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  • THE LETTERS OF MARTIN LUTHER - PREFACE


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    ABOUT a hundred years ago Coleridge wrote: “I can scarcely conceive a more delightful volume than might be made from Luther’s letters, especially those from the Wartburg, if translated in the simple, idiomatic, hearty mother-tongue of the original.” One’s first impulse on reading those words is to search for this “delightful volume,” but, though nearly a century has elapsed since Coleridge thus wrote, no such volume is to be found in present-day German, even in Germany. This treasure ought to be accessible to all classes. The reason why all classes have not had access to Luther’s letters long ago is, that they have lain embedded, many of them in Latin, in the volumes of De Wette; also in Old German, in the twenty-four huge volumes of Walch’s edition of Luther’s Works, published about years ago; and in the three volumes of Dr. Gottfried Schutze’s German edition of Luther’s hitherto unpublished letters, translated from the Latin in 1784.

    From the two latter sources De Wette culled most of the 2,324 letters published in 1826, in his first five volumes, which he dedicated to the Grand Duke Karl August, of Saxe-Weimar, Goethe’s friend, in grateful remembrance of the services rendered by the princes of the Saxon Ernestine line to the Reformation, and of the use he had been permitted to make of the treasures in the Grand Ducal library in Weimar. De Wette gives the literary history of every letter, thus making them a Tagebuch of Luther’s life.

    In the Preface to Dr. Schutze’s German edition of Luther’s letters the translator says: “From different quarters a wish has been expressed to see Dr. Schutze’s unprinted letters in the hands of the German public, and I did not know how one could become better acquainted with the character of this Paul-like man than from his letters, in which his heart lies exposed, and which bring us so much in contact with the spirit of the Reformation; and if, at times, they verge on vehemence, yet they never leave the reader unedified.” The Latin edition is dedicated to Frederick V. of Denmark. In the Preface to Stroebel’s Selected Letters — Nurnberg, 1780 — the author says: “The more of Luther’s letters I read, my respect for this wonderful man always increased, and most of them gave me such pleasure that I believed I would be conferring a favor on many of his admirers, especially among the laity, to whom his voluminous works were scarcely accessible, if I made them better acquainted with his noble and honest heart, thus inspiring his ungrateful children with more respect for him to whom they owe so much, and who, in every relation of life, appears as noble as he was amiable, although many who never read his works assert the opposite.”

    Dr. Enders, in his splendid collection of Luther’s “Briefwechsel,” mostly in Latin — the first volume was published in 1884, and the tenth in 1903 — says that they are intended not only for the learned, but for a larger public who are interested in all Luther’s letters. Dr. Enders derives most of those letters from De Wette, Walch, Aurifaber, Schutze, and Stroebel.

    Luther was the first classic writer of the German language, and his words, as Richter says, were half-battles; while according to Coleridge, his “miraculous and providential translation of the Bible was the fundamental act of the construction of literary German.”

    This busiest of men was the most indefatigable of letter-writers; and in his letters all the events of those stormy times are mirrored, as well as the influences which developed his own religious life. His letters are specially valuable because of his allusions to his herculean labors in the field of Bible translation.

    But his love for the Scriptures lightened the task. Referring specially to the Psalms, which occupied him so continuously through life, Luther said: “The Holy Scriptures were to believing souls what the meadow is to the animal, what the home is to man, the nest to the bird, the cleft of the rock to the sea-fowl, the stream to the fish.”

    Busch, in prefacing Bismarck’s Life, claims for his hero a hundred years hence a place alongside of Luther, and asks who would not now be glad to have fuller details of the Reformer in the great days and hours of his life?

    His letters abundantly supply these details, while at the same time they throw light on many a disputed point of Reformation history.

    In Luther’s lifetime collections of his letters began to appear. The first, in 1530, contained four letters. In 1546 Cruciger issued eight letters of consolation, and gradually these were increased. In 1556, Aurifaber, in Jena, with the Elector John Frederick, meditated issuing 2000.

