Not just misery but who could have foreseen how much misery, corruption, scandal, blasphemy, ingratitude, and wickedness would result from Luther’s movement? The era of Reformations was chaotic on all sides but did Martin Luther really “bemoan the religious indifference wrought by the movement he began” with these words? Here is an article that discusses proto-Protestants and that makes this claim. The claim finds support in a supposed quote from Luther himself. The end of the article, where this appears, is seen in this screenshot:
What is immediately apparent is the quote does not have a citation. This is usually a red flag, indicating something is off. It’s surprising that a non-profit, extremely popular apologetics empire with an annual budget over $10 million doesn’t have basic editorial standards minimally requiring direct quotes to have a citation. What’s more concerning is this doesn’t appear to be a simple oversight on a web page. Catholic Answers is apparently selling a book with this false quote and the author of the article is “a Lecturer in Church History at the Christendom College Graduate School of Theology.”
The offending author’s list of contributions to Catholic Answers includes at least one other false legend about the origin of the Christmas tree. That one is more forgivable as it was only about a year ago that Roger Pearse skillfully dissected the myth and unveiled it’s origin. I doubt either of these works of fiction will see correction or retraction by Catholic Answers or the “historian” author. If they do, I will gladly post an update and give credit where it is due…we all make mistakes.
Tracing the history of the quote
When you encounter a quote like this, the first step is usually “Googling” all or a significant portion of it, wrapped in quotes. My initial attempt to locate this (using the first sentence), yielded three results: the article in question, a website that reproduces it verbatim, and an apparent bootleg copy of the PDF book that is being sold by Catholic Answers. Here we have red flag #2. A common next step is to do the same in Google Books and/or archive.org (be sure to search text contents, not just metadata). These searches turn up zero hits…red flag #3.
If a suspicious quote is supposedly from a prominent Reformer like Martin Luther or John Calvin, James Swan at Beggars All: Reformation and Apologetics has been lifting the veil on spurious content that saturates cyberspace for a long time. It is always worth checking his site to see if the quote is already debunked. In this case, I exhausted all these options without generating any leads. Swan has traced some very similar quotes but this one appears to be fairly new.
At an apparent dead end, I contacted the author of the article through his website, asking if he had a reference for the quote. He quickly and generously replied (and later went silent when I presented the results of my search – I am hopeful for further dialog, but I suspect there won’t be any). Here is the very helpful information I was provided:
- The quote is found in Warren H. Carroll’s The Cleaving of Christendom (Front Royal, 2000), p. 188.
- Carroll cites his source of the quote as Johannes Janssen, History of the German People (London, 1910), Volume 6, pp. 276-277.
- Janssen cites his source of the quote as Anton Lauterbach, Tagebuch (1538), pp. 113-114, 135.
The earliest source listed here is Anton Lauterbach’s Diary (Tagebuch is German for diary). The Latin of this text is here and it’s available in a modern, copyrighted German translation here. Below, I will provide a link to an English translation, following some explanation. Before we jump into these texts, a little context will help…
Who wrote these texts and why?
It is very tempting to jump right into a search like this, intent only on locating the quote but it’s useful to first frame the search with an understanding of the historical setting in which the source texts were produced. Oftentimes, there are serious questions regarding the trustworthiness of a source and even the credibility of its author(s).
Warren H. Carroll:
Carroll is the now deceased founder of Christendom College, a Catholic liberal arts college located in Front Royal, Virginia. Unfortunately, I don’t have access to his book so I cannot determine whether Mr. Weidenkopf, the author of the article on catholic.com accurately represented Carroll in repeating this “quote” from Martin Luther. I can only assume he did.
Janssen was an Ultramontanist Catholic priest of the Vatican I era when papalism was at it’s peak and polemics knew no boundaries. To quote James Swan:James Swan. “Luther: We Have To Pay for the Disasters of My Preaching,” Beggars All Reformation and Apologetics, 02 Feb. 2010. Web. 28 Nov. 2022.
