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WORKS OF MARTIN LUTHER -
AN OPEN LETTER CONCERNING THE HARD BOOK AGAINST THE PEASANTS - INTRODUCTION
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The tract Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants was published before the middle of May, but by the time that it had gained wide circulation the Peasants’ War was practically at an end. Once more events had moved so swiftly that Luther’s utterances were untimely. Before May 15th the backbone of the insurrection had been broken in Swabia, Franconia, and Thuringia. In Alsace, the Odenwald, and the Palatinate the defeat of the peasants was slower in coming, but there were few localities in which the lords had not won their decisive victories before June 5th. The peasants were at the mercy of the governments against which they had risen in revolt, and on which, during their short period of success, they had wreaked revenge for the wrongs that they had long endured. This time it was the rulers who were ruthless. In their hour of victory they sated a veritable lust for blood, under the guise of exemplary punishment. Luther’s tract seemed to be a defense of their cruelties, though it was composed in a wholly different situation. Luther’s utterances gave great offense, not only to those who had sympathized with the hopes of the peasants, but to many of his own friends and followers. On May 30th, he wrote to Amsdorf, “The time will come, perhaps, when I, too, can say, ‘All ye shall be offended this night because of me’.” His intimate friend, John Ruehl, had written him on May 26th, “To many of those who are favorable to you it is a strange thing that you allow the tyrants to slay without mercy and say that they can become martyrs.” On all sides he was accused of harshness and sycophancy. In this situation, it was apparent that he must speak again. He did so in a sermon preached at Wittenberg on Pentecost; he spoke to a larger audience in this Open Letter.
The date of its composition is uncertain. The earliest reference to its publication is in a letter of Spalatin’s from which we gather that he was sending out copies of it on August 1st. That would throw the date of composition into the early part of July. The fact that it is addressed to Kaspar Mueller, who was a member of the party that came up from Mansfeld to help celebrate Luther’s wedding (June 27th), and the additional fact that in his letter of invitation to his Mansfeld friends (June 15th) he makes no reference to it, point to the conclusion that it was written after June 27th. In the Open letter Luther upholds the views that he had expressed in the Admonition to Peace and in the tract against the peasants. He maintains that there is no excuse for insurrection and armed rebellion. On the other hand, he declares that the severe treatment which the lords are inflicting on those who have surrendered cannot be justified, and the conclusion of the work condemns unsparingly “the furious, raving, senseless tyrants, who even after the battle cannot get their fill of blood.”
The text of the Open Letter is found in Weimar Ed. 18:384-401. Erlangen Ed. 24:295-319; St. Louis Ed., 16:77-98; Clemen, 3:75-93; Berlin Ed. 7:358-82. The translation follows Clemen.
For literature, see Introduction to the Admonition to Peace, above p. 209, and K.MUELLER, Kirche, Gemeinde und Obrigkeit nach Luther (1910). CHARLES M. JACOBS. MOUNT AIRY, PHILADELPHIA.
AN OPEN LETTER CONCERNING THE HARD BOOK AGAINST THE PEASANTS
To the honorable and wise Caspar Mueller, Chancellor of Mansfeld, my good friend. Grace and peace in Christ.
I have been obliged to answer your letter in a printed book, because the little book that I published against the peasants has given rise to so many complaints and questions, as though it were unchristian and too hard. To be sure, I had intended to stop my ears, and let the blind, unthankful creatures who seek in me nothing but causes of offense smother in their own vexation until they had to rot, since they have got so little improvement from my other books that they cannot accept such a plain, simple judgment upon earthly things. For I remembered the word of Christ in John 3:12, “If ye believe not when I speak of earthly things, how shall ye believe when I speak of heavenly things?” And when the disciples asked, “Knowest thou that the Pharisees are offended at this saying?” He said, “Let them be offended; they are blind and leaders of the blind” ( Matthew 15:14).
They cry and boast, “There, there you see Luther’s spirit! He teaches bloodshed without mercy. He must be the devil’s mouthpiece.” Ah, well, if I were not used to being judged and condemned, this might move me; but I am not conscious of any pride that is greater than my pride in this, that my work and teaching must at first suffer reverses and be crucified. No one is satisfied unless he can condemn Luther. Luther is the target of contradiction. Everyone has to win his spurs against him and carry off the honors of the tournament. In these matters everybody else has a higher spirit than I, and I must needs be altogether fleshly. Would God that they had a higher spirit! I would then gladly be a man of flesh indeed, and say, as St. Paul to his Corinthians, “Ye are rich; ye are full; ye reign without us.” But I fear it is all too true that they have a high spirit, for I have not as yet seen them undertake very much that does not bring them to sin and shame.
