Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Luther: All is forgotten that God has done for the world through me

Here's another obscure Luther quote typically used by Rome's defenders:
All is forgotten that God has done for the world through me... now lords, priests, and peasants are all against me, and threaten my death. (in Durant, ibid., 393. From June 15, 1525)
From various web-pages, I've come across Rome's defenders using this quote two different ways. First, it was used as an example of "The Agony of Luther" over "the State of Early Protestantism." Second, it serves as an example of "The Unpopularity of Luther and Other Protestant Revolutionaries." There are other uses of this quote as well, typically referenced when describing Luther's role in the Peasants War: Erik Erikson's Young Man Luther brings it up (p. 236-237), as does McGiffert's Martin Luther: The Man and His Work (p. 280). 

The quote from "June 15, 1525" is said to come from Will Durant's volume on The Reformation, page 393:
The Reformation itself almost perished in the Peasants' War. Despite Luther's disclaimers and denunciations, the rebellion had flaunted Protestant colors and ideas: economic aspirations were dressed in phrases that Luther had sanctified; communism was to be merely a return to the Gospel. Charles V interpreted the uprising as "a Lutheran movement." Conservatives classed the expropriation of ecclesiastical property by Protestants as revolutionary actions on a par with the sacking of monasteries by peasants. In the south the frightened princes and lords renewed their fealty to the Roman Church. In several places, as at Bamberg and Wurzburg, men even of the propertied class were executed for having accepted Lutheranism . The peasants themselves turned against the Reformation as a lure and a betrayal; some called Luther Dr. Lugner—"Dr. Liar" —and "toady of the princes." For years after the revolt he was so unpopular that he seldom dared leave Wittenberg, even to attend his father's deathbed (1530). "All is forgotten that God has done for the world through me," he wrote (June 15, 1525); "now lords, priests, and peasants are all against me, and threaten my death."
Durant cites "Smith, Luther, 164." He most likely means Preserved Smith, but his Bibliography doesn't list any books entitled "Luther" by that author (see Durant, 951). Smith's The Life and Letters of Martin Luther contains the quote in question on page 165, so perhaps Durant was using a different edition. Smith states:
Thus also, in a note inviting John Ruhel to his wedding feast, the Reformer says (June 15, 1526): "What an outcry of Harrow has been caused by my pamphlet against the peasants. All is now forgotten that God has done for the world through me. Now lords, priests, and peasants are all against me and threaten my death." Ruhel accepted the invitation and brought with him a letter from the Chancellor Caspar Muller suggesting that the Reformer should defend himself against the attacks made upon him.
Smith made an error above with the date, Luther was married in 1525, not 1526. Smith cites the same quote (with the correct date) in his book, Luther's Correspondence and Other Contemporary Letters, Volume 2, page 323.  Smith also gives documentation: "De Wette, iii, 1. German." This is a reference to a collection of Luther's letters. The page from De Wette can be found here.  The pertinent text reads:

This letter was not included in the English Luther's Works.  However, Preserved Smith does provided an English translation in Luther's Correspondence and Other Contemporary Letters, Volume 2, page 323.

DeWette, iii, 1. German.
Wittenberg, June 15, 1525.
Grace and peace in Christ. What an outcry of Harrow, my dear sirs, has been caused by my pamphlet against the peasants!' All is now forgotten that God has done for the world through me. Now lords, parsons and peasants are all against me and threaten my death. Well, since they are so silly and foolish, I shall take care that at my end I shall be found in the state for which God created me with nothing of my previous papal life about me. I shall do my part even if they act still more foolishly up to the last farewell. So now, according to the wish of my dear father, I have married. I did it quickly lest those praters should stop it. Tuesday week, June 27, it is my intention to have a little celebration and house warming, to which I beg that you will come and give your blessings. The land is in such a state that I hardly dare ask you to undertake the journey; however, if you can do so, pray come, along with my dear father and mother, for it would be a special pleasure to me. Bring any friends. If possible let me know beforehand, though I do not ask this if inconvenient. I should have written my gracious lords Counts Gebhard and Albert of Mansfeld, but did not risk it, knowing that their Graces have other things to attend to. Please let me know if you think I ought to invite them. God bless you. Amen. Martin Luther.
Alternate English translation:
To Ruhel and two other Mansfeld councilors he wrote: What an outcry, dear sirs, I have caused with my book against the peasants! All is forgotten that God has done for the world through me. Lords, priests, peasants, and everybody else are now against me, and threaten me with death. Well and good, since they are so mad and foolish, I have determined before my death to be found in the state ordained of God, and so far as I can to rid myself entirely of my former popish life, and make them still madder and more foolish, all for a parting gift. For I have a presentiment that God will one day give me His grace. So, at my dear father's desire, I have now married, and have done it in haste that I might not be hindered by these talkers. A week from Tuesday I purpose giving a small party, which I want you as good friends to know about, and I beg you will add your blessing. Because the country is in such a turmoil, I do not venture to urge you to be present. But if you can and will kindly come of your own accord with my dear father and mother, you may imagine it will give me special pleasure. I shall also be delighted in my poverty to see any good friends you may bring with you, only asking you to let me know by this messenger [Arthur Cushman McGiffert, Martin Luther: The Man and His Work (Century Company, 1911), p. 280].

