Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Luther: If women wear themselves out in childbearing, let them go on bearing children till they die

Note: Are you visiting this link because of  How We Teach Our Kids That Women Are Liars hosted by Role Reboot? Please see the addendum below. 

Here's an obscure Luther quote from a discussion board:
I was wondering if someone could help me with this - I know things like this have been rehashed ad nauseum here, but I need some clarification on something....someone on facebook is posting quotes from Martin Luther, and basically trashing him - can someone please tell me what he meant by these quotes, and if they are taken out of context or not? ...any help is appreciated!!(she said she is getting these from "The Complete Works of Martin Luther"). MARTIN LUTHER ... Works 20.84 on WOMEN: “Even though they grow weary and wear themselves out with child-bearing, it does not matter; let them go on bearing children TILL THEY DIE, that is what they are there for.”
If the person using this quote is getting it from "The Complete Works of Martin Luther," she's getting it from an out-of-print German source from the 1800's, and then translating to English. I find that to be unlikely. Rather, the quote was taken from a web page of probably third or fourth hand information. The quote is fairly popular on-line, often being published in books as well (see here and here).  The exact way the quote is cited above can be found in this book. Older Roman Catholic polemical works cite it. Hartmann Grisar states,
With those who complain of the sufferings of the mother in pregnancy and childbirth he is very angry, and, in one sermon, goes so far as to say : "Even though they grow weary and wear themselves out with child-bearing, that is of no consequence; let them go on bearing children till they die, that is what they are there for [Erl. ed., 16 2 , p. 538]."
Jacques Maritain states,
It is curious to note that a base contempt for womanhood is the normal price of this war against Christian virginity. 'The work and word of God tell us clearly that women must be used for marriage or prostitution (Weim., XII, 94, 20-22 [1523].) 'If woman get tired and die of bearing, there is no harm in that; let them die, so long as they bear; they are made for that.' (Erl., 20, 84; Weim., X, p. II, 301, 13, Sermon on Marriage, 1522.) And I quote only what can be transcribed. [Three Reformers (London: Sheed and Ward, 1947), 184].
In fairness to Roman Catholicism, the quote is cited by non-Roman Catholics as well. "Works 20:84" is a reference to Dr. Martin Luther's sämmtliche Werke (The Erlangen edition of Luther's Works). The quote can also be found in WA 10 (2): 301.

The quote can be found in English. It's from a treatise on marriage entitled The Estate of Marriage (1522), located in LW 45:45.

Historical Context
Marriage in the sixteenth century was regulated by a confusing papal jurisdiction, influenced by such writings like The Summa de Casibus Conscientiae. That work listed eighteen impediments to marriage. The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge likewise outlines many of the complicated rules of marriage (see vol. VII: 200-203). As the Reformation took away the influence of the Roman church, the rules surrounding marriage needed to be addressed.

Luther had earlier discussed man-made rules surrounding marriage in The Babylonian Captivity of the Church [LW 36:97]. The prevailing marriage rules lead to a number of abuses, like secret marriages, and confusing legal entanglements. Luther's solution to the papal mess of marriage rules? Evaluate them, toss out a number of them, and try to come up with a simpler and better system regulated in most part by the state.

Luther begins this treatise by making three points. First, God made men and women, and each should honor the other as creation of God. Second, he discusses the blessing of "be fruitful and multiply," and how God has built this desire into mankind.

In the third part of the sermon he considers how to live a Christian and godly life in the estate of marriage. First Luther explains how poorly marriage and woman were viewed in his day."There are many pagan books which treat of nothing but the depravity of womankind and the unhappiness of the estate of marriage, such that some have thought that even if Wisdom itself were a woman one should not marry" (LW 45:35). "So they concluded that woman is a necessary evil, and that no household can be without such an evil. These are the words of blind heathen, who are ignorant of the fact that man and woman are God’s creation. They blaspheme his work, as if man and woman just came into being spontaneously!" (LW 45:36). "In order that we may not proceed as blindly, but rather conduct ourselves in a Christian manner, hold fast first of all to this, that man and woman are the work of God. Keep a tight rein on your heart and your lips; do not criticize his work, or call that evil which he himself has called good. He knows better than you yourself what is good and to your benefit, as he says in Genesis 1 [2:18], “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” There you see that he calls the woman good, a helper. If you deem it otherwise, it is certainly your own fault, you neither understand nor believe God’s word and work. See, with this statement of God one stops the mouths of all those who criticize and censure marriage" (LW 45:37).

