Friday, March 31, 2006

Perspectives of Luther: Luther a Polygamist?

This will be the fifth installment of a response to a person calling himself “St. Thomas More” on the CARM discussion boards. His comments were made in the thread, Perspectives of Luther (no longer available). Previously I looked at these topics:

Perspectives of Luther:The Influence of Occam on Luther and Sola Scriptura:

Perspectives on Luther: Did he join the Monastery Selfishly?

Perspectives on Luther: Was Luther a Womanizer and a Lush?

Perspectives on Luther: Did Luther Veer Toward Rebellion and the Destruction of the Church?

Let’s take a look at More’s fifth charge:

“He was so bound and determined to take down the Church of Rome that he guaranteed the right of investiture (gave the crown the right to appoint bishops, etc) to the princes of the many small city-states in Germany at the time if they made his religion the official religion of the principality and sanctioned abuses, such as polygamy, to further his political cause.”

This is a compound argument, which will require a few responses. The most outrageous aspect of the argument is Luther’s supposed sanctioning of polygamy for political purposes. The ironic thing about this charge, is that it could be applied to many medieval political situations in the Roman Catholic Church over the years. W.H.T. Dau's,  Luther Examined and Reexamined: A Review of Catholic Criticism and a Plea for Reevaluation  gives a helpful picture of Luther on this topic:
In a letter addressed to Joseph Levin Metzsch of December 9, 1526, Luther says: "Your first question: Whether person may have more than one wife? I answer thus: Let unbelievers do what they please; Christian liberty, however, is regulated by love (charity), so that all that a Christian does is done to serve his fellow-man, provided only that he can render such service without jeopardy and damage to his faith and conscience. Nowadays, however, everybody is striving for a liberty that profits and pleases him, without regard for the profit and improvement which his neighbor might derive from his action. This is contrary to the teaching of St. Paul, who says: 'All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient' (1 Cor. 6, 12). Only see that your liberty does not become an occasion to the flesh. . . . Moreover, although the patriarchs had many wives, Christians may not follow their example, because there is no necessity for doing this, no improvement is obtained thereby, and, especially, there is no word of God to justify this practise, while great offense and trouble may come from it. Accordingly, I do not believe that Christians any longer have this liberty. God would have to publish a command that would declare such a liberty." (21a, 901 f.) To Clemens Ursinus, pastor at Bruck, Luther writes under date of March 21, 1527: "Polygamy, which in former times was permitted to the Jews and Gentiles, cannot be honestly approved of among Christians, and cannot be engaged in with a good conscience, unless in an extreme case of necessity, as, for instance, when one of the spouses is separated from the other by leprosy or for a similar cause. Accordingly, you may say to the carnal people (with whom you have to do), if they want to be Christians, they must keep married fidelity and bridle their flesh, not give it license. If they want to be heathen, let them do what they please, at their own risk." (21a, 928.)
In his comment on the question of the Pharisees regarding divorce (Matt. 19, 3-6), Luther says: "Many divorces occur still among the Turks. If a wife does not yield to the husband, nor act according to his whim and fancy, he forthwith drives her out of the house, and takes one, two, three, or four additional wives, and defends his action by appealing to Moses. They have taken out of Moses such things as please them and pander to their lust. In Turkey they are very cruel to women; any woman that will not submit is cast aside. They toy with their women like a dog with a rag. When they are weary of one woman, they quickly put her beneath the turf and take another. Moses has said nothing to justify this practise. My opinion is that there is no real married life among the Turks; theirs is a whorish life. It is a terrible tyranny, all the more to be regretted because God does not withhold the common blessing from their intercourse: children are procreated thereby, and yet the mother is sent away by the husband. For this reason there is no true matrimony among the Turks. In my opinion, all the Turks at the present time are bastards." (7, 965.)
All this is plain enough and should suffice to secure Luther against the charge of favoring polygamy. The seeming admission that polygamy might be permissible relates to cases for which the laws of all civilized nations make provisions. How a Christian must conduct himself in such a case must be decided on the evidence in each case. Likewise, the reference to the Christian's liberty from the law does not mean that the Christian has the potential right to polygamy, but it means that he must maintain his monogamous relation from a free and willing choice to obey God's commandments in the power of God's grace. Polygamy, this is the firm conviction of Luther, could only be sanctioned if there were a plain command of God to that effect. Luther's remarks about matrimony among the Turks should be remembered when Catholics cite Luther's remarks about King Ahasuerus dismissing Vashti and summoning Esther, and the right of the husband to take to himself his maid-servant when his wife refuses him. By all divine and human laws the matter to which Luther refers is a just ground for divorce, and that is all that Luther declares."
It is true that there were times Luther allowed for polygamy, but it was 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, (London: G. Bell and Sons LTD) 213-214).

