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date: 25 March 2017

Religious Violence, Martyrdom, and Martin Luther

Summary and Keywords

Violence was first experienced in the church as martyrdom. Under the Roman Empire, Christians were subjected to state-sponsored penalties ranging from fines to corporal punishment to execution. A number of prominent early theologians and apologists fell victim, including Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Origen, Cyprian, Perpetua, and Felicity. With the end of persecution under Constantine and then its eventual designation as the empire’s official religion, Christianity’s relationship to violence changed significantly. While some theologians had attempted to grapple with the question of whether Christians could join the Roman armies, the new relationship between church and state required new theological consideration. Accordingly, new questions arose: For example, could or should the state enforce right belief? Over time, three general approaches to violence emerged.

The first is a coercive model. In this model, the state (and then later, the church in places) used its punitive powers to enforce Christian orthodoxy and fight against its enemies, both within its own borders and externally. St. Augustine provided part of the justification for coercion in his “Letter 93: To Valentius,” in which he argued that not all persecution is evil. If persecution is aimed at bringing one to right belief and practice, it has a positive goal. Many heresy trials and later executions were supported by “Letter 93.” Later thinkers expanded the model of internal persecution against heretics to external attacks on those deemed threatening to Christianity from outside the church or outside the empire. The Crusades were largely justified on such bases.

The second is a pacifist model. Though perhaps the dominant model in the first two centuries of the church, it was quickly eclipsed by the other two perspectives. Early theologians such as Tertullian and Cyprian argued that because Christ forbade Peter to use the sword in the Garden of Gethsemane, Christians were forbidden from using violence to achieve any ends, “but how will a Christian man war, nay, how will he serve even in peace, without a sword, which the Lord has taken away” (Tertullian, On Idolatry, Chapter 19, “On Military Service.”) In the medieval period, the pacifist model was adopted by some monastic traditions (e.g., the Spiritualist Franciscans), but more commonly by what were then considered heretical movements, including the Cathars, Albigensians, Waldensians, and Czech Brethren.

The final model is often called the “Just War” perspective. The origin for this theory can be found in St. Ambrose’s response to a massacre of innocent people. He argued that while a Christian should never use violence for his or her own benefit, there were times when a Christian, out of love for neighbor, had to use violence to protect the weak or innocent. To stand by and watch the powerful attack or kill the innocent when one can do something to prevent it is nearly as great a sin as being one of the attackers. As with the coercive model, Augustine provided much of the framework for this view of violence. Augustine allowed that there were some righteous wars, fought at the command of God as punishment for iniquity. That view remained less influential and is more closely connected to the coercive model. Far more influential was his view that there were wars that were necessary for the protection of the homeland and the innocent. In this sense, he outlined two major principles that guided later thinking. First, a war must have a right (or just) cause (ius ad bellum), and one must fight the war itself justly (ius in bello). Just causes included defending the homeland, coming to the aid of an ally, punishing wicked rulers, or retaking that which was unlawfully stolen. Beyond the simple cause, it also had to be rightly intentioned—it could not be fought for vainglory’s sake, nor to take new lands. It had to have some method of state control, since states go to war, not individual people. When conducting the war, one also had responsibilities. One had to be proportional, have achievable ends, and fight discriminately (that is, between combatants, not combatants against civilian populations). Finally, and most importantly, war had to be a last resort after all other measures failed, and it had to be aimed at producing a benefit for those one sought to defend. In the medieval era, Thomas Aquinas added significant precision to Augustine’s framework.

All three models continued into the Reformation era. The advent of formally competing visions of Christianity following Luther’s excommunication by the pope and his ban by the emperor in 1521 at the Diet of Worms added new dimensions to these models. Martin Luther had occasion to comment upon all three.

Keywords: Martin Luther, coercion, Inquisition, Christian pacifism, Just War, Augustine, Ambrose, Tertullian, Crusades, violence, martyrdom

Models of Violence: Coercion


The use of coercion in religion in the Christian West nearly always depended upon cooperation with state. When the church did use coercive methods (that is, methods beyond exhortation and penances), it did so with at least tacit approval by the state. In the 16th century, there were roughly three types of coercive practices: the Inquisition, theocracy, and state-sponsored war on behalf of religious orthodoxy.