Luther states, "I say these things in order that we may learn how honorable a thing it is to live in that estate which God has ordained" (LW 45:41). He contrasts this with: "Conversely, we learn how wretched is the spiritual estate of monks and nuns by its very nature, for it lacks the word and pleasure of God. All its works, conduct, and sufferings are un-Christian, vain, and pernicious, so that Christ even says to their warning in Matthew 15[:9], “In vain do they worship me according to the commandments of men” (LW 45:41). Luther then launches into a discussion of the impossibility of celibacy for most people. He states,
Many think they can evade marriage by having their fling [auss bubenn] for a time, and then becoming righteous. My dear fellow, if one in a thousand succeeds in this, that would be doing very well. He who intends to lead a chaste life had better begin early, and attain it not with but without fornication, either by the grace of God or through marriage. We see only too well how they make out every day. It might well be called plunging into immorality rather than growing to maturity. It is the devil who has brought this about, and coined such damnable sayings as, “One has to play the fool at least once”; or, “He who does it not in his youth does it in his old age”; or, “A young saint, an old devil.” Such are the sentiments of the poet Terence and other pagans. This is heathenish; they speak like heathens, yea, like devils.
It is certainly a fact that he who refuses to marry must fall into immorality. How could it be otherwise, since God has created man and woman to produce seed and to multiply? Why should one not forestall immorality by means of marriage? For if special grace does not exempt a person, his nature must and will compel him to produce seed and to multiply. If this does not occur within marriage, how else can it occur except in fornication or secret sins? But, they say, suppose I am neither married nor immoral, and force myself to remain continent? Do you not hear that restraint is impossible without the special grace? For God’s word does not admit of restraint; neither does it lie when it says, “Be fruitful and multiply” [Gen. 1:28]. You can neither escape nor restrain yourself from being fruitful and multiplying; it is God’s ordinance and takes its course.
Physicians are not amiss when they say: If this natural function is forcibly restrained it necessarily strikes into the flesh and blood and becomes a poison, whence the body becomes unhealthy, enervated, sweaty, and foul-smelling. That which should have issued in fruitfulness and propagation has to be absorbed within the body itself. Unless there is terrific hunger or immense labor or the supreme grace, the body cannot take it; it necessarily becomes unhealthy and sickly. Hence, we see how weak and sickly barren women are. Those who are fruitful, however, are healthier, cleanlier, and happier. And even if they bear themselves weary—or ultimately bear themselves out—that does not hurt. Let them bear themselves out. This is the purpose for which they exist. It is better to have a brief life with good health than a long life in ill health.
But the greatest good in married life, that which makes all suffering and labor worth while, is that God grants offspring and commands that they be brought up to worship and serve him. In all the world this is the noblest and most precious work, because to God there can be nothing dearer than the salvation of souls. Now since we are all duty bound to suffer death, if need be, that we might bring a single soul to God, you can see how rich the estate of marriage is in good works. God has entrusted to its bosom souls begotten of its own body, on whom it can lavish all manner of Christian works. Most certainly father and mother are apostles, bishops, and priests to their children, for it is they who make them acquainted with the gospel. In short, there is no greater or nobler authority on earth than that of parents over their children, for this authority is both spiritual and temporal. Whoever teaches the gospel to another is truly his apostle and bishop. Mitre and staff and great estates indeed produce idols, but teaching the gospel produces apostles and bishops. See therefore how good and great is God’s work and ordinance![LW 45:44-45]
In context, the quote says something quite different than what Grisar and Maritian suggest. One can chastise Luther for his archaic medieval medical view that those who are chaste are sickly, while those who are married and producing children are healthy, but to make Luther into a woman-hater or that Luther didn't take pain in child bearing seriously is simply absurd, and not supported by the context.

Addendum 05/25/16: For Role Reboot, Life Off Script
This blog entry receives a lot of traffic from this link: How We Teach Our Kids That Women Are Liars hosted by a website named Role Reboot. In a 2013 article, they state:
Is it really surprising to anyone that a Santorum staffer said, in the run up to the last election, that women shouldn’t be President because it’s against God’s will? What about the “news commentator” who thinks women shouldn’t be allowed to vote? The Senate candidate who thinks rape is a gift from God? Or the Senator and presidential aspirant who thinks it’s just another form of conception? Or the doctor who thinks women deserve to die for having abortions? How about the nominee for lieutenant governor of Virginia who thinks fetal birth defects are punishment for parents’ (read: mothers’) sins? If women die bearing children, so what, that’s what we’re here for.  
Notice that the last link is to this blog entry. While I sympathize with the intent of their article to demonstrate a cumulative negative attitude towards women, the points I presented in this entry were missed.

