Luther: A Life by John M. Todd
John M. Todd is the author of a number of books, including Reformation, and John Wesley and the Catholic Church. Luther: A Life was published in 1982 by The Crossroad Publishing Company. This book was prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.
Chapter 11: Worms and Wartburg
Luther’s lodgings immediately became the focus of interest in Worms. To his meal came old friends, including Spalatin; and following them came newer friends and a hundred other people, so that he was ‘greeted and visited through the whole night by many counts, barons, gilded knights and nobles, ecclesiastical and lay’. About midday following, came Ulrich von Pappenheim, Master of the Imperial Cavalry, along with the Herald, to warn Luther to be ready to appear before the Emperor at 4 p.m. Returning at that hour, the Herald took Luther out by the garden and through into the next house occupied by the Count Palatine and then by back streets to the audience chamber, to try to avoid the crowds who kept gathering in the hope of catching a glimpse of the famous man, some sitting on the roofs to gain their purpose. With Luther went the Wittenberg lawyer, Jerome Schurf, and his two close priest friends, Nicholas Amsdorf and Justus Jonas, until recently Rector at Erfurt from where he had joined the party.
Luther, in his normal Augustinian habit, tonsure recently shaven, thick-set, a little gaunt for his thirty-seven years, made obeisance to the Emperor and the Emperor’s representative, the Archbishop of Trier. The Archbishop’s Chancellor Johann von Eck (another Eck), then addressed Luther, pointed to a pile of books and asked Luther very briefly whether they were his and whether he wished to retract any of them. This blunt approach surprised Luther. His lawyer jumped in immediately and requested that the titles of the books be read out. It was a motley collection of Luther’s German and Latin works, but it included both the German Appeal to the Nobility and the Latin Prelude to the Babylonian Captivity. While they were being read out, Luther and Schurf had a quick word together. Luther then replied, speaking first in German then in Latin. He asked for time to consider his answer, ‘because this is a question of faith and the salvation of souls’. It was at first sight an odd reply, apparently unexpected by the Emperor and his advisers who went into a huddle to decide what to do about it. But Schurf had given Luther the obvious advice. Only now had they learnt for certain the mood of the Emperor — Luther, it was clear, had been summoned solely to recant. It was best, then, to take time over preparing his exact reply.
They were told that Luther could have twenty-four hours, though that should be regarded as a special kindness since he should have come prepared to answer. He was abjured not to come with a written statement but be ready, at the same time tomorrow, to answer verbally.
The next day the hearing was resumed in another, bigger room, which soon became overcrowded and too hot. The Electors, the Estates, and many others were there as well as the Emperor and his advisers. It was six o’clock before they started and by then Luther was feeling ill and was in a great sweat. However, as soon as proceedings began the adrenalin flowed and he was able to speak to the brief which he and Schurf had worked out. It took about a quarter of an hour in German and nearly the same in Latin, and was recorded in writing by both friends and enemies; part of Luther’s own script has survived.
It was a prepared speech which Luther had more or less learnt off by heart:
Most serene Emperor, most illustrious princes, most clement lords. . . deign to listen graciously to this my cause — which is, as I hope, a cause of justice and of truth. If through my inexperience I have either not given the proper titles to some, or have offended in some manner against customs and court etiquette, I ask you kindly to pardon me, as a man accustomed not to courts but to the cells of monks. I can say nothing about myself but that I have taught and written up to this time with simplicity of heart, as I had in view only the glory of God and the sound instruction of Christ’s faithful.
The quiet, persuasive, intellectual voice flowed gently and deliberately on, emotion held only partially in check, visible in the changing expressions on his face — ‘frivolous’ expressions, said one Spanish reporter.
Addressing himself to the two questions, he said that there was not much doubt about the first one. Obviously his books were his books, unless someone had slipped in some of someone else’s.
The second question was more difficult, because he had written three kinds of books. 1.‘Simple gospel works — if he were to renounce these he would ‘condemn the very truth upon which friends and enemies equally agree’. 2. Books against the papacy and the concerns of the papists. He asked what was wrong with such works, when everyone knew that the papal tyranny did so much harm to the Christian world and especially to ‘this illustrious nation of Germany.’ 3. ‘I have written a third sort of books against some private and (as they say) distinguished individuals — those, namely, who strive to preserve the Roman tyranny and to destroy the godliness which I teach.’
Against these latter people, he confessed he had been more violent than his religion or his profession demanded — but then he did not set himself up as a saint, nor was he disputing about his life but about the teaching of Christ. His books against such people could not be renounced without renouncing the battle against the tyranny of anti-Christ. Finally, he repeated that he was always ready to be shown that his doctrines were wrong.
Then, although the substance of the reply was complete, Luther added a more personal kind of comment. They could see, he said, that he had thought long and hard about these things. If disturbance and dissension arose because of his teachings, that was a case for rejoicing because Christ did indeed say ‘I have come to bring not peace but a sword’ — Christianity was no easy option. They should not, then, condemn the Word of God, ‘lest the reign of this most noble youth, Prince Charles (in whom after God is our great hope) become unhappy and inauspicious’. He ended: ‘I do not say these things because there is a need of either my teachings or my warnings for such leaders as you, but because I must not withhold the allegiance which I owe to Germany. With these words I commend myself to your most serene majesty and to your lordships, humbly asking that I should not be allowed to become hateful to you because of the scheming of my enemies. I have finished.’ Luther, although sometimes naive, and exercising poor judgment politically, was never careless of political fact. Man’s task always involved attention to immediate responsibilities and loyalties, and the use of appropriate and reasonable policies. So, the effect of his actions was not something which could be left aside, nor ‘the allegiance which I owe to Germany’. He was well aware, just as Aleander was (as the Emperor himself could hardly be) of the genuine danger of violent social disruption. It was true that nothing would tend towards the prevention of this more than a movement of genuine reform. Reform was precisely what was required, reform of institutions so deeply involved in the injustices and so deeply implicated as causes of the sheer poverty and misery, the resentment and the envy which were the boiling origins of a likely social revolution.
The Chancellor of Trier then answered Luther in a speech which kept to the high level of debate and rhetoric set by Luther himself. It was an effective reply from the orthodox papal position. The Emperor, he said, would be willing to consider making a distinction between the harmless and the harmful, of Luther’s writings, but Luther was only doing what every heretic always did, the Waldensians, the Beghards, the Poor Men of Lyons, etc.; they all turned to Scripture, and they all wished it to be interpreted in their sense. He mocked a little: ‘Do not, I entreat you, Martin, do not claim for yourself that you are the one and only man who has knowledge of the Bible, who has true understanding . . . Do not place your judgement ahead of so many distinguished men . . . as wiser than others.’ Then he became more confident still, and finally threatening: ‘What the doctors have discussed as doctrine the Church has defined as its judgement, the faith in which our fathers and ancestors confidently died and as a legacy have transmitted to us. We are forbidden to argue about this faith by the law of both pontiff and emperor. . . both are going to judge those who with headlong rashness refuse to submit to the decisions of the Church. Punishments have been provided and published.’ He then told Martin to answer clearly and simply and not with a ‘horned’ (cornutum) reply.
