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An Open Letter to The Christian Nobility
by Martin Luther (1483-1546)

Translator's Introduction

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An Open Letter to The Christian Nobility
of the German Nation
Concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate, 1520
by Martin Luther (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
Translator's Introduction


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.[1] In a letter to Spalatin[2] 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,[3] 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,[4] 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 was composed. 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[5] Luther had received a copy of Prierias' Epitome of a Reply to Martin Luther,[6] 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."[7]

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,[8] who formed the patriotic party Germany and are included in the "nobility" to whom the Open Letter is addressed.[9]

The first edition of 4000 copies came off the press of Melchior Lotther in Wittenberg before the 18th of August.[10] It is surmised[11] that the earlier portion[12] 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.[13] This "enlarged and revised edition"[14] contained three passages not included in the first.[15] 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 own.

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.

Lutheran Theological Seminary
Mount Airy, Philadelphia


[1] In this edition, I, 337 ff.

[2] ENDERS, II, 414; SMITH, L's Correspondence, I, No. 266.

[3] ENDERS, II, 424.

[4] See below, p. 62.

[5] See letter of June 7th to John Hess, ENDERS, II, 411; SMITH, I, No, 265.

[6] Published at Rome 1519: printed with Luther's preface and notes, Weimar Ed., VI, 328 ff.; Erl. Ed., op. var. arg., II, 79 ff.

[7] Weimar Ed., VI, 329.

[8] See ENDERS, II, 415,443; SMITH, Nos. 269,279, and documents in St. Louis Ed., XV, 1630 ff.

[9] See KOSTLIN-KAWERAU, Martin Luther, I, 308 ff., and Weimar Ed., VI, 381ff.

[10] See Luther's letters to Lang and Staupitz, who wished to have the publication withheld (ENDERS, II, 461,463).

[11] Clemen, I, 362

[12] Below, pp. 63-90.

[13] See Weimar Ed., VI, 397.

[14] See title B, ibid., 398.

[15] Printed as an appendix in Clemen, I, 421-425.

[16] So it was called by Johann Lang (ENDERS. II, 461).

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Walther Library
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