Martin Luther, Reformer



Mormon Lectionary Project

The Feast of Martin Luther, Reformer, 1546

Isaiah 55:6-11 (NRSV or in Luther’s Translation, 1545), Psalm 46 (BCP Psalter, Coverdale, 1662 or Luther, 1545), John 15:1-11 (KJV or Luther, 1545), Doctrine and Covenants 93:39, 2 Ne. 25.23-25, Alma 29:8

The Collect: O God, our refuge and our strength: You raised up your servant Martin Luther to reform and renew your Church in the light of your word. Defend and purify the Church in our own day and grant that, through faith, we may boldly proclaim the riches of your grace which you have made known in Jesus Christ our Savior, who with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

One of the most perverse of the wicked traditions that had gained ascendancy in the Church by the first half of the sixteenth century was the official prohibition of vernacular translations of scripture. This fanatical religious proscription was also, of course, enacted and vigorously enforced through secular law, to the physical grief and spiritual anguish of many, and the great detriment of the faith (and society) as a whole.

Though vernacular translations had been relatively uncontroversial in the early centuries of Christ’s Church — scripture had been translated into Syriac, Coptic, Gothic, Ethiopic, Armenian, Georgian, Aramaic, Persian, Arabic, and even Old English in “songs” of Genesis and Exodus by the Anglo-Saxon poet-monk Cædmon (mid-600s) and Anglo-Saxon in the translation of the Gospels by The Venerable Bede (672-735 A.D.), not to mention the Old Saxon cultural translation of the story of Christ’s life and Passion known as the Heliand (circa 830 A.D.) — by the time Wycliffe made his English translation in the 1380s, translation of scripture had already become the strongest possible sign of heresy for a supra-national organization obsessed with rigidly policing the beliefs of all people within its reach (punishing heresy with death through the arm of the State). Church leaders opposed any attempt to translate the Bible from its Vulgate Latin and ruthlessly persecuted those Christians who fervently sought after the Word of God, believing as inspired by the Spirit that “the Lord doth grant unto all nations, of their own nation and tongue, to teach his word” (Alma 29:8).

Martin Luther became one of the most successful Reformers who wished to highlight the manifest evil of this frenzied oppression perpetrated by Church leaders who nevertheless viewed their own motives as pure and their actions as blessed — even mandated — by the mind of God. But whether by divine revelation or sheer intuition, Luther naturally understood, as would later be revealed to Joseph Smith, that the “wicked one cometh and taketh away light and truth, through disobedience, from the children of men, and because of the tradition of their fathers” (D&C 93:39). Only the “wicked one” would prohibit anyone from access to the scriptures in their own language.

Light and truth had indeed been severely eclipsed in the Church of Luther’s day by the ever accumulating and imposing artifice of decrees, dogmas, and traditions that infinitely multiplied the dead works required for a Christian to “earn” his or her salvation. The ban on vernacular translation of scripture was the prime example among many. Provoked by the constantly accelerating sale of indulgences, Luther listed his grievances against these practices — by which the Church abused its power and influence as the arbiter of people’s salvation to extract money from an impoverished and ignorant population — in his 95 theses posted to the Church door in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. Translating the Bible into his native German so that all people in the German-speaking world and beyond could have direct access to the Word of God was the most effective way to undermine these excesses and bring the light of the Gospel to the lives of each individual according to their own understanding.

Luther believed that the main message shining out of individuals’ direct reading of the scriptures would be the primacy of faith in Jesus Christ as the touchstone of the Atonement and the foundation of humanity’s prospects for salvation. Had Christ not pronounced his disciples “clean through the word which I have spoken unto you” (John 15:3, KJV)? This “word” would now be available to all people in their own languages. And through this “word” they would soon learn that “He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing” (John 15:5, KJV). Thus enlightened, Christians could rest assured that “If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love” (John 15:10, KJV).

This “word” of faith meant that “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1, BCP Psalter, Coverdale, 1662). Many notable Reformers and lay people of all classes would learn to seek out this spiritual and psychological refuge as they burned at the stake for their “heresy” of reading, possessing, and teaching out of the scriptures in their own language. The same Psalm that would echo three hundred years later in the soothing words of the Lord to the Latter-day Saints as they were driven from their homes in Jackson County, Missouri, many losing everything, take on new meaning when uttered by Christians chained by other ostensible Christians to flogging poles, locked in stocks, tortured in dungeons and broken on the rack, and finally, as they were burned alive for their efforts in seeking out God’s word directly: “Be still, then, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations; I will be exalted in the earth” (Psalm 46:11, BCP Psalter, Coverdale, 1662; cf. D&C 101:16).

