The State and Culture

Luther lived in politically and socially troubled times. Probably conditioned by his conservative nature, his idea was as far as possible to stay out of the political struggles. This was not always possible – and certainly not in the greatest and most difficult of the many contemporary conflicts: the Peasant Revolt.  

The aggrieved and oppressed peasants rebelled against their sovereigns in large parts of Germany, especially, in the south-western parts of the country. In 1524, the rioting became more widespread in and threatened to plunge the whole country into chaos.  

In the beginning, the demands of the peasants were relatively moderate and well-founded. Luther followed the course of events with great interest and supported them against the princes, whom he rebuked severely. He quite understood the social legitimacy of the uprising.   But when the peasants, instead of negotiating, took the law into their own hands and employed heavy-handed methods and even cited the Gospel in support of their social demands, in other words, pursued Christian politics, Luther’s sympathy turned into the fiercest wrath.  

He now advised the princes to drive the rebels out like mad dogs and described the princes’ participation in the fight against the peasantry as a service to God. The peasants were defeated and almost annihilated in a bloody battle in 1525.  

Consequently, the judgment of posterity about what happened in 1524-1525 has generally been very severe, and it is often thought that Luther and Lutheranism had failed the first major popular and social revolution.  

Luther’s way of dealing had partly a political and partly a religious justification.  

First, the political: to Luther the Fall of Man and the evil of the world were realities. He knew something about the power in the world caused by selfishness, violence and oppression, and he was convinced that the authorities were appointed by God to keep people from evil in order to prevent violence and oppression from spreading beyond all limits. The exertion of evil can only be held in check by force, and the authorities should, therefore, use the sword with a clear conscience. They were appointed by God to do so.  

The mission of the authorities was to practice law and equity. To Luther it was utterly clear that law and court, not the Gospel and love, were to prevail in the state. If the prince fails, it can certainly be the pastor’s task to rebuke him – which was what Luther did in the beginning of the Peasant Rebellion. But even a bad authority was appointed by God and had to fulfil its vocation and mission, consequently, the subjects have no right of resistance.

Second, the religious justification: the peasants had demanded a new regime in the name of the Gospel. This was the central point where Luther definitely had to say no.

His greatest achievement in the political sphere was perhaps that he had learned to distinguish between “Gottesreich” and “Weltreich”, between spiritual and secular kingdoms. Politically, this was something extremely revolutionary directed against the Church’s secular power and against the medieval learning about the “two swords” that controlled the world.

Luther believed that the authorities are inserted directly by God and their specific task is to keep violence and repression down and maintain a measure of justice and equity. Without peace, that only the authorities can ensure, man cannot live life fully and earn his daily bread, and without peace the Gospel cannot be preached either. On the other hand, the authorities have nothing to do in the spiritual kingdom where the Word and love prevail.   Next to his position in the peasant revolt, his attitude towards the Jews has most frequently given rise to sharp criticism. In his youth, Luther was relatively humane and obliging in his view of the Jews. He hoped for their conversion to Christianity. Over the years, he became more and more biting; and also here expressed his anger in violent and abusive terms.   The reason for this development was of dual nature: The Jews had not wanted to receive Christ and the Gospel; they had crucified the Saviour. To this it may be added that more than any other social class, the Jews were a manifestation of the economic system forcing its way, the incipient capitalism, you may call it, which Luther saw as the source of countless calamities in society. It was especially the lending of money at interest and the associated usury that aroused his indignation. However, one can find no racial reasons for his hatred of Jews.  

One of Luther’s major contributions in the cultural field is attached to the word “calling”. In the Middle Ages, this was the term for a particular religious calling as priests, monks and other sacrosanct people heard it, a calling that distinguished them from ordinary people and consecrated them to specific tasks. To Luther calling came to mean something completely different. It belonged together with another key word, “occupation”, that meant almost the same.  

Any honest craftsmanship, indeed any useful human occupation is a God given gift and is therefore as good as any other calling. Man’s task is, in humility and obedience, to follow the Words of God in order to subjugate the Earth and live in marriage. The word “work” loses its tone of something heavy and self-denying and purely physical work is of the same dignity as spiritual.  

This alone was of unprecedented importance in Europe’s social history. In principle, it is made clear that any occupation and any rank please God.  In a sense it can also be said that this signifies a consecration of worldly life.  

