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Debunking myths about Martin Luther

Klaus Krämer eg
October 31, 2016

Martin Luther launched the Reformation of the Church 499 years ago. Many legends surrounding the iconic figure were spread since. Author Andreas Malessa tells DW why he decided to double-check them.

Painting of Martin Luther and his wife Katarina von Bora by Lucas Cranach
Image: picture alliance/dpa/D. Karmann

DW: Mr. Malessa, for the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther's Reformation, you have prepared the book "Hier stehe ich, es war ganz anders" (Here I stand, it was completely different), where you revisit the most widespread myths surrounding Luther. How did you decide to work on this?

Andreas Malessa: I kept hearing half-truths and amusing legends on him. For example, some people believe that Luther was superstitious, that his family was poor, that he was possibly an alcoholic, that he had secretly married and that he didn't feel like translating the Bible's Old Testament. When you read biographies written by serious historians, you realize this isn't true. That's why I thought I'd do my own research and write a humorous, yet substantiated book about this.

How many widespread myths are there on Luther?

There are many. I've listed 24. One of them is when people say that the Reformation started because Luther was so upset by indulgences. No, he was a Catholic priest himself and had granted indulgences, which was a way to reduce the punishment one was expected to undergo in Purgatory. He was a pastor of his time in this sense. However, he opposed the idea that this punishment reduction could be bought.

Andreas Malessa
Author and theologian Andreas MalessaImage: Rahel Täubert

The title of your book already addresses one of the myths on Luther, referring to the quote: "Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen!" If Luther didn't actually say this, why are those words remembered?

They were made part of the legend afterwards. Emperor Charles V invited Luther to the German parliament in Worms. On April 18, 1521, Luther stood there before the assembled princes and representatives of the Vatican and was called to revoke his theses. Then he held this long speech, in which he reacted to all of the allegations. This was all meticulously recorded as part of the court hearing. So everything he said there was recorded, and can be summarized as: "I am not revoking anything. It is not right to act against one's conscience. Therefore, I cannot revoke." And then he concluded with "Here I am, Gold help me. Amen." He then had to repeat his whole refusal to revoke in Latin. So I added as a joke in the book that he was probably tempted to say afterwards: "Here I stand, and I no longer can."

Another widespread mistake: Did Luther actually nail his "95 Theses" on the door of a church in Wittenberg?

This is probably nonsense. There are 300 essays analyzing if he really nailed them on the door or if he sent them to the two bishops who were responsible for indulgences. I believe he did the latter, because he couldn't believe that the indulgence preacher Johann Tetzel could simply go to the market place and say, "Donate something for St. Peter's, show the receipt to God and you will no longer need to confess, repent or suffer," which was the commercialization of God's grace.

However, the strongest argument indicating he didn't post his theses was that Luther never mentioned this legendary achievement himself throughout his lifetime.

One of the things I would have liked to have read about in your book is Luther's alleged recommendation on how often a married couple should have intercourse. He is said to have recommended "two to four times a week will not harm him or her." Is that true?

This Lutheran average on the frequency of intercourse might not even apply for a 21st century couple, when both partners are stressed working full-time. In any case, yes, he did recommend this - although it isn't clear if he was the one who said it or if his wife Katharina did. But I believe most of the rather vulgar Luther quotes are the result of 500 years of pub talk on Luther.

And 500 years is a long enough period to develop legends on Luther - and there was sufficient material to work with.

Book cover 'Hier stehe ich, es war ganz anders' by Andreas Malessa
The cover of the bookImage: SCM Hänssler

Yes, when Luther died in 1546, it was already clear that he had prompted an avalanche on issues such as freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, tolerance and God's proximity to the people. Luther had triggered many debates without knowing what would happen afterwards. It could even be claimed that Luther didn't reform the Catholic Church and that he didn't establish the Protestant Church, because it all happened posthumously. But that didn't stop his fans and followers from creating legends and quotes for him afterwards as well.

Your book was already sold over 15,000 times, which is quite remarkable for a book on religion. Which reactions did you get?

To my great surprise, there hasn't been any really strong criticism of the book yet. I thought experts would accuse me of holding an academic discussion based on secondary literature only. Yet that didn't happen. Instead, I am invited to take part in events and readings and everywhere people say: Finally, someone is telling this in a way I can understand. I am very surprised.

Andreas Malessa is a German theologian, TV show host and author. He recently wrote the musical "Amazing Grace."

His book "Hier stehe ich, es war ganz anders - Irrtümer über Luther" (Here I stand, it was completely different - mistakes about Luther) was published in German by SCM Verlag.