”  At any rate, I would love to identify the earliest occurrence of that quotation in print.  (If any of you could help with that, I would be very grateful.)

Anyway, despite his reputation as a political fatalist, Luther had quite a bit to say about foolish Christian rulers (just ask Henry VIII).  And he had a lot to say about the threat of being ruled by Turks, wise or otherwise, as the Ottoman Empire was then engaged in a major invasion of Europe, an Islamic jihad of conquest that had taken over much of Europe and that was finally turned back at the gates of Viennain 1529.

Anyway, the frequent commenter on this blog with the nom de plume of Carl Vehse has researched these issues.  Back in 2007 I posted what he put together on this blog, which, unfortunately, was when it was a sub-blog with World Magazine and so is no longer accessible.  So I think it’s time to post it again.  Carl has updated and tweaked the original article, which I post with his permission:

The Wise Turk quote

An August 26, 2012, updated version of an article located at http://web.archive.org/web/20071231154836/http://cranach.worldmagblog.com/cranach/archives/2007/02/draftthe_wise_t.html

In his January, 1997 editorial in First Things, “Under the Shadow,” Richard Neuhaus pointed out that despite the efforts he and others have made to show that Martin Luther never said, “I would rather be ruled by a wise Turk than by a foolish Christian” or anything like it (even in German), the alleged quote seems to crop up in articles, sermons, blogs, interviews, and even in testimony before a House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

The year 2012 is an election year and there are non-Christians on the presidential ballot. Thus political editorials in Christian magazines and websites, as well as the fifth-column media, are bound to repeatedly trot out this hackneyed phrase, misattributed to Martin Luther. Let’s be clear. The “wise Turk” quote is an urban legend, an old wives’ tale, just like the oft-repeated fairy tales that Luther threw an inkwell at the devil (or vice versa), or invented the Christmas tree, or that Billy Graham referred to Lutherans (or the Lutheran Church, or the Missouri Synod) as “a sleeping giant.”

This article is yet another Sisyphean attempt to drive a spike through this urban legend non-quote, and specifically to address the erroneous claim that the alleged quote is a loose paraphrase of the following excerpt from Martin Luther’s “An Open Letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation“:

“It is said that there is no better temporal rule anywhere than among the Turks, who have neither spiritual nor temporal law, but only their Koran; and we must confess that there is no more shameful rule than among us, with our spiritual and temporal law, so that there is no estate which lives according to the light of nature, still less according to Holy Scripture.”

As will be shown below the urban legend quote has absolutely nothing to do with this quoted excerpt from “An Open Letter to the Christian Nobility” and any such claimed paraphrase is quite unlikely to have been even loosely uttered (in German or Latin) by Dr. Luther elsewhere. The key points, as they should be for all phrases bandied about as being uttered by (or paraphrased from) Luther, are context, context, context.
First, some historical context – since posting his Ninety-Five Theses in 1517, Luther’s simpatico with the pope had gone noticeably downhill. The year 1520 was a busy watershed. In June, Luther attacked the papacy in his “On the Papacy in Rome,” a reply to the Franciscan Augustin von Alveld, who advocated papal supremacy. Luther then nails the pope as the Antichrist in his three famous letters later that year:

An Open Letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation”
The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, and
On Christian Liberty

In the meantime, a papal bull, “Exsurge Domine” was issued on June 15 and announced by Johann Eck in Meissen during September, giving Luther 4 months to recant or face excommunication. Luther responded by burning the papal bull in a bonfire on December 10. Pope Leo X then excommunicated Luther on January 3, 1521, in the bull, “Decet Romanum Pontificem.”

Second, “An Open Letter to the Christian Nobility” was written in June, 1520, to describe what Luther saw as the distressing conditions of the German nation under the pope and the reforms needed for correction. It has nothing to do with whether the Turks were preferable rulers to Romanist politicians. Here’s a brief outline of “An Open Letter to the Christian Nobility”:

I. THE THREE WALLS OF THE ROMANISTS

Romanists claim they are above the temporal law
Romanists claim only they may interpret Scripture
Romanists claim only the pope can call a council (to decide controversies)

II. ABUSES TO BE DISCUSSED IN COUNCILS

Romanists taxed the Germans under the guise of raising money to defend against the Turks (Islamists), but they spend it on themselves
Romanists use their canon laws to steal from the German people as much as possible.
Romanists are draining German churches and the German people of all the wealth and resources German princes and nobles need to defend the people and support the churches.

