Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Luther on Wittenberg: "Away from this Sodom"

Here's a Luther quote from the book, Henry O'Connor, Luther's Own Statements Concerning His Teaching and Its Results: Taken Exclusively from the Earliest and Best Editions of Luther's German and Latin Works (1884), p. 56.

  The town of Wittenberg was the principal scene of Luther's activity. It was there that he resided. It was there, if anywhere, that the results of his teaching ought to have made themselves felt. Now, about seven months before his death, Luther wrote to his wife,"Away from this Sodom (Wittenberg) I will wander about, and sooner beg my bread than allow my poor old last days to be martyred and upset with the disorder of Wittenberg (Luther's Letter to his Wife, July, 1545, de Wette V. 753)"

This quote pops up every once in a while. It's typically used by Rome's defenders as proof of the failure of the Reformation (or something like Luther's regrets or concession to the failure of the Reformation, etc. example #1, example #2). O'Connor uses it to describe the "Results of Luther's Teaching," specifically, the "Moral Results" that there was a "Lower State of General Morality." Some years back  I found it being used on the Catholic Answers forums,  It was one of a string of quotes used to prove that Luther's teachings made the world much worse. The person posting it tries to gain credibility by finding the text in German. After citing Luther's controversial obscure comments  on bigamy, He stated:
With advice like that, is it any wonder that Luther complained often about the worsening of morals under his "gospel," or that he would eventually say of his own town of Wittenberg, “Nur weg, und aus diesen Sodoma,” "Only away, and from this Sodom! (link)

The footnote "De Wette V. 753" refers to page 753 in the fifth volume in a set of Luther's letters edited by Dr. Wilhelm Martin Leberecht de Wette (5 vols., Berlin, 1825-8), Dr. Martin Luthers Briefe, Sendschreiben und Bedenken). Yes, this was a letter Luther penned to his wife Katie, July 28, 1545. Page 753 can be found here. The text reads:

This letter has been in translated into English in LW 50:273-278. The exact quote in found at LW 50:279. There are alternate translations of this letter: The Life and Letters of Martin Luther By Preserved Smith, page 416;  Martin Luther: The Man and His Work by Arthur Cushman McGiffert, p. 416.

LW contains some interesting introductory material that sets the historical context of this letter. They state: 
In this letter Luther tells Katie first that John will report details about the trip, and that they all received much hospitality on the way. Then Luther informs Katie that he is disgusted with moral conditions in Wittenberg and would like to arrange matters so that he would not have to return to Wittenberg. He feels that the people of Wittenberg would make difficulties for his family anyhow, once he had died; and so he suggests that Katie now dispose of their properties in Wittenberg and move to Zölsdorf. He hopes that the Elector will continue to pay his salary for this year, which he feels might well be the last year of his life, and that this salary would enable him to improve the estate in Zölsdorf. Luther tells his wife that “the day after tomorrow” he will drive to Merseburg to visit George of Anhalt. In closing, Luther leaves it up to his wife to decide whether to inform Melanchthon and Bugenhagen of his intention not to return to Wittenberg; if his wife does tell them, then she is to ask Bugenhagen to inform the congregation of Luther’s decision, and to say farewell to the congregation in Luther’s name.
Luther had considered leaving Wittenberg in protest before he wrote the present letter. But the determination with which Luther spoke in the present letter was a considerable shock for the University and the town. Luther’s colleagues immediately conjectured that Luther wanted to leave Wittenberg because of doctrinal differences which existed between Luther and “one” of Luther’s colleagues. On August I the University wrote to Elector John Frederick, enclosing a copy of the present letter, and informing the Elector that the University would deputize Bugenhagen and “some others” to negotiate with Luther for his return. The University requested the Elector to summon Luther and try to influence him to change his mind.
As a result of this request, the Elector deputized his personal physician, Matthias Ratzeberger, to deal with Luther; Ratzeberget was to confer with Melanchthon first, however. Ratzeberger was to give Luther the Elector’s personal letter (a masterpiece of psychological diplomacy) and, along with von Amsdorf, Melanchthon, Bugenhagen, and Major, to persuade Luther to change his mind.
Contrary to Melanchthon’s assumption that Luther’s decision to leave Wittenberg had something to do with doctrinal matters, it is clear, on the basis of a letter written by Ratzeberger, that Luther’s decision was based on his disappointment with and anger about the conditions in Wittenberg; the decision was apparently actually made (on the spur of the moment) under the impact of some stories about Wittenberg which Luther heard in the countryside. The Elector and Brück had a much more realistic view of the situation than Melanchthon had. The Elector simply talked about those complaints Luther had which he felt could be settled. And Brück argued that one should not make so much ado about it all, saying that, thank God, it would not be as easy to dispose of the property as Luther thought it would be; while Brück was well aware that Luther might be stubborn and remain “sitting on his head,” he also realized that in view of the problems which would arise in connection with the sale of Luther’s property, the last word on this matter had not yet been spoken.
How serious Luther was about his decision to leave Wittenberg could not be ascertained. His continued absence from Wittenberg without any given reason seems to indicate that Luther was indeed serious. On the other hand, while in Merseburg, Luther supposedly was promised “in the name of the church and the state” that the poor moral conditions in Wittenberg would be corrected; according to Köstlin-Kawerau, after Luther’s return to Wittenberg, the city council and the University did indeed draft (upon the Elector’s orders) ordinances directed against the poor public behavior which supposedly had caused Luther’s anger. Since Luther left Merseburg on August 7 or 8, the issues must have been well on the way to being settled by that time. In any case, Luther did eventually return to Wittenberg, and Ratzeberger and Melanchthon had accomplished their missions. While obviously the promises made to Luther at Merseburg and the “arm-twisting” by his friends played some part in Luther’s change of heart, the fact that Luther may in any event have had second thoughts about his decision to leave Wittenberg must not be discounted (LW 50:273-277).
Also of interest to the historical background of this letter is Martin Brecht's overview found in Martin Luther: The Preservation of the Church, 1532-1546, Volume 3, p. 262-265. Brecht concludes:

