Luther and Erasmus



HAVING summarized the economic, political, religious, moral, and intellectual conditions that cradled the Reformation, we must still count it among the wonders of history that in Germany one man should have unwittingly gathered these influences into a rebellion transforming a continent. We need not exaggerate the role of the hero here; the forces of change would have found another embodiment had Luther continued in his obedience. Yet the sight of this rough monk, standing in doubt and terror and immovable resolution against the most entrenched institutions and most hallowed customs of Europe, stirs the blood, and points again the distance that man has come from the slime or the ape.

What was he like, this lusty voice of his time, this peak of German history? In 1526, as pictured at forty-three by Lucas Cranach,1 he was in transition from slender to stout; very serious, with only a hint of his robust humor; hair curly and still black; nose immense; eyes black and brilliant—his enemies said that demons shone in them. A frank and open countenance made him unfit for diplomacy. A later portrait (1532), also by Cranach, showed Luther cheerfully obese, with a broad, full face; this man enjoyed living. In 1524 he abandoned the monastic garb and dressed like a layman, sometimes in the robes of a teacher, sometimes in ordinary jacket and trousers. He was not above mending these himself; his wife complained that the great man had cut a piece out of his son’s pantaloons to patch his own.

He had slipped into marriage by inadvertence. He agreed with St. Paul that it is better to marry than to burn, and proclaimed sex to be as natural and necessary as eating.2 He retained the medieval notion that copulation is sinful even in marriage, but “God covers the sin.”3 He condemned virginity as a violation of the divine precept to increase and multiply. If “a preacher of the Gospel... cannot live chastely unmarried, let him take a wife; God has made that plaster for that sore.” 4 He considered the human method of reproduction a bit absurd, at least in retrospect, and suggested that “had God consulted me in the matter, I should have advised Him to continue the generation of the species by fashioning human beings out of clay, as Adam was made.”5 He had the traditional and German conception of woman as divinely designed for childbearing, cooking, praying, and not much else. “Take women from their housewifery, and they are good for nothing.” 6“If women get tired and die of bearing, there is no harm in that; let them die as long as they bear; they are made for that.”7 The wife should give her husband love, honor, and obedience; he is to rule her, though with kindness; she must keep to her sphere, the home; but there she can do more with the children with one finger than the man with two fists.8Between man and wife “there should be no question of mine and thine”; all their possessions should be in common.9

Luther had the male’s usual dislike for an educated woman. “I wish,” he said of his wife, “that women would repeat the Lord’s Prayer before opening their mouths.”10 But he despised writers who composed satires on women. “What defects women have we must check them for in private, gently .... for woman is a frail vessel.”11 Despite his rough candor about sex and marriage he was not insensible to esthetic considerations. “The hair is the finest ornament women have. Of old, virgins used to wear it loose, except when they were in mourning. I like women to let their hair fall down their back; it is a most agreeable sight.”12 (This should have made him more lenient with Pope Alexander VI, who fell in love with Giulia Farnese’s loosened hair.)

Apparently it was for no physical need that Luther married. In a burst of humor he said that he had married to please his father and spite the Devil and the pope. But he took a long time to make up his mind, and then it was made up for him. When, on his recommendation, some nuns left their convent, he undertook to find them husbands. Finally only one remained unmatched, Catherine von Bora, a woman of good birth and character, but hardly designed to arouse precipitate passion. She had set her sights on a young Wittenberg student of patrician stock; she failed to get him, and entered domestic service to keep alive. Luther suggested a Dr. Glatz as a husband; she replied that Glatz was unacceptable, but that Herr Amsdorf or Dr. Luther would do. Luther was forty-two, Catherine twenty-six; he thought the discrepancy prohibitive, but his father urged him to transmit the family name. On June 27, 1525, the ex-monk and the ex-nun became man and wife.

The Elector gave them the Augustinian monastery as a home, and raised Luther’s salary to 300 guilders ($7,500) a year; later this was increased to 400, then to 500. Luther bought a farm, which Katie managed and loved. She bore him six children, and cared faithfully for them, for all Martin’s domestic needs, for a home brewery, a fish pond, a vegetable garden, chickens, and pigs. He called her “my lord Katie,” and implied that she could put him in his place when he forgot the biological subordination of man to woman; but she had much to bear from his occasional storms and his trustful improvidence; for he cared nothing for money, and was recklessly generous. He took no royalties for his books, though they made a fortune for his publisher. His letters to or about Catherine reveal his growing affection for her, and a generally happy marriage. He repeated in his own way what had been told him in his youth: “The greatest gift of God to man is a pious, kindly, Godfearing, home-loving wife.”13

