Sunday, October 01, 2006

PBS Presents “Facts” That Luther Advocated Drunkenness and Promiscuity

"Luther thoroughly approved of drinking and sex."- PBS

A few years back PBS ran a documentary on Martin Luther. To coincide with this documentary, PBS also added a webpage on Luther. I had forgotten about this webpage up until someone recently reminded me about it, particularly the link entitled, Luther Trivia: Ten Things you didn’t Know About Martin Luther from the PBS website. I’d like to take a look at a few of the “trivia” tidbits offered by PBS on drinking and sex.

The first thing to realize about these alleged trivia “facts” is that PBS provides no documentation for any of them, nor do they even mention who wrote the webpage. Neither do they appear to provide a contact e-mail address for someone like me to inquire into the lack of documentation. While not all of the “trivia facts” are wrong, the first two indeed are not accurate. They present the “facts” in such a way that Luther is not being portrayed accurately.

Let's work through their "facts" about Luther and drinking alcohol:
1. Alcohol cures all evils. Luther thoroughly approved even advocated drinking heavily. When a young man wrote to him complaining of despair at the prospect of going to hell, Luther wrote back advising him to go and get drunk. That, he said, was what he did when he felt despair.
The historical record nowhere documents Luther ever being drunk. It does provide evidence that he did drink alcohol and that he enjoyed drinking. One needs only survey the massive output of work that Luther physically did (preaching, teaching, etc.) and produced to settle the matter that Luther did not have a drinking problem.

