Luther Visualized 11 – German Peasants’ Revolt

German Peasants’ Revolt (1524-1525)

Title page of Martin Luther’s addendum to Admonition to Peace, titled Against the Murderous and Plundering Peasant Hordes. This is a reprint of just the addendum by Johann Weyßenburger (Landshut, 1525), available from the Bayerische StaatsBibliothek (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).

In early May 1525 Martin Luther returned to Wittenberg from a trip to Thuringia, during which he had seen firsthand the rebelliousness and violence of the protesting peasants. He promptly wrote and published an addendum to his earlier work, Admonition to Peace, entitling it Against the Murderous and Plundering Peasant Hordes. He urged swift and decisive action against the “poisonous” rebels. This woodcut, from the cover page of a Landshut reprinting of the addendum, depicts a peasant with a sword and his plundered goods. The fluttering paper says, “Esteem God.” This woodcut is doubtless meant to be an indictment against the rebellious peasants, in harmony with the work itself. They ought to esteem God, not the things of this world. “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Mammon” (Matthew 6:24). The verse beneath the woodcut is Psalm 7:16: “His intrigue will meet up with himself, and his ill-will will be vented on him.”

The German Peasants’ Revolt and the Sacramentarian Controversy (yet to be covered in this series) hindered the momentum of the Reformation more than anything else. With his Admonition to Peace, Luther strained his relationship with the nobility, and with his addendum Against the Murderous and Plundering Peasant Hordes, he isolated himself from many of the peasants. On the whole Luther, as usual, was simply walking the narrow biblical path: On the one hand, “rulers are not appointed to exploit their subjects for their own profit and advantage, but to be concerned about the welfare of their subjects.” On the other hand, God clearly forbids rebellion against the government (Romans 13:1-5; 1 Peter 2:13-17) and arbitrarily taking the law into one’s own hands (Matthew 26:52). If Christians are being persecuted by their government, they can either use the legal channels available to address the wrongs (while patiently enduring in the meantime), or they can flee somewhere else (Matthew 10:23). But “rebellion is intolerable.” Luther would later accurately describe their attempt to advance the kingdom of God through opposition to the governing authorities as “fishing for the net” (i.e. going about things completely backwards).

However, even though Luther claimed to be writing Admonition to Peace “in a friendly and Christian spirit,” he presented his correct biblical position in harsh language in both that work and especially in the addendum. Luther also went too far in the addendum and actually contradicted himself when he advised “everyone who can” to “smite, slay, and stab” the rebellious peasants, “secretly or openly,” since he had correctly said in Admonition to Peace that “no one, by his own violence, shall arrogate authority to himself.” Even though a dispassionate reading of the rest of the addendum strongly suggests that he is giving this advice to the ruling authorities alone, that is not the impression given at the beginning.

Sources
Luther’s Works 46:3-55

Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: Shaping and Defining the Reformation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990), pp. 172ff

Martin Luther, Luther at the Manger (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 2017), p. 51

Title page of Johann Fundling’s book Demonstration of Luther’s Two False Tongues—How He Has Misled the Peasants with the One and Condemned Them with the Other. This is a reprint by Johann Weyßenburger (Landshut, 1526).

In the wake of Luther’s Admonition to Peace and Against the Murderous and Plundering Peasant Hordes, Johann Fundling, a Franciscan monk from Mainz, penned a scathing critique of these two works, sometimes also called Fifty-Five Astonishing Things. The woodcut on the cover page portrays Luther on the left attempting to seduce the peasant on the right with his teachings. Above the woodcut Ecclesiasticus 28:13 is cited: “The whisperer and the double-tongued is cursed, for many who have had peace he has troubled and perplexed.”

Initially styling himself anonymously as “Admiratus [Latin for astonished] the Wonderer,” Fundling attempted to point out all of Luther’s contradictions in these two works, both within the works themselves and when compared to his previous works. Fundling called Luther’s teachings “mouse poop” and questioned, for instance, how Luther could call Andreas Karlstadt and Thomas Müntzer “prophets of murder” when he had previously spoken highly of them. Perhaps the climax comes when Fundling begins addressing Luther’s addendum. First he quotes Luther:

But before I could even inspect the situation, [the peasants] forgot their promise and violently took matters into their own hands and are robbing and raging like mad dogs. … [They] are violently robbing and plundering monasteries and castles which are not theirs.