III. PROPOSALS FOR REFORM

German princes, nobles, and cities should stop giving money to Romanists and resist them.
The Germans should reform all the evils coming from the pope (the Antichrist) and Rome

1. In the practices within the German churches

2. In education and the German universities concerning

dropping the use of certain books of Aristotle
the teaching of languages, mathematics, and history (Luther gives that over to the specialists)
the teaching of medicine (Luther leaves that to the physicians)
the teaching of law (jurists)
the teaching of theology
The princes and nobles should recognize that God has given the Roman Empire to the Germans

1. Throughout history God has tossed empires to and fro

2. The pope had taken over the Roman Empire dishonestly for his own evil purpose

3. Using the wiles of the papal tyrant, God has now given the German nation control of the Roman Empire

4. This Empire should now be ruled by the Christian princes of Germany to rescue liberty, and to show the Romans, for once, what it is that German nation has received from God.

5. There is still many sinful and corrupt practices in Germany that the Christian leaders in Germany need to correct

Luther concludes his Letter: “God give us all a Christian mind, and especially to the Christian nobility of the German nation a right spiritual courage to do the best that can be done for the poor Church. Amen.”

Third, the irrelevance of the urban legend to the quoted excerpt from the “Open Letter to the Christian Nobility” can be seen by looking at the entire paragraph from the section of the Letter that appears in the section III.B.ii.d according to the Letter’s outline above.

“Since, then, the pope and his followers have suspended the whole canon law, and since they pay no heed to it, but regard their own wanton will as a law exalting them above all the world, we should follow their example and for our part also reject these books. Why should we waste our time studying them? We could never discover the whole arbitrary will of the pope, which has now become the canon law. The canon law has arisen in the devil’s name, let it fall in the name of God, and let there be no more doctores decretorum [doctors of canon law] in the world, but only doctores scrinii papalis, that is, “hypocrites of the pope”! It is said that there is no better temporal rule anywhere than among the Turks, who have neither spiritual nor temporal law, but only their Koran; and we must confess that there is no more shameful rule than among us, with our spiritual and temporal law, so that there is no estate which lives according to the light of nature, still less according to Holy Scripture.” [Emphasis added]

In this paragraph Luther charges that it is a waste of time to study canon law in the German university, since the Romanists make up their own laws as they go along. At the end of the paragraph Luther brings up in the quoted excerpt (“It is said…”) the form of Turkish (Islamist) rule, which depends only on the Koran, and compares it to the absolutely shameful mess of Romanist made-up canon laws (“spiritual laws”) and imperial laws (“temporal laws”) under which the poor Germans are now subjected.

Here Luther does not confirm he agreed with “it is said,” or that the Turks should rule in place of the pope. Luther doesn’t mean that the nobles and princes should consider appointing a Muslim or two to govern Germany. The statement serves to direct attention to the points Luther wanted to make in his subsequent paragraphs and in what he had been alluding to in the many previous paragraphs.

If I say, “It is said that Luther threw an inkwell at the devil,” or “It is said that, as a child, George Washington chopped down a cherry tree,” or “It is said that a cat has nine lives”, no one should assume (like some mistakenly have with Luther’s “It is said…”) that such a statement is true, or I believe it to be true, or I’m actually promoting it as the truth… or at least one should suspend judgment on what they think is meant until the context of what is said in any such statement is heard and understood.

The last phrase, “so that there is no estate which lives according to the light of nature, still less according to Holy Scripture,” must include both the Turkish government as well as the Romish rule Luther has castigated throughout his Letter. No one can seriously think Luther is claiming here that estates ruled by Turks according to the Koran are living according to the Holy Scriptures.

Rather than indicating a preference for rule by “wise Turks”, Luther mocks being ruled under the pope and his Romanist followers. Luther’s statement is analogous to cynically claiming, “It is said that there would be no better President than Benedict Arnold, rather than, we must confess, the shameful mess of the current politician in the Oval Office.” That Luther here was only being sarcastic is further confirmed by reading the paragraphs that follow, in which Luther indicates his real preference that “Holy Scriptures and good rulers would be law enough.”

“It seems just to me that territorial laws and territorial customs should take precedence of the general imperial laws, and the imperial laws be used only in case of necessity. Would to God that as every land has its own peculiar character, so it were ruled by its own brief laws, as the lands were ruled before these imperial laws were invented, and many lands are still ruled without them!”