But they do not see how they stumble, when they thus pass judgment on me, and how, by their contradicting, they reveal the thoughts of their hearts, as Simeon says of Christ in Luke 2:34. They say that they note well what kind of a spirit I have; I, too, note how splendidly they have grasped and learned the Gospel. They have, in fact, not a spark of knowledge of it, and yet they babble much about it. How can they know what heavenly righteousness in Christ may be, according to the Gospel, when they do not know what earthly righteousness in rulers is, according to the law? Such people are not worthy to hear a single word or see a single work that might make them better; but they ought to have nothing but offense, as the Jews had in Christ, because their hearts are so full of wicked wiles that they desire nothing more than to be offended, so that they may fare according to the saying in Psalm 18:27, “With the froward thou wilt show thyself froward,” and in Deuteronomy 32:21, “I will move them to jealousy with those that are not a people; I will provoke them to anger with a foolish nation.”
This was the reason why I wanted to keep silent, and let them stumble unconcernedly on, and take offense, until they received their deserts, and their hearts were hardened and their eyes blinded by sheer offense, and they went to destruction — these people who have hitherto learned nothing from the great, clear light of the Gospel, which has shone so lavishly everywhere; who have made so little of the fear of God that they think nothing “evangelical” except to despise and judge others, and to consider themselves great in spirit and lofty of understanding; and who from the doctrine of humility take nothing but pride, like the spider, which sucks only poison out of the rose. You seek an explanation, however, not for yourself but to stop the mouths of these useless fellows. I suspect that you are undertaking a vain and impossible task; for who can stop the mouth of a fool? His heart is crammed with folly, and that which fills the heart must overflow the lips. Nevertheless, because you ask it, I will do you this vain and lost service.
First of all, then, I must warn those who criticize my book that they ought to hold their tongues and have a care lest they make a mistake and lose their own heads; for they are certainly rebels at heart, and Solomon says, “My son, fear thou the Lord and the king, and mingle not with the rebellious; for their calamity shall rise suddenly, and who knoweth the ruin of them both?” There we see that both rebels and those who mingle with them are condemned, and God will not have it made a jest, but king and government are to be feared. But they who are “mingling with the rebellious” are those who take their part, lament over them, justify them, and show mercy to those on whom God has no mercy, but whom He will have punished and destroyed. For the man who thus takes the part of the rebels makes it perfectly plain that he, too, if he had opportunity, would cause disaster, as he has determined in his heart. The rulers, therefore, ought to seize these people by the cap and make them hold their tongues and note that this is a serious matter.
If they think this answer too hard, and that this is talking violence and only shutting men’s mouths, I reply that this is right. A rebel is not worth answering with arguments, for he does not accept them. The answer for such mouths is a fist that brings sweat from the nose. The peasants would not listen; they would not let anyone tell them anything; their ears must be unbuttoned with bullets, till their heads jump off their shoulders. Such pupils need such a rod. He who will not hear God’s Word, when it is spoken with kindness, must listen to the headsman, when he comes with his axe. If it is said that in this I am uncharitable and unmerciful, I answer, “This is not a question of mercy; we are talking of God’s Word. It is His will that the king be honored and rebels destroyed; and He is as merciful as we are.”
Of mercy I will neither hear nor know anything, but give heed to God’s will in His Word. Therefore my little book will be right, and will remain so, though the whole world take offense at it. What care I that you do not like it, if God likes it? If He will have wrath, and not mercy, what have you to do with mercy? Did not Saul sin by showing mercy upon Amalek, when he failed to execute God’s wrath, as he had been commanded? Did not Ahab sin, when he had mercy on the King of Syria, and let him live, contrary to God’s word? If you wish for mercy, then do not “mingle with the rebellious,” but fear the powers that be, and do good; if you do evil, then be afraid, for, says Paul, “He beareth not the sword in vain.”
This ought to be answer enough to all who take offense at my book and make it useless. Is it not right for a man to hold his tongue, when he hears that God says this, and that this is God’s will? Or is God bound to give reasons to such empty babblers, and tell them why this is His will? I had thought that the mere wink of His eye would be enough to put every creature to silence, much more a word of His. There stands God’s Word, “My son, fear God and the king; if not, thy calamity will come quickly”; and Romans 12, “He that resisteth the ordinance of God, will receive judgment.” Why is not St. Paul merciful? If we are to preach God’s Word, we must preach the word that declares His wrath, as well as that which declares His mercy; we must preach of hell as well as of heaven, and help extend God’s Word and judgment and work over both the righteous and the wicked, so that the wicked may be punished and the good protected.
And yet, in order that the righteous God may hold His own against these His judges, and His decree be found just and sure, we shall undertake to advocate His Word against these blasphemers and show the reason for His divine will, and light two candles for the devil. They throw it up to me that Christ teaches, “Be ye merciful as your Father is merciful”; and again, “I will have mercy and not sacrifice”; and again, “The Son of Man is come not to destroy souls, but to save them”; etc. Here they think they have hit the nail on the head. “Luther ought to have taught that we should have mercy on the peasants, and he teaches, instead, that we should kill them out of hand. What do you think of that? Let us see whether Luther will jump that ditch! I think he is caught.” Thank you, my dear masters. If these high spirits had not taught me, how would I ever have known this or found it out? How should I know that God demands mercy, — I, who have taught and written more about mercy than any other man in a thousand years?