“Janssen’s work belongs to the period of destructive criticism of Luther and the Reformation. Janssen viewed Luther and the Reformation as destroying German culture and piety (see, Gregory Sobolewski, Martin Luther: Roman Catholic Prophet, p. 22-23).”
Indeed, as we will see, Janssens work is a polemic masterpiece that only masquerades as scholarship. As I understand, the genera of anti-Luther Catholic literature from this era does not find high regard in modern scholarship.
Lauterbach was a student and confidant of Martin Luther. As mentioned above, the text cited here is a “diary” he kept in 1538, which was a primary (not the only) source for a compilation that is called Luther’s “Table Talk.” The Luther’s were well known for their hospitality and often hosted students and needy people in their home. Informal discussions that regularly took place around a “table” in the home were captured in notes by various people, including Lauterbach and others, which later became various compilations under the aforementioned title. The quality and content of “Table Talk” varied, especially when translated. The source to which Janssen refers is Lauterbach’s diary.
Much can be said about the diaries and “Table Talk.” Those were days long before ballpoint pens and spiral notebooks. I imagine even the extant diaries represent best-efforts to “remember” what was discussed and by whom, around the table. Imagine going to a small group Bible study today, having a lively discussion with a group of 10-12 others, then going home in the evening and trying to record things that were said. Now imagine doing all this with quill pens and scarce parchment, probably abbreviating and abridging your thoughts. Now imagine everyone in the group doing so, then later combining their writings for a collection to be published.
Perhaps the most important thing that needs to be said is that whether we find the “quote” text in Lauterbach’s diary or in “Table Talk,” it isn’t a quote and it isn’t from Luther. It may not even be attributed to Luther or it may be misattributed to Luther. Indeed, as we shall see, the quote supposedly from Luther is actually a cobbled together mess of text, from various snippets that aren’t even used in context. It’s truly and sadly a work of a polemically charged, overactive imagination.
Do the modern authors (Carroll and Weidenkopf) correctly quote Janssen?
To review, this is the quote as it appears on catholic.com:
“Who among us could have foreseen how much misery, corruption, scandal, blasphemy, ingratitude, and wickedness would have resulted from it? Only see how the nobles, the burghers, and the peasants are trampling religion underfoot! I have had no greater or severer subject of assault than my preaching, when the thought arose in me: thou art the sole author of this movement.”
Here is a screenshot from the 1910 Janssen text cited by Carroll:
As we can see, one of the modern authors combine two blocks of text that are not contiguous. In fact, there’s almost a full page between them. What’s worse? A careful look at the larger block of text on the left (page 276) and Janssen’s citation to three different pages in Lauterbach’s diary, shows that that portion isn’t even a contiguous quote from the original source. Rather, it’s pieced together from diary entries 21 pages (and likely weeks to months) apart. Further, the second block of text (page 277) is a truncated quote. It doesn’t even have a reference so it’s unclear where it comes from. I am not able to locate the uncited portion but we can further examine the cobbling together by Janssen that was apparently combined with the other half “quote” by the modern authors, who collapsed it all together.
Below is how Janssen’s text is presented with formatting that maps to the Catholic Answers article. Underlined portions are omitted by the modern authors. Highlighted portions are parts from Janssen that I am able to trace to “Table Talk” or Lauterbach’s diary. The English translation (public domain, ignore the series title, it’s not Luther’s actual writing) I’m working with includes two portions of the current “quote” in different locations. One is in “Table Talk” and the other is in a diary entry by Lauterbach included as an Appendix of entries not used in the compilation. If one is tempted to suggest the quotes are probably contiguous in the original, I reviewed the Latin text linked earlier. It has the October 2/7 diary entries exactly as they appear in the English translation. This seems to rule out the quotes being contiguous. This strongly suggests redaction or interpolation on Janssen’s part.
Janssen (see screenshot or link):
[top of page 276] – “Who among us…would have thought of preaching as we have done, could we have foreseen how much misery, corruption, scandal, blasphemy, ingratitude, and wickedness would have resulted from it? Only see how the nobles, the burghers, and the peasants are trampling religion under foot, how they are driving the preachers away by sheer starvation!”