Most often, detractors point out Luther’s involvement in the bigamy of Phillip of Hesse. Yes, Luther got himself into a mess, and there were political factors at play,  however, not to the extent that "St. Thomas More" suggests. Roland Bainton explains:
There are several incidents over which one would rather draw the veil, but precisely because they are so often exploited to his discredit they are not to be left unrecorded. The most notorious was his attitude toward the bigamy of the landgrave, Philip of Hesse. This prince had been given in marriage with no regard to his own affections—that is, for purely political reasons—at the age of nineteen to the daughter of Duke George. Philip, unable to combine romance with marriage, found his satisfaction promiscuously on the outside. After his conversion his conscience so troubled him that he dared not present himself at the Lord s Table. He believed that if he could have one partner to whom he was genuinely attached he would be able to keep himself within the bounds of matrimony. There were several ways in which his difficulty could have been solved. If he had remained a Catholic, he might have been able to secure an annulment on the grounds of some defect in the marriage; but since he had become a Lutheran, he could expect no consideration from the pope. Nor would Luther permit recourse to the Catholic device. A second solution would have been divorce and re-marriage. A great many Protestant bodies in the present day would countenance this method, particularly since Philip had been subjected in his youth to a loveless match. But Luther at this point interpreted the Gospels rigidly and held to the word of Christ as reported by Matthew that divorce is permissible only for adultery. But Luther did feel that there should be some remedy, and he discovered it by a reversion to the mores of the Old Testament patriarchs, who had practiced bigamy and even polygamy without any manifestation of divine displeasure. Philip was given the assurance that he might in good conscience take a second wife. Since, however, to do so would be against the law of the land, he should keep the union a secret. This the new bride's mother declined to do; and then Luther counseled a lie on the ground that his advice had been given as in the confessional, and to guard the secrete of the confessional a lie is justified. But the secret was out, and the disavowal was ineffective. Luther's final comment was that if anyone thereafter should practice bigamy, let the Devil give him a bath in the abyss of hell. (Here I Stand, 373-374).
Note Luther’s final thought (summarized by Bainton, based on WA 53: 195-196), “that if anyone thereafter should practice bigamy, let the Devil give him a bath in the abyss of hell” (Brecht translates it as, "Anyone who follows this fellow and his book and takes more than one wife, and thinks that this is right, the devil will prepare for him a bath in the depths of hell. Amen") See also Martin E. Marty).

A profound aspect of the Bible is its commitment to telling us about the sins of the human condition; even in those characters considered the greatest of God’s people. David was described as “a man after God’s own heart,” yet within his life one finds adultery and murder. Jesus called Peter “blessed,” yet not long after, Peter denied that he even knew him. Examples could be multiplied, and could go beyond the pages of Scripture into the halls of church history. God’s people struggle with sin, and sometimes take great falls. Such is the case of Martin Luther and his involvement with Hesses' bigamy. Luther's life shows many high peaks and some deep valleys: profound success for God’s kingdom, along with human failure. With Luther’s attitude on Bigamy, and his involvement with Phillip of Hesse, we see one of the warts of Luther. Luther had to learn the hard way with his attitude on Bigamy.

W.H.T Dau points out some interesting facts on the bigamy of Phillip of Hesse:
Catholics fail to mention that Luther repelled bigamous thoughts in Philip of Hesse fourteen years before the Landgrave took Margaret von der Saal. The evidence was found in the state archives at Kassel, now at Marburg, in a fragment of a letter which Niedner published in the Zeitschrift fuer historische Theologie, 1852, No. 2, p. 265. The letter is dated November 28, 1526; Philip's bigamous marriage took place March 9, 1540. In this letter Luther says to Philip: "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.
Dau also points out that Roman Catholics should use caution in this charge against Luther. Note the double standards in Roman Catholic argumentation:
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? Andhe 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 wasnot confined to the laity? 

Addendum (2018)
This blog entry is a revision of an entry I posted back in 2006. 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.


Anonymous said...

Dear brother James,

This series is a blessing to read! Thanks for all you do!


James Swan said...

Thanks Robbie- I'm always amazed anybody reads anything I write!


Anonymous said...

