Over the years, I've written about the charge that Luther advocated polygamy. The quote, "I confess that I cannot forbid a person to marry several wives, for it does not contradict the Scripture" has been oft used to indict Luther as advocating unrestrained polygamy.
The quote as it appears in most webpages, probably was extracted from Patrick O'Hare's Facts About Luther:
Luther was an out-and-out believer in polygamy. To say that he did not "counsel" polygamy, or that he advised that it should be kept secret as a sort of matter of "conscience," is utterly beside the facts. When Bruck, the Chancellor of the Duke of Saxe-Weimer, heard that Carlstadt in 1524 advocated polygamy he consulted Luther on the new and pernicious teaching. The Reformer, not in the least abashed, openly and distinctly stated: "I confess that I cannot forbid a person to marry several wives, for it does not contradict the Scripture. If a man wishes to marry more than one wife he should be asked whether he is satisfied in his conscience that he may do so in accordance with the word of God. In such a case the civil authority has nothing to do in the matter." (De Wette II, 459.) Many other clear statements wherein Luther sanctions polygamy might be reproduced here, but the one given above will suffice for the present.
Catholic apologist Mark Shea cites the quote exactly like Patrick O'Hare. Shea blunders with the historical context by attributing it the "Philip of Hesse" bigamy incident which occurred around 16 years later. It's too late to fix this for Shea, he's published this misinformation in his book, By What Authority?
In his old magnum opus (now with a disclaimer that I think I provoked from last time I cited it), a Catholic apologist states, "Luther believed that polygamy was sanctioned in Scripture: I cannot forbid a person to marry several wives, for it does not contradict the Scripture. (De Wette, vol. 2, 459)." For this guy, Luther saying "contradict" means "sanctioned."
As is typical, putting a context and explanation to such quotes takes a lot more time and effort to sort through than the time and effort of those who use such quotes against Luther. This quote, as cited by O'Hare and Shea, isn't exactly what Luther said. Actually, O'Hare and Shea appear to have reversed the sentences. The thoughts in the quote should actually read something like this:
If a man wishes to marry more than one wife he should be asked whether he is satisfied in his conscience that he may do so in accordance with the word of God.
In such a case the civil authority has nothing to do in the matter.
I confess that I cannot forbid a person to marry several wives, for it does not contradict the Scripture.
I haven't been able to track down the entire letter yet, but I have found more of it. Here is a larger context of the quote, as cited by Hartmann Grisar. Grisar explains, "A man, who, owing to his wife's illness was prevented from matrimonial intercourse, wished, on the strength of Carlstadt's advice, to take a second wife. Luther thereupon wrote to Chancellor Bruck, on Jan. 27, 1524, telling him the Prince should reply as follows..." Note how different Grisar's citation is from O'Hare's:
Therefore let him seek out such men as may convince him by the Word of God, whether Carlstadt, or some other, matters not at all to the Prince. For if the fellow is not sure of his case, then the permission of the Prince will not make him so; nor is it for the Prince to decide on this point, for it is the priests business to expound the Word of God, and, as Zacharias says, from their lips the Law of the Lord must be learned. I, for my part, admit I can raise no objection if a man wishes to take several wives since Holy Scripture does not forbid this; but I should not like to see this example introduced amongst Christians. ... It does not beseem Christians to seize greedily and for their own advantage on every thing to which their freedom gives them a right. . . . No Christian surely is so God-forsaken as not to be able to practise continence when his partner, owing to the Divine dispensation, proves unfit for matrimony. Still, we may well let things take their course" [To Chancellor Bruck, "Brief wechsel," 4, p. 282: " Oportere ipsum maritum sua propria conscientia esse firmum ac cerium per verbum Dei, sibi hcec licere."] [Hartmann Grisar, Luther Vol. 5 p.72]
Here is an alternate translation of the Luther quote:
"The prince ought to ask the bigamist, 'Have you obeyed your conscience directed by God's word?' If he replies: 'It is by Carlstadt,' or some other, the prince has nothing more to object; for he has no right to disquiet or hush the inward voice of that man, or decide in a matter entirely within the jurisdiction of him who, according to Zacharias, is commissioned to explain the divine law. For my part, I confess that I do not see how I can prevent polygamy; there is not in the sacred texts the least word against those who take several wives at one time; but there are many things permissible that ought not becomingly to be done: of these is bigamy" [source]
Here is some interesting background commentary:
Some of the radical Anabaptists undertook to introduce polygamy, appealing to the patriarchal order of society in justification of their position. Even among Luther's followers and associates there was no little uncertainty about the matter, as was not altogether surprising when the old order of things was undergoing revision at so many points, including the marriage of monks, priests, and near relatives. But Luther himself was unalterably opposed to any such revolution. Monogamy he considered, under ordinary circumstances, alone tolerable in a Christian community, and held that no Christian ruler has any moral right to legalize polygamy. At the same time, finding no explicit prohibition in the Bible, he believed exceptions might be allowed in certain extreme cases such as are now generally recognized in Protestant countries as justifying divorce. Writing Chancellor Bruck about the matter in 1524, he said: I confess I am not able to forbid anybody to take more than one wife if he wishes to do so, nor do the sacred Scriptures forbid him. But I do not want this custom introduced among Christians, for it behooves them to give up things which are permitted, that scandal may be avoided and honorable living promoted, as Paul everywhere demands. [source]
The interesting thing about this larger context (with background and alternate translation) is what Luther goes on to say (not cited by O'Hare or Shea):
"...but I should not like to see this example introduced amongst Christians.
