September 16, 2020

Luther and Difficult Times

Stephen Nichols
Luther and Difficult Times

In 1524, German peasants began a massive revolt against the lords and princes of the land, and the Roman Catholic Church blamed Martin Luther. How did he respond? On this episode of 5 Minutes in Church History, Dr. Stephen Nichols tells the gripping story.


We are returning to spend some time with our good friend, Martin Luther. We are looking at Martin Luther and difficult times. Actually, Luther had many moments of difficulty in his life, but one of those moments was the Peasants’ Revolt of 1524 to 1525. Now there were uprisings in Germany immediately prior to the Reformation. But in 1524 to 1525, this was a much larger insurrection. Historians estimate that as many as three hundred thousand peasants were involved in this rebellion at various times and in various places. One of the flashpoints for this was in a place called Swabia.

Swabia is in southwestern Germany. It’s pretty far away from Wittenberg, almost five hundred kilometers to the south, and slightly west. It’s down near Munich. It’s beautiful country with rivers, forests, snow-capped mountain peaks, and fabled castles dotting the landscape. In Swabia is the city of Augsburg, which will, a few years after this Peasants’ Revolt, come into play in a major way in Luther’s life.

But in 1524–1525, the peasants in Swabia produced a document called the Twelve Articles of the Peasants in Swabia. It called for, in essence, the abolition of serfdom. They raised various points of contention against the lords and princes of the land. It’s prefaced with an idea that this is rooted in the gospel, and that their understanding of the application of the gospel has led them to this. So they published this document, right in the throes of the peasant rebellion. And of course, the lords and the princes were responding. Both sides were claiming Luther, and Luther was brought into it. In fact, even the Roman Catholics sitting outside of Germany and watching all of this were blaming Luther for this troubling time in Germany.

So Luther responds. He writes a text that is simply titled “A Reply to the 12 Articles of the Peasants in Swabia.” He addresses his thoughts and advice to the peasants. He also addresses advice to the nobles, as he walks through each of the twelve articles, and then he gives a conclusion. To the princes, Luther says, “For rulers are not appointed to exploit their subjects for their own profit and advantage, but to be concerned about the welfare of their subjects.” His bottom-line chastisement of the peasants comes a little bit later in his document, when Luther says, “You are conciliatory and claim that you do not want to be rebels. You even excuse your actions by claiming that you desire to teach and to live according to the gospel.” And then Luther says, “Your own words and actions condemn you.”

Luther was trying to draw attention to both sides of the issues, and draw them back to the table, so to speak, to, pursue, as Luther says, natural law and justice. He says to both parties, “You should do so without assuming that God is on your side, and rather just act whether you are lord or prince, or whether you are a peasant, in a way that is keeping with the natural law of God as revealed in the natural order, and in the pursuit of justice.”

Luther gives us the final word here in a classic statement: “Now dear people, there is nothing Christian on either side, and nothing Christian is an issue between you. Both lords and peasants are discussing questions of justice and injustice in natural or worldly terms. Furthermore, both parties are acting against God and are under his wrath, as you’ve heard. For God’s sake then, take my advice. Take a hold of these matters properly, with justice and not with force or violence, and do not start endless bloodshed in Germany. For because both of you are wrong, and both of you want to avenge and defend yourselves, both of you will destroy yourselves and God will use one rascal to flog another.”