Luther, Martin (1483-1546)

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Martin Luther by Enoch Seemann the Younger
National Trust, Petworth House, England
Source: BBC Your Paintings.


Martin Luther, reformer and founder of the Lutheran Church, was born 10 November 1483 at Eisleben, Germany; died there on 18 February 1546. The subject of Luther and his relations with Anabaptism (Luther, with other opponents of Anabaptism, called them "Wiedertäufer") naturally falls into two parts; that is, a purely theological inquiry into his concept of baptism in general and infant baptism in particular, and an inquiry into the punitive measures against the Anabaptists desired or sponsored by Luther in connection with his basic position on the persecution of heretics.

Luther's Concept of Infant Baptism

Concerning baptism Luther expressed himself at some length for the first time in 1519 in his "Sermon on the Holy, Worthy Sacrament of Baptism" (WA II, 4 ff.). Infant baptism was not yet a problem here, but was taken for granted as premise; here Luther opposed the practice prevalent "at many places," of sprinkling with the hand, and wished that "the child be completely submerged in the water and pulled out again," to correspond with the meaning of baptism, "that the old man and sinful birth of flesh and blood is to be completely drowned through the grace of God"—only thus is it possible to satisfy the meaning of baptism and give "a true complete symbol." Baptism is furthermore a mark by which the people of Christ are recognized and which separates us from "all unbaptized human beings." This idea later became important for the idea of the mass church.

In contrast to the Catholic magical and sacramental view which soon (in the growing Christian life) replaced baptism with one's own works of repentance, or thought that "there was no longer any sin left, became lazy" and negligent, Luther stressed the obligation which baptism places upon the entire life—"therefore all of life is nothing but a spiritual baptism without cease until death"—in confidence in God's assurance, who in the sacrament "unites Himself with you and becomes one with you in a merciful comforting bond." For Luther the baptized person is in principle ("sacramentally") "entirely pure and innocent," but not in fact, since he is still living in the sinful flesh, and is now to become clean in the strength of the Holy Spirit, who is guaranteed in baptism. But it must never become "a false security," as if in trusting in the grace imparted by the sacrament one might live according to his own will: "See to it, if you so wickedly and willfully sin upon grace, that judgment does not seize you!" Faith is religious strength; when Luther designated it as "the most necessary of all and the foundation of all comfort," he interpreted faith in this connection as the sustaining foundation of life in baptism, and faith is thus seen not from the point of view of the child but of the adult, mature Christian.

This is different from the accents in De captivitate babylonica ecclesiae (Concerning the Babylonian Captivity of the Church) in 1520 (WA VI, 526 ff.). Here is found right at the beginning the statement that baptism is "most beneficial to children"; they are "initiated" thereby and "are sanctified by the most simple faith in the word of God." If this sacrament had been given to adults it would have lost its strength, since the devil would surely have had it sold for money as he then did the indulgences. According to the promise of Mark 16:16, faith is an absolute necessity for the proper working of baptism, to the extent that "faith can save even without the sacrament"; without faith baptism is harmful. Since this faith must accompany one throughout his entire life, it begins in the act of the baptism of the child as the "justifying" faith. Luther here logically deals with the objection that this faith is impossible in children "who do not grasp the promise of God and cannot have the faith of baptism." He solves this problem in harmony with tradition ("because all say it"; thereby he is thinking of the guarantee of the godparents) by stating that the faith of the person bringing the little child to the act of baptism comes to the assistance of the child. This is not to be understood to mean that this faith of another has a substitutionary effect but rather that it is evaluated as the prayer of the believing church which affects God so that the word of God works upon the child, just as it is also capable of transforming the heart of an ungodly man, "which is no less deaf and incapable than any little child." Thus the child is "transformed and renewed by a faith infused into him." The sacrament is capable of bursting even "the most obstinately opposed bar," especially here where it works through the strength of faith and of the prayer of the church.

In order to understand this view of Luther, the following must be observed. "As the sacrament of baptism is a gift of God, it is He who does something here, not man. This completely precludes the idea that baptism is to be considered an act of presentation of the child to God by the parents and the church as Zwingli thought of it. Faith too, however necessary, must be considered purely as an act of God, not as an act of expression of man; all subjective psychological anchorage is missing." Since it is a work of God, not of man, as Paul teaches (Ephesians 2:8), Luther rejected the concept of the baptism of children upon their future faith as adults as the Waldenses and Bohemian Brethren held it. And for this very reason infant baptism was religiously valuable to Luther because by it in his view children are put into right relationship with the sacramental activity of God, "not concerned to do any kind of effort or any kind of work, completely free, sure and blessed alone through the glory of their baptism." Little children are thus the perfect example for correct baptism. Furthermore, as the sacrament of initiation and the supporting foundation of faith, baptism can only be infant baptism.

