George Malcolm Stephenson.

The conservative character of Martin Luther online

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ness here nor force the matter. It should be
preached and taught with tongue and pen,
that to hold mass in such a manner is sin, but
no one should be dragged away from it by
force. The matter should be left to God:
his word should do the work alone, without
our work. Why? Because it is not in my
power to fashion the hearts of men as the
potter moulds the clay, and to do with them
as I please.

"Now if I should rush in and abolish the
mass by force, there are many who would be
compelled to consent to it and yet not know
their own minds, but say: I do not know if it
is right or wrong, I do not know where I
stand, I was compelled by force to submit
to the majority. And this forcing and com-
manding results in mere mockery, an ex-


ternal show, a fool's play, man-made ordi-
nances, sham-saints and hypocrites. For
where the heart is not good, I care nothing
at all for the work. We must first win the
hearts of the people."

In the third sermon Luther considers "the
things that are not matters of necessity, but
are left to our free choice by God, and which
we may keep or not; for instance, whether
one shall marry or not, or whether monks
and nuns shall leave the cloisters." Any
priest, monk or nun who cannot restrain the
desires of the flesh should marry, and thus
relieve the burden of conscience.

"Thus, dear friends, it is plain enough, and
I believe you ought to understand it and not
make liberty a law, saying: This priest has
taken a wife, therefore all priests must take
wives. Not at all. Or this monk or that
nun has left the cloister, therefore they must
all come out. Not at all. Or this man has
broken the images and burnt them, there-
fore all images must be burned— not at all,
dear brother! And again, this priest has no
wife, therefore no priest dare marry. Not
at all! . . . God has made it a matter


of liberty to marry or not to marry, and thou
fool undertakest to turn this liberty into a
vow against the ordinance of God? There-
fore you must leave liberty alone and not
make a compulsion out of it; your vow is
contrary to God's liberty.

"But we must come to the images, and
concerning them also it is true that they are
unnecessary, and we are left free to have
them or not, although it would be much bet-
ter if we did not have them. I am not
partial to them. A great controversy arose
on the subject of images between the Roman
emperor and the pope; the emperor held
that he had the authority to banish the
images, but the pope insisted that they
should remain, and both were wrong. Much
blood was shed, but the pope emerged as
victor and the emperor lost. What was it
all about? They wished to make a 'must'
out of that which is free, and that God can-
not tolerate."

These extracts from the Wittenberg ser-
mons will serve to illustrate their lucidity.
Proceeding in the same manner in the re-
maining addresses, he discussed various


Other matters which were agitating the minds
of the citizens, counseling moderation and
preaching forbearance.

Luther's daily life measured up to these
precepts. For some time after his return to
Wittenberg he retained his cowl and lived in
the Augustinian monastery. In one of the
churches mass was celebrated with all the
old Catholic rites, and his friends were not
forbidden to attend.

Luther's attitude towards Roman Catholic
ceremonies and doctrines appears to be that
of a "liberal"; but really it is conservatism
rather than liberalism. It is because of his
conservatism that he preaches liberalism.
The paradox is misleading without explana-
tion. Rather than see the triumph of the
doctrines of men like Carlstadt and Zwingli,
which go much farther than his own, he pre-
fers to adhere to the "faith of the fathers."
A violent rupture with Rome would result in
even further innovations. Scripture must
be the Christian's guide, and in so far as
Catholic forms and doctrines adhere to it or
do not oppose it, they are safer than those
of the extreme reformers. To his dying day


Luther never forgot the disturbances at Wit-
tenberg and Zwickau.