    One is struck, in reading Luther’s letters, by the great love which bound that Wittenberg circle together, extending to far-away Nurnberg, the home of Pirkheimer, Albrecht Durer, Spengler, Link, and Osiander — to Strassburg, where Capito, Bucer, and Matthew Zell, with his wife Katherine, that succorer of many, labored; and Luther is interested in all that concerns each.

    In Hering’s Die Mystik Luthers, we see the fresh interest which entered Luther’s life through Tauler’s writings. His own dark hours had been a puzzle to him long before he made the acquaintance of the Mystics. “The just shall live by faith” had been his first comforter, but Tauler was his first human comforter. “Although unknown in the schools of theology, and therefore despised,” Luther writes, “yet I have found more pure theology in his book than in all the scholastic teachers in all the universities put together.” Finding an old book containing an outline of Tauler’s theology, he edited it; and a peculiar interest attaches to it, as the issue of Deutsche Theologie (Theologia Germanica) in 1516 was Luther’s first appearance in print.

    Another great joy to him was the accession of the Anhalt Princes to the Reformed faith. These three brothers were his warm friends; and he sent them Nicolas Hausmann as their Court preacher. Max Muller says that in every crisis in their country’s history the Anhalt Princes came to the front.

    With Luther “out of sight was not out of mind.” When his good Elector had him carried off to the Wartburg, after his grand appearance at Worms in 1521 he at once began writing to his anxious friends in Wittenberg. On May 12 he wrote to Melanchthon, Amsdorf, and Agricola. He surveys with deep pain the general state of the Church, and reproaches himself for not shedding tears over her wretched condition in the presence of Antichrist.

    He admonishes Melanchthon to defend the walls of Jerusalem with the gifts God had given him; and he would aid him through his prayers. He asks anxiously who is filling the pulpit where he was wont to preach; and, along with these weighty matters, he does not forget his friend Agricola’s domestic concerns, sending two golden gulden — one to the baby, another to buy wine for his wife.

    And his friends must send him his papers at once, so that he may resume his work, since not a moment could Junker Georg lose in his seclusion except through frequent headaches; for, even when following the chase, he spiritualized what he saw in the hunting-field. And when he left his “Patmos” he took with him his gift to the German people, the New Testament, in their mother-tongue.

    Coleridge speaks of the great interest of the Wartburg letters; but those from Coburg Castle are not a whit less interesting, especially those to Melanchthon, dated from the “Castle so full of evil spirits,” in which he endeavors to encourage his friend. “The six months spent here,” says a recent German writer, “might be called the mid-hour of his life. He is no longer the monk who sighs over his sins, nor the embarrassed peasant’s son, who, dazzled by the august assembly at Worms, begs for a day’s grace before answering for himself. He has been made strong by inward and outward storms which, however, were powerless to rob him of his childlike innocence of heart and poetic freshness of feeling; for he knows that the wondrous Christian experience with which God has honored him is now the common property of hundreds of thousands. Hence he got through an amount of work which fills us with astonishment; for, while holding in his hands the threads which set all the Evangelical princes and theologians in motion in Augsburg, he had leisure to be professor to his students, Veit Dietrich, etc., seelsorger for those in affliction, bookmaker for his dear Germans, and the most loving of sons, husbands, and fathers.” f2 On his arrival he wrote above the door of his room, “I shall not die, but live,” from his beloved 118th Psalm. Till his books arrived, he at once began writing to his friends, and in his first letter says: “We have reached our Sinai, which I shall turn into a Zion, and build three tabernacles — one to the Psalter, one to the Prophets, and one to AEsop.” Luther intended reconstructing and purifying AEsop’s Fables. For where can one, outside the Bible, find a finer book of old world wisdom, from which so much instruction and warning how to act in everyday life towards all can be found?” asks Luther.