This is the devil himself. He wants to do all the evil that he can, and so he stirs up good and pious hearts and tempts them with things like this, so that they may not see how black he is, and tries to deck himself out in a reputation for mercy. But it will not help him! My good friends, you who are praising mercy so highly because the peasants are beaten, why did you not praise it when the peasants were raging, smiting, robbing, burning, and plundering, until they were terrible to men’s eyes and ears? Why were they not merciful to the princes and lords, whom they wanted to wipe out entirely? No one spoke of mercy then. Everything was “rights”; nothing was said of mercy; it was nothing. “Rights, rights, rights!” they were everything. Now that they are beaten, and the stone that they threw at heaven is falling back on their own heads, no one is to say anything of rights, but speak only of mercy.
And yet they are stupid enough to think that no one notices the rascal behind it! Ah, no! You are in plain sight, you black, ugly devil! You praise mercy, not because you are in earnest about it and love mercy, or you would have praised it to the peasants; but because you are afraid for your own skin, and would use the appearance and reputation of mercy in order to escape God’s rod and punishment. Not so, dear fellow! You must take your turn, and die without mercy. St. Paul says, “If thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for the power beareth not the sword in vain, but for the wrath of God upon him that doeth evil.” You would do evil and not suffer the wrath, but cover yourself up with a reputation for mercy. Come back tomorrow and we shall bake you a little cake. Who cannot do this?
Suppose I were to break into a man’s house, rape his wife and daughters, break open his coffers, take his money, set a sword to his breast, and say, “If you will not put up with this, I shall run you through, for you are a godless wretch”; then if a crowd gathered and were about to kill me, or if the judge ordered my head off, suppose I were to cry out, “Ei, Christ teaches that you are to be merciful and not kill me”; what would people say? That is exactly what my peasants and peasants’ advocates are doing now. Now that they have done their own sweet will upon their lords, like robbers, murderers, thieves, and scalawags, we are to have a song about mercy, and say, “Be merciful, as Christ teaches, and let us rage, as the devil teaches: do good to us, and let us do our worst to you; be satisfied with what we have done and call it right, and call what you are doing wrong.”
Who could not do that? If that is mercy, then we shall start a pretty state of affairs; we shall have no sword, ruler, punishment, hangman, or prison, and let every knave do as he pleases; then, when he is to be punished, we shall sing, “Ei, be merciful, as Christ teaches.” That would be fine law! There you see what they have in mind who condemn my book as though it denied mercy. They are certainly good peasants, rebels, and regular blood-dogs, or else they have been led astray by them; for they would like all wickedness to go unpunished, while under the name of mercy, they are the most merciless and cruel destroyers of the whole world, so far as it is in their power to be. “Nay,” say they, “we do not justify the peasants and would not prevent their punishment, but it seems wrong to us for you to teach that no mercy should be shown the poor peasants; for you say that they ought to be slain without mercy.” I answer that if you really mean that, I am all golden. But all this is merely a cloak for your bloodthirsty self-will, which takes secret delight in the ways of the peasants. Where have I ever taught that no mercy should be shown? In that self-same book do I not beg the rulers to show grace to those who surrender? Why do you not open your eyes and read it? Then it would not have been necessary for you to damn my book, and take offense at it. But you are so full of poison that you seize upon the one bit of it in which I say that those who will not surrender or listen ought to be killed without mercy; and pass by the rest of it, in which I say that those who surrender are to be shown grace. Everybody can see that you are a spider that sucks poison from the rose. It is not true that you condemn the peasants, or that you love mercy, but you would like to see wickedness free and unpunished, and the temporal sword brought to nought. Nevertheless, you will not accomplish it.
So much for the unchristian and merciless bloodhounds who praise the sayings about mercy in order that sheer wickedness and mercilessness may rule in the world as they please! To the others, whom they have led astray, or who are so weak that they cannot compare my book with the words of Christ, I have this to say: There are two kingdoms, one the kingdom of God, the other the kingdom of the world. I have written this so often that I am surprised that there is anyone who does not know it or note it. One who knows how to distinguish rightly between these two kingdoms will certainly not be offended at my little book, and will also have a right understanding of the sayings about mercy. God’s kingdom is a kingdom of grace and mercy, not of wrath and punishment. In it there is only forgiveness, consideration for one another, love, service, the doing of good, peace, joy, etc. But the kingdom of the world is a kingdom of wrath and severity. In it there is only punishment, repression, judgment, and condemnation, for the suppressing of the wicked and the protection of the good. For this reason it has the sword, and a prince or lord is called in Scripture God’s wrath, or God’s rod (Isaiah 14).