Luther's Reasons for Infant Baptism and Infant Faith

Luther founded infant baptism and the faith of children on Matthew 19:14 or Matthew 2:16 (innocent children are "holy and blessed"), on John the Baptist who leaped in faith in his mother's womb (Luke 1:41), on the example of circumcision in the Old Covenant, on the baptism of whole families by the apostles (Acts 10:48; Acts 16:33; 1 Corinthians 1:16), and on Christian tradition "since the times of the apostles in all the world by all of Christendom," which God would surely not have allowed to continue if it had not been right, especially since all other heresies perished. But he admitted that there is in the New Testament no particular command to baptize children; they are included in "all the heathen" (Matthew 28:19). Just as the faith of a Christian remains with him in his sleep, unaware to him, so also faith can begin in children though they are unaware of it (WA 17, 2, 86).

Luther's Opposition to Anabaptism

These above principles as held by Luther show that any understanding with the Anabaptists was for Luther theologically impossible. He remained true to his concept of baptism expressed in 1520 and only stiffened in the objectivization of his doctrine of the sacrament in his dispute with Karlstadt and Zwingli, in which he became more and more unyielding. God's word of promise remained for him superior to the symbol, the water. "It is more important to teach God's word than to baptize" (WA 26, 164). Baptism is also subordinated to faith; "even if someone had never been baptized but did not know any better or firmly believed that he has been properly and surely baptized, such faith would still be enough for him, for as he believes, so he is before God" (WA 26, 171). But the effectiveness of the word is so immediately put into the symbol that this symbol, i.e., the water, becomes its bearer and is therefore taken away from the profane. It is no longer "simple water"; but it is "with" and "by" the water that baptism carries the strength of the word of God, of the promise of the forgiveness of sin.

At the same time the baptism of children "is the surest baptism of all" (WA 26, 157), precisely because the child "cannot deceive" but possesses the true passivity and receptivity of the believer. These two facts together make the act of baptism appear as an opus operatum and of magical Catholic nature, which was not at all Luther's intention. His religious interest lay in making the sacrament independent of human wishes, in the working out of the pure objectivity of God's work of grace. But Luther's formulation is theologically unsatisfying. His error lies in the impossibility of giving faith the theological significance here ascribed to it as a matter of principle. It is strange that this theologian of faith was unable to do this. He always feared "works," i.e., human self-righteousness, if faith should become "personal" in the modern sense.

Disputes with the Anabaptists

Luther disputed theologically with the Anabaptists only in literary form, and principally in four writings: (1) his booklet Von der Wiedertaufe an zwei Pfarrherrn of 1528 (WA 26, 137ff.); (2) the foreword to the book by Justus Menius, Der Wiedertäufer Lehre und Geheimnis of 1530 (WA 30, 2, 209ff.); (3) his Von den Schleichern und Winkelpredigern of 1532 (WA 30, 3, 510ff.); and (4) his sermons of 2, 9, 16, and 23 February 1528 (WA 27), as well as in the Kirchenpostille of 1523 for the Gospel on the third Sunday after Epiphany (WA 17, 2, 72 ff.), also separately published under the title Von der Kinder Tauf und fremdem Glauben in the introduction to Urbanus Rhegius' Widerlegung des Bekenntnisses der Münsterischen neuen Valentinianer und Donatisten und zur Neuen Zeitung von den Wiedertäufern zu Münster 1535 (WA 38, 336ff.). In addition there are his letters, his official opinions, and the expressions in his Table Talks.

Luther apparently did not have exact information on Anabaptist writings, however certainly he has "heard" and "read" and "knows" all manner of things (WA 26, 140). All individualization is missing, especially since Luther lumps the Anabaptists together with the Sacramentists (Zwingli, Karlstadt, Schwenckfeld, etc.), not entirely without justification, of course, to the extent that the Anabaptist doctrine of the communion was the same as that of Zwingli or Oecolampadius. It is of no significance that he declared "the error of the Anabaptists more tolerable than that of the sacramentists in this matter" (baptism), "for the Sacramentists completely destroy baptism, but they [the Anabaptists] make it new" (WA 26, 173); Anabaptists and Sacramentists remained for him still Pilate and Herod, who were united as one over and against Christ.

