Thursday, May 1, 2014

Apology for the Hiatus in Blogging

The last blog by this blogger was in November 2012 - and even that blog followed an interval of no blogging of six months.

I apologize to those who were kind enough to show interest in the preceding fifty or so blogs and possibly expected more.

The excuse, adequate or not, is that this blogger suffered a heart attack in June 2012. One triple-bypass later this blogger was blessed with a recovery that restored activity relatively ‘normal’ for a 72-year-old. This activity necessarily has been selective, and unfortunately the blogging was a casualty (as well as a cessation in tweeting).

My activity is essentially writing new biography or revising my older books. Hopefully there will be a new development in my biography of Frederick the Wise. At this point no more can be said about it.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Martin Luther's Death

As early as 1531, in Martin Luther's mind his theological cause clearly winning, he resolutely concluded, "Should the papists by their devouring, biting, tearing help me to put off this sinful carcass and should the Lord not wish this time to deliver me as he has so often done before, then may he be praised and thanked.  I have lived long enough..." He was only 48.

Luther’s health in fact had begun to deteriorate as early as 1523 when he was only 40, with a precipitous decline beginning in 1527. Since that downturn he had suffered indigestion, constipation, insomnia, dizziness, colic, abscesses in his ears, ulcers, gout, rheumatism, sciatica, heart palpitations and of course ‘the stone’. He endured a series of life-threatening crises over ‘stones’ blocking his urinary tract. Each episode was excruciating.

Flattering portrait by his contemporary Cranach the Y0unger showing the elderly Luther nevertheless as mountainous.

The 1540s were very difficult for Martin Luther. He turned 60 years old in 1543 and like so many in his time he was a very old 60. In addition to his physical ailments Luther began to loathe Wittenberg. Had he really enlightened anyone? In August 1545 he informed his wife Katie “I don't have to remain in Wittenberg. My heart has grown cold, and I don't like it there any more.” Just two months earlier he had railed  at his congregation from the pulpit, “If you do nothing but mumble and grumble, then go join the cattle and swine! You can commune with them and leave the church in peace.” The following Sunday he stormed out in the middle of the service. 

Who can know how much the physical and mental suffering corrupted his judgment in major decisions in the 1540s, three of which are virtually indefensible? He condemned anabaptists and turned a blind eye to their torture and even death. He ranted against “hardhearted, incorrigible" Jews, offering them the choice of conversion to Christianity or expulsion from Saxony. He secretly approved a second wife for powerful prince Philipp of Hesse, while at the same time publicly denying it. Is it probable the old Luther was too unhealthy to handle major issues with the wisdom and fire he had as a young man? Yet everyone still expected him to do it.

In January 1546 Luther at 63 described himself to a friend as "old, decrepit, sluggish, weary, worn out, and now one-eyed...I am dead—as I seem to myself—I expect the repose I have deserved to be given me, but instead I am overwhelmed with writing, speaking, doing, transacting business, just as though I had never done, written, said, or accomplished anything."

How he wanted freedom from activity. Yet in February he was called upon to settle a dispute among the always squabbling counts of Mansfeld. He could scarcely refuse old allies although he already had given up teaching at the university in Wittenberg and was openly writing about the ‘last year of my life’. Travel from Wittenberg to Mansfeld in a horse-drawn coach was a nightmare that time of year. He wrote on the first day of February to his wife Katie that “such a cold wind blew from behind through the cap on my head that it was like to turn my brain to ice.” The grand escort from the counts of Mansfeld of over 100 mounted knights was no consolation.

His letter to Melanchthon that same day was even more grim.
You know that I am an old man, and that some of the rough work even of my own calling should be spared me, whereas now I am involved in a quarrel alien to my interests, beyond my power to cope with and distasteful to my age…A fainting fit overtook me on the journey and also that disease which you are wont to call palpitation of the heart.  I went on foot, overtaxed my strength and perspired; later in driving my shirt became cold with sweat; this made my left arm stiff.  My age is to blame for the heart trouble and the shortness of breath…

Andreaskirche in Eisleben where Luther preached and ordained new pastors just days before his death

Luther managed to survive that particular episode. On the evening of February 17, however, the business concluded at Mansfeld and staying at the house of Doctor Drachstedt in Eisleben, he sickened. A fist seemed to grind into his chest. Brandy soothed the pain. But within hours he was very sick again. Friends and his teenaged sons gathered around him at two o’clock in the morning. At one point he predicted grimly, “Oh, Lord God, I am sorrowful…I think I shall remain at Eisleben where I was born and baptized.”

