Reactions to Luther

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Humanist and popular Reactions to Luther


Erasmus' Axioms on behalf of Martin Luther, Theologian

Erasmus was very circumspect in his public statements about the 'Luther affair'. However, in November 1520 he drew up a series of twenty-two statements for the guidance of Frederick the Wise, from which a selection is offered here. Because they were not intended for publication and Erasmus was worried lest they fall into the wrong hands, they probably represent his true feelings about the 'Luther affair'.

The origin of the case is evil: the hatred of letters and the desire for supremacy. The way in which it is being conducted corresponds to its origin, with wild cries, plots, bitter hatred, poisonous writing. Those who are conducting the case are open to suspicion. Since all the best and closest to Gospel teaching are said to be the least offended by Luther. It is well known that certain men take advantage of the good nature of the pope. All the more should their rash advice on this case be shunned. The case is tending toward a greater crisis than certain men suppose. The severity of the bull [condemning Luther] offends all upright men as unworthy of the most gentle vicar of Christ. It should be considered all the more diligently by persons who are above suspicion and who are experienced in these matters. Only two universities . . . have condemned Luther, and they have . . . not convicted him of error, nor are they in agreement . . . Luther is not soliciting anything; therefore he is less suspect. The interest of others is being pressed. For the pope the glory of Christ comes before his own, and what is of profit to souls takes precedence over any other advantage . . . Difficult matters press upon us and the guidance of [the emperor] Charles should not be defiled by such hateful measures. It seems to the advantage of the pope that this affair be settled by the mature deliberation of serious and impartial men; in this way regard will best be shown for the dignity of the pope. Those who up to now have written against Luther are disapproved of even by theologians who otherwise are opposed to him. The world thirsts for Gospel truth, and it seems to be carried in this direction by a longing ordained, as it were, by fate. Therefore, opposition to Luther ought to be without hate.


Ulrich von Hutten’s political poetry

The firebrand imperial knight and humanist, Ulrich von Hutten, found in Luther's ideas confirmation of his hatred of the clergy and of foreign influence. He was inspired to call upon fellow Germans to repudiate Roman trickery and to wage an anti-clerical war, publishing several polemical tracts and dialogues on the theme. Hutten's strident tone and call to the 'German nation' to rouse itself in Luther's support led to him being depicted alongside Luther as a champion of 'German liberties'.

Complaint and Admonition against the Overweening Unchristian Power of the Pope at Rome and the Impious Clergy
The die is cast. This I have dared.
I want to complain, if I may,
And everyone the truth to say,
To make the general errors clear
And of many crimes you must hear
Through which the nation is aggrieved
And all the German lands deceived.
All morals now are quite upturned,
All godly doctrine is but spurned,
In blindness to the Christian truth
Where false belief now rules the roost . . .
He who for the truth will stand
With bans is hounded from the land
This is not godly and not right
He who against it will not fight
Will be with God in dire disgrace
I warn him of his evil case . . .
I hope there will soon awake
All Germans bold, who then will stake
Their lives in this as I have done
In protest, though I stand alone.
I call upon the nobles proud
And pious towns all in a crowd
To join me in the common cause
For which I fight without a pause.
Take pity on your fatherland.
O worthy Germans, raise your hand
The time is here, the fight begun
For freedom, which through God is won . . .
Arise, you pious Germans, come!
For armoured horse in goodly sum,
Halberd, pike and sharpened sword
Stand ready, and where warning word
Will not help, then we must fight.
Stay not to ask if this is right.
Do not stay to ask for leave
God's aid and vengeance cannot deceive
We punish only godless men,
Arise and let's go to it then,
For in our cause we act aright
And have good reason that we fight.
God's Word they have turned upside-down
The Christian folk with lies confound'd
Let us wipe the lies away
And the light of truth upon them play
Arise, we have the grace of God!
Stay not at home, but come along

Thus have I dared -- this is is my song.


An anonymous pamphlet by a Luther supporter

(Note: Before you read this, read the Gospel of John, starting at chapter 18 verse 28 and continuing through the end of chapter 19 -- it's online here. Once you do, this selection will make much more sense.)


