Consider the lax morals Luther was teaching at the time:
Editor’s note: "To avoid offense, the betrothed should not yet live as married people. But any premature sexual intimacy between them, although reprehensible, should not be called fornication."
2796. What about the Intercourse of the Betrothed?
"Secret intercourse of those who are engaged to each other can certainly not be considered fornication; for it takes place in the name and with the intention of marriage, a desire, intention, or name which fornication does not have. Thus there is a great difference indeed between fornication and secret intercourse after the promise of marriage."
- Von Ehesachen (Concerning Matrimonial Matters), A. D. 1530.What Luther Says, Ewald M. Plass, Concordia Publishing House, 1959, 3 volumes, (1994, 3 vols. in 1), ISBN 0570042402, p. 896.One defender of Rome considers such research "excellent" because such comments prove the Reformers were at least as bad the Roman Catholic morality of the sixteenth century. He let's us know as well that it's part of his job as a Professional Roman Apologist to "be a mythbreaker." He enjoys pointing out the flaws of the Reformers because it makes us "mad" that he's hit one of our "sacred cows." Let's take a closer look at this quote and see what's going on.
Luther is being cited via the anthology, What Luther Says by Ewald Plass. Provided also is as an interpretive editor's comment from the same book. To give further validity to his historical finds, this defender of Rome went over to Google Books and located the front cover of an old German version of the actual source: Von Ehesachen (Concerning Matrimonial Matters). We can be very grateful for such in-depth work. It probably took Rome's defender an entire 2 minutes to read the quote in What Luther Says, and then another 30 seconds to find a source he can't even read on Google Books! Perhaps he had to drive a distance to a library to read What Luther Says. In which case, we can thank him as well for the expenses incurred for such research endeavors. By the way, "2796. What about the Intercourse of the Betrothed?" are not Luther's words, or part of the original source. They are the words of the editor, Ewald Plass.
Now, for a brief moment of sarcasm: What Ben and his polemical friends apparently have not done is actually read Luther's Concerning Matrimonial Matters. As a helpful tip from a Protestant with a hit sacred cow, I suggest next time one of Rome's defenders goes down to the library, he need only to find that big section of similarly shaped and colored books that say "Luther's Works" on their spines. These will probably be located somewhere near What Luther Says. follow your finger along the volumes noting they're numbered, and then find volume 46, located after 45 and before 47. Note of caution, sometimes libraries do not have the volumes in precise order. On page 259 of volume 46, One will find On Marriage Matters (1530) translated by Frederick C. Ahrens (unless some unscrupulous person has absconded the pages... perhaps a Protestant wishing to hide the real truth about Luther ripped this treatise out to keep the Luther-myth going.
As the Reformation progressed, some of the specifics of canon law were no longer regulating marriage in some areas. The editors explain,
Over the centuries the old Roman law and practice expanded to accommodate other national customs, particularly those of the Germans. According to German custom, an agreement to marry in the future (i.e., engagement) followed by intercourse constituted a marriage. This accommodation gave rise to a fine distinction between the sponsalia de futuro and sponsalia de praesenti (a consent to marry in the future and a consent to marry in the present). Gradually, however, this distinction became theoretical rather than functional. In theory there was no such thing as divorce, for marriage was regarded by the church as indissoluble, and this doctrine was enforced by the state. Nonetheless the church could and did dissolve marriages on the grounds that they were invalid by virtue of certain impediments. Among these impediments were consanguinity, disparity of religion, previous betrothal, ordination, and impotence. The impediment of consanguinity was even extended to include baptismal sponsors and relatives of a deceased fiance. (LW 46: 261).
Luther was looked to for insight into developing Biblical and practical rules on marriage. In the first part of this treatise, the editors explain he develops five points which he supports with arguments drawn from "Scripture, law, and common sense":
(1) Secret engagements should not be made.(2) Public engagements take precedence over secret engagements.(3) Of two public engagements the first is valid and punishment should be imposed for the second.(4) Intercourse with another man or woman after engagement is adultery and should be punished as such.(5) Forced engagements, i.e., engagements imposed upon young people against their will and without their consent, are not valid. (LW 46:262)Looking at this broad overview, one finds nothing at all shocking. Rather, one finds "common sense" at work and nothing really to quibble over. The obscure quote we're dealing with will be concerned with a mixture of 1-4. The situation which involves our obscure quote is a complicated betrothal problem that presses these points as to their consistency.
Context Previous to the Obscure Quote
The issues relevant to the obscure quote concern secret marriages. Luther defines his term:
I define a secret engagement as one which takes place without the knowledge and consent of those who are in authority and have the right and power to establish a marriage, such as, father, mother, and whoever may act in their stead. Even if a thousand witnesses were present at a secret betrothal and it nonetheless took place without the knowledge and consent of the parents, the whole thousand should be reckoned as acting in the darkness and not in the light, as only one voice, and as assisting treacherously in this beginning without the presence of orderly public authority" (LW 46:268).He then outlines the societal problems he faced with such secret marriages under canon law:
Here I want to show what impelled me, even before I had considered these causes, to advise and act against secret engagements. It often happened that a married couple came to me... one or both of whom had previously become secretly engaged to others, and now there was misery and distress. Then we confessors or theologians were supposed to counsel these captive consciences. But how could we do this? There was the law and custom of the officials which decreed that the first secret betrothal was a true marriage in God’s sight, and that the second one was an open act of adultery. So they went ahead and tore up the second marriage and ordered them to keep the first secret betrothal, even if they had ten children together in the second marriage and had joined their inheritance and property into one. They had to separate, whether God granted that the first betrothed was present and claimed the woman, or whether he was elsewhere, even though he had married elsewhere and no longer wished to have her. Further, if this engagement was so secret that it could not be attested by a single witness, and the second one was openly confirmed in the church, then they were forced to comply with both: first, they must consider the secret betrothal as the true marriage in their consciences before God, and on the other hand the woman was forced on pain of excommunication and by obedience to share the table and bed of the second man as her true husband, because this marriage was publicly attested, while the former secret engagement no one dared to acknowledge except she herself, and that in her conscience before God. What should a poor conscience do in a case like this? How could the situation be more confused than by such contradictory laws and decisions? If she were to run from the second husband to the first she would be regarded as an adulteress, put under the ban, and deprived of the sacraments and of all her Christian rights. But if she remained with the second man she would again be looked upon as an adulteress before God. So she could not stay in any one place and yet she had to stay there (LW 46:270).This is only a brief excerpt of the troubles Luther outlines simply to give one a feel for the context. The problems and solutions Luther outlines go on for quite a few pages.
Context of the Obscure Luther Quote
The pertinent section of text begins on page 289 in a discussion of point 3 (Of two public engagements the first is valid and punishment should be imposed for the second). The precise application of point 3 is applied to this situation: "what if someone becomes publicly engaged to a person and meanwhile keeps silent about the fact that he has previously been secretly engaged to another, and has even lain with her and made her pregnant?" (LW 46:289). The problem is thus: a man has publicly been engaged, but previously had a private engagement, and even may have impregnated this previous woman. Luther calls such a man a scoundrel. Luther responds:
In such a case I would render this decision: If the secret engagement and lying together are known or proven, then in such a case the scoundrel shall first be punished for so deceiving and humiliating the maid and her parents or the widow and her relatives with a public betrothal; and after he has been punished, the second betrothal, which has not yet been consummated, shall yield to the secret one, which has been consummated, as we have said above (LW 46:290).One can see this decision runs contrary to Luther's rule that public engagements take precedence over secret engagements. Luther responds by comparing Mosaic law to the current historical setting. While there may be some similarities, Mosaic law doesn't quite work for the current world or in answering such a situation outlined above. Among his reasons and comparison to Mosaic law, he states:
Among the people of Moses no great importance was attached to whether anyone had lain with the girl, especially in anticipation of a coming marriage, for she could still get married without any difficulty and was in no danger. Furthermore, the fruit of the womb was valued so highly among them and was such a precious thing that people regarded physical virginity or honor as very little in comparison. This is not the case with us, however; but on the contrary, among us womanly honor is regarded as more important than any fruit of the womb, and a girl who has lain with someone can hardly maintain her reputation, and there is great danger that she may even become a common woman. This is why we must conduct ourselves according to this state of affairs and can no longer call it the law of Moses if we accept it in one thing where it serves our purpose and disregard it in another. Moses can do both: he can judge that