In the divisions of Anabaptism Luther sees a sign of its ungodliness. The Anabaptist limitation of baptism to the believer he considers entirely impossible, since the baptizer cannot look into the heart of a man to see whether he really believes. Such a baptism is a "baptism upon adventure" (Mark 16:16), even if there is talk of "the sure faith"; for the confession of the one to be baptized proves nothing, since he too is not "sure" of his faith since he is of course not free of temptation. (One is impressed with Luther's rejection of all anchoring of the grace of baptism in a human or emotional activity such as "trusting and building upon oneself and not upon the word of God alone.")

The Anabaptist practice of preaching in secret (in actuality the consequence of persecution) was to Luther "a certain sign of the devil," especially since they had no "call" to preach. The eschatological hope of certain Anabaptist circles for an earthly kingdom with the murder of all the ungodly (e.g., Müntzer) was to him an unchristian, seditious, and vengeful spirit (Luke 22:26). In Christology he accused the Anabaptists of Münster of teaching "that Christ did not receive His body from Mary, as they call it [but in Mary], although He was called the seed of David" (WA 38, 349). The claim of the Anabaptists to have authorization to speak because of the "Sitzrecht" (1 Corinthians 14:30, "If a revelation is made to another sitting by, let the first be silent") he definitely rejected with the interpretation that Paul was speaking of prophets, i.e., "teachers who have the office of preaching in the churches" (WA 30, 3, 522).

Luther rejected the whole idea of rebaptism (which was among the Anabaptists merely the practical consequence of their demand for adult baptism, and not a principle) with the argument that the person who performs the act of baptism is irrelevant; baptism "under the papacy" was also right, and Augustine had opposed the Donatists (WA 27, 42 ff.). "It was a mistake to build baptism on the faith of the baptizer; I base baptism on God's Word." Luther was here referring to the Donatists of the fourth century who rejected the baptism of a bishop who had recanted under persecution and then was restored to office.

In the moral demands of the Anabaptists, based on the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount (rejection of the oath and holding magisterial office, stress on the holy living of the believing Christian), Luther saw legalism, sedition, and the denial of ineradicable human sinfulness. His entire polemic here is however completely doctrinaire in rejecting realism and individual differentiation.

But it is undeniable that there were unbridgeable theological differences between the two sides; and just as Luther failed to try to understand the Anabaptists, so also did the Anabaptists fail to understand him when they pointed out the ineffectiveness of infant baptism. This last argument in particular was not fair to Luther, since he had from the beginning attacked the inadequacy of the bare act of infant baptism as such and pointed out its ineffectiveness for the whole of life. (See also Bender summary at the end of the article)

Luther and the Catholic Heresy Laws

The manner of the proceedings against the Anabaptists by both church and secular authorities, which Luther advocated and desired, is rightly to be seen as a part of the whole question of Reformation and "heresy." Anabaptism offered the principal practical occasion for his consideration of the question of what legal procedures were to be applied to heretics.

To be sure, the first basic statements by Luther on this question were made in regard to his own case and were against the existing Catholic heresy laws. "The burning of heretics is contrary to the will of the Holy Spirit," says one of the paragraphs of the 95 theses of 1517 (WA I, 624; see 391 f.), and in the Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation in 1520 he said, "Heretics must be overcome with the Scriptures, not with fire; if it were an art to overcome heretics with fire, then the executioners would be the most learned doctors on earth" (WA 6, 455). Spiritual things must be judged spiritually (1 Corinthians 2:13); the government is not lord of the conscience, but has only to do with temporal, not with spiritual order. On the other hand, the church has its own means of discipline by the norm of Matthew 18:16 ff., i.e., by brotherly admonition and finally the ban, which may, however, not extend into the civil sphere (see Sermon on the Ban of 1518, published in 1520, WA VI, 61 ff).

