“I, Martin Luther, have during the rebellion slain all the peasants, for it was I who ordered them to be struck dead. All their blood is upon my head. But I put it all on our Lord God: for he commanded me to speak thus” [Tischreden; Erlanger Ed., Vol. 59. p. 284].
Luther Exposing the Myth says their stated purpose is to show that "from Luther’s own words we shall see him for what he really was, that is a rebellious apostate, who abandoned the faith and led many into apostasy from God under the guise of “reformation” in order to follow his perverse inclinations." With this quote, they attempt to show Christ taught one should thirst after justice, while Luther ordered the death of peasants.
The quote itself has some history, found in English at least since the 1800's. Luther, Exposing the Myth cites "Tischreden; Erlanger Ed., Vol. 59. p. 284." They probably took the quote from this secondary source (It's also possible the quote came from this popular Roman Catholic secondary source). Notice the similarities:
The Tischreden is Luther's Table Talk, a collection of second hand comments written down by Luther's friends, published after his death (it is not something he wrote). There is no such thing as the Erlanger edition of Luther's works, it's Erlangen, referring to the Erlangen Edition of Luther's works. This out of print German / Latin edition of Luther's works was published in the 1800's. The Table Talk was included in the Erlangen edition (volumes 57-62). So volume 59 is indeed The Tischreden. The quote can be found at the bottom of page 284 of volume 59 continuing on to page 285. The text reads,
This Tabletalk quote was collected by Conrad Cordatus. It's quite possible Cordatus didn't hear and record the comment himself. He is said to have taken Luther's comments from other sources. He later revised his Table Talk notes, making stylistic changes. Because of this, Luther's Works (English edition) includes only a small sampling of those statements compiled by Cordatus. The quote can also be found in WA Tr 3:75 in similar forms, and it has been translated into English in LW 54:180.
No. 2911b: Responsibility for Curbing the Peasants Between January 26 and 29, 1533Conclusion
“Preachers are the greatest murderers because they admonish the ruler to do his duty and punish the guilty. I, Martin Luther, slew all the peasants in the uprising, for I ordered that they be put to death; all their blood is on my neck. But I refer it all to our Lord God, who commanded me to speak as I did. The devil and the ungodly kill, but they have no right to. Accordingly priests and official persons must be distinguished well, so that we may see that magistrates can condemn by law and can put to death by virtue of their office. Today, by the grace of God, they have learned this well. Now they abuse their power against the gospel, but they won’t get fat from it.” [LW 54:180]
Luther begins by saying that Preachers are "murderers" when they advise those who carry the sword to use the sword. Luther then calls for his own acquittal, because "God commanded" him to say what he did. Was it an audible voice? Hardly- it was Scripture. If one looks back at Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants, Luther states:
Romans 13 [:1] says, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.” Since they are now deliberately and violently breaking this oath of obedience and setting themselves in opposition to their masters, they have forfeited body and soul, as faithless, perjured, lying, disobedient rascals and scoundrels usually do. St. Paul passed this judgment on them in Romans 13 [:2] when he said that those who resist the authorities will bring a judgment upon themselves. This saying will smite the peasants sooner or later, for God wants people to be loyal and to do their duty [LW 46:49].
First, I will not oppose a ruler who, even though he does not tolerate the gospel, will smite and punish these peasants without first offering to submit the case to judgment. He is within his rights, since the peasants are not contending any longer for the gospel, but have become faithless, perjured, disobedient, rebellious murderers, robbers, and blasphemers, whom even a heathen ruler has the right and authority to punish. Indeed, it is his duty to punish such scoundrels, for this is why he bears the sword and is “the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer,” Romans 13 [:4] [LW 46:51].
For in this case a [Christian] prince and lord must remember that according to Romans 13 [:4] he is God’s minister and the servant of his wrath and that the sword has been given him to use against such people. If he does not fulfil the duties of his office by punishing some and protecting others, he commits as great a sin before God as when someone who has not been given the sword commits murder. If he is able to punish and does not do it—even though he would have had to kill someone or shed blood—he becomes guilty of all the murder and evil that these people commit. For by deliberately disregarding God’s command he permits such rascals to go about their wicked business, even though he was able to prevent it and it was his duty to do so. This is not a time to sleep. And there is no place for patience or mercy. This is the time of the sword, not the day of grace [LW 46:52].Luther then is purported to have stated, "The devil and the ungodly kill, but they have no right to." That is, the peasants don't have a right to kill. Who then does have a God given right to kill? Luther states, "Accordingly priests and official persons must be distinguished well, so that we may see that magistrates can condemn by law and can put to death by virtue of their office. Today, by the grace of God, they have learned this well." That is, clergymen don't have the right to kill anyone, magistrates do. Remember, Luther was a clergyman. Isn't this contradicting what he stated above that killed the peasants? No. He explained that he had exhorted the authorities to wield the sword. His comment about personally killing the peasants is nothing more than admitting he exhorted the authorities to do their God-given job. He ends by saying, "Now they abuse their power against the gospel, but they won’t get fat from it." The immediate antecedent are the magistrates. Here Luther states the magistrates have wrongly wielded the sword against the Gospel.
