Luther took no direct part in the pacific conferences of these his declining years; the princes rather than the theologians were now the Protestant leaders, for the issues concerned property and power far more than dogma and ritual. Luther was not made for negotiation, and he was getting too old to fight with weapons other than the pen. A papal envoy described him in 1535 as still vigorous and heartily humorous (“the first question he asked me was whether I had heard the report, current in Italy, that he was a German sot” 27); but his expanding frame harbored a dozen diseases—indigestion, insomnia, dizziness, colic, stones in the kidneys, abscesses in the ears, ulcers, gout, rheumatism, sciatica, and palpitation of the heart. He used alcoholic drinks to dull his pain and bring him sleep; he sampled the drugs that the doctors prescribed for him; and he tried impatient prayer; the diseases progressed. In 1537 he thought he would die of the stone, and he issued an ultimatum to the Deity: “If this pain lasts longer I shall go mad and fail to recognize Thy goodness.” 28 His deteriorating temper was in part an expression of his suffering. His friends increasingly avoided him, for “hardly one of us,” said a saddened votary, “can escape his anger and his public scourging”; and the patient Melanchthon winced under frequent humiliations by his rough-hewn idol. As for “Oecolampadius, Calvin .... and the other heretics,” said Luther, “they have in-deviled, through-deviled, over-deviled, corrupt hearts and lying mouths.” 29
He tried hard to be reasonable in his treatise On the Councils and the Churches (1539). He compared the various papal promises and postponements of a general council to teasing a hungry animal by offering food and snatching it away. With considerable learning he reviewed conciliar history, and noted that several ecclesiastical councils had been called and presided over by emperors—a hint to Charles. He doubted if any council called by a pope would reform the Curia. Before sanctioning Protestant attendance at a Church council “we must first condemn the bishop of Rome as a tyrant, and burn all his bulls and decretals.” 30
His political opinions in his later years suggest that silence is trebly golden after sixty. He had always been politically conservative, even when appearing to encourage social revolution. His religious revolt was against practice rather than theory; he objected to the high cost of indulgences, and later to papal domination, but he accepted to the end of his life the most difficult doctrines of orthodox Christianity—Trinity, Virgin Birth, Atonement, Real Presence, hell—and made some of these more indigestible than before. He despised the common people, and would have corrected Lincoln’s famous error on that spawn of carelessness. Herr Omnes—Mr. Crowd—needs strong government, “lest the world become wild, peace vanish, and commerce... be destroyed.... . No one need think that the world can be ruled without blood.... The world cannot be ruled with a rosary.”31 But when government by rosaries lost its power, government by the sword had to take its place. So Luther had to transfer to the state most of the authority that had been held by the Church; therefore he defended the divine right of kings. “The hand that wields the secular sword is not a human hand but the hand of God. It is God, not man, Who hangs, and breaks on the wheel, and decapitates, and flogs; it is God who wages war.”32 In this exaltation of the state as now the sole source of order lay the seeds of the absolutist philosophies of Hobbes and Hegel, and a premonition of Imperial Germany. In Luther Henry IV brought Hildebrand to Canossa.
As he aged Luther became more conservative than the princes. He approved the exaction of forced labor and heavy feudal dues from the peasant; and when one baron had twitches of conscience Luther reassured him on the ground that if such burdens were not imposed upon them commoners would become overbearing.33 He quoted the Old Testament as justifying slavery. “Sheep, cattle, men-servants, and maid-servants were all possessions to be sold as it pleased their masters. It were a good thing were it still so. For else no man may compel nor tame the servile folk.” 34 Every man should stay patiently in the task and walk of life to which God has assigned him. “To serve God is for everyone to remain in his vocation and calling, be it ever so mean and simple.” This conception of vocation became a pillar of conservatism in Protestant lands.
A prince who had been a loyal supporter of the Protestant cause brought Luther an uncomfortable problem in 1539. Philip of Hesse was at once warlike, amorous, and conscientious. His wife, Christine of Savoy, was a faithful and fertile eyesore; Philip hesitated to divorce one so deserving, but he powerfully desired Margaret of Saale, whom he had met while convalescing from syphilis.35 After practicing adultery for some time he decided that he was in a state of sin, and must abstain from the Lord’s Supper. This proving inconvenient, he suggested to Luther that the new religion, so indebted to the Old Testament, should, like it, allow bigamy—for which, however, the prevailing legal penalty was death. After all, was this not more seemly than Francis I’s succession of mistresses, and more humane than Henry VIII’s executive husbandry? So anxious was Philip for his Biblical solution that he intimated his defection to the Imperial, even the papal, camp, if the Wittenberg theologians could not see the Scriptural light. Luther was ready; indeed, inThe Babylonian Captivity he had preferred bigamy to divorce; he had recommended bigamy as the best solution for Henry VIII;36 and many theologians of the sixteenth century had an open mind on the matter.37 Melanchthon was reluctant; he finally agreed with Luther that their consent should be given, but that it should be withheld from the public. Christine consented too, on condition that Philip “was to fulfill his marital duties toward her more than ever before.” 38 On March 4, 1540, Philip formally but privately married Margaret as an additional wife, in the presence of Melanchthon and Bucer. The grateful Landgrave sent Luther a cartload of wine as a pourboire39 When news of the marriage leaked out Luther denied giving consent; “the secret Yea,” he wrote, “must for the sake of Christ’s Church remain a public Nay.” 40 Melanchthon fell seriously ill, apparently with remorse and shame, and refused to eat until Luther threatened to excommunicate him.41 Melanchthon, wrote Luther, “is terribly grieved about this scandal, but I am a tough Saxon and a sturdy peasant, and my skin has grown thick enough to bear such things.” 42 Most Evangelicals, however, were scandalized. Catholics were amused and delighted, not knowing that Pope Clement VII had himself thought of allowing bigamy to Henry VIII.43 Ferdinand of Austria announced that though he had had some inclination toward the new faith, he now abhorred it. Charles V, as the price of not prosecuting Philip, exacted from him a pledge of support in all future political divisions.
