Luther on the Crusades

MattPhillips“The popes have never seriously intended to wage war against the Turk; instead they used the Turkish war as a cover for their game and robbed Germany of money by means of indulgences whenever they took the notion….If they had seriously wished to fight the Turk, the pope and the cardinals would have had enough from the pallia, annates, and other unmentionable sources of income so that they would not have needed to practice such extortion and robbery in Germany.” Martin Luther, On War Against the Turk, in Luther’s Works vol. 46, p. 164.

Dr. Luther published this treatise in 1529 to explain his understanding of warfare against the Ottoman Turks.  In 1518 Luther had rejected the promotion of a war against the Turks.  The popes still granted indulgences for wars against the Turks in the sixteenth century.  According to most scholars today, this would make these crusades.  Throughout the 1520s the Ottoman army had advanced steadily north to the outskirts of Vienna.  Luther wrote this work in order to explain how a soldier could justly defend Germany without participating in a crusade.  Luther explains:

“But what motivated me most of all was this: They undertook to fight against the Turk in the name of Christ, and taught and incited men to do this, as though our people were an army of Christians against the Turks, who were enemies of Christ.  This is absolutely contrary to Christ’s doctrine and name….This is the greatest of all sins and is one that no Turk commits, for Christ’s name is used for sin and shame and thus dishonored. This would be especially so if the pope and the bishops were involved in the war, for they would bring the greatest shame and dishonor to Christ’s name because they are called to fight against the devil with the word of God and with prayer, and they would be deserting their calling and office to fight with the sword against flesh and blood.  They are not commanded to do this; it is forbidden.” Ibid., p. 165.

According to Luther, the Christian’s vocation determined how he or she reacted to the Turks.  Popes and priests were to serve in the spiritual office, not the office of military defense.  Luther explained how God had established different offices to fulfill various vocations.  Additionally, popes and priests did not have the right to call for a war.  Luther concluded:

“…if I were a soldier and saw a priest’s banner in the field, or a banner of the cross, even though it was a crucifix, I should run as though the devil were chasing me; even if they won a victory, by God’s decree, I should not take any part in the booty or rejoicing.” Ibid., p. 168.

About Dr. Matthew Phillips

My name is C. Matthew Phillips and I am Professor of History at Concordia University, Nebraska. I completed my Ph.D. in medieval European history at Saint Louis University in 2006. My research has focused on medieval monasticism, preaching, devotion to the True Cross, and the Crusades. Additionally, I have interests in medieval and early modern European education and the writings and life of Martin Luther.

At Concordia I teach World Civilization I, World Civilization II, Europe Since 1914, Early and Medieval Christianity, Renaissance and Reformation, The Medieval Crusades, The History of Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union, and The Modern Middle East.


Luther on the Crusades — 25 Comments

  1. Luther also stated in the same treatise, On War Against the Turk:

    “Moreover, I hear it said that there are those in Germany who desire the coming of the Turk and his government, because they would rather be under the Turk than under the emperor or princes… For it is misery enough to be compelled to suffer the Turk as overlord and to endure his government; but willingly to put oneself under it, or to desire it, when one need not and is not compelled – the man who does that ought to be shown the sin he is committing and how terribly he is going on.”

    This could well be applied to those (even Lutheran) voters in the last two presidential elections who voted from the Demonicrat nominee.

  2. I have read enough about Luther to respect many of his insights, however, as we Lutherans are prone to elevate him to almost Papal heights….let us remember before we quote him continually……..he was a man…..he was not right about everything…he was often rash….sometimes he spoke from ignorance or passion instead of by his ample sense of scholarship and reason. I understand what he said about warring with the Turks….but for crying out loud….they were intent in that period to oppress, enslave, torture, execute and eliminate Christians…..and God does not render believers helpless in the face of evil.

  3. “They were intent in that period to oppress, enslave, torture, execute and eliminate Christians.”

    Not much has changed (or been abrogated, if you prefer) since.