Martin Luther was right. He died a short time later.

Touted in Eisleben as the Death House (Sterbehaus) of Luther, this house is almost certainly not where Luther died.

On February 22, 1546, Martin Luther was buried in the Castle Church at Wittenberg within 50 feet of the tomb of his long deceased protector, Frederick the Wise.


H.G. Haile, Luther: an Experiment in Biography (London: Sheldon Press, 1980).

Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand (Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1950).

Preserved Smith, The Life and Letters of Martin Luther (Houghton Mifflin, 1911).

Q: What other famous figures in history worsened their legacy in their waning years?

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Martin Luther and his ranking of books of the New Testament.

This is a subject that has generated hundreds of responses over the centuries. Responses have varied the spectrum in tone: angry refutation to sympathetic acceptance. References listed below are only a handful of those available on the subject.
Let us step back and preface the subject with observations about why Martin Luther translated the New Testament and in general how he did it. Few scholars would disagree that Luther’s translation of the New Testament into High German is a literary masterpiece, almost incomparable in its art. He had already sparred violently in print with the best scholars of Europe for several years and he was in top form.

                        Eramus by who else? Albrecht Dürer

Why did he translate the New Testament? One of the driving forces was the appearance of editions of the New Testament from the best Greek manuscripts available. This Herculean task was done by Erasmus of Rotterdam, ironically a major love-hate figure in Luther’s mind. The second edition by Erasmus appeared in 1519. At that time 14 High German Bibles and four Low German Bibles already existed. They were derived from the Latin Vulgate New Testament. Not one was derived from the best New Testament documents in Greek. Luther’s friend Johann Lang made a stab at translating the Book of Matthew but Lang did not have Luther’s superb skills as a wordsmith.

   Castle Wartburg (being renovated); courtesy Traveler100
The second driving force was Luther’s exile by his protector Frederick the Wise in the Castle Wartburg starting May 1521. For months Luther was denied all his normal time-consuming pastoral and university duties. He worked up some tracts and his Christmas postil but became obsessed by the idea that the German-speaking Holy Roman Empire needed to be reading the Bible itself, not works about the Bible. He was, after all, professor of the Bible at the University of Wittenberg and had been so for many years.
Luther--being Luther, virtually a force of nature--translated the Greek New Testament of Erasmus into High German of the electoral Saxon court in just 11 weeks! By March 1522 friends like Melanchthon were helping him revise it. By September of that year it was published, not at all slipshod but magnificent and illustrated by woodcuts of the master artist Lucas Cranach.

                  Title page 1522 Newe Testament Deutzsch
How did Luther render his High German? After several revisions, he had changed High German itself by avoiding stilted words, foreign words and slang. He increased capitalization of nouns and usage of conjunctions. He took adverbs from within the sentence and placed them at the end. He invented words: for example, scapegoat, decoy, and stopgap. Luther created sentences that were rhythmic and memorable. The High German of Luther’s Bible is “kraftvolles Deutsch” or ‘powerful, lusty German’ of the people.
All this was in deference to the theological meaning of the translation. The entire New Testament to Luther is the ‘gospel’, not just the first four books. The central message was Christ. A corollary to that was Luther’s belief that Paul’s central message was that the just shall live by faith and not by works of the law. Salvation was by faith alone
First Luther would place the Gospel of John, then the Pauline epistles [with Romans pre-eminent] and First Peter, after them the three other Gospels, and in a subordinate place Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation. He mistrusted Revelation because of its obscurity. “A revelation," said he, “should be revealing.” [Roland Bainton, 332]
Of first importance Luther named the Gospel of John, the epistles of Paul (especially Romans), and 1 Peter as “the true kernel and marrow of all the books.” [Martin Brecht, 51]
Or as H. H. Kramm commented, to Luther the priority of the canon of the New Testament was whatever ‘urges Christ’.  To hammer this point home Luther clearly separated Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation in the table of contents and placed them at the end. The four books were not even numbered as chapters. To drive his point home even more he noted all this in his general preface to the New Testament and more yet in each preface to the individual books in the New Testament.
Luther was seldom ambiguous.
Further Reading:
Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand (Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1950), 326-335.
Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: Shaping and defining the Reformation 1521-1532 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990), 46-56.
H. H. Kramm, The Theology of Martin Luther, (James Clarke and Co., 1947).
Ingetraut Ludolphy, afterword in Martin Luther, Das Newe Testament Deutzsch (Leipzig facsimile of 1522 Septembertestament: 1972), 1-7. In German.