And later in his Letter Luther states:
“…it [is] His will that this empire be ruled by the Christian princes of Germany, regardless whether the pope stole it, or got it by robbery, or made it anew. It is all God’s ordering, which came to pass before we knew of it.”

Not much room for (Islamic) Turkish rule (wise or other) here!!

It is therefore foolishness to rip this single sentence of Luther from its true context, isolate it from any of points Luther was actually discussing in his “Open Letter to the Christian Nobility”, and attempt to dress it up as a fabled quote or disguise it as even a very loose paraphrase”. Luther’s Two Kingdom theology certainly doesn’t need any assistance from such vaudevillian antics.

Fourth – Does the fabled quote still seem somehow Luther-esque?! Is one still claiming that Luther would not object to letting Turks take over and rule?!? So were some in Luther’s time, as he wrote at the beginning of his “On War Against the Turk” (1528):

“Certain persons have been begging me for the past five years to write about war against the Turks, and encourage our people and stir them up to it, and now that the Turk is actually approaching, my friends are compelling me to do this duty, especially since there are some stupid preachers among us Germans (as I am sorry to hear) who are making the people believe that we ought not and must not fight against the Turks. Some are even so crazy as to say that it is not proper for Christians to bear the temporal sword or to be rulers; also because our German people are such a wild and uncivilized folk that there are some who want the Turk to come and rule. All the blame for this wicked error among the people is laid on Luther and must be called ‘the fruit of my Gospel,’ just as I must bear the blame for the rebellion, and for everything bad that happens anywhere in the world.”

“For the popes had never seriously intended to make war on the Turk, but used the Turkish war as a conjurer’s hat, playing around in it, and robbing Germany of money by means of indulgences, whenever they took the notion. All the world knew it, but now it is forgotten. Thus they condemned my article not because it prevented the Turkish war, but because it tore off this conjurer’s hat and blocked the path along which the money went to Rome… If there had been a general opinion that a serious war was at hand, I could have dressed my article up better and made some distinctions….

“But what moved me most of all was this. They undertook to fight against the Turk under the name of Christ, and taught men and stirred them up to do this, as though our people were an army of Christians against the Turks, who were enemies of Christ; and this is straight against Christ’s doctrine and name. It is against His doctrine, because He says that Christians shall not resist evil, shall not fight or quarrel, not take revenge or insist on rights. It is against His name, because in such an army there are scarcely five Christians, and perhaps worse people in the eyes of God than are the Turks; and yet they would all bear the name of Christ….

“I say this not because I would teach that worldly rulers ought not be Christians, or that a Christian cannot bear the sword and serve God in temporal government. Would God they were all Christians, or that no one could be a prince unless he were a Christian! Things would be better than they now are and the Turk would not be so powerful. But what I would do is keep the callings and offices distinct and apart, so that everyone can see to what he is called, and fulfill the duties of his office faithfully and with the heart, in the service of God.”

Luther also points out the danger of a Turkish (Islamist) government to Christians and the Church, bluntly compares such dangers to those of the pope (the Antichrist), and urges the Church to pray for God’s protection against both evils:

“For although some praise his [the Turk’s] government because he allows everyone to believe what he will so long as he remains the temporal lord, yet this praise is not true, for he does not allow Christians to come together in public, and no one can openly confess Christ or preach or teach against Mohammed.

“How can one injure Christ more than with these two things; namely, force and wiles? With force, they prevent preaching and suppress the Word. With wiles, they daily put wicked and dangerous examples before men’s eyes and draw men to them. If we then would not lose our Lord Jesus Christ, His Word and faith, we must pray against the Turks as against other enemies of our salvation and of all good. Nay, as we pray against the devil himself….”

“But as the pope is Antichrist, so the Turk is the very devil. The prayer of Christendom is against both. Both shall go down to hell, even though it may take the Last Day to send them there; and I hope it will not be long.”

Regarding those Christians who would foolishly claim they “would rather be ruled by a wise Turk,” Luther chastises them and warns their pastors to show them their sin:

“Moreover, I hear it said that there are those in Germany who desire the coming of the Turk and his government, because they would rather be under the Turk than under the emperor or princes. It would be hard to fight against the Turk with such people. Against them I have no better advice to give than that pastors and preachers be exhorted to be diligent in their preaching and faithful in instructing such people, pointing out to them the danger they are in and the wrong that they are doing, how they are making themselves partakers of great and numberless sins and loading themselves down with them in the sight of God, if they are found in this opinion. For it is misery enough to be compelled to suffer the Turk as overlord and to endure his government; but willingly to put oneself under it, or to desire it, when one need not and is not compelled – the man who does that ought to be shown the sin he is committing and how terribly he is going on.”

