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WORKS OF MARTIN LUTHER -
AN ORDINANCE OF A COMMON CHEST
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Martin Luther, Preacher, To all Christians in the Congregation of Leisnig, My dear Sirs and Brethren in Christ: Grace and Peace from God the Father and our Savior Jesus Christ
Dear Sirs and Brethren, Since the Father of all mercies has called you as well as others to the fellowship of the Gospel, and has caused His Son Jesus Christ to shine into your hearts; and since the riches of the knowledge of Christ have wrought so mightily among you that you have adopted a new order of service, and a common chest, after the example of the apostles: I have seen fit to print and publish this ordinance of yours, in the hope that God may lay His gracious blessing upon it and make it a public example to be followed by many other congregations, so that we, too, may boast of you, as St. Paul boasted of the Corinthians that their zeal provoked many, although you must confidently expect that, if your undertaking is of God, it must needs be violently assailed, for Satan will take no rest nor holiday.
We cherish the hope, then, that this example of yours may be generally followed, and that as a result there will be a great decline of the existing foundations, monastic houses, chapels, and the horrible dregs which have until now fattened on the wealth of the whole world, under the pretence of serving God. This decline is being greatly hastened by the holy Gospel, which is again breaking forth and which reveals such blasphemous and damnable service of God in its true colors. Moreover, the spirituals themselves are behaving in such a manner that nothing good remains among them and nothing good can penetrate to them. Things have come to such a pass that it seems both God and man are sick and tired of monkery and spirituality, and that there must be a change. At the same time there is need of great care, lest the possessions of such vacated foundations become common plunder and everyone make off with what he can get.
I have resolved, therefore, while there is yet time, to anticipate this danger with Christian advice and counsel according to my duty and ability. For the blame is laid at my door whenever monasteries and foundations are vacated, the number of monks and nuns grows less, and anything is done to injure and weaken the spiritual estate. This makes me unwilling to take the additional blame if some greedy bellies should grab these spiritual possessions and claim, in excuse of their conduct, that I was the cause of it.
Though I fear but few will heed my advice, if it comes to such a pass, for greed is a heedless, unbelieving rogue, I will do my part and clear my conscience and will place the burden upon theirs, so that no one may accuse me of having kept silence or of having spoken too late. Let whoever will, then, accept or reject my well-meant advice; I am without blame. But I issue beforehand this sincere warning and friendly request: Let no one heed or follow this advice of mine unless he knows and understands thoroughly, from the Gospel, that monkery and spirituality, as we have had them these four hundred years, serve no useful purpose, but are altogether a harmful error and deception. For a matter such as this must be undertaken with a good, strong, Christian conscience; otherwise things will go from bad to worse, and we shall be overtaken on our deathbed by terrible remorse.
In the first place: it would indeed be well if no rural monasteries, such as those of the Benedictines, Cistercians, Celestines, and the like, had ever appeared upon earth. But now that they are here, the best thing is to suffer them to pass away or to assist them, wherever one properly can, to disappear altogether. This may be done in the following two ways. First, by suffering the inmates to leave, if they choose, of their own free will, as the Gospel permits them to do. The other way is for all temporal authorities to direct the monasteries under their jurisdiction to admit no further applicants and, if there be too many inmates, to send them elsewhere and to let the remainder die out. Since, however, no one is to be forcibly brought to faith and the Gospel, the remaining inmates, who on account of their age, their belly or their conscience continue in the monasteries, should not be ejected nor dealt with harshly, but supported for the rest of their days just as before. For the Gospel teaches us to do good even to the unworthy, as our heavenly Father sends rain and sunshine upon good and evil alike. We must remember, too, that these persons drifted into this estate in consequence of the generally prevailing blindness and error, and that they have not learned a trade by which they might support themselves.
I advise the temporal authorities, however, to take over the possessions of such monasteries, and to provide out of them for such persons as remain, until their death, and to provide for them more amply and generously than it was in all probability done before, in order that men may realize that it is not a case of greed opposing the spiritual possessions, but of Christian faith opposing the monasteries. In doing this, no permission of pope or bishop is to be sought beforehand, nor are their ban and curse to be feared; for I am writing this for those only who understand the Gospel and who have the right to take such action in their own lands, cities and jurisdiction.