NEXT: How Martin Luther regarded the books of the Old Testament.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Martin Luther and his ‘love’ for proverbial sayings

In the many volumes of Luther’s Works (Luthers Werke, Weimarer Ausgabe), which this blog noted earlier has about 30 million words, one scholar counted about 5000 German proverbs or proverbial expressions. Put in that perspective, one can conclude the German proverb or folk saying was not an essential tool for Luther. Supporting that is the fact that only a few dozen proverbs or proverbial expressions are found in his eight volumes of letters. The proverbs are concentrated primarily in the Table Talk and to a lesser extent in his polemics. Table Talk reveals Luther as a vibrant, earthy conversationalist who often liked to shock his listeners. His polemics were laced with vulgar insults.

What is the source for the contention that Luther was greatly interested in proverbs?

Dr. Ernst Thiele [1856-1922]

It would seem the discovery of a list of 489 proverbs in the great man’s own handwriting is the cause of this belief. He never published the list. Perhaps it was a mild interest of a man with myriad interests. In 1900 Ernst Thiele published the list of 489 in his book Luthers Sprichwortsammlung (Luther’s Collection of Proverbs). This book is still in print if you enjoy torturing your eyes by reading Fraktur. In 1914 Thiele and Otto Bremer massaged the list even more for Volume 51 of Weimarer Ausgabe. Thiele is also remembered for a book on Luther’s use of fables as well as being the author of volume 5 of  Weimarer Ausgabe: Luther’s work on the Psalms 1519-1521. Dr. Thiele was the proverbial Luther scholar, armed with German and Latin.


                           Dr. James C. Cornette [1918-1991]
Martin Luther seems to have become mildly interested in proverbial sayings in about the late 1520’s (Luther was in his mid-40s). His interest almost seemed a visceral disgust with a much-praised collection of proverbs by Johannes Agricola, a scholar Luther particularly disliked. Luther maintained his own list of proverbs for about 10 years. None of his friends are known to have been aware of the list. So his list is not known to be fundamental to any work he did, although he would use a proverb if he thought it would be affective. He was a master wordsmith.
His list and general use of proverbs is accessible in the work of James Cornette’s  Proverbs and proverbial expressions in the German works of Martin Luther, published in 1997 (rescued by Wolfgang Mieder and Dorothee Racette after the unpublished doctoral thesis had been buried since 1942). Most of the proverbs on Luther’s handwritten list of 489 are mundane, in many the real sense of the idiom probably lost. Note that when Cornette compiled his lists of all uses of proverbs by Luther only about half of Luther’s Works (Weimarer Ausgabe) had been completed, although all six volumes of Table Talk had been published.

Examples of mundane sayings are:
Armut wehe thut. [Poverty hurts]
Aus den aügen, aus dem hertzen. [Out of the sight, out of the heart]
Mein brod ist gebacken. [My bread is baked]
Was nicht dein ist, das las ligen. [What is not yours, let lie]
Gut ding wil weil haben. [A good thing takes a while.]
Wens ende gut ist, so ists alles gut. [If the end is good, everything is good.]
Das ist das ende vom liede. [That is the end of the song.]
Wer nyrn ist der wird nymer sat. [He who is fed becomes insatiable]
Bleib daheymen mit deinen faulen fisschen. [Stay home with your rotten fish]
Mancher geneusst seiner mutter und nicht seines Vatters. [Many enjoy their mother but not their father.]
Geld ist sein herr. [Money is his master]
Wers gluck hat, furet die braut heym. [Whoever has luck brings the bride home.]
Viel hende machen leicht erbeit. [Many hands make easy work.]
Wers kan dem kompts. [Who knows what comes.]
Kunst gehet nach brod. [Art gets no bread.]
Vogel singt wie der Schnabel gewachsen ist. [A Bird sings as the beak is growing.]
Torlich wort bringen torlich werck. [Foolish words bring foolish deeds.]
Die glock ist gegossen. [The bell is cast.]