The words of Scripture that speak of mercy apply to the kingdom of God and to Christians, not to the kingdom of the world, for it is a Christian’s duty not only to be merciful, but to endure every kind of suffering — robbery, arson, murder, devil and hell. It goes without saying that he is to smite, slay and recompense no one. But the kingdom of the world is nothing else than the servant of God’s wrath upon the wicked, and is a real precursor of hell and everlasting death. It should not be merciful, but strict, severe and wrathful in the fulfillment of its work and duty. Its tool is not a wreath of roses or a flower of love, but a naked sword; and a sword is a symbol of wrath, severity and punishment. It is turned only against the wicked, to hold them in check and keep them at peace, and to protect and save the righteous. Therefore God decrees, in the law of Moses and in Exodus 22, where He institutes the sword, “Thou shalt take the murderer even from mine altar, and shalt not have mercy on him,” and the Epistle to the Hebrews confesses that he who acts against the law shall die without mercy. This shows that in the exercise of their office, worldly rulers cannot and ought not be merciful, though out of grace, they may give their office a holiday.
Now he who would confuse these two kingdoms — as our false fanatics do — would put wrath into God’s kingdom and mercy into the world’s kingdom; and that is the same as putting the devil in heaven and God in hell. Both of these things these sympathizers with the peasants would like to do. First they wanted to go to work with the sword, fight for the Gospel as “Christian brethren,” and kill other people, when it was these others’ duty to be merciful and patient. Now that the kingdom of the world has overcome them, they want to have mercy in it; that is to say, they would endure no worldly kingdom, but would not grant God’s kingdom to anyone. Can you imagine anything more perverse? Not so, dear friends! If one has deserved wrath in the kingdom of the world, let him submit, and either take his punishment, or humbly sue for pardon; those who are in God’s kingdom ought to have mercy on everyone and pray for everyone, and yet not hinder the kingdom of the world in the maintenance of its rights and the performance of its duty, but rather assist it.
Although the severity of the world’s kingdom seems unmerciful, nevertheless, when we see it rightly, it is not the smallest of God’s mercies.
Let everyone think this over and give his own judgment on the following case. Suppose I had a wife and children, a house, servants, and property, and a thief or murderer fell upon me, killed me in my own house, ravished my wife and children, took all that I had, and went unpunished, so that he could do the same thing again, when he wished. Tell me, who would be more in need of mercy in such a case, I or the thief and murderer? Without doubt it would be I who would need most that people should have mercy on me. But how can this mercy be shown to me and my poor, miserable wife and children, except by suppressing such a knave, and protecting me and maintaining my rights, or, if he will not be suppressed and keeps on, by giving him his just dues, and punishing him, so that he must stop it? What fine mercy to me it would be, if we were to have mercy on the thief and murderer, and let him kill, and abuse and rob me!
That kind of mercy which rules and acts through the temporal sword, these peasants’ advocates do not consider. They open their eyes and their mouths upon the wrath and the severity only, and say that we are flattering the furious princes and lords, when we teach that they are to punish the wicked. And yet they are themselves ten times worse flatterers of the murderous knaves and wicked peasants; nay, they are bloodthirsty murderers, rebels at heart, for they have no mercy on those whom the peasants overthrew, robbed, dishonored, and subjected to all kinds of injustice. For if the intentions of the peasants had been carried out, no honest man would have been safe from them, but whoever had a pfennig more than another would have had to suffer for it. They had already begun that, and it would not have stopped there; women and children would have been put to shame; they would have taken to killing each other, too, and there would have been no peace or safety anywhere. Has anything been heard of that is more unrestrained than a mob of peasants when they are fed full and have got power? As Solomon says, in Proverbs 30, “Such people the world cannot bear.”
On such people are we now to have mercy above others, and let them rage on as they please with everyone’s body, life, wife, children, honor and property? Are we to leave them unpunished, and allow the innocent to perish shamefully before our very eyes, without mercy or help or comfort?
I hear constant reports that the Bamberg peasants were offered more than they asked, provided only they would keep the peace, and they would not.
Margrave Casimir, too, promised his peasants that whatever others won with strife and rebellion, he would give them out of free grace; but that did not help either. It is well known that the Franconian peasants, out of sheer wantonness, planned nothing else than robbing, burning, breaking, and destroying. It is my own experience with the Thuringian peasants that the more they were exhorted and instructed, the more obstinate, the prouder, the madder they became. Their attitude everywhere was so wanton and defiant that it seemed as though they really wanted to be slain without grace or mercy. They scornfully defied God’s wrath, and now it is coming upon them, as the 108 Psalm says, “They would not have grace, and now it is far away from them.”
