Luther Visualized 16 – Busyness and Health

Luther’s Busyness and Ill Health

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Predella of the Reformation Altar in Wittenberg, oil on panel, 1547.

The painting shows Luther preaching, of which he did plenty. From May 1528 to June 1529 and from October 1530 to April 1532, for example, the parish church’s regular pastor, Johannes Bugenhagen, was on leave introducing the Reformation in cities like Brunswick (Braunschweig), Hamburg, and Lübeck, and Luther had to take over his preaching duties in the meantime. Toward the end of 1531, Luther told his table companions, “I am extremely busy. Four people are relying on me, and each one of them was in need of someone all to him- or herself. I’m supposed to preach four times during the week, lecture twice, marriage cases need to be heard and letters need to be written, plus I’m supposed to work on books for publication.”

The pulpit from which Luther preached thousands of sermons in the Wittenberg parish church, today housed in the Lutherhaus museum in Wittenberg (© Red Brick Parsonage, 2013). The two reliefs are of the apostles and evangelists Matthew (left) and John (right).

Several details in the Cranach painting above merit further comment. The writing in Luther’s Bible is indistinct; regardless of his sermon text, he can and ought to point his audience to Jesus (John 5:39). The audience consists of people of every age; the gospel of Jesus is for all (Matthew 28:19,20; Mark 16:15; Luke 18:15-17). Cranach painted himself in the front of the male audience; he viewed the message of Christ crucified for sinners as one needed by him first (cf. 1 Timothy 1:15,16). Katy and little Hans Luther are in the front of the female audience; even the reformer’s son needed to be restrained and taught to stay still and listen. In spite of the fact that the great reformer himself is preaching, there are still some in the audience paying attention to the “picture-taker” and not to God’s Word. At his table in the evening of December 26, 1531, Luther told his companions, “My preaching is useless. It’s like a man who sings in a forest to the trees and hears only the glad-sounding echo in return.” And yet, as he went on to say, “although many people badmouth [gospel preaching], it is still good to preach Christ for the sake of the few who do not.”

In addition to the strain of his professional duties and callings as husband and father, Luther also suffered at various times from the following health issues:

  • Periods of depression occasioned by personal doubts, disease and death in his circle of family and friends, disturbances in the church, and the other health problems in this list
  • Constipation
  • Hemorrhoids
  • Ménière’s (pronounced mane-YAIRZ) disease
  • Recurring dizzy and fainting spells (likely caused by the previous)
  • Soreness in his teeth and throat
  • Recurring kidney stones (the most famous instance in February 1537)
  • Gallstones
  • Abscess on the lower part of one of his legs
  • Recurring colds
  • Diarrhea
  • Severe heart attack in December 1536
  • Dysentery
  • Abscess on his neck
  • Recurring headaches toward the end of his life
  • Gout
  • Arthritis
  • Loss of sight in one eye (cataract?)
  • Exacerbation of health issues from ill-advised treatments

Luther had definitely abused his body earlier in his life with, for example, his excessive fasting in the monastery. His life then changed drastically when he got married and went from not taking good care of himself to eating regular homemade meals prepared by his wife—a change to which his body probably never completely adjusted. But ultimately, it was the Lord who used these recurring health issues to keep Luther from becoming conceited, to show him the all-sufficiency of his grace, and to demonstrate that his power is made perfect in weakness (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:7-9).

Sources
E. G. Schwiebert, Luther and His Times (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1950), pp. 580,581,748-750

Kurt K. Hendel, Johannes Bugenhagen: Selected Writings, vol. 1 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), pp. 33-53

Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: Shaping and Defining the Reformation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990), pp. 204-211,429-433

Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: The Preservation of the Church (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), pp. 21-23,185-188,229-235

Weimarer Ausgabe, Tischreden 1:73, no. 154; 2:417-418, no. 2320

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Quote of the Week – The Soul’s Medicine Chest

John Chrysostom likely preached the following circa 390 AD during his priesthood in Antioch in Syria. It is taken from §1 of his ninth homily on Colossians, an exposition of 3:16,17.

Listen, I urge you, all you who care about this life, and procure books that are medicines for the soul. If you do not desire anything else, get at least the New Testament, the Acts of the Apostles, the Gospels, as perpetual teachers. Whenever grief befalls you, delve into them as if they were a medicine chest. Find relief from your suffering there whenever you experience detriment, death, loss of family members. Yes, do not so much delve into them as absorb them entirely; have them in your mind. This is the cause of all the evils—not knowing the Scriptures.

Source
Patrologia Graeca 62:361

I would like to thank Pastor Kurt Hagen for acquainting me with this quote.

Luther in Need of Every Comfort

Letter from Martin Luther to Nikolaus von Amsdorf in Magdeburg
Wittenberg, November 1, 1527

Sources

Translated from the WA Br, no. 1164; De Wette, no. 910; Enders, no. 1219. The German translation in StL-Walch, no. 1137, was also consulted.

Letter

Grace and peace. As it pleases the Lord, so it happens, my Amsdorf, that I who used to comfort everyone else up till now, am now in need of every comfort myself. This one thing I ask, and you will ask it with me, that my Christ may do with me as he has pleased, only may he keep me from becoming an ingrate and an enemy of him whom I have preached and worshiped with such great zeal and fervor up till now, though not without sins many and great have I offended him during that same time.1 Satan is asking for a Job to be given to him once again,2 and to sift Peter with his brothers,3 but may Christ see fit to say to him, “Spare his life,”4 and to me, “I am your salvation,”5 even as I continue to hope that he will not be angry at my sins to the end. I wish to respond to the Sacramentarians, but until I get stronger in spirit, I can do nothing. I will keep your copy of the book,6 but will return it in due time.

A hospital has started up in my house. Augustin’s Hanna7 has been nursing the plague inside of her, but she is getting back on her feet. Margaretha Mochinna8 caused us some fright with a suspicious abscess and other symptoms, although she too is getting better. I am very fearful for my Katy, who is close to delivering,9 for my little son10 has also been sick for three days now and is not eating anything and is doing poorly; they say it’s violence of the teeth,11 and they believe that both are at very high risk.12 For Deacon Georg’s wife, also close to delivering herself, has been seized by the plague and is now busy trying to find out if there is any way the infant can be rescued.13 May the Lord Jesus mercifully stand by her side. Thus there are conflicts without, anxieties within,14 and sufficiently rough ones at that; Christ is visiting us. There is one consolation that we set against Satan as he rages, namely that at least we have the word of God for preserving the souls of believers, no matter how he may devour their bodies. Accordingly you may commend us to the brothers and to yourself, in order that you all might pray for us to endure the Lord’s hand bravely and to prevail against Satan’s might and cunning, whether through death or through life, Amen. At Wittenberg on the day of All Saints, in the tenth year of indulgences having been tread underfoot, in memory of which we are drinking at this hour, comforted on both sides, 1527.

Your Martin Luther.

Endnotes

1 This double negative construction seems to be as awkward in Latin as it is in English. A footnote in the St. Louis edition reads: “The reading non sine is so repulsive [anstößig] to us that we have employed sane [‘certainly’] in its place. It did not seem right to the former translator either” (21/1:1028, no. 1137). However, it is highly unlikely that sane was the original reading.

2 Cf. Job 1:9-11; 2:4-5.

3 Cf. Luke 22:31-32.

4 Job 2:6

5 Psalm 35:3 (34:3 Vulgate)

6 The book Das dise wort Jesu Christi / Das ist min lychnam der für üch hinggeben wirt / ewigklich den alten eynigen sinn haben werdend / und M. Luter mit seinem letsten büch sinen und des Bapsts sinn / gar nit gelert noch bewärt hat. Huldrych Zuinglis Christenlich Antwurt. (That These Words of Jesus Christ, “This Is My Body Which Is Given For You,” Will Forever Retain Their Ancient, Single Meaning, And Martin Luther With His Latest Book Has By No Means Proved or Established His Own and the Pope’s View: Ulrich Zwingli’s Christian Answer), published in Zurich in June 1527. Cf. Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: Shaping and Defining the Reformation (1521-1532), p. 313-315.

7 Hanna or Anna, the daughter of the Torgau burgomaster Matthäus Moschwitz or Muschwitz, had married Augustin Schurf, professor of medicine in Wittenberg, prior to the fall of 1522. She died on January 26 or 27, 1540. Rf. Nikolaus Müller, Die Wittenberger Bewegung, p. 332.

8 Margaretha of Mochau from Seegrehna, probably a sister of Karlstadt’s wife

9 She gave birth to Elisabeth on December 10.

10 Johannes (Hans) Luther

11 That is, teething

12 That is, of falling victim to the plague

13 Deacon Georg Rörer had married Johannes Bugenhagen’s sister, Hanna, in 1525. She had given birth to their first son, Paul, on January 27, 1527. She died from the plague the day after Luther wrote this letter, a few hours after giving birth to a stillborn child. Cf. Brecht, op. cit., p. 208-209. As far as Hanna Rörer’s efforts to save her infant, performing a cesarean section on pregnant women who had passed away was already stipulated in the Royal Law (Lex Regia) at the time of Numa Pompilius. The Medieval Church firmly adhered to that stipulation, but this operation was not performed on living women until the 16th century (Heinrich Haeser, Lehrbuch der Geschichte der Medizin und der epidemischen Krankheiten, 1:803; 2:209).

14 Cf. 2 Corinthians 7:5.