First, my entry sought to demonstrate Roman Catholic historians Hartmann Grisar and Jacques Maritain were being unfair to Luther. Grisar said Luther's comment was "very angry" and directed to those who "complain" about women suffering. Maritain intimates that Luther had "a base contempt for womanhood" in his "war against Christian virginity." These characterizations are not supported by Luther's context.

 Second, I did criticize Luther for his holding of an archaic medieval medical view. Luther's comment that it doesn't matter if women "grow weary and wear themselves out with child-bearing," and that "they should "go on bearing children till they die," is the direct result of this view and served as a polemical argument against the Roman church of his day. In his view, he believed that women who do not bear children become "unhealthy and sickly." Those who do bear children are "healthier, cleanlier, and happier." Luther states, "It is better to have a brief life with good health than a long life in ill health." This view was a direct argument against the practice of celibacy.

Third, the treatise from Luther from which this controversy arises is actually a sharp polemic against clerical celibacy as instituted by the Roman Catholic Church. Luther goes on at lengths noting how against God and nature forced celibacy is. Rather, the divine ideal for men and women is marriage and procreation. The very treatise that some may think shows animus or contempt towards women is the same treatise arguing that a religious institution was wrong to suppress male and female sexuality. In regard to the time period it was written in, it was a radical attack against an institution that oppressed both men and women. In the same treatise, Luther speaks against the established religiosity of his day that believed in “the depravity of womankind” and that women were “a necessary evil.” He refers to those who believe this as blind, ignorant, and blasphemers.

Fourth, these religious institutions did not stop with denigrating women, it also saw religious celibacy as a means of being more Holy and closer to God. Luther attacks such an ideal by arguing it is rather marriage and family that is ordained by God, not celibacy. Yes, Luther held an archaic medieval view of health that chaste people were unhealthy, but in the context of his argumentation, his point is that God’s purpose was for men and women to be together, to have sex, and to have children. His comment was part of a long argument ultimately against the Roman Church. Luther argued sexuality and children are the normal means of life, we exist to procreate. Women exist to procreate. A healthy real God-pleasing life is procreation, not celibacy, even if while procreating it ultimately causes death.

Also in the same article, Role Reboot uses an undocumented Luther quote:
“Women were made either to be wives or prostitutes.” — Martin Luther
I've done a thorough treatment of this quote which can be found here: Luther: Women were made either to be wives or prostitutes. The point from Luther in this quote is that biologically, people are typically designed with the desire to procreate. In fact, "God's work and Word" prove this, and this desire can either be carried out in a God pleasing way (marriage) of a non-God pleasing way (fornication). Then in a hyperbolic argument, Luther suggests those who argue for celibacy might as well argue that women should be strangled or banished in order to maintain a celibate life because the desire for sex is so strong. This would be the only way to avoid un-chastity.


Brigitte said...

He also tried to comfort bereaved husbands at times, where a wife died in child birth. At least she died doing what her calling and station required of her. She was within God's will and her vocation.

This was to be a consolation.

James Swan said...

I'm not familiar with that, but it certainly does sound like Luther. If you've got a solid reference, please post it!

Brigitte said...

I will find it. It was in the Brecht.

Brigitte said...

While Luther was at the Coburg he wrote a number of personal letters.

Brecht, Shaping and Refining the Reformation, p. 378.

