- The Peasants’ Revolt.
- Luther: ‘On the Jews and their lies.’
- Colluding in the bigamy of Philip of Hesse.
In the last chapter, we looked at the development of the Reformation in Germany under Martin Luther. We will now continue to review the Reformation in Germany under Luther.
The Peasants’ Revolt
The next major event that appeared on the scene in Germany was a revolt by the peasants, known as the Peasants’ War. And they certainly had cause to complain. Not only was the degree of exploitation and oppression of the peasants extreme, but it was increasingly getting worse, grinding them into ever deeper poverty and making their lives virtually intolerable with the loss of all freedoms. There had been peasant uprisings before this in other parts of Europe, and now the oppressive situation in Germany was leading the peasants there to revolt.
The uprising in Germany was by no means a co-ordinated affair with some kind of central organising body directing matters. Protests by peasants had begun in 1524 but were very local affairs.
One catalyst or encouragement for this uprising seems to have been Martin Luther’s own reform proposals. Certainly, this seems to have been the view of some of the Princes in Germany, to whom Luther writes at this time, saying, “It is not the peasants, dear lords, who are resisting you; it is God Himself…To make your sin still greater, and ensure your merciless destruction, some of you are beginning to blame this affair on the Gospel and say it is the fruit of my teaching… You did not want to know what I taught, and what the Gospel is; now there is one at the door who will soon teach you, unless you amend your ways.” (An Admonition to Peace, 1525. Italics mine.) If the Princes could interpret Luther’s previous writings in this way, then it would be no surprise if the peasants took his writings as an encouragement to press for changes in their intolerable situation. As early as 1520, Luther had written a number of works, such as On the Freedom of a Christian, sometimes also called A Treatise on Christian Liberty, and another called, Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation. He had also written other pamphlets and treatises.
In one of these he states, “I believe that in this community or Christendom, all things are common, and all the goods of one belong to the other and that no one owns anything entirely of his own.” (1520; Sämmtliche Werke, ed. Erlanger, 22, p. 20). It is this kind of statement that may have given hope to the downtrodden peasants, and it is this kind of outlook that they drew on in writing up their own demands, as we shall shortly see.
Luther’s language was also at times carelessly inflammatory and full of invective, and could be seen as inciting people to violence. Early on, when the Catholic Church was seeking to silence Luther, he wrote:
“It were better that every bishop were murdered, every foundation or cloister rooted out, than that one soul should be destroyed, let alone that all souls should be lost for the sake of their worthless trumpery and idolatry. Of what use are they who thus live in lust who are nourished by the sweat and labour of others…what do they better deserve than a strong uprising which will sweep them from the earth. And we would smile did it happen.” (N1)
In 1520, in a letter to his friend, George Spalatin, Luther wrote: “If you understand the Gospel rightly, I beseech you not to believe that it can be carried on without tumult, scandal, sedition …The word of God is a sword, is war, is ruin, is scandal, is perdition, is poison….” (N2)
Another German reformer, Wolfgang Capito, who was also Luther’s friend, warned him in December 1520 about his inflammatory language, saying, “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.” (Janssen, History of the German People at the close of the Middle Ages, Vol. III, 1900, 136). These words contained a prophetic element in them.
Indeed, the Catholic Church was an integral part of this problem regarding the hardship of the peasants, as it owned land and exacted its own tithes, taxes and other financial burdens on its citizens. Others realised that Luther’s words could be incendiary and did not hold back from warning him.
So, as the peasants started to take up their cause, they issued a document in March 1525, called the Twelve Articles, in which they noted their requests and demands. This was issued in southern Germany, where the movement was strong and the most cohesive. In this declaration the peasants make a strong appeal to the Bible as the foundation for their demands, taking up Luther’s point that in all things it is the word of God that should decide matters of social justice. Insofar as this is true, it shows that the peasants were aligning themselves with the Reformation movement itself and making use of it as a springboard to express their grievances and ask for change.
And for the purposes of this study, it is this religious element in the document that I want us to take note of. This whole affair simply highlights that the Reformation movement continued in the culture and mindset of Christendom, where are all those under the government of the religious state – the Reformed state, in this case – are by definition regarded as true believers, as one Christian community, where the Bible is referenced in appeals for justice. We will see how they were all deluding themselves.