Then Fundling, speaking as “the Wonderer” astonished at Luther’s words, responds:

Listen here, you traitorous and unfaithful Metius Fufetius,* isn’t that exactly what you instructed and told not only the peasants but the whole world to do? Long ago, in your propositions on vows (or reproaches of them) that you addressed to the heretical men at Wittenberg that you have made out to be bishops, you said: “This is the sense of the monastic vow: I vow to you, God, that I will lead an irreligious and sacrilegious or God-ignoring life all my days” [#34 of Luther’s Theses on Vows of 1521]. Therefore, you say, the monastic vows should not only be shattered and dissolved, but also severely punished, and all the cloisters of the earth likewise, since they are idol temples and Satanic whorehouses of the devil.

To this day, Luther’s biblical distinction between the two kingdoms, Church and State, and the means for carrying out God’s work in each continue to be misunderstood.

Endnote
* A general of the army of Alba Longa known for his treachery; he violated a treaty with Rome by withdrawing his troops from a battle between Rome and Fidenae and then waiting to see which side would win.

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Luther Visualized 10 – Return to Wittenberg

Luther’s Return to Wittenberg

Anonymous, Witenburg, watercolor, 1537, from Das Reisealbum des Pfalzgrafen Ottheinrich

The city of Wittenburg is viewed from the south, with the Elbe River in the foreground. On the far left is the palace suburb outside the Coswig Gate. Prominent on the left, in the city itself, is the Electoral Castle or Palace, of which the famous Castle Church was a part. To the east, along the south wall, you can see the Dragon Head Turret at the Elbe Gate. Prominent in the center of the city is the Parish Church of St. Mary, where Martin Luther preached more than 2000 sermons. The University of Würzburg identifies the large building to the east of St. Mary’s as the town hall, but it was inaccurately located by the artist. (It was west of St. Mary’s.) Proceeding east from there, the two notable buildings are the so-called Old Frederickian College of the University of Wittenberg (built in 1503) and the Luther House, respectively.

Upon Luther’s return from the Wartburg in 1522, he preached a series of eight consecutive sermons in the Parish Church, starting on March 9, Invocavit Sunday or the First Sunday in Lent, in order to rectify the prevailing unrest and the spirit of extreme reform. They remain some of his finest sermons, and showcase Luther’s biblical, balanced, and level-headed approach to reform.

In November 1536 Count Palatine Otto Henry departed from Neuberg with a retinue of about 50 persons. Threatened with bankruptcy, he traveled to Krakow to collect on his Polish grandmother Hedwig’s dowry, which had never been paid. Succeeding in his purpose, he began his return trip on January 17, 1537, and took a circuitous route home. He is documented as being in Wittenberg on February 11-12, during which time an anonymous artist in his retinue sketched the city, as he had done with all the other rest stops. The sketch was later made into an ink drawing and finished with watercolors and coating paints. (The mountains were added for effect.) It is the earliest known representation of Wittenberg in humanity’s possession today.

Sources
“Die Reise des Pfalzgrafen Ottheinrich 1536/1537” (University of Würzburg Library)

John W. Doberstein and Helmut T. Lehmann, eds., Luther’s Works, trans. A. Steimle, rev. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959), 51:67ff

You can also view the more detailed 1744 woodcut by Johann Wilhelm Bossögel, Accurate Depiction of the Highly Distinguished City of Wittenberg in AD 1611, the Famous Home of Electoral Saxony, the Mother and Propagatrix of the Restored Light of the Saving Faith. Here is a guide to the lettering:

A. The Electoral Castle or Palace
B. The Castle Church
C. The Town Hall
D. The Parish Church of St. Mary
E. New Frederickian College (university building completed in 1511)
F. Old Frederickian College (university building built in 1503)
G. Philip Melanchthon’s House
H. Augusteum or Augustan College (university building completed c. 1571)
I. Augustinian Cloister or Dr. Luther’s House
K. The Elster Gate
L. The Cemetery
M. The Chapel on the Churchyard
N. The Elbe Gate
O. The Dragon Head Turret
P. The Gray Cloister (Franciscan monastery)
Q. Jurists’ College
R. The Town Mill
S. The Ramparts and Ditches
T. The Castle or Palace Gate, or Coswig Gate
V. The Suburbs