The Inquisition was already centuries old by the time that Martin Luther posted the Ninety-Five Theses.1 It is perhaps most famous for its work in Spain during this era, but throughout the early Reformation, it was also active in the Holy Roman Empire, France, Italy, the Low Countries, and much of the rest of Europe. Jan Hus was burned at the stake in 1415 at the Council of Constance following an inquisitorial trial. Girolamo Savonarola was burned in 1498 in Florence. The advent of religious pluralism during the 16th century dramatically increased inquisitorial trials. Over the course of the century, at least 5,000 persons were tried and executed for heresy.2 Luther was never directly interrogated by an inquisitor, though a number of people with whom he either met or engaged in spirited discourse with were inquisitors at the time, had been in the past, or would be named inquisitors because of their work against Luther. Johannes Tetzel was a previous inquisitor before becoming famous as an indulgence seller. Johannes Eck became an inquisitor in the midst of his campaign against Luther. The most famous, however, was Jacob van Hoogstraten, a Dominican from the Low Countries. Hoogstraten was already famous before Luther for his attacks against Johannes Reuchlin and the use of Jewish scholarship in Christian education. In 1518, Hoogstraten first attacked Luther in the preface to a work against Reuchlin.3 In 1523, Hoogstraten presided over the trial and then execution of the first two Lutherans to be burned at the stake, Heinrich Voes and Johann Esch. In the 1525 woodcut of Luther attributed to Hans Holbein, Hercules Germanicus, Luther clutches Hoogstraten in his hands as he defeats a Hydra of inquisitors and anti-Luther polemicists.


Though there were many principalities and regional jurisdictions both within the Holy Roman Empire and outside it that were ruled by the local bishops—sometimes called prince-bishoprics—none of these could be truly labeled a theocracy. There were, however, two episodes of theocracy in the Holy Roman Empire during Luther’s lifetime. The first example was the Peasants’ War of 1525. There had been peasant uprisings throughout the medieval era, and they had been gaining some strength in the 15th century. One of the most famous was the uprising in Niklaushausen (1476) led by a young shepherd, drummer, and apocalyptic preacher. While Niklaushausen began with a fiery preacher, the events of 1524–1525 began over what might be called purely secular reasons—unjust treatment at the hands of the high clergy and nobility, and high taxes. Quickly, however, it took on religious tones. Very early on, peasant demands included ideas gleaned from the writings or actions of Martin Luther. He had defied both pope and emperor, and many peasants saw him as a hero to be emulated. There is also evidence to suggest that the peasants, many of whom could not read and certainly were not trained to discern theological nuance, heard Luther’s treatise On the Freedom of a Christian as a call for their freedom from fealty and oppression. That this was not Luther’s intention was probably lost on most of them. The war itself began in southern Germany and quickly spread north and east. As it moved north, peasant armies encountered another fiery preacher, and a former follower of Luther, Thomas Müntzer. Müntzer, like the Drummer of Niklaushausen, was an apocalyptic preacher. He portrayed himself as a new Gideon, sent to Germany to cleanse the nation of sin and injustice. The peasant armies would become his (and, he proclaimed, God’s) righteous sword. By the late spring of 1525, peasant armies now led by Müntzer had taken over a number of towns and cities, instituting divine law as interpreted by Müntzer. Initially caught off guard by the ferocity of peasant rage, the princes gathered an army of their own to suppress them. The two armies met at Frankenhausen, a city earlier taken by Müntzer. The battle lasted less than a day. The peasants had depended upon surprise and their opponents’ lack of preparation for their earlier successes. Facing a well-prepared and well-trained army, they were slaughtered, thousands dying in just that day. Thomas Müntzer was captured, tortured, and then executed. Many peasants were likewise executed or maimed as punishment afterward. Martin Luther wrote a number of tracts during the Peasants’ War. Initially, he criticized the nobility for creating and exacerbating peasant unrest via their unjust treatment. After the peasant armies merged with Müntzer and became more violent, Luther responded quite harshly. The most famous of his responses was Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of (the other) Peasants.4 That treatise was written before the Battle of Frankenhausen but was not published until a short time afterward. Because of this, it appeared to many as a treatise meant to justify the slaughter at Frankenhausen. This impression was aided by the fact that the phrase “the other” in the original title was dropped in later publication runs. Luther meant that “other” to signify he was speaking only of violent peasants, but once dropped it left the impression that he was against all peasants.

A decade later, the city of Münster came under the control of a small band of apocalyptic preachers. In 1534, one of Münster’s leading pro-Luther preachers, Bernard Rothman, was rebaptized and began preaching Anabaptist theology and practice. Two religious refugees from Frisia living in Münster, Jan Matthijs and Jan of Leiden, vigorously supported Rothman and took up his message as their own. Rothman, Matthijs, and Leiden quickly found significant support on the city council. Eventually, Matthijs emerged as the city’s de facto leader. Together with Leiden and Rothman, Matthijs set out to establish Münster as a New Zion by decreeing the city would be completely governed by biblical and godly law (as interpreted by Matthijs, in similar fashion to Thomas Müntzer). Private property was outlawed, and adult believers’ baptism was mandated for all. Any who disagreed with Matthijs were banished from the city. The prince-bishop of Münster reacted swiftly, and the city was blockaded. On Easter Sunday 1534, Matthijs, who had been preaching that he was an agent of God and was divinely protected, led a sortie against the blockade. He was killed. He was replaced by Jan of Leiden, who quickly named himself the king of Münster and instituted new divine mandates, including polygamy. The blockade of Münster lasted months, until the city’s inhabitants were reduced to utter starvation. One of them snuck out of the city and betrayed its fortifications to the bishop’s army, now augmented by imperial troops. The city quickly fell, and like Frankenhausen earlier, it was a slaughter. Many of those left in the city were put to the sword. Jan of Leiden was captured, tortured, and executed, his body left to hang in a metal cage suspended from the cathedral spire—and still visible there today. Luther did not write a treatise on the Kingdom of Münster. He did, however, write a few short prefaces to works of others, in each of which Jan of Leiden is presented as a devil’s minion.