The two poles were far apart. The Chancellor, as its obedient and humble, believing servant, was defending an organisation which claimed to act from 1500 years of tradition on its own authority as the vice general of God. The friar, speaking from his own struggles with the meaning of the Word of the Gospel, listened to in his inner being, worshipped daily in the liturgy in his own local church, himself a product precisely of the same 1500 years, was convinced that the authorities in the organisation had made great errors and that they must be brought back to what he felt he now knew to be the evident Christian faith.
Since then Your Serene Majesty and Your Lordships seek a simple answer, I will give it in this manner, neither horned nor toothed. Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the Pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. Here I stand, may God help me, Amen.
The hour was late, the light poor, the air foul, and the moment of truth occurred in an atmosphere of bathos, which turned speedily to some confusion. The Emperor was rising to leave. The crowd began to chatter and to move to the door —clearly there was no more to be said. The irritated Chancellor wanted the last word. He shouted that Martin must put his conscience aside and that he could never prove Councils had erred. Martin shouted that he could; he and his party began to move to the door. Martin in a state of enormous relief at having given the witness clearly and without hesitation. As he turned to his friends, he raised his two arms in the gesture of a victorious medieval knight. As they left, a clique of Spanish courtiers jeered and gestured. Luther retired, exhausted, to supper and to some malmsey wine, a great crowd of supporters accompanying him noisily through the streets.
Late that evening or early the following morning, young Habsburg took his pen and wrote in French his own response, a famous paragraph, redolent of imperial Christianity’. Von Eck and the Emperor were in close consultation about the Luther case, and there were items of similarity between Eck’s speech at the hearing of Luther and the Emperor’s piece — but the Emperor’s words had the clear stamp of personal conviction with an authoritarian, slightly impatient note about them. He lost no time. The statement was written out, dated 19 April, signed and addressed to the meeting of the Diet on that day immediately following the day of Luther’s hearing:
You know that I am descended from the most Christian emperors of the German nation, from the Catholic kings of Spain, the Archdukes of Austria and the dukes of Burgundy. . .After death they left us by natural right and heritage these holy Catholic observances, to live according to them and to die according to their example . . . I am determined to support everything that these predecessors and I myself have kept . . . It is certain that a single friar errs in his opinion which is against all of Christendom and according to which all of Christianity will be and will always have been in error both in the past thousand years and even more in the present. . . I am absolutely determined to stake on this cause my kingdoms and seignories, my friends, my body and blood, my life and soul. It would be a great shame to me and to you, the noble and renowned German nation . . . if heresy or decrease of the Christian religion should through our negligence dwell after us in the hearts of men . . . I regret having delayed so long to proceed against this Luther and his false doctrine. . .he is to be taken back, keeping the tenor of his safe-conduct. . .I am determined to proceed against him as a notorious heretic, requesting of you that you conduct yourselves in this matter as good Christians as you have promised it to me, and are held to do it. Given by my hand this nineteenth day of April 1521. Signed Carolus.
It was a grand statement, with romance and pride in a great tradition about it, that might captivate in suitable circumstances. It reminds the reader today of the statement Sir Thomas More would be making in circumstances of an opposite kind, in thirteen years time at his trial, basing his opposition to Henry VIII as Head of the Church, on ‘all the Councils of Christendom for over a thousand years’. But noteworthy in the Emperor’s statement is the absence of any reference to the Pope or the papacy. For political reasons the Emperor found himself in difficulties with Leo X; there was a danger Leo would make a treaty with the French King. The Emperor’s Catholicism was ‘traditional’, but apparently not necessarily markedly ‘papal’. And was it all true? Could the German Electors and Estates be persuaded that it was appropriate, and could it be enforced? Carolus had no idea how fragile the whole great construction of ‘Christendom’ was in many of its parts, and that only something like the bedrock of the Myth to end all myths remained invulnerable — trust in God through Jesus, prayer, love of neighbour, symbolised in public liturgy.
For two days, Friday and Saturday the Diet remained locked in debate on the Emperor’s statement. Graffiti appeared: ‘Unhappy the people whose king is a child’, and a great blustering ill-written threat, signed with the revolutionary sign of the Bundschuh, the sturdy peasant’s clog: ‘We are 400 of the nobility. We declare war on the princes of the Diet. I have 8000 men.’ The Diet finally requested that a commission of three or four people should be asked to show Luther where his errors lay. The influence of the Elector Frederick was clear — the Diet said that Luther had still not been shown what actually was wrong, by Scripture. The Elector had made the same point over two years previously when replying to Cajetan.
The practical young Emperor was ready to agree to an attempt to persuade Luther to recant. In fact, however, it was an attempt to find some compromise formula. At the heart of the attempt lay the Archbishop of Trier, friend of the Elector. On 24 and 25 April, Wednesday and Thursday, intense private discussions were held with Luther, with varying personnel present. Among those involved was Luther’s one-time supporter, and future bitter calumniator, Canon Cochlaeus. An extension of the safe conduct was granted to enable Luther to stay on for these discussions. But they came to nothing. Finally, as a last throw, the Archbishop and Luther met entirely alone, and a bribe was offered to Luther in the form of a good rich priory.
As both parties gradually came to see that there was no way out of the impasse, they became friendlier and more relaxed. They were facing facts. The Archbishop asked Luther what was to be done, and Martin turned to the advice of Rabbi Gamaliel to the Jews, who were wondering what to do about the followers of the recently crucified Jesus of Nazareth, as recorded in the New Testament: ‘What I suggest therefore is that you leave these men alone and let them go. If this enterprise, this movement of theirs, is of human origin it will break up of its own accord, but if it does in fact come from God you will not only be unable to destroy them, but you might find yourselves fighting against God.’ There was no further way forward. Dismissal documents were issued.
Meanwhile, intense private discussions had gone on between Spalatin and the Elector, who remained publicly impassive; in private he said, ‘Dr Martin spoke right well both in Latin and German . . . he is far too bold for me.’ The Emperor had presented Frederick with a very serious situation. While the Electors and the Estates seem not to have been universally impressed with the romantic traditionalism of the young French-speaking chevalier, yet they had to avoid a head-on clash with their recently elected Lord. And there was no way of undoing the papal excommunication. The answer, which had already been thought about a number of times, was to put Luther secretly into protective custody.