Luther Visualized 9 – At the Wartburg

Luther at the Wartburg Castle

Luther Room at the Wartburg Castle, © Red Brick Parsonage, 2013

This was Martin Luther’s room at the Wartburg Castle, after he was “kidnapped” for his own safety on his way home from Worms. He lived here from May 4, 1521, to March 1, 1522, with the exception of a secret trip to Wittenberg in the first half of December 1521. It was also in this room that Luther translated the entire Greek New Testament into German in less than 11 weeks, between December 1521 and February 1522. None of the furniture is original except the whale vertebra, which Luther used as a footstool.

Sources
Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: Shaping and Defining the Reformation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990), pp. 1,29-30,41-42,46-47

Wolfram Nagel, “Outlawed and unrecognized at Wartburg Castle”

Matthäus Merian der Ältere, Eisenach, woodcut, 1650 (coloring subsequent)

On May 3, 1521, on his way home from Worms, Luther preached in Eisenach and then headed south for a short stay with relatives in Möhra. Johann Petzensteiner, a fellow Augustinian monk, and Nikolaus von Amsdorf, a colleague at the University of Wittenberg, accompanied him. On May 4 Luther and his companions took leave of his relatives and rode east in their covered wagon, circling around Fortress Altenstein to the south through the village of Steinbach. As they were headed north through the ravine, the party was attacked by armed horsemen. Petzensteiner immediately jumped from the wagon and fled. Luther just had time to grab his New Testament and Hebrew Bible before being snatched from the wagon. He ran alongside the horsemen until they were out of sight, and then was given a mount. The horsemen took lengthy detours in order to mislead any pursuers before leading their captive to the Wartburg south of Eisenach at 11 p.m. This woodcut of Eisenach, the city where Luther also attended school from 1498-1501, appeared in Martin Zeiler’s famous Topographia Germaniae series, specifically Topographia Superioris Thüringiae, Misniae, Lusatiae etc (Frankfurt am Main: Matthaeus Merian, 1650), between pages 48 and 49. The city is viewed from the north-northeast, with the Wartburg Castle, built in 1069 according to Zeiler, on the hill overlooking the town. Note how different the castle looked in 1650 from the present day castle. (The various changes undergone by the castle are well documented by models on display there.) The numbers in the woodcut identify the following:

  1. Royal Residential Castle
  2. City Church of St. George
  3. Town Hall
  4. The Kloeÿ [?]
  5. St. Nicholas Church
  6. The Bell-House
  7. The Royal Shooting Ditch
  8. Dominican Monastery
  9. Foundation of St. Mary
  10. St. Anne Hospital
  11. Our Lady’s Gate
  12. Clachs [?] Gate
  13. St. George’s Gate
  14. Dominican Gate
  15. The Nuss [Nesse] and Hersel [Hörsel] Rivers
  16. Wartburg Castle
  17. The Modelstein, where a castle once stood
  18. Here the Eisenach Fortress once stood

Luther Visualized 8 – The Diet at Worms

Luther’s Stand Before the Diet at Worms

Anton von Werner, Luther at the Diet at Worms, oil on canvas, 1877

This painting depicts Luther’s famous stand before the Holy Roman Emperor on April 18, 1521. The emperor, Charles V, sits beneath the curtained canopy, with bishops and cardinals surrounding him. The presiding official, Johann von der Eck, is holding a parchment in his right hand. Luther tells the assembly, “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures…I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything…”