In the introduction of The Twelve Articles the peasants state, “all who believe in Christ should learn to be loving, peaceful, long-suffering and harmonious. This is the foundation of all the articles of the peasants (as will be seen) who accept the Gospel and live according to it….the peasants demand that this Gospel be taught them as a guide in life.”
The peasants felt their cause was just by referencing the Old Testament saying, “Did He (God) not hear the children of Israel when they called upon Him and saved them out of the hands of Pharaoh?” The first article is a demand for freedom to choose their own pastors. And in the third article they state that, “It has been the custom hitherto for men to hold us as their own property, which is pitiable enough, considering that Christ has delivered and redeemed us all….” Here is a clear example of how people continued to believe in the idea of the state church, of Christendom, where everyone in the state is considered to be a Christian and should act in Christian brotherly love! However, they were simply Christianised heathen – as were the princes – and they were in for a shock. The other articles represented what could be considered reasonable requests from those who are being so pitiably oppressed; and the articles continue to make reference to the Bible and to God.
It is clear from this that the peasants regarded themselves, and those that they were appealing to, as true Christians. However, this illusion was soon to be exposed.
Luther replied to this document with the writing of his own, entitled, Admonition to Peace. In it, he castigates the German princes and the ecclesiastical leaders for their oppression of the peasants. He writes, “We have no one on earth to thank for this disastrous rebellion except you princes and lords…as temporal rulers you do nothing but cheat and rob the people so that you may lead a life of luxury and extravagance. The poor common people cannot bear it any longer…Since you are the cause of this wrath of God, it will undoubtedly come upon you, unless you mend your ways in time…The sword is at your throats, but you think yourselves so firm in the saddle that no one can unhorse you. This false security and stubborn perversity will break your necks, as you will discover.” (Italics mine.)
Luther does not mince his words and claims that the uprising was not the result of his teaching, but the result of their refusal to embrace his exhortations contained in his earlier writings that I mentioned above.
One can perhaps see that the peasants would take encouragement from some of Luther’s statements, concerning the ‘false security’ of the princes and how the sword is already ‘at their throats’. However, he also addresses himself to the peasants, exhorting them in the clearest terms not to use violence. He challenges them that if they want to follow the word of God, they will in no way rebel or fight.
However, his support for the peasants comes with strong qualifications and limitations. On the one hand he says to the princes, “The peasants have put forth twelve articles, some of which are so fair and just as to take away your reputation in the eyes of God.” But in the next breath he states, “Nevertheless, almost all of them (the articles) are framed in their own interest and for their own good, though not for their best good…now you must listen to and put up with these selfish articles.” (Italics mine.) Considering the extreme oppression and heartless exploitation the peasants were under, this was an extraordinary and unbalanced generalisation to make, if not rather heartless, and could certainly give an excuse to the princes not to meet the demands of the peasants.
Luther goes on to make what could be considered to be some very one-sided statements against the peasants. He writes, addressing them, saying, “The fact that the rulers are wicked and unjust does not excuse tumult and rebellion. For no matter how right you are, it is not for a Christian to appeal to law, or to fight, but rather to suffer wrong and endure evil; and there is no other way ( 1 Corinthians 6:5).” (Italics mine.) In response to the peasants’ third article, Luther summarises their argument with the words, “There shall be no serfs, for Christ has made all men free,” and then he goes on to state, “that is making Christian liberty an utterly carnal thing. Did not Abraham and other patriarchs and prophets have slaves? Read what St. Paul teaches about servants, who, at that time, were all slaves.” (Italics mine.)
This is astonishing. As a spiritual and moral leader in the German regions, who is already getting involved in these matters, he is telling the downtrodden peasants that not only should they not rebel, but that they have no right to appeal to the law of the land, and must simply suffer their lot! Slavery is biblical and they have no right of legal appeal or to rebel. That is his argument. To say do not use arms is one thing. To deny them formal representation concerning their grievances is incomprehensible, I would say.
