The care of the poor had been neither neglected nor adequately conducted by Church and state in the later middle ages. Alms-giving flourished as one of the churchly virtues, but it was regarded as a good work done to please God and not one’s neighbor; the point of view of the giver was emphasized, that of the recipient was ignored. The influence of the mendicant friars only added to the abuse. Efforts at civilpoorrelief were no less inadequate to cope with the problem of poverty, which was rapidly becoming acute. f76 Luther placed the whole matter upon the high plane of Christianlove, as the expression of justifying faith; he emphasized alms-giving as the general duty of all Christians, and sought to establish it upon a systematic basis.
Already at the Leipzig Disputation in July of 1519, he expressed the wish that there might be no mendicant orders. Later in the same year, in his Treatise on the Blessed Sacrament and on Brotherhoods, he advocated the establishment by the brotherhoods of “common chests” for the aid of needy craftsmen; and all along, especially in the Open Letter to the Christian Nobility, he strenuously opposed mendicancy and begging, and insisted that every town should support its own poor.
These principles received their first practical application in the Wittenberg Beutelordnung, adopted in 1521 under Karlstadt’s advocacy, during Luther’s absence at the Wartburg. The Wittenberg Kastenordnung f80 followed early in 1522. Under the influence of the latter, and perhaps not without Luther’s direct influence, there was drawn up in the congregation at Leisnig, probably by its recently elected clergymen, an Ordinance of a Common Chest, which was submitted to Luther for his approval. It pleased him so much that he wrote a preface for it and had it published, about Whitsuntide, 1523, as a model for other communities. Not being the work of Luther, this ordinance has not been translated by us, but because of its historical interest a summary of its chief provisions may here be given. It is considerably wider in scope than its predecessors and almost amounts to a congregational constitution.
The nobles, council, guildmasters, elders and commons of the town of Leisnig and vicinage solmenly agree, in the matter of choosing their pastors, to exercise their Christianliberty in accordance with Holy Scripture. Every householder is obligated, with his family and servants, faithfully to hear and learn, at appointed times, the Word of God. All are pledged to put down blasphemy, immoderate drinking, immorality, and other crying sins and vices. The parish has the right and the duty, with the aid of the civilauthorities, to bring flagrant offenders to book. There follow elaborate provisions for the maintenance and administration of the common chest, into which all churchly incomes are to flow. Over it ten wardens shall be appointed, two each from the nobles and the towncouncil, and three each from the citizens and the peasantry. Three times a year a parish meeting shall be held, to hear the report of the wardens, transact necessary business, and elect new wardens. Out of the chest shall be paid all expenses incident to the salaries of the pastors, sextons, and schoolmasters, all repairs to property, and the support of the poor of all classes. There shall be also a school for girls under twelve years of age, with instruction in reading and writing, conducted by “an elderly female of good report.” Tuition shall be paid only by scholars residing outside the district. The common chest shall be used, finally, to store up supplies of grain for times of emergency. In case the regular income does not suffice, taxes shall be laid on all inhabitants.
Luther’s preface gives a general approval to these provisions, and discusses in particular what disposition should be made of the possessions of declining monastic houses. He advises that such possessions be taken over and administered by the temporal authorities. It is instructive to note with what scrupulous fairness to all concerned this intricate question is handled.
Remaining inmates are to be generously supported for the rest of their lives. Those who choose to leave are to be supplied with the means to make a fresh start in life. Needy heirs and relatives of the donors of bequests and endowments should have their wants supplied first. The remainder only is to go to the common chest. And even this remainder is to be reduced by the restoration of what Luther considers wrongful interest or usury. Mendicant houses in cities are to be converted into schools or dwellings. All these suggestions are made in the spirit of Christianlove and are intended only for those who are actuated by evangelical faith and love.
Luther’s hopes were not realized. He was compelled to be content with the one or two who, as he said, “would like to follow” him. He regretted the failure of the Leisnig experiment, which being the first should have been the best. The reasons for this failure were in part the opposition of the temporal authorities, in part the lack of the proper persons to carry out the plan. Here as in so many other instances, Luther had to bow to the stubborn facts and wait “biss unsser herr gott Christen macht,” (until our LordGod makes some Christians).
The preface, together with the Leisnig ordinance itself, is found in Clemen’s Edition, 2:404-23; the Weimar Edition, 12:11-30; the Erlangen Edition, 22:106-30; the St. Louis Edition, 10:954-77, and the Berlin Edition, 7:107-37. See the introductions there, andKOSTLIN-KAWERAU, Martin Luther, (1903), 1:549-51, and A. E.BERGER, Martin Luther, 2:2 (1919), 452-61. Comp. B.RIGGENBACH, Das Armenwesen der Reformation (1883); L.FEUCHTWANER, Geschichte der sozialen Politik und der Armenpflege im Zeitalter der Reformation (1908); R.SEEBERG, Aus Religion und Geschichte (1906), 1:247 ff.; P.SMITH, The Age of the Reformation (1920), 558 ff., and K.HOLL, Gesammelte Aufsatze zur Kirchengeschichte, 1: Luther (1921), 233 ff., 388 ff.