[but there are many things permissible that ought not becomingly to be done: of these is bigamy]
[for it behooves them to give up things which are permitted, that scandal may be avoided and honorable living promoted, as Paul everywhere demands]
... It does not beseem Christians to seize greedily and for their own advantage on every thing to which their freedom gives them a right. . . . No Christian surely is so God-forsaken as not to be able to practise continence when his partner, owing to the Divine dispensation, proves unfit for matrimony."
So when O'Hare states, "Luther was an out-and-out believer in polygamy" and Shea concludes, "Luther (together with Philip Melanchthon) concluded that monogamy was no necessary part of the Christian revelation and that polygamy was a legitimate practice for a Christian" these two Catholic apologists either grossly ignored the context, or never saw the context.
As Grisar explained, the situation which provoked the letter was the sickness of a wife preventing "matrimonial intercourse." One must not immediately place this situation in a 21st century context, for offspring in the 16th century were of vital importance. Luther's response was not an all out anything goes. Rather, the comment was directed to an exception. For more on the "exception," see my earlier blog article. It is true Luther allowed for polygamy, but only in a very narrow sense. Luther scholar Heinrich Boehmer points out that it was only to be in cases of “severe necessity, for instance, if the wife develops leprosy or becomes otherwise unfit to live with her husband… But this permission is always to be restricted to such cases as severe necessity. The idea of legalizing general polygamy was far from the reformers mind. Monogamy was always to him the regular form of matrimony…” (Luther And The Reformation in Light of Modern Research, 213-214).
This radical comment from Luther appears to have been prompted by Luther's ex-colleague, Carlstadt. Carlstadt condoned a man taking a second wife. Von Ranke says of Carlstadt, "His rash and confused mind led him entirely to confound the national with the religious element of the Old Testament. Luther expected that before long circumcision would be introduced at Orlamunde [where Carlstadt was preaching], and thought it necessary seriously to warn the elector against attempts of this nature" [source].
After Carlstadt had become increasingly radical, he left Wittenberg's faculty. Carlstadt went to Orlamunde in the Thuringian countryside, right around the time this letter from Luther was written (Jan. 27, 1524). The interesting thing about the quote in question is that by this time, Luther had a grave distrust of Carlstadt, yet in this letter Luther states, "it is the priests business to expound the Word of God." The way I read it, Luther is saying that secular authorities are not to interpret the Bible on this point. Rather, it is the job of spiritual authorities. For better or for worse, Carlstadt was the spiritual authority in Orlamunde. Early in 1524 the Wittenberg faculty took steps in attempting to recall Carlstadt from Orlamunde in order to try to curb his radical nature. That is, they still held out some sort of hope that he wasn't too far gone in his radical leanings. Thus, the bigger point for Luther was not bigamy as such, but that secular authorities didn't have jurisdiction to interpret the Bible. I look forward to one day finding the entire letter. I think it would really shed light on the context of this situation between Luther, Carlstadt, and Bruck.
Carlstadt is reported to have stated something like, "As neither you nor I have found a text in the sacred book against bigamy, let us be bigamists and trigamists .... let us take as many wives as we can maintain. Increase and multiply. Do you understand? Accomplish the order of heaven." Sometimes this quote is put forth as addressed to Luther, but I haven't been able to document the date or the recipient, or if it was written in or around January 1524, or if it has anything to do with the Luther quote in question.