Luther preached and wrote against drunkenness throughout his entire life with vigor and force. As biographer Heinrich Boehmer notes, “Luther attacked the craving for drink with word and pen more vigorously than any German of his time. He told even princes his opinion of it, in private and public, blamed the elector himself publicly for this vice, and read the elector’s courtiers an astonishingly drastic lecture” [Heinrich Boehmer, Luther and the Reformation in the Light of Modern Research (London: G. Bell and Sons LTD, 1930), 198]. One example among many is Luther’s Sermon on Soberness and Moderation against Gluttony and Drunkenness (1539). Luther complaining about excessive drinking states:
What, therefore, shall we do? The secular government does not forbid it, the princes do nothing about it, and the rulers in the cities do nothing at all but wink at it and do the same themselves. We preach and the Holy Scriptures teach us otherwise; but you want to evade what is taught. Eating and drinking are not forbidden, but rather all food is a matter of freedom, even a modest drink for one’s pleasure. If you do not wish to conduct yourself this way, if you are going to go beyond this and be a born pig and guzzle beer and wine, then, if this cannot be stopped by the rulers, you must know that you cannot be saved. For God will not admit such piggish drinkers into the kingdom of heaven [cf. Gal. 5:19–21]. It is no wonder that all of you are beggars. How much money might not be saved [if excessive drinking were stopped]. [LW 51:293].
And also:
“Listen to the Word of God, which says, “Keep sane and sober,” that it may not be said to you in vain. You must not be pigs; neither do such belong among Christians. So also in I Cor. 6 [:9–10]: No drunkard, whoremonger, or adulterer can be saved. Do not think that you are saved if you are a drunken pig day and night. This is a great sin, and everybody should know that this is such a great iniquity, that it makes you guilty and excludes you from eternal life. Everybody should know that such a sin is contrary to his baptism and hinders his faith and his salvation. Therefore, if you wish to be a Christian, take care that you control yourself. If you do not wish to be saved, go ahead and steal, rob, profiteer as long as you can…. But if you do want to be saved, then listen to this: just as adultery and idolatry close up heaven, so does gluttony; for Christ says very clearly: Take heed “lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly” [Luke 21:34], “as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west” [Matt. 24:27]. Therefore be watchful and sober. That is what is preached to us, who want to be Christians.” [LW 51:293-294]
In regard to the statement the PBS link makes about Luther writing a young man and telling him to “go get drunk,” I can only speculate as to the reference. It’s probably Luther’s letter to Jerome Weller from 1530. The letter is worth presenting completely:
Grace and peace in Christ. My dearest Jerome, you must firmly believe that your affliction is of the devil, and that you are plagued in this manner because you believe in Christ. For you see that the most wrathful enemies of the Gospel, as, for instance, Eck, Zwingli, and others, are suffered to be at ease and happy. All of us who are Christians must have the devil for our adversary and enemy, as Peter says: 'Your adversary, the devil, goeth about,' etc., 1 Pet. 5, 8. Dearest Jerome, you must rejoice over these onslaughts of the devil, because they are a sure sign that you have a gracious and merciful God. You will say: This affliction is more grievous than I can bear; you fear that you will be overcome and vanquished, so that you are driven to blasphemy and despair. Iknow these tricks of Satan: if he cannot overcome the person whom he afflicts at the first onset, he seeks to exhaust and weaken him by incessantly attacking him, in order that the person may succumb and acknowledge himself beaten. Accordingly, whenever this affliction befalls you, beware lest you enter into an argument with the devil, or muse upon these death-dealing thoughts. For this means nothing else than to yield to the devil and succumb to him. You must rather take pains to treat these thoughts which the devil instils in you with the severest contempt. In afflictions and conflicts of this kind contempt is the best and easiest way for overcoming the devil. Make up your mind to laugh at your adversary, and find some one whom you can engage in a conversation. You must by all means avoid being alone, for then the devil will make his strongest effort to catch you; he lies in wait for you when you are alone. In a case like this the devil is overcome by scorning and despising him, not by opposing him and arguing with him. My dear Jerome, you must engage in merry talk and games with my wife and the rest, so as to defeat these devilish thoughts, and you must be intent on being cheerful. This affliction is more necessary to you than food and drink. I shall relate to you what happened to me when I was about your age. When I entered the cloister, it happened that at first I always walked about sad and melancholy, and could not shake off my sadness. Accordingly, I sought counsel and confessed to Dr. Staupitz, --I am glad to mention this man's name. I opened my heart to him, telling him with what horrid and terrible thoughts I was being visited. He said in reply: Martin, you do not know how useful and necessary this affliction is to you; for God does not exercise you thus without a purpose. You will see that He will employ you as His servant to accomplish great things by you. This came true. For I became a great doctor--I may justly say this of myself--; but at the time when I was suffering these afflictions I would never have believed that this could come to pass. No doubt, that is what is going to happen to you: you will become a great man. In the mean time be careful to keep a brave and stout heart, and impress on your mind this thought that such remarks which fall from the lips chiefly of learned and great men contain a prediction and prophecy. I remember well how a certain party whom I was comforting for the loss of his son said to me: Martin, you will see, you will become a great man. I often remembered this remark, for, as I said, such remarks contain a prediction and a prophecy. Therefore, be cheerful and brave, and cast these exceedingly terrifying thoughts entirely from you. Whenever the devil worries you with these thoughts, seek the company of men at once, or drink somewhat more liberally, jest and play some jolly prank, or do anything exhilarating. Occasionally a person must drink somewhat more liberally, engage in plays, and jests, or even commit some little sin from hatred and contempt of the devil, so as to leave him no room for raising scruples in our conscience about the most trifling matters. For when we are overanxious and careful for fear that we may be doing wrong in any matter, we shall be conquered. Accordingly, if the devil should say to you: By all means, do not drink! you must tell him: Just because you forbid it, I shall drink, and that, liberally. In this manner you must always do the contrary of what Satan forbids. When I drink my wine unmixed, prattle with the greatest unconcern, eat more frequently, do you think that I have any other reason for doing these things than to scorn and spite the devil who has attempted to spite and scorn me? Would God I could commit some real brave sin to ridicule the devil, that he might see that I acknowledge no sin and am not conscious of having committed any. We must put the whole law entirely out of our eyes and hearts,--we, I say, whom the devil thus assails and torments. Whenever the devil charges us with our sins and pronounces us guilty of death and hell, we ought to say to him: I admit that I deserve death and hell; what, then, will happen to me? Why, you will be eternally damned! By no means; for I know One who has suffered and made satisfaction for me. His name is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Where He abides, there will I also abide. [link]
Biographer W.H.T Dau comments on this letter:
When Luther advises Weller to drink somewhat more liberally, that does not mean that Luther advises Weller to get drunk. This, however, is exactly what Luther is made to say by his Catholic critics. They make no effort to understand the situation as it confronted Luther, but pounce upon a remark that can easily be understood to convey an offensive meaning. Neither does what Luther says about his own drinking mean that he ever got drunk… Luther's remarks about jesting, merry plays, and jolly pranks in which he would have Weller engage are likewise vitiated by the Catholic insinuation that he advises indecent frivolities, yea, immoralities. Why, all the merriment which he urges upon Weller is to take place in Luther's home and family circle, in the presence of Luther's wife and children, in the presence of Weller's little pupil Hans, who at that time was about four years old. The friends of the family members of the Faculty at the University, ministers, students who either stayed at Luther's home, like Weller, or frequently visited there, are also included in this circle whose company Weller is urged to seek. Imagine a young man coming into this circle drunk, or half drunk, and disporting himself hilariously before the company! We believe that not even all Catholics can be made to believe the insinuations of their writers against Luther when all the facts in the case are presented to them [W.H.T Dau, Luther Examined and Reexamined: A Review of Catholic Criticism and a Plea for Reevaluation (St Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1917), p. 123].