    Matthesius, in lecturing on Luther, quotes Jotham’s fable of the trees wishing to appoint a king over them as a proof that the fable had not its origin in Phrygia or Greece, but was known to the Jews 3000 years before Christ. “What,” he asks, “if Asaph, the writer of so many beautiful psalms, was the first to collect these fables, even as others did the Proverbs of Solomon; for the two names, AEsop and Asaph, exactly correspond.”

    Strange to say, Luther’s MS. of AEsop now lies, without the beautiful Preface, in the Vatican library in Rome. This fragment is upon ten sheets of strong paper, along with the four letters.

    But graver studies interrupted this pastime, although AEsop often formed the subject of his table-talk. “His Popish adversaries did not disturb him greatly then. The weal of Christendom, which was threatened by the Turks, lay much nearer his heart. In the preceding year Turkey’s tents were ranged before Vienna’s gates, so that the dome of St. Stephen’s ran a narrow chance of having her cross replaced by the crescent. Different Christian states looked with no unfriendly eye at the Porte’s success, and so it is all the more touching to see how nobly the German Reformer almost forgot the dangers which assailed his own cause in his anxiety for a common Christianity — one would almost say humanity.” f3 Luther’s attitude towards Charles V. also showed his toleration. When the Emperor forbade Evangelical preaching during the Diet of Augsburg, Luther said: “The town belongs to him, so we must give way;” but happily the princes would not yield. Luther had always a great affection for the young Emperor. “He is pious and peaceable,” he said, “and does not speak as much in a year as I do in one day.”

    June 25 was a proud day for Luther, when the Augsburg Confession was read at the Diet. Although drawn out by Melanchthon, it is doubtful if it would ever have been finished had Luther’s powerful letters not restored his fainting powers. “God,” he writes, “has placed you in a spot, which is neither to be found in your rhetoric nor your philosophy; and this spot is called faith, where all you cannot see nor comprehend is to be found.”

    The precious words of consolation which Luther scattered across his path came from a heart assailed by many a storm, for he knew his moments of weak faith came direct from Satan. It was in Coburg that he wrote that letter to his son Hans which has delighted the children of every age.

    When there his father died, and he wrote commending his sick father to Him who loved him better than he did, comforting him with the thought of “the exit from this world to God being shorter than the journey from Wittenberg to Mansfeld, for it only means an hour’s sleep.” Just then his wife sent him the picture of his little Lena. At first he could not make out who it was, but gradually recognized it, and thought it an excellent likeness. And as a husband Luther was no less loving. When once the careful wife asked him to procure something for her, the busy man sent to Nurnberg for oranges, there being none in Wittenberg, for “why should he not be glad to do her bidding, for was she not dearer to him than the King of France or Venice?”

    Particularly beautiful is Luther’s letter to Chancellor Bruck, speaking of the stars in God’s beautiful firmament being supported by no visible pillars.

    Luther’s solitude was cheered by a visit from his future Elector, John Frederick, who gave him a gold ring, and asked him to accompany him home. But we shall anticipate no more of Luther’s letters, except to say how touching are his allusions to his being “a feeble, worn-out old man, overburdened with letter-writing, overwhelmed with work,” as his life draws near to its close. We shall give a few details of his numerous correspondents, for it would fill volumes to tell all that is interesting of these distinguished men. We shall not enter into his relations with his three Electors, those remarkable men, the first of whom founded Wittenberg University in 1502, to which Luther was called in 1508 through Staupitz, often called his spiritual father.

    Little did the good Frederick, with his great love of peace, dream that this modest High School, which was not to presume to vie with its accomplished sisters, Erfurt and Leipsic, and whose teachers were to be the monks in the Augustinian cloister, would one day set Germany ablaze and shake the Papal throne. Frederick never met Luther, wishing to remain unbiased on the great religious questions agitating the Empire. The second, John the Steadfast, was his warm friend; while the third, John Frederick, was his son in the faith, who, after Luther’s death, went into exile, accompanied by Lukas Cranach, for the gospel’s sake.

    Luther numbered kings and queens, princes and princesses, popes, painters, such as Albrecht Durer, poets like Coban Hesse, and warriors, as well as eminent humanists and theologians, among his correspondents; and he was as much interested in the smallest affairs of the smallest people as in the fate of empires.

