Sunday, June 29, 2008

Was Luther an Abused Child in a Dysfunctional Family?

What "made Luther tick"? This question has been asked in various ways throughout the years by both Protestants and Roman Catholics. There have been many Roman Catholics that have argued psychological maladaptive factors or poor genetics played a crucial role in Luther's work as a Reformer. Many of the older Catholic biographies present the young Luther as the victim of angry, abusive, and alcoholic parents.

Previously, I looked at the charge that Luther's father was a murderer, an argument presented in Father Patrick O'Hare's book, The Facts About Luther. O'Hare thinks "Martin was a veritable chip of the hard old block," and it "may account for that 'terrible temper' of the Reformer...". If Luther's father was a murderer, well...Luther himself was probably prone to such acts of violence as well...because... murder is only committed by really angry, quick tempered people... at least in Father O'Hare's world. Luther had a temper, so it must've been the result of his upbringing and genetics.

O'Hare then goes on to make another psycho-historical argument, that Luther was an abused child (from a poor family) growing up in an overly strict disciplinarian home, and this may explain "the development of that temper of unbending obstinacy for which their son was so remarkable not only in his earliest years, but throughout his whole life" [The Facts About Luther, p.28 (Tan Edition)]. What seems to interest Catholic polemicists is Luther's temperament- which they think had a role in his lack of ability to reason accurately and honestly. For these Catholic writers, Luther's theological insights or scholarly work were merely the writings of a man in need of psychological therapy. O'Hare states,

The parents of Luther in the beginning of their married life were not blessed with much of the goods of this world. They had, however, a strong sense of their obligations toward their family and the courage to discharge them. Anxious for their own and their children's advancement, they worked together and toiled incessantly to provide food and clothing and education for their rising offspring. For years their means were scant enough and the struggle to meet the support of the household was both hard and grinding. Often the mother was reduced to the dire necessity of carrying home the wood for the family fire, gathered from the neighboring pine forest, on her own shoulders. In this home, like many before and since, there was unfortunately one great deficiency, more intolerable than poverty, namely, the absence of the sweet joys of family life. Childish fun and frolic which beget happiness and good cheer, found no encouragement in the Luther family circle. Home life was exacting, cold, dull and cheerless. The heads of the house took their parental responsibilities too seriously and interpreted them too rigorously. The father was stern, harsh, exacting, and, what is rather unusual, the mother was altogether too much given to inflict the severest corporal punishments. With them "the apple did not always lie beside the rod." They were altogether too strict and exacting. They believed in work and had no relish for innocent play and amusement. In the government of their children they exercised no discrimination or moderation. Too much severity ruled the household and as usual begot disastrous results, To this overstrenuous discipline we may find to a certain degree the explanation of the development of that temper of unbending obstinacy for which their son was so remarkable not only in his earliest years, but throughout his whole life. Though he seems to have been very fond of his parents in after life and recalled how they pinched themselves to give him support and education, it appears from his own statement that they were extremely exacting and punished him cruelly for the most trifling offenses. As examples of the harsh treatment to which he was subjected in his youth, he tells us that on one occasion his father, in a fit of uncontrollable rage, beat him so mercilessly that he became a fugitive from home and was on this account so "embittered against him that he had to win me to himself again." (Tischreden, Frankfort, 1567, fol. 3143.) At another time, he says, "his mother in her inflexible rigor flogged him, until the blood flowed, on account of a worthless little nut" [The Facts About Luther, pp. 27-28 (Tan Edition)].

This same material would resurface in popular form years later in Erik Erikson's Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History (1958). Erikson argued Luther's relation to his mother led him to move away from devotion to the Virgin Mary. Luther's father (said to be an alcoholic, he was not) was interpreted to be a hard task-master and righteous judge . Elsewhere I've commented on the value (or rather, the lack thereof) of doing psychoanalysis on a 500 year old man one has never met (see: *Using PsychoHistory To Interpret Luther: A Response To Art Sippo*). What interests me here is the actual data used by Father O'Hare to arrive at his conclusions. Interestingly, the same Luther quotes stated above by Father O'Hare were similarly used by Erikson.