You shouldn't be. You are a very good writer. If you were to ever take requestes on a series, I think it would be a blessing to read your thoughts on the historical development of Marian dogma with your thoughts on each one.


mark_5 said...

great post. and no hagiography here (in this comment or in the post).

It is evident to me how much I take for granted the cultural impact of christian marriage after reading Luther's words about 'turkish marriage.' wow.

James Swan said...


Thanks again- I did see your latest e-mails on Reformed Concepts about Mary. I have done a lot of work on this subject- I will try to get to it eventually.

Mark- I've been reading a lot about the impact of the Turks/muslims on the 16th Century. It's a real irony that they continue to impact our world, much the same as they impacted the 16th Century.

Carl Vehse said...

Note Luther’s final comment, “that if anyone thereafter should practice bigamy, let the Devil give him a bath in the abyss of hell.”

Putting this statement in quotes is misleading. The statement is Bainton's paraphrase (pages 292-293 in the 1950 publication; pages 388-389 in the 2009 printing) of something Luther is alleged to have said. The statement is not a translated quote from Martin Luther, nor is there a reference to where Luther said anything like that.

This brings to mind the misaddition of quote marks that resulted in Luther's alleged "gutterball" quote.

For some more discussion about Luther's involvement in the bigamy scandal of Philip of Hesse, see the Wayback Machine link provided in this January 14, 2014, Beggars All comment.

James Swan said...


Thanks for your interest in this old blog entry. I typically don't allow comments on old entries like this, but I appreciated the concerns you raised, particularly holding me to my own standards of documentation.

You are correct that the comment in quotes attributed to Luther is Bainton's paraphrase. However, you are incorrect that Luther allegedly said (wrote) this. If you check Brecht Vol. 3, you'll see some background on the comment and that the quote is from Luther's unpublished Reply to the Dialogus of Hulderichus.

"Anyone who follows this fellow and his book and takes more than one wife, and thinks that this is right, the devil will prepare for him a bath in the depths of hell. Amen"

Brecht cites WA 53:185-201 as a reference for this treatise. I believe the comment comes at the bottom of 195 and then continues onto 196:

"Also spricht Doctor Martinus über das Buch Neobuli: wer diesem Buben und Buche folget, und darauf mehr denn eine Ehefrau nimpt, und
will, daß es ein Recht sein soll, dem gesegne der Teufel das Bad
im Abgrund der Höllen, Amen."

My apologies if the German isn't exact here, as I did a quick cut-and-paste.

In regard to the Luther gutterball quote marks, recall please it was not I who added them as my blog entry you linked to shows.

Thanks again for your comments,


Jack Vogel said...

Boy oh boy. Fellas, I have to tell you, the simplest and most straightforward reading of any historical question is usually the accurate one. Luther was concerned with political expediency above all. He had to be, otherwise the protestant princes would simply have deferred to Rome, and his religion would have gained no ground.

Thus, he tells the prince to go ahead and have multiple wives, and then to lie about it, claiming the seal of the confessional, and then reverses himself when the whole sorry scandal was exposed.

He was willing to re-crucify Christ on the altar of political expediency. The truth is the truth.

James Swan said...

Hi Jack:

Thanks for leaving a comment on this decade+ year old blog entry.

There's a narrow sense in which your "straightforward reading" is correct in regard to Luther's involvement with Phillip of Hesse. Even in this old blog entry, note my words, "Yes, Luther got himself into a mess, and there were political factors at play..." Elsewhere in later blog entries, I say that Luther got himself into trouble over this particular political situation, and deserved the consequences. See my blog entry here:

But a "straightforward reading" also causes historical distortion. First, within this scandal, it wasn't like it just went down one night in a smoke filled Protestant back room of political intrigue. No, the scandal was a complicated mess that went on for quite a while. As I've stated elsewhere, Philip began his bigamist effort as early as 1526, writing Luther for advice. Luther denied him any approval. The Phillip of Hesse scandal came to a head in the late 1530's. To think that Luther was just "concerned with political expediency above all" throughout the entirety of this is simply... too simple... and distorts Martin Luther.

Another distortion occurs when the Philip of Hesse scandal is used to make the broad conclusion that Luther was a polygamist, and approved of all polygamy. I've seen many of Rome's defenders do this over the years. The historical record simply doesn't prove this.

In regard to "He was willing to re-crucify Christ on the altar of political expediency. The truth is the truth." I don't believe Luther was any sort of infallible pope, nor do I think he was beyond error or sin throughout his career. Since I consider Luther a basically honest person, it's not much a stretch for me to conclude he got himself in trouble here and subsequently learned his lesson.