The Scriptures, therefore, have fine, clear eyes and see the temporal sword aright. They see that out of great mercy, it must be unmerciful, and from utter kindliness, it must exercise wrath and severity. As Peter and Paul say, it is God’s servant for vengeance, wrath, and punishment upon the wicked, but for the protection, praise, and honor of the righteous. It looks upon the righteous and has mercy on them, and in order that they may not suffer, it guards, bites, stabs, cuts, hews, and slays, as has been commanded it by God, whose servant it knows itself to be, even in this. This punishing of the wicked without grace does not occur for its own sake, because the punishment of the wicked is a thing to seek after, not in order that the evil desires that are in their blood may be atoned for, but in order that the righteous may be protected, and peace and safety maintained. And beyond all doubt, these are precious works of mercy, love, and kindness, since there is nothing on earth that is worse than disturbance, insecurity, oppression, violence, and injustice. Who could or would stay alive, if such things were the rule? Therefore the wrath and severity of the sword is just as necessary to a people as eating and drinking, nay, as life itself. “Nay,” say they, “we are not talking about the obdurate peasants who are unwilling to surrender, but of those who have been beaten, or who have given themselves up. To them the princes ought to show mercy, and not treat them so cruelly.” I answer; You cannot be a good man if you slander my little book and say that I speak in it of such conquered peasants, or of those who have surrendered, whereas I made it plain that I was speaking of those who were first approached in a friendly way, and would not. All my words were against the obdurate, hardened, blinded peasants, who would neither see nor hear, as anyone may see who reads them; and yet you say that I advocate the slaughter of the poor captured peasants without mercy.
If you are going to read books this way and interpret them as you please, what book will have any chance with you? Therefore, as I wrote them so I write now; On the obstinate, hardened, blinded peasants, let no one have mercy, but let everyone, as he is able, hew, stab, slay, lay about him as though among mad dogs, in order that, by so doing, he may show mercy to those who are ruined, driven away, and led astray by these peasants, so that peace and safety may be maintained. It is better to cut off one member without mercy than to have the whole body perish by fire, or by disease.
How do you like that? Am I still a preacher of the Gospel who advocates grace and mercy? If you think I am not, it makes little difference, for you are a bloodhound and a rebellious murderer and destroyer of the country, you and your rebellious peasants, whom you are flattering in their rebellion.
They say further, that the peasants have slain nobody as they are being slain. What shall be said to that? What a splendid argument! They have slain nobody! That was because people had to do what they wanted! They threatened to kill those who would not go along with them; they laid hold of the sword that did not belong to them; they attacked property, houses, and possessions. Arguing this way, a thief and murderer, who took from me what he wanted by threatening me with death, would be no murderer.
If they had done what they were kindly asked to do, they would not have been killed; when they were not willing to do it, it was right to do to them what they themselves had done, or threatened to do, to those who did not agree with them. Besides, it is plain that they are faithless, perjured, disobedient, rebellious thieves, robbers, murderers, and blasphemers, and there is not one of them who has not deserved ten times over to suffer death without mercy. We are not seeing this thing straight. We see only the punishment, and how it hurts, and not the guilt and the deserts, and the unspeakable injury and ruin that was sure to follow. If the punishment hurts, cease to do evil. Paul gives the same answer to this kind of folk when he says, in Romans 13:3, “Wilt thou not be afraid of the sword, do that which is good; but if thou do evil, be afraid.”
They say in the third place, that the lords are misusing their sword and slaying too cruelly. I answer: What has that to do with my book? Why lay others’ guilt on me? If they are misusing their power, they have not learned it from me; and they will have their reward. For the Supreme Judge, who is using them to punish the self-willed peasants, has not forgotten them either, and they will not escape Him. My book speaks not of what the lords deserve, but of what the peasants deserve. When I have time and occasion to do so, I shall attack the princes and lords, too, for in my office of teacher, a prince is just the same to me as a peasant. I have already done them certain services which .have not made me overpopular with them; but that matters little to me. I have One who is greater than all of them, as John says.
If my first advice, given when the rebellion was just beginning, had been followed, and a peasant, or a hundred of them had been knocked down so that the rest would have tripped over them, and if they had not been allowed to get the upper hand many thousands of them, who now have to die, would have been saved, for they would have stayed at home. That would have been a needful deed of mercy, performed with little wrath; now it is necessary to use so much severity, because there are so many of them to control.
But God’s will has been done, in order to teach both sides a lesson. First, the peasants had to learn that things had been too easy for them and that they were not able to stand prosperity and peace. They had to learn that hereafter they ought to thank God if they have to give up only one cow in order to enjoy the other cow in peace; for it is always better to possess the half of one’s property in peace and safety, than to have the whole of it and be at every instant in danger of thieves and murderers, since that way we have it not at all. The peasants did not know what a precious thing it is to be in peace and safety and to enjoy one’s food and drink in happiness and security, and so they did not thank God for it. He had to take this way to teach them, and relieve their itch. To the lords, on the other hand, this thing was useful, too. They have found out what is behind the rabble and how far they are to be trusted, so that they might learn henceforth to rule justly and put their lands and roads in order. There was no longer either government or order; it had all been given up. There was no longer any fear or reverence among the people; everybody did as he pleased; no one wanted to give anything, but everyone wanted to revel, drink, dress up, and be idle, as though every man were a lord. The ass will have blows, and the people will be ruled by force; God knew that full well, and so He gave the rulers, not a feather-duster, but a sword.
Not the smallest of the objections that they conjure up is that there have been among the peasants many righteous folk, who got there innocently and under compulsion, and that injustice is done in the sight of God when they are executed. I answer: They are talking like people who have never heard a single word of God’s, and therefore my reply must be such as I would give to heathen or to children; so little has been accomplished among the people by all the books and sermons!