Thus, in his “On War Against the Turk” Luther most clearly states his view on the evils of any government under the Turks (Islamists) and the sin of desiring Turkish rule. Such a view completely opposes the idea that Luther was any more than being sarcastic with the notion “there is no better temporal rule anywhere than among the Turks.” There are indeed many, many more statements of Luther in “On War Against the Turk” that are just as valuable today, both for Europe and the U.S., and those who may think about electing Islamists to public office.

Fifth, as for the part of the urban legend dealing with a “foolish Christian” ruler, Luther also commented elsewhere on having a Christian who lacks wisdom as a ruler. One can look at his “Temporal Authority: To What Extent it Should Be Obeyed,” which Luther wrote in 1523 (before the Peasant War):

“What, then, is a prince to do if he lacks the requisite wisdom and has to be guided by the jurists and the lawbooks? Answer: This is why I said that the princely estate is a perilous one. If he be not wise enough himself to master both his laws and his advisers, then the maxim of Solomon applies, “Woe to the land whose prince is a child” [Eccles. 10:16]. Solomon recognized this too. This is why he despaired of all law-even of that which Moses through God had prescribed for him-and of all his princes and counselors. He turned to God himself and besought him for an understanding heart to govern the people [I Kings 3:9]. A prince must follow this example and proceed in fear; he must depend neither upon the dead books nor living heads, but cling solely to God, and be at him constantly, praying for a right understanding, beyond that of all books and teachers, to rule his subjects wisely. For this reason I know of no law to prescribe for a prince; instead, I will simply instruct his heart and mind on what his attitude should be toward all laws, counsels, judgments, and actions. If he governs himself accordingly, God will surely grant him the ability to carry out all laws, counsels, and actions in a proper and godly way.”

Nowhere in this excerpt has Luther suggested bringing in or preferring a Turk to replace a prince lacking requisite wisdom to govern by himself.

Sixth, regarding suggestions that Luther’s later writings, including his Catechisms, differ in viewpoint from his earlier 1520 writing on the issue of Turkish rule. Such suggestions are without warrant because Luther’s condemnation of the Turks was also in his “On War Against the Turk”, which Luther started on October 9, 1528, and published in January, 1529. His anti-Turkish statements were prophetic in that later, in May 1529, Sultan Suleiman I left Constantinople and reached the Vienna in late September, but the Turks failed in their attempts to conquer the city and left on October 14, after killing all their prisoners. Luther’s Large Catechism had as its basis three series of sermons Luther preached in May, September, and November, 1528 and in March, 1529. He began writing the Catechism in September 1528 and the Large Catechism was published in mid-April, 1529.

That these two documents, written essentially simultaneously, are congruent in their opposition to Turkish rule is evident in Luther’s view of the Turks in “On War Against the Turk” and Luther’s explanation of the Fourth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer:

“76] Let this be a very brief explanation and sketch, showing how far this petition extends through all conditions on earth. Of this any one might indeed make a long prayer, and with many words enumerate all the things that are included therein, as that we pray God… 77] Likewise, that He give to emperors, kings, and all estates, and especially to the rulers of our country and to all counselors, magistrates, and officers, wisdom, strength, and success that they may govern well and vanquish the Turks and all enemies…” [Emphasis added]

Following the Turks’ retreat in 1529, Luther published his “Militant Sermon against the Turk,” exhorting the Germans to resist Turkish aggression and to pray against the spread of Islam. Luther also instructs the Christian reader to remain steadfast in the faith in case of capture by the Turk.

In 1541, following the fall of what is now Budapest, Hungary, to the Turks, Luther wrote his “Exhortation to Prayer against the Turk”, which again expressed similar concern about the Islamic menace as he had written previously. Other Lutheran theologians also wrote against the Turks, and, as indicated in Luther’s Large Catechism, prayers to God for protection against the Turks were offered in worship services.

These statements by Martin Luther and their context within the various documents he wrote are more than sufficient to convince reasonable readers that Luther would never have uttered the falsely attributed quote and would never regard as a preferable desire or choice to be ruled by a Turk. The false quote, “I would rather be ruled by a wise Turk than by a stupid Christian,” is not “Luther-esque” and in fact, it is diametrically opposed to the position on which we know from his writings Luther firmly stood.

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