Keep in mind how O'Hare presents daily life in the Luther household: It was characterized by the "absence of the sweet joys of family life. Childish fun and frolic which beget happiness and good cheer, found no encouragement in the Luther family circle. Home life was exacting, cold, dull and cheerless. The heads of the house took their parental responsibilities too seriously and interpreted them too rigorously." Below are the actual citations from the Tabletalk, and my evaluation.

Luther's Mother

No. 3566A: Children Must Be Disciplined with Understanding
Between March 28 and May 27, 1537

“Stealing is no art. It’s deception, manual dexterity. Presto, and the stuff is gone! That’s how the gypsies were.” Then he [Martin Luther] spoke about children and said that they should not be allowed to commit thefts. “However, one ought to observe reasonableness. If only cherries, apples, and the like are involved, such childish pranks ought not to be punished so severely; but if money, clothing, or coffers have been seized it is time to punish. My parents kept me under very strict discipline, even to the point of making me timid. For the sake of a mere nut my mother beat me until the blood flowed. By such strict discipline they finally forced me into the monastery; though they meant it heartily well, I was only made timid by it. They weren’t able to keep a right balance between temperament and punishment. One must punish in such a way that the rod is accompanied by the apple. It’s a bad thing if children and pupils lose their spirit on account of their parents and teachers. There have been bungling schoolmasters who spoiled many excellent talents by their rudeness. Ah, what a time we had on Fridays with the lupus and on Thursdays with the parts of Donatus! Then they asked each pupil to parse precisely, according to Donatus, legeris, legere, legitur, and even lecti mei ars. These tests were nothing short of torture. Whatever the method that’s used, it ought to pay attention to the difference in aptitudes and teach in such a way that all children are treated with equal love.” [LW 54:234-235]

The actual information about Luther's mother and his relationship with his mother is quite sparse. Note that in the Tabletalk citation above, Luther recalls exactly one instance in which his mother drew blood, not multiple instances. Second, Luther does not imply that she meant to draw blood, nor is there any other information from the Luther corpus that expounds on this or adds to this, as far as I know. The Tabletalk records precisely one instance in which the punishment given by Mrs. Luther did not match the offense.

In regard to this Tabletalk utterance, Reformation scholar Lewis Spitz points out, "Luther loved his mother much as he did his father, 'for they meant well by me.' ...Luther elsewhere observed how sweetly his mother sang, at the age of forty-two he invited her to his wedding, he named a daughter after her, and when she was on her deathbed he wrote one of the finest letters of love and consolation that can be found in all of literature" [Psychohistory and Religion: The Case of Young Man Luther (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977), p.76]. This letter reads,

