Luther Favored Death, Not Religious Freedom, For ‘Heretics’

Myths often have an unfortunately long life—usually in direct proportion to how untrue they are. This particular myth has lasted for centuries.

Hans Herman, Luther as Hercules Germanicus. Woodcut, Zentralbibliothek, Zürich.
Hans Herman, Luther as Hercules Germanicus. Woodcut, Zentralbibliothek, Zürich. (photo: Register Files)

The myth about Martin Luther and the Protestant revolutionaries (aka “reformers”) in general, is that they were all perfectly tolerant of others’ religious beliefs; unlike those singularly wicked Catholics, who killed everyone who didn’t agree with them (right?).

Myths often have an unfortunately long life; usually in direct proportion to how untrue they are. This one should be put out to pasture. Lutherans and Calvinists and Zwinglians and Anglicans (along with Catholics) all persecuted for heresy. The only early Protestants who didn’t, were the Anabaptists, Quakers, and Mennonites. It was a failing or blind spot of that age (just as legal abortion is in ours). All belief in false doctrines or religions was thought to be based on bad faith or deliberate obstinacy.

I had a discussion online one day with a Lutheran pastor’s wife, who was thoroughly convinced that Luther believed in freedom of religion, and never had anyone put to death for believing differently in matters of religion.

I told her that this fact was noted in the most famous Protestant biography of Luther: Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, by Roland Bainton (New York: Mentor, 1950). Here is what he wrote about Luther:

In 1530 Luther advanced the view that two offences should be penalized even with death, namely sedition and blasphemy. The emphasis was thus shifted from incorrect belief to its public manifestation by word and deed. This was, however, no great gain for liberty, because Luther construed mere abstention from public office and military service as sedition and a rejection of an article of the Apostles’ Creed as blasphemy.

In a memorandum of 1531, composed by Melanchthon and signed by Luther, a rejection of the ministerial office was described as insufferable blasphemy, and the disintegration of the Church as sedition against the ecclesiastical order. In a memorandum of 1536, again composed by Melanchthon and signed by Luther, the distinction between the peaceful and the revolutionary Anabaptists was obliterated . . .

Luther may not have been too happy about signing these memoranda. At any rate, he appended postscripts to each. To the first he said,

I assent. Although it seems cruel to punish them with the sword, it is crueler that they condemn the ministry of the Word and have no well-grounded doctrine and suppress the true and in this way seek to subvert the civil order.

. . . For the understanding of Luther’s position one must bear in mind that Anabaptism was not in every instance socially innocuous. The year in which Luther signed the memorandum counseling death even for the peaceful Anabaptists was the year in which a group of them ceases to be peaceful . . . By forcible measures they took over the city of Munster in Westphalia . . .

Luther in his own writing sanctioned capital punishment for doctrinal heresy, most notably in his Commentary on the 82nd Psalm (vol. 13, pp. 39-72 in the 55-volume set, Luther’s Works, edited by Jaroslav Pelikan et al), written in 1530, where he advocated the following (pp. 61-62):

A question arises in connection with these three verses [Psalm 82]. Since the gods, or rulers, beside their other virtues, are to advance God’s Word and its preachers, are they also to put down opposing doctrines or heresies, since no one can be forced to believe? The answer to this question is as follows: First, some heretics are seditious and teach openly that no rulers are to be tolerated; that no Christian may occupy a position of rulership; that no one ought to have property of his own but should run away from wife and child and leave house and home; or that all property shall be held in common. These teachers are immediately, and without doubt, to be punished by the rulers, as men who are resisting temporal law and government (Rom. 13:1-2). They are not heretics only but rebels, who are attacking the rulers and their government, just as a thief attacks another’s goods, a murderer another’s body, an adulterer another’s wife; and this is not to be tolerated.

Second. If some were to teach doctrines contradicting an article of faith clearly grounded in Scripture and believed throughout the world by all Christendom, such as the articles we teach children in the Creed—for example, if anyone were to teach that Christ is not God, but a mere man and like other prophets, as the Turks and the Anabaptists hold—such teachers should not be tolerated, but punished as blasphemers. For they are not mere heretics but open blasphemers; and rulers are in duty bound to punish blasphemers as they punish those who curse, swear, revile, abuse, defame, and slander. With their blasphemy, such teachers defame the name of God and rob their neighbor of his honor in the eyes of the world. In like manner, the rulers should also punish—or certainly not tolerate—those who teach that Christ did not die for our sins, but that everyone shall make his own satisfaction for them. For that, too, is blasphemy against the Gospel and against the article we pray in the Creed: “I believe in the forgiveness of sins” and “in Jesus Christ, dead and risen.” Those should be treated in the same way who teach that the resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting are nothing, that there is no hell, and like things, as did the Sadducees and the Epicureans, of whom many are now arising among the great wiseacres.

. . . Moses in his Law commands that such blasphemers and indeed all false teachers should be stoned (Lev. 24:16). So, in this case, there ought not to be much disputing; but such open blasphemers should be condemned without a hearing and without defense, as Paul commands (Titus 3:10) . . .

For documentation of many specific cases of such executions, see a related blog post of mine and Roland Bainton’s further candid observations on the topic.