…[approximately one page excluded]
[bottom of page 277 – half of another quote that Janssen doesn’t include a reference for] – “…I have had no greater or severer subject of assault than my preaching, when the thought arose in me: Thou art the sole author of all this movement.”
- The underlined portions are removed by the modern authors
- The highlighted text is what appears in the catholic.com article (and presumably the book) AND ONLY the top portion, a partial sentence that’s highlighted (it’s the portion with a citation referencing three diary pages) can be found in “Table Talk” or Lauterbach’s diary, so far as I can tell.
Did Janssen correctly use his source?
These are actual excerpts from the English translation of “Table Talk” and Lauterbach’s diary:
“On October 2, he lamented the very miserable confusion of the worldly regime due to the devilish avarice, which hindered all worldly justice, obligations, orders and contracts; everyone was looking to accumulate a lot of money. 1) The stingy do not esteem grain and food as highly as money, which they cannot eat. The world is still all about money, as if soul and body depended on it. God and the neighbor are despised, mammon is served. Dear, look at our times, how the very stingy noblemen, burghers and peasants trample religion underfoot, chase away the preachers by great hunger. If they do not want to build our Lord God’s house, their house will fall apart again, as the prophets Haggai and Malachi have said to their despisers.”Lauterbach’s diary (October 2, 7 entry, page 180)
Lauterbach appears to refer to Luther but in reviewing his diary entry, it’s obvious there are interpolations in Janssen. They suggest the “lament” concerns the effect of preaching. The immediate context rules this out. Anyone looking to “find” a similar idea in the second-hand account, does well to consider the historical context, too.
The Peasants War ended 13 years earlier and Luther was less than 8 years from the end of his life. While obviously not a direct Luther quote, if it were, it likely wouldn’t refer to the Reformation events of 20+ years earlier. He is lamenting a general state of the world (the “the worldly regime”) from both before and after the Reformation. If there is any inclination to deny this, I can’t find anything in “Table Talk” that suggests the sentiment of Janssens imagination or that of the more highly evolved “quote” presented by Carroll/Weidenkopf. In fact, despite the many faults of Martin Luther, there is an incredible amount of edifying content (theological and historical) in “Table Talk.” Modern Christians might do well to read it, whether it actually came from Luther or not.
The other portion of the quote, as presented on catholic.com can be found in another portion of the text:
“Rest of heart. Therefore let all who are tempted set before them Christ as an example and model, who also was tempted everywhere, but it was much more sour for him than for us.
I have often wondered how it was possible, because Christ knew that he was completely pure, that the devil could have challenged him. But that humbled him, that the devil said to him: “Do you hear? You are a scoundrel, you are one of the boys, you are the son of man; should you be the outlaw? Therefore thou art partaker of all the sins of the whole world, and of this flesh which thou hast put on. Yes, says Christ, I have done nothing. No harm, says the devil, I will find you here all the same! Therefore there is nothing in our temptation.
I have not had a greater or more severe challenge than from my preaching, that I thought: this being you are directing everything. In my rebellion I often went into hell, until God brought me out again and comforted me that my preaching is the true word of God and the right heavenly teaching. But it costs much before one receives this comfort: with others it comes with righteousness or piety, and thereby challenges them.”The devil’s art and masterpiece to challenge us (page 450)
Far from lamenting effects of his preaching in what we now call the “Reformation,” the actual excerpt from “Table Talk” demonstrates how seriously Luther took his preaching. For him, the responsibility is both challenging and convicting. Any other representation of this quote is simply dishonest. What’s worse, the wording has clearly been changed. Luther is not discussing how he is the “author of a movement.”
There may be more to find with this quote but it’s clearly false and use of it by “scholars” and major apologetics organizations is dishonest, inexcusable, and unhelpful in Christian dialog. As always, I welcome more information and correction if there are any errors in my work. Please feel free to comment or contact me. Soli Deo gloria!