More than a few are scatological:
Du bist der rechter kluglin zeümest das pferd ym arse. [You are the right wiseacre to bridle the horse in the ass.]
Er hat humel ym arse. [He has a bumblebee in his ass.]
Sein dreck stinckt auch. [His shit stinks too]
An armen hoffart, saget man, wischet der teufel seinen hindern. [A poor pride, they say, wipes the devil’s behind.]
Klein leuten ligt der dreck nahe. [No people locate near filth.]
Wir sind wol zu scheiden, wie ein reiffer dreck und ein weit arssloch. [We are well to separate, as a ripe turd and a wide asshole.]
Gewis wie ein fortz ynn der reussen. [Secure as a fart in the basket.]
Wie das pissen widder den wind. [Like pissing against the wind.]
Es wil dreck regnen. [It will rain shit.]
Meuse dreck vnter pfeffer. [Mouse shit in the pepper]

Sexual innuendos are very few and mild to a modern ear:
Mancher vbel von weibern redet Weis nicht Was sein mutter thet. [Many who speak badly of their wives don’t know what their own mothers did.]
Horner auff setzen. [Put on horns (cuckold)]
Dann wann einer mit der frawen bulen viel, muss er mit der magdt anfahen. [If one wants to make love with a lot of women, he must begin with the maiden.]

The above is a sparse sample of Luther’s collection. The general tone of the sayings, though probably pithy in a certain setting, are bland, not witty, not profound. This may explain why Luther never felt compelled to publish and expound on them. It is this blogger’s opinion that Martin Luther’s need for proverbs and subsequent use is of questionable significance. He was more or less a Bible-committed Christian with a humanist bent. This is not meant to detract from Dr. Cornette’s Herculean effort. He was however more than a Luther scholar or a paremiologist (scholar of proverbs); he was also a linguist and taught the modern languages of German, French, and Spanish.

COMING: Martin Luther's least favorite books of the Bible. 
                   Just which Bianca Sforza did da Vinci sketch?

Monday, January 16, 2012

German Proverbs and Frederick the Wise

Albrecht Dürer's sketch of Frederick the Wise 
at age 59 at the 1522 Reichstag.

Frederick the Wise learned Latin as a youth, even had favorites in Latin like Terence and Cato, both of whom spun elegant aphorisms so similar to proverbs. Frederick in childhood had become fond of ‘German proverbs’, blissfully unaware that many had been derived from classic antiquity and the Bible. As a man of the world he remained enamored and considered proverbs virtually equal in wisdom to the Bible. It was common, however, among all people in his time of illiteracy to quote proverbs. Even the literate nobility quoted proverbs, including some that targeted themselves. Some jibes were merely sour: “Where noblemen are, there are fancy sheets”. Many were acid: “When Adam hoed and Eve spun, where then was the nobleman?”. Some ran bitter: “Where there is a carcass, then don’t worry where the noblemen and ravens are”.