The idea was that Luther should be kidnapped by unknown robbers and spirited away to some place where he could remain hidden. The plan was to take Luther to the Wartburg, the great empty castle, high up above Eisenach, Luther’s boyhood school town where the Castellan would guard him closely for a week or two till his beard and hair had grown, fit him out in suitable gear, and put it about that a landowner, Junker Georg, was staying there for a time. It was a clever idea. If Luther could not be found, he could not be proceeded against. Equally, he himself would be unable to stir things up any further. Meanwhile, perhaps, the whole affair would become less explosive.
Luther agreed to the plan in general, though he did not know his precise destination. The result was a certain relaxation in his mood during the last forty-eight hours at Worms. He spent a convivial final Thursday evening, drinking malmsey wine and saying goodbye to all and sundry. On Friday morning after breakfast, the Wittenberg party rode and walked out of the city gate in good heart. They went north to the little village of Oppenheim where the Imperial Herald met them and began his task of accompanying them safely back to Wittenberg. When they reached Frankfurt two days later, Luther wrote to a leading Wittenberg citizen, and his own friend, to tell him what was happening:
To the skilled master craftsman. . . Lucas Cranach, painter in Wittenberg and my close friend . . . I am going to allow myself to be ‘imprisoned’ and hidden, though I don’t know yet where it will be. I would have preferred to suffer death at the hands of the tyrants, especially those of the furious Duke George.
Luther was caustic about the appearances before the Emperor: ‘I thought his Imperial Majesty would have got together one or fifty scholars and overcome this monk in a straightforward manner. But all that happened was this: Are these your books? Yes. Do you want to renounce them or not? No. Then go away! Oh we blind Germans, how childishly we act and allow the Romanists to mock and fool us in such a pitiful way.’ Then he spoke of his impending disappearance. The Easter and post-Easter texts were echoing round his mind from the daily Office and the Mass texts for the Sundays and weekdays after Easter. He quoted the words of Jesus in St John’s Gospel: ‘For a little while you will not see me, and again in a little while you will see me — so said Christ. I hope it will now be the same with me. But God’s will, the very best possible, be done in this . . .’ He sent greetings to another friend, a Wittenberg goldsmith, and his wife, who had been responsible for providing the cart which the Town Council had hired from him for Luther’s journey, and added, ‘Please express my deep appreciation to the Town Council for my ride’. It had meant a lot to him, feeling far from well much of the time, that he did not have to go on horseback.
Later the same day, at a village called Friedberg north of Frankfurt, Luther signed a letter he had drawn up for the Emperor, a very carefully worded epistle totally lacking in his usual rumbustiousness — he was able to exclude it when he had to. The letter was restrained throughout, though intense emotion is implied:
To the Most Serene and invincible Lord, Charles V, elected emperor of the Romans, Caesar Augustus, King of the Spaniards, of both Sicily and Jerusalem, etc., Archduke of Austria, Duke of Burgundy, etc., my most clement Lord. Jesus. Grace and peace with all my submission in Christ Jesus our Lord. Most Serene and invincible Emperor, most clement Lord; Your Sacred Majesty had summoned me to Worms, with a public guarantee. . .
There followed a description of his examination at Worms and the subsequent private manoeuvrings, and a description of Luther’s unwillingness, as he put it, to allow the Word of God to be bound. He was still hoping that somehow he could get his message across. He explained, critically, that in spite of the Safe Conduct on his way to Worms, he found his books had been burnt and banned: ‘These things could have frightened and held back this poor little monk’; nevertheless, he had put his trust in the Emperor’s Safe Conduct. Finally, he said, he left Worms without having been refuted.
The letter ended with a sincere and more or less desperate plea ‘on behalf of the whole Church; it was my concern for the Church that motivated me to send this letter after having left Worms. With my whole heart I desire, of course, that Your Sacred Majesty, the whole Empire, and the most notable German nation may be served in the best possible way.’ The letter was a last rather sad attempt to ‘reach’ the young man who was now ruling half of Europe, and to save the German lands from disturbances which continued to threaten to increase. Luther requested the Herald to return to Worms with the letters, and was successful in persuading him that he need not accompany the Wittenberg party any further. He was anxious to be rid of him before the planned abduction, to reduce the risk of it miscarrying. Possibly the Herald was even party to the plan.
The party headed north-east towards Thuringia. They received a warm welcome from the famous Benedictine Abbey of Hersfeld. The Chancellor and Bursar came out a mile or so to meet them; then the Abbot himself ‘together with many people on horseback, met us at his castle and accompanied us into the small town. The Town Council welcomed us inside the gates.’ They had fine food, and Luther slept in the Abbot’s own private guest room. Luther also preached, though he warned the Abbot that he was taking a grave risk in allowing it, in that they might lose their privileges. But the truth was that neither Emperor nor Pope had much authority over these powerful ecclesiastical barons. Finally, Luther’s party left for Eisenach, accompanied by the Abbot as far as the forest.
Eisenach in its turn sent a deputation out to welcome Luther. And again Luther preached, in his boyhood town, though the parish priest was frightened and insisted on making an official legally witnessed protest against it, so that he could not be held responsible, apologising to Luther for this necessity. Luther said ‘preaching the Word of God’ could not come within the ban on his speaking in public, which was part of the Safe Conduct. The next day half the party went on to Erfurt and Wittenberg, Jonas, Schurf and a student, so that Luther’s own group would be as small as possible for the impending abduction. He, Amsdorf and the student, Petzensteiner, headed south-east to visit relatives at the village of Mohra, where again the local priest welcomed him. The next day they headed north-east to Erfurt.
At a crossing of bridle paths in the forest Luther’s little party was attacked. Amsdorf was waiting for it and ‘escaped’ easily, followed by the student. Both of them returned immediately to Wittenberg. Luther was taken on a circuitous route blindfolded. Finally, long after dark he arrived at a high castle, exhausted. He was given a room, a meal and a bed. The next day he saw where he was, up in the great Wartburg above Eisenach, and closely guarded by a friendly but firm Castellan, Hans von Berlepsch. For a week or more he had to remain inside till, bearded and in lay clothes which were provided, he might not be easily recognised. Respect and kindness were shown; he was comfortable with good food and decent accommodation.
It was not too difficult for a man to keep to himself in the great rambling building on the hilltop, not regularly inhabited except by the Keeper and his family. No one knew where the robbers had taken Luther. Soon he would be hardly distinguishable behind the disguise of Junker Georg. Messengers and stores went up to the castle once or twice a week to von Berlepsch. At first, Luther’s presence made little difference.