I say, in the first place, that no injustice is done to those who have been compelled by the peasants. Not a Christian stayed among them, and these men did not get among them innocently, as they pretend. It does appear, indeed, as though they were suffering injustice, but it is not so. Tell me, my dear friend, if a man killed your father and mother, dishonored your wife and children, burned your house, and took your money and everything that you had, and then said that he had to do it because he had been forced to it, — what kind of an excuse would that be? Who has ever heard that anyone can be compelled to do good or evil? Who can compel a man’s will? O, it does not hold water, it does not fit, when a man says, “I have to do wrong; I am forced to it.” To deny Christ and the Word of God is a great sin and wrong, and many are forced to do it, but do you think that that excuses them? Likewise, to raise an insurrection, to become disobedient and faithless to rulers, to perjure oneself, to rob and burn, — that is a great wrong, and some of the peasants were forced to do it; but how does that help them? Why do they let themselves be forced? “Nay,” say they, “but they threatened to take my life and my property.” Ei, my dear fellow, to keep your life and property, you are willing to break God’s commandments, kill me, and ravish my wife and children; but how did God and I come to that? Would you be willing to suffer the same things at my hands? If you had been so compelled that the peasants bound you hand and foot, and carried you along by force, and you had defended yourself with your mouth, and rebuked them for doing it, and your heart had thus confessed and borne witness that it was unwilling and refused to consent, then your honor would have been preserved; you would have been compelled in body, but uncompelled in will. But, as it is, you keep silent and do not rebuke them; you go along with the crowd and do not make your unwillingness known, and thus it helps you nothing. This has gone on too long for you now to say that you were unwilling. You ought to have feared and heeded God’s commandment more than men, even at the risk of danger or of death. He would not have deserted you, but would have stood by you faithfully, rescued you, and helped you. Therefore, as they are damned who deny God, even though they are forced to do it, so it is no excuse for the peasants that they have let themselves be forced.
If that excuse were to pass, there would be no more punishment of sin or crime; for where is there a sin to which the devil, the flesh, and the world do not drive us and, as it were, force us? Do you not think that there are times when a wicked lust drives men to adultery with a raging fever that may well be considered a greater compulsion than that which drove a peasant into revolt? Who is lord of his own heart? Who can resist the devil and the flesh? It is not possible, indeed, for us to ward off the lightest sin, for the Scriptures say that we are captives of the devil, as though he were our prince and god, so that we have to do what he wills and what he puts into our hearts. There are some terrible stories to prove this. Ought it therefore to go unpunished and be thought right? Not so! It is our duty to call God to our aid, and to resist sin and wrong. If you die or suffer for it, well for you! Your soul is blessed before God and highly honored by the world! But if you yield and obey, you must die anyhow, and your death is shameful before God and the world, because you have allowed yourself to be forced to wrongdoing. Thus it would be better to die with honor and blessedness, in praise of God, than to have to die with shame, in punishment and pain. “Good God!” you say. “If only we had known that!” Good God, I answer, how can I help it? Ignorance is no excuse. Ought not a Christian to know what is to be known? Why do they not learn? Why do they not support good preachers? They want to be ignorant. The Gospel has come into Germany; many persecute it, few desire it, fewer accept it, and those who do accept are so lax and lazy that they let the schools go to ruin, and the parishes and pulpits go down. No one gives any thought to maintaining the Gospel and training the people, and everywhere it seems as though it hurt us to learn anything and as though we wanted to know nothing. What wonder is it, then, if God visits us, and lets us see a bit of the punishment that follows the despising of His Gospel, a sin of which we all are guilty (for even though some of us are innocent of this rebellion, we have deserved worse things), in order to warn us and drive us to school, so that we may get some sense and some knowledge.
How is it in war time, when the innocent must go forth with the guilty, nay, when it seems that it goes hardest with the innocent, who must become widows and orphans? These are plagues that God sends upon us. They are well deserved, and one of us must suffer them with the rest, if we are to live together, as the proverb says, “One is guilty of one’s neighbor’s fire.” One who lives in a community must do his share in bearing and suffering the community’s burdens, dangers, and injuries, even though, not he, but his neighbor has caused them: He must do this in the same way that he enjoys the peace, profit, protection, wealth, freedom, and convenience of the community, even though he has not won them or brought them into being. He must learn to sing with Job, and so comfort himself, “Have we received good from the hand of the Lord, and shall we not also bear the evil?” So many good days are worth a bad hour, and so many good years are worth a bad day, or year. For a long time we have had peace and good days, until we became presumptuous and sensitive, did not know what peace and good days meant, and did not once thank God for them; now we have to learn.
It is my advice that we abstain from complaining and murmuring and thank God that, by His grace and mercy, no greater misfortune has befallen us, such as the devil was minded to bring about through the peasants. That is what Jeremiah did. When the Jews were driven out and captured and slain, he comforted himself, and said, “It is of the Lord’s grace and goodness that we are not entirely destroyed.” We Germans are much worse than the Jews, and yet we have not been driven out and slain, as they were; but we want to murmur and become impatient and justify ourselves. We are so unwilling to have a part of us slain that God’s wrath against us may increase and He may let us go to destruction, remove His hand, and give us over entirely to the devil. We are acting as we mad Germans always do.
