Over on the CARM boards, a participant with seemingly Anabaptist leanings has been actively posting against John Calvin and Martin Luther. The view being expressed is that Luther was "a demon possessed wicked butcher" (link), and "His actions speak louder than his words, he was responsible for the death of untold thousands." This person put forth a number of Luther quotes, which I suspect were a direct cut-and-paste from a page like this or this. Further into the discussion he stated,
What hog wash you have continually used weasel words and your Opinion to deny everything.
Here this is something else you can deny:
Like the mules who will not move unless you perpetually whip them with rods, so the civil powers must drive the common people, whip, choke, hang, burn, behead and torture them, that they may learn to fear the powers that be." (El. ed. 15, 276, quoted by O'Hare, in 'The Facts About Luther, TAN Books, 1987, p. 235.)
I'd like to look at this quote to see if it's "something else" I'm going to "deny," or it it's something else entirely different. Let's see if this quote proves Luther was a "a demon possessed wicked butcher" or "responsible for the death of untold thousands."
Even though two references are given, a simple search reveals this was probably a cut-and-paste from other online sources. The Catholic Apologetics Network uses this quote and documentation verbatim in an article entitled, "The Myth Of Martin Luther And Why So Few Read His Works." The quote can be found with simply a reference to O'Hare in web pages like Shocking Beliefs of Martin Luther. Dr. Michael Brown included it in his book, Authentic Fire. He documents it by saying, "For the quotes on a Christian website critical of Luther see http://www.jesus-is-savior.com/False%20Religions/Lutherans/truth_about_martin_luther.htm." This happens to be the same article posted by the Catholic Apologetics Network.
Let's begin with the later part of the reference: "quoted by O'Hare, in 'The Facts About Luther, TAN Books, 1987, p. 235." This refers to Father Patrick O'Hare's book, The Facts About Luther, the TAN reprint from 1987. The book was originally published many decades earlier, and is consider to be part of the hostile Roman Catholic interpretation of Luther. Father O'Hare states,
Luther's advice "to strangle" the peasants, "to stab them secretly and openly, as they can, as one would kill a mad dog," was fulfilled to the letter. He thought that "God gave rulers not a fox's tail, but a sword," and "the severity and rigor of the sword," he says, "are as necessary for the people as eating and drinking, yes, as life itself." The time in his estimation had come "to control the populace with a strong hand" and the rulers must resort to "the severity and rigor of the sword." "Like the mules," he says, "who will not move unless you perpetually whip them with rods, so the civil powers must drive the common people, whip, choke, hang, burn, behead and torture them, that they may learn to fear the powers that be. The coarse, illiterate Mr. Great I am—the people—must be forced, driven as one forces and drives swine and wild animals." (El. ed. 15, 276.) This is a most astounding utterance, but apart from its heartlessness and lack of consideration of the common people it shows the way Luther preached liberty and democracy, a liberty and democracy which meant absolutism and despotism armed with all its iron terrors in government and through which for nearly two centuries after the nations of Europe were oppressed and tyrannized.O'Hare cites "El. ed. 15, 276." This refers 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. This primary reference is correct. Erlangen XV page 276 can be found here (and the same text can be found here). It's also found in WA XX 247. It's from Ein ander Sermon am Tage der Opferung Christi im Tempel, Luca 2, 22-32 (Luther's Sermon on Luke 2:22-32, "Sermon on the Day of the Purification of Mary," February 2, 1526). The Text reads:
An English translation of this sermon is available in Joel Baseley, The Festival Sermons of Martin Luther (Michigan: Mark V Publications, 2005) pp. 244-258: "A Second Sermon on the Festival of the Presentation of the Infant Christ at the Temple." I've covered this quote previously, though it was a different English translation: Luther: Rulers should drive, beat, choke, hang, burn, behead, and break upon the well of the vulgar masses. What follows was primarily taken from this older blog article.
Why would a sermon on Mary's purification would include such a comment? The fact of the matter is many of Luther's alleged Marian sermons have far more to say about other subjects rather than Mary. Luther was expounding upon the keeping of the law as stated in Luke 2:22-24. From this he launched in to a discussion on the burden of the law, and it's crushing condemnation of people before a holy God and the misery it brings upon people. Even those who keep some sort of outward appearance of keeping the law still haven't kept the law purely in their hearts. The law brings misery on mankind, because it condemns man of sin. Contrarily, Christ kept the law with a pure heart, even though he didn't need to. Luther states,
According to the outward mask we sure keep the law, put on a good show and grab hold of it with our fist. But of hearts shy away from it. We do it unwillingly. We have no desire to do by nature unless that Holy Ghost enlightens our heart with His grace. Therefore even if we keep the law with works, yet it is not done from pure and clean heart. For it is done for the sake of our own advantage reputation or out of fear of punishment.