George Spalatin (Frederick's 'Boswell')
These barbs in no way soured Frederick on proverbs. His ‘Boswell’, George Spalatin, recorded Frederick’s 19 favorites. Translated freely from German they are:
1) Whatever one may not like, one should nevertheless look at in a friendly way.
2) If one wants to judge something, then one should know the reason of the matter from the beginning.
3) One should not speak easily, but what one assures, that one should keep.
4) One is not to believe everything like it has been said.
5) There lies on earth not much for the man.
6) I believe the shoemaker about the shoes, the tailor about the trousers and the smithie about the iron.
7) Every work praises its master.
8) Those are the largest fools, who think themselves wise.
9) The young consider themselves more clever than the old.
10) The unfaithful usually strike their own Lords.
11) The pious regret nothing.
12) Constancy endures the longest.
13) It is not all gold that glitters.
14) It is not all good that one praises.
15) There are many things easy to say but difficult to do.
16) Among the blind the one-eyed is king.
17) Foolery will have its place.
18) The Raven regards its young the most beautiful.
19) One can see well into another’s mouth, but one cannot see at all into his heart.
Contained in these proverbs are some of Frederick’s strongest character traits. He was famously reticent. He trusted few people, yet was careful to offend no one. He was very skeptical. He always sought the most expert opinions before making any decision. He was rigorously pious. He saw the absurdity of life.

Q. How did Frederick’s attitude about German proverbs differ from Martin Luther’s? (That is the subject of the next blog)
All proverbs above were freely translated from German by the blogger.

References used:
James C. Cornette, Proverbs and proverbial expressions in the German works of Martin Luther, ed. Wolfgang Mieder and Dorothee Racette (Bern: Lang, 1997) 69, 149, 37 (all translated)..

Georg Spalatin, Friedrichs des Weisen Leben und Zeitgeschichte von Georg Spalatin (Georg Spalatins historischer Nachlaß und Briefe 1), ed. Christian Gotthold Neudecker and Ludwig Preller (Jena: 1851), 32-33 (all translated).

Sam Wellman, Frederick the Wise: Seen and Unseen Lives of Martin Luther's Protector (Wild Centuries Press, 2011), 10-11.

Friday, October 14, 2011

The 1521 Imperial Plot to Murder Luther

Kaspar Sturm by Dürer

Emperor Karl V summoned Martin Luther to the great Reichstag at Worms at the end of March 1521. Led by the burly imperial herald Kaspar Sturm he left Wittenberg on April 2 in a covered wagon. Sturm suffered no fools and did not hesitate to use force. Fortunately for Luther he liked him. At least four colleagues of Luther, the most notable being Nicholas von Amsdorf, went along.  In Weimar the brother of the very powerful Saxon elector Frederick the Wise, Duke Johann, provided Luther money for expenses. On April 6 in Erfurt Luther’s jurist friend from Wittenberg Justas Jonas on horse joined them. 

Karl V

Luther learned of an imperial mandate condemning his books before his hearing; Sturm sympathetically asked him if he wanted to continue. It sounded like a death sentence engineered by the papal nuncio Aleander (Girolamo Aleandro). It sounded like almost the exact circumstances that had controversial Jan Huss burned at the stake in 1415. Unknown to the travelers from Wittenberg, a much more severe mandate had never materialized. Why? Fear that it would offend Frederick the Wise. Karl V was young but he had learned from his deceased grandfather Maximilian that Frederick the Wise had such a powerful influence on the German estates he could virtually paralyze any imperial plan. In fact Karl V did not want Luther in Worms.

Luther nevertheless continued on. He wrote his friend Spalatin that he would “enter Worms in spite of all gates of hell and the powers of the air.” Outwardly the journey was one of triumph. He was feted. He preached in several cities. He played the lute. He was intermittently sick. He suffered severe constipation.

Karl Brandi

Imperial operatives had an alternate plan. The emperor’s father confessor, an oily Franciscan priest Jean Glapion, had spoken to Saxon officials for weeks about how he liked Luther’s reform (“with an eloquence only matched by his duplicity” according to Karl Brandi). All Luther had to do was withdraw his violent tract ‘On the Babylonian Captivity’ and all else could be amiably negotiated. The Saxon officials were as unmovable as their great prince. Luther must have his hearing and confront his accusers. On April 5 Glapion and the imperial chamberlain Paul von Armerstorff showed up at the great fortress Ebernburg. The fortress was the favored castle of the most feared knight in Germany, Franz von Sickingen. The imperial officials had a clever plan. First they made Sickingen and his gadfly Ulrich von Hutten an offer of nice fat retainers. They didn’t refuse. So the two Luther sympathizers found themselves in the service of the emperor. 