Grace and peace in Christ Jesus, our Lord and Savior, Amen.My dearest mother, I have received the letter of my brother James about your sickness. It makes me very sad, especially because I cannot be with you as I wish I were. But with this letter I am with you personally and assuredly in the spirit, together with all our house. I trust that you have been abundantly instructed and thank God His comforting Word dwells in your heart. Though you have many preachers and comforters, still I would add my part to show that I am your child and you are my mother. God made us both and bound us together so that I may increase the number of your comforters. Dearest mother, be assured that your illness is God's gracious and fatherly rod and a very little rod compared with that with which he visits the ungodly and sometimes His own dear children whom he suffers to be beheaded, burned and drowned so that we must all sing, "For Thy sake we are slain all the day long." So you must not mourn or be troubled by your sickness but thank God and recall how little is your suffering compared with that of His dear Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, which he suffered not for himself like us but for our sins. Secondly, dearest mother, be assured that the main ground of your blessedness, on which your comfort rests, in all extremities, is the "chief corner stone," Jesus Christ, who will not fail us nor suffer us to fall. . . . He says, "Be of good cheer. I have overcome the world." If he has overcome the world he has also overcome all the princes of the world and their power and what is in their power if it be not death? . . . But now he has overcome sin and death and given us this comforting word. We are to accept it with joy and thanksgiving. If any would affright us we are to say, See, see, see my soul, what are you doing? Death, dear sin, how do you live and frighten me? Don't you know that you have been overcome and you, death, are dead. Don't you know the one who has said, "I have overcome the world"? We are not to be terrified but hear the word of the Savior, "Be of good cheer. I have overcome the world." St. Paul says, "Oh death, where is thy sting? Oh hell, where is thy victory?" "You, death, cannot scare me with a wooden skeleton. You have no power over me. You can show your teeth but you cannot bite. God has given us the victory over you through Jesus Christ, our Lord." . . . Comfort yourself with these thoughts, dearest mother, and be thankful that God has delivered you from the papist error that we can be saved through our own works and those of the monks and the error that Christ is not a comforting Savior but a cruel judge and tyrant from whom we should run to Mary and the saints. We know that Jesus Christ is our Mediator, our throne of grace, our bishop in heaven before God, who continually intercedes for those who believe in him. You have the letter and seal, namely the gospel, baptism and the sacrament of the altar and preaching. Be thankful for such grace. Hear the words of Christ, "I live and you shall live and no one shall take your joy from you." May the Father and God of all comfort, give you His holy Word, a firm, joyous and thankful faith that you may taste and experience the truth when he says, "Be of good cheer. I have overcome the world." All of the children pray for you and my Katie. Some weep. Some eat and say, "Grandma is very sick." May God's grace be with us all. Amen. [Translation by Roland Bainton in Psychohistory and Religion, pp.31-32].

As to Luther's mother driving him into the monastery, Roland Bainton points out "...the statement is at variance with Luther's authentic statement of what drove him into the cloister. One wonders whether the explanation given in this saying may not have been an addition of the note-taker" [Psychohistory and Religion, p.30]. Hartmann Grisar, (a Catholic writer heavily utilized by Father O'Hare) states, "It is surprising that Luther never in later life mentions his mother with a friendly and warm feeling, despite the frequency with which he recalls the days of his childhood and boyhood"[Hartmann Grisar, Martin Luther: His Life and Work (Maryland: Newman Press, 1950), p. 7]. Grisar though is mistaken, as the above letter shows, as well as a point mentioned by Bainton: "[Luther] sought the consent of his parents to his marriage though at the time he was forty-two years old. He informed a friend that he was inviting his 'dear father and mother' to his wedding banquet"[Psychohistory and Religion, p.31].

Luther's Father

No. 1559: Severe Whipping Makes Children Resentful
Between May 20 and 27, 1532

“One shouldn’t whip children too hard. My father once whipped me so severely that I ran away from him, and he was worried that he might not win me back again. I wouldn’t like to strike my little Hans very much, lest he should become shy and hate me. I know nothing that would give me greater sorrow. God acts like this [for he says], ‘I’ll chastise you, my children, but through another-through Satan or the world-but if you cry out and run to me, I’ll rescue you and raise you up again.’ For God doesn’t want us to hate him.” [LW 54:157]

As to Hans Luther's violent temper, Bainton states, "...and what do we know about bursts of temper at home? There is just one saying about a beating at the hands of the father" [Psychohistory and Religion, p. 34]. As with the statement about Luther's mother's punishment, we have again only one factoid. Bainton also rightly points out that Luther's father "undertook to repair the damage...Luther could recall only a single example of such behavior" (p.36). Spitz notes, "It is of some interest to note that Luther said einmal, once, which does not suggest a customary thing but rather an exceptional situation" (p.71), and also, " should be clear that this passage can hardly be used to create a picture of a tyrannous or cruel father. Father Hans took the initiative in winning Martin back..." (pp. 71-72). Spitz goes on to state,