I would have thought that such advice would destroy all hope of change in the peasants’ eyes. The princes reading this would feel under no compulsion to change the status quo if Luther was saying that the requests and demands of the peasants were essentially ‘selfish’, and that they should not fight in any way to change things – not even by legal representation – because it is wrong for slaves to do so! Although he does appeal to the authorities that they ease the burden on the peasants, nevertheless, as a ‘spiritual’ and moral leader who was already intervening in these matters, it is amazing that Luther could not have represented their grievances more clearly and directly to the princes and advocated for appropriate changes to the system. However, he backs out of doing so by saying that he cannot comment on most of the articles of the peasants because, “The other articles, about freedom of game, birds, fish, wood, forests; about services, tithe, imposts, excises, Todfall, etc., – these I leave to the lawyers, for it is not fitting that I, an evangelist, should judge or decide them. It is for me to instruct and teach men’s consciences in things that concern divine and Christian matters.”
This lack of direct support for the peasants’ cause would significantly dent Martin Luther’s influence and popularity in Germany. He says he is not fit, as an evangelist, to judge in such matters, but, as we shall see in a moment, when the peasants did cause an uprising, this ‘evangelist’ exhorted the authorities to murder.
Some writers have maintained that this writing of Luther’s Admonition to Peace represented support for the peasants and a springboard for them to take action. The reading of his document gives a different, if not confusing picture. But as we have seen, much of what was written made reference to Biblical truths and Christian values – as if one was addressing, exhorting and rebuking true believers. The unfolding events would show that neither side, neither the Princess nor the peasants – nor Luther, for that matter – reflected anything of true Christian character. This is not said as a rebuke of the peasants but to highlight the illusion that they all continued to live under – addressing and appealing to each other as if they were Christians in a land they called ‘Christendom’!
However, in his Admonition to Peace Luther does strongly and vigorously urge both sides to refrain from violence, and tells them that they are far from being Christian if they employ the sword.
Nevertheless, by this time – early Spring, 1525 – the uprising had built up its own momentum, with considerable initial successes as thousands of peasants everywhere attacked monasteries and ecclesiastical authorities, since they also represented the cause of much oppression, and were the easiest targets. (See R. Friedenthal, Luther, p. 413). Even some landowners and knights initially had sympathy for the peasants, as they themselves were under financial burdens from the authorities above them. It seemed at one stage that this uprising might be successful, but a lack of coordination and leadership caused the rebellion to stumble and stall, and it was during this time that the onslaught against them was made.
Luther was furious that the peasants had risen in rebellion, and pens a document against them, addressed to the Princes, entitled, Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants. In it, he called for the slaughter and annihilation of the rebelling peasants. Luther writes,
“With threefold horrible sins against God and men have these peasants loaded themselves, for which they have deserved a manifold death of body and soul…they cause uproar and sacrilegiously rob and pillage monasteries and castles that do not belong to them, for which, like public highwaymen and murderers, they deserve the twofold death of body and soul. It is right and lawful to slay at the first opportunity a rebellious person, who is known as such, for he is already under God’s and the emperor’s ban. Every man is at once judge and executioner of a public rebel; just as, when a fire starts, he who can extinguish it first is the best fellow…Therefore, whosoever can, should smite, strangle, and stab, secretly or publicly, and should remember that there is nothing more poisonous, pernicious, and devilish than a rebellious man. Just as one must slay a mad dog…For we are come upon such strange times that a prince may more easily win heaven by the shedding of blood than others by prayers.”
These are the statements and exhortations to slay and murder made by the religious leader, Martin Luther, who calls himself an evangelist. He had previously said that he was not qualified to interfere in, or comment on social matters, but here he is exhorting every citizen to become an executioner by openly or secretly slaying any rebellious peasant he comes across. More than this, a prince may gain easier access to heaven by shedding the blood of peasants than others by praying. Whatever happened to ‘justification by faith’? There is no moderation or balance in these statements. They breathe out murder.
I said above that it was not only the princes and peasants that totally failed to display any Christian character in what they did, but this applied to Martin Luther as well, and I think his statements above clearly confirm this. It was an astonishing outburst on his part. This is not Luther at the end of his life – this is just 8 years after he had posted his 95 Theses.
