Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Luther on Dancing: "as many paces as the man takes in his dance, so many steps he takes towards hell"

Here's something presented by a Ph.D philosopher from Rockford University:
Martin Luther on Dancing
“As many paces as the man takes in his dance, so many steps he takes toward Hell.”Quoted here.
Crossing Martin off my next party-invitation list.

I like to contrast Luther with John Locke who, in his thoughts on education, mentions dancing first as an essential element of a child’s formal instruction. My explication is here in Part 8 of my online Philosophy of Education course.
We'll see that this is a gross historical misrepresentation. Luther probably didn't say it, nor did he take the severe position on dancing being attributed to him.

The documentation provided consists simply of a hyperlink to a blog entry entitled, Book Review: Albion's Seed written by psychiatrist Scott Alexander. Alexander's review is of a book by David Hackett Fischer entitled Albion's Seed. The reviewer states the book is about "patterns of early immigration to the Eastern United States." One of the groups covered were the Quakers. The reviewer lists "Interesting Quaker Facts" taken from Albion's Seed:
9. “A Quaker preacher, traveling in the more complaisant colony of Maryland, came upon a party of young people who were dancing merrily together. He broke in upon them like an avenging angel, stopped the dance, anddemanded [sic] to know if they considered Martin Luther to be a good man. The astonished youngsters answered in the affirmative. The Quaker evangelist then quoted Luther on the subject of dancing: ‘as many paces as the man takes in his dance, so many steps he takes toward Hell. This, the Quaker missionary gloated with a gleam of sadistic satisfaction, ‘spoiled their sport’.”
This review does not document where this tidbit is found in Albion's Seed. I found it on page 511:

Albion's Seed author David Hackett Fischer does document this story, not to Luther's writings, but rather to, "Thomas Chalkley, Journal (New York, 1808), 93." Thomas Chalkley  (1675–1741) was "a Quaker missionary." "Journal" refers to "The Journal of Thomas Chalkley" documenting his Quaker missionary experiences. Here is page 93 from the 1808 edition. Chalkley states, 
In the year 1721, Thomas Lightfoot and I, with William Browne, went to a meeting at Bush-River, and going over Susquehannah-Ferry, the people were fiddling and dancing. When their dance was over, I asked them, believing them to be Protestants, If they thought Luther to be a good man? They replied, Yes, there was no doubt of it. "Well," said I, "and so do I; and I will tell you what he says concerning dancing, That as many paces as a man takes in his dance, so many steps he takes towards hell;" which spoiled their sport, and they went away, and we went on ours towards the meeting; and a good meeting it was! and we after it returned by way of Nottingham, and had a meeting there, and one at New-Garden, and so on to Philadelphia. I was from home about a week, and travelled in this journey about one hundred and fifty miles, and was well satisfied therein.
A comparison of Chalkley's first-hand testimony and Fischer's recounting of it show blatant inconsistencies.  First, Fischer provided a gross mis-citation to build his point, then he poisons the well in regard to an historical figure. David Hackett Fischer says this story is representative of Quaker attitudes towards children, particularly "teenage children... a party of young people who were dancing merrily together." The very source he cites (Chalkley) though says only, "the people were fiddling and dancing." "Teenage children" and "young people" were not explicitly mentioned by Chalkley.  Notice also Fischer describes Chalkley as expressing "sadistic satisfaction." "Sadistic" is quite strong, and a rather unfair word describing Chalkley's motivations. He also maliciously refers to him as an "avenging angel." Further, Fischer's Chalkley stops the party by breaking in on them and demanding if they knew who Luther was. Chalkley though waits till their dance is over and then simply asks them a question.

Thomas Chalkley does not identify his Luther-source, nor was I able to find anything similar to the purported quote in my cursory search of Luther's writings, nor do I think Luther actually said it. I believe though that there is still a context to be presented, or at least some clues as to who may have originally said it.  A basic search of key terms from the quote point to the following similar statement from William Penn:
Dancing is the devil's procession,* and he that entereth into a dance entereth into his procession, the devil is the guide, the middle, and the end of the dance; as many paces as man maketh in dancing, so many paces doth he make to go to hell..t

* La bal es la proces. del diavol, e qui intra en la bal, c.
t Sp. Alm. fol. 50-54.
This rendering by Penn is striking similar to that presented by Chalkley. Penn isn't claiming these words are his (or Luther's). He says he is presenting "the judgment and practice of the most christian times; as also of eminent writers, both ancient and modern." While Penn mentions Luther a few times, he doesn't in the immediate context, and neither of the sources appear to refer to Luther's writings. The first reference "*" appears to be referring to The Tenth Article of The Ancient Discipline of the Evangelical Churches in the Valley's of Piemont.  I'm not exactly sure what "Sp. Alm. fol. 50-54" refers to, but I've never come across such a reference to one of Luther's writings. Note also that a version of the quote can be found in the Tenth Article of the Ancient Discipline:

It is possible Chalkley utilized Penn. Penn's book would have popularly preceded the publication of Chalkley's Journal (as well as the journal date of 1721). Chalkley also refers to Penn a few times in his journal. Chalkley is simply writing a journal entry, not an exposition, essay, or documented text. While he misattributes the quote to Luther, it appear more as a simple error of memory.  The quote appears to have a murky history, so if Chalkley did not utilize Penn, he could have gotten it from a few different places. For instance, others have said of this quote:

Jean Paul Perrin published his History of the Waldenses in 1624, and it went through many editions. His use of the quote can be found here. It's much more probable that Chalkley was quoting either Perrin or Penn and simply misattributed the quote to Luther. If the story is true, it certainly demonstrates that whomever this group of dancing people were, Luther's name commanded respect and authority, even if the person utilizing it was an unknown stranger proselytizing for the Quakers.

An examination of this quote reveals a strong dose of Internet propaganda. First, what's presented is a poorly documented obfuscation not only from this particular philosopher, but also from the modern source this quote was taken from (David Hackett Fischer, Albion's Seed). Second, this quote is probably not from Luther. Even if Luther did say it somewhere, it pre-dates him as coming from at least the Waldensians, so he was either citing an earlier source or was himself borrowing it without attribution. Third, the Rockford University philosopher provided no meaningful documentation or argumentation that Luther's view of either dancing or education was inferior to John Locke. Luther certainly wrote about education, and these writings are readily available to anyone with access to a good college library.

Back in 2015 I put up an entry that delved into Luther and dancing. Luther was not against the concept of dancing, but rather inappropriate dancing. For instance, he complained to his wife in a letter about a dance that has "started to bare women and maidens in front and back" (LW 50:279). Elsewhere in a sermon he lamented of his hearers:
“Sober” means that we should not overload the body, and it applies to excess in outward gestures, clothing, ornament, or whatever kind of pomp it may be, such as we have at baptisms and the churching of women. There is no moderation in these things. When there is a wedding or a dance you always have to go to excess. Christmas and Pentecost mean nothing but beer. Christians should not walk around so bedizened that one hardly knows whether one is looking at a man or a beast. We Christians ought to be examples. (LW 51:296)
In fairness to the Albion's Seed reviewer and David Hackett Fischer, their point was not about Luther, but rather Quaker attitudes about children (even though the source they mis-cite doesn't say anything about children in the tale being reported). By the time the quote made it on to the radar of the Rockford University philosopher, what started out as a point about Quaker children became entirely about Luther, and also an opportunity for others in the comment box to say, "Yes, absolutely Luther was a repugnant figure" that "broke the chokehold of the Catholic Church over European society, triggering the long, often horrifically bloody chain of events that led to the secular liberalism of the Enlightenment."

Luther is also contrasted with John Locke who held "dancing first as an essential element of a child’s formal instruction." A link is given to the philosopher's video presentation of the Locke / Luther comparison (his "explication"), but one has wait until part three to finally get to Locke's views on dancing. These videos appear to predate the discovery of the bogus Luther quote, so there is no contrasting of the two views done in the videos, only a brief presentation of Locke's position.

There is no rational ground to cross Luther off the "party-invitation list." Rather, the quote and commentary are typical of Internet propaganda and ignorance, this time not perpetuated by someone posting anonymously on a discussion forum, but rather by someone with a Ph.D in philosophy.

I did leave a comment on the Stephen Hicks website:

  • January 24, 2018 at 12:21 pm
    I looked up the documentation you provided for the quote. The documentation you gave is to a review of the book, Albion’s Seed. The author of that book (David Hackett Fischer) cites the quote via the Journal of Thomas Chalkley (1675-1741). Chalkley doesn’t cite a source, and appears to be in error in attributing the quote to Luther. Versions of the quote pre-date Luther. Further, David Hackett Fischer not only mis-cited Chalkley at this point in his book in regard to the story in which this Luther quote appears, he also engaged in a blatant poisoning of the well in regard to the character of Chalkley.
    I would hold off on crossing Luther off your next party list. Luther was not a Quaker like Chalkley. Luther was not against the concept of dancing, but rather inappropriate dancing. Luther loved to have a drink, had rather colorful (and at times crude) language, had a sense of humor, could tell a story, and was otherwise beloved by family and friends with a larger-than-life personality. Of course, Luther had serious flaws as well, including his anti-Semitism, but so did the bulk of 16th Century western culture. I’m sure we could also scrutinize John Locke and find reasons to scratch him off the party list as well, for as clear of thinker Locke was, I’m sure we could find ways in which he was infected by the culture of his day, for instance, slavery.


John Q Public said...

SSC has an agenda.

LPC said...

Well done again James.
We know Luther was not against cultural expressions and certainly dancing is included in this.
Unfortunately there was a section of Lutheranism that became Pietists which the Orthodox Lutherans opposed. These Pietists taught against dancing but that was their own doctrine and certainly not from Luther or from Old Lutherans.