Although Luther declared that "the
Church of Christ is found wherever the Word
of God is preached in its purity and the sac-
raments are administered according to the
Word and institutions of Christ," he insisted
on outward organization. His conservative
nature would not allow him to subscribe to
the Modern liberal doctrine that each man is
his own priest. Quite the contrary, the com-
mon man needed the guidance and mediation
of a priesthood, which must administer the
sacraments and look after the spiritual wel-
fare of the people. On one phase of the
Lord's Supper he was even more conserva-
tive than the Romanists. They had al-
lowed the sacrament to be administered in
private, but Luther condemned the practice
because of the bad moral effect it might have
upon others. " For," he declared, "through
time every one might so take advantage of
the permission, that at length the churches
would be empty, instead of being the meet-
ing-place of all, where they make a public
confession of their faith." The early Chris-


tians In the Acts set an example by coming
together to partake of the sacrament — again
appeaHng to the authority of Scripture.
"The sacrament and confession should be
administered by His professing servants, be-
cause Christ says it was instituted in memory
of Himself, which is, in St. Paul's words, to
show the Lord's death till he come; and at
the same time he condemns those who wish
to partake of it alone without tarrying for
one another. And no one can baptize him-
self. For these sacraments belong to the
Church, and must not be mixed up with the
duties devolving on the head of the house."
To Luther the Church is the community of
saints because only those are true members
who are sanctified in the true faith. Its
members are called, enlightened, and sancti-
fied through the Holy Spirit. This was the
ideal Church; but some sort of Church gov-
ernment was necessary. The right of pri-
vate judgment in spiritual matters could not
be permitted, because there is a norm, fixed
and unerring, which every Christian is under
obligation to follow. No one ought to be
compelled to accept the Gospel, but no one


ought to be allowed to traduce it. "If any
one does so, the magistrate must have him
up and admonish him, and hear his reasons
for acting as he does. If he can give none,
then he must be bound over to silence, so
that the seeds of dissension may not be

Luther believed that compulsory attend-
ance at Church services ought to be estab-
lished by law. The Church is necessary to
the stability of the state and society. The
catechism and the decalogue, he declares,
teach both civic and domestic duties all per-
sons need to know, whether they believe the
Gospel or not. It is the duty of the Church
to warn and admonish such members as fall
into sin and error, and if this proves ineffec-
tual, they must be excluded from member-

The stability of the Church would be en-
dangered if preachers disagree, because the
people, unable to discriminate between con-
flicting opinions, would be led astray. Nei-
ther should the people have the right to dis-
miss their pastors whenever they felt inclined.
Preachers of a false gospel, however, were a


curse to the Church and the community, and
ought to be dismissed.

In 1525, in response to requests, Luther
pubHshed his "Deutsche Messe," or "Ger-
man Order of Worship." This was a very
conservative document, and all the more
remarkable considering the advanced stage
of the Reformation when it was given out.
Luther did not intend that by it an arbitrary
ritual should be imposed upon all churches,
but that it should serve as a guide. Gowns,
candles, altars, elevation of the host, fast-
days, and other observances not incompati-
ble with evangelical principles, were to re-
main unchanged. That Luther should have
tolerated these remnants of Catholicism at a
time when so many of his followers were
exerting pressure of the strongest kind to in-
duce him to sanction their radical propa-
ganda, reveals the unflinching conservatism
of the man. Then, if ever, he had the oppor-
tunity of making a hero of himself by throw-
ing the weight of his influence on the side of
popular demand. But he chose the path of

Luther's conception of the Holy Scrip-


tures is briefly stated in his commentary on
the Small Catechism: "The Holy Scriptures
are the Word of God, written by the Proph-
ets, Evangelists, and Apostles by the in-
spiration of the Holy Spirit." Every text
must be taken literally. "If a controversy
occur as to matters in the Holy Scriptures
and it cannot be harmonized, let it go. This
is not in conflict with the articles of the
Christian Faith. For all evangelists agree
in testifying to the fact that Christ died for
our sins; but with respect to His deeds and
miracles they observe no order." He ac-
cepted without question all the miracles of
the Bible. Throughout his entire life he
shows a profound contempt for the human
reason without the guidance of the Holy
Spirit in things of the spirit. "We must not
investigate concerning the Divine Majesty,
but must tie our wandering and soaring
thoughts to the Word. He who attempts to
speculate concerning the clouds falls into an