In January 1521, Martin Luther was formally excommunicated by Pope Leo X with the bull Decet Romanum Pontificum. A few weeks later, he received a summons and safe-passage guarantee from Emperor Charles V to appear before the imperial Diet that was soon to meet in Worms. Luther did appear, and as he had before in his appearance before Cardinal Thomas di Vio Cajetan, he refused to recant his writings as the emperor demanded. There is excellent evidence that Luther expected to be martyred at Worms, but mysteriously he was allowed to leave the city, leading to his time at the Wartburg.5 As the Diet concluded, and after all the pro-Luther princes had left Worms, Charles V issued an imperial ban making Luther an outlaw and pledging his reign to the eradication of Luther’s “heresy.” Throughout much of the 1520s, however, he was stymied in his attempts to make good on his pledge. But in 1529, at the imperial Diet that met in Speyer, his brother Ferdinand, acting on his behalf, reaffirmed the declaration of Worms and proclaimed that princes who remained loyal to Luther would henceforth be considered breakers of the emperor’s peace and outlaws themselves. Pro-Lutheran princes reacted with indignation and declared, formally, that King Ferdinand did not have such authority. They appealed his decision in the Protestation of Speyer. It is from that document that the word “Protestant” is derived. Despite their formal Protestation, the imperial edict was viewed by the Protestant princes as a very real threat. They prepared to defend themselves and their religious convictions. They gathered in the small city of Schmalkald and pledged themselves to mutual defense and opposition to the emperor’s religious policies. This group of princes, and a few Free Imperial Cities, formed what is known as the Schmalkaldic League. Luther penned his Warning to His Dear Germans (discussed below) in response to Ferdinand’s declaration and in support of the right of the Schmalkald princes to resist the emperor. However, war did not come in 1529, nor in 1530. Instead, the Ottoman Turks advanced on Vienna, and the emperor was forced to accommodate Protestant princes because he needed them to repel the Turkish threat to the empire. (See below for a discussion of Luther’s view on wars fought against the Turks.) Indeed, as in the 1520s, Charles V was unable to mount any campaign against Protestants throughout the 1530s. It was not until 1547, a year after Luther’s death (which contributed to Protestant disarray), that Charles was finally in a position to attack Protestant princes. The Schmalkaldic War was initially a decisive victory for Charles. He quickly captured Philipp of Hesse and John Frederick of Saxony. He implemented a number of religious declarations that reestablished much of Roman Catholic doctrine and practice in Protestant lands. Only the city of Magdeburg remained undefeated.6 The siege was finally ended in 1552 when a capitulation agreement was struck between the city and imperial troops that allowed it to remain Protestant. Soon afterward, a number of princes loyal to Charles but with Protestant theological sympathies revolted against him. By 1555, a stalemate between Charles and these Protestant princes was recognized, and the so-called Peace of Augsburg was established. In this peace, religious plurality among Christians within the empire was formally recognized and authorized. Each prince would determine the religious affiliation within his lands (cuius regio, eius religio—“he who reigns, his religion”). Though this brought an end to religious war in the empire, it also helped sow the seeds of the Thirty Years’ War in the 17th century. Religious war thus came to a brief end in the empire. It would, however, continue in other places—most notably in France, where Protestants were murdered in massive numbers during the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572.7 The French Wars of Religion lasted from 1562 to 1598.

Models of Violence: Pacifism


Anabaptism in the early 16th century was not monolithic. It can barely, if at all, be considered a single movement. The execution of many of its founding leaders in the late 1520s contributed significantly to its diversity. We have already seen one aspect of Anabaptism in the Kingdom of Münster, a violent theocratic model.8 There were others, however. In the mid-1520s, Balthasar Hubmeier (1480–1528) advocated an approach to world authority and the use of violence that largely mirrors Just War. In his treatise On the Sword (1527), he supports the idea that a Christian might wield the sword to punish the wicked and protect the innocent and weak. The “sword” here means any type of state action that involved physical punishment—for example, anything from whipping, to execution, even to serving as a soldier in times of war. However, in Concerning Heretics and Those Who Burn Them (1525), Hubmaier was equally clear that the sword could not be wielded to punish heresy. The final alternative was a complete rejection of the sword. Here Anabaptists picked up the Patristic idea that Christ had forbidden Christians to wield the sword in any circumstance, whether it be police-type duties or military duties, or even to serve on juries, since those inevitably led to punishment. The clearest early articulation of the rejection of the sword is found in the Schleitheim Confession of 1527, written by Michel Sattler (1495–1527). Where Just War theorists see the sword as established by God (picking up on Romans 13, where Paul writes that governing authorities are established by God) to be used on behalf of the community to prevent anarchy, Sattler argued that Christians had to follow the life and teachings of Christ, who had rejected the sword. The sword was needed only for non-Christians. Just as important, however, was his belief that the sword was outside the perfection of Christ. Christians did not need the power of the sword, since true and godly Christians would not need to punished, nor would they need courts. If a follower of Christ fell into sin, he was to be admonished to repent. Should he fail to amend his life, he might be excluded from the community via the ban. No violence, however, would be needed. Sattler expanded this beyond the local community as well, arguing that Christians could not be soldiers. Again, Christ rejected the sword while living under the tyranny of the Romans. Thus, for Sattler, even if the dreaded and hated Turks should invade, he pledged not to resist them. It was this aspect of pacifistic Anabaptism that outraged many in the 16th century. It was one thing to say that one had no need for policing; it was another thing entirely to refuse to defend the homeland. Many 16th-century Anabaptists were charged not only with heresy when they were arrested but with sedition as well. Sattler was executed for sedition in 1527 in Rottenburg am Neckar.