Sources
Weimarer Ausgabe 7:814ff, esp. p. 838

Luther’s Works 32:101ff

Some Diet at Worms Trivia

  1. Two contemporaries of Luther, Daniel Greser and Helius Eobanus Hessus, record that when Luther preached at the Augustinian church in Erfurt on his way to Worms, “the church was so full of people that the balcony groaned and everyone thought it was going to collapse, and so a few people also knocked the windows out and would have jumped out onto the churchyard if Luther had not reassured them and told them to stay put. He said the devil was up to his usual mischief and they should just stay put; nothing bad was going to happen.” He may have even addressed the devil himself: “I know your tricks, you bitter enemy!” The people did stay put, there was no accident, and Luther went on to deliver a beautiful gospel sermon (available in English in Luther’s Works 51:60ff).
  2. diet back then had nothing to do with food. In basic terms, a diet was a regular, representative imperial business meeting for the Holy Roman Empire. These meetings or assemblies were attended by the Holy Roman Emperor and the Imperial Estates of the empire. The Imperial Estates were divided into three chambers—the Council of Electors, the Council of Princes, and the Council of Free and Imperial Cities. These representatives would hold discussions and make decisions pertaining to the problems, reform, and maintenance of the empire.
  3. On the first day of Luther’s trial at Worms, April 17, he was much more subdued and seemed to be nervous. It seems that he was still hoping to get a fair hearing. He quickly realized, however, that as an excommunicated man he was only going to be asked to acknowledge his writings and to retract them. It was a deciding moment and Luther requested time for thought; he was granted one day. He was much more prepared, confident, and bold on the second day.
  4. Before Luther gave his famous summary speech concluding with “I cannot do otherwise. Here I stand,” etc. on the second day of his trial (April 18), he gave a much longer speech in which he classified his books into three categories, in order to show that they could not all be treated the same, even by his opponents. He actually gave this speech in German first, and then repeated it in Latin. He may given his famous summary speech in both languages too. By the time he was finished with all that talking at the end of the day’s proceedings, Luther was sweating heavily in the hot and overcrowded hall.
  5. Among those in attendance at the Diet at Worms was the somewhat famous Renaissance composer Ludwig Senfl, who eventually began a correspondence with Luther in 1530 and even sent him one of his motets. Scholars are divided, however, on whether Senfl became a Protestant.
  6. Even many Lutherans think that Luther exited the Diet at Worms in the metaphorical blaze of glory after his famous “Here I stand” speech. While the proceedings for that day (April 18) did conclude shortly after Luther’s remarks, there were more private negotiations between Luther and a specially formed commission of ten men on the days following. Since Luther refused to back down from his biblical position and no agreement could be reached, Johann von der Eck visited him for the last time on April 25, warned him that the emperor was going to take action against him, and told him he should return home within 21 days.
  7. The resulting Edict of Worms, issued on May 25 and backdated to May 8, was the fiercest edict ever issued by a German emperor. It said that Luther and his sympathizers could be arrested or killed, and that his followers should be driven from their homes and anyone who wished could appropriate their belongings.
  8. There have always been behind-closed-doors aspects of politics that will remain shrouded in mystery until Judgment Day: Elector Frederick the Wise of Saxony, Luther’s governing prince, requested that he be exempted from enforcing the Edict of Worms, and Emperor Charles V inexplicably granted his request.

Luther Visualized 7 – Trial and Excommunication

The Papal Bull Threatening Luther’s Excommunication

Manuscript of the papal bull Exsurge Domine in which Luther is threatened with excommunication (Vatican Secret Archives, Reg. Vat., 1160, f. 251r)

This is a manuscript of the infamous papal bull (edict) threatening to excommunicate Martin Luther, proclaimed on July 24, 1520. It begins:

Leo etc. For future memory of the matter. Arise, O Lord, and judge your cause. Recall to memory your reproaches of those things that are perpetrated by senseless men all day long. Bend your ear to our prayers, for foxes have arisen seeking to demolish the vineyard whose winepress you alone have trodden. … A wild boar from the forest is endeavoring to destroy it…

Luther had 60 days from September 29 to send a certified retraction of his errors to Rome. Instead, on December 10, Luther appeared with the bull, trembling and praying, before a pyre lit in the carrion pit at Holy Cross Chapel outside the eastern gate of Wittenberg. He cast the bull into the fire with the words, “Because you have confounded the Holy Place [or truth] of God, today he confounds you in this fire [or may eternal fire also confound you]. Amen.”

Pope Leo X issued the actual bull of excommunication, Decet Romanum Pontificem (It Is Proper for the Roman Pontiff), on January 3, 1521.

