This is why I like him, of course. It is why I have always liked him. Luther’s story is an exquisite challenge to write. It is all too easy to see him as a villain or traitor in the Peasants’ War of 1525. This is precisely how my fictional characters see him. Telling their side of the story is easy.

Telling Luther’s side is not so simple. Martin Luther is not duplicitous. He is not a traitor. But he is dangerously unclear in the years and months before the revolt of 1525, leading the peasants to believe that he will support their cause. Tragically, he makes himself indisputably clear only when he calls for the peasants’ annihilation.

Albrecht Dürer’s 1525 Monument to the Peasants
A sword in his back, the peasant is the top portion of Dürer’s proposed monument. This bronze in Nußdorf is Peter Brauchle’s 2004 rendition.
Here is a drafted monument that was never built. The draft expresses Dürer’s view that the peasants had been stabbed in the back.
Many of Luther’s contemporaries condemned the overwhelmingly violent response to this uprising. In particular, they condemned Luther for his vicious language. For instance, he urged, “Therefore, let everyone who can, smite, slay, and stab, secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful, or devilish than a rebel.”
Even his brother-in-law and close friends condemned him for not calling for restraint when the lords and their mercenaries took Luther at his word and killed as many as 100,000 peasants.
Luther, however, felt betrayed by the peasants. They had defied their lords in showing themselves unfaithful and disobedient, contrary to their Biblical obligation to “be subject to the governing authorities.” They also plundered monasteries and castles, drinking themselves into a stupor on the wine they found. Further, they had misappropriated the word ‘Christian’. Through their rebellion and plundering, they had, “become the worst blasphemers of God and slanderers of his holy name.”
There is no difficulty in determining where Luther stands in the above quotes taken from Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes.
The challenge arises in his open sympathy with the peasants’ plight, frequently blaming the lords for peasant agitation. Mere weeks before the above was written, he criticized lords: “We have no one on earth to thank for this disastrous rebellion, except you princes and lords, and especially you blind bishops and mad priests and monks….as temporal rulers you do nothing but cheat and rob the people so that you may lead a life of luxury and extravagance. The poor common people cannot bear it any longer…. You must become different men and yield to God’s word. If you do not do this amicably and willingly, then you will be compelled to do it by force and destruction. If these peasants do not compel you, others will. Even though you were to defeat them all, they would still not be defeated, for God will raise up others.”
In this same document, Luther had argued that the peasants were wrong in their demands for freedom from serfdom. He asserted, “The fact that the rulers are wicked and unjust does not excuse disorder and rebellion, for the punishing of wickedness is not the responsibility of everyone, but of the worldly rulers who bear the sword.” These rulers were set in their places by God. Hence, to rebel against them was to rebel against God.
These are just a few representative examples. There are so many among Luther’s writings. So, to the peasant who is struggling to feed a family or for the right to marry without seeking the lord’s permission, it would be quite easy to overlook Luther’s call to obedience.
Rather, one could easily focus on this line, “If these peasants do not compel you, others will. Even though you were to defeat them all, they would still not be defeated, for God will raise up others.” Here the peasants are God’s instruments, righteously punishing the lords.
Perhaps most important to the rebels was Luther’s personal example of rebellion against the Pope, the emperor, and in his mocking exchange with the King of England. Though Luther was not violent in his rebellion, he was depicted this way by his allies and enemies.
Hans Holbein, German Hercules, 1523
Here the hanged Pope dangles from a rope clenched in Luther’s teeth as Luther slays the enemies of the Gospel. What could be more rebellious in this era than defying the Pope?
It is crucial to note that Luther did not cultivate the image of a rebel. But he was seen this way, nonetheless. This is one of the challenges of the novel, and it is why fictional characters are so important. They allow the reader to see Luther as at least some of his followers saw him.
Luther never intended the peasants to see him as a champion of their rebellion. He did not believe in physical rebellion, and he certainly did not believe in leveling society in the name of the Gospel. Certainly the world was not ready in 1525 for a society based on the communities in Acts.
His employment of inexcusably vicious language in urging the lords to action was driven by valid fears. The rebellion had to be stopped.
The rebellion gave credibility to the lords’ fears that the Bible in the common man’s hands was a bad idea. This endangered the Reformation where it already existed and it limited the hope of its expansion. Further, chaos is dangerous. Luther feared for the order of his world, an order that provided a reasonable expectation of safety for its inhabitants. Finally, he truly believed that it was rebellion against God to rebel against one’s temporal lord. His role as a pastor was to speak out against it.
It is easy enough to see his point of view from his own writings, particularly when one starts with Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes. But this is not where the peasants started. They had been following Luther all along, through his years of speaking up for them and through his years of carrying, however unintentionally, the image of rebel.
These are the challenges then:
  • to keep Luther clear for my reader even while he befuddles his own audience.
  • to ensure that he comes across as who he is, for he was not a traitor.

6 thoughts on “Luther the Challenge

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