the publicly betrothed girl is a married woman who cannot be discarded by any means, and at the same time he can declare that the one with whom the same man has [been] is an honorable woman and can give her in marriage to him. We do, however, follow Moses to the extent that we declare that the publicly betrothed woman is a wedded wife, but because we cannot give to him the one with whom he has lain, as Moses does, we must find a way here that can be accepted by our people, and that will not permit the honor and reputation of which the girl was deprived, which we consider her greatest treasure, to remain imperiled (LW 46:291).If you've followed this, you'll see Luther's concern and compassion for the woman of the secret engagement who has been impregnated or violated by a scoundrel. Luther then gives this advice for such a situation:
Therefore it has been my wish to give this advice: Where the public betrothal is still pure and there has been no lying together, and where there has been a previous secret betrothal with lying together, which is known, sworn to, and proven, the publicly betrothed girl shall yield, as is reasonable, in view of the fact that she still retains the treasure of her honor intact and hence still has a good chance to marry. But according to the ways of our land, the girl who has lain with the man and forfeited her greatest treasure probably cannot get married, as she might easily have done under Moses. This seems right and proper to me, as long as the authorities impose no punishment upon those who secretly lie with virgins and violate them. But if punishment were imposed, that would soon take care of this case and many others too. I do not consider it good that such things should go unpunished, since it is a terrible and disgraceful thing to break up a public betrothal and to leave in shame the one with whom a man has secretly lain. Both the man and the woman who have lain together deserve at least to be expelled from the country for a time, so that the scandal might thereby be atoned for and made good and others would be given an example to fear (LW 46:292).Luther's advice is to negate the secret engagement if the woman has not slept with the scoundrel. If she has, the public engagement is to be broken, because the public woman still retains her honor, and is free to marry someone else. The secret woman would suffer societal humiliation if not married, so she should be married to the scoundrel. Luther's counsel is to protect the woman. Luther says of the rights of the public woman:
But if anyone were to pretend that injustice and damage are done to the publicly betrothed bride if she is separated because the man has previously lain with the first woman, the answer should be this: She nonetheless retains her highest treasure, her honor; and her innocence too is to be highly regarded and praised, because she is deceived and must suffer this separation without deserving it. She should take into consideration what she would do if her betrothed sweetheart had previously become engaged to another woman or had become publicly engaged to someone elsewhere—then she would still have to be separated and suffer all this. If in addition her deceiver is punished, her innocence becomes all the more worthy of respect, and this deception turns out to her best advantage (LW 46:292).The Obscure Luther Quote
Luther then says of the woman from the secret engagement:
But that other poor girl now is left with nothing, and the punishment does not restore her honor, and a woman who has lost her honor is quite worthless because we do not regard the fruit of the womb as highly as the Jews. Yet this lying together in secret in anticipation of betrothal cannot be reckoned as whoredom, for it takes place in the name and with the intention of marriage, which spirit, intention, or name whoredom does not have. Therefore there is a great difference between whoredom and lying together in secret with the intention of betrothed marriage. Indeed, no Christian or honest man would do otherwise if he had gone so far that he would make the mistake of lying secretly with a girl on the promise of betrothal, if he thought that he would have to keep her and disavow all public betrothals subsequently entered upon (LW 46:293).Luther begins by expressing his concern for the woman of the secret engagement. To punish her either as an adulterer, or to force her to stay unmarried is to humiliate and hurt her, perhaps because she was enticed and mislead by a scoundrel. Luther says of the secret couple, their "lying together in secret in anticipation of betrothal cannot be reckoned as whoredom" because "it takes place in the name and with the intention of marriage." That is, to punish her as a societal whore is totally unjustified. She was not selling sex, she was enticed by a man with a promise of marriage. Luther then hypothetically argues a man would never sleep with a woman and promise her marriage if he knew that his private engagement would nullify his public engagement. That is, only a scoundrel would do such a thing, and he should be forced to marry the woman to retain her honor. Luther never permits a couple to have premarital sex. Rather, he's describing what to do in a complicated situation. The woman isn't a whore to be scorned by society. She's a woman entitled to have a vow made to her kept.
A closer look at the context should decide if Rome's defenders evaluation of "the lax morals of Luther" is a justified assessment and if their research was "excellent" and if a sacred cow has been slaughtered.