Sources
Vatican Secret Archives, “The Bull Exsurge Domine by Leo X with Which He Threatens to Excommunicate Martin Luther”

Weimarer Ausgabe 7:183ff

Max Perlbach and Johannes Luther, “Ein neuer Bericht über Luthers Verbrennung der Bannbulle,” in Sitzungsberichte der königlich preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften (Berlin, 1907), 1:95ff

Luther’s Works 48:192

The Vineyard of the Lord

Lucas Cranach the Younger, The Vineyard of the Lord, oil on panel, 1569 (photo by the Stiftung Luthergedenkstätten in Sachsen-Anhalt)

When Paul Eber (8 Nov 1511 – 10 Dec 1569) was 13, his horse bolted, throwing him from the saddle and dragging him along on the ground for half an hour, leaving him somewhat crooked for the rest of his life. He went on to be professor of Latin at the University of Wittenberg (1541), head preacher at the Castle Church (1557), head pastor of the City Church and general superintendent of the district (1558), and the most influential hymn writer of the Reformation after Luther. When he died, his children commissioned an epitaph from Lucas Cranach the Younger, who chose a vineyard as the theme of the accompanying painting (pictured), which is still on display in the City Church (St. Mary’s) in Wittenberg. In the painting, Eber and his family, including 13 children, are kneeling at the fence on the right hand side. Eber, whose name means “wild boar” (from the Latin aper meaning the same), is holding an open Bible which he has helped to translate. Luther (called a “wild boar” in the papal bull above), Melanchthon, Bugenhagen, and other fellow reformers labor faithfully in the Lord’s vineyard, while the pope and his cardinals, bishops, monks, and nuns do their best to ruin the vineyard.

For more on this painting, read here.

Luther Visualized 6 – Reform

The German Hercules

Hans Holbein the Younger, Hercules Germanicus, woodcut, c. 1519

This was not part of my sermon and service folder series, but I wanted to include it with this online series. In the midst of Martin Luther’s instructional and reformatory writings of 1519 and 1520, Hans Holbein the Younger of Basel produced this woodcut of “The German Hercules.” Luther with his tonsure and Augustinian habit, from which a lion’s skin hangs down protracted, holds a knotty club with long, sharp spikes in his right hand, in order to deal a crushing blow to the last of his opponents, which he holds down by the neck with his left hand. He is Jacob van Hoogstraaten, the Dominican doctor of theology and inquisitor of Cologne. (Perhaps Holbein produced this woodcut after being acquainted with Luther’s 1519 work A Page Against Jacob Hoogstraaten.) A string is drawn from Luther’s nose, which has a strangled pope hanging from the end of it. Beneath Luther the following have already been beaten down so that they lie there powerless: Aristotle, the philosopher; Thomas Aquinas; William of Ockham; an unnamed monk; Nicholas of Lyra, directly beneath Luther’s feet with his commentary on the Bible in hand; Peter Lombard, wearing a beret, virtually crushed by those around him, and holding his book (which reads “L. IV SENTENCIAR” – short for Libri IV Sententiarum [Four Books of Sentences] – in reflected letters); Robert Holcot, an English Dominican scholastic philospher, theologian, and influential Bible scholar; and Duns Scotus, who was know for his commentary on Lombard’s Sentences, is not visible. In the background are some houses, apparently belonging to a village, beneath a mountain. Between the village and the foreground another hooded, tasseled figure makes good his escape.

The colorized version of this woodcut appeared in the eighth book of the Schweizerchronik by Heinrich Brennwald and his son-in-law Johannes Stumpf, for the beginning of the year 1519. Beneath the woodcut are six Latin distichs, which read:

Do you not shudder, wicked Rome, at your enemy Luther,
the German Hercules, as he does away with monsters?

You see, do you not, how he has suspended the tripled Geryon [allusion to the three-tiered papal tiara]
from an aquiline nose, and how the drooping crest wearies the head?

See for yourself with what might he strikes down the raving sophists,
and how the agile club besets the rabid dogs.

Behold, what falls is a multitude gone mad, to whom Cerberus himself
is inferior, and a Hydra reproducing in new throats.

Why not then acknowledge the gallant man as both lord and father,
since you stretched out conquered hands to him when you were stung the first time?

