Monday, November 19, 2007
Luther and the Peasants Revolt
"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 to rule. All the blame for this wicked error among the people is laid on Luther and must be called 'the first fruit of my Gospel,' just as I must bear the blame for the rebellion [the Peasant's Revolt of 1525], and for everything bad that happens anywhere in the world. My accusers know better, but God and His Word to the contrary, they pretend not to know better, and seek occasion to speak evil of the Holy Ghost and of the truth that is openly confessed, so that they may earn the reward of hell and never receive repentance or the forgiveness of their sins." - [Luther's letters to Philip of Hesse October 9, 1528 [Works of Martin Luther Vol. 5 (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1931), p. 79]
Martin Luther's book, "Against The Robbing And Murdering Mobs of Peasants" is sometimes cited as evidence that Luther had the peasants killed. That is, his writing directed the princes to slay the peasants, so on his order, they did. This common caricature views Luther as somehow in charge of Germany. The princes simply waited for Luther's command and then followed this advise he gave: "Stab, smite, slay, whoever can. If you die in doing it, well for you! A more blessed death can never be yours, for you die obeying the divine Word and commandment in Romans XIII."
For instance, a person I critiqued some time back, after citing these words from Luther, stated, "As a result, thousands died when the German nobility, spurred by Luther's words attacked and killed those they disagreed with in the Peasant's War." The idea is, had Luther not written harsh words against the peasants, the peasants would not have been killed by the princes. Luther was thus directly responsible for murdering thousands of people by his cruel words. Catholic writer Patrick O'Hare states, "The civil powers obeyed Luther. They wielded the sword unsparingly. They drove the common people before them like mules; they whipped, choked, hung, burnt, beheaded, tortured and slaughtered to teach them to 'learn to fear the powers that be' " [The Facts About Luther, p.236]. "The cause of all history proclaims that Luther was the cause of the insurrection of the peasants and of their subsequent massacre"[The Facts About Luther, p.237].
In my earlier research on this subject, I recall reading that Luther's harsh advise came out after the wars began. That is, the princes were already in progress of using their force to kill the peasants to suppress their revolt. I recall reading Luther's book, "Against The Robbing And Murdering Mobs of Peasants" was actually delayed in printing (See the Bainton quote below). However, I did find a book actually verifying my overall conclusion, that Luther's advise to kill the peasants did not provoke the princes to begin killing the peasants. They had already been doing so before the book came out. The Roman Catholic author John Todd states the following:
"As the spring lengthened, the violence in the country worsened rapidly, the Elector became more ill, and all things seemed to be moving to some terrible crisis. Then the Count of Mansfeld, near his old home, invited Luther and Melancthon to go and organise a school in Eisleben. While any journey was now dangerous, it would be an opportunity to preach to the peasants en route through Thuringia. Luther decided to go, and took Melancthon in his party. They found unrest everywhere,and Luther wrote Admonition to Peace, which eventually appeared too late to influence those peasants who were already committed to massive violence by extremist leaders. In Nordlingen, where Karlstadt had been for a time, Luther's sermon was heckled. However, they reached their destination and Melanchthon provided guidelines for a school there, which was duly established.
On the way home they visited Luther's parents and other relations. And suddenly the decision was made. His father was still longing to see grandchildren from Martin's loins. There was one nun left unmarried at Wittenberg, living with the Cranachs, and she had set her cap at Luther herself. Having declined two successive suggestions for husbands after a previous abortive engagement, she had said she would consider Amsdorf- or Luther. Katherine von Bora seemed to have some spirit about her. She was twenty-six, rather old for marrying at that time.
On his return, Luther spoke to her and they agreed. The projected wedding then became part of a terrible threefold crisis in Luther's life: the Elector was dying, and a full-scale civil war was
now in progress. The 'peasants', who included numbers of underprivileged from the towns, were plundering the countryside massively and taking control of castles, religious houses, food supplies and some towns. The rulers were uniting their military forces to oppose and defeat them. Luther saw both sides to be in the wrong: the peasants suffered widely from injustice, but in the end they did not have the right to resort to violent revolt against the established rulers. He then issued his blistering advice to the princes to suppress the peasants ruthlessly in his
Against the Robbing and Murdering Mobs of Peasants - this again appeared too late, when the princes were already victorious and indulging in brutal vengeance."
Source: John M. Todd, Luther: A Life (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1982), pp. 260-261
Todd says also, "It was only towards the end of May that Luther’s Against the Robbing and Murdering Mobs of Peasants came into the hands of readers, when the rulers were already victorious and were indulging in revenge and unnecessary violence"[source].
Roland Bainton likewise states, "Unhappily Luther's savage tract was late in leaving the press and appeared just at the time when the peasants were being butchered" [source].