Luther’s temper became hot lava as he neared the grave. In 1545 he attacked the Zwinglian “Sacramentarians” with such violence that Melanchthon mourned the widened chasm between the Protestants of the South and the North. Asked by Elector John to restate the case against participation in a papally directed council, Luther sent forth a tirade Against the Papacy at Rome Founded by the Devil (1545), in which his flair for vituperation surpassed itself. All his friends were shocked except the painter Lucas Cranach, who illustrated the book with woodcuts of unrestrained satire. One showed the Pope riding on a hog and blessing a heap of dung; another chained him and three cardinals to gibbets; and the frontispiece pictured the Pontiff on his throne surrounded by devils and crowned with a scavenger’s bucket. The word devil peppered the text; the Pope was “the most hellish father,” “this Roman hermaphrodite” and “Sodomite pope”; the cardinals were “desperately lost children of the Devil... ignorant asses.... One would like to curse them so that thunder and lightning might smite them, hell-fire burn them, the plague, syphilis, epilepsy, scurvy, leprosy, carbuncles, and all diseases attack them.” 44 He repudiated again the notion that the Holy Roman Empire was a gift of the popes; on the contrary, he thought, the time had come for the Empire to absorb the Papal States.
Fall to, now, Emperor, King, princes, lords, and whoever will fall to along with you; God brings no luck to idle hands. And first of all, take from the pope Rome, the Romagna, Urbino, Bologna, and all that he has as a pope, for he got these by lies and tricks; with blasphemies and idolatry he has shamefully filched and stolen them from the Empire, has trampled them under foot, and therefore has led countless souls to their reward in the eternal fire of hell.... . Therefore ought he, the pope, his cardinals, and all the rabble of his idolatry and papal holiness, to be taken and, as blasphemers, have their tongues torn out by the backs of their necks, and nailed in rows on the gallows.45
Perhaps his mind had begun to fail when he wrote this clarion call to violence. The gradual poisoning of the internal organs by time and food and drink may have reached and injured the brain. In his last years Luther became uncomfortably stout, with hanging jowls and convoluted chin. He had been a volcano of energy, a restless Leviathan, saying Rast Ich, so rost Ich—“If I rest I rust.” 46 But now spells of weariness came upon him; he de-scribed himself (January 17, 1546) as “old, decrepit, sluggish, weary, cold, with but one good eye.” 47 “I am tired of the world, and it is tired of me,” he wrote; 48 and when the Electress Dowager of Saxony wished him forty more years of life, he answered, “Madam, rather than live forty years more, I would give up my chance of paradise.” 49 “I pray the Lord will come forth-with and carry me hence. Let Him come, above all, with His Last Judgment; 1 will stretch out my neck, the thunder will burst forth, and I shall be at rest.” 50 To the end he continued to have visions of the Devil; and, now and then, doubts of his mission. “The Devil assaults me by objecting that out of my mouth great offenses and much evil have proceeded; and with this he many times vehemently perplexes me.” 51 Sometimes he despaired of the future of Protestantism: “godly servants of the Most High become rarer and rarer”;52 sects and factions grow in number and bitterness; and “after Melanchthon’s death there will be a sad falling off” in the new faith.53 But then his courage returned. “I have set Christ and the pope together by the ears, so I trouble myself no further. Though I get between the door and the hinges and be squeezed, it is no matter; Christ will go through with it.” 54
His will began in full character: “I am well known in heaven, on earth, and in hell.” It told how he, “a damnable and miserable sinner,” had received from God the grace to spread the Gospel of His Son, and how he had won recognition as “a doctor of truth, spurning the ban of pope, emperor, kings, princes, and priests, and the hatred of all the demons.” And it concluded: “Wherefore, for the disposition of my meager estate let the present witness of my hand suffice; and let it be said: ‘Dr. Martin Luther, notary of God and the witness of His Gospel, wrote this.’ “55 He did not doubt that God was waiting to welcome him.
In January 1546, he went through wintry weather to Eisleben, the place of his birth, to