    Kyrie, Eleison…

  4. >>God does not render believers helpless in the face of evil

    Luther was not a pacifist, but endorsed Christians serving under the state as soldiers. Also, as individual Christians we are allowed to defend ourselves and others, especially those for whom we are responsible, such as our families. So, under their vocations of citizen, soldier, husband, father, etc., individual Christians are not at all bound by the Gospel to remain “helpless in the face of evil.”

    However, this is a function of the state or the individual Christian. Neither the Church as Church nor her ministers have been given by God the vocation of physical defense from or physical punishment of wrongdoers. That is the point of Luther’s comments above.

  5. @John J Flanagan #2

    Mr. Flanagan, Thank you for an excellent post. You are correct; Luther would be the first to say he was not infallible, and his thinking developed over time.

    Luther held the just-war position, and from what i can tell his thinking on the subject would be mostly similar to Augustine.

    Much of Luther’s concern about the Crusades was rooted in his two-kingdoms theology. A war against the Ottoman Turks might be (and in my opinion definitely was) justified as just defensive warfare. However, God has delegated the authority to wage war to the kingdom of the left (the state), not to the kingdom of the right (the church). Luther’s objection to the Crusades was in part the fact that popes and priests seemed to take a leadership role in them. I don’t think Luther would have objected to the Pope or Peter the Hermit exhorting the secular authorities to lead crusades.

    Luther might also consider a defensive war against the Turks legitimate under just war theory, but he probably objected to calling it a holy war, especially when the Holy Roman Empire and the Church were corrupt and heretical.

    Of the leading crusading orders, the Templars were suppressed before the Reformation, the Hospitalers remained Catholic, but many of the Teutonic Knights embraced Lutheranism.

    I’ll be interested in further comments on this topic.

  6. @John Eidsmoe #5

    Agreed. The issue is not that it was war in and of itself, but that it was war in the name of Christ.

    The church does not have the authority to wage war, just as the state does not have authority to determine doctrine (although the state at times seems to try).

  7. A great book on the Crusades is by historian by Steve Weidenkopf, The Glory of the Crusades.

    It goes a long way in clearing up much of the misinformation that folks believe on this topic.

    By the way, how about a little sympathy for the Chaldean Catholics that have lost lost their homes, families and churches in Iraq. They have been Christians since the first century, some six hundred years before anyone ever heard of Muhammad and 1500 before anyone ever heard of Luther.

  8. @Lloyd I. Cadle #7

    By the way, how about a little sympathy for the Chaldean Catholics that have lost lost their homes, families and churches in Iraq.

    Sympathy for the (mostly) dead comes a little late! Our government was silent on the persecutions of Christians; Obama only had something to say when the Yazidi, an Islamic splinter, were being killed.
    And was there a protest from our church? “Lutheran” world relief and refugee service, is for all practical purposes a government agency, importing Muslims and giving scant, if any, attention to Christian refugees. High time we had our name OFF that bureaucracy!

  9. I normally will not comment much on any post. However, there seems to be a misunderstanding of Dr. Luther’s statements above (or my presentation was not precise.) As others have already commented above, Dr. Luther rejected the Crusades as a specifically religious project. In light of these comments and questions, I plan to write a second post on this topic.

  10. @helen #8Hi Helen –

    The Pope is the only big voice out there defending Christians in the Middle East. (There are 22 Eastern Rite Churches within the Catholic Church.)

    And, thank the Lord that he has brought his message of defending the family, and defending the unborn babies to Washington and the teachings of the Early Church Fathers against contraception. The earth is God’s house and we bring glory to God by taking care of it.

    The position of the Pope in the world today is one of pre-evangelism. He is talking to Muslims, atheists and much of a world that doesn’t even have a clue that there is a God out there, (look what has happened to Europe).

    More than anyone (ouch, for some), God is using Pope Francis as a tremendous vessel to bring folks to Christ. Some may not like it. It ruffles feathers. It is a fact. God gets the glory.

  11. @Carl Vehse #1
    True. I fear the same could be said for anyone who voted for the Republican nominee in the last election as well. Praying for a better choice this time around.
    Pax Christi+,
    -Matt Mills

  12. @Lloyd I. Cadle #7
    Mr. Cadle, Thank you for the suggestion; I will look for Weidenkopf’s book.