Taken at face value by someone predisposed against Luther, the comment appears to be Luther admitting his guilt for the peasants demise. Roland Bainton points out, "Catholic princes held Luther responsible for the whole outbreak" of the Peasants War. Here one could find Luther blatantly admitting he ordered the death of the peasants and it was carried out by his demand.
But history says otherwise. Luther's Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants (the very document in which Luther called for the slaying of the peasants) was actually published after the peasants war began. The treatise was delayed, and did not have an immediate role during the war. The German nobility were not spurred on by Luther's words. They were spurred on by the peasants who strove towards anarchy and civil unrest.
But the treatise did have an impact, at least in court of sixteenth century popular opinion. Luther's Works point out, "Indeed, both Catholic and Protestant princes interpreted Luther’s Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants, which had gained wide circulation by the middle of May, as justification for their actions [LW 46:59]. Isn't that fascinating? A document that came out after the peasants were already in the process of being slaughtered became that which justified the killing.
Luther actually penned an open letter explaining his harsh language against the peasants. He once again distinguished the roles of the two kingdoms:
There are two kingdoms, one the kingdom of God, the other the kingdom of the world. I have written this so often that I am surprised that there is anyone who does not know it or remember it. Anyone who knows how to distinguish rightly between these two kingdoms will certainly not be offended by my little book, and he will also properly understand the passages about mercy. God’s kingdom is a kingdom of grace and mercy, not of wrath and punishment. In it there is only forgiveness, consideration for one another, love, service, the doing of good, peace, joy, etc. But the kingdom of the world is a kingdom of wrath and severity. In it there is only punishment, repression, judgment, and condemnation to restrain the wicked and protect the good. For this reason it has the sword, and Scripture calls a prince or lord “God’s wrath,” or “God’s rod” (Isaiah 14 [:5–6]).
The Scripture passages which speak of mercy apply to the kingdom of God and to Christians, not to the kingdom of the world, for it is a Christian’s duty not only to be merciful, but also to endure every kind of suffering—robbery, arson, murder, devil, and hell. It goes without saying that he is not to strike, kill, or take revenge on anyone. But the kingdom of the world, which is nothing else than the servant of God’s wrath upon the wicked and is a real precursor of hell and everlasting death, should not be merciful, but strict, severe, and wrathful in fulfilling its work and duty. Its tool is not a wreath of roses or a flower of love, but a naked sword; and a sword is a symbol of wrath, severity, and punishment. It is turned only against the wicked, to hold them in check and keep them at peace, and to protect and save the righteous [Rom. 13:3–4]. Therefore God decrees, in the law of Moses and in Exodus 22 [21:14] where he institutes the sword, “You shall take the murderer from my altar, and not have mercy on him.” And the Epistle to the Hebrews [10:28] acknowledges that he who violates the law must die without mercy. This shows that in the exercise of their office, worldly rulers cannot and ought not be merciful—though out of grace, they may take a day off from their office.
Now he who would confuse these two kingdoms—as our false fanatics do—would put wrath into God’s kingdom and mercy into the world’s kingdom; and that is the same as putting the devil in heaven and God in hell. These sympathizers with the peasants would like to do both of these things. First they wanted to go to work with the sword, fight for the gospel as “Christian brethren,” and kill other people, who were supposed to be merciful and patient. Now that the kingdom of the world has overcome them, they want to have mercy in it; that is to say, they are unwilling to endure the worldly kingdom, but will not grant God’s kingdom to anyone. Can you imagine anything more perverse? Not so, dear friends! If one has deserved wrath in the kingdom of the world, let him submit, and either take his punishment, or humbly sue for pardon. Those who are in God’s kingdom ought to have mercy on everyone and pray for everyone, and yet not hinder the kingdom of the world in the maintenance of its laws and the performance of its duty; rather they should assist it [LW 46:69-70].
This blog entry is a revision of an entry I posted back in 2011. The original can be found here. Because so many sources are now available online, I'm revising older entries by adding additional materials and commentary, and also fixing or deleting dead hyperlinks. Nothing of any significant substance has changed in this entry from that presented in the former.