Martin Luther: Ambiguous or Misunderstood?


1.      Read the background information below.

Know (take notes – not a formal response): 

·         Why Lutheranism cut across class lines and appeal to so many people

·         How his message was spread

·         Why peasants embraced Luther’s message

·         Significance and purpose of the 12 articles

·         How Luther defined freedom vs. peasants and why this was problematic

The Impact of Luther and the Radical Reformation

By the early 1520s, Luther had attracted a vast following while the printing presses spread his message and reputation across Germany. With his death in 1546, we can find people of all social classes who had clearly sided with Luther and Lutheranism. The major question we must ask remains this: why did Lutheranism cut across class lines and appeal to so many people? What was so passionate about Luther's message that made people turn their back on the Roman Church?

The explanations for Luther's success may be endlessly debated by scholars but for the most part, and leaving theological opinion aside, we can say that the people were prepared for the message Luther delivered. Is it simply a matter of Luther appearing at the right time and in the right place? Perhaps. Since the 15th century there had been a growing resentment against clerical privilege. The clergy paid no taxes and were exempt from those civic responsibilities that increasingly fell on the shoulders of the urban dweller. Added to this simple fact was the increased visibility of the clergy -- there in the cities the common person could witness the luxury and splendor of a church whose purpose was to minister the spiritual needs of its flock but which now seemed indifferent, lax and, in a word, corrupt. Luther, then, offered an alternative that was appealing perhaps for the simple reason that is was an alternative.

Luther's religion was also spread by preachers who were to deliver approximately one hundred sermons per year, each lasting about forty-five minutes. Although Luther thought the Eucharist to be one of the most important sacraments in the Lutheran religious gathering, it was clearly the sermon that became the central focus of the service.

Meanwhile, German peasants in the countryside flocked to Luther's camp. Such a development was perhaps unsurprising since Luther himself was of peasant stock. The peasants also backed Luther's criticism of the authority of the Roman Church. In 1520, Luther had written, "A Christian man is the most free lord of all and subject to none" (On Christian Liberty). Such a statement would have fallen on ready ears since there were numerous instances of social unrest throughout the 15th century. The situation was made worse in the 16th century by crop failures in 1523 and 1524. In 1525, representatives of the peasants of Swabia drew up what were called the "Twelve Articles," a document that expressed their grievances. The Articles focused on social and economic grievances and clearly were not intended to raise debate about theological issues. Furthermore, the peasants complained that the nobility had seized the common lands of the villages and had increased dues and taxes at the same time. So, the peasants appealed to Luther because they believed that he could prove that their demands were in accordance with Scripture.

But Luther was no revolutionary and wished to avoid social rebellion at all costs. In his An Admonition to Peace, he took the side of the peasantry and criticized the manorial lords. However, he did not justify armed force. In Swabia, Thuringia, the Rhineland and elsewhere, the peasants spoke of "God's righteousness," and the "Word of God," in an effort to have their social and economic grievances addressed. But support from Luther was not to come. Luther had, of course, spoken many times of the freedom of the Christian, but he was speaking in terms of religious faith and not matters pertaining to society. Freedom meant independence from Rome. In response to the peasant's rebellion Luther wrote AGAINST THE MURDEROUS, THIEVING HORDES OF PEASANTS. In the wake of this tract the nobility quelled the rebellion and by 1525, it is quite possible that 100,000 peasants had been killed.

2.      Read AGAINST THE MURDEROUS, THIEVING HORDES OF PEASANTS and answer the following questions (2 full paragraphs, single-space, typed) using specific examples from the text: