Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Perspectives on Luther: Was Luther a Womanizer and a Lush?

This will be the third installment of a response to a man who calls himself “St. Thomas More” over on the CARM board. His comments came in the thread, Perspectives of Luther which I began responding to here and also on CARM. Previously I looked at these topics:

Perspectives of Luther:The Influence of Occam on Luther and Sola Scriptura:

Perspectives on Luther: Did he join the Monastery Selfishly?

Let’s take a look at More’s third charge: “[Luther] was a womanizer and a lush.”

After reading this charge, I replied, “Mr. More, I'm going to give you an opportunity to retract these words- particularly the nonsense about "womanizer" and "lush". I suggest checking accurate historical sources before putting forth fiction as truth.” He replied, “OK, I'll back off the "womanizer and a lush" comment, though my sources I believe to be accurate (while protestants want to put him on a pedestal, I'll recognize his actions for what they were).” Now, how one “backs off” while at the same time still affirming falsehoods is a unique form of sophistry.

These charges against Luther have a long history. They date back to one of Luther’s earliest Catholic biographers, Johannes Cochlaeus. The Catholic Encyclopedia gives this description of the man: “Naturally of a quiet and studious disposition he was drawn into the arena of polemics by the religious schism. There he developed a productivity and zeal unparalleled by any other Catholic theologian of his time.” This is a kind way to describe Cochlaeus. Actually, he was consumed in a desire to destroy Luther. He wrote incessantly against Luther. Even after Luther died, Cochlaeus kept writing against him. The Catholic Encyclopedia goes on to state “Almost all of these publications [against Luther] however, were written in haste and bad temper, without the necessary revision and theological thoroughness, consequently they produced no effect on the masses.” This is yet another kind way to describe Cochlaeus. In actuality, the charges put forth by Cochlaeus had a profound impact on Catholic approaches to Luther for hundreds of years to follow. The comments by this Sir Thomas on the CARM board about Luther being a “womanizer and a lush” find their origin in the work of Cochlaeus.

Here are a few summary statements from a modern Catholic and protestant scholar of the content of Cochlaeus’s image of Luther:

“Luther is a child of the devil, possessed by the devil, full of falsehood and vainglory. His revolt was caused by monkish envy of the Dominican, Tetzel; he lusts after wine and women, is without conscience, and approves any means to gain his end. He thinks only of himself. He perpetrated the act of nailing up the theses for forty two gulden- the sum he required to buy a new cowl. He is a liar and a hypocrite, cowardly and quarrelsome. There is no drop of German blood in him…” (Joseph Lortz, The Reformation in Germany, trans. Ronald Walls (London: Darton, Longman & Todd 1968), 1:296.)

He refers to Luther as a child of the devil, the fruit of a union of Satan with Luther's mother who later regretted not having murdered him in the cradle. His fellow monks knew him as a demon-possessed quarreler who lusted after drink and sex, without conscience, ready to use any means to further his own plans. Demonic monstrosities boiled out of his powerful but perverted mind. At Luther's death, this "father" appears to drag him off to hell.” (Fred W. Meuser and Stanley D. Schneider (eds.) Interpreting Luther’s Legacy, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1969), 41)

In actuality, Cochlaeus’s work on Luther was some of the worst ever put forth. He took up a number of false rumors of Luther circulating and incorporated them into his work. Two such rumors were Luther being a “womanizer and a lush.”

The first charge is pure folly. Luther lived the first part of his life as a celibate monk. He then lived the remainder of his life as a devoted husband. There is no historical record that exists that substantiates Luther being a womanizer. On the other hand, there are countless sermons and writings of Luther exhorting his congregation and readers to moral purity. Cochlaeus had simply lied, or either printed hearsay as fact.

The second charge about Luther being a “lush” has a similar response. To my knowledge, no historical source document from Luther’s lifetime exists that says he was ever drunk. On the other hand, there are countless sermons and writings of Luther exhorting his congregation and readers to be not drunk with alcohol. Cochlaeus had simply lied, or either printed hearsay as fact.

W.H.T. Dau in his book, Luther Examined and Reexamined: A Review of Catholic Criticism and a Plea for Reevaluation (St Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1917, 7) gives a helpful picture of Luther on this topic:

Luther is said to have been a glutton and a drunkard. "Let us examine the facts... I do not deny that Luther drank freely both beer and wine. So did everybody else. People drank beer as we do coffee. . . . Moreover, in the sixteenth century alcoholic beverages were prescribed for the maladies from which Luther suffered much--kidneys and nervous trouble. We now know that in such cases alcohol proves a very poison; but this Luther could not know. But intemperate . . . in his use of strong drink Luther was not. Neither was he a glutton. Before he married, he ate very irregularly, and often completely forgot his meals. When he could not get meat and wine, he contented himself with bread and water. . . . Melanchthon tells us that Luther loved the coarse food as he did the coarse speech of the peasantry, and even of that food ate little, so little that Melanchthon marveled how Luther could maintain strength upon such a diet.--It is further a noteworthy fact that, when we read the sermons of the day, we find nobody who so frequently and so earnestly attacks the prevailing vice of drunkenness as does Luther. Now, whatever Luther may or may not have been, hypocrite he was not. Had he himself been intemperate, he would not have preached against it in such a manner. Furthermore, Luther was under constant espionage. His every move was noted. People knew how many patches there were on his undergarments. Think you, think you for a moment, that the Wittenbergians would have listened meekly to Luther's repeated assaults upon the wide-spread sin of intemperance, had they known him for a confirmed tippler? It is too absurd.--But the best evidence for the defense comes from a mute witness--Luther's industry. He wrote more than four hundred books, brochures, sermons, and so forth, filling more than one hundred volumes of the Erlangen edition. There are extant more than three thousand of his letters, which represent only a small proportion of all that he wrote. Thus we know, for example, that one evening in 1544 Luther wrote ten letters, of which only two have been preserved. He was, furthermore, in frequent conference with leaders in both Church and State. He preached on Sundays and lectured on week-days. Now, a man may, it is true, perform a considerable amount of manual labor even after overeating and overdrinking, but every physician will admit the correctness of my assertion, it is a physiological impossibility that a man could habitually overindulge in food or liquor, or both, and still get over the enormous amount of intellectual work that Luther performed day to day" (Boehmer, The Man Luther, p. 16 f.)


Bill Mallonee said...

Much welcomed commentary...!
Thank you!
I'm a "fan" of Luther, my knowledge coming via books i read in college on him.
(Roland Bainton's "Here I Stand," Paul Althaus's ""The Theology of Martin Luther," and John Dilenberger's "Martin Luther" were part of my introduction to the wondrous mind and spirit that was Luther.)

Keep up the good work!
~ Bill

James Swan said...

Hi Bill,

Thanks for your kind words on this old blog post.