Freethought Archives > G W Foote > Flowers of Freethought


"LUTHER," says Heine, "was not only the greatest, but also the most thoroughly German, hero of our history." Carlyle says that "no more valiant man, no mortal heart to be called braver, ever lived in that Teutonic kindred, whose character is valor." Michelet calls him "the Arminius of modern Germany." Twenty tributes to Luther's greatness might be added, all more or less memorable; but these, from three very diverse men, will suffice for our present purpose. Martin Luther was a great man. Whoever questions it must appeal to new definitions.

A great difference lay between the cold, saturnine Pope of Geneva and the frank, exuberant hero of the German Reformation. Their doctrines were similar; there was a likeness between their mistakes; but what a diversity in their natures! Calvin was the perfect type of the theological pedant -- vain, meagre, and arid; while Luther had in him, as Heine remarks, "something aboriginal"; and the world has, after all, profited by "the God-like brutality of Brother Martin."

The nature of this great man was suited to his task. It required no great intellectual power to see through the tricks of Papal priestcraft, which had, indeed, been the jest of the educated and thoughtful for generations. But it required gigantic courage to become the spokesman of discontent, to attack an imposture which was supported by universal popular credulity, by a well-nigh omnipotent Church, and by the keen-edged, merciless swords of kings and emperors. Still more, it required an indisputable elevation of nature to attack the imposture where, as in the sale of indulgences, it threatened the very essence of personal and social morality. Hundreds of persons may be hatching a new truth in unknown concert, but when a battle for humanity has to be fought, someone must begin, and begin decisively. Luther stepped out as protagonist in the great struggle of his time; and Freethought is not so barren in great names that it need envy Brother Martin his righteous applause. Indeed, it seems to me that Freethinkers are in a position to esteem Luther more justly than Christians. Seeing what was his task, and how it demanded a stormy, impetuous nature, we can thank Luther for accomplishing it, while recognising his great defects, his faults of temper and the narrowness of his views; defects, I would add, which it were unnecessary to dwell on if Protestants did not magnify them into virtues, or if they did not illustrate the inherent vices of Christianity itself.

Strong for his life-task, Luther was weak in other respects. Like Dr. Johnson, there were strange depths in his character, but none in his intellect. He emitted many flashes of genius in writing and talking, but they all came from the heart, and chiefly from the domestic affections. He broke away from the Papacy, but he only abandoned Catholicism so far as it conflicted with the most obvious morality. He retained all its capital superstitions. Mr. Froude puts the case very mildly when he says that "Erasmus knew many things which it would have been well for Luther to have known." Erasmus would not have called Copernicus "an old fool," or have answered him by appealing to Joshua. Erasmus would not have seen a special providence in the most trifling accidents. Erasmus would not have allowed devils to worry him. Above all, Erasmus would not have pursued those who were heretics to his doctrine with all the animosity of a Papal bigot. Such differences induced Mr. Matthew Arnold to call Luther a Philistine of genius; just as they led Goethe to say that Luther threw back the intellectual progress of mankind for centuries. Another poet, Shelley, seems to me to have hit the precise truth in his "Ode to Liberty":

      Luther caught thy wakening glance:
      Like lightning from his leaden lance
Reflected, it dissolved the vision of the trance
   In which, as in a tomb, the nations lay.

Shelley's epithet is perfect. Luther's lance was big and potent. It wrought terrible havoc among the enemy. But it was leaden. It overthrew, but it did not transfix.

This is not the place to relate how Luther played the Pope in his own way; how he persecuted the Zwinglians because they went farther than himself on the subject of the real presence; how he barked at the Swiss reformers, how he pursued Andreas Bodenstein for a difference on infant baptism; how he treated Münzer and the Anabaptists; how he hounded on the nobles to suppress the peasant revolt and "stab, kill, and strangle them without mercy"; or how he was for handing over to the executioner all who denied a single article which rested on the Scripture or the authority of the universal teaching of the Church. My purpose is to show Luther's attitude towards the Devil, witches, apparitions, and all the rest of that ghostly tribe; and in doing so I have no wish to indulge in "the most small sneer" which Carlyle reprobates; although I do think it a great pity that such a man as Luther should have been a slave to superstitions which Erasmus would have met with a wholesome jest.

Neither Jews nor witches fared any the better for the Reformation, until it had far outgrown the intention of its founders. Brother Martin hated the Jews, thought many of them sorcerers, and praised the Duke of Saxony for killing a Jew in testing a talisman. As for witches, he said, "I would have no compassion on them -- I would burn them all." Poor creatures! Yet Luther was naturally compassionate. It was the fatal superstition which steeled his heart. Still there are dainty sceptics who tell us not to attack superstition. I point them to Martin Luther burning witches.