Once the German princes had got their act together, the peasants stood no chance – they were simply mowed down and ruthlessly slaughtered. Luther did not pour oil on troubled water – in his fury, he resorted to the most vitriolic and inflammatory language and took just one side. The uprising of the peasants he mercilessly condemned as being of the devil, but the wholesale slaughter of these peasants he not only justified as being supremely Christian, but goaded the princes on to such action.
By the summer of the same year, 1525, the rebellion was cruelly put down. It was comprehensively crushed. Over one hundred thousand peasants were slaughtered in cold blood by the ruling authorities. It is possible that Luther’s public condemnation of the revolt was, in part, an attempt to save the Reformation from the accusation of leading peasants into revolt. And of course, anything that threatened his Reformation, was always of the devil and needed to be exterminated – whether Anabaptists, peasants or Jews.
However, Luther’s ferocious and murderous intervention did not serve him or his purpose well. Erasmus, who had predicted bloodshed because of the manner in which the reformers were propagating their religion, put some of the blame for this slaughter on Luther:
“Erasmus…made it clear to Luther that the bloody outcome of the revolt was caused by the books he published against the monks and bishops in favour of evangelical freedom, especially those books written in German.” (N3)
Luther later wrote the following, “Preachers are the biggest murderers about, for they admonish the authorities to fulfill their duty and punish the wicked. I, Martin Luther slew all the peasants in the rebellion, for I said that they should be slain; all their blood is upon my head. But I cast it on the Lord God, who commanded me to speak in this way.” (Sämmtliche Werke, ed. Erlanger LIX, p. 284 ‘Table Talk’; see also Grisar, Vol. III, p. 213. Italics mine.)
Some defenders of Luther today say that it is unfair of his critics to focus on one or two ‘blots’ of Luther’s character, likening these criticisms to a deliberate character assassination. But these were not ‘blots’, they were symptomatic, they were characteristic of Luther’s nature throughout his life. A fountain does not bring forth waters sweet and bitter at the same time, neither ‘do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles.’ His language of murderous intent, which Luther also justified years later, is not some unfortunate ‘slip’ of character, some innocent idiosyncrasy; it was a revelation of the nature of the man, which would also later in his life express itself in the most vile anti-Semitic language.
In the quote above, we find another instance which confirms what I have been drawing attention to in these studies. In the Reformation there was no true separation between church and state. The reformers regarded the ‘religious’ political authorities as subject to the rule of God and therefore subject to the direction of the Church – ‘Preachers are the biggest murderers about, for they admonish the authorities to fulfill their duty and punish the wicked.’
As I mentioned, all this had a negative effect on Luther’s standing within the Reformation. From this time on, things were different. Luther was no longer the hero figure that he had been. The hopes of many had been dashed.
An article in Encyclopedia Britannica sums things up like this, “Luther’s role in the Reformation after 1525 was that of theologian, adviser, and facilitator but not that of a man of action. Biographies of Luther accordingly have a tendency to end their story with his marriage in 1525. Such accounts gallantly omit the last 20 years of his life, during which much happened. The problem is not just that the cause of the new Protestant churches that Luther had helped to establish was essentially pursued without his direct involvement, but also that the Luther of these later years appears less attractive, less winsome, less appealing than the earlier Luther who defiantly faced emperor and empire at Worms. Repeatedly drawn into fierce controversies during the last decade of his life, Luther emerges as a different figure – irascible, dogmatic, and insecure. His tone became strident and shrill, whether in comments about the Anabaptists, the pope, or the Jews. In each instance his pronouncements were virulent: the Anabaptists should be hanged as seditionists, the pope was the Antichrist, the Jews should be expelled and their synagogues burned. Such were hardly irenic (peaceful) words from a minister of the gospel, and none of the explanations that have been offered – his deteriorating health and chronic pain, his expectation of the imminent end of the world, his deep disappointment over the failure of true religious reform – seem satisfactory.” (N4)
From what I have read, I do not find Luther a more attractive character before 1525 than after this date. And I think there is an explanation that does make sense of his behaviour.