We know nothing about God, and talk about these things as though there were no God who does them and wills that they be done. It is our intention not to suffer at all, but to be nobles, who can sit on cushions and do as they please.
For that is what you would have seen if this devil’s business of the peasants had gone on and God had not thus warded them off by the sword, in answer to the prayers of pious Christians. Throughout all Germany things would have gone as they are going now with those who are being killed and destroyed; only it would have been much worse. No one would have been safe from another; any man might have killed another, burned down his house and home, and ravished his wife and children. For this business did not start with God; there was no order in it; it had already come to a pass where none of them trusted or believed another; they deposed one captain after another; and things were done, not as honest men would have had them done, but according to the wishes of the vilest knaves. The devil had it in mind to lay all Germany utterly waste, because there was no other way by which he could suppress the Gospel. Who knows what will yet happen, if we keep on with our murmuring and ingratitude? God can let the peasants go mad again, or release upon us some other plague, so that things may become even worse than they are now. I think that this has been a good strong warning and threat. If we neglect it, and are not converted, and fear God, let us beware of what may come to us, lest this shall prove to have been only a jest, with the serious thing to follow.
Finally, it may be said, “You yourself teach rebellion, for you say that everyone who can shall hew and thrust among the rebels, and that, in this case, everyone is both supreme judge and executioner.” I answer: My little book was not written against simple evil-doers, but against rebels. You must make a very, very great distinction between a rebel and a thief, or a murderer, or any other kind of evil-doer. For a murderer, or other evil- doer, lets the head of the government alone, and attacks only the members or their property; nay, he fears the ruler. So long as the head remains, no one ought to attack such a murderer, because the head can punish him, but everyone ought to await the judgment and command of the head, to whom God has committed the sword and the office of punishment. But a rebel attacks the head himself and interferes with his sword and his office, and therefore his crime is not to be compared with that of a murderer. We cannot wait until the head gives commands and passes judgment, for the head is himself captured and beaten and cannot give them, but everyone who can must run, uncalled and unbidden, and as a true member, help to rescue his head by thrusting, hewing, and killing, and risk his life and goods for the head’s sake.
I must make that clear by a simple comparison. Suppose I were some lord’s servant, and saw his enemy running upon him with a naked sword, and it was in my power to keep him off, but I stood still and let my lord be shamefully slain. Tell me, what would God and the world say of me?
Would they not have a right to say that I was an utter rogue and traitor, and must certainly be in league with the enemy? But if I were to leap between my lord and his enemy, and risk my body for my lord, and run his enemy through, would that not be an honorable and honest deed, and be praised and lauded before God and the world? Or, if I myself were to be run through in doing it, how could I die a more Christian death? I would be dying in the true service of God, so far as what I was doing is concerned, and if I had faith, I would be a true, holy martyr of God. But if I wanted to excuse myself, and said that I was keeping quiet until my lord should bid me defend him, what effect would that excuse have, except to earn me double blame, and make me worthy of all men’s curses, as one who was jesting in the face of such wickedness? Did not Christ Himself praise this kind of thing in the Gospel, and make it right for servants to fight for their lords, when He stood before Pilate and said, “If my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight for me, that I might not be delivered to the Jews?” There you see that before God and the world it is right for servants to fight for their lords; otherwise what would worldly government be?
See, now! A rebel is a man who runs upon his head and lord with naked sword. No one should wait, then, until his lord bids him prevent it, but the first who can ought to run in and stab the rascal unbidden, and not worry whether he is committing murder; for he has only kept off an arch- murderer, who wanted to murder the whole land. Nay, if he does not thrust and slay, but lets his lord be run through, he too is an arch-murderer; for he must then remember that, because his lord suffers and is down, he is himself, in that case, lord and judge and executioner. For rebellion is no jest, and there is no evil deed on earth that compares with it. Other wicked deeds are single acts; rebellion is a Noah’s flood of wickedness.
I am called a clergyman and have the office of the Word, but if I were the servant even of a Turk and saw my lord in danger, I would forget my spiritual office and thrust and hew as long as I had a heartbeat left. If I were slain in so doing, I should go straight to heaven. For rebellion is a crime that deserves neither court nor mercy, whether it be among heathen, Jews, Turks, Christians, or any other people; it is already heard, judged, condemned, and sentenced to death at anybody’s hands. There is nothing to do about it, except to kill quickly, and give the rebel his deserts. No murderer does so much evil, and none deserves so much evil. For a murderer commits a penal offense, and lets the penalty stand; but a rebel tries to make wickedness free and unpunishable, and attacks the punishment itself. Moreover, in these times he gives the Gospel a bad reputation with its enemies, who blame the Gospel for this rebellion and open their slanderous mouths wide enough in slandering it, although this does not excuse them; and they know better. Christ will smite them, too, in His own time.