To Mrs. Martin Luther [Zeitz,] July 28, 1545

To my kind and dear mistress of the house, Luther’s Catherine von Bora, a preacher, a brewer, a gardener, and whatever else she is capable of doing- Grace and peace! Dear Katie!
John surely will tell you everything pertaining to our journey; I am not yet certain whether he should stay with me, but Doctor Caspar Cruciger and Ferdinand, of course, will tell you. Ernst von Schönfeld has treated us graciously at Löbnitz, and Heintz Scherle at Leipzig even more so.
I would like to arrange matters in such a way that I do not have to return to Wittenberg. My heart has become cold, so that I do not like to be there any longer. I wish you would sell the garden and field, house and all. Also I would like to return the big house to my Most Gracious Lord. It would be best for you to move to Zölsdorf as long as I am still living and able to help you to improve the little property with my salary. For I hope that my Most Gracious Lord would let my salary be continued at least for one [year], that is, the last year of my life. After my death the four elements at Wittenberg certainly will not tolerate you [there]. Therefore it would be better to do while I am alive what certainly would have to be done then. As things are run in Wittenberg, perhaps the people there will acquire not only the dance of St. Vitus or St. John,but the dance of the beggars or the dance of Beelzebub, since they have started to bare women and maidens in front and back, and there is no one who punishes or objects. In addition the Word of God is being mocked [there]. Away from this Sodom! If Leeks Bachscheisse, our other Rosina, and [her] seducer are not yet imprisoned, then help as much as you can to see that this scoundrel loses what he has gained. While in the country I have heard more than I find out while in Wittenberg. Consequently I am tired of this city and do not wish to return, May God help me with this.
The day after tomorrow I shall drive to Merseburg, for Sovereign George has very urgently asked that I do so. Thus I shall be on the move, and will rather eat the bread of a beggar than torture and upset my poor old [age] and final days with the filth at Wittenberg which destroys my hard and faithful work. You might inform Doctor Pomer and Master Philip of this (if you wish), and [you might ask] if Doctor Pomer would wish to say farewell to Wittenberg in my behalf. For I am unable any longer to endure my anger [about] and dislike [of this city].
With this I commend you to God. Amen.
July 28, 1545
Martin Luther, D

Here an alternate English translation found in The life and letters of Martin Luther By Preserved Smith, page 416.
Away with this Sodom. Our other Rosina and deceiver is Leak's dung, and yet not in prison; do what you can to make the'wretch stultify himself. I hear more of these scandals in the country than I did at Wittenberg, and am therefore tired of that city and do not wish to return, God helping me. Day after to-morrow I am going to Merseburg, for Prince George has pressed me to do so. I will wander around here and eat the bread of charity before I will martyr and soil my poor old last days with the disordered life of Wittenberg, where I lose all my bitter, costly work. You may tell Melanchthon and Bugenhagen this, if you will, and ask the latter to give Wittenberg my blessing, for I can no longer bear its wrath and displeasure. God bless you. Amen.

Leaving the context of Luther's statement aside for a moment, consider a few points. Is O'Connor's argument biblically true? Were those "chosen by Almighty God" guaranteed the results of "an increase of virtue and a decrease of vice"? Think of the Old Testament prophets. They typically came with messages that the people did not heed, nor want to hear- and this provoked God's judgment. If one were to evaluate their calling and ministry based on O'Connor's paradigm, we could throw out more than a few prophets. Consider some of the early churches in the New Testament as well. Corinth was given a rather pure dose of apostolic teaching, was it not? When one reads 1 and 2 Corinthians, the moral state of the church described by Paul is less than stellar. Latter on in an an early post-biblical document, 1 Clement, we find the Corinthian church still in disarray. Or, take the argument and apply it to Rome's infallible magisterium and pick a century or a recent decade. Therefore, O'Connor's argument is bogus if one uses the Bible as a determiner of truth. O'Connor is a typical defender of Rome using a "theology of glory" as the ultimate standard.

It's important to note also Luther wasn't like many of the current post-millennial hopefulls. He did not expect the world to get better and better, culminating in a decrease of sin, and an increase in godliness on a mass scale, in order to usher in the kingdom of God. No, for Luther, it was the end of the world. He expected only a remnant to be saved as the world came to its end.

Addendum (2016)
This blog entry is a revision of an entry I posted back in 2009. 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.

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