"No, Hans Luther was not harsh, drunken, or tyrannous, but rather tender and pious as well as stern and ambitious for himself and his son. Hans was inclined to be tender and deeply moved by suffering. Luther on two different occasions recounts a story which illustrates the point: 'My father was asked at Mansfield by a certain neighbor to come and see him, for he was in mortal agony. Turning on his bed he showed him his posterior and said, 'see dear Luther, how they beat me!' at which Father was so shocked and so shaken by those reflections that he nearly died himself.' On one occasion Hans took Martin into a wheat field to show him the grain ripe for harvest and told him how the heavenly Father cares for us. The same man who was merry and humorous when he had belted a few joked with his wife in bed. Luther relates that his sons respect him just as he respected his parents, for his father slept with his mother and joked with her just as Luther did with his wife, and they were nevertheless pious people, just like the patriarchs and prophets. Hans was a man of genuine piety and an active churchman. The Mansfield relatives recounted that Luther's father prayed often and earnestly at the bedside of his children. He was badly shaken when in 1505 he lost two sons to the plague and reflected that he should perhaps willingly give Martin to the Lord for service as a monk" [p.74-75].

When Luther's father died, he wrote about it in a letter to Melanchthon:

"This death has cast me into deep mourning, not only because of the ties of nature but also because it was through his sweet love to me that my Creator endowed me with all that I am and have. Although it is consoling to me that, as he writes, my father fell asleep softly and strongly in his faith in Christ, yet his kindness and the memory of his pleasant conversation have caused so deep a wound in my heart that I have scarcely ever held death in such low esteem" [Psychohistory and Religion, p.75].

The information about Luther's parents and early home life is sparse. Not surprisingly, the main quotes from Luther about his parents used by Father O'Hare come from The Tabletalk. One should use caution when extracting information from the Tabletalk, for the simple reason that Luther did not write the Tabletalk. The Tabletalk is a collection of comments from Luther written down by Luther’s students and friends. Thus, it is not in actuality an official writing of Luther and should not serve as the basis for conclusive information.

Even anti-Luther Catholic historian Hartmann Grisar has pointed out, “Of course, it must not be overlooked that the Table Talks are ephemeral—‘children of the moment.’ While they correctly and vividly reproduce the ideas of the speaker, minus the cool reflection which prevails in the writing of letters and still more of books, they contain frequent exaggerations and betray a lack of moderation. The lightning-like flashes which they emit are not always true. The momentary exaggerations of the speaker at times beget contradictions which conflict with other talks or literary utterances. Frequently humorous statements were received as serious declarations. Humor and satire of a very pungent kind play a great part in these talks” [Hartmann Grisar, Martin Luther: His Life and Work (Maryland: Newman Press, 1950), p. 481].

It has been my experience that older Catholic writers in particular sized every opportunity to use the Tabletalk against Luther, and Father O'Hare is no exception. In this instance, O'Hare has taken minimal information and made maximal use of it to discredit the Luther family. Luther's upbringing by angry and abusive parents rests primarily on merely two quotes from a non-definitive writing, the Tabletalk. One sees how tenuous the psychohistory approach is in evaluating a man long gone. Minimal second hand information becomes maximized at the expense of historical data that would say otherwise.

True, the Tabletalk does have value in understanding Luther- but in my opinion, only to confirm that which is already established in authentic primary writings from the hand of the Reformer himself. Indeed, speculation tickles the imagination, and a host of writers both old and new still seek to discover the "real" Luther by sifitng through Tabletalk utterances. Luther's "abusive" parents should serve as an example though of making too definitve a case on a too slim amount of evidence.

1 comment:

LPC said...


Obviously these writers have not read Luther's Large Catechism. Someone who has a recentment towards his parents could have not written and thought that parents are next to God.

Here is what he said:
We must, therefore, impress it upon the young that they should regard their parents as in God's stead, and remember that however lowly, poor, frail, and queer they may be, nevertheless they are father and mother given them by God. They are not to be deprived of their honor because of their conduct or their failings. Therefore we are not to regard their persons, how they may be, but the will of God who has thus created and ordained. In other respects we are, indeed, all alike in the eyes of God; but among us there must necessarily be such inequality and ordered difference, and therefore God commands it to be observed, that you obey me as your father, and that I have the supremacy.