“Ein Feste Burg ist Unser Gott” (“A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”), Oct. 31, 2008, Berlin, Germany

The Lord, it turns out, is not only the Word, but He is our Refuge, a Mighty Fortress for the soul, and a bulwark for righteousness. (This was the principle that offended the Churchmen of Luther’s day — that the Lord Himself is our fortress and not the Church.) In fact, the scriptures reveal that we ought to seek out His righteousness in our efforts to know Him. The effort teaches us a difficult lesson: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD” (Isa. 55:8, KJV).

The natural man is drawn to the principle of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. In this reasoning, everything functions in an exact quid pro quo according to the “law of the harvest.” This seems logically consistent and therefore appealing to a carnal sense of justice. But this philosophy was the foundation of the immense artifice of false traditions that had been built up over more than a millennium in the Church of Luther’s day. Our ways are not His ways, we learn, and people soon discovered, at the core of revealed scripture once translated into their own languages, a counterintuitive Truth — that because of Christ’s condescension and Atonement, “the law hath become dead unto us, and we are made alive in Christ because of our faith” (2 Ne. 25:25, emphasis added). Thus, like Martin Luther, “we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God; for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do” (2 Ne. 25:22).

* * *

Unfortunately, having toppled so many false traditions through his translations and texts, Luther soon laid the foundation for other such rigid and dangerous orthodoxies in his sermons and tracts. Specifically, as he aged, Luther became increasingly anti-Semitic in his rhetoric. These teachings formed the basis of new false traditions that would have deadly consequences of Biblical proportions four hundred years later as the descendants of his nation, irredeemably ingrained with a cultural anti-Semitism buttressed in no small part by his ideas, sought a Final Solution to the Jewish Question in Europe. What false traditions of the fathers are we incorporating into our religious lives? Should we not learn from Luther’s experience and constantly examine the foundation upon which we are built to ensure that it reflects God’s Word as revealed in scripture so painstakingly made available to us in our own languages?


  1. Incisive stuff, John. Good job putting Luther’s complex legacy to devotional use.

  2. Excellent and challenging final paragraph, John.

  3. Laurel Lee's Blog says:

    Having Germanic ancestry that were Lutheran clear back into the 1500’s, this was very interesting. I knew Luther became anti-semitic in his later years, but his tie-in to the “final solution” was something I don’t know why I hadn’t made a connection with before. Thank you for your wonderful summary of Luther’s contributions and shortcomings.

  4. The idea that the late medieval Catholic Church was opposed to the vernacular is somewhat misleading. The church did look upon such with suspicion but only in England enacted harsh laws against it. England did this because in the early 1400s there was a revolt lead by Lollards leading the crown to believe that the Lollards really were seditious. Plus they felt that going after the Lollards would made them look pious. Henry IV was a usurper so he felt he needed too look extra pious and the Lollards were the targets. The later kings continued this policy. Henry VIII’s English Bible made England the last country with an official vernacular.

    Furthermore, Joseph Smith and the early Mormons never praised Luther. JS said “the Old Catholic church is worth more than all” the Protestants. Christopher Jones and I have a paper coming out on this topic.

  5. JS did praise Luther’s translation, though, right? Or is there some context to his comment that I’m missing?

  6. He praised the German Bible (do we know which translation it was?) Luther had a translation but there were also other German translations. And he did so in ways that that would have horrified Luther: to support his arguments in the King Follett Discourse. Luther never taught anything like that. Smith got his German tutoring from Alexander Neibaur, a German Jew turned Christian turned Mormon who knew about Kabbalah. The evidence suggests that Neibaur’s interpretation of the German Bible was in line with Kabbalah, which Luther would not have approved of. That is to say, I would argue that praising the German Bible is not the same thing as praising Luther, which Smith and the early Mormons never did.

  7. The idea that the late medieval Catholic Church was opposed to the vernacular is somewhat misleading.

    It is not misleading. It was absolutely opposed to vernacular translation at all levels and the highest levels, including through direct input from sitting popes. The Church knew exactly what would happen when people read the Bible for themselves in their own languages. No mention of popes, prayers to saints, transubstantiation, pilgrimages, the sale of pardons and indulgences, auricular confession to a priest, veneration of relics or the host, the infallibility of the clergy, or of many more of the doctrines, practices, traditions, and requirements that had accrued over centuries to bleed already impoverished people dry of what little money they had to enrich local and international clergy alike, and to keep them subjugated to the oppressive authority of the Church.