Menno Simons

Prior to the debacle at Münster, Anabaptist thought on the use of violence and participation in government tended to vacillate among all three options: theocracy, pragmatism, and pacifism. Following Münster, a new leader emerged for the movement who left a lasting imprint on it. Menno Simons (c. 1496–1561) was a Catholic priest in Friesland when he first became an evangelical or pro-Lutheran preacher around 1526. By 1531, he had become convinced that there was no scriptural justification for infant baptism and began to administer adult baptism, aligning himself with Anabaptism. He did not participate in the Kingdom of Münster, but likely lost a brother there, and he sought to distance himself from it. He did so most explicitly in an apology for his community called The Fundament (1539), in which he lays out the fundamentals of Anabaptist theology and practice. It opens with a letter to Christian princes, already signaling a view of magistrates different from that of Sattler and more in line with Hubmeier. For Menno, Christians could serve as magistrates and even wield the sword in defense of the weak. Like Sattler, however, he also argued that for Christians, neither ought to be necessary. Thus, he acknowledged the need for magistrates, for police, even for armies, but he also seemed to imply that his followers ought not to participate, even advocating that if they did serve in an army they ought to do something other than being an armed soldier. In general, Martin Luther did not see much difference between the likes of Michael Sattler, Jan of Leiden, or Menno Simons. He lumped them all together with spiritualists like Thomas Müntzer and the Zwickau Prophets under the pejorative “Schwärmerei,” a swarm of bees, connoting the idea of frenzy and danger simultaneously. For Luther, Müntzer and Münster became normative for all Anabaptists, even those who claimed to be pacifist. He was sure that the pacifism some Anabaptists claimed would fade away when given the opportunity and erupt into tyranny and theocracy. He wrote consistently and passionately against Anabaptists throughout his life.

Models of Violence: Just War

Martin Luther

The three main Protestant protagonists of what has been labeled Just War are Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Calvin. In the 1960s, George Huntston Williams labeled these three “magisterial” reformers because of their positive views toward the magistracy (including its use of the sword) and cooperation with magistrates in the implementation of their reforms.9

Any examination of Luther’s understanding of violence, either policing or in wartime, must begin with his Two Kingdoms theology, which guided his approach to nearly all social and political institutions.10 Following Augustine, Luther argued that God has established two realms (or kingdoms) for the proper governance and maintenance of human society.11 The geistliches Reich (the spiritual realm) governs one’s life and relationship coram deo (before God). The weltliches Reich (the worldly realm) governs one’s life coram hominibus (before humanity). The former is eternal and everlasting, governed by the gospel and faith in Christ. The latter is temporal and fleeting, ruled by law and convention. Within the Two Kingdoms are two regimes or governments (though that is not a particularly accurate translation)—the geistliches Regiment and the weltliches Regiment. The spiritual government is the church, which proclaims the gospel and administers the sacraments. The worldly government exists to limit evil, defend the weak, and punish the wicked: “God has subjected [the wicked] to the sword so that, even though they would like to, they are unable to practice their wickedness, and if they do practice it they cannot do so without fear or with success and impunity.”12 For Luther, the wicked were those who threatened the good maintenance of society, whether they were brigands from within or violent invaders from without. In such cases, Christians had to take up the sword to defend themselves and their neighbors. He remained consistent on this point throughout his entire life. His stance on this point helps to contextualize his response to the Peasants’ War. In the late 1520s, however, he was forced to confront the question of whether or not, and in what manner, Christians might resist their own government when it, rather than an external army, seemed to be a threat to civil life and limb—that is, when it became tyrannical. Early in his career, he was clear that Paul in Romans 13 had forbidden any type of rebellion or resistance against one’s liege lord:

Here is what the law says, “No one shall fight or make war against his overlord; for a man owes his overlord obedience, honor and fear” (Romans 13[:1–7]) … Therefore the question here is whether a situation can ever develop in which it is just for the people to act against this law, to be disobedient to rulers and fight against them, depose them, or put them in bonds … To these I say that rulers are not to be opposed with violence and rebellion, as the Romans, the Greeks, the Swiss, and the Danes have done; but there are other ways of dealing with them. In the first place, if they see that rulers think so little of their soul’s salvation that they rage and do wrong, of what importance is it that they ruin your property, body, wife, and child? They cannot hurt your soul.13

Martyrdom was all Luther allowed. However, following the 1529 Diet of Speyer and the formation of the Schmalkaldic League, Luther was presented with evidence by lawyers representing Landgrave Philipp of Hesse and Duke John of Saxony that the Holy Roman Empire provided for very limited resistance when a ruler overstepped the limits of his authority. In such instances, a lesser magistrate might be called upon to limit the overlord’s unlawful activity. Luther discusses such instances in Warning to His Dear Germans. The theory of lesser-magistracy would gain currency throughout the 16th century and was largely in keeping with Luther’s Two Kingdoms theory, in that it was lesser magistrates who were now protecting others from the malfeasance of a greater lord who was, Luther argued, actually the one breaking the law. When he broke the law, he was no different from the brigand on the street, and thus needed to be reprimanded just like a brigand. In all cases, defense of others, proportionality, and lawfulness governed the proper use of violence and the sword. When those burdens could not be met, the use of the sword was forbidden to Christians.

Ulrich Zwingli

Ulrich Zwingli (1484–1531) died in battle against Roman Catholic forces that he believed threatened Zurich and the proclamation of the pure gospel. Such an end to his life would have greatly surprised his younger self. He was educated as a humanist and came to his views on war via two avenues. First, in the early 1510s, Zwingli served as a military chaplain during the Italian Wars. He witnessed the battles of Novara (1513) and Marignano (1515). As in the American Civil War centuries later, in the Italian Wars brother fought brother as mercenaries for the opposing sides. Marignano was a particularly horrific battle that haunted Zwingli ever after. Second, Zwingli was an early devotee of Desiderius Erasmus, one of the few non-Anabaptists to advocate for Christian pacifism in the 16th century. The young Zwingli never adopted complete pacifism, but he was a determined foe of the trade in mercenaries and viewed war quite negatively, as might befit one who witnessed what he had.

In 1519, Zwingli became the leading preacher of Zurich. Over time he would lead the city toward the Reformation, leading disputations in favor of reform in January and October of 1523. Through these he gained the support of the city council. In 1524 he led efforts to reform churches under his authority, and in 1525 the city council formally embraced the Reformation as conceived by Zwingli. Throughout this multi-year process, Zwingli worked in close cooperation with the city council. Indeed, he modified his views on some aspects of reform after consultation with the city fathers. His willingness to compromise, they argued, is what gave rise to his Anabaptist critics, Conrad Grebel and Felix Manz. Zwingli’s response to Grebel and Manz was swift and total. He viewed them as an internal threat to a purified church as well as a civil threat to proper order in the city. They contributed to his opinion by doing things like disturbing sermons delivered by those with whom they disagreed and by continuing to preach against infant baptism, both inside the city’s walls and in its territories, after being expressly forbidden to do so by both Zwingli (as chief preacher) and the city council. In January 1525, Zwingli debated against the Anabaptists and the city council declared him the winner. Almost immediately, a small group undertook the first adult baptism in Zurich, again defying both council and preacher. When some followers of Anabaptism became embroiled in the 1525 Peasants’ War in Germany, this seemed to confirm all of Zwingli’s and the council’s fears. They were once again expressly forbidden to preach or rebaptize. When they continued, the council passed an ordinance threatening those who continued with drowning. In 1527, Felix Manz was drowned in the Limmat River after the council found him guilty. In the trial, Zwingli testified to Manz’s obstinate refusal to amend his error. Thus Zwingli showed he was willing to use the powers of the state to punish not just those who broke laws like thievery or murder, but also those he and the city deemed heretics. Luther, as noted above, was also willing to punish Anabaptists, but he often saw their civil unrest as the center of their crimes rather than their heresy. When Luther heard the news of Zwingli’s death in the Second Battle of Kappel, he viewed it as God’s judgment against him for what Luther believed to be his blasphemy against the Eucharist.14 His remarks demonstrate a lack of charity, but also highlight a rather amorphous understanding of violence and God’s providence. Luther, sometimes too readily, could see in the misfortune of others God’s judgment, but in the misfortune or suffering of his allies he saw the slings and arrows of satanic forces. In this regard, he was not dissimilar from most people in the 16th century.

