Monday, August 28, 2017

Luther: If I had all the Franciscan friars in one house, I would set fire to it. ... To the fire with them!

Anabaptists and Roman Catholics together? Yes, some do unite on at least one issue, the intolerance of Martin Luther. Over on the CARM boards a participant with seemingly Anabaptist leanings has been actively posting against John Calvin and Martin Luther. The view being expressed is that Luther was "a demon possessed wicked butcher" (link),  and "His actions speak louder than his words, he was responsible for the death of untold thousands."

This person went to point some fingers at me: I was described as someone who "make[s] excuses" for "demonic murderers" (link). When I offered some documentation on misused quotes, the response back was, "You are full of it" (link) and I'm "simply wrong" (link). Then I was provided with this overall assessment: "You ought to to be ashamed of yourself, but guys like you would have been the ones to carry the green wood to the burning stake" (link). One of the frightening aspects of this was the threat, "I would like to tell you face to face what you are" (link).

This person put forth a number of Luther quotes, sort of in a hodgepodge way, which I suspect were a direct cut-and-paste from a page like this or this. I'd like to look at some of these quotes. Maybe Luther won't be exonerated for each quote (for he was a sinner, and he did make some outrageous statements), but I don't think any of them prove he was a "a demon possessed wicked butcher" or "responsible for the death of untold thousands," and hopefully by the conclusions of this, my words won't be construed as an example of "making excuses."

The Luther quotes offered begin with the preface, "Intolerance of Other Christians." The Anabaptist posting the following quote mocked the idea that these words from Luther's words could be interpreted as hyperbole:

"If I had all the Franciscan friars in one house, I would set fire to it. ... To the fire with them!"

This quote can be found throughout cyberspace. One author comments of this quote, "It is impossible to understand how any educated Christian leader could take such a position even when one understands the environment in which they lived." Another person comments, "Even some of Protestantism’s most celebrated names are quoted as promoting violence in the name of the Christian God." Let's take a  closer look at it to see what's going on. Yes, there was an historical situation that provoked Luther's comment, and while I don't condone the comment, I can understand why Luther made the comment. 

Typical of the Internet, the quote is often used without any documentation.  When it is documented (as it was on CARM), one particular string of references reoccurs: "Grisar, VI, 247; Table Talk [edited by Mathesius], 180; summer 1540."

"Grisar, VI, 247" is not a writing from Luther. It refers to the sixth volume in a lengthy biography of Luther by Roman Catholic historian Hartmann Grisar. The heading that Grisar used for which he placed the quote is entitled, "Luther's Intolerance." The picture Grisar paints of Luther is that of a man who expressed religious toleration early in his career (when his views were under attack), and intolerance later (when he achieved notoriety and was part of the political establishment).

The documentation provided suggests the quote was originally taken from Grisar's book, not actually from a direct reading of Luther.  Page 247 can be found here.  The construction, "Table Talk [edited by Mathesius], 180; summer 1540" appears to be based on Grisar's comments and his documentation of the quote. Grisar states, 
In the summer of 1540 Luther had it that the Pope and the monks were to blame for the many fires in Northern and Central Germany. "If this turns out true, then there will be nothing left for us but to take up arms in common against all the monks and shavelings  I too shall join in, for it is right to slay the miscreants like mad dogs."(5) The worst of the lot, according to him, were the Franciscans. "If I had all the Franciscan friars in one house," he said a few days later, "I would set fire to it, for, in the monks the good seed is gone, and only the chaff is left. To the fire with them!" (6)
(5) Mathesius, "Tischreden," p. 171.
(6) Ib., p. 180.
Grisar's biography of Luther was originally written in German (3 volumes). This paragraph can be found here in German.

Other than locating Grisar VI, for those not familiar with these old references, the documentation is not as simple to track down. Grisar did not exactly take this material from something Luther actually wrote, but rather the Tischreden or Table Talk, a collection of statements Luther is purported to have made. This particular text comes from the pen of John Mathesius. He complied comments Luther is said to have made in 1540 (Table Talk statements numbered 4858 to 5341 found in WA, TR 4 and 5). The version of the Table Talk Grisar utilized appears to be similar to this: Luthers Tischreden in der Mathesischen Sammlung: aus einer Handschrift der Leipziger Stadtbibliothek. Page 171 can be found here. Page 180 can be found here.