One essential thing in Luther's theology is
the identification of the Word of God and
Holy Scripture. This belief was probably


strengthened by the course of the Anabap-
tists, who distinguished between the two;
and even Professor Harnack, who through-
out his discussion of Luther's theology criti-
cizes him harshly when it tends toward dog-
matism, excuses his attitude toward the
Anabaptists, although he does make him
responsible for a great error. Undoubtedly
his experience with this radical element
caused him to hold even more firmly to con-
servatism. Luther's whole work consisted
in upholding the due authority of the Bible
against the authority of man preached by
the Anabaptists and the authority of the
Church taught by the Romanists. To
Luther the revelation of God's laws through
Scripture was all sufficient to guide mankind
through life and to eternal salvation without
the machinery of the Roman Church; but to
release man entirely from authority would be
extremely dangerous, not to say impossible.


The Peasants' Revolt

In solving the dangerous situation at
Wittenberg Luther emerged with great credit
and enhanced prestige. He had vanquished
the enemies of law and order by his dignified
conduct and measured words. He carefully
refrained from personalities. He even con-
sented to an interview with the prophets,
whom he seems to have regarded more with
pity than with hostility. But Luther was no
/trimmer; no man ever clung with greater
- tenacity to his convictions when principles
were at stake. At every crisis in his career
his almost uncanny intuition singled out the
essentials from the non-essentials. Ever
ready to compromise on non-essentials, he
was firm as a rock when he judged that the
vital principles of Christianity were in the

It is the fortune or the misfortune of great
leaders of men who blaze the way for future



generations to attract a motley host of fol-
lowers. For the time being Luther personi-
fied the hopes and aspirations of serious-
minded men, just as the pioneers of freedom
in after years read into the words of Wash-
ington and Lincoln sympathy for their cause.
Luther had championed the cause of freedom
and justice against a tyrannical system which
oppressed his fellow-countrymen. How could
he fail to respond to the cries for justice and
freedom everywhere?

No phase of Luther's life has been the
object of such bitter criticism — with the
possible exception of the bigamy of Philip
of Hesse — as has his attitude toward the
Peasants' Revolt of 1525, one of the most
serious social outbreaks Europe has ever
seen. "Either Luther is blamed for occa-
sioning the revolt," says a recent writer, "or
else he is accused of being actuated by wrong
motives in denouncing it." It is a paradox
of Luther's life that, while he was a stranger
to our ideals of liberty, the Modern world
owes more to him than to any other man.
Just as he was surprised and alarmed at the
rapid spread and enthusiastic reception of


the ninety-five theses, he could never have
dreamt of the far-reaching effects of the
movement which he inaugurated. He was,
as we have seen, a man who regarded with
much thought the consequences of his suc-
cessive steps, and if he did miscalculate the
results of his actions, the reason is rather to
be sought in the restlessness of society and in
the violence of the opposition. Luther was
a religious, not a social and political, re-
former. But men's minds are not divided
into water-tight compartments. His ideas
about religious liberty seeped into men's
political and social thinking. If men were
equal before the law of God, why were they
not equal before the law of man?

Europe was ready for a religious revolution
when Luther was born. Otherwise how can
we account for the instantaneous effect of
the theses? The kings of France and Eng-
land had flouted papal bulls without alienat-
ing their subjects. Indeed, these nations
rallied enthusiastically around their kings
who resisted papal aggression. Nationalism
was gnawing at the vitals of the Medieval
system. Likewise within the new-born states


a new form of society was emerging from the
ruins of the old. Villeinage in England was
an anomaly, as the Peasants' Revolt of 1381
demonstrated. In the Jacquerie in France
in 1358 the discontent of the peasants was
made hideous by the most terrible revolu-
tionary excesses.