Luther's sharp differentiation between the Gospel and the world works itself out logically here. "The soul's thoughts and feelings can be known to none but God; therefore it is . . . impossible to command and compel anyone with force to believe thus or so; another approach is needed for this; force will not do it" (1523, WA 11, 264). This "other approach" was to fight with the word of the Bible, and Luther was firmly convinced that it would win the day with everyone in the one true understanding comprehensible to all. "God's Word illumines the hearts, and thereby all heresy and error will vanish from the heart" (WA 11, 269). Luther's strength of faith was able here to demonstrate splendid strength and confidence in the purely spiritual conquest of heresy; only lack of faith doubts the effectiveness, of the Holy Scriptures. "I believe that the idea of burning heretics comes from the fear of being unable to overcome them with the Word" (1520, WA 6, 582). "Let the spirits burst and clash one with the other. If some meanwhile are misled, very well, that is what happens in the real course of war; where there is strife and battle, there some must fall" (WA 15, 219). Heresy appears, entirely within the sphere of faith, as an aspect of divine leading of history; heresy is necessary from this point of view (Matthew 18:7; 1 Corinthians 11:19). "It is a plague of divine wrath" over sin; heretics admonish to alertness, "cause the faith and the doctrine of the church to be practiced," thereby promoting it directly. "If Cerinthus had not been, then John the Evangelist would never have written his Gospel." Indeed, there is truth concealed in heresy—"There has never been a heresy that has not stated some truth" (1525, WA 14, 694). All these are verdicts of faith.

These verdicts in part fall into the period when Anabaptism had already entered in the field of Luther's vision. In Part II of the booklet Of Worldly Government, to What Extent Obedience Is Its Due (1523) the statement is defended in the sharpest imaginable manner that "Heresy can never be resisted with fire" (WA 11, 268); if there is heresy, let it be overcome, as is proper, with God's Word (WA 11, 270), even though Luther is not here referring to the Anabaptist movement, but was led to this formulation of the issue by Melanchthon. In his writing, A Letter to the Princes of Saxony Concerning the Seditious Spirit (1524), which is concerned directly with Müntzer, but indirectly with Karlstadt and the "Schwarmgeister," Luther writes, "Just let them preach as they like and with confidence; for, as I have said, there must be sects and the Word of God must go to the battle field and fight" (WA 15, 218). But now, disturbed by the violent iconoclastic seditious aggression of Müntzer (WA 15, 200 f.), he drew a sharp line: "But if they want to do more than fight with the Word, and also want to break and strike with the fist, there your Excellency shall attack, be it we or they, and let them be at once expelled from the country" (WA 15, 219), i.e., then they are to be punished by the government as rebels, for they then themselves overstep the Christian area of action and enter into the secular area which is the concern of the government.

Fighting the Anabaptists with Secular Power

Unfortunately in Luther's mind the Anabaptist movement came more and more into the category of sedition, partly because of civil disturbances connected with the movement (e.g., WA 30, 3, 513), partly because of radical utterances on the part of certain Anabaptists, and partly because of more or less biased reports. Consequently Luther was never able to recognize the quiet, purely religious Anabaptism. It was to him not a matter for spiritual weapons, since he was unable to differentiate them, and no longer saw any of them as purely spiritual opponents. In the foreword to the Instruction of the Inspectors to the Pastors in the Electorate of Saxony (1528, WA 26, 200) Luther speaks of the duty of the government to see that "dissension, partisan spirit, and sedition do not arise among their subjects." This statement concerned the prohibition of all Anabaptist literature in Saxony. For Luther the Anabaptists were no longer "sinners primarily against religion," but rather "against the essence of the state" (Wappler, Kursachsen, 15).

In the punishment of Anabaptists as revolutionaries Luther, in an official opinion to Philipp of Hesse, gave the ruler the right to decide. According to the occasion of the incidents he might pardon, expel, or in the case of obstinate transgressors against the ruler's mandates—execute with the sword. To be sure, in a letter of 14 July 1528 (Enders VI, 299 ff.), he wrote, "I hesitate to pass the death sentence, even when it has been amply merited; their expulsion is sufficient." And in 1530 in his Exposition of Psalm 82 (WA 30, 1, 192 ff.) he warned the state not to abuse its power and sought to protect and retain the moral character of the governmental "majesty." Nevertheless, in practice he became more and more inexorable, recommending that "corner preachers," Anabaptists, etc., be commended to the executioner. Luther's judgment became definitive for Saxony's treatment of the Anabaptists, even though he cannot be held accountable for particulars. He approved the imperial mandates against the Anabaptists of 1529 ff.

