The Political Luther
During the Schmalkaldic War, which broke out after Martin Luther’s death, the Spanish troops defeated the Protestant princes and overran much of Saxony, including Wittenberg.
When the Spanish soldiers stood at Luther’s grave in the Castle Church, they demanded that Luther’s body be exhumed and his bones burned as befits a heretic.
But Emperor Charles V stopped them. He is said to have declared: “I do not make war on dead men!”
This story seems to be a golden legend, but it shows the passions Luther aroused. The Reformation Luther began was not merely a theological dispute but an event that disturbed all areas of life—social, economic, and political.
Luther’s writings on church and state profoundly challenged the prevailing views. He formed his ideas, however, not as a political philosopher but as a person confronting real situations.
His correspondence, especially during the last fifteen years of his life, shows him constantly involved in political situations, advising and urging city councils concerned with “urban reformation,” and chastising episcopal and secular princes.
For example, in replying to an inquiry made to him in 1528, he wrote, “You ask whether the magistrate may kill false prophets. I am slow in a judgment of blood even when it is deserved. In this matter I am terrified by the example of the papists and the Jews before Christ, for when there was a statute for the killing of false prophets and heretics, in time it came about that only the most saintly and innocent were killed. ... I cannot admit that false teachers are to be put to death. It is enough to banish.”
Luther’s final journey, in the dead of winter, was taken to restore amity between two territorial princes, brothers who had fallen ...