2. Let's talk about sex “Luther also thoroughly approved of sex; he said that a woman had the right to take on a lover, if her husband wasn't able to satisfy her in bed - and the husband should look on this with equanimity.
Well, that’s quite an outrageous trivia fact, very reminiscent of the negative pre-20th Century Roman Catholic invective hurled at Luther. With PBS though, the slant is probably not that Luther was immoral (as Roman Catholics have argued), but rather that his views are not those of contemporary conservative Christians that frown upon sexual promiscuity and promote monogamous marriage.

Like the previous statement about Luther advise to get drunk, I can only speculate as to where PBS got this fact from. It is absolutely true that Luther “approved of sex,” but he did so while at the same time always strongly advocating marriage. Luther often spoke out against promiscuity and adultery in his writings and sermons. It is possible the mysterious PBS researcher got a hold of a negative Luther biography that referenced a sermon from Luther’s in 1522, his writing, On the Estate of Marriage.

In the sermon, Luther first exhorts a Christian to remain faithful to a sick spouse who is unable the “render the conjugal due.” Even in the case of severe sickness, the healthy spouse must remain faithful. Luther says to the spouse who tries to rationalize adultery because of a sick partner: “If you say: I cannot contain myself, then you are lying.” What Luther goes onto say is a little more curious. Luther notes the situation is different when a wife simply refuses to give her husband his “conjugal due”:
One spouse may rob and withdraw himself or herself from the other and refuse to grant the conjugal due or to associate with the other. One may find a woman so thickheaded that it means nothing to her though her husband fall into unchasteness ten times. Then it is time for the man to say: If you are not willing, another woman is; if the wife is not willing, bring on the maid. But this is only after the husband has told his wife once or twice, warned her, and let it be known and rebuked before the congregation. If she still does not want to comply, then dismiss her; let an Esther be given you and allow Vashti to go, as did King Ahasuerus. [Ewald Plass, What Luther Says Volume 2 (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1959), p. 900-901, entry 2811]
Biographer Ewald Plass notes of this quote, “The words, ‘If the wife is not willing, bring on the maid’ have been notoriously misconstrued by having been quoted out of context. As the following words clearly show, Luther is thinking of a separation and a remarriage, not a sort of concubinage” [Ewald Plass, What Luther Says vol 2, p.901, footnote 20]. This is substantiated by a similar statement from Luther in the same year in the treatise, ‘The Estate of Marriage.’ In commenting on grounds for divorce, Luther says:
The third case for divorce is that in which one of the parties deprives and avoids the other, refusing to fulfill the conjugal duty or to live with the other person. For example, one finds many a stubborn wife like that who will not give in, and who cares not a whit whether her husband falls into the sin of unchastity ten times over. Here it is time for the husband to say, “If you will not, another will; the maid will come if the wife will not.”  Only first the husband should admonish and warn his wife two or three times, and let the situation be known to others so that her stubbornness becomes a matter of common knowledge and is rebuked before the congregation. If she still refuses, get rid of her; take an Esther and let Vashti go, as King Ahasuerus did (Esther 1:12–2:17) [LW 45:34].
Luther outlines three reasons for divorce- the first a physical disability preventing the ability to have children, the second adultery (interestingly, Luther doesn’t have a problem with capital punishment against adulterers here), and thirdly, the reason quoted above. Luther goes on to explain,
Here you should be guided by the words of St. Paul, I Corinthians 7(:4–5), “The husband does not rule over his own body, but the wife does; likewise the wife does not rule over her own body, but the husband does. Do not deprive each other, except by agreement,” etc. Notice that St. Paul forbids either party to deprive the other, for by the marriage vow each submits his body to the other in conjugal duty. When one resists the other and refuses the conjugal duty she is robbing the other of the body she had bestowed upon him. This is really contrary to marriage, and dissolves the marriage. For this reason the civil government must compel the wife, or put her to death. If the government fails to act, the husband must reason that his wife has been stolen away and slain by robbers; he must seek another. We would certainly have to accept it if someone’s life were taken from him. Why then should we not also accept it if a wife steals herself away from her husband, or is stolen away by others? [LW 45:34]
Now, these were words written by an unmarried medieval monk. They come across as shocking, but keep the comparison in mind to what PBS has stated: “Luther also thoroughly approved of sex; he said that a woman had the right to take on a lover, if her husband wasn't able to satisfy her in bed - and the husband should look on this with equanimity.” Do a little compare and contrast. Is the PBS Luther more reminiscent of a modern view of sexuality, or a medieval view? Biographer W.H.T Dau notes of Luther:

Moral cleanness is indelibly stamped upon hundreds of pages of Luther's writings. The Sixth Commandment in its wider application to the mutual relation of the sexes and the sexual condition of the individual was to Luther the solemn voice of God by which the holy and wise Creator guards and protects the fountains whence springs human life. "Because there is among us," he says, "such a shameful mixture and the very dregs of all kinds of vice and lewdness, this commandment is also directed against all manner of impurity, whatever it may be called; and not only is the external act forbidden, but every kind of cause, incitement, and means, so that the heart, the lips, and the whole body may be chaste and afford no opportunity, help, or persuasion for impurity. And not only this, but that we may also defend, protect, and rescue wherever there is danger and need; and give help and counsel, so as to maintain our neighbor's honor. For wherever you allow such a thing when you could prevent it, or connive at it as if it did not concern you, you are as truly guilty as the one perpetrating the deed. Thus it is required, in short, that every one both live chastely himself and help his neighbor do the same." (Large Catechism, p. 419.) The reason why God in the Sixth Commandment refers to only one form of sexual impurity Luther states correctly thus: "He expressly mentions adultery, because among the Jews it was a command and appointment that every one must be married. Therefore also the young were early married, so that the state of celibacy was held in small esteem, neither were public prostitution and lewdness tolerated as now. Therefore adultery was the most common form of unchastity among them [Luther Examined and Reexamined: A Review of Catholic Criticism and a Plea for Reevaluation (St Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1917), p. 210-211].

Addendum (2016)
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.


FM483 said...

James, this was a very interesting post! I assume that PBS, with the "modern" and "enlightened" mindset, believes that the current "no-fault" divorces is the best moral alternative? In my opinion, with "no-fault" divorce we have given a loaded gun topeople in which they are able to often destroy themselves and harm their children. The same holds for abortion: society attempts to deal with exceptions to the ruleand the laws become abused.Sounds like proof of the sinful nature of all men to me.

Frank Marron

Drastic Plastic said...

Thank you very much for this post. A friend today had heard that Luther got drunk every Saturday night, and that this was the reason that church services were at 11am. I shall point him at this page.

Likewise that he advocated committing sin, to show that grace abounded. I'd be glad of your take on the latter (I can see what is plainly the source in the letter you quote).

James Swan said...

Hi Roger, thanks. Try this link for the answer to your question:

Unknown said...

I find this interesting we had a non Lutheran Scholar come in and talk about Luther to my Class and i had never heard of him getting drunk and all of what she said insulted me due to i knew it wasnt true since I am a Lutheran now that i have have evidence looks like i am going to have a talk with my teacher

Unknown said...

Howdy -
I realize that this is an old post, but I was hoping that you could point me to your source for the letter to Jerome Weller.

James Swan said...

It's been quite a number of years since I put this post together. It appears I took the letter from this source:,%20you%20must%20firmly%20believe%20that%20your%22&f=false

Luther Examined and Reexamined: A Review of Catholic Criticism and a Plea for Reevaluation (St Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1917).

Dau cites: 21a, 1532 ff.

That refers to this source:

The letter begins on page 1532.

Jerry McIntire said...

Thank you for the thorough work you are doing here. I just want to point out a typo in a quote from Scripture on this page:

“as the lightning comes from the cast and shines as far as the west” [Matt. 24:27

"cast" should be east.

James Swan said...

Fixed. Thank you.