A second line of thought plays a part in Luther's attitude. In the letter to Lazarus Spengler, 4 February 1525 (Enders V, 117), Luther wrote that he did not yet consider Anabaptism (Schwärmertum) blasphemous. After about 1528, in connection with his opinion that Anabaptism was essentially seditious and in view of the fact that the preaching of the Word, which he had hitherto believed would always be victorious, was failing here, he changed his mind and demanded a ruthless application of the penalty for blasphemy, as found in natural law (equivalent to the second commandment), in the Old Testament (Leviticus 24:16), and in the Justinian Code. The objectivity of the fact of blasphemy seemed to Luther so compelling that in 1530 in his Exposition of Psalm 82 and in 1531 in his concurrence with Melanchthon he said that heretics (Anabaptists) should be condemned even without trial and process of law. Even if the potentate acts too hastily, he is still right (WA 31, 1, p. 309 Corp. Ref. IV, 740).

Luther Favors the Execution of Anabaptists with the Sword

From this point of view Luther's famous official opinion of 1531 (not 1541!) in cooperation with the Wittenberg theologians must be understood (Corp. Ref. IV, 737 ff.). It repeats his views in a more or less classical form and must not be weakened. His addition to the decision of his colleagues is explained by the fact that John of Saxony had requested an opinion of the theological faculty as a whole and of Luther in particular. The opinion was formulated by Melanchthon, but Luther added the words "I approve," and expressly sanctioned the executions of heretics, "although it is terrible to view." He did this for four reasons: (1) They condemn the office of preaching the Word. (2) They have no definite doctrine. (3) They suppress true doctrine. (4) They want to destroy the kingdom of this world.

All four points, even the condemnation of the office of preaching and their false doctrine, were included in the category of sedition and blasphemy, and were therefore, on the basis of the second commandment, to be punished by the government. This was not at all a matter of interference by the state in the inner realm of faith; it was a question of the preservation of public order, which lies in the hand of the sword of government. Anabaptism was punished as a crime against the public, not because its faith was different, but because it (in Luther's opinion) disturbed public order through sedition and blasphemy.

Luther often replied to objections to this view, raised in part by himself and in part by others. He did so especially in his Exposition of Psalm 82 in 1530 (WA 31, 1, 183 ff.), where he replied to the charge by Lazarus Spengler, of Nürnberg, that he (Luther) contradicted himself. He held to the principle that "no one should or can be compelled to believe"; but if one is punished for teaching contrary to the creed, he is not punished as a "simple heretic," but as a "public blasphemer, subject to secular penalties. Personally one may believe what he will; on inner matters of faith no judge passes sentence," but teaching and blaspheming are prohibited, "unless the teacher goes where there are no Christians." The Papists, who confess the Apostles' Creed, were logically not included among the blasphemers.

The congregating of nonconformists who cannot be compelled to believe is to be punished by the government for the reason that "corner preaching" foments disturbance and sedition; here too it was not the heretical belief that was punished. Luther also forbade Protestant clergymen to preach to the congregation of "a Papist or a heretic," seeing sedition in the very act of preaching without an official call. But why were the Jews, who blaspheme against Christ, not punished as blasphemers? Luther replied: they were already punished in their "staying outside Christendom, and furthermore are not admitted to public office." Furthermore, they would be punished if they blasphemed openly or by "corner preaching" in Christian homes. But on these principles, would it not be possible for "the tyrants who persecuted the Gospel," i.e., the Catholics, to punish the Evangelicals in whom they see blasphemers? "Answer: what difference does that make?" The kings of Israel killed some true prophets also, nevertheless the command to stone the false prophets remained in force.

Furthermore, a citizen is obliged to report to the magistrate and to the pastor any case of a corner preacher that might come to him. Should he not do this, he would be acting contrary to his oath of loyalty to the magistrate, and would be acting as a despiser of the pastor, to whom he owes the honor, and would be against God, and would be guilty along with the corner preachers of causing trouble.