For the record, another Roman Catholic historian (from around the same time period as Grisar) utilizes this quote. Heinrich Denifle states,
What he said in general, 1540, "We shall accomplish nothing against the Turks unless we smite them with the priests at the right time, and hurl them even unto death,"(1179) was leveled in particular against the religious. Luther forthwith took up every anecdote, every suspicion against them as facts, e.g., that they were the instigators of the incendiary fires of that time. He did this that he might vent his deadly hatred upon them in the reminder: "If the matter comes to light, there will be nothing left but in common to take arms against all monks and priests; and I will go along, too, for one should strike the rascals dead like mad dogs."(1180) "If I had all the Franciscan monks together in one house, I would set the house on fire. For the kernel is gone from the monks, only the chaff is still at hand. So into the fire with them!" (1181)
(1179) Luther's "Tischreden" in "Mathesischen Sammlung," No. 10.
(1180) Ibid., No. 276.
(1181) Ibid., No. 305.
Denifle's original German text can be found here. He is citing the same text as Grisar, Table Talk statement 305, found on page 180. The same Table Talk text can be found in WA TR 4:687 (entry 5160). This utterance was not included in the English edition of Luther's Works, and to my knowledge, there is not an official translation available from the compilers of the English edition of Luther's Works. I checked a number of early English versions of the Table Talk,  and I did not come across this specific utterance.


In this Table Talk statement, Luther refers to himself as a prophet explaining that he knows who is setting devastating fires: Henry of Brunswick. Henry had used the territoriality expelled Franciscans to sneak back (in disguise) and set the fires.

Grisar is correct about the fire problem in 1540. In a letter to his wife (July 26, 1540), Luther wrote:
The devil is on the loose, himself possessed by new, [more] evil devils, burning and doing damage which is terrible. In the Thuringian Forest more than one thousand acres of my Most Gracious Lord’s trees have been burned to the ground, and are still burning; in addition, today the news is that the forest near Werdau and in many other places also has started to burn. No firefighting does any good. This will make wood expensive. (LW 50:222)
The editors of Luther's works comment,
In an October 10, 1540, letter to Duke Albrecht of Prussia, Luther reported (on the basis of confessions supposedly made by the criminals involved in these cases of arson) that Henry of Brunswick, a bitter foe of the evangelicals, was to be held responsible for the many fires which were plaguing central Germany at that time; Luther added: “It is impossible that such arson which often proves fatal [Mordbrennen] does not originate in high circles, for there is enough money there; the Pope, supposedly, has given 80,000 ducats (see LW 49, 286, n. 36) for this, etc.” [LW 50:222, fn 12]
Elsewhere, Hartmann Grisar presents the background of what was going in with the fires, Henry of Brunswick (cited by name in the Table talk entry), and the Franciscans:
In 1540, during the hot summer, numerous fires broke out in North and Central Germany, causing widespread alarm; certain alleged incendiaries who were apprehended were reported to have confessed under torture that this was the doing of Duke Henry of Brunswick and the Pope. Before even investigations had commenced Luther had already jumped to the conclusion that the real author was his enemy, the Catholic Duke, backed up by the Pope and the monks;  for had not the Duke (according to Luther) explained to the burghers of Goslar that he recognized no duties with regard to heretics?  The Franciscans had been expelled and were now in disguise everywhere "plotting vengeance"; they it was who had done it all with the assistance of the Duke of Brunswick and the Elector of Mayence, who, of course, remained behind the scenes.  "If this be proved, then there is nothing left for us but to take up arms against the monks and priests; and I too shall go, for miscreants must be slain like mad dogs." Hieronymus Schurf, as the cautious lawyer he was, expressed himself in Luther's presence against the misuse of torture in the case of those accused and against their being condemned too hastily. Luther interrupted him: "This is no time for mercy but for rage!" (Grisar IV, 293].
But what of Luther's vicious comments to burn the Franciscans alive? There's an interesting aspect of Grisar's context that Luther's intolerant harsh words are found in. Immediately after the quote under scrutiny, Grisar says that it would be foolish to think Luther seriously wanted to kill Roman Catholic clergy. Grisar's words stand as a sharp rebuke of the Anabaptist detractor who posted the quote taken from Grisar:
No one, in the least familiar with Luther s writings, will be so foolish as to believe that it was really his intention to kill the Catholic clergy and monks. His bloodthirsty demands were but the violent outbursts of his own deep inward intolerance. They were called forth occasionally by other alleged misdeeds of Popery, of its advocates and friends, for instance, by the burdensome taxes imposed by the Church, by her use of excommunication, and by the action taken against the Lutherans, particularly by the resolutions of the Diets for the suppression of Protestantism. Nor must we forget that the religious dissensions grew into a sort of permanent warfare and that war tends to produce effusions such as would be unthinkable in times of peace; nor was the warlike feeling a monopoly of the Lutheran side. (p. 247).
Luther's writings do demonstrate the Reformer expressed intolerance towards his perceived enemies, particular situations, or those he considered antagonists of the Gospel. But, according to the very source cited on CARM (Hartmann Grisar), the words were not intended to be taken literally. Am I making excuses? No, I don't think so. Luther did say outrageous things. He did express intolerance. This quote though does not prove Luther was "a demon possessed wicked butcher," and that "he was responsible for the death of untold thousands.

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