    Several that I would recommend include:

    Joseph Francois Michaud, The History of the Crussades, trans. W. Robson (A.C. Armstrong & Son, 1882). This has been variously published as a 2-vol or 3-vol set; the larger set that includes Gustav Dore’s artwork is a treasure.

    Johathan Riley-Smith, The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades (Oxford 1993).
    Smith is Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Cambridge.

    Jonathan Riley-Smith, The Atlas of the Crusades (Facts on File 1991).

    Thomas Madden, The New Concise History of the Crusades (Rowman & Littlefield 2005) Madden is Professor and Director of Saint Louis University’s Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies.

    John J. Robinson, Dungeon, Fire and Sword: The Knights Templar in the Crusades (M. Evans & Co. 1991). Objective and detailed.

    Rodney Stark, God’s Batallions: The Case for the Crusades (Harper One n.d.) Stark is Professor at Baylor.

    Robert Spencer, A Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades) (Regnery 2005)

  13. While Martin Luther opposed any war instigated on directives from religious leaders, that does not mean Luther was opposed to war, and particularly against the Muslims.

    At the start of his 1528 treatise, “On War with the Turk,” Luther wrote:

    “Certain persons have been begging me for the past five years to write about war against the Turks, and encourage our people and stir them up to it, and now that the Turk is actually approaching, my friends are compelling me to do this duty, especially since there are some stupid preachers among us Germans (as I am sorry to hear) who are making the people believe that we ought not and must not fight against the Turks. Some are even so crazy as to say that it is not proper for Christians to bear the temporal sword or to be rulers; also because our German people are such a wild and uncivilized folk that there are some who want the Turk to come and rule. All the blame for this wicked error among the people is laid on Luther and must be called “the fruit of my Gospel,” just as I must bear the blame for the rebellion, and for everything bad that happens anywhere in the world….

    “But I must write in order that innocent consciences may not any longer be deceived by these slandermongers, and made suspicious of me or my doctrine, and may not be deceived into believing that we must not fight against the Turks.”

  14. Just as applicable today, particularly to the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service propaganda promoting Muslim invaders (aka “refugees”) into the U.S., are these words from Martin Luther, again from “On War with the Turk“:

    “He who consorts with the Turk must be partaker of this terrible abomination and brings down on his own head all the murder, all the blood that the Turk has shed, and all the lies and vices with which he has damaged Christ’s Kingdom and led souls astray. It is miserable enough if one is forced to be under this blood-dog and devil against his own will, and see and hear these abominations, and put up with them as the godly Lot had to do in Sodom, as St. Peter writes; it is not necessary to seek them of one’s own accord, or desire them….”

    “The preachers and pastors, I say, must impress this upon such disloyal people, with constant admonition and warning, for it is the truth, and it is needed. But if there are some who despise this exhortation and will not be moved by it, let them go on to the devil, as St. Paul had to let the Greeks, and St. Peter the Jews go; the others should not mind.”

  15. Friends,

    I do appreciate Dr. Phillips article and the clear distinction between nations defending themselves with appropriate military force and a clergy-driven war. The distinction is an important one.

    I would, however, takes us back a bit further into a dark history of Islam against the west. Mohammed died in 660 A.D. On his death bed he bid the armies of Islam to forcefully conquer the non-Muslim world. Mohammed had said, “The sword is the key of heaven and hell; a drop of blood shed in the cause of Allah, a night spent in arms, is of more avail than two months of fasting or prayer: whosoever falls in battle, his sins are forgiven, and at the day of judgment his limbs shall be supplied by the wings of angels and cherubim”. In the Muslim view the infidel had to choose between Islam, slavery, and death. There was a small allowance that Jews and Christians (as so-called people of the book), were allowed to purchase a limited toleration by the payment of tribute, but were otherwise kept in degrading bondage. This according to Phillip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. IV, p. 171. It is from this record of history that one learns of Islam’s first Jehad. Schaff indicates that as the Muslims swept across north Africa that the Califs issued the battle cry, “Before you is paradise, behind you are death and hell.” According to Schaff, “Inspired by an intense fanaticism, and aided by the weakness of the Byzantine empire and the internal distractions of the Greek Church, the wild sons of the desert, who were content with the plain food, and disciplined in the school of war, hardship and recklessness of life, subdued Palestine, Syria, and Egypt, embracing the classical soil of primitive Christianity. Thousands of Christian churches in the patriarchal dioceses of Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandria, were ruthlessly destroyed, or converted into mosques…In 707 the North African provinces, where once St. Augustine had directed the attention of the church to the highest problems of theology and religion, fell into the hands of the Arabs. In 711 they crossed from Africa to Spain and established an independent Caliphate at Cordova.” (Ibid. p. 172.) Finally, in 1492 (the same year that Columbus discovered America), King Ferdinand defeated the last Muslim army in Spain at the Granada and drove them back to Africa.