Martin Bucer at 53

Then they debated theology in a friendly way for many hours. The Lutheran side was championed by Sickingen’s chaplain, Martin Bucer. The two imperial officials assured everyone they appreciated Luther’s much needed reform but he did have some incendiary tracts. They slipped in their plan to negotiate with Luther. What safer place than the Ebernburg? Bucer was a mere 20 years old. His experience as a monk was not worldly. Vanity must have made Sickingen and Hutten agree to such a plan. Incredibly, Bucer who had once met Luther, intercepted his caravan at Oppenheim on April 15. He invited Luther to the Ebernburg, emphasizing that location would be safer than Worms.

Justas Jonas

Luther remembered later that he instinctively smelled a trap. Why could Glapion not talk to him at Worms? It seems much more likely, scholar Irmgard Höß notes, that Spalatin had already warned Luther. Moreover Luther had his jurist friend Justas Jonas with him as well as the sympathetic imperial herald Kaspar Sturm. They would surely have pointed out to Luther that he would void his imperial safe conduct granted by the emperor to get to Worms. After that rash action he would be many days from safety in Saxony and fair game for every assassin in the rest of the empire. He might have been safe in the Ebernburg but perhaps not. Sickingen was in service now to the emperor. Even so, Luther would be in a form of exile.

Luther refused and continued on to Worms.

The murder plot failed.

Just three days later Luther shook Europe with “I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me.”

Shortly after that, in a letter to Lucas Cranach Luther breezily mocked the proceedings in Worms, “Nothing else was done there than this:

Are these your books?
Do you want to renounce them or not?
Then go away!”

Main Sources:

Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: His Road to Reformation, 1483-1521 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1985)
Karl Brandi, The Emperor Charles V (NY: Knopf, 1939) translation of Kaiser Karl V (München: Bruckmann , 1937).
Irmgard Höß, Georg Spalatin. Ein Leben in der Zeit des Humanismus und der Reformation (Weimar, 1956; 2. edition, 1989).
Q: Do you think Karl V knew of the murder plot?

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Martin Luther on how it all began in 1517

 Rawboned, angry Martin Luther at 34 in 1520
from a copper etching by Lucas Cranach

It is never too often to remind the curious how the ‘Luther affair’ began in 1517. Following is an excerpt from pages 186 through 189 of Frederick the Wise: Seen and Unseen Lives of Martin Luther’s Protector (Wild Centuries Press, 2011) that includes the personal recollection of the great troublemaker himself:

No one less than the pope himself depended on indulgences to finance not just grandiose plans like the basilica of St. Peter’s in Rome but the survival of the Vatican and the Roman church itself. Indulgences pervaded the life of Europe. Luther’s own sovereign Frederick was deep into the indulgence business, rewarding each viewer of his relics thousands of years of relief from purgatory. The indulgence business however that sparked Luther’s tirade was that of Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz (although Luther was at first ignorant of who was behind it). Because Albrecht and his Brandenburgs owed such vast amounts of money to the Fuggers the indulgence trade after 1514 became aggressive and ugly. A cynical jingo circulated.