In spite of conversation with von Berlepsch and the availability of writing materials, Luther was soon lonely and restless. The contrast was fearful, from the crammed daily round at Wittenberg, the intense activities of the journey to Worms and then the fraught days there. He had none of the books he needed. All day long for the first time in his life there was absolutely nothing that he must do — only things he must not do such as wander out into the air and down the hill. The letters soon began to flow, one of the first to Melancthon:
I have had much ado to get this letter off, because of the very real fear that my whereabouts may somehow be let out. . .Who knows what God plans. . . The monks and priests who raged against me while I was free now dread me as a captive. . .They cannot stand the worry of the common people’s threats.
Luther was beginning to sense the growing power which his person now commanded, as fragments of news were brought to him by Hans von Berlepsch. He had nothing at all to do but ponder the situation, standing, perforce, apart from it. Ecclesiastically excommunicate, his Appeal rejected by the Emperor, shortly to be put under the interdict of the Empire as well as the papacy, he had a new sense of alienation — and of resultant freedom.
On 12 May, Luther had been in the Wartburg for six days, was used to the regime, but getting very restless, yearning for home, for community life, for his work, and for some sign from his friends: ‘To Philip Melancthon, evangelist of the congregation at Wittenberg, my dearest brother in Christ. Jesus. Greetings. What are you doing these days, my Philip? Are you not praying for me . . .? I am quite eager to know your reaction to my disappearance. I was afraid it would look as if I had deserted the battle array . . .’ He bewails the state of the Church, and then speaks in detail of his constipation: ‘The Lord has struck me hard in the hind quarters. . . My stools were so hard that I was sweating with effort. . . Yesterday on the fourth day I went once, but I did not sleep all night.’ With a biblical greeting to Melancthon and his wife, ‘Farewell to you and your flesh’, he dates it ‘in the land of the birds’.
The Wartburg is entirely surrounded by woods and is a marvellous place for birdsong. It brought out Luther’s lyrical side, while the loneliness encouraged introspection. On 12 May, he wrote to Amsdorf and told him what had happened after he fled from the fake attack: ‘. . . The day! was snatched away from you, I arrived about eleven o’clock in the dark of the night at my new lodgings, utterly exhausted as though I had never ridden before . . . Here I am now a man of leisure, like a free man among captives’, and dated it ‘in the land of the open skies’. ‘Written on the mountain’ was the dateline for his letter to Spalatin two days later: ‘I am sitting here all day, drunk with leisure. I am reading the Bible in Greek and Hebrew. I shall write a German Tract . . . as soon as I have received the necessary things from Wittenberg.’ Other datelines common were: ‘From the Isle of Patmos’ (the Greek island to which St John is said to have retired in his old age) and ‘From my wilderness’, which eventually became the norm.
Later in May, he wrote again to Melancthon, dating the letter ‘From the land of the birds that sing sweetly in the branches and praise God with all their power night and day’, and signed his name ‘Martin’ in Greek. It was to little, gamin-like, intellectual Melancthon that he felt closest, their temperaments utterly different, complementing one another. This letter has the ring of friendship about it, even more than the letters to Spalatin where there is always the slight restraint involved in writing to one at Court who stood at the Elector’s right hand.
Luther was annoyed that Melancthon’s own new writing on doctrine had not reached him — this was the Loci Communes, ‘The Common Places’, or ‘Agreed Statement’, a first version of what would grow into a Protestant doctrinal norm in the Confession of Augsburg (1530). Luther wrote, ‘I want to know who stands in my pulpit. Is Amsdorf still snoring and lazy? And what is Dr Karlstadt doing?’ — even the tiresome old Dean of the Faculty took on a slightly roseate hue from a distance. Luther said Melancthon should not worry about him and then continued in a way which would not encourage such lack of worry: ‘The troubles of my soul have not ceased yet, and my previous weakness of faith still persists . . . I would rather burn in a raging fire than rot here alone half alive.’ But it was a test of faith, and he accepted the challenge, turning to the favourite image of Abraham, the great originating Jew-hero who was summoned from his homeland: ‘We must go out of our country, away from our kindred and from our father’s house, and must be separated from each other for awhile.’ Luther was looking for a divine healing of his loneliness and the unpredictable future.
He was worried about the state of society — the sturdy peasants would cause an uproar if the Pope went on condemning people. He chided Melancthon and the others for saying they needed him back; the Wittenberg churches had more than enough ministration with Melancthon, Amsdorf and the others there. They had complained that they were without a ‘shepherd’. Luther was being identified as their leader in a way much more specific than before. The letter ended: ‘I have no more news, since I am a hermit, an anchorite, and truly a monk, though neither shaved nor cowled. You would see a knight and hardly recognise me.’
He wrote a piece on Confession, a follow-up to the piece written for Spalatin, for people bewildered by confessors trying to stop people reading ‘Luther’, and dedicated it to the Knight Franz von Sickingen to whose castle he might have gone instead of to the Diet. He felt the need to keep some link with him and the group round him, with Ulrich von Hutten and young Martin Bucer, first met at Heidelberg, now out of the Dominicans but acting as chaplain at Sickingen’s castle. Luther addressed the letter, ‘To my special Lord and Patron’. He was specially conscious that von Sickingen was part of the political power groupings in the country. Power implied responsibility and it was to the powerful lay people, ‘the nobles’, that he had addressed his Appeal a year previously.
Then he also began to think of the members of the congregation he had addressed so many times in the parish church at Wittenberg, and felt he owed them an explanation. ‘To the little flock’ (a quotation from the New Testament) he wrote explaining his absence, his position which had led to so much criticism from authority, and outlined for their benefit all that had happened, copying at one point a style used by St Paul when rebutting his critics.
In mid June he wrote again to Spalatin, saying that he was both very busy and very idle, studying Greek and Hebrew without interruption, and he sent the manuscripts of his work on Confession and the Magnificat. ‘The man in charge of the place treats me far beyond what I deserve. The trouble from which I suffered at Worms has not left me. . . I am more constipated than ever in my life and despair of remedy. The Lord thus afflicts me that I may not be without a relic of his cross.’ He signed the letter ‘Henry Nescius’ in case, on its way to court, it fell into the wrong hands. Luther did not bother to refer to the fact that he was in the middle of a 40,000-word Latin text, entitled ‘Against Latomus’, replying to an attack on him by an old opponent at Louvain. When completed he sent it to Justus Jonas, and at the end of the piece said:
But to return to you, my Jonas. I have now expelled this Latomus from me and sent it to you. . . I have already begun to put the Epistles and Gospels into the vernacular: that is why it has been so bothersome to read and respond to this filth . . . Why doesn’t one of you reply to the rest, either you or Andreas Karlstadt? And what is stopping Amsdorf?. . .Greetings from my Patmos. 20 June 1521.