There has been error enough, believe me; be sensible and cleanse yourself again,
or else impure Lerna’s sacred flame awaits you.

In a December 27, 1531, sermon on Isaiah 9:6, in talking about Christ as a Champion who “deals out blows left and right” “without swinging a sword,” Luther wittingly or not paid tribute to this portrayal of himself:

So too today, what have I done to the pope? I have not taken so much as a Heller [or dime] from him. I simply swing the gospel at the monks, nuns, priests, and bishops, and all their errors and idols have fallen to the ground.

Sources
Theophil Burckhardt-Biedermann, “Über Zeit und Anlaß des Flugblattes: Luther als Hercules Germanicus,” Basler Zeitschrift für Geschichte und Altertumskunde, vol. 4 (1905), pp. 38-40

Martin Luther, Luther at the Manger: Christmas Sermons on Isaiah 9:6 (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 2017), pp. 49-51

Title page from a first edition of Martin Luther’s Prelude on the Babylonian Captivity of the Church (Wittenberg, 1520); full book viewable here

1519 and 1520 were truly the years of the Reformation proper, as far as Luther’s writings are concerned. Among his instructional writings were his lectures on Galatians (May 1519, eventually replaced by his 1535 edition); lectures on Psalms 1-21 (1519), Meditation on Christ’s Passion (1519); Exposition of the Lord’s Prayer (April 1519); A Brief Form of the Ten Commandments; A Brief Form of the Creed; A Brief Form of the Lord’s Prayer (1520); A Sermon on Preparing to Die (October 1519); A Sermon on Usury (1519); A Sermon on the Sacrament of Penance (1519); A Brief Instruction on How Confession Should Be Made (January 1519) and How to Confess (March 1520); A Sermon on the Holy and Blessed Sacrament of Baptism (1519); A Sermon on the Blessed Sacrament of the Holy and True Body of Christ, and the Brotherhoods (1519); and his Treatise on Good Works (May 1520).

His two major reformatory writings were To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate (June 1520), in which he demanded that the papacy be reformed and celibacy for the priests abolished and proposed that every city should care for its own poor people (leading to the first congregational charity program), and his Prelude on the Babylonian Captivity of the Church (October 1520; pictured), in which he denied that there were seven sacraments and confessed only three or two (depending on whether an external element was part of the definition of sacrament), denied the doctrine of transubstantiation and taught the real presence, and taught that priests should be elected and permitted to marry. The latter work gained such notoriety that it was even rebutted by King Henry VIII of England.

Luther Visualized 5 – The Tower Discovery

Luther Rediscovers the Gospel

Martin Luther, from his preface to Tomus Primus Omnium Operum Reverendi Domini Martini Lutheri, Doctoris Theologiae, etc. (Wittenberg: Hans Lufft, 1545)

This is the seventh and final page of Martin Luther’s preface to the first volume of the first attempted compilation of his works, published in 1545. The page begins:

At last, by the mercy of God, as I was earnestly meditating days and nights, I started paying attention to the context of the words [in Romans 1:17], namely, “The righteousness of God is revealed in it [viz., the gospel], just as it is written: ‘The righteous person lives by faith.’” There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous person lives by a gift of God, namely by faith…

Sources
Lewis W. Spitz and Helmut T. Lehmann, eds., Luther’s Works, trans. Lewis. W. Spitz, Sr. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1960), 34:323-338

Weimarer Ausgabe, Tischreden 2:177, no. 1681 (recorded by Schlaginhaufen in 1532); 3:228, no. 3232abc (recorded by Cordatus in 1532); 4:72-73, no. 4007 (recorded by Lauterbach in 1538); 5:26, no. 5247 (recorded by Mathesius in 1540); 5:210,234-235, nos. 5518,5553 (recorded by Heydenreich in the winter of 1542-1543)

Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: His Road to Reformation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1985), pp. 221-227

Archeological excavation of the basement of “the tower,” © Red Brick Parsonage, 2013

The published preface mentioned above was the first time Luther made his gospel rediscovery public. From the Table Talk sources cited above, however, you can see that he had often talked about it privately with his friends before 1545. Most of Luther’s retellings focus exclusively on the content of his discovery. But the 1532 retelling, recorded by both Johannes Schlaginhaufen and Conrad Cordatus, is different. There Luther also makes a point of identifying the location (one gets the impression the group was near the site of the famous discovery at the time): “But when I was in this tower one time (in which there was a privy for the monks), I was speculating on those words [in Romans 1:17].” Another copy of Cordatus’ transcription has: “But when I was in this tower and sweating room…” And after describing his epiphany, he concludes, according to both of his transcribers, “The Holy Spirit introduced this art to me on this latrine” or “on this tower” or “on this latrine on the tower.”