A central part of what I am doing in these talks is to offer such an explanation. As I have said, I agree with the defenders of Luther and his contemporary reformers, namely, that they were men of their time, men of their age; they belonged to a kingdom that was of this world, a state-church kingdom. Apart from improving some of their doctrinal views, no great spiritual change had taken place in the Protestant Reformers that displayed itself in their words and actions against those whom they opposed. Also, in his writings throughout his life, Luther used language that was coarse, vulgar and crude – and not infrequently full of invective and hatred and murderous intent, from the beginning of his ministry to the end. It was certainly language that was unbefitting for a spiritual leader, for a Christian minister.
One would have expected that had he, as well as the other reformers, known a life-transforming inward regeneration, that they would have spoken and acted entirely differently. To suppose that the reformers were just religious men who had only been changed in their doctrinal outlook and nothing more – from catholic to reformed – makes all their violent and hate-filled words and murderous actions totally consistent with men who had never actually undergone or experienced that spiritual new birth that the Gospel brings us into. The reformers had clearly undergone a doctrinal conversion, a conversion of outlook, but showed no signs of a spiritual conversion.
This is an explanation that would make complete sense of their behaviour, and it also avoids bringing the Gospel into disrepute by claiming such words and actions are consistent with true repentance and conversion. I actually think that it is also the kindest interpretation, as it leaves room for the cry that says, “but I did it ignorantly in unbelief!”
LUTHER: ON THE JEWS AND THEIR LIES
This brings us to a work written by Luther in 1543, which was nearly 20 years after the Peasant’s revolt. It was called, On the Jews and Their Lies. It has been suggested by some that this evil book was just a manifestation of Luther’s old age. However, as I indicate above, that suggestion is far too simplistic – actually, it is wide of the mark.
At the beginning, Luther did show sympathy towards the Jews. In 1523, Luther accused Catholics of being unfair to Jews and treating them “as if they were dogs,” thus making it difficult for Jews to convert. “I would request and advise that one deal gently with them [the Jews],” he wrote. “…If we really want to help them, we must be guided in our dealings with them not by papal law but by the law of Christian love. We must receive them cordially, and permit them to trade and work with us, hear our Christian teaching, and witness our Christian life. If some of them should prove stiff-necked, what of it? After all, we ourselves are not all good Christians either.”
Treating people by the law of Christian love is commendable indeed. However, when the Jews did not convert to his version of Christianity, and when rumours about Jewish efforts to convert Christians emerged, Luther soon changed his tune, and he changed it completely. It was characteristic of Luther that those who in the end were not for him, he consistently regarded as enemies that needed to be defeated and eliminated.
He wrote, “I had made up my mind to write no more either about the Jews or against them. But since I learned that these miserable and accursed people do not cease to lure to themselves even us, that is, the Christians, I have published this little book, so that I might be found among those who opposed such poisonous activities of the Jews…I would not have believed that a Christian could be duped by the Jews into taking their exile and wretchedness upon himself.”
In an attempt to stir up antipathy and even hatred for all Jews, Luther quotes from the Bible, calling them a ‘ brood of vipers’. He goes on to say, “It was intolerable to them to hear that they were not Abraham’s but the devil’s children, nor can they bear to hear this today…Accordingly, it must and dare not be considered a trifling matter but a most serious one to seek counsel against this and to save our souls from the Jews, that is, from the devil and from eternal death.” (Italics mine.)
Luther gives his counsel:
“What shall we Christians do with this rejected and condemned people, the Jews? Since they live among us, we dare not tolerate their conduct, now that we are aware of their lying and reviling and blaspheming…Thus we cannot extinguish the unquenchable fire of divine wrath, of which the prophets speak, nor can we convert the Jews. With prayer and the fear of God we must practice a sharp mercy to see whether we might save at least a few from the glowing flames. We dare not avenge ourselves. Vengeance a thousand times worse than we could wish them already has them by the throat. I shall give you my sincere advice:
First, to set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn…This is to be done in honour of our Lord and of Christendom, so that God might see that we are Christians, and do not condone or knowingly tolerate such public lying, cursing, and blaspheming of his Son and of his Christians.
Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed…This will bring home to them the fact that they are not masters in our country…
Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them.
Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb.
Fifth, I advise that safe-conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews. For they have no business in the countryside…Let them stay at home.
Sixth, I advise that usury be prohibited to them, and that all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them and put aside for safekeeping…
Seventh, I recommend putting a flail, an axe, a hoe, a spade, a distaff, or a spindle into the hands of young, strong Jews and Jewesses and letting them earn their bread in the sweat of their brow, as was imposed on the children of Adam.”
Later in the book, Luther repeats and summarises some of these exhortations:
“First, that their synagogues be burned down, and that all who are able toss in sulphur and pitch; it would be good if someone could also throw in some hellfire. Third, that they be forbidden on pain of death to praise God, to give thanks, to pray, and to teach publicly among us and in our country…If we wish to wash our hands of the Jews’ blasphemy and not share in their guilt, we have to part company with them. They must be driven from our country.”
Towards the end of his book, he writes the following:
“There is no other explanation for this than the one cited earlier from Moses, namely, that God has struck them with “madness and blindness and confusion of mind.” So we are even at fault in not avenging all this innocent blood of our Lord and of the Christians…We are at fault in not slaying them.”
From saying that they ‘must not avenge themsleves’, Luther finishes by declaring they would be at fault for not avenging the innocent blood of Christ and of Christians and for not slaying the Jews.
Luther’s writing against the Jews is unbelievably murderous, evil and hate-filled. It is extreme by any standards. It is difficult to read. This is no ‘hiccup’ in his character. It was not just a ‘bad’ day he was having. Given the right circumstances, this is the man. Nothing in scripture justifies this. Nothing of Christ’s Spirit is exemplified in this – quite the contrary. Whether it was the Jews, the peasants or the Anabaptists, all would be pursued to death if they threatened his Reformation.
The advice Luther gives has terrible parallels to the actions of the Nazis against the Jews. During World War II, copies of Luther’s book, On the Jews and Their Lies, were held up by Nazis at rallies, and the prevailing scholarly consensus is that it had a significant impact on the Holocaust. Hitler himself named Luther as one of history’s greatest reformers in his novel, Mein Kampf. This is part of the legacy of Martin Luther.
Luther colludes in Philip of Hesse’s Bigamy.
Another matter that historians and biographers of Martin Luther refer to as representing ‘a blot’ on his moral character is the issue of his involvement in the bigamous marriage of the Langrave (Count) Philip of Hesse, who was a supporter of Luther and the Reformation. Why some writers give particular focus to this rather than the two previous matters that we have just looked at, I find rather surprising.
Anyway, the story in short is this. Philip got married in 1523, but he was not very enamoured with his wife, and within weeks fell into adultery. However, according to him, his conscience suffered terribly, but on the other hand, he was insistent that there was no way he could restrain himself and live being faithful to his wife. Philip wondered whether Old Testament examples of bigamous marriages could provide a basis for him having a second wife. Luther was clear that the New Testament makes no such provision, and that one cannot construct a rule that allows a second marriage. For this to become publicly known would be a great scandal. However, Luther left the door slightly ajar by indicating that in very special circumstances, a unique dispensation could be granted, but that it would not represent a rule that others could follow, and would therefore be best kept secret.
However, there was an incident that gave Philip ammunition in his discussions with the reformers. It related to advice given by Melanchthon and Luther regarding the situation with Henry VIII:
“Both Melanchthon and Luther in 1531 gave to the Englishman Robert Barnes…their written statement that rather than see Henry VIII put away his wife Catherine, whose marriage they looked upon as valid, they would see him take another wife. For the sake of the bodily issue and lawful succession, Melanchthon thought such a thing would be allowed for the good of England, as polygamy was not absolutely forbidden by divine law; while Luther’s impression of the validity of Henry’s marriage to Catherine was so strong that rather than permit divorce, ‘I would allow the king to take another queen, according to the examples of the ancient patriarchs and kings who had two wives at the same time.’” (N5)
The reformers would be reminded of this later on! As time went on, Philip continued to suffer terrible pangs of conscience, and felt he could not take the sacrament. Philip did not want to live in a state of adultery, but neither could, nor would he give it up. So Philip was desperate for a second (bigamous) marriage to appear legitimate. However, a second marriage was regarded as a capital crime in the reign of the Catholic Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. So, unfortunately for the reformers, Philip, for ‘conscience sake’, was unwilling to keep a mistress just like other princes did, and pressurised the reformers to sanction a second marriage. In 1539, Philip sent the reformer Bucer to Wittenberg with a letter, reminding them also of their advice to King Henry VIII (see above), and also informing them that his wife had agreed to his second marriage. However, Luther restated the case that if an exception were made and it became known, it would be a scandal and cause uproar. Luther also strongly warned him concerning the sin of adultery.