Luther and disciples went forth over the river Rhine and entered into Worms, where Caesar [=in German "Kaiser," i.e., Emperor] was holding a diet. Knowing that he had come, the high priests and pharisees assembled into the palace of the high priest of Mainz [i.e., Cardinal Albrecht, Archbishop of Mainz], called Caiaphas, and consulted with the scribes how they might betray his safe-conduct, and take him by subtlety and burn him. But they said: not during the diet, lest there be an uproar among the people. Then while Luther was in the house of Knights of St John, Carraciolo called Pedico and Aleander the Jew sought to betray him with the kiss of peace. But Luther, knowing all things that should come upon him, went forth and said unto them: 'Whom seek ye?' They answered him: 'Dr Luther.' Luther said unto them: 'I am he.'

When morning was come the high priests and the papists took counsel against Luther, that they might burn him with fire. Then they took him and turned him over to the archbishop of Trier, and he inquired of him: 'Art thou a doctor of the gospel and the truth?' And Luther said: 'Sayest thou this thing of thyself or did the Romanists tell thee of me?' And the archbishop said: 'Am I a Romanist? They who cannot endure the Gospel truth and the words of Paul have delivered thee to me. What hast thou done?' Luther answered as a Christian: 'My writings do not concern this world but God . . .' And Trier asked: 'Art thou a doctor of evangelical truth and of St Paul?' And Luther answered: 'Thou hast said it. To this I was born, and for this I came into the world, that I should restore to their pristine purity the words of the Gospel and of St Paul, because the papists have distorted them to their own use and for the Roman Curia, to the great detriment of the German nation.'

Then the governor saw that it did no good and that a great tumult was made among the people, that is among the Romanists because they displayed much money and great dignities. Having then taken water and washed his hands in the presence of the people, he said: 'I am innocent of the blood of this Christian man, as you see.' And all the clergy and the Romanists answered: 'His blood be upon our heads.'

Then the governor delivered to them the books of Luther to be burned. The priests took them, and when the princes and people had left the diet they made a great pyre in front of the high priest's palace, where they burned the books; and they placed on the top a picture of Luther with the inscription: 'This is Martin Luther, the doctor of the Gospel'.


Complaint of a layman, Hans Schwalb, over the many abuses of the Christian life, 1521

Some priests say that when a man is under the ban he should be cut off from the Christian church, and cannot merit good works. As one well knows, a person was recently drummed out of the church of St. Severus and placed under the ban because he had accompanied the pious Martin Luther, who speaks the truth without fear of men. How can anyone be so damnable that he would outlaw any man or eject him from the Christian community, and heed the ban more than the words of Christ. Does it not say in the Gospel (Matthew 7: 1) 'judge not lest you be judged'? Is that not damnable, to order a man out of the church or otherwise ban him? The worthy Dr Martin speaks the truth as Christ and the apostles spoke it, but each of our priests contradicts this truth and says: 'Whoever believes the words of Dr Martin does not believe aright and is against God.' And when they hear that some villagers have taken a mind to believe Dr Martin's words, they dare to say that they will not bless their village bells. Thus, one shuts the mouths of wicked villagers by forbidding them the Sacraments, as it is said confirmation has been refused recently. Is that godly or right? Or have you read somewhere that you may do this to such pious wicked folk? I'll warrant you that you have learned that from your diabolical lord the pope, who also wanted to withhold the Christian Sacrament. When the Greeks wanted to convert to the Christian faith and join us, the pope thought he could become rich, and set them a great sum of money to pay each year in perpetuity. The poor folk would not do that; they thought that Christ had allowed his faith to be proclaimed free . . . But our priests increase the faith of Christ the way the wolf does the sheep. That's why there are so many fat sheep.


An anonymous pro-Luther pamphlet


[The text below the image reads:] Look at this strange beast, a wolf clad in churchly dress, rampaging among the sheep; a red hat [i.e., a cardinal's hat] runs after it, there is the wolf's cousin. Beware, you sheep, run not away from him who hangs on the cross. Let this wolf run his course, he will sell a kingdom in hell. He has eaten many a sheep, and is to be accounted as equal to Satan. The shepherds have become wolves. They are not content to shear the sheep. The flock that they should shepherd is scattered, strangled by false doctrine. This greatly saddens my heart, as I see the great harm visited upon Christendom by pope, cardinal and bishop. Ezekiel has prophesied of this. Thus I preach and teach and write, even at the cost of my life.

View the image larger here.

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