    Melanchthon ranks first among Luther’s friends. Emil Frommel writes: “Even as our Savior sent out His disciples two and two, so has He ever done in later ages. The son of the miner and that of the smith stand close together in God’s kingdom. The one fetches the iron and coal out of the earth, the other polishes the weapons for warfare. Melanchthon was the great linguist of the Reformation. Luther glories in the ancient languages being the sheath in which the Word of God was hidden.”

    No one rejoiced in his great success as a lecturer more than Luther. “Perhaps I am Philip’s forerunner,” he writes, “the Elias to prepare the way for a greater, who will throw the servants of Israel and Ahab into confusion.” Melanchthon said: “I would rather die than separate from Luther.” When almost dead at Weimar in 1540 it was Luther’s prayers that raised him up. On February 19, 1546, Melanchthon, bathed in tears, announced Luther’s death to the students: “And now,” he cried,” we are like the forsaken orphans of a beloved father.”

    Spalatin may perhaps rank next in the portrait gallery of Luther’s friends.

    They were of the same age, and studied in Erfurt together. Spalatin was Court chaplain to Frederick the Wise, and eventually preacher in Altenburg. Of the 2,324 letters in De Wette, 415 were to Spalatin. More letters were therefore written to him than to any other, for Luther told him everything. Spalatin, though gifted with greater natural talents and a more finished education, had less insight and self-reliance than Luther, and was therefore glad to follow his guidance. As he sat in the Council of Princes between Frederick and Luther, and understood both men, it is difficult to overestimate his services to the Reformation. Spalatin died in 1545.

    Justus Jonas may be placed next. He was born in 1593. He took his doctor’s degree in Erfurt, then studied law in Wittenberg, and was professor and provost there. Jonas translated and defended Luther’s Ninety-five Theses. This was his first service to the Reformation. Jonas was an eloquent preacher, and on Sabbaths and Fast-days preached in the Stift’s and Schloss churches. “What learning Wittenberg contains, Erfurt is frosty in comparison,” he wrote to Coban Hesse. Jonas was at the head of the second Visitation; and in 1533 presided over the creation of the first Evangelical doctors, Bugenhagen, Cruciger, etc., at which the Elector John Frederick, with his wife Sibylla, our Anne of Cleve’s sister, were present.

    Later Jonas became superintendent in Halle. It was in Jonas’s church (in whose arms Luther may be said to have died) that Luther’s body lay over the Sabbath on the way from Eisleben. When announcing his death to the Elector, Jonas begged him to write a letter of consolation to Bugenhagen, for a great love bound all of them together. Melanchthon said: “Bugenhagen is a grammatiker, I am a dialectician, Jonas is an orator, only Luther surpasses us all.” After Luther’s death Jonas was exiled, and died at Eisfeld, 1555.

    Bugenhagen comes next. Born 1485, he studied in Greifswald, and was won to the truth by Luther’s Babylonian Captivity, and came to Wittenberg in 1521 to be near his master. He became pastor of the Stadt Kirche, where Luther often preached for him when he was absent on the Visitations. Bugenhagen had the gift of church organization, and introduced the Reformation into Hamburg, Lubeck, Pomerania, and Denmark, where in 1537 he crowned King Christian IV. and his Queen, like a true bishop, as Luther wrote.

    Next in order is the good pastor of Joachimsthal, Johann Matthesius, who was born in 1504, and boarded for years with Luther, where he was received into the circle of his dearest friends. In 1526 he became acquainted with Luther’s pamphlet on Good Works, “from which,” he says, “I learned the elements of Christianity.” Matthesius wrote the first complete and reliable life of Luther, a series of Sabbath evening lectures to his Bible class in 1562-64, one of the most charming books of Reformation times. In Lecture VII. Matthesius gives an interesting account of his first sojourn in Wittenberg, which was cut short in 1529 by the Marburg Conference. Although placed in a remote parish he knew all that was going on; for, he had friends in the great Reformation centers, Nurnberg, Strassburg, Regensburg, and even in Vienna. Melanchthon often wrote asking him for news, for letters were then the newspapers. One may gather that Matthesius was a person of note; for, over a hundred portraits of him still exist, two in the National Gallery in London. Matthesius died on October 8, 1565.