Luther on Violence and Martyrdom


In late 1529 or early 1530, Luther was completing a series of lectures on the book of Isaiah for students at the University of Wittenberg. In his lectures on chapter 66, he turns a number of times to discuss the persecutions that the church faced in his time. He mentions the Turks and then, in verse 9, discusses Tertullian’s famous statement that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.15 Martyrdom and the danger of persecution were very present realities for Martin Luther and his movement at that time. They faced danger externally as Suleiman the Magnificent and his armies approached the city of Vienna. Internally, King Ferdinand on behalf of his brother Charles V had declared Protestants to be in error and pledged to suppress them. It was perhaps Luther’s darkest hour as the leader of his movement since his summons to Worms in 1521. It was not his only time to ponder the implications of his work and the cost in life, limb, and livelihood for himself and some of his followers.

From 1521 to 1522, Luther remained in hiding at the Wartburg Castle in order to avoid arrest and execution. In 1522, with the knowledge if not outright permission of Frederick the Wise (who was attempting to maintain some plausible deniability where Luther was concerned), Luther returned to Wittenberg. When it became widely known that Luther was alive and well in Wittenberg, a number of princes and imperial estates opposed to him sought to have him arrested and his works suppressed. A case was brought against him in the Imperial Regency Court in Nuremberg. Implied threats were made against Frederick the Wise that he might be stripped of his authority as an imperial elector. Edicts of suppression were issued, and some of Luther’s followers were arrested and charged with heresy. Jacob Probst was likely the first. Perhaps under torture, he recanted his “errors,” and was released. He soon fled to Bremen, where he died as a Lutheran pastor (having returned to the Reformation almost as soon as he was freed) some forty years later. Others would not be as lucky. In 1523, Vos and Esch were executed for holding Lutheran beliefs. At about the same time, a young priest who had adopted the Reformation was beaten and thrown out of his town. Luther responded in writing to all these events. He wrote A Letter of Consolation to All who Suffer Persecution because of God’s Word after hearing about people like Probst and a young noble who was likewise suffering.16 The arrest of Probst and others and the confiscation of his writings led to a large number of questions among his followers about the degree to which imperial actions such as these ought to be, or could be, obeyed. Should one turn over their books by Luther? Could one flee in the face of arrest? Could one fight back with violence when forces tried place one under arrest? Luther responded with the very important treatise Temporal Authority: To What Extent Should it Be Obeyed.17 Temporal Authority is broken into three parts. The opening section on the foundation of political governance is the first place where Luther truly discusses his Two Kingdoms doctrine. The belief that government was established by God and has its authority in God’s ordering of creation was a rejection of the medieval view that all authority was derived from the spiritual estates (i.e., the church and the papacy). While Luther recognizes in the opening section that the sword of government ought to be unnecessary for Christians, the fact that even Christians remain sinners means that it remains necessary. Section two is the most relevant to the discussion of martyrdom and the use of violence to coerce belief. Here Luther declares that the coercion of belief and faith lies outside the jurisdiction of the worldly prince:

Therefore, in matters which concern the salvation of souls nothing but God’s word shall be taught and accepted. Again, consummate fools though they are, they must confess that they have no power over souls. For no human being can kill a soul or give it life, or conduct it to heaven or hell. If they will not take our word for it, Christ himself will attend to it strongly enough where he says in the tenth chapter of Matthew, “Do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing that they can do; rather fear him who after he has killed the body, has power to condemn to hell.”18

If secular authorities seize your books, assault your person, or even slay your body, Luther teaches, they cannot harm your soul—which belongs to God alone. Martyrdom in the 1520s was a possibility Luther now recognized, and he hoped that his words would offer consolation to those who might be called to such an account. Luther was not arrested in 1522 or 1523, indeed not even in 1529. The emperor was never able to launch a campaign against Luther directly. Nevertheless, Luther was forced to clarify his views on martyrdom rather significantly in 1529 and 1530, and he came to accept the legal argument that princes and lower magistrates had the right to resist unjust laws. For individuals, however, he remained steadfast in his belief that their resistance to unjust laws was the martyr’s calling. An individual, on his or her own behalf, could not resist with violence. Instead he or she must suffer for the sake of the gospel. People have accused Luther of a quietist approach to tyranny in which there is no recourse for those who suffer. He was never a revolutionary, but neither was he a simple quietist who counseled only martyrdom. There were legal remedies, and those had to be followed.

Whether Soldiers Too Can Be Saved

In 1525, Luther received a letter from a seasoned soldier who had fought on behalf of Saxony in many places, including Italy and more recently in the Peasants’ War. He had also recently come to believe in Luther’s reformation. He was now deeply concerned that his profession might jeopardize his salvation. He wrote Luther and asked quite directly whether a soldier could be a Christian. As we have seen, some Anabaptist theologians were already answering that question negatively. Luther responded by answering both the question asked and one unasked but no less important. First, he said that while all war is a failure and a manifestation of humanity’s sinful nature, soldiers can be Christians, depending on why they fight and for whom they fight. Should a neighboring state attack, the soldier must say to himself, “My neighbor compels and forces me to fight, though I would rather avoid it.” In such a cases wars might not be called “war,”

but lawful self-defense, for we must distinguish between wars that someone begins because that is what he wants to do and does before anyone else attacks him, and those wars that are provoked when an attack is made by someone else. The first kind can be called wars of desire; the second, wars of necessity. The first kind are of the devil; God does not give good fortune to the man who wages that kind of war. The second kind are human disasters; God help them!19

The second question Luther answered concerns situations when a commander or prince orders a soldier to do something expressly forbidden by God. What if he commands a soldier to fight in the type of war Luther has just condemned—a war for profit, or vainglory, those that are “of the devil”? In such a case, the soldier must refuse, even if that means he might be stripped of authority or even killed. Quoting from Acts 5, Luther echoes St. Peter, declaring one must serve God and not man in this situation. Implicitly, Luther here also condemns the idea of crusade.