As soon as the coin in the coffer rings,
The soul from purgatory springs. fn 1
A cold-eyed assessor put the sinner somewhere on a sliding scale of payment that demanded 25 guldens from a prince or archbishop to a promise of fasting and prayer from the indigent. fn 2 Woodcuts and street poets mocked this indulgence business run for the pope, Archbishop Albrecht and the Fuggers. The coffer or chest could only be opened later in the presence of a notary by a sequence of three keys. Adjacent to Frederick’s territory one key was held by the commissioner of indulgences representing Archbishop Albrecht and the church. An agent of the Fuggers held another key. The local secular authority held the third. Luther recalled the affair in 1541 in a tract titled Wider Hans Worst (‘Against Hans Wurst’).
It happened in the year ’17 that a preaching monk named Johann Tetzel, a great loudmouth . . . traveled around with indulgences selling grace for money as expensive or as cheaply as he was able. At the time I was preacher in the cloister and a young Doctor newly come from the forge, hot and enthused for Holy Scriptures. When many people from Wittenberg went to Jüterbog and Zerbst for indulgences . . . I began to preach with moderation that one might do something better and more certain than buy an indulgence. I had already preached such here at the castle against indulgences, and so came into disfavor with Duke Frederick, for his foundation here was very dear to him . . . It came to me how Tetzel had preached gruesome, abominable articles of which I will mention a few. Namely: he had such clemency and power from the pope that if one had deflowered or even impregnated the Holy Virgin Mary, the mother of God, he could forgive it if that same one would put in the chest what was required . . . Another: if St. Peter were here now, he would not have greater clemency or power than he himself had. Another: he would not trade places in heaven with St. Peter; for he had with the indulgence saved more souls than St. Peter had with his sermons. Another: when one dropped a penny into the chest for a soul in purgatory, as soon as the coin chinked in the bottom the soul flew up into heaven . . . At the time I did not know who was to get the money . . . I wrote a letter with the 95 theses to the bishop at Magdeburg admonishing and pleading that he stop Tetzel and prevent such heavy-handed things from being preached, lest it might give rise to public unrest. Such was his duty as Archbishop . . . But no answer came to me . . . fn 3
Most of Luther’s 95 theses that he sent to the bishop as well as supposedly posted for discussion at the castle church (because it was the university church) on All Saints Eve (October 31) were well within the bounds of academic disputations. As he had earlier expressed in sermons he did not reject every aspect of indulgences but emphasized their use only in relieving temporal punishments imposed by the church. Again he objected to the false sense of security created by indulgences. Yet in his long list of theses, ten (42 though 51) went dangerously beyond the bounds of disputations. Most of these ten began “Christians are to be taught”. They virtually usurped the pope because they clearly stated just the opposite of what the pope was doing. For example, thesis 43 stated “Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to one in need does better than he who buys indulgences”. Thesis 50 stated “Christians are to be taught that if the pope knew the exactions of the preachers of indulgences he would rather have St. Peter’s church in ashes than have it built with the flesh and bones of his sheep”. fn 4

Luther was a baby at politics. The first rumors of political consequence for posting the 95 theses alarmed him. It was quite natural that rumors would say Frederick was behind the 95 theses. The rumors said Frederick was jealous of Archbishop Albrecht. The rumors said Frederick encouraged Luther because he was jealously guarding his own indulgences and resented some of his Saxons venturing over the territorial borders to spend their Saxon coins on indulgences. This misunderstanding was so wrenching to Luther that he offered to participate in any disputation on indulgences to prove it was the issue of spiritual importance and nothing else. fn 5 But who would give him the satisfaction? Although alarmed, Luther at this point was nevertheless still unaware of the enormity of the poison in his tirade against indulgences. His aim did not go beyond the Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz.

When Spalatin finally read the 95 theses to Frederick, his worldly sovereign concluded grimly, “You will see that the pope will not like this.” fn 7


And there the curious have it. A blustering naive genius ripe for the Roman fire except for the protection of the most powerful prince of the Holy Roman Empire. Oh, to be born a Saxon at this time! For in this same tract Luther states that Frederick had even once intervened to save the loudmouth Tetzel, a Saxon condemned by Emperor Maximilian to death by drowning. Oh, to be born a Saxon!
1. Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand (Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1950), 78, 87 (Hardcover). In German from Robert Herndon Fife , The Revolt of Martin Luther (NY: Columbia Un. Press, 1957), 255: “Sobald das Geld in Kasten klingt, Die Seele aus dem Fegefeuer springt.”
2. Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: His Road to Reformation, 1483-1521 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1985), 180–182.
3. Excerpts (translated by the author) Luther’s 1541 ‘Against Hans Wurst’ in Hutten Müntzer Luther v. 2 ed. Forschungs- und Gedenkstätten der klassischen deutschen Literatur in Weimar, Aufbau-Verlag Berlin und Weimar, 1978.
4. Preserved Smith, The Life and Letters of Martin Luther (Houghton Mifflin, 1911), 41–42.
5. Brecht 1985, 203.

6 Brecht 1985, 202–203. Also, Ingetraut Ludolphy, Friedrich der Weise: Kurfürst von Sachsen, 1463-1525 (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1984), 60, noted Frederick began wearing eyeglasses in 1516. Spalatin and others probably read a great deal to Frederick.