Luther's Distinction in the Matter of Heresy

Luther's Sermon on Matthew 13:24 ff. (the tares among the wheat) of 7 February 1546, thus shortly before his death (EA XX, 2, 2nd ed. 540 ff.) maintained this position and is not to be construed as moderation due to old age. One should remember that by this time the threat which Luther saw in Anabaptism and Schwärmertum no longer existed; no more sedition (Aufruhr) and no more blasphemy was in evidence. The tares, it is true, still included heretics, conspiracies, and sects (Ketzer, Rotten und Sekten) but these were "within the church" (ibid., 555, 558), and were not to be considered as disturbers of public order or as blasphemers. Hence the severest penalty was to be only the ban of the church, not governmental punishment, "no human power and might."  Here the heretic is "only a heretic."

The much-debated question whether Luther sought to establish the death penalty for heresy is therefore to be answered thus: a distinction is to be made between two kinds of heretics, i.e., those who are "only heretics," namely, those who diverge from the official doctrines of the church only in purely internal churchly matters which have no public significance, and those whose divergent teaching occasions public unrest or blasphemy of God. This latter kind of heresy is a public crime and as such falls into the sphere of the state authorities, who punish such cases in accord with the existing laws on rebellion and blasphemy, usually with the death penalty. Such cases of heresy were to be reported, although the reporting was to be not only to the civil authorities but also to the pastor; the pastor was to be considered in this case not as the representative of the church but as the state-appointed guardian against blasphemy.

On the other hand, the other type of heretics, the "only heretics," did not fall within the sphere of the state, but were subject only to church discipline (Matthew 18:16 ff.). Of course it is true that in practice this type seldom occurred any more since the failure of the earlier disputations to win them (although disputations were not completely abandoned). This was not due to any inconsistency on Luther's part or any abandonment of his principles, but to the fact that in those days (quite differently from the present time) the state and society were understood to be controlled by Christian principles.

The Apostles' Creed was at that time, so Luther understood, the fundamental constitution of Christian society, and consequently the state and the public were under a creed which included particularly the whole of Christian theology, and which accordingly required that the state punish in the civil courts the holding of doctrines which no longer concern the modern state. A Christian government would have to consider as blasphemy against God (and punish appropriately) any offense against the Gospel, and that included the rejection of infant baptism. And in a consciously Christian society divergences in church matters could scarcely be distinguished in practice from civil disorders and conflicts. The state was the "custodian of the two tablets," i.e., it was also the guardian of order in the church, was sensitive to sedition in this area, and punished accordingly. As a result the heretic who was "only a heretic" practically ceased to exist.

But in this respect Luther did not belong to the Middle Ages (as N. Paulus claimed), nor is therefore the Reformation type of heresy trial, which was based upon Luther's ideas, to be rated as a Catholic inquisition trial. The Catholic-medieval principle that the church investigates, while the state executes, was absolutely not Luther's concept. He dissolved the connection of church and world at this point. In him there could be no church-state heresy trial, but rather two theoretically sharply distinct trials, one the ecclesiastical trial against the heretic, as a pure heretic, and the other the state trial against rebels and blasphemers.

Elimination of the State Heresy Trial after the Separation of Church and State

According to Luther's concept then, the executions of Anabaptists took place only on the basis of the second type of civil heresy trial, not on the basis of the first type of ecclesiastical trial. The result was of course the same as it was in the Middle Ages; the heretics were persecuted and as much as possible wiped out. But the above distinction [of two types of heresy trial] is therefore not to be considered as superficial or a piece of sophistication. It became highly important when the "Christian" character of the state and society vanished. As the obligations of the state to punish the heretic ceased, the ecclesiastical heresy trial against the "pure heretics" was all that remained, and the Protestant church never demanded that the "pure heretic" should be punished by the state. It was just because the church was not interested in this matter that she unreservedly endorsed the development of the modern state. Such was not the case in Catholicism—think of Spain, for instance. Wherever in Catholicism the bond between church and state was dissolved in the matter of heresy trials, it was dissolved by the state and not by the church. This important difference in the general development of culture and ideas was the result of Luther's position.