In the 16th century, most Europeans lived in fear of a Turkish invasion. To some, especially in the Balkans and what is today Hungary and Austria, it was a real and constant threat, but even people hundreds or even thousands of miles away from the Turkish front feared the Mohammedans, or Turks, or infidels—terms used synonymously by most Europeans of the time. Early in his career, Luther generally portrayed the Turks as a manifestation of God’s judgment against Europe for its people’s unfaithfulness and sinfulness. Throughout his life, he continued to see them largely in apocalyptic terms. People initially believed this meant that Luther was against fighting the Turks. If they were God’s chastening rod, could one resist? Luther responded to such questions—given new urgency by the 1529 Siege of Vienna—saying that one could fight against the Turks. However, he categorically rejected the idea of crusade or holy war. The war against the Turk was a war of defense, not a Christian war against the infidel. He made this clear in two treatises written in late 1529 and early 1530: On War against the Turks and Muster [or Battle] Sermon against the Turk.20 As Christians, the only weapons might wield against the Turk are prayer and repentance. He called for such prayers of repentance frequently, viewing them as the only way to truly beat the Turk by assuaging God’s anger at Christians’ unfaithfulness. A war that claimed to be fought on behalf of God, a holy war or crusade, was the antithesis of godly behavior. It would further anger God, and rather than bring an end to the Turkish threat, it would heighten it: “If I were a soldier and saw in the battlefield a priest’s banner or cross, even if it were the very crucifix, I would run away as though the very devil were chasing me!”21 As soldiers, however, they could repel the Turk with fist and sword because that met the criteria for a just, if fallen, war. It was fought to protect one’s homeland and neighbors from harm. Holy wars were always unholy for Luther.


Some have suggested that religious plurality contributed to an increase in violence and warfare in the 16th century. Certainly a new aspect of violence and martyrdom increased because of religious diversity. But Europe, like many other places, was not immune to war and violence before the Reformation. In 1377, Robert of Geneva (who would go on to become the Antipope Clement VII) led an army that butchered nearly all the inhabitants of the Italian city of Cesena, earning him the title “the butcher of Cesena.” Likewise, violence and war rarely had a single cause in the 16th century. One of the most significant princes to ally with the emperor in the Schmalkaldic War, Maurice of Ducal Saxony, was a Protestant who sided with Charles in order to seize the electoral office from his cousin, Duke John Frederick of Saxony. He did not go to war for religious reasons, even though that was largely the emperor’s aim. Anabaptists always believed that their leaders were martyred for their faith, but those who executed them often viewed it as punishment for sedition or unlawful behavior, not wrong thought. The study of violence and warfare ought not to seek to answer the question of who was right or wrong in such a disagreement, but to understand better the polyvalent nature and complexity of human violence.

Review of the Literature

Literature on Luther’s view of martyrdom and violence can be found primarily in works devoted to specific topics or events. There is no heading, for example, for war or violence in the recent (and massive) Oxford Handbook to Martin Luther’s Theology. A single short volume by Hermann Kunst, Martin Luther und der Krieg (1965), that has attempted a systematic approach to Luther on war. Otherwise, the reader must look to general works such as Paul Althaus’s classic work, The Ethics of Martin Luther (1972), where he discusses Luther’s attitudes toward violence and warfare. James Stayer’s Anabaptists and the Sword (1972) discusses all the major approaches to the penal use of the sword and violence in the 16th century. Beyond these works, the reader’s best course is to look at works devoted to topics such as Luther on the Peasants’ War, Luther on the Turks, Luther on the Jews, or Luther and the Schmalkaldic League.