    Friedrich Myconius, the beloved Mecum of Luther’s letters, eventually first Evangelical superintendent in Gotha, was born in 1591 at Lichtenfels. His spiritual experience as a monk closely resembled Luther’s in Erfurt. In 1546 he related, as fresh as if it had happened the day before, how the way of salvation had been so far revealed to him in the now famous dream of July 14, 1510, on his first night in the Franciscan cloister in Annaberg, which he entered solely to serve God perfectly. But 1517 dawned before peace visited his soul. Little did the pious monk know, while groping after the light all these years, that another youth had already found the pearl of great price in the Augustinian cloister at Erfurt, and was to be the means of imparting it to multitudes. In 1518 the news that Luther was to sleep in the Barefoot cloister penetrated to Myconius’s cell in Weimar, but although under the same roof with him the poor priest was not to see him. Could he only have known how often he was to stand by Luther in days to come it might have stilled his aching heart. Myconius was at the Reformer’s bedside, along with his Elector, when Luther lay at death’s door in Schmalkalden, and, with Bugenhagen and Spalatin, accompanied him to Tambach, his “Peniel.”

    In 1539 Myconius was in London arranging religious matters by invitation of Henry VIII., who received the deputation warmly. But as months passed, the King’s courtiers warned the Embassy of the King’s duplicity, so negotiations were broken off. It was Luther’s beautiful letter of consolation to Myconius, when he was at the gates of death, that was the means of raising him up. He survived Luther a few months.

    Von Amsdorf, Professor in Wittenberg, and later Bishop of Naumburg, one of Luther’s most intimate friends, was the same age as Luther. He, with Caspar Cruciger, was the richest of the Reformers, the latter having a large house in Wittenberg and iron-works in Joachimsthal. Jonas once said at Luther’s table: “God be praised that pious theologians can also become rich!” “Ah!” cried Luther, “we would all be rich enough in the riches of Christ, but, alas, we prize an earthly treasure more.”

    Cruciger was professor in Wittenberg and preacher in the Schloss Kirche, and stood very close to Luther. He was the stenograph of the Reformation, writing many of Luther’s sermons. Often when Luther was ill and the others away on the Visitations and at Diets, Cruciger was the only theologian in the town. In 1533 he was rector of the University for six months. Luther loved him for his learning, piety, and modesty. Cruciger was also the most versatile of the Reformers. He was always delicate, and died after an illness of three months in 1548. The day before he died Cruciger finished Luther’s Last Words of David. Cruciger’s daughter married Luther’s son Johannes.

    Two of Luther’s lifelong friends were Link, with whom he was at school in Magdeburg, and John Lange, Luther’s fellow-student in Erfurt. In Lange’s church in Erfurt, still standing, the first Evangelical sermon was preached.

    Some of Luther’s most interesting letters in 1516-17 are to Lange, in one of which he says that he is cloister preacher, inspector of Leitzkau fishpond, daily lecturer in parish church, eleven times prior, expounder of St. Paul, lecturer on the Psalms, besides having most of his time taken up with letter-writing. But one has only to peruse Luther’s letters in order to see the number of his correspondents. He numbered Albrecht Durer and Erasmus, that monarch in the realm of letters, among them. In Luther’s letters the Reformer too is to be seen in all his moods; for, it has been truly said that Luther’s heart is seen in his letters, which he did not dream would see the light of day, while his talents may be seen from his other works. But these letters do not hide his faults, as those to Herzog George, of whom he said he would enter Leipzig if it rained Herzog Georges nine days running, and to the Archbishop Albrecht of Mayence, the prime mover in the Indulgences, also to Charles V., testify, but these all belong to history.

    It is interesting to note that Luther’s unalterable opinion of the Turk coincides with that of the Sultan’s greatest foes in this twentieth century, and then, as now, His Sultanic Majesty tried to propitiate his distinguished foe, but with less success than he often meets with in this enlightened age.

    From these letters may also be seen the two greatest blots on Luther’s career: the part he took in the peasant insurrection and in the Landgrave Philip’s double marriage. But Luther’s immense respect for constitutional authority, and his horror of insubordination, may partly explain the former, while the personal influence of his much loved Prince, who stood by him both at Worms and in the Augsburg days, may account for the latter; but both errors bore bitter fruit in days to come.

    Luther’s great breadth of view regarding ritual, vestments, etc., must interest many in the present day. But it will astonish them to see how immaterial he considered pictures, and candles burning on the altar, when compared with the pure preaching of the Word. The only advantage which he saw in these things was that they might arrest the attention of the illiterate, the weak-minded, and children, till their knowledge of Divine things increased.

    The Swiss divines, when in Wittenberg in 1536, were horrified at these relics of Popery, and it required all Bugenhagen’s assurances that no one now worshipped any picture, to pacify Bucer and Capito, who, like our own John Knox, put away everything tainted with Popery, while Luther retained all not expressly forbidden in the Bible. Before closing, the translator must acknowledge the debt due to the marvelous facilities afforded by those splendid continental libraries, the Koenigliche in Berlin, the Grand Ducal in Weimar, and the Johanneum in Hamburg, where even a stranger, by finding a guarantor, may take home an armful of volumes for a month; also for permission to consult Walch and De Wette in the Glasgow University Library.

    The translator would never have presumed to undertake what has proved an even more arduous task than she expected had there been a collection of Luther’s letters in English. There is no such collection. The small volume of his Letters to Women is all that exists. The reader’s kind indulgence is therefore claimed for all shortcomings.

    In the selection of the letters, those referred to in Koestlin’s Life and Works of Luther and in the lives of many of his friends were used; also an excellent collection of ninety-one letters by Dr. Buchwald published in 1898 was consulted, as well as Dr. Theodore Kolde’s excellent Life of Luther, published 1884, from which letters for insertion were selected.

    Of course the text-book all through has been De Wette. The letters have been rendered into the simplest English, as more in accordance with the original, and with Luther’s ideas in general. The following anecdote may show the reason for such rendering: — Complimenting Bucer when in Wittenberg in 1536 on his fine sermon, Luther said: “And yet I am a better preacher than you!” As Bucer cordially admitted this, Luther explained: “I did not mean it so, for I know my weakness, and could not preach so learnedly, but when I enter the pulpit, and see my audience before me, mostly ignorant peasants and Wends, I preach to them even as a mother feeds her babes with milk.” “And thus,” says Koestlin, “even in jest did Luther characterize his own preaching.” A few very long letters had to be shortened to include some interesting ones which might otherwise have been excluded. De Wette’s plan to make Luther’s letters an autobiography of his life has been so far followed in this collection. De Wette’s headings, with any interesting event bearing on the contents of the letter, are given in a head note. This has been done with a view to save the reader needless trouble, for even many highly educated people know little more of Luther’s career than can be gathered from visiting Eisleben, Eisenach, Erfurt, Wittenberg, Worms, and Augsburg.

    Should these letters throw new light upon the life of the great Reformer and the Reformation, or impart a fresh interest to a future foreign tour, or cast a halo over less known haunts of the Reformer, such as Coburg, Weimar, Gotha, Jena, Schmalkalden, Mohra, Tambach, Grimma, Dessau, and Halle, so rich in memories of Luther and his friends, then they have not been translated in vain; for, to Luther as much as to his spiritual guide, Tauler, do Goethe’s words apply — The ground is hallowed where the good man treads.

    When centuries have rolled, his sons shall hear The deathless echo of his words and deeds.

    M. A. C. GLASGOW.

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