The tragedy is to be seen in the fact that as a result of the interrelationship of the most diverse circumstances from which the self-responsibility of certain individual Anabaptists cannot always be excluded, Anabaptism was not evaluated by Luther on the basis of its own religious quality and depth. There were, to be sure, isolated instances when Luther spoke words of recognition for the martyr courage of Anabaptists (Enders 6, 263), but to the end Anabaptism remained for him the "seditious spirit" (aufrührerische Geist). Even after the bloody persecutions ceased, Anabaptism suffered severely in the public mind because of Luther's verdict. Reformation historiography by the 1950s was successfully trying to correct Luther's verdict. -- Walther Köhler

Köhler makes it clear that Luther's recommendation of harsh action against the Anabaptists, including the death penalty, was based upon his belief, shared by Melanchthon, that they were guilty of sedition and blasphemy. It is difficult, however, to avoid the feeling that a major cause for the severity was the simple fear that the Anabaptists might gain sufficient influence to threaten the success of the Reformation by winning too many adherents to their cause and thus breaking the monopoly of the church which Luther and Melanchthon were establishing. In the earlier period of his activity, as Köhler points out, in the high confidence which Luther had in the victory of the truth he was proclaiming, Luther was quite willing to let others speak, in the confidence that the true Word of God would overcome all heresy. Later, shaken by the Peasants' War and the ensuing reaction, as well as by general evidence that the support of the populace for true spiritual religion was not all that he expected or considered necessary, he leaned more and more on the arm of flesh, the ecclesiastical and political power to guarantee the success of the evangelical movement. At that point it was safer to call on force than to risk the free contest of ideas. In addition to this, the general fear of revolutionary uprisings evoked by the Peasants' War and Thomas Müntzer, as well as by other minor incidents related to the Anabaptists, makes it easy to understand that Luther's insecurity could intensify the appeal to force.

But on what just background could Anabaptists, who did not deny the Apostles' Creed or any article of it more than did the Roman Catholics, be accused of blasphemy? The common and standard meaning of blasphemy is abandoned if rejection of infant baptism is blasphemy. Was any major deviation from the established faith to be rated as blasphemy?

The charge of sedition is likewise very suspect, no matter how sincerely it may have been believed. Philipp of Hesse did not take the charge seriously, neither did Johannes Brenz and others who could be mentioned. Bainton has pointed out that "Luther construed mere abstention from public office and military service as sedition" (Here I Stand, 376). The Anabaptists were arrested as disturbers of the peace, but actually because Luther considered the introduction of a second and rival religion into a locality to be a disturbance of the public order. The greatest irony, however, is the repeated condemnation of the Anabaptists by Luther and other reformers as "corner-preachers," i.e., as conducting private and not public services. But when did the authorities or Luther ever offer or permit the Anabaptists the privilege of public preaching? Anabaptist preachers were discredited by Luther also because they had no proper call, i.e., because they were not appointed by his official state church, regardless of the call from their own brotherhood church.

Luther and Melanchthon can be understood as children of their time, but they can not be excused from rising above it as others did, notably the Strasburg authorities and Philipp of Hesse, who, like others, saw that the better answer to the Anabaptists was not to execute them but to improve the life and character of the preachers and church members and thus remove a major ground of Anabaptist criticism.

Köhler makes baptism the chief point of difference between Luther and the Anabaptists. An adequate understanding, however, calls for the recognition of other major points of difference. The most important of all was the concept of the church. The Anabaptists called for a brotherhood composed of adult and responsible believers only, committed to full discipleship, a voluntary, free and holy church. Baptism on confession of faith was one of the symbols of this church and the only mode of entrance. Luther, who understood well this vision, rejected it as impracticable and chose to maintain the traditional concept of the mass church with the entire population included in it by compulsory infant baptism. This was the real break of the Anabaptists with the Reformation. With this concept of the church it is easy to understand why the Anabaptists, as Albrecht Ritschl says, "considered themselves to be the ones who were bringing to its true conclusion the work of restoration of the church which Luther and Zwingli had begun" (Geschichte des Pietismus, 7), …"the more thorough, decisive, and complete Reformation which Luther surrendered in 1522 and Zwingli in 1524" (p. 22, Ritschl summarizing the view of Max Göbel). Here lies a vast difference in basic central position, and not just a disagreement in the meaning of baptism. -- Harold S. Bender


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Additional Information

Christian Classics Ethereal Library (Search for Martin Luther)

Project Wittenburg website

Author(s) Walther Köhler
Harold S. Bender
Date Published 1957

Cite This Article

MLA style

Köhler, Walther and Harold S. Bender. "Luther, Martin (1483-1546)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1957. Web. 10 Dec 2023.,_Martin_(1483-1546)&oldid=172007.

APA style

Köhler, Walther and Harold S. Bender. (1957). Luther, Martin (1483-1546). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 10 December 2023, from,_Martin_(1483-1546)&oldid=172007.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 3, pp. 416-422. All rights reserved.

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