Brother Martin lived in God's presence, but they were generally three, for the Devil was seldom absent. His Satanic Majesty plagued the poor Reformer's life till he wished himself safe in heaven. Sometimes the fiend suggested impious doubts, and at other times suicide. He attributed his chronic vertigo to the Devil, because the physic he took did him no good. So familiar did the Devil become that Luther, hearing him walk overhead at night, would say "Oh, is it you?" and go to sleep again. Once, when he was marrying an aristocratic couple, the wedding ring slipped out of his fingers at a critical moment. He was frightened, but, recovering himself, he exclaimed, "Listen, Devil, it is not your business, you are wasting your time." The famous scene in which Luther threw an inkstand at the Devil is legendary, though Coleridge, Carlyle and others have made it the theme of their eloquence; and the ink-stain still shown on the wall at Wartburg is like the stain of Rizzio's blood in Holyrood Palace.

Luther's own visions were largely due to dyspepsia and an active imagination. He said that the Devil troubled him less at night when he took a good "night-cap," which made him sleep soundly. He found that the Devil could not stand music, being a sad and sombre personage; just as, long before, music was found a sovereign recipe for the melancholia of King Saul. But the surest specific was railing and derision. When, Luther called him names, or laughed at him, the Devil vanished in a huff. Brother Martin was plain-spoken at the best of times, but on these occasions he was too downright for quotation. Michelet gives a choice sample; but though the French language allows more licence than ours, he is obliged to give but the first letter of one of Luther's vigorous substantives. Brother Martin displayed a sly humor in one of his stories about Satan. A possessed person was taken into a monastery, and the devil in him said to the monks, "O my people, what have I done?" -- Popule meus, quid feci tibi?

According to Luther, fair and foul winds were caused by good and evil spirits. He spoke of a terrible lake in Switzerland, haunted by the Devil, and said there was a similar one in his own country. If a stone was thrown into it, a frightful storm shook the whole locality. The Devil made people idiots, cripples, blind, deaf and dumb; and Luther declared that the doctors who treated such infirmities as natural had a great deal to learn in demonology. One or two of his stories of possession are extremely gruesome. With his own lusty love of life, Luther could not understand suicide, so he attributed that also to the Devil. Satan made the suicides think they were doing something else; even praying, and thus he killed them. Brother Martin, indeed, sometimes feared the Devil would twist his neck or press his skull into his brains. Nor did he shrink from the darkest developments of this superstition. He held that the Devil could assume the form of a man or a woman, cohabit with human beings of the opposite sex, and become a father or a mother. "Eight years ago," said Luther, "I saw and touched myself at Dessau a child who had no parents, and was born of the Devil. He was twelve years old, and shaped like an ordinary child. He did nothing but eat, and ate as much as three peasants or threshers. When he was touched he cried out like one possessed; if any unfortunate accident happened in the house, he rejoiced and laughed; if, on the contrary, all went well, he wept continually. I said to the princes of Anhalt, with whom I then was: If I commanded here I would have that child thrown into the Moldau, at the risk of being its murderer. But the Elector of Saxony and the princes were not of my opinion."

Here is a case in which the Doctor of Divinity, though naturally a kind man, is quite ready to take human life at the behest of a devilish superstition, while the less fanatical laymen shrink from such inhumanity. The only devil in this story is the devil of fearful ignorance and misbelief in Brother Martin, He it was who needed the exorcist, although the truth would have greatly surprised him. Carlyle may use his snarling muscles at the "apothecary's apprentice" who is able to give a scientific explanation of Luther's visions; but, after all, the unfortunate persons whom Luther would have murdered by mistake might be pardoned for preferring the apothecary's apprentice to the Protestant Pope. The fact is, the doctrine of devils, of demoniacal possession, of incubi and succubi, and of sorcery and witchcraft, was not fostered by laymen so much as by the clergy. Lecky remarks that "almost all the great works written in favor of the executions were written by ecclesiastics," and Tylor asserts that "the guilt of thus bringing down Europe intellectually and morally to the level of negro Africa" lies mainly upon the Church, Protestant being as bad as Catholic, for they vied in outraging and killing those who were doomed, by the ghastliest of superstitions, to be "for life and death of all creatures the most wretched." Eternal honor to Luther for the heroism which sent him to Worms, and made him exclaim to his dissuaders: "I will go if there are as many devils in Worms as there are tiles upon the roofs of the houses." But eternal hatred and contempt for the Creed which degraded heroes into Jack the Rippers. I say the Creed; for Christianity cannot be exculpated. Witchcraft, possession, and sexual intercourse between human and superhuman beings, are distinctly taught in the Bible; and if there were no other indictment of Christianity, the awful massacre and torture of millions of helpless women and children would suffice to damn it everlastingly.

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