"The frequent insurrections of the peas-
ants throughout the fifteenth century and at
the beginning of the sixteenth show plainly
that the great social revolution of 1525,
which convulsed almost every corner of the
Empire from the Alps to the Baltic, was not
first occasioned by the preaching and writ-
ings of the German religious reformers,"
writes the Catholic historian, Johannes Jans-
sen. "Had Luther and his followers never
appeared on the scene, the spirit of discon-
tent and insubordination, which had gained
ground everjrwhere among the common peo-
ple, 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 revo-
lution its characteristics of universality and


inhuman atrocity. . . . When once it
had become a settled fact that for centuries
past the nation had been purposely misled
and preyed upon by its spiritual rulers, it was
but a slight step further to discovering that
the whole fabric of the secular government
also, closely bound up as it then was with
spiritual rule, was contrived for the sole pur-
pose of fleecing the lower orders of society,
and that Divine justice demanded its com-
plete overthrow."

"The country population," says the same
author in another place, "was especially
ready to respond to the preaching of the
agitators and to rise in rebellion against all
existing institutions. The whole body of
ecclesiastics, from the Pope down to the
humblest mendicant friar, and every single
statute and ordinance of the Church, were
abused and ridiculed throughout the provinces
in the grossest and most obscene manner;
in drinking-taverns, in public bath-houses,
on the market-place, in fields, and lanes, and
highways, riotous mobs declaimed against
* the priests, those servants of Lucifer, those
dragons of hell, and all their Sodomitish jug-


gling with saints and idols, prayers and con-
fessions, tithes and taxes.' The itinerant
preachers went about representing the in-
iquities and oppression of the great secular
lords as altogether intolerable. 'Spiritual
and secular tyrants and oppressors,' so said a
scurrilous pamphlet of the year 1521, 'were
the iniquitous cause of the plague that was
raging in Germany.' For at that time the
discontent of the people was aggravated by a
deadly pestilence mortality in all the German
provinces, while in Bavaria no single town
had escaped the epidemic. In Vienna
24,000 people had died, and the plague had
not yet ceased. At Cologne, all along the
Rhine, in Suabia, in Switzerland, and in Aus-
tria, the black death was raging."

The annals of the past testify to the fact
that all great class struggles are preceded by
more favorable conditions in the lower strata
of society. The relaxing of oppression in
certain regions causes a slipping and faulting
which produce changes in the entire contour
of society. Violent pressure either from
above or below may disturb the entire equi-


The demands of the peasants, regarded in
the light of the present day, are entirely rea-
sonable and just. They demanded the right
for each parish of appointing and removing
its own clergymen. Tithes of corn would
continue to be paid, but the payment of the
produce of animals, every tenth calf, or pig,
or egg, or the like, was unjust. Acknowledg-
ing due obedience to the authorities chosen
and set up by God, they declared themselves
no longer serfs and bondmen, but freemen.
The right to hunt game and take fish was to
be free to all. Woods and forests belong to
all for fuel. No services of labor were to be
more than had been required of their fore-
fathers; if more service was required, wages
must be paid for it. Exorbitant rents should
be reduced, and punishments for crimes
fixed. All land which had not been lawfully
acquired was to revert to the community.

The demands of the peasants met with the
most stupid and obstinate resistance from
the ruling powers. In some instances the
nobles went out of their way to impress upon
them their superiority. Sympathy begets
sympathy, and violence begets violence. In


Its early stages the movement was peaceable,
but in an incredibly short time the torch of
revolution was carried from place to place
until the whole empire was enveloped. Rev-
olution is the harvest time of the irresponsi-
ble members of society. Criminals, vaga-
bonds, and the undesirables of every class
joined the peasants, and by their intemperate
utterances and fiendish conduct brought
odium on their cause. When men's minds
are inflamed and the safety of their families
is endangered, distinctions are not drawn.
In the final reckoning the innocent suffer
with the guilty.

Germany experienced a reign of terror.
Castles, monasteries, and churches were
burned; towns were sacked; priests were in-
sulted; and outrages that beggar descrip-
tion were perpetrated before the princes
could combine to restore order. So stupen-
dous was the rebellion, and so ruthless were
the methods of repression, that at least one
hundred thousand people perished. So thor-
oughly were the peasants subdued that to the
end of the eighteenth century their lot re-
mained the most wretched in Europe.