By July the disorientation seen in the letter to Spalatin was beginning to bite severely — Luther was restless and tetchy, and there was a rare sensual or sexual reference in his description of his troubles. Thirty-three-year-old Luther was ripe for an emotional crisis. Eleven weeks of loneliness had set his whole person, physiologically and psychologically into a new slow rhythm. Sexual tension had begun to be a threat; he had seen it often enough in other friars, but he had managed to bypass serious sexual problems in the past three or four years simply through work. But now his life in a vacuum gave scope to his inherent disposition towards sadness and depression.
He complained to Melancthon: ‘You praise me too much. . .Your high opinion of me shames and tortures me, since, unfortunately, I sit here like a fool and, hardened in leisure, pray little, do not sigh for the Church of God, yet burn in a big fire of my untamed body. In short I should be burning in spirit, but I am burning in lust, laziness, leisure and sleepiness.’ It was the height of summer in the forest land, and sultry humid days did not help. Constipation was bad as ever: ‘If this thing does not improve I shall go straight to Erfurt and not incognito either. . . I shall consult doctors or surgeons.’
He did not know what to think about things ‘going so well’ at Wittenberg. Clearly he was not needed. ‘You are now well supplied and you manage well without me . . . the affairs of Wittenberg progress more favourably in my absence than in my presence.’ He said perhaps a door would open for him in ‘Erfurt or Cologne or anywhere else’. He reprimanded them for cancelling a disputation at the request of the Elector. They had to guard academic and spiritual freedom. ‘Not one half would have been accomplished had I obeyed the court’s counsel. . .Farewell. Someone had promised to take along this letter which I had written some days ago, but he has not kept his word. I ask all of you to pray for me because I am drowning in sins. From my wilderness, 13 July 1521, Martin Luther the Hermit.’ Depression and disgust with himself were rolling in again. At night it all became too much: ‘I can tell you, in this idle solitude, there are a thousand battles with Satan. It is much easier to fight against the incarnate devil — that is against men — than against spiritual wickedness in the heavenly places.’
Luther was writing Postils all through the summer, sample sermons on gospel passages, for parish priests and for more general consumption, and becoming more familiar with the Greek and Hebrew texts of the Bible. His mind was turning again to the serious biblical studies which had started the whole trouble off. He put the readings for each Sunday Liturgy into German. He wrote to Amsdorf: ‘I would like to be your student in the course on Hebrew, and Philip’s in the course on Colossians. . . I rejoice so much in your abundance. . . It is not you who need me, but I who need you.’ The depression was holding off a bit again as the constipation eased: ‘I tried the pills according to the prescription. Soon I had some relief and my bowels opened without blood or force, but the wound of the previous rupture isn’t healed yet, and I had to suffer a good deal of pain because some flesh extruded.’ Luther was becoming garrulous and hypochondriac under the influence of solitude. He was in need of something to do which would impinge with some impact on the outside world. He did not have long to wait.
In Worms the Emperor had had to make the best of a situation which he could not totally control. The Electors, Princes and representatives of the Estates began to drift home, and nothing further was done immediately in the Luther case.
Aleander suggested an Edict from the Emperor himself and presented him with a suitable text. Now that Frederick had gone home, the remaining Electors might be persuaded to sign; but the Emperor thought a little further delay might persuade the Pope not to sign a Treaty of Alliance with the King of France. Eventually a rump of Electors, which did not include Albrecht of Mainz, signed and to Aleander’s delight Luther was at last declared an outlaw. The Edict of Worms now lay beside the formal Decree of Excommunication, Decet Romanum, which had been eventually issued in a form acceptable to all. If the civil and Church authorities had commanded the assent of their subjects there could have been no more place for Friar Martin Luther. Eventually he would have been found, formally arrested and burnt. There was widespread consternation about his disappearance, and to a lesser extent about the Edict. The elderly Albrecht Durer noted in his diary: ‘I don’t know whether he is alive or has been murdered. . . Oh God, if Luther is dead, who is going to explain the Gospel to us?’
But, nine weeks after disappearing, Luther was lying up in the Wartburg in regular communication with the Saxon political authorities and with his friends at Wittenberg. It began to seem that much of the established structure of society was a paper construction. Among the first to push open the floodgates and to let a stream of destructive actions loose onto the world were the friars and university men at Wittenberg. Luther’s absence made them feel they must vindicate themselves and do something about the challenging blueprints for reform which their colleague and friend had issued a year ago. With Luther away, Karlstadt was able once again to move into the lead with his mixture of unreflected theory and headstrong action. He moved with an obsessive inevitability to the crucial explosive item, celibacy. Only just back from a disastrous few weeks in Copenhagen, where he had been lent to help reformers there but where he was worse than useless, with not a word of Danish in his head, he drew up his usual bunch of theses. They were on the Vows of Celibacy, and on Communion under both kinds.
The minutes of the first discussion of the theses reached Luther towards the end of July. It was not the first time that Karlstadt had taken a step ahead of Luther — he was a man of logic following an idea to its conclusion. Luther was shocked. The theses propounded not just that the compulsory celibacy of Massing priests should be dropped but that all vows of celibacy were wrong. This was to attack the religious orders as such, a central component of society, the monks, the nuns, the friars, the great country abbeys, the little convents, and the city friaries. It was to attack Luther’s own status as a vowed religious. Luther had not spoken against the institution of the monastic life in his writings but against the futile lives of so many of those who followed it, or were almost forced into it by one circumstance or another. On August, he wrote to Melancthon:
‘You people do not convince me yet that the vows of priests and monks are to be considered as in the same category. . . I am pretty well agreed that those who entered the abyss before or during the age of puberty can leave it with a clear conscience; but about those who have grown old and stayed on in this state, I don’t know yet.’ There was no reason why a priest had to be celibate. But the very nature of a monk was to take the three traditional vows of poverty, obedience and chastity. Five days later, he wrote to Spalatin: ‘Good Lord, will our people at Wittenberg give wives even to the monks? They will not push a wife on me!’ He had not begun to digest the idea. In spite of his own sexual difficulties the idea of solving them by marrying was thoroughly repugnant. He was a monk, a community man, with a vocation.
But immediately he found himself arguing and thinking furiously about the matter in the light of Scripture and reason. Yes, of course young people in a monastery or convent against their will should be allowed to leave. In fact, the Roman authorities normally gave permission for such people to leave; Erasmus had been one such, put into a religious order for lack of living parents, and allowed to leave as a young man. But the permission to leave did not include the permission to marry. Luther realised that this was a mere prejudice about sex, and opposed it. But as for the older people, Karlstadt’s statement that they should leave if they wished in order to avoid the sin of fornication — what is this other than mere quibbling rationalisation? Luther wanted something more serious than a statement that pressing sexual tension should be a reason for them to leave, and he added sardonically: ‘Who knows if he who burns with desire today, will burn with desire tomorrow?. . I would not dare to act on this principle; so I will not counsel anyone else to do so.’ And yet, ‘I too would want to help monks and nuns more than anything else, so greatly do I pity these wretched men and boys and girls who are plagued with emission of semen and by sexual desire.’ He was determined to treat the arguments objectively on their own merit, but felt that ‘if Christ were here . . he would dissolve these chains and annul these vows’. But Luther was struggling with a tradition centuries old, and his own inhibitions and neuroses: ‘I don’t know what phantom of pomp and human opinion is plaguing me here.’
In this letter, Luther continued with his theme of finding employment for himself elsewhere, a new ministry: ‘I see that you all grow in spiritual matters, so it seems to me that I should decrease.’ He was using an expression of St John the Baptist in the New Testament: ‘I must decrease. He [Jesus] must increase.’
On the question of communion under both kinds, Luther found himself counselling moderation and gradualism, against Karlstadt’s thesis that it was actually sinful not to take the wine as well as the bread. The castle church was pressing ahead faster than if Luther himself had been in residence. However, he was able to tell them of his own determination never again to offer a ‘private Mass’ — on the principle that the only purpose of such a Mass had to link with the idea that it was a sacrifice one gained merit by offering. ‘I will never say another private Mass in all eternity.’ The Mass, the eucharist, was essentially a communal exercise.
He ended the letter with a recapitulation of his teaching about grace, including a famous phrase, easily misinterpreted, ‘sin boldly’. ‘If you are a preacher of grace, then preach a true and not a fictitious sin. God does not save people who are only fictitious sinners.’ This was clearly a re-statement of the words of Jesus in the Gospel: ‘I came to call not the just but sinners to repentance.’ Luther was writing a personal letter to his gentle Melancthon, whom he always suspected of being a little weak-kneed — what he went on to say was a further developed and rubato version of the words already quoted, advice of the kind that Staupitz had also given Luther — ‘Do not brood over your sins which are an inevitable part of our human condition; look rather at Jesus the Saviour.’ He wrote:
Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly, for he is victorious over sin, death and the world. As long as we are here, we cannot avoid sin. This life is not the dwelling place of the righteous . By the riches of God’s glory we have come to know the Lamb that takes away the sin of the world. No sin will separate us from the Lamb, even though we commit fornication and murder a thousand times a day. . . Pray boldly — you too are a mighty sinner.
The Gospel sometimes identified Jesus as a ‘Lamb’, the new sacrifice, god-man offering himself as a redemptive sacrifice, a life and death which won eternal life for all.
Stirred up by Karlstadt’s theses, Luther began to write an extended piece on the Mass. At the beginning of it, he gave expression to the agonising questions which must present themselves to anyone leading a movement to upset longstanding practice, and venerable tradition: ‘I have found it very difficult to justify my conscience; I, one man alone, have dared to come forward against the Pope, brand him as the Antichrist, the bishops as his apostles, and the universities as his brothels. How much did my heart quail. . . Are you the only wise man? Can it be that all the others are in error? . . What if you are mistaken?’ But finally he found the power to resist these worries — ‘as a stony shore resists the waves, and laughs at their threats and storms.’ The piece grew into another major work of forty thousand words in Latin, on the Suppression of Private Masses which became in German The Misuse of the Mass.
Very swiftly, the Edict of Worms and the Excommunication were beginning to bite — in a converse sense. The established authorities could no longer be turned to for the solutions of problems — in outlawing Luther, they had outlawed themselves. At Wittenberg the Augustinians, the castle church Chapter, and the university men turned instead to the man who had set them all thinking and now acting, the man who had been disowned by Pope and Emperor. The searchlight turned on Luther and remained there. He was profoundly disconcerted, in the sense that he had done nothing to prepare for this moment. In practical terms, nothing was prepared. He was a friar, a teacher, a doctor of theology, a preacher, and in his own mind certainly to some extent a ‘prophet’. But he had not thought to be the Leader, the Executive or a politician. In his famous book he had thrown the task of achieving reform to the nobles, and all those with social, economic and political power. They had reacted with praise for his anti-Roman sentiments, and had contributed their poems and threats to clerics in their guise as opponents of Rome. But none had shown the slightest inclination to set about the Reform which Luther had programmed. So back came the programme to Luther, with the specific problems raised by Karlstadt: Celibacy, Monastic Life, Communion under both kinds. Together, these were symbol, and in a sense substance, of key problems in the practice of the Myth which underlay European society.
Luther’s Wartburg desk began to resemble his Wittenberg desk. The papers piled up, the written sheets poured out. Unable to go down to the printer, tell him what was coming and supervise the work, Luther was feeling increasingly frustrated. He wrote to Spalatin that the printers were ‘sordid money grubbers’; all they thought of was — ‘it is enough that I get my money, let the readers worry about what and how they will read it . . . anyhow please take care that those MSS. of mine are guarded carefully’. And the constipation got worse, even ‘permanent and must always be relieved by medicine. Only every fourth day, sometimes even fifth day, can I open my bowels. What a vast gut!’
The Castellan suggested a day out with the hunt, just what ‘Junker Georg’ would think of doing anyhow. It was not a success. Luther described to Spalatin how a baby rabbit came racing up to him and he tried to save it: ‘I had rolled it up into the sleeve of my cloak . . . the dogs found the poor rabbit and biting through the cloak broke its hind leg and killed it by choking it.’ Luther made an allegory of it — the Pope and Satan raging against souls that had been saved even in spite of Luther; but great people would find themselves with difficulty avoiding hell. He told Spalatin to beware: ‘In paradise you courtiers who are lovers of game will also be game which Christ, who is the best hunter, can hardly catch and save in spite of his great efforts. A game is being played with you folks while you play around hunting.’
In October, at Wittenberg, things began to move seriously. Several friars, led by Fr Gabriel Zwilling, began to omit references to ‘sacrifice’ in their celebration of Mass. At the city church communion was given in both kinds. Trying to keep discipline, Prior Heidt suspended all celebration of Mass in the Friary. In November, thirteen friars simply walked out and left the monastery for good. Karlstadt’s Theses, in the main supported by communications from the Wartburg, had broken the tabu. Unspoken thoughts finally broke into action, and men no longer at all committed in their own selves to the way of life they followed, freed themselves.