    The non-Biblical list above (which is not exhaustive) was what the Lollards (people who read Wycliffe’s translations and, following Wycliffe, preached rejection of all of the above) preached and what prompted the accusations of heresy that led many to be burned at the stake in “Lollard pits” in the 1400s and early 1500s. It wasn’t about sedition, except to the extent that clergy (or their proxies, like Sir Thomas More) were able to spin these doctrinal disagreements as seditious because they needed a way to give the State a reason to petition foreign sovereigns to extradite such people who had fled England back to England, and under current treaties in place at the time, heresy alone (though punishable by death within a sovereign’s own jurisdiction) was not an extraditable offense. (The heretics could still be burned in the foreign jurisdiction.)

    This was not only in England. Thousands of heretics were tortured to death or burned at the stake in the Low Countries (including otherwise “liberal” Antwerp where most of Tyndale’s translations were published in the 1520s and 30s) and Germany.

    The Church was able to convince secular government in many jurisdictions that Protestant heresy amounted to treason/sedition after Germany’s Peasant War in the 1520s. Luther condemned the uprising of the peasants and their leaders (though he also had plenty of criticism for the aristocracy who viciously slaughtered as many as 300,000 peasants in the conflict — he was like that, criticizing both sides in such a conflict and measuring their actions against the standards provided in the Bible). So, Sir Thomas More in his fanatical quest to burn Lollards (a very outdated term by the 1530s) and Protestant “heretics”, for example, had an easier time maneuvering the hunt for and extradition of Tyndale who was in exile in Europe, because he now (post 1525) had a basis to argue to the secular authorities in the Low Countries that he was in sedition and not just a heretic.

  8. This isn’t true John. You need to read more about the late Middle Ages. Start with John Van Engen. Sisters and Brothers of the Common Life: The Devotio Moderna and the World of the Later Middle Ages. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008. This was a late medieval movement dedicated to printing and distributing the vernacular Bible and other religious tracts.

    Suspicion were raised after Luther, it is true. But you are not correctly describing the position of the late medieval church. Your simply listing the old Protestant propaganda that historians have overturned and that Joseph Smith and the early Mormons never accepted.

  9. And, I must add, you have a very strange apologetic against Luther — trying to find a way to spin Joseph Smith as against him. Hate on Luther and defend the horrible oppression and abuses of the late medieval Church all you want. But do it in a way that makes sense.

  10. I don’t mean to be overly negative toward Luther, and I’m sorry if I over did it. But I do want to reconstruct what the early Mormons actually said.

    And I also don’t mean to say that what the Catholics were doing was great or that they weren’t involved in abuses. But Catholic reformers wanted to fix those as much as Luther did (absenteeism, Simony, ignorant priests etc.) What ultimately divided the Catholics from the Protestants was doctrine. And it just so happens that we agree with Catholic doctrine more so that we do with Protestant doctrine (we reject predestination, sola scriptura, sola fides, priesthood of all believers etc, we embrace priesthood, sacraments, ritual, work for the dead, etc.)

  11. “This isn’t true John.” What isn’t true? Somehow my comment isn’t “true” because it doesn’t account for a book you happen to like?

    You take no position on the issue of extradition on the question of the overlap of heresy with sedition. “Suspicions were raised after Luther, it is true.” This overlooks the Wycliffe situation and the biblical teachings of the Lollards, which directly contradicted the artifice of (false) traditions constructed in the late medieval Church. The chief issue, for which many Lollards were burned after being tried for heresy and then “relaxed” to the secular authority to carry out the death sentence (because of the technicality that “the Church doesn’t shed blood”, which Pope Lucius III had dealt with in 1184 by mandating that heretics should be handed over to the state for execution) was the denial of transubstantiation. They believed that the sacramental bread merely represented the body of Christ, not that it literally was mystically transformed into the body of Christ.