Quote begins:

Luther was also interested in how things were going with those who were close to him. He exhorted Catherine Jonas to have courage in her approaching childbirth. then he congratulated the father at the birth of his son. shortly afterward he had to ask Melanchthon to inform Jonas that his son had died. For Luther, this personal grief accompanied political Anfechtung as the fate of a Christian in this world, but it did not shake one's hope. A few days later he himself wrote tenderly in this vein to Jonas, although, because of his illness, he considered himself an inept comforter. The child's death did not mean that he had been forsaken by God; it was a special way of God's "visitation." Soon afterward, Luther had to comfort Link on the death of a daughter. Luther never minimized the severity of the loss in his letters of comfort. He also did not gloss over the fact that such bitter experiences are part of our fate in this earthly vale of tears; however, they are surrounded by God's mercy and the hope of faith. This was true for the letters of consolation written during the next two years. In 1532 the wife of Master Ambrosius Berndt died in childbirth, along with her newborn son. Luther well understood the grief of her husband, but it could not be endless. He therefore wrote to Berndt. His wife had died with a sure faith while carrying out her God-given calling of bearing children, and there were also reasons to give thanks to God for her gifts. Occasionally he had to write to the parents of students who died. In those instances, an important comfort was for him to mention that the person had died strong in faith.

James Swan said...

Thanks so much. It's amazing to me how those who sift Luther's writing to attack him never mention things like that which you posted.

Annika-Kaatrina said...

Roman CATHOLICS using this quote to portray a Luther who sees women as breeding machines, borders on the ABSURD….LOOK TO YOUR OWN HOUSE FIRST…....................................................

When you consider the Roman CATHOLC church TEACHES every sexual act must be "open to life"; PROHIBIT birth control to women with medical conditions that make pregnancy life-threatening; and if she does get pregnant and must choose between dying or an abortion (see recent story of excommunication of hospital administrators/ doctors/the women/ for terminating a pregnancy to save a women's life;................................

And don't EVEN get me started on the situations where YOUNG GIRLS, ages 10, 11, and 12, victims of RAPE and INCEST who must give birth or risk excommunication of anyone who choose compassion over dogma and refuse to put an already traumatized child through pregnancy and childbirth.

Brigitte said...

There may be much irony in the attacks RC's launch at Luther, but I agree generally with the pro-life stance, especially speaking as an adoptive mother.

Also the situation of rape victims is very complex. Even then when there is abortion or a natural miscarriage grief over the lost life occurs. Most mothers who have lost children will always remember them; this is simply because human life is precious and belongs to God who treasures it, including our own. Any loss is grievous.

Sue said...

So fed up with Christ-bashers (atheists, skeptics, pagans and other malcontents) and their long-winded articles that either blather on, or lie, or both. If my angst is an atom; the Lord's is a full-sized star.

Anonymous said...

Where is the lie? Luther (and the Christian commenters here do too) believed that women’s purpose in life is pregnancy and childbirth. I’ve read the Bible and it says the same thing too. You don’t find it odd they thought celibate women were sickly and unhappy? If that’s patently false in our modern world (and they’re perfectly fine, and don’t look sick), what is the reason to believe that, other than you’ve just absorbed the biblical view and are in the middle of your apologetics for such a worldview? What better way to force women into having babies perpetually, literally until she drops dead, than by saying God decreed it that way and her souls purity (Andy social purity) rest on doing it? Like, this is insane. How is the ordeal of childbearing, how is death at a young age from childbearing, supposedly better than living with zero illness until you are old and wise but we are all just going to say you look sick all the time to try to get you to bear children??? If you cannot see the insanity behind the beliefs, you will somehow be able to consider making up a female illness that doesn’t exist and positing it as worse than dying in childbirth after literally bearing children until your body has been completely exhausted as a rational view to have.

Anonymous said...

I am a 32 year old Christian and I have 5 children. My heart goes out to you. I agree that modern women without children do not appear sickly. Luther lived in a different time and I believe in his lifetime, with their rules and lifestyles and culture of their time, women who could NOT have children probably did look sickly or were miserable. As Christians we believe that earthly life is short and troubled, but because Jesus died for us we are citizens of heaven. Life after death is perfect and eternal. So Luther saying it’s better to die young in childbirth rather than live a long, miserable life, is actually gracious to one who believes in that eternal life. Now, going back to your comment that modern women are not miserable or sickly. I agree, we live in a different time. With modern healthcare and feminism, women can live a long healthy life. If they choose to stay single and childless, they can do that. But should they? How is their mental health once they hit 40? Statistics show that depression is on the rise. People value life way less. Because of this, violence is also on the rise. The people that say we need gun control, are the same people who promote abortion, which promotes violence (no value of human life), which is the culture that causes gun violence. I guess my point is, yes modern women CAN be physically healthy without children. Which is a blessing for those who CAN’T have children. But for those who are fertile but CHOOSE not to have children, they will ultimately regret it, and/or likely be part of the population that unknowingly promotes a violence culture.