The Elector was deeply concerned. Spalatin wrote to Luther complaining about the behaviour of his Augustinian brethren. He also objected to a proposal of Luther’s to write yet another protest to Cardinal Albrecht who, in desperate straits for cash, had expressed his intention of issuing a further Indulgence, from his favourite residence at Halle (where his mistresses also lived). Luther was incensed with Spalatin’s letter, and frustrated by affairs he could not directly influence. He had already responded angrily to one previous attempt by Spalatin to put the brakes on. ‘I shall not let myself be restrained from privately and publicly attacking the idol of Mainz with regard to his "brothel" at Halle.’ Now, on 11 November, Luther wrote to Spalatin: ‘I have hardly ever read a letter that displeased me more than your last one. Not only did I put off my reply, but I had decided not to answer you at all. To begin with, I will not put up with your statement that the Sovereign will not allow anything to be written against Mainz . . . Your idea about not disturbing the public peace is fine, but will you allow the eternal peace of God to be disturbed by the wicked and sacrilegious actions of that son of perdition?’ Spalatin had complained also about developments at Wittenberg and a terrible reception which the students had given to the Hospital Brothers of St Anthony on their annual visit begging funds. Luther wanted neither to defend nor condemn them. ‘For goodness sake, do you want me to apologise to everyone who is upset by Wittenberg?’
Luther went on to tell Spalatin the latest bit of news that would be troublesome to him: ‘I have decided to attack monastic vows and to free young people from the hell of celibacy, totally unclean and condemned as it is through its burning and pollutions. I am writing partly because of my own experience and partly because I am indignant.’ But the main purpose of the letter, a further shock to Spalatin, was to send down a long manuscript on the Mass for publication, the one dealing largely with the suppression of private Masses. Its publication would stir things up further. A few weeks later, Luther sent down his MS. on Vows, and Spalatin then had two MSS. in his possession which he was loathe to pass on to the printers.
The completion of the text on vows was a triumphant moment, emotionally. Luther had full access to copiers; one copy went off to his father and another to Spalatin. In a covering letter to his father, the message was: ‘You were right all along to oppose my going into the monastery’ — though Luther made the reason why he was right a great deal more complicated than his father would have done. While sweating his way through the problem some weeks earlier, he had written to Melancthon:
I remember when I made my vow, my earthly father was terribly angry; after he was reconciled to the idea I had to listen to the following: ‘Let’s hope that this was not a delusion from Satan.’ The word took such deep root in my heart that I have never heard anything from his mouth which came back to my mind more persistently. It seemed to me as if God had spoken to me from afar, through my father’s mouth — it came late on in the affair, yet it was enough to upset me and reprove me.
Luther’s letter to his father doubled as a preface to the work:
My purpose is to recall, in a short preface, what took place between you and me in order to show the pious reader the argument and the content of the book, together with an example . . . It is now almost sixteen years since I became a monk, taking the vow without your knowledge and against your will. In your fatherly love you were worried about my weakness because I was then a young man, just entering my twenty-second year (that is, to use Augustine’s words, I was still ‘clothed in hot youth’) . . . You were determined, therefore, to tie me down with an honourable and wealthy marriage. This fear of yours, this care, this indignation against me was for a time implacable. . . At last you desisted but your fears for me were never laid aside. For I remember very well, later. . . I told you that I had been called by terrors from heaven and that I did not become a monk of my own free will and desire, still less to gain any human satisfaction but that I was walled in by the terror and agony of sudden death and forced by necessity to take the vow. Then you said, ‘Let us hope that it was not an illusion and a deception.’ That word penetrated to the depths of my soul and stayed there as if God had spoken by your lips, though I hardened my heart against you and your word . . . . You said something else too. When in filial confidence I upbraided you for your anger, you suddenly retorted with a reply so fitting and so much to the point that I have hardly ever in all my life heard any man say anything which struck me so forcibly and stayed with me so long. ‘Have you not also heard?’ you said, that parents are to be obeyed?’
Luther’s complex about authority and his father, all his inner anxieties, terrors and compulsions, all his sensitive longing to reach the heart of life, the springs of the dynamo of the world had been touched in this question of religious vows. The moment in the thunder storm had triggered off the decision to fly the world, and fly to God; to bind himself by the canonical vows. And now he was rejecting that absolute obligation, and the committing of the self under Canon Law, rejecting it in favour of a new freedom — a freedom which he believed to be the heart of the message of the Word, a freedom indeed to be bound, not by the rules of men, not by Church officials, but solely by the bonds of grace, which themselves issued in another, greater freedom.
He had to explain to his father, somewhat tortuously, that though he rejected the obligation as such, he chose of his own free will, for the moment at any rate, to remain in the habit, in the religious community, and his father had to accept this as God’s will. ‘Who can doubt that I am in the ministry of the Word? And it is plain that the authority of parents must yield to this service . . . Christ . . . himself is my immediate bishop, abbot, prior, lord, father, teacher . . . I hope that he has taken from you one son in order that he may begin to help the sons of many others through me.’
Luther worked out a distinction between the religious life as such, the life of vows in its essence, and on the other hand its abuse, as a mere social convenience. Saints had lived a life of true poverty, celibacy and obedience in a community, notably his favourite spiritual writer St Bernard. And some men and women might still live it, he thought. His moderation, in contrast with much subsequent Protestant opinion, was justified in the event. Monastic tradition continued to flourish, even taking fresh root within the Protestant tradition. But as things were he had to ask whether, in the case of the great majority of religions, the vows were really kept. As for poverty, the ‘poor’ monks and friars were secure, well fed and clothed, and hardly ever ‘poor’ in any sense recognisable by the truly poor. The vow of obedience was indifferently kept, and was so often dispensed from that to call it a ‘life’ vow was a pretence. As for celibacy, each religious pretended that in general it was kept, and that it was only oneself that found it almost impossibly difficult, evading the truth that few seemed truly called to this vocation. Finally, there was the scandal of orphaned boys and girls put into a monastery or convent early in life; they were commonly given dispensations and allowed to leave when they had grown up, but dispensations were not given from vows of celibacy. A vow had to be free, an act of an adult human being. It could not properly be transformed into a legal obligation binding under penalties, enforceable by the Church.