In the second place: such possessions of monasteries as are taken over by the authorities should be applied in the following three ways. First, to support the persons still remaining in them, as has just been said. Second, to provide those who leave with sufficient funds to find a position and to make a fresh start in life even though they brought nothing with them when they entered the monastery. For when they leave they leave, so to speak, their lifelong livelihood; moreover, they have been defrauded, for they might have employed the time they spent in the monastery in learning a trade. As for those who brought something with them, it is no more than right before God that it should be returned to them, an equal part to each; for Christian love should here be the judge, and not the severity of human justice. If anyone is to suffer injury or loss, it should be the monastery and not the individuals, for the monastery is the cause of their error. But the third way is the best, namely, to devote all remaining possessions to the common fund of a common chest, out of which gifts and loans might be made, in Christian love, to all the needy in the land, whether nobles or commons. In this way, too, the testament and intention of the founders would be carried out. For though they erred and were misled in giving their goods to monasteries, their intention certainly was to give them to the glory and for the service of God; that was the spirit in which they committed their error. Now, there is no better service of God than Christian love, which helps and serves the needy, as Christ Himself will testify in the judgment of the last day ( Matthew 25:31). For this reason, too, the possessions of the Church were formerly called bona ecclesiae, that is, common possessions, as it were, a common chest, for all the needy among Christians.
It is, however, just and in accordance with Christian love, that in case the heirs of the founders are impoverished and in want, the foundations should revert to them, a goodly portion to each, and all of it together if the need warrant this. For it was certainly not the intention of their fathers to take the bread out of the mouths of their children and heirs and bestow it elsewhere. And even if this was their intention, it is a wrong and unchristian intention. For fathers are in duty bound to provide above all else for their own children; this is the highest service they can render to God with their temporal goods. But in case the heirs are not poor or do not need it, they ought not to take back their fathers’ foundation but let it go into the common chest.
But you might say: “That is opening the door too wide; in this way the common chest will receive precious little, for every one will claim the whole amount and will say his needs are so much, etc.” I reply: That is why I said that Christian love must judge and act in this matter; it cannot be handled by means of laws and regulations. Besides, I am setting down this advice in accordance with Christian love for Christians alone. We must expect greed to creep in here and there. What then? It must not on that account remain undone. In any case it is better that greed take too much in an orderly way than that the whole thing become common plunder, as it happened in Bohemia. Let everyone examine himself to see what he should take for his own needs and what he should leave for the common chest.
In the third place: the same procedure should be followed with respect to abbacies, foundations, and chapters in control of lands, cities and other possessions. For such bishops and foundations are neither bishops nor foundations; they are really at bottom temporal lords sailing under a spiritual name. Hence they should be turned into temporal lords or else their possessions should be divided between the poor heirs and relations, and the common chest. As for prebends and benefices, they should be left to their present incumbents; after their death, however, they should no longer be filled, but divided between the poor heirs and the common chest.
In the fourth place: part of the possessions of monasteries and foundations, and a great part of the prebends are based upon usury, which now calls itself everywhere “interest,” and which has in but a few years swallowed up the whole world. Such possessions would have to be separated first of all, like leprosy, from those possessions which consist of simple bequests. For the advice I gave above refers only to foundations consisting of right and honest bequests, not bearing interest. Interest bearing foundations, however, may rightly be regarded as usury; for I have never yet seen or heard of a right annuity that bears interest. It would be necessary, therefore, in such a case, to make the usury, by returning to each one his interest payments, before allowing such a possession to go into the common chest; for God says, “I hate robbery for burnt offering.” If it prove impossible to find the persons who sustained loss by paying interest, the common chest might then receive the possession. But the right and wrong of interest is too long a story for the present; I have sufficiently dealt with it in the Treatise on Usury, from which one may learn what part of such prebends and foundations should be restored to those who have made payments of interest. For there is no doubt that many prebends have received back the full amount of their loans, and yet do not cease sucking sweat and blood out of those who are still paying interest. This matter is altogether one of the most urgent to which emperors and kings, princes and lords, and everyone else should give attention.
In the fifth place: mendicant houses within cities might be converted into good schools for boys and girls, as they were before. The other monasteries could be converted into dwelling-houses, if the city needed them. The fact that they were consecrated by bishops should not stand in the way of this, for God knows nothing of such consecrations. But if this advice of mine were acted upon in a Christian fashion, many things would suggest themselves and be found feasible, and much would be learned by experience, more than can now be proposed in words, for various and extraordinary conditions would arise, in which only Christian love can judge aright.
If God were to grant this advice to be carried out, not only should we have a well supplied common chest for all needs, but three crying evils would be abolished. The first of these is begging, which does so much harm to land and people in soul and property. The second is the horrible abuse of the ban, which serves no other purpose than to torture the people in the interest of the possessions of priests and monks. If there were no possessions there would be no need of this ban. The third evil is the wretched annuities, the greatest usury on earth, which has until now vaunted its rights especially in spiritual possessions.
But whosoever will not follow this advice nor curb his greed, of him I wash my hands. Well do I know that few will accept it; indeed, I am content if one or two follow me or would at least like to follow me. The world must remain the world, and Satan the prince of the world. I have done what I can and what I am in duty bound to do. God help us all to take the right course and to remain firm.
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