He was a good father, knowing as if by instinct the right mixture of discipline and love. “Punish if you must, but let the sugar-plum go with the rod.”14 He composed songs for his children, and sang these songs with them while he played the lute. His letters to his children are among the jewels of German literature. His sturdy spirit, which could face an emperor in war, was almost broken by the death of his favorite daughter Magdalena at the age of fourteen. “God,” he said, “has given no bishop so great a gift in a thousand years as He has given me in her.”15 He prayed night and day for her recovery. “I love her very much, but, dear God, if it is Thy holy will to take her, I would gladly leave her with Thee.”16 And he said to her: “Lena dear, my little daughter, thou wouldst love to remain here with thy father; art thou willing to go to that other Father?” “Yes, dear father,” Lena answered, “just as God wills.” When she died he wept long and bitterly. As she was laid in the earth he spoke to her as to a living soul: “Du liebes Lenichen,you will rise and shine like the stars and the sun. How strange it is to know that she is at peace and all is well, and yet be so sorrowful! “17

Not content with six children, he took into his many-chambered monastery-home eleven orphaned nephews and nieces, brought them up, sat with them at table, and discoursed with them tirelessly; Catherine mourned their monopoly of him. Some of them made uncensored notes of his table talk; the resulting mass of 6,596 entries rivals Boswell’s Johnson and Napoleon’s recorded conversations in weight, wit, and wisdom. In judging Luther we should remember that he never edited these Tischreden; few men have been so completely exposed to the eavesdropping of mankind. Here, rather than in the controversies of the theological battlefield, is Luther chez lui, en pantoufles, at home, himself.

We perceive, first of all, that he was a man, not an inkwell; he lived as well as wrote. No healthy person will resent Luther’s relish for good food and beer, or his fruitful enjoyment of all the comforts that Catherine Bora could give him. He might have been more prudently reticent on these points, but reticence came with the Puritans, and was unknown to Renaissance Italians as well as to Reformation Germans; even the delicate Erasmus shocks us with his candid physiological speech. Luther ate too much, but he could punish himself with long fasts. He drank too much, and deplored drinking as a national vice; but beer was the water of life to the Germans, as wine to the Italians and the French; water could literally be poison in those careless days. Yet we never hear of his overstepping exuberance into intoxication. “If God can forgive me for having crucified Him with Masses twenty years running, he can also bear with me for occasionally taking a good drink to honor Him.”18

His faults leaped to the eye and the ear. Proud amid his constant expressions of humility, dogmatic against dogma, intemperate in zeal, giving no quarter of courtesy to his opponents, clinging to superstitions while laughing at superstition, denouncing intolerance and practicing it—here was no paragon of consistency or Grandison of virtue, but a man as contrary as life and scorched with the powder of war. “I have not been slow to bite my adversaries,” he confessed, “but what is the good of salt if it does not bite?” 19 He spoke of papal decrees as Dreck, dung;20 of the pope as “the Devil’s sow” or lieutenant, and as Antichrist; of bishops as “larvae,” unbelieving hypocrites, “ignorant apes”; of sacerdotal ordination as marking a man with “the sign of the beast in the Apocalypse”; of monks as worse than hangmen or murderers, or, at best, “fleas on God Almighty’s fur coat”;21 we may surmise how his audiences enjoyed this hilarity. “The only portion of the human anatomy which the pope has had to leave uncontrolled is the hind end.”22Of the Catholic clergy he wrote: “The Rhine is scarcely big enough to drown the whole accursed gang of Roman extortioners... cardinals, archbishops, bishops, and abbots”;23 or, water failing, “may it please God to send down upon them the rain of fire and sulphur that consumed Sodom and Gomorrha.” 24 One is reminded of the Emperor Julian’s comment: “There is no wild beast like an angry theologian.” 25 But Luther, like Clive, marveled at his own moderation.

Many think I am too fierce against popery; on the contrary I complain that I am, alas, too mild; I wish I could breathe out lightning against pope and popedom, and that every wind were a thunderbolt.26... I will curse and scold the scoundrels until I go to my grave, and never shall they have a civil word from me.... For I am unable to pray without at the same time cursing. If I am prompted to say, “Hallowed be Thy name,” I must add, “Cursed, damned, outraged be the name of papists.” If I am prompted to say, “Thy Kingdom come,” I must perforce add, “Cursed, damned, destroyed must be the papacy.” Indeed, I pray thus orally every day and in my heart, without intermission.27... I never work better than when I am inspired by anger. When I am angry I can write, pray, and preach well, for then my whole temperament is quickened, my understanding sharpened.28

Such rhetorical passion was in the temper of the times. “Some of the preachers and pamphlet writers on the orthodox side,” confesses the learned Cardinal Gasquet, “were Luther’s match in this respect.”29 Vituperation was expected of intellectual gladiators, and was relished by their audiences; politeness was suspected of cowardice. When Luther’s wife reproached him—“Dear husband, you are too rude”—he answered, “A twig can be cut with a bread knife, but an oak calls for an axe”;30 a soft answer could turn away wrath, but could not overturn the papacy. A man mollified to refined speech would have shrunk from so mortal a combat. It took a thick skin—thicker than Erasmus’—to slough off papal excommunications and Imperial bans.