The Lutheran Council of Great Britain
30 Thanet Street London WC1H 9QH
Registered Charity No. 232042

The State and Culture

Luther lived in politically and socially troubled times. Probably conditioned by his conservative nature, his idea was as far as possible to stay out of the political struggles. This was not always possible – and certainly not in the greatest and most difficult of the many contemporary conflicts: the Peasant Revolt.  

The aggrieved and oppressed peasants rebelled against their sovereigns in large parts of Germany, especially, in the south-western parts of the country. In 1524, the rioting became more widespread in and threatened to plunge the whole country into chaos.  

In the beginning, the demands of the peasants were relatively moderate and well-founded. Luther followed the course of events with great interest and supported them against the princes, whom he rebuked severely. He quite understood the social legitimacy of the uprising.   But when the peasants, instead of negotiating, took the law into their own hands and employed heavy-handed methods and even cited the Gospel in support of their social demands, in other words, pursued Christian politics, Luther’s sympathy turned into the fiercest wrath.  

He now advised the princes to drive the rebels out like mad dogs and described the princes’ participation in the fight against the peasantry as a service to God. The peasants were defeated and almost annihilated in a bloody battle in 1525.  

Consequently, the judgment of posterity about what happened in 1524-1525 has generally been very severe, and it is often thought that Luther and Lutheranism had failed the first major popular and social revolution.  

Luther’s way of dealing had partly a political and partly a religious justification.  

First, the political: to Luther the Fall of Man and the evil of the world were realities. He knew something about the power in the world caused by selfishness, violence and oppression, and he was convinced that the authorities were appointed by God to keep people from evil in order to prevent violence and oppression from spreading beyond all limits. The exertion of evil can only be held in check by force, and the authorities should, therefore, use the sword with a clear conscience. They were appointed by God to do so.  

The mission of the authorities was to practice law and equity. To Luther it was utterly clear that law and court, not the Gospel and love, were to prevail in the state. If the prince fails, it can certainly be the pastor’s task to rebuke him – which was what Luther did in the beginning of the Peasant Rebellion. But even a bad authority was appointed by God and had to fulfil its vocation and mission, consequently, the subjects have no right of resistance.

Second, the religious justification: the peasants had demanded a new regime in the name of the Gospel. This was the central point where Luther definitely had to say no.

His greatest achievement in the political sphere was perhaps that he had learned to distinguish between “Gottesreich” and “Weltreich”, between spiritual and secular kingdoms. Politically, this was something extremely revolutionary directed against the Church’s secular power and against the medieval learning about the “two swords” that controlled the world.

Luther believed that the authorities are inserted directly by God and their specific task is to keep violence and repression down and maintain a measure of justice and equity. Without peace, that only the authorities can ensure, man cannot live life fully and earn his daily bread, and without peace the Gospel cannot be preached either. On the other hand, the authorities have nothing to do in the spiritual kingdom where the Word and love prevail.   Next to his position in the peasant revolt, his attitude towards the Jews has most frequently given rise to sharp criticism. In his youth, Luther was relatively humane and obliging in his view of the Jews. He hoped for their conversion to Christianity. Over the years, he became more and more biting; and also here expressed his anger in violent and abusive terms.   The reason for this development was of dual nature: The Jews had not wanted to receive Christ and the Gospel; they had crucified the Saviour. To this it may be added that more than any other social class, the Jews were a manifestation of the economic system forcing its way, the incipient capitalism, you may call it, which Luther saw as the source of countless calamities in society. It was especially the lending of money at interest and the associated usury that aroused his indignation. However, one can find no racial reasons for his hatred of Jews.  

One of Luther’s major contributions in the cultural field is attached to the word “calling”. In the Middle Ages, this was the term for a particular religious calling as priests, monks and other sacrosanct people heard it, a calling that distinguished them from ordinary people and consecrated them to specific tasks. To Luther calling came to mean something completely different. It belonged together with another key word, “occupation”, that meant almost the same.  

Any honest craftsmanship, indeed any useful human occupation is a God given gift and is therefore as good as any other calling. Man’s task is, in humility and obedience, to follow the Words of God in order to subjugate the Earth and live in marriage. The word “work” loses its tone of something heavy and self-denying and purely physical work is of the same dignity as spiritual.  

This alone was of unprecedented importance in Europe’s social history. In principle, it is made clear that any occupation and any rank please God.  In a sense it can also be said that this signifies a consecration of worldly life.  

The Lutheran Council of Great Britain
30 Thanet Street London WC1H 9QH
Registered Charity No. 232042