Our interest in the revolt centers on the
part Martin Luther played in it. The peas-
ants had good reason to expect his sympathy
and assistance. Not only was he the son of
a peasant, but his words on certain occasions
had revealed that he was keenly alive to the
injustice of the social order. In the "Ad-
dress to the Christian Nobility" he had
urged the necessity of a general law against
the extravagance and excess in dress and
eating and drinking. In a pamphlet written
only a few months before the outbreak of the
revolt he had been particularly severe on the
avariciousness and selfishness of the com-
mercial classes. "The regraters, forestall-
ers, and monopolists," he says, "are public
robbers and extortioners. Such people do
not deserve to be called men or to live among
respectable folk; they are not even worth
teaching and admonishing, for their greed
and avarice are so monstrous, so shameless,
that the evil of it infects others if they but
stand in the same spot. The secular author-
ities would do right if they stripped such
wretches of all they had and drove them out
of the country." Furthermore, had not


Luther defied the canon law and the edict of
the emperor?

It seems to be a fact, however, that many
of the radicals understood Luther's philoso-
phy of reform, and, expecting no assistance
from him, could not say enough harsh things
about the man. Thomas Miinzcr, one of
them who had felt the sting of Luther's in-
vective before, spurned his reliance on the
Word of God to effect reform. He would
reverse the order. The tares must be rooted
out before the harvest. The present order
must be uprooted before the seeds of the
Gospel could take root.

But to enlist the support of the man who
had worked wonders before would be half
the battle. His was a name to conjure with.
Many professed his gospel and quoted his
writings. They addressed a printed appeal
to him, which he answered in a straightfor-
ward way, recognizing the need of reform and
warning both sides against un-Christian con-

"In the first place no one on earth is to
blame for the confusion and insurrection ex-
cept you nobles and lords, you blind bishops


and mad priests and monks who, even to-
day, in your hardness, do not cease to rage
and rave against the holy Gospel, even
though you know it is true and that you can-
not refute it. In addition the secular gov-
ernment does nothing but tax and squeeze
so that you may maintain your pride and
display till the common man neither can nor
will endure it any longer. The sword is on
your necks and still you think you sit so
firmly in the saddle that no one can throw
you out. Such false security and hardened
arrogance will break your necks, as you will
find out. . . .

"You must reform and submit to the
Word of God. If you will not do so will-
ingly, you will have to do so by compulsion,
either driven by these peasants or by some
one else. If you would slay them all they
would still be unbeaten, for God would raise
up others, since it is He that is punishing and
will punish you. It is not the peasants who
have set themselves against you, dear Sirs,
but it is God Himself who has set Himself
against you to punish your fury."

Addressing the peasants, he cautions them


to be on their guard against false prophets
and to consider well the path they elect to

"That the government has done wrong in
resisting the Gospel and oppressing you in
temporal affairs is true. But you do a far
greater wrong when you not only resist God's
Word but tread it underfoot, invade its
rights, override God, and, in addition, de-
prive the government of its authority and
rights, yea, of all that it possesses, for if it
have lost its authority, what remains? The
destruction of all order is far worse than in-
justice in an established order. God's order
stands :

"Be subject not only to good masters but
also to the evil. If you so do, it is well. If
you do not you may be able to bring some
misfortune to pass, but in the end it will un-
doubtedly fail, for God is just and will not
suffer it."

His warning conclusion is that God is the
enemy both of tyrants and rebels. He ad-
vises that certain counts and gentlemen of
the nobility and certain aldermen from the
cities be selected, who should adjust matters


in a peaceable way. If both sides yield on
certain points, the whole affair, "if it cannot
be settled in a Christian manner, may at
least be adjusted with regard for human
rights and agreements."

Had Luther's friendly counsel been heeded
untold misery would have been avoided.
Perhaps the situation had passed beyond the
realm of reason. Be that as it may, Lu-
ther's words fell on ears deafened by the din
of tumult and battle. Realizing the gravity
of the situation, he made a preaching tour
through the seething districts in a last
desperate effort to stem the tide. He saw

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Online LibraryGeorge Malcolm StephensonThe conservative character of Martin Luther → online text (page 4 of 7)