In a 1526 letter, Luther stated:
As regards the other matter, my faithful warning and advice is that no man, Christians in particular, should have more than one wife, not only for the reason that offense would be given, and Christians must not needlessly give, but most diligently avoid giving, offense, but also for the reason that we have no word of God regarding this matter on which we might base a belief that such action would be well-pleasing to God and to Christians. Let heathen and Turks do what they please. Some of the ancient fathers had many wives, but they were urged to this by necessity, as Abraham and Jacob, and later many kings, who according to the law of Moses obtained the wives of their friends, on the death of the latter, as an inheritance. The example of the fathers is not a sufficient argument to convince a Christian: he must have, in addition, a divine word that makes him sure, just as they had a word of that kind from God. For where there was no need or cause, the ancient fathers did not have more than one wife, as Isaac, Joseph, Moses, and many others. For this reason I cannot advise for, but must advise against, your intention, particularly since you are a Christian, unless there were an extreme necessity, as, for instance, if the wife were leprous or the husband were deprived of her for some other reason. On what grounds to forbid other people such marriages I know not" (21a, 900 f.) This letter effected that the Landgrave did not carry out his intention, but failing, nevertheless, to lead a chaste life, he did not commune, except once in extreme illness, because of his accusing conscience." ( Luther Examined and Reexamined: A Review of Catholic Criticism and a Plea for Reevaluation (St Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1917, 103-104).
W.H.T. Dau points out that Catholics should use caution in this charge against Luther:
"Ought not this remark of the Landgrave caution Luther's Catholic critics to be very careful in what they say about the heinousness of Luther's offense in granting a dispensation from a moral precept? Have they really no such thing as a "dispensation" at Rome? Has not the married relationship come up for "dispensation" in the chancelleries of the Vatican innumerable times? Has not one of the canonized saints of Rome, St. Augustine, declared that bigamy might be permitted if a wife was sterile? Was not concubinage still recognized by law in the sixteenth century in Ireland? Did not King Diarmid have two legitimate wives and two concubines? And he was a Catholic. What have Catholics to say in rejoinder to Sir Henry Maine's assertion that the Canon Law of their Church brought about numerous sexual inequalities? Or to Joseph MacCabe's statement that not until 1060 was there any authoritative mandate of the Church against polygamy, and that even after this prohibition there were numerous instances of concubinage and polygamic marriages in Christian communities? Or to Hallam in his Middle Ages, where he reports concubinage in Europe? Or to Lea, who proves that this evil was not confined to the laity? (See Gallighan, Women under Polygamy, pp. 43. 292. 295. 303. 330. 339.) ( Luther Examined and Reexamined: A Review of Catholic Criticism and a Plea for Reevaluation (St Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1917, 106)
My conclusion? Catholics chastising Luther with this quote tend to make it mean more than was intended. Luther was not an "out-and-out believer in polygamy." For Luther, it was an exception. Do I agree with Luther? not at all, I would argue that even his exception is wrong, and that a case for monogamy can be made from the Bible. Once again, we find Catholics taking a very minor point made by Luther, and blowing it out proportion. Roman Catholics though (well, at least Mark Shea), seem to think that monogamy is the product of Sacred Tradition. He states,
Regarding “fundamental Christian doctrines,” however, Evangelicals unconsciously function exactly like Catholics and read their Bibles in light of Sacred Tradition, which has percolated down to them from pre-Reformation Catholic Tradition. Thus, Evangelicals do not declare monogamy to be optional, even though Scripture alone is far more ambiguous about monogamy vs. polygamy than it is about Purgatory or the Real Presence—a fact recognized by Martin Luther and his colleague Philip Melancthon.
This apologist however, proves monogamy by the Scriptures, "On the contrary, Jesus Christ (Matt 19:6-9) and St. Paul (Rom 7:3; I Cor 7:2; Eph 5:32-33) presupposed monogamy as normative for the Christian. "
Shea's understanding would appear to coincide with Dau's point (which I have not checked) that "not until 1060 was there any authoritative mandate of the Church against polygamy." That is, according to a Romanist paradigm, up until 1060, polygamy was open to speculation. This would explain Dau's statement (which I have not checked) that "St. Augustine, declared that bigamy might be permitted if a wife was sterile." So, perhaps Catholics are left with monogamy because Rome finally said so in 1060. It would be interesting to find this declaration- if it exists, I'm sure someone will put in the comment section. Let's see what Rome based it's decision on.