What are we to make of this? I cannot make anything of it except to take Luther at his words. Consider the following:

  1.  The plain language of Luther’s description (with several references varying in explicitness) recorded by two different transcribers
  2. The effort at covering up the location in Johannes Aurifaber’s famous 1566 edition of Luther’s Table Talk, which has Luther concluding: “The Holy Spirit alone introduced this art to me” (emphasis mine). Such cover-up would be unnecessary if Luther’s companions understood that he was referring to his study, where scholars will frequently try to locate his discovery.
  3. We know that Luther’s study was on the third floor of the tower (Brecht, 227). The latrine, as you can see from the picture, was clearly not. How could Luther and his conversational transcribers confuse the two, or use the basement latrine to refer to the entire tower, including Luther’s study?
  4. We can only verify that Luther used the tower as his study from 1522 onwards (info marker outside the excavation), but his epiphany most likely took place in early 1518 (some scholars date it earlier).
  5. In all of his descriptions of his epiphany, Luther never once says he was at his desk or reading; he always says he was speculating or meditating.
  6. The ground floor of the tower had under-floor heating. The warm air from a small stove was led through the pictured conduit under the floor slabs (info marker). Considering that this conduit went right above the latrine, it would have indeed made it a “sweating room.”
  7. According to an info marker outside the excavation, at some point the tower was demolished and earth was deposited over the top for a garden, preserving the ground floor and basement underneath. (Ironically, it was in an attempt to plant another garden there that the latrine was discovered in 2004.) This fits perfectly with Georg Rörer’s copy of Schlaginhaufen’s transcript; either he or someone else wrote “in the garden” above “on this latrine.”
  8. According to an info marker outside the excavation, the tower with the latrine “could only be reached from the monastery” (later Luther’s house after the monastery was gifted to him). This accords with its description in Cordatus’ transcription as “a privy [or private place] for the monks.”
  9. Finally – and this is admittedly more speculative – the basement had another, larger room in addition to the latrine. Luther’s 1532 retelling took place in the summer between June 12 and July 12. Would it not make sense for Luther and his companions to be conversing in the basement to get away from the heat, thus enabling Luther to say in effect, “It happened right here” (without us having to imagine a more awkward setting)? To those who would think this unlikely due to some lingering smell down there, an info marker outside the latrine says, “A small drain served to take the sewage waste from the latrine out of the building. At the time it was in use, the land sloped down quite considerably from east to west and from north to south so that the majority of the sewage was washed away.”

Many of course who are convinced that Luther’s famous discovery happened on the toilet, and who are not sympathetic to his reforms and teachings, love to make crude jokes about “the 95 Feces” and Luther going to discharge his waste and having something even worse come out, namely Lutheranism. Never mind all that. The Bible consistently testifies that the triune God’s modus operandi is to bring order and glory out of disorder and shame (creation, Judah and Tamar, crossing of the Red Sea, the Messiah’s birth, etc.) and to hide the truth behind weakness, shame, offense/scandal, and foolishness (Jesus’ choice of apostles, crucifixion, the means of grace, the theology of the cross, etc.), so that only those who are earnestly and genuinely seeking the truth find and remain with the truth (Jeremiah 29:13; Matthew 5:6; 13:11-15). Luther’s tower discovery on the toilet, then, really isn’t all that surprising. If you want to find the truth, you often have to look in the least likely places, according to our natural human reason. And if you want to find the truth of the gospel in 1518, you have to look in the bathroom at a monk from an ordinary copper miner’s family performing one of life’s less attractive chores. If you care nothing for the truth, you will run away disgusted. But to those who love the truth, that bathroom is one of the most attractive places on earth.