Mark U. Edwards points out that Luther's treatise, Against the Robbing and Murdering Mobs of Peasants was written when Luther returned back from his attempts at preaching to the peasants. Edwards, states,
"Peasant unrest had spread into the Thuringian area, and Luther's audiences were unruly, heckling him and interrupting his sermons. Luther was later to remark that he had been lucky to escape injury and even death, so hostile had his hearers been. Upon his return to Wittenberg on 6 May and with these experiences fresh in his mind, he wrote out his short and uncompromising Against the Robbing and Murdering Mobs of Peasants. "
Source: Mark U. Edwards, Luther And The False Brethren (California: Stanford University Press, 1975), p.64
Edwards goes on to point out that Luther's intent was to have this book published in one volume along with the earlier treatise, the Admonition To Peace. This earlier treatise considered the plight of the peasants, and exhorted the princes to consider the unstable state of affairs their rulership helped create. The Admonition was directed towards good peasants, while the newer treatise was directed toward the bad peasants. Edwards points out though, printers quickly split the volume in two. Against the Robbing and Murdering Mobs of Peasants found popularity with ruthless rulers, and had wide circulation. Thus, the overall intent of Luther's writings on this had been lost due to the actions of the printers.
One can conclude that Luther believed seditious peasants should be killed, and held that the governing authorities had the right to do so. As to Luther's actual writings being the cause of the peasants being killed, one must consider all the facts. The peasants were already being killed, and his intended book on this subject was popularly printed out of balance, leaving out the Admonition To Peace, thus serving as a tool of for ruthless rulers. My own opinion is, whether his book (or books) came out or not, the peasants would have been killed. Rulers intending to protect their lands and their power generally will take and use whatever they want to, and ignore whatever they want to. In fact, some Catholic lords used the peasants revolt as an excuse to kill the Lutherans working in their lands.
Richard Marius stated in his book Martin Luther: The Christian Between God and Death, "The nobles did not require Luther to urge them to massacre; they were entirely capable of inspiring themselves to the bloody business that they pursued for several months" (p.432). Marius goes on to state, "Luther was not responsible for these atrocities. Yet to many people, the timing of his diatribe against the peasants made him seem a cause of the slaughter that followed." (p.432). Marius also points out that in Luther's follow-up defense of his harsh book, he condemned the killing of both the guilty and innocent together after the princes were already victorious. "Luther raged against the tyranny of the nobles in books and pamphlets over the next year or so and blamed their merciless conduct for continued peasant unrest" (p.433).
That Luther's Admonition To Peace is rarely brought up by cyber-criticizers of Luther is a good indication of bias. That is, why don't rulers get blamed for not following Luther's points in this earlier treatise? If Luther's words had the power of life and death over the peasants, why was the Admonition To Peace so ineffective in controlling those rulers who are said to be so motivated by Luther words? Obviously, Luther's words were not as crucial and important to the rulers as some make them out to be.
If one wants to chastise Luther, it would be for the harshness of his words against the peasants. Yes, I'm sure certain rulers found it comforting that Luther agreed with their cause to suppress the peasants (like Philip of Hesse). On the other hand, one must seriously ask what would've happened to the peasants had not Luther wrote against them? My gut feeling is they would've been slaughtered all the same. So, if they were to be killed anyway, what then was the actual force of Luther's harsh book?
Some argue, guilt by association. Luther agreed the peasants should be suppressed, and they were, so Luther was part of the problem, rather than the solution. It's a bit naive though to think somehow a person living in a peaceful country, hundreds of years later, can actually determine the guilt of Luther's writings in the entire peasants revolt. I would love to have the ability to stick these people back in 1524-1525, to see what they would think of the peasants while the peasants ransacked their house, or killed their family members, and threatened the stability of the land. I would posit the same people criticizing Luther now, would be the first to buy his book Against the Robbing and Murdering Mobs of Peasants, and ask Luther to autograph it. It is indeed ironic that we can be extremely critical of a situation we have never faced, but then, thrust into such a situation, we learn what it is to actually be in that situation.
1. Roland Bainton points out, "Catholic princes held Luther responsible for the whole outbreak" of the Peasants War. Figures, doesn't it? Nothing has changed, except we're not dealing with princes anymore.
2. Luther actually went on to chastise the Princes for being too harsh on the peasants. Bainton notes, "All the devils, he declared, instead of leaving the peasants and returning to hell, had now
entered the victors, who were simply venting their vengeance."
For those of you interested, you can read the text Against the Robbing and Murdering Mobs of Peasants, the text is short, and widely available on-line. I've included a few different links of the same content, knowing that e-texts tend to appear and disappear over time.
Against the Robbing and Murdering Mobs of Peasants
Against the Robbing and Murdering Mobs of Peasants
Against the Robbing and Murdering Mobs of Peasants