See, then, whether I was not right when I said, in my little book, that we ought to slay the rebels without any mercy. I did not teach, however, that mercy ought not to be shown to the captives and those who have surrendered. They accuse me of having said it, but my book proves the opposite. It was not my intention, either, to strengthen the raging tyrants, or to praise their raving. For I hear that some of my knightlets are treating the poor people with unmeasured cruelty, and are very bold and defiant, as though they had won the victory and were firmly in the saddle. They are not seeking the punishment and the improvement of the rebellion, but they are satisfying their furious self-will and cooling a rage, which they, perhaps, have long nursed, thinking that they have now got a chance and a cause for it. Especially are they now setting themselves with complete assurance against the Gospel; seeking to restore the endowed places and the monasteries, and to keep the crown on the pope; confounding our cause with that of the rebels. But soon they will reap what now they are sowing.
He that sitteth on high sees them, and He will come before they expect Him. Their plans will fail, as they have failed before; this I know.
In the same book I said that these are strange times, when a man can earn heaven with slaughter and bloodshed. “God help us. Luther forgot himself that time! He taught before that a man must obtain grace and salvation by faith alone, and not by works, and here he ascribes salvation, not only to works, but even to the frightful work of bloodshed! The Rhine is on fire at last!” Dear God, how closely they seek me! How they lie in wait for me!
But it is of no use! I hope I may be allowed to use the words and expressions, not only of the common people, but also of the Scriptures.
Does not Christ say in Matthew 5:11, “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” and “Blessed are ye when ye are persecuted, for great is your reward in heaven”? In Matthew 25:35, does He not reward works of mercy, etc.? And yet it remains true that works avail nothing before God, but only faith avails. How that is, I have told in many of my writings, and especially in the Sermon on the Unrighteous Mammon, if there is anyone who is not satisfied with that, let him keep on being offended as long as he lives. As for the fact that I made bloodshed such a precious work, the passage in my book shows plainly that I was speaking of worldly rulers who are Christians, and who are doing their duty in a Christian way, especially when they are moving to battle against the rebel bands. If they are not doing right in shedding blood and fulfilling the duty of their office, then Samuel, David, and Samson must have done wrong when they punished evil-doers, and shed blood. If that kind of bloodshed is not good and right, then we ought to let the sword alone, and be “free brethren” and do as we like.
I beg earnestly that you, and everyone, will look at my book fairly, and not run through it so hurriedly. Then you will see that I was advising only good and pious rulers, as it was right that a Christian preacher should. I say it for the third time. I was writing only for rulers who might wish to deal in a Christian or otherwise honest way with their people, for the purpose of instructing their consciences concerning this matter, to the effect that they ought quickly to smite the bands of rebels, regardless of whether they struck the guilty or the innocent, and that if they struck the innocent, they were not to let their consciences trouble them, but were confessing by the very act that they were bound to do their duty to God. Afterwards, however, if they won, they were to show grace, not only to those whom they held innocent, but to the guilty, too.
But the furious, raving, senseless tyrants, who even after the battle cannot get their fill of blood, and in all their lives ask scarcely a question about Christ, — these I did not undertake to instruct. To these bloody dogs it is all one whether they slay the guilty or the innocent, whether it please God or the devil. They have the sword, but only that they may vent their lust and self-will. I leave them to the guidance of their master, the devil, who is, indeed, leading them. I have heard that at Muehlhausen one of these big bugs summoned before him the poor wife of Thomas Muenzer, now a widow and with child, fell on one knee before her, and said, “Dear lady, let me... you.” O, a knightly, noble deed, done to a poor, lone, pregnant little woman! That is a brave hero for you! He is worth three knights, at the very least! Why should I write for scoundrels and hogs like that? The Scriptures call such people Bestien, that is, “wild animals,” such as wolves, boars, bears, and lions, and I shall not make men of them; and yet we must put up with them, when God plagues us with them. I had two fears. If the peasants became lords, the devil would become abbot; but if these tyrants became lords, the devil’s dam would become abbess. Therefore I wanted to do two things, — quiet the peasants, and instruct the lords. The peasants were unwilling, and now they have their reward; the lords, too, will not hear, and they shall have their reward also. Except that it would have done harm, if they had been killed by the peasants, that would have been a light punishment for them. Hell-fire, trembling, and gnashing of teeth in hell will be their reward eternally, unless they repent.
This, dear sir and friend, is my answer to your letter. I hope that I have more than satisfied you. If there is anyone who is not satisfied, let him still be, in God’s name, wise and prudent, righteous and holy; and let me still be a fool and a sinner. I wish that they would leave me in peace; but they will not win, and what I teach and write will still be true, even though the whole world burst. If anyone wants to be peculiar, I, too, shall be peculiar, and we shall see who is right in the end.
God be with you! Tell Conrad to make no mistake, and get in the right bed. The printer should be careful hereafter not to call you “Chancellor.” Amen.
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