Indeed, the context does destroy a myth: it is the myth perpetuated by Roman apologists that struggle greatly with research and contexts. They continue to chomp down on anything that smells foul and post it on the Internet as a means of discrediting the Reformation. One defender of Rome said the Reformers "were not paragons of virtue, coming in to rescue the poor ignorant, semi-pagan unregenerate Catholic masses of folks." I would question the honesty of anyone to continue using this quote now knowing the context to prove Luther's "lax morals."
Of this obscure Luther quote a defender of Rome said, "A lot of this sort of sexual license was going on among the early Protestants." Really? This quote is an example of sexual license? Hardly. This is an example of a man concerned for the integrity of a woman in sixteenth century society. Isn't it ironic how a little context completely turns the tables? I can't help but be a bit agitated by such rhetoric, carelessness, and slander of a historical person by Rome's defenders. If all of their work on the Reformers is geared toward "proving they were at least as bad the Catholic morality of the sixteenth century," I question if such a motivation is honest, and if perhaps throwing mud on the opposition takes the spotlight off the mud on the Roman Catholic Church. If Rome's defenders would simply read Luther in context, maybe they would produce better historical conclusions.
I thought it would be helpful to post what Luther goes on to say (but then again, it might not help those already committed to their propaganda):
However, I have written this article as a warning which anyone may regard as he pleases, for I have learned from experience what a coarse rabble there is in the world. Loose fellows are wandering around and running through the land from one place to the other, and wherever one of them sees a wench that takes his fancy he starts getting hot and right away he tries to see how he can get her, goes ahead and gets engaged again, and thus wants to forget and abandon the first engagement that he entered into elsewhere with another woman. And what is worse, they go ahead and have their wedding—some even get married in several places and so carry on a great and shameful scandal in the name and under the appearance of marriage (LW 46:293).Here again, we see the emphasis is on the scoundrel, and his sin. Luther's emphasis again, is on protecting violated women from such predators.
This is where the pastors should be careful to warn their people and point out this danger, namely, that no citizen or peasant should give his child in marriage to a strange fellow or man, and that the authorities, too, should not permit such a marriage. The pastor should not publish the bans, marry, or bestow his blessing upon any of these people, but if they are strangers, men or women, they should be required to furnish adequate testimonials of their character, both written and oral, so that one may be certain what kind of people they are, whether they are single or married, honest or dishonest, as do some craftsmen who demand letters of recommendation from their fellow craftsmen, and as the monks used to do who would not accept anyone unless they knew that he was free and not obligated to anyone by betrothal, debt, or servitude. How much more should one demand such recommendations from strange men or women who wish to enter into matrimony! It is certainly a matter of importance for every person to see what kind of spouse he is getting and to whom he is giving his child or relative. It is also up to the council and the community to see what kind of male or female citizen and member they are getting in their community. (LW 46:293)Luther's point: watch out for these scoundrels.
For we learn from experience, as has been said, that rascals and wenches run here and there, taking wives and husbands merely to perpetrate their skulduggery, and afterward steal all they can and run off. They treat marriage as the Tartars and gypsies do, who continually celebrate weddings and baptisms wherever they go, so that a girl may well be a bride ten times and a child be baptized ten times. I know a village not far from here—I will not mention the name of the region (I do not want to mention it for the sake of its reputation)—where, when our gospel came, we found thirty-two couples living together out of wedlock, where either the husband or the wife was a fugitive. I did not think that there were many more than thirty-two houses or inhabitants in the place. The good bishops, officials, and authorities had so managed and looked after things that in this hiding place there were gathered together all those who had been driven out of or had run away from other places. But now, praise God, the gospel has swept away this scandal so cleanly that no open adultery, whoredom, or illicit cohabitation is any longer tolerated anywhere. And yet the poor gospel must be called a heresy from which no good comes! (LW 46:294).Notice, adultery and fornication were rooted out of the community, not blessed by Luther. One thing also to keep in mind: certain words don't appear to be interchangeable for Luther. Adultery is a specific crime against marriage. A person having sex previous to marriage is unchaste. That is, a person who is married having sex with someone other than his wife is an adulterer. A single person who is promiscuous commits the sin of unchastity.
Addendum #2 (March, 2019)
This blog entry is a revision of an entry I posted back in 2009. The original does not appear to have been captured by the Internet Archive. 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.