Open Letter to German Nobility, 1520
AN OPEN LETTER TO THE CHRISTIAN NOBILITY
OF THE GERMAN NATION CONCERNING THE REFORM OF THE CHRISTIAN ESTATE,
THE OPEN LETTER TO THE CHRISTIAN NOBILITY OF THE
GERMAN NATION is closely related to the tract ON THE PAPACY AT
ROME: A REPLY TO THE CELEBRATED ROMANIST AT LEIPZIG. In a letter
to Spalatin dated before June 8, 1520, Luther says: "I
shall assail that ass of an Alveld in such wise as not to forget
the Roman pontiff, and neither of them will be pleased."
In the same letter he writes, "I am minded to issue a broadside
to Charles and the nobility of Germany against the tyranny and
baseness of the Roman curia." The attack upon Alveld is the
tract on THE PAPACY AT ROME; the scheda publica grew into
the OPEN LETTER. At the time when the letter to Spalatin was written,
the work on THE PAPACY AT ROME must have been already in press,
for it appeared in print on the 26th of the month, and the
composition of the OPEN LETTER had evidently not yet begun. On
the 23rd Luther sent the manuscript of the Open Letter to Amsdorf,
with the request that be read it and suggest changes. The two
weeks immediately preceding the publication of the work ON THE
PAPACY must, therefore, have been the time when the Open Letter
In the conclusion to the earlier work Luther had
said: "Moreover, I should be truly glad if kings, princes,
and all the nobles would take hold, and turn the knaves from Rome
out of the country, and keep the appointments to bishoprics and
benefices out of their hands. How has Roman avarice come to usurp
all the foundations, bishoprics and benefices of our fathers?
Who has ever read or heard of such monstrous robbery? Do we not
also have the people who need them, while out of our poverty we
must enrich the ass-drivers and stable-boys, nay, the harlots
and knaves at Rome, who look upon us as nothing else but arrant
fools, and make us the objects of their vile mockery?
Oh, the pity, that kings and princes have so little reverence
for Christ, and His honor concerns them so little that they allow
such abominations to gain the upper hand, and look on, while at
Rome they think of nothing but to continue in their madness and
to increase the abounding misery, until no hope is left on earth
except in the temporal authorities. Of this I will say more anon,
if this Romanist comes again; let this suffice for a beginning.
May God help us at length to open our eyes. Amen."
This passage may fairly be regarded as the germ of
the Open Letter. The ideas of the latter work are suggested with
sufficient clearness to show that its materials are already at
hand, and its plan already in the author's mind. The threat to
write it is scarcely veiled. That Luther did not wait for that
particular Romanist to "come again" may have been due
to the intervention of another Romanist, none other than his old
opponent, Sylvester Prierias. Before the 7th of June Luther
had received a copy of Prierias' _Epitome of a Reply to Martin
Luther_, which is the boldest and baldest possible assertion
of the very theory of papal power which Luther had sought to demolish
in his tract on the Papacy. In the preface to his reprint of the
_Epitome_, Luther bids farewell to Rome: "Farewell, unhappy,
hopeless, blasphemous Rome! The wrath of God hath come upon thee,
as thou hast deserved! We have cared for Babylon, she is not healed;
let us, then, leave her, that she may be the habitation of dragons,
specters and witches, and true to her name of Babel, an everlasting
confusion; a new pantheon of wickedness."
These words were written while the Open Letter was
in course of composition. The Open Letter is, therefore, Luther's
first publication after the time when he recognized that the breach
between him and the papal church was complete, and likely to be
permanent. Meanwhile, the opposing party had come to the same
conclusion. The verdict of the pope upon Luther had been long
delayed, but on the 15th of June, midway between the letter to
Spalatin, above mentioned, and completion of the Open Letter,
Leo X signed the bull of excommunication, though it was not published
in Germany until later. Thus Open Letter shows us the mind of
Luther in the weeks when the permanent separation between him
and Rome took place. It was also the time when he had the highest
hopes from the promised support of the German knights, who
formed the patriotic party Germany and are included in the "nobility"
to whom the Open Letter is addressed.
The first edition of 4000 copies came off the press
of Melchior Lotther in Wittenberg before the 18th of August.
It is surmised that the earlier portion of the work was
not contained in the original manuscript, but was added while
it was in the printer's hands; perhaps it was added at the suggestion
of Amsdorf. Less than a week later a second edition was in course
of preparation. This "enlarged and revised edition"
contained three passages not included in the first. They are
indicated in the notes to the present edition.
He who would know the true Luther must read more
than one of his writings; he must not by any chance omit to read
the Open Letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation.