    The Muslims occupied most of the Iberian Peninsula and parts of southern France for nearly 600 years oppressing the Christians throughout the period. At the same time Muslim armies attacked the Byzantine Empire finally conquering Constaniople in 1453, a mere 64 years before the Lutheran Reformation began in Germany. The Hagia Sophia (Constantine’s great Christian Cathedral in Constantinople) was initially used to stable the horses of the Muslim invaders but was later converted into a mosque.

    Muslim armies continued westward into Europe conquering what is now Romania and Bulgaria slaughtering tens of thousands along the way and finally laying siege to the city of Vienna, Austria twice, finally being defeated in 1683 by the surprise appearance of the Polish Army under Sobieski and drove the invaders back across the Danube.

    All of this provides the setting for the fear of the Turks up to, during and after the initial phases of the Reformation. There was good reason for the Crusades and it wasn’t just about protecting the pilgrims to the Holy Land. It was about preserving European society and the Christian religion. I suppose the case could be made that the military should have taken the lead in combating the Muslim hoard, but this could hardly have happened when the Church held both political and religious power. The Roman Catholic doctrine of Duo quippa sunt (both swords are in the Pope’s hand), dictated that no military action could be prosecuted until and unless the Pope gave his approval. This also explains why the Reformation was such a pain in the behind for Emperor Charles V. He wanted a united front to defeat the Turks.

    Today, we see the very same “theology” at work in Islam. These are Muslims who take the Koran literally and whose intent is precisely the same as those Muslims of old. They have as their goal the elimination of all other religions, all other cultures, and all other laws and the international establishment of Shiria Law throughout the world. Absolutely nothing has changed over the centuries save the technology which which this death cult operates. We’d better learn the lessons of history, because we are seeing it all again!

  16. Someone should tell Saxony Lutheran High School (LCMS High School for Perry and Cape Girardeau Counties in Missouri) that they should probably not have chosen “Crusaders” as the name of their sports team. 🙂

  17. @Rev. Kevin Vogts #4

    I would like to schedule a conversation on this subject in the future. I follow the goings on in this new caliphate and It seems that the radical Muslim warlords have declared war on Christ. If war has been declared on Christ, does this not compel us to defend the cross?
    I am also a member if the LCMS, (Our Shepherd Lutheran, Avon Indiana)

  18. @Rev. Richard A. Bolland #16
    Peace be to you my friend,
    I have read that the persecution of Luther’s followers was abandoned when the pope needed them to join the Crusade. I would like to learn more. You truly have great knowledge, more than I could imagine. I am a servant of the Lord, currently attending a LCMS church in Indiana and feel myself called to understand and help defeat the Muslim caliphate. Please contact mr at [email protected]. (317) 698-6922
    In Christ,

  19. @helen #8

    Obama only had something to say when the Yazidi, an Islamic splinter, were being killed.

    An individual on Cranach has privately informed me that, contrary to what I had read in another place, the Yazidi are not a Muslim splinter but a mixture of several other heresies in the Middle East.
    What I said about Obama ignoring the killing of Christians (but speaking up for the Yazidi) was not disputed.

  20. @Tim Schenks #23

    Certainly not the primary purpose, I would agree. On the other hand it would be a strong encouragement to hold fast to the orthodox position and how to prepare for one of our future perils and what happens if we don’t. It also ties in nicely with the need to study the times of the Reformation in preparation of the upcoming 500th anniversary.

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