And it took a strong will. This was Luther’s bedrock; hence his self-confidence, dogmatism, courage, and intolerance. But he had some gentle virtues too. In his middle years he was the height of sociability and cheerfulness, and a pillar of strength to all who needed consolation or aid. He put on no airs, assumed no elegances, never forgot that he was a peasant’s son. He deprecated the publication of his collected works, begging his readers to study the Bible instead. He protested against applying the name Lutheran to the churches that followed his lead. When he preached he turned his speech to the vocabulary and understanding of his hearers. His humor was ruralrough, rollicking, Rabelaisian. “My enemies examine all that I do,” he complained; “if I break wind in Wittenberg they smell it in Rome.” 31 “Women wear veils because of the angels; I wear trousers because of the girls.”32 Many of us have committed such quips, but have not had such merciless reporters. The same man who uttered them loved music this side of idolatry, composed tender or thundering hymns, and set them—theological prejudice for a moment stilled—to polyphonic strains already used in the Roman Church. “I would not give up my humble musical gift for anything, however great.... . I am quite of the opinion that.. . next to theology, there is no art which can be compared to music; for it alone, after theology, gives us .... rest and joy of heart.”33

His theology led him to a lenient ethic, for it told him that good works could not win salvation without faith in redemption by Christ, nor could sin forfeit salvation if such faith survived. A little sin now and then, he thought, might cheer us up on the straight and narrow path. Tired of seeing Melanchthon wear himself thin with gloomy scruples about minor lapses from sanctity, he told him, with full-blooded humor, Pecca fortiter—” Sin powerfully; God can forgive only a hearty sinner,” but scorns the anemic casuist;34yet it would be absurd to rear an indictment of Luther on this incidental raillery. One thing is clear: Luther was no puritan. “Our loving God wills that we eat, drink, and be merry.” 35 “I seek and accept joy wherever I can find it. We now know, thank God, that we can be happy with a good conscience.”36 He advised his followers to feast and dance on Sunday. He approved of amusements, played a good game of chess, called card-playing a harmless diversion for immature minds,37 and said a wise word for dancing: “Dances are instituted that courtesy may be learned in company, and that friendship and acquaintance may be contracted between young men and girls; here their intercourse may be watched, and occasion of honorable meeting given. I myself would attend them sometimes, but the youth would whirl less giddily if I did.” 38 Some Protestant preachers wished to prohibit plays, but Luther was more tolerant: “Christians must not altogether shun plays because there are sometimes coarseness and adulteries therein; for such reasons they would have to give up the Bible too.” 39 All in all, Luther’s conception of life was remarkably healthy and cheerful for one who thought that “all natural inclinations are either without God or against Him,”40 and that nine of every ten souls were divinely predestined to everlasting hell.41 The man was immeasurably better than his theology.

His intellect was powerful, but it was too clouded with the miasmas of his youth, too incarnadined with war, to work out a rational philosophy. Like his contemporaries, he believed in goblins, witches, demons, the curative value of live toads,42 and the impishincubi who sought out maidens in their baths or beds and startled them into motherhood.43 He ridiculed astrology but sometimes talked in its terms. He praised mathematics as “relying upon demonstrations and sure proofs”;44 he admired the bold reach of astronomy into the stars, but, like nearly all his contemporaries, he rejected the Copernican system as contradicting Scripture. He insisted that reason should stay within the limits laid down by religious faith.

Doubtless he was right in his judgment that feeling, rather than thought, is the lever of history. The men who mold religions move the world; the philosophers clothe in new phrases, generation after generation, the sublime ignorance of the part pontificating about the whole. So Luther prayed while Erasmus reasoned; and while Erasmus courted princes Luther spoke to God—now imperiously, as one who had fought strenuously in the battles of the Lord and had a right to be heard, now humbly as a child lost in infinite space.Confident that God was on his side, he faced insuperable obstacles, and won. “I bear upon me the malice of the whole world, the hatred of the Emperor, of the Pope, and of all their retinue. Well, onward, in God’s name! “45 He had the courage to defy his enemies because he did not have the intellect to doubt his truth. He was what he had to be to do what he had to do.

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