Now since God has also given the law and He knows that no one keeps it, He is also the One who has made it a prison guard, driver and leash. For the Scripture designates this supervision [of the law] by comparing it to one who drives a stubborn mule, which one must always push and pull and drive with a stick or it will not move forward. So this supervision of the law must pummel you. It is always to drive, strike, throttle, hang, burn, behead, and torture you so that you fear. By this people are held in check. For God does not desire that the law merely be presented to the people, but rather that it also drive them, seize them with a fist and compel them to work. For only in this way are people preserved. If they are not forced then they will do nothing. That is because the heart cannot keep the law because it is completely against its nature.
So if there were no punishment in the world, there would be nothing in the world but the rule of death, adultery, thievery, robbery, manslaughter and every blasphemy. No one would be safe from one another. But when the supervision of the law is there and punishes gross scoundrels and blasphemers, the rabble must be contained by it. They will know they are not permitted to go forth so boldly and live their lives according to their own desires. So it is necessary that the driving of the law remains over people and those raging rebels. It always compels and drives as swine and wild animals are forced and driven.
So now if we must do the law and not like it, then we are an enemy of the law for it battles our lusts. But God has done all of this so that it makes us weary. By this we might learn to acknowledge our abilities, and what we are able to do. So we look at ourselves and say, "I, poor man, I must keep the law and I don't like to do it. Yes, I have absolutely no desire to do it. So then I must lose any reward and thanks that I would get for doing it, had I truly and gladly kept the law." In summary, all who are under the law do it unwillingly. So we are tortured by it, forced to keep it and yet earn no reward from it [Baseley, 248-249].
God has also instituted authorities to enforce law to keep society stable. In another treatise, Luther expounds similarly:
You must know that since the beginning of the world a wise prince is a mighty rare bird, and an upright prince even rarer. They are generally the biggest fools or the worst scoundrels on earth; therefore, one must constantly expect the worst from them and look for little good, especially in divine matters which concern the salvation of souls. They are God’s executioners and hangmen; his divine wrath uses them to punish the wicked and to maintain outward peace. Our God is a great lord and ruler; this is why he must also have such noble, highborn, and rich hangmen and constables. He desires that everyone shall copiously accord them riches, honor, and fear in abundance. It pleases his divine will that we call his hangmen gracious lords, fall at their feet, and be subject to them in all humility, so long as they do not ply their trade too far and try to become shepherds instead of hangmen [LW 45:113].The editors of Luther's Works note on the word "executioner" used above:
The term stockmeyster, meaning “jailer,” is also used by Luther synonomously with Zuchtmeister for Paul’s “custodian” of Gal. 3:24–25. See his exegesis of the Nunc Dimittis in a sermon preached on the Day of the Purification of Mary, February 2, 1526, where the term must mean more than merely a guard or warden; it refers actually to one who flogs or otherwise inflicts legal punishment in execution of a sentence. WA 20, 247Because the world is so wicked, Luther says in Trade and Usury (1524),
[LW 45:113, fn 82].
Streets must be be kept clean, peace established in cities, and justice administered in the land. Therefore one must let the sword strike transgressors vigorously and boldly, as St. Paul teaches (Rom. 13:4). For God wants non-Christians held in check to keep them from doing wrong or from committing wrong without being punished. Let no one imagine that the world can be governed without the shedding of blood. The temporal sword should and must be red and bloodstained, for the world is wicked and is bound to be so. Therefore the sword is God's rod and vengeance for it [ WA 15:302; LW 45:258; Ewald Plass, What Luther Says, III: 1156].In the sermon in question, Luther goes on to compare fallen humanity's burden of being under the law with Christ who kept the law willingly and with a pure heart. Christ fulfilled the law with pleasure. He volunteered to keep the law. Christ did not fear the stockmeyster. In this 1526 sermon, Luther goes on to weave his exposition of the law into a presentation of the gospel.
Luther's theories on government are far more complicated than this simple quote posted on CARM . The interested reader should track down What Luther Says and read the twenty eight page double columned synopsis presented by Ewald Plass. Plass points out a number of factors in Luther's governmental theories, everything from Luther's attitude toward unjust rulers, as well as the fact that rulers should not rely on mere brute force. Not to be forgotten as well, Luther was a not a modern man. His notions of government reflect the collective thinking of his time period. Luther's concern was for a stable society, following Paul's concerns expressed in Romans 13. The simple point being made is that God has instituted government to proclaim and uphold civic law. While the methods suggested by Luther are appalling by today's standards, they weren't so to the sixteenth century person. They were a fact of life.
I did post the context of this quote on CARM. The response I received back was, "See I knew you would deny it , and poison the well at the same time, and you are getting quicker with your denials." Ah, well... Que Sera, Sera.