Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Was Luther's Father a Murderer?

Over the last few days I was again reminded of the impact of Father Patrick O'Hare's book, The Facts About Luther on Catholic laymen. The other night, I sat down with this book and re-read the first few chapters. I admit, it's been quite a while since I've read more than a few paragraphs of O'Hare's book in one sitting. My copy is heavily marked up, as I've researched the material it contains for more than a few years now.

One of the early slanderous charges put forth by Father O"Hare is a story that Luther's father was a murderer. O'Hare presents it as absolute historical fact. He explains Luther's parents originally lived in Morha, "a little township situated on the northwest corner of the Thuringian Forest and a few miles to the south of Eisenach" (p. 23). Luther's father Hans had a small farm. Shortly after he married Luther's mother Margaret Zeigler, "we find him abruptly abandoning his small holding in the little peasant township and hurriedly seeking a new home and a new occupation four score miles away..."(p.24). O'Hare wonders what would cause Hans to pack up and leave hurriedly with his pregnant wife. Here is his answer,

That there was a cause, other than such as is ordinarily assigned, for John Luther's sudden departure from Morha is certain, and substantiated by documentary evidence. Henry Mayhew, a man of distinguished literary attainments and best known as one of the Mayhew brothers who founded London Punch, made Luther the subject of a close, careful, critical study. In an interesting work published in London he treats of the question under consideration and declares John Luther's departure from Morha was a "flight," and he further adds, "men do not fly from their homes except on occasions of the greatest urgency." "The simple fact, then," according to Mr. Mayhew, "would appear to be that John Luther — as Martin Michaelis tells us in his description of the mines and smelting houses at Kupfersuhl, a work which was first published in the year 1702 — Martin's father, had, in a dispute stricken a herdsman dead to the earth, by means of a horse bridle, which he happened to have in his hand at the time and was thereupon forced to abscond from the officers of justice as hurriedly as he could" (pp. 24-25).

O'Hare continues for a few pages, piling up the historical records to prove this event actually occurred. To read all of O'Hare's "proof" see his book here. Interestingly, O'Hare points out this story circulated during Luther's lifetime by a man named "George Wicel." Who was this man? He was a Catholic preacher, and no fan of Luther's.

Through the quote of another, O"Hare posits "that Martin was a veritable chip of the hard old block" and "If a gouty father or a consumptive mother, in the usual course of nature, beget a podagric or phthisic child, surely one with a temper as fiery as a blood-horse may be expected to cast a high-mettled foul. It may account for that 'terrible temper' of the Reformer..." (p.27). O'Hare provides an interesting quotation from George Ganss (the author of the old Catholic Encyclopedia article on Luther):

Fr. Ganss in dealing with this question concludes a learned contribution to the American Catholic Quarterly Review, Jan. 1910, with an observation which is vitally germane to the subject. "This is, the wild passion of anger was an unextinguished and unmodified heritage transmitted congenitally to the whole Luther family and this to such an extent that the Luther-zorn (Luther rage) has attained the currency of a German colloquialism" (p.26).

Note also this comment from Ganss at the beginning of his Luther entry from the Catholic Encyclopedia:

His father, Hans, was a miner, a rugged, stern, irascible character. In the opinion of many of his biographers, it was an expression of uncontrolled rage, an evident congenital inheritance transmitted to his oldest son, that compelled him to flee from Mohra, the family seat, to escape the penalty or odium of homicide.

The charge: Luther's father was an angry man prone to violence and murder, Luther shared the same heredity and this likewise accounts for aspects of his personality. Obviously, this conclusion is spurious and laughable, and is a silly presentation of the genetic fallacy. It's yet another attempt to do psychology on a dead man. It is very interesting how Roman Catholic apologists, both old and new, educated and or not, are experts in psychology when it comes to Luther, and also his genetics.

However, one may wonder if the actual charge against Luther's father is accurate. Below is an interesting evaluation from a very helpful Luther book by Heinrich Boehmer:

In his work, De raptu epistolae privatae, the Catholic preacher, Georg Witzel, states at Eisleben in 1535: "I might call Luther's father (0b. 27, 5, 1530) a man-slayer and himself a changeling of the Devil." Witzel afterwards repeated this statement several times. Whether it ever reached Luther's ears we do not know. In any case, however, he would hardly have considered it necessary to take any action; for it was his principle never to reply to such attacks, Table Talk, 4086, 4504. As early as January 14, 1520 (Correspondence,ii. 293), he refers people who cast aspersions on his parents to the testimony of the Count of Mansfeld, not without pride.

Witzel's statement became one of the stock weapons of Catholic polemic. In the course of the seventeenth century, however, it found belief here and there, even among Protestants, who were not satisfied with the bare information of Mathesius, ed. Loesche (Prague 1906), p. 16 : "Hans Luther moved from the village of Mohra to Eisleben," and who felt it necessary to hunt up the most impressive motive possible for this departure. At the turn of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries people in Mohra knew exactly how the alleged murder happened. Hans Luther, the tale ran, had accidentally killed a peasant in a field with his own horse-bridle. How he managed to do this no one troubled to wonder, cf. the essay of the mine official, J. M. Michaelis, on the Kupfersuhl mines, written in 1702, in Von Thon, Schloss Wartburg, p. 143 f. In quite modern times the inhabitants of Mohra were able to point out the very meadow in which this happened.

The obvious objection that if Hans Luther had been guilty of such an action he would not have chosen the Mansfeld district but would rather have fled across the border, which was very close, into Hesse, where the Saxon courts could not have interfered with him, was ignored; so also was the very surprising fact that the supposed man- slayer, no later than 1491, was appointed to the very honourable office of one of the "four of the commonalty," whose duty was to uphold the rights of the citizens as opposed to the Council, C. Krumhaar, Versuch einer OeschicJite von Stadt und Schloss Mansfeld (1869), p. 26.

The story thus has as legendary a flavour as possible. But there must be something in it. And there is in fact something in it. Hans Luther had a younger brother whose name was also Hans. For it was formerly the custom in the Thuringian districts bordering Hesse, as it still is in Hesse itself, for the Gode or god-father to give the child his name. Consequently in Thuringia, as to-day in Hesse, the same name sometimes occurs twice among the children of one family. In Hesse the children are distinguished in such cases by giving them different nicknames (e.g. Kathe and Trinchen for Katharina). In the family of Heine Luther of Mohra a still simpler method was adopted : the elder Hans, Luther's father, was called Gross-Hans and the younger Klein-Hans. Klein-Hans later followed Gross-Hans to Mansfeld; for Gross-Hans kept up a communication and intercourse with his relations in Mohra, a fact which also does not speak for the credibility of the later Mohra legend.

But Klein-Hans did no good in Mansfeld, as the still existing law-court records of 1499-1513 show, cf. W. Mollenberg in the Zeitung des Harz- Vereins fur Geschichte und Altertumskunde xxxix. (1906), p. 191 ff. He was a rowdy fellow, a tavern hero of the worst sort, and very ready with his knife. The records do not, indeed, state that he ever killed a man. They show only that he once cut a man on the mouth, another time injured several people on the hands (with a knife), a third time struck a severe blow with a knife at a man's head from behind, and a fourth time gave a man a violent blow on the head with a stick. All this makes it quite plausible to attribute a fatal blow to him. These misdeeds of Klein-Hans Luther were still the subject of much discussion in Eisleben at the time when Georg Witzel was summoned by Count Hoyer of Mansfeld as pastor for the ever-shrinking Catholic community. It is possible that in the little community the story was already told as Witzel, who is known to have seized upon any gossip about Luther's family, reproduces it. It is alternatively not impossible that Witzel, who can hardly have known of the existence of two Hans Luthers in Mansfeld, quite honestly attributed to Gross-Hans the deeds told of Klein-Hans. In any case, the alleged manslaughter by Gross-Hans is as credible as the story told in the same breath, probably also originating in the embittered little Catholic community in Eisleben, that the heretic Martinus was begotten by an incubus or devil in adultery with "Margarethe Lutherin." [Heinrich Boehmer, Luther and the Reformation in the Light of Modern Research (London: G. Bell and Sons LTD., 1930) pp. 357-359].

For an excellent and concise overview see also, Julius Kostlin's overview of the charge that Luther's father was a murderer.


Anonymous said...


Do you have a pdf version of all these recent investigations and corrections of Catholic understandings of Luther? I ask because I would like to give them to my priest, because I believe he relies upon O'Hare (and TAN books in general) for his Luther information.

James Swan said...

Sorry Kepha, I'm not that organized! You could always print out my papers, the Catholic Understanding of Luther (1 & 2). In part one, I have a brief overview of O'Hare's book.

Unknown said...

It is very interesting how these myths start and can continue over time. The O'Hare book is such a shame, especially considering how many online Catholics I see referencing it. Kudos for you for continuing to clean up the record.

The PDF idea is a good one, James. I know you are very busy, but a compilation of your work correcting the record would be a great resource.