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Norma Cunningham: What They Never Told Us About Martin Luther

This column appeared in the January/February 1998 issue of Freethought Today.

By Norma Cunningham

As students in a Lutheran elementary school in St. Louis, Missouri, my fellow classmates and I were subjected to a thorough parochial brainwashing. We had an unassailable belief in the inerrancy of the Bible, the Triune God, and eternal life in Heaven for us Lutherans (the decision about the rest of humankind would be left up to the Deity).

We were imbued with an admiration, yes, even a reverence for the great reformer, Martin Luther. We yearly celebrated the anniversary of the posting of his 95 Theses on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany. On the 400th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession (1530) a pageant was held in the St. Louis Arena. According to my pre-teen recollections, it was a magnificent spectacle, in which many Lutherans took part.

On the day of the pageant the weather was dismal, cloudy, and rainy; but when as a finale to the production, the entire huge cast and audience sang "A Mighty Fortress is our God," and simultaneously the sun suddenly shone through the Arena's windows, we deemed this a revelation of Heaven's stamp of approval on the pageant, Luther, and Lutherans.

With my teen years there came gradual gnawing doubts about Lutheran dogma and disillusionment with the many hypocrisies of the clergy, the obdurate teaching staff, and various vapid lay leaders. For example, when I won a full scholarship to Washington University, my pastor was concerned only about the effect that a college education would have on my faith. He uttered not a word of congratulations on my success!

After four years at the university and an additional year of graduate study for a master's degree toward a teaching career, I devoted much time to intensive Bible study and the application of reason to matters of religion. I was fast becoming an agnostic. Not much later the study of philosophy and the sciences put "finis" even to my agnosticism and brought about a metamorphosis to atheism.

At some point in my "conversion" Martin Luther came to mind, perhaps occasioned by a careless comment by a history professor that "Martin Luther probably committed fornication with nuns and whores." I could not recall a single negative about the man. We, of course, had been told, not only about his contribution to the reformation of the church, but also to education, language, culture, and history.

What kind of person was Martin Luther? What was he really like? His character, personality, family life, interaction with others? After some research in biographies and Luther's own writings I was surprised, even shocked, at my lack of knowledge about the man. Had there been deliberate suppression of embarrassing facts from the laity of the Lutheran church?

One of the few stories (apocryphal?) we were told was Luther's flinging an inkwell at the devil, the stain of which can still be seen on a wall of Wartburg Castle. We now know that Luther was obsessed with Satan, to whose assaults he attributed pain, discomfort, storms, lightning bolts, and even the spoilage of beer! He was apprehensive to the extent that he tried to chase the devil away with, to use one of his favorite vulgarisms, "a fart."

Luther's language was often coarse, explosive, inflammatory, vehement, intemperate, and even morally subversive, such as the famous "Pecca fortiter" (Sin bravely). He called the Pope's supporters "papal asses" and said the common people lived like senseless swine. When he had overindulged at social gatherings, he often used four-letter words referring to bodily functions. His rhetoric was intemperate when he suggested suffocating a teenaged boy with such a gargantuan appetite that all he did was eat and defecate.

Women to him were brood mares, who were created with large hips just to stay at home and sit on them. His opinions, frankly stated, were frequently shockingly outrageous, even for his time. For instance, he suggested that witches be burned and that objectors not believing in infant baptism should be put to death!

I discovered that he had had a thought that I myself had contemplated many times. He wondered whether Heaven might be boring with nothing to do--no work, no eating, no drinking, nothing that we feel makes life interesting.

The professor's comment about about Luther's sexual peccadilloes notwithstanding, there seems to be no hard evidence of any moral lapses. However, he did attack celibacy, saying that not every clergyman can refrain from sexual intercourse. He believed that if one is not "gifted with chastity," he must find gratification. Of himself he said that "to be a man" was more necessary than eating, drinking, or sleeping. One of his favorite quotes was "Who loves not wine, woman, and song remains a fool his whole life long."

No doubt Luther was human with common ailments like insomnia, constipation, and fits of depression. He frequently overate, drank to excess (he was even proud of his capacity), and slept too much. He was obstinate, excitable, and spiritually uneasy, with dark introspective recesses in his personality. He was not a fastidious person and admitted that until he married, he did not make his bed for a year!

Probably the most shocking information about Luther was his anti-Semitism. He recommended that Jews be deported to Palestine, be deprived of their books, including the Bible, and their synagogues be burned. He called Jews liars and usurers and hated them for rejecting Jesus Christ. Apparently, Luther exerted a profound influence on German history, as the Nazis later added little to his portrait of Judaism.

I suppose one must strike a balance between the Luther I knew in my youth — the reformer, the translator of the Bible into German, the educator, the author — and Luther the man, the eccentric, the superstitious, the vulgar, even the loathsome, but I still harbor a seething resentment at the church and religion in general for impressing its bias on naive, ingenuous, and credulous youth.

As children we were like the persons referred to by William Drummond: "He who will not reason is a bigot; he who cannot is a fool; and he who dares not, is a slave." Thank Ingersoll I was liberated!

Norma, a Foundation member since 1981, is on the Board of Directors and the Executive Council.