Further Reading

Althaus, Paul. The Ethics of Martin Luther. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1972.Find this resource:

Brecht, Martin. Martin Luther. Translated by James Schaff. 3 vols. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985–1993.Find this resource:

Davies, Jonathan. Aspects of Violence in Renaissance Europe. Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, 2013.Find this resource:

Diefendorf, Barbara B. Beneath the Cross: Catholics and Huguenots in Sixteenth-Century Paris. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.Find this resource:

Edwards, Mark U. Luther and the False Brethren. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1975.Find this resource:

Greengrass, Mark. Christendom Destroyed: 1517–1648. New York: Penguin, 2014.Find this resource:

Gregory, Brad S. Salvation at Stake: Christian Martyrdom in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.Find this resource:

Kolb, Robert. “God’s Gift of Martyrdom: The Early Reformation Understanding of Dying for the Faith.” Church History 64 (1995): 399–411.Find this resource:

Kunst, Hermann. Martin Luther und der Krieg. Stuttgart: Evangelisches Verlagswerk, 1965.Find this resource:

Mattox, J. M. Saint Augustine and the Theory of Just War. London: Continuum, 2006.Find this resource:

Miller, Gregory J. “Luther on the Turks and Islam.” In Harvesting Martin Luther’s Reflections on Theology, Ethics, and the Church. Edited by Timothy Wengert, 185–204. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004.Find this resource:

Orr, Timothy J. “Junker Jörg on Patmos.” Church History and Religious Culture 95.4 (2015): 435–456.Find this resource:

Sabean, David. “Reading Sixteenth Century Religious Violence.” In Religion und Gewalt. Edited by Kaspar von Greyerz and Kim Siebenhüner, 109–123. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2006.Find this resource:

Stayer, James M. Anabaptists and the Sword. Lawrence, KS: Coronado, 1972.Find this resource:

Tertullian, On Idolatry, in The Writings of Quintus Sept. Flor. Tertullianus, vol. 11, Ante-Nicene Fathers, 61–76 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1869).Find this resource:

Whitford, David M. Tyranny and Resistance: The Magdeburg Confession and the Lutheran Tradition. St. Louis: Concordia, 2001.Find this resource:

Williams, George Huntston. The Radical Reformation. 3d ed. Kirksville, MO: Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers, 2001.Find this resource:


(1.) See R. I. Moore, The Formation of a Persecuting Society: Authority and Deviance in Western Europe 950–1250 (2d ed.; Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2007).

(2.) Brad S. Gregory, Salvation at Stake: Christian Martyrdom in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 6. See also Richard van Dülmen, Theatre of Horror: Crime and Punishment in Early Modern Germany, trans. Elisabeth Neu (Cambridge, U.K.: Polity, 1990).

(3.) Martin Brecht, Martin Luther, trans. James Schaff (3 vols.; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985–1993), vol. 1, 309. Hoogstraten continued to write against Luther; see Jacobus van Hoogstraten, Adversus Pestiferum Martini Lutheri Tractatum (Antwerp, 1526). He also wrote against Desiderius Erasmus and many others.

(4.) LW 46: 45–55; WA 18: 357–361. Luther’s Works [= LW], eds. Jaroslav Pelikan et al. (St. Louis: Concordia, 1955–2015), is conventionally cited as LW with volume and pages. The German original, D. Martin Luthers Werke: kritische Gesamtausgabe (Weimar: Böhlau, 1883–2009), is known as the Weimar Ausgabe and is conventionally cited as WA with volume and pages.

(5.) Timothy J. Orr, “Junker Jörg on Patmos,” Church History and Religious Culture 95.4 (2015): 435–456.

(6.) David M. Whitford, Tyranny and Resistance: The Magdeburg Confession and the Lutheran Tradition (St. Louis: Concordia, 2001).

(7.) Barbara B. Diefendorf, Beneath the Cross: Catholics and Huguenots in Sixteenth-Century Paris (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991).

(8.) James M. Stayer, Anabaptists and the Sword (Lawrence, KS: Coronado, 1972).

(9.) George Huntston Williams, The Radical Reformation (3d ed., Sixteenth Century Essays & Studies V.15; Kirksville, MO: Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers, 1992).

(10.) The literature on the Two Kingdoms is vast; the most recent significant examination of the topic is William J. Wright, Luther’s Two Kingdoms (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2009).

(11.) On Augustine generally, see P. Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000). For early Christian violence, see B.D. Shaw, Sacred Violence: African Christians and Sectarian Hatred in the Age of Augustine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011). For Augustine on Just War, see J. M. Mattox, Saint Augustine and the Theory of Just War (London: Continuum, 2006).

(12.) LW 45: 91.

(13.) LW 46: 103, 108.

(14.) Mark U. Edwards, Luther and the False Brethren (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1975).

(15.) The classic work on early Christian martyrdom is W. H. C. Frend, Martyrdom and Persecution: A Study of a Conflict from the Maccabees to Donatus (Oxford: Blackwell, 1965), a more recent work is E. A. Castelli, Martyrdom and Memory: Early Christian Culture Making (New York: Columbia University, 2004).

(16.) LW 43: 57–70; WA 10/2: 53–60.

(17.) LW 45: 77–129; WA 11: 245–280.

(18.) LW 45.106.

(19.) LW 46. 121.

(20.) LW46.161–205; WA30/2.107–148 and WA30/2.160–197 (no English translation), respectively.

(21.) LW 46: 168; WA 30/2: 115. Quoted in Gregory J. Miller, “Luther on the Turks and Islam,” in Harvesting Martin Luther’s Reflections on Theology, Ethics, and the Church, ed. Timothy Wengert (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 196.