Nevertheless, in view of Philip’s insistence on legitimising a second marriage, the reformers Luther, Melanchthon and Bucer, gave in and agreed to a bigamous marriage. However, Luther said this must be done in the greatest secrecy and that no one was to know, lest there be a terrible scandal. Luther also felt justified in this secrecy, as he maintained it belonged to ‘confessional’ counsel given by the priest to the individual. (This excuse was, of course, stretching things beyond credibility.) So a secret marriage was conducted on 4th March 1540 in the presence of Melanchthon and Bucer. Some writers have ascribed political motives as well to the reformers, in that they feared Philip could desert the reformed cause, and it was Luther himself who later claimed this was a factor in their decision.
However, rumours about marriage soon leaked out, which caused great stress and panic among the reformers, with Melanchthon falling badly ill as a result! The reformers consulted together and agreed to quell the rumours by simply denying them; that is, by lying. They believed that this was by far the more preferable option, and indeed a justifiable one, since there was no way they could publicly defend their position.
In a letter to Antony Lauterbach, dated 2 June 1540, in which Luther replies to his question whether a second marriage had taken place, Luther writes, “In answer to your question about the Landgrave’s second marriage, dear Antony, I can say nothing…I only know that no public proofs of the marriage have been shown me…One must not pronounce rashly on insufficient evidence about the doings princes.” (P. Smith, The life and letters of Martin Luther, p. 376)
Luther was being evasive, to say the least! But only about a week later (10th June 1540), Luther had to write an explanation to the Prince Elector, John Frederick of Saxony, who was furious about what had happened and that he had been kept in the dark. The rumours about the second marriage had spread far and wide and was causing upset. The court in Dresden was now saying that bigamy is part of Luther’s teaching, and had approached the Prince Elector about the matter.
In his letter to the Elector, Luther tries to defend himself by saying that as the advice to Philip had been ‘confessional advice’, it ought not to be shared with anyone outside, not even with the Elector. Luther complains that if Philip had kept quiet, there would not have been all this fuss:
“Most serene, highborn Elector, most gracious Lord! I am sorry to learn that your Grace is importuned by the court of Dresden about the Landgrave’s business. Your Grace asks what answer to give the men of Meissen. As the affair was one of the confessional, both Melanchthon and I were unwilling to communicate it even to your Grace, for it is right to keep confessional matters secret, both the sin confessed and the counsel given, and had the Landgrave not revealed the matter and the confessional counsel, there would never need have been all this nauseating unpleasantness.” (N6)
Luther then also confirms that Philip threatened to ‘turn to the Emperor and Pope’, if he could not obtain what he wanted from them, and Luther states his actions were taken to prevent this. So Luther clearly confesses that political reasons were behind his advice. Basically, what Luther says in the letter, is that under the circumstances, he did the best he could do. His hand was forced. In other words, political expediency takes priority over truth and honesty. The reformers did seem indeed to be men of the world.
Despite all this, Luther defended his actions with these words: “I still say that if the matter was brought before me today, I should not be able to give counsel different from what I did…I am not ashamed of my counsel, even if it should be published in all the world, but for the sake of the unpleasantness which would then follow, I should prefer, if possible, to have it kept secret.” (N6)
So, even in retrospect, Luther did not regret or see as wrong his counsel, his actions or his lying in this matter.