The conclusion was that vows to the life of poverty, celibacy and obedience had always to be in some sort temporary. A man or woman ought not to be compelled to remain in a religious house by force of law. And the religious life ought not to be held up as intrinsically ‘better’ than any other calling — a view which became acceptable to the Catholic Church only in the present century. The true way of salvation is to be subject to God, to yield to him in faith, to stand silent before him, to set aside the offensive presumption of good works . . . Vows are such counterfeit "Good works."’ Luther had recently heard of the judgement of Paris University against his teaching on faith and work (though omitting, like the Emperor, any reference to the Pope), and composed a sequence lambasting their purely human judgement and their failure to base their understanding on faith, and so to accept the Gospel fully.
This is exactly what our Parisian street whore, with her brazen effrontery and her virtues long since prostituted has not done. She has recently been bold enough to open her legs and uncover her nakedness before the whole world and say that the law about not returning evil for evil ought now to be regarded as only a counsel . . . because this makes the Christian law too difficult. . . What schools! What faculties! What theologians! What bilge! What new-fangled rubbish!
It seems people were inclined to agree with him when it came to respecting the Church Law on vows. Many religious houses had become something like clubs which people inhabited without any longer believing in their declared purposes. Their mesmerised inhabitants simply walked out of them, like so many zombies, once they realised there was no longer any social bar to doing so. ‘Lifelong poverty, obedience, and chastity may be observed but cannot be vowed, taught or imposed,’ thundered Luther. And it was so.
Luther was becoming the general of a movement already in train. Stationed far behind the lines, he was sent reports on the current situation and had to adjudicate. He was taking possession of himself and of the situation in a new way. Greatness was being thrust upon him; partly it fitted, partly it did not. He was moving personally into a new, hyper-active phase. Soon after sending off the MS. on Vows, following that on the Mass, he began composing a letter to Albrecht, his third to the Cardinal Archbishop of Mainz. These letters to ‘authority’ brought out the best and worst in Luther, but they were always impressive documents to relish — the addressee must surely have both blanched and then perhaps chuckled a little. This one began abruptly:
To begin with, Most Reverend and Most Gracious Lord, Your Electoral Grace has a clear and vivid recollection of the fact that I have twice written to your Electoral Grace . . . Your Electoral Grace has now again erected at Halle that idol which robs poor simple Christians of their money and their souls . . . Perhaps Your Electoral Grace thinks I am now out of action and that you are safe from me, and that the monk is well under the control of His Imperial Majesty. This may be so; but Your Electoral Grace should nevertheless know that I shall do what Christian love requires. . .I will not put up with nor be silent about. . .
As usual with such texts of Luther’s, the letter gathered momentum as it continued: ‘Your Electoral Grace should not think that Luther is dead . . .’ The letter wound up with a straight ultimatum: ‘I beg and expect Your Electoral Grace’s definite and speedy reply to this letter within fourteen days; if after this appointed fortnight no public answer should appear, my little book Against the Idol at Halle will be released. . . Written in my wilderness. . .1 December 1521.’ In the event assurances reached Luther through Spalatin, and he did not send the book to a printer.
The hyper-activity culminated in a break-out. Luther obtained a horse and rode over to Wittenberg, still wearing his beard, dressed as a knight might be. He wanted to get first-hand information about the remarkable developments at Wittenberg. He went straight to Melancthon’s house, and the news reached quickly up and down the street. His friends were soon there. Amsdorf insisted that Luther sleep the night in his house and that he must not visit the Friary. Excommunicate, under the imperial ban, what might not happen to him if he revealed his presence openly? Cranach came round to the house to paint him and the picture survives today. The disguise was certainly effective, though if one looked twice the eyes would surely have given away the identity of the man to anyone who knew him.
Luther was, on the whole, pleased with what had happened at Wittenberg. It was something to rejoice about; real progress was being made with actual reforms in his own town. But now, what was needed above all was the Word. With Melancthon’s encouragement he determined to translate the whole of the New Testament, the whole of the prime text of the Christian Gospel, the New Testament, into contemporary German and publish it in an edition which would be available for anyone who could read. He reckoned he could do it by Easter. He would return to the Wartburg until that time and then probably emerge for good.
But the visit was also shocking to Luther. His friends knew nothing about Luther’s text on Vows, or his text on the Mass, or about his letter to Albrecht. Spalatin had evidently held them all up. Luther wrote to him immediately.
‘To my George Spalatin, a servant of Christ and a friend. Jesus.’ Perhaps his material had been intercepted, but ‘there is nothing that would disturb me more at this moment than to know that these manuscripts had reached you and that you were holding them back . . . For goodness sake, curb that moderation and prudence of which I suspect you, . . .I came to Wittenberg and amid all the delight of being with my friends again I found this drop of bitterness. . . Everything else that I hear and see pleases me very much . . . Commend me to the most illustrious Sovereign from whom I want to keep my arrival in Wittenberg and my departure a secret . . . Farewell. Wittenberg, in Amsdorf’s house, in the company of my Philip.’ But the letter also contained a sentence reflecting Luther’s worry about the general social situation; as he travelled across Thuringia, he had sensed an even greater general disquiet, more widespread threats of disturbance, and danger of a peasants’ revolution. As soon as he was back in the Wartburg he wrote a 6000-word pamphlet A Sincere Admonition by Martin Luther to all Christians to Guard against Insurrection and Rebellion. The authorities must have been genuinely pleased to see this text, with its orthodox start, and its unremitting opposition to any kind of public violence: ‘May God grant grace and peace to all Christians who read this pamphlet or hear it read. . .’ There was a real danger, he said, that the clerical estate had tried poor Karsthans, the sturdy peasant, too far. He seems to be neither able nor willing to endure it any longer and to have good reason to lay about him with flail and cudgel’; the entire clerical estate ‘may be murdered or driven into exile’.
But no insurrection is ever right, however right the cause it seeks to promote. . .it generally harms the innocent more than the guilty . . . I am and always will be on the side of those against whom insurrection is directed, no matter how unjust their cause; . . . Those who read and rightly understand my teaching will not start an insurrection; they have not learned that from me.
Christ’s cause was to be forwarded by word of mouth. ‘Have I not with the mouth alone, without a single stroke of the sword, done more harm to the Pope, bishops, priests, and monks than all the emperors, kings and princes. . . ?’ And people should not call themselves ‘Lutherans’. ‘What is Luther? After all, the teaching is not mine. Neither was I crucified for anyone . . .How then should I — poor stinking maggot-fodder that I am — come to have men call the children of Christ by my wretched name?’
Back in the Wartburg, Luther was doing fifteen hundred words a day of his translation of the Greek text of the New Testament into German, and taking a new lease of life. Things were happening. People were listening. Archbishops cowered. The Word was about to be spread abroad in his own beloved Saxon German land and language. But threatening all this was the turmoil of resentment and expectation that still continued to increase throughout society.