In his other works we learn to know him as the man of God, or
the prophet, or the theologian; in this treatise we meet Luther
the German. His heart is full of grief for the affliction of his
people, and grief turns to wrath as he observes that this affliction
is put upon them by the tyranny and greed of the pope and the
cardinals and the "Roman vermin?" The situation is desperate;
appeals and protests have been all in vain; and so, as a last
resort, he turns to the temporal authorities,--to Charles V, newly
elected, but as yet uncrowned; to the territorial lords, great
and small, who have a voice in the imperial diet and powers of
jurisdiction in their own domains,--reciting the abuses of "Roman
tyranny," and pleading with them to intervene in behalf of
the souls that are going to destruction "through the devilish
rule of Rome." It is a cry out of the heart of Germany, a
nation whose bent is all religious, but which, from that very
circumstance, is all the more open to the insults and wrongs and
deceptions of the Roman curia.
Yet it is no formless and incoherent cry, but an
orderly recital of the ills of Germany. There are times when we
feel in reading it that the writer is laying violent hands on
his wrath in the effort to be calm. For all its scathing quality,
it is a sane arraignment of those who "under the holy name
of Christ and St. Peter" are responsible for the nation's
woes, and the remedies that are proposed are, many of them, practicable
as well as reasonable.
The materials of the work are drawn from many sources,--from
hearsay, from personal observation, from such histories as Luther
had at his command, from the proceedings of councils and of diets;
there are passages which would seem to bear more than an accidental
resemblance to similar passages in Hutten's _VADISCUS_. All grist
that came to Luther's mill. But the Spirit of the work is Luther's
For the general historian, who is concerned more
with the practical than with the theoretical or theological aspects
of the Reformation, the _OPEN LETTER_ is undoubtedly Luther's
greatest work. Its frank outspokenness true condition of Germany,
the number and variety of the subjects that it treats, the multiplicity
of the sources from which the subject-matter is drawn, and the
point of view from which the whole is discussed make it a work
of absorbing interest and priceless historical value. It shows,
as does no other single work of the Reformation time, the things
that were in men's minds and the variety of motives which led
them to espouse the cause of the Protestant party. Doctrine, ethics,
history, politics, economics, all have their place in the treatise.
It is not only "a blast on the war-trumpet," but a connecting
link between the thought of the Middle Ages and that of modern
times, prophetic of the new age, but showing how closely the new
is bound up with the old.
The text of the Open Letter is found in Weimar Ed.,
VI, 404-469; Erl. Ed., XXI, 277-360; Walch Ed., X, 296-399; St.
Louis Ed., X,266-351; Berlin Ed., 1,203-290; Clemen 1,363-425.
The text of the Berlin Ed. is modernized and annotated by E. Schneider.
The editions of K. Benrath (Halle, 1883) and E. Lemme (_Die 3
grossen Reformationsschriften L's vom J. 1520_; Gotha, 1884) contain
a modernized test and extensive notes. A previous English translation
in Wace and Buchheim, _LUTHER'S PRIMARY WORKS_ (London and Philadelphia,
1884). The present translation is based on the text of Clemen.
For full discussion of the contents of the work,
especially its sources, See Weimar Ed., VI, 381-391; Schafer,
_LUTHER ALS KIRCHEN HISTORIKER_, Gutersloh, 1897; Kohler, _L'S
SCHRIFT AN DEN ADEL. . .IM SPIEGEL DER KULTURGESCHICTE_, Halle,
1895, and _LUTHER UND DIE KIRCHENGESCHICHTE_, Erlangen, 1900.
Extensive comment in all the biographies, especially _KOSTLIN-KAWERAU
I_, 315 ff.
CHARLES M. JACOBS.
Lutheran Theological Seminary
Mount Airy, Philadelphia
 In this edition, I, 337 ff.
 ENDERS, II, 414; SMITH, _L's Correspondence_,
I, No. 266.
 ENDERS, II, 424.
 See below, p. 62.
 See letter of June 7th to John Hess, ENDERS,
II, 411; SMITH, I, No, 265.
 Published at Rome 1519: printed with Luther's
preface and notes, Weimar
Ed., VI, 328 ff.; Erl. Ed., op. var. arg., II, 79
 Weimar Ed., VI, 329.
 See ENDERS, II, 415,443; SMITH, Nos. 269,279,
and documents in St. Louis
Ed., XV, 1630 ff.
 See KOSTLIN-KAWERAU, Martin Luther, I, 308 ff.,
and Weimar Ed., VI, 381ff.
 See Luther's letters to Lang and Staupitz, who
wished to have the
publication withheld (ENDERS, II, 461,463).
 Clemen, I, 362
 Below, pp. 63-90.
 See Weimar Ed., VI, 397.
 See title B, ibid., 398.
 Printed as an appendix in _Clemen_, I, 421-425.
 So it was called by Johann Lang (ENDERS. II,
From Martin Luther, 1483-1520, "An Open Letter
to The Christian Nobility (1520).", Introduction and Translation
by C. M. Jacobs, Works Of Martin Luther: With Introductions
And Notes, Volume II, (Philadelphia: A. J. Holman Company,
1915), Part 1
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