The 19th century Swiss Protestant theologian and church historian Philip Schaff comments, “The most unfortunate matrimonial incident in the Reformation is the consent of Luther, Melanchthon, and Bucer to the disgraceful bigamy of Landgrave Philip of Hesse. It is a blot on their character, and admits of no justification. When the secret came out (1540), Melanchthon was so overwhelmed with the reproaches of conscience and a sense of shame that he fell dangerously ill at Weimar.” (Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Volume VII. Modern Christianity. The German Reformation, § 79, p. 318.)
I am puzzled by this comment. As an historian, he has recounted all the atrocities of the reformers against the Anabaptists and against the Jews. Why should he be startled by this event as being some kind of exceptional blot on Luther’s life. How is it any more reprehensible to lie about and sanction bigamy than to murder other Christians and Jews? He that is able to twist the Scriptures to justify murdering others is certainly very capable of lying. The Protestant Reformers simply conducted themselves according to their nature – all their life long. Some have suggested that sanctioning bigamy and lying about it indicated some kind of moral collapse at the end of Luther’s life. The words and actions of his whole life argue against such an interpretation.
The Christianised religious clerics remained Christianised religious clerics – before they were called Catholics, but now they called themselves Reformed. There was no radical change in their lives – at least, there’s nothing in their actual conduct as reformers that reflects and demonstrates that they had known an inward transformation of life that follows genuine repentance and true conversion. They were men of their times, as their sympathisers and defenders are fond of saying. They were of this world, and they behaved like men of this world – they bent the Scriptures to suit their own religious views, and they cruelly hounded, persecuted and sentenced to death the innocent. What would you expect of such men? Why talk of this ‘blot’ or that ‘blot’. Their whole lives speak the one and self-same thing.
The 20ty century Dutch historian, Heiko Oberman, points out this anomaly in his book, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil. He refers to the fact that Protestant writers refer to the incident of the bigamous marriage as a “black day” in the history of the German Reformation. But then goes on to make this point, “In comparison, Luther’s writings against the Jews, which in turn cannot be isolated from his writings against the papists and peasants, evidently seemed far less offensive. But Luther assailed all three groups with deadly ferocity, urging the authorities to take decisive action.” (P. 289).
Perhaps Protestant writers feel they are more vulnerable to attack from Catholic historians on this point than on the others, since both Catholics and Protestants persecuted Anabaptists and Jews.
Historically, the Reformation was extremely significant because it altered the political and religious landscape of Europe; it affected the power balance on the continent, particularly with respect to the Catholic Church. However, it brought no spiritual awakening or a movement of repentance and conversions in communities, such as we read in the histories of revivals. On the contrary, where there were signs of repentance and conversions among the citizens, the Protestant Reformers urged the authorities to persecute and liquidate them. The Reformation did not bring toleration of other Christian outlooks or freedom of conscience. It carried on the merciless persecution and execution of all those that disagreed with their form of religion, exactly like the Catholics had done and were doing. Their rule was dictatorial and tyrannical to all those of a different opinion. This was the nature of the Reformation and of the men who led it.
(N1) Werke, Weimar, v.28, pp.142-201 / Against the Falsely Called Spiritual Order of the Pope and the Bishops (July, 1522)
(N2) Luther’s Own Statements, Henry O’connor, Cornell University Library 1884, Letter to Spalatin, February, 1520.
(N3) Robert Henry Murray, Erasmus & Luther: their Attitude to Toleration (Society for promoting Christian knowledge, 1920), 245.
(N4) Hillerbrand, H. J. (2021, November 6). Martin Luther. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Martin-Luther
(N5) In De Wette, Briefe Luthers, IV, 295, and for Melanchthon see Corpus Reform., II, 52o, especially 527. & Luther and the Bigamous Marriage of Philip Of Hesse, John Alfred Faulkner, Drew Theological Seminary, Madison, New Jersey, p. 209. https://archive.org/stream/jstor-3154607/3154607_djvu.txt
(N6) Letter published, Seidemann: Lauterbach’s Tagebuch auf das Jahr 1588, p. 196 ff. / Also, P. Smith, The Life and Letters of Martin Luther, p. 377f. / On dating see W. W. Rockwell, Die Doppelehe Des Landgrafen Philipp Von Hessen , p. 137, note 3.
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