The letter was written during the peasants revolt and around the time of Luther's wedding. Ruhel was a councilor of Count Albrect of Mansfield, and in fact, this was one of the territories in which the peasants revolt was festering. Luther had earlier written to Ruhel and encouraged Albrecht to use all force needed to suppress the peasants.

The outrage against Luther was due to the recent printing of his book Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants. It's uncertain of the exact date that Luther wrote this book, but it was probably only a month or so before this letter. The date of publication is also uncertain. The LW editors say "it was certainly before the middle of May" (LW 46:48). Luther intended this book to be published together with his treatise, Admonition to Peace. The former was directed to the bad peasants, the later the good peasants. Publishers though split the book, publishing Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants separately.

It's interesting how quickly Luther's book was disseminated into society. People indeed read Luther's words quickly upon publication. Mark U. Edwards documents that on May 26, Ruhel had written to Luther giving the details of the capture of Muntzer (a radical leader of the peasants). In his closing remarks, he makes this comment to Luther about the impact of his book:
Be it as it may, it seems strange to many of your supporters that you have given permission to the tyrants to strangle [the peasants] without mercy, thereby possibly making martyrs out of them. And they say publicly in Leipzig that since the Elector [Frederick the Wise] has died, you fear for your skin and play the hypocrite to Duke George by approving of what he is doing. [Luther and the False Brethren, (California: Stanford University Press, 1975, p. 69].
Luther's reply:
That the people call me a hypocrite is good; I am glad to hear it; do not let it surprise you. For some years now you have been hearing me berated for many things, but in the course of time all these things have come to nothing and worse than nothing. I should need much leather to muzzle all the mouths. It is enough that my conscience is clear before God; He will judge what I have said and written; things will go as I have said, there is no help for it  [Luther and the False Brethren, (California: Stanford University Press, 1975, p. 69].
Luther eventually did respond to these charges in a Pentecost sermon on June 4. He took nothing back from what he had written. Rebels causing societal and violent unrest were not to be tolerated. On June 20, he wrote to another friend:

693. LUTHER TO WENZEL LINK AT ALTENBURG. Enders, v, 200. Wittenberg, June 20, 1525.
Grace and peace. I know that my book gives great offence to the peasants and the friends of the peasants, and that is a real joy to me, for if it gave them no offence it would give me great offence. Those who condemn this book are merely showing what it is that they have hitherto sought in the Gospel. But I am surprised that some of the knowing ones do not apply the whole book to themselves, for it shows very clearly who the peasants are and who the magistrates are of whom it speaks. But he that will not understand, let him not understand; he that will not know, let him be ignorant ; it is enough that my conscience pleases Christ. For the apothecary. I have tried hard to do all I could. [Smith, Luther's Correspondence and Other Contemporary Letters, Volume 2, p.327-328].
The quote in question does prove one thing: Luther's treatise Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants drew criticism from his enemies as well as his supporters. Does Luther's comment though demonstrate his "agony" over "the state of early Protestantism"? Not in the least. In fact, Luther decided he hadn't said enough, and went on to write An Open Letter on the Harsh Book Against the Peasants in which he attacked his critics. Does this quote prove "the unpopularity of Luther and other Protestant revolutionaries"? Not at all. Luther's books continued to be popular, and he remained an integral respected figure for many years.

Addendum (2016)
This blog entry is a revision of an entry I posted back in 2010. 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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