    Your response ignores the fact that in the peasant’s revolt of 1381, the issue was the imposition of draconian poll and other taxes and that authorities (principle among them, the clergy) found the simultaneously growing Lollard movement a convenient scapegoat for the revolt because Wycliffe’s preaching, in addition to tearing down these non-biblical dogmas and traditions, included hefty biblical rhetoric in defense of the poor and downtrodden and against the economic abuses they were suffering at the hands of both clergy and secular authorities alike.

  12. I don’t mean to overdo it here, I’ve probably been a little obnoxious. But just to clarify: as I said above, the English policy toward the vernacular Bible was a particular case and not the general policy of the church. It was enacted by the kings and not the pope. Yes the Catholic Church had a terrible track record of persecution. That is true and it was bad. The Protestants (including Luther) were not advocates of religious freedom, however. Luther wanted the Schwarmer (radicals) wiped out along with the revolting peasants.

    That is to say, we all needed the religious freedom that the Catholics did not grant. Luther did aid in this by breaking up the monopoly, but again, religious freedom was not one of his tenets.

  13. And it just so happens that we agree with Catholic doctrine more so that we do with Protestant doctrine (we reject predestination, sola scriptura, sola fides, priesthood of all believers etc, we embrace priesthood, sacraments, ritual, work for the dead, etc.)

    I think that is very, very debatable. Read the Book of Mormon. The sermons in it read like Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.

    Just to take the offhand list I provided above, we track with the Lollards, Tyndale, and Luther (makes sense since Tyndale was basically a Lutheran) on every single one of them, except perhaps popes (if you consider General Authorities like popes, though popes are infallible) and auricular confession: popes, prayers to saints, transubstantiation, pilgrimages, the sale of pardons and indulgences, auricular confession to a priest, veneration of relics or the host, the infallibility of the clergy.

    Man, you’re going to hate my Tyndale post on October 6.

  14. I don’t want to fight with you John, I think I’ve stated my disagreement. This is what I wrote about Tyndale on the JI

  15. Look, this post is a devotional entry in the Mormon Lectionary Project. It is not necessarily an apologetic for Luther. Like I said, hate on Luther all you want. That’s definitely not my fight. So, this isn’t a fight, though I felt a little puzzled that you said my comment wasn’t “true” (whatever that means) when it contained a bunch of stuff about the situation on the ground in the 1300s-1500s, the Lollards, the situation on the Continent etc. Your argument was that “look, this book I’m citing shows that in many cases, the Church wasn’t particularly vexed about vernacular translations” (except, of course, where and when it was vexed). My original post doesn’t suggest that the Church didn’t sometimes look away when some of its people worked on vernacular translations. It does, however, note the official policy of the Church at the time that opposed vernacular translations.

  16. Good points, John. I’m sorry to have missed the point.

  17. I agree that Luther was not advocating religious freedom, except that he was advocating that Christians were free through Christ from the bondage of the artifice of traditions and requirements (such as the sale of pardons and indulgences, etc.) that amounted to the dead works of the late medieval Church.

    Luckily, the Reformation was followed by the Scottish and English Enlightenments (themselves followed by the European Enlightenment), which ultimately left us with a legacy of Toleration of which we as a small and widely disliked religion are the primary beneficiaries (and yet recently within the Church we are oddly seeing a backlash against such Toleration and intentional pluralism, both from General Authorities and vocal lay members trying their best to follow the cues they perceive General Authorities to be sending through recent political positions expressed in General Conferences). I believe that Luther’s work set us down the road toward an eventual position of Toleration.

    Thanks for the link to your Tyndale post, which I read several years ago.

    Thus Tyndale would have been horrified by Joseph Smith and all his supernatural claims. No doubt Tyndale made a significant contribution to the Restoration but not one that he intended. Sola scriptura became a means of controlling religious authority, cutting out those with claims to revelations.

    I really disagree with that, having read a fair amount of Tyndale’s writings myself. I do not view Tyndale as having been the father of cessation of miracles.

    Might I add that in the altercation between Tyndale and Sir Thomas More, my opinion based on my own reading of the history, including their direct debate with each other published over the course of Tyndale’s exile, is that Tyndale is the good guy in that episode. More was evil. Literally. And as to Erasmus’ description of his “darling” More as “a man for all seasons”, which has stuck and given us our romantic conception of More and his role based on his steadfastness in opposing Henry VIII’s divorce, the fact is that Tyndale also vehemently opposed the divorce. And this was in the face of the political reality that Henry VIII had reached out to Tyndale through his agents to offer him secure passage back to England after Tyndale had written about the primacy of the King over the Pope, the State over the Church in secular government. All Tyndale had to do was slip in a brief apologetic in favor of the divorce (which could have been supported by the Old Testament). Instead, Tyndale simultaneously wrote that the king should remain married, based on the bible, because Catherine had not in any way offended against him and therefore there were no grounds for the divorce that could be found in the Bible.

    So Tyndale opposed the divorce too, and it got him killed. True, it was More’s murderous glee for burning heretics that ultimately snared Tyndale (through the capture and torture of numerous associates of Tyndale in England and information obtained from them under torture or the stocks or the dungeon). But had Tyndale simply condoned the divorce, he would have been given safe passage and likely could have been taken up at court, through the influence of Ann Boleyn, who was sympathetic to Tyndale and the “bible men.” And yet, More, with his campaign against fellow Christians reading the Bible in English and his torture and burning of those fellow Christians, is the “Man for All Seasons” revered by many in our Church today, rather than Tyndale whose name and labor to bring God’s Word to light for the people is hardly known.

    On the other hand, I completely agree with your statement that medieval Catholics would not have tolerated JS’s revelatory program. More, Tunstall, and the rest of the clergy in England, and all clergy on the Continent, including and especially the Pope, would have burned Joseph Smith and any and all people who followed him at the stake together with Tyndale without a second thought.

    Luther was not a martyr in his translation work and preaching against the false traditions that had accumulated in the late medieval Church (he didn’t advocate a new Church but a reformation of these abuses in the existing Church). Tyndale and many others, however, were martyrs. Their work in bringing the Word of God to the people in their own languages was monumental and entailed the sacrifice of everything followed by a horrendous death based on their conscience of what was right and wrong about the dogmas of the Church in their time. We owe a lot to them. Joseph Smith read James 1:5 in King James English because of them. (Also, their history, actions, and teachings are important and valuable in their own right, independent of the degree to which Joseph Smith knew about, agreed with, or endorsed them or not.)

    This is why they are deserving of inclusion in the Mormon Lectionary Project. A number of notable Catholic saints and figures will also be appearing in the MLP, as well as a few notable non-Christians from whose lives and teachings we gain invaluable truths, such as the recent entry on Gandhi. We are trying to take Mormon teachings at their word when they speak of searching out Truth wherever it might be found and circumscribing it into one great Whole (which Whole does not, we believe, have to be internally consistent within itself given the parameters of our knowledge — both what we know and what we can know — at the present time). If it is virtuous, lovely, of good report, or praiseworthy, we seek after it in the contours of the Mormon Lectionary Project. Luther easily fits this description, particularly his legacy of refocusing our efforts and vision on our faith in Jesus Christ as the foundation of allowing the Atonement to become effective in our lives and of humanity’s prospects for salvation. Such individual, ardent, and effective faith in the Lord Jesus Christ was very much in the background in official Church dogma in the early 1500s. Bringing it forward, though this caused much turmoil because of the reactionary response by the entrenched interests within the Church, was invaluable for the progression of Christ’s Kingdom on the earth. And Luther and Tyndale (as the good guys of the Reformation — I do not plan an entry on Calvin, Zwingli, Melanchton, or some others whom I do not view favorably) are part of that progression.

  18. Thanks, John. Protestants like Luther, did almost exclusively attack anyone claiming to receive revelation. These were the schwarmer to Luther. The early reformers would have also executed Joseph Smith. I’m am interested if you have any statement from Tyndale to the contrary though.

  19. Yes, Schwärmer.

    Now having said everything I said, let me acknowledge that this is apparently your field of academic study and so it very likely is true that you have read more widely about the late medieval Church than I. I should humbly acknowledge that. I’m just a lawyer who’s read a few books. All these long comments I’ve left are just my own religious opinion about the issues in play based on my eclectic reading about the period and events.

    I have little doubt that I would have greatly disliked Luther as a person in real life if I had been around him back then, at least if my personality were the same in that hypothetical and not itself completely altered by the circumstances in which I would be living, including the oppression of the Church at the time. So we have some common ground there, I think.

  20. You know doubt know a lot about all this as well. I often wonder if Luther’s pugnaciousness was an asset, though. Moderate and conciliatory reformers like Erasmus could not have had nearly the same effect as a guy like Luther. The monopoly of the Catholic Church needed to be broken and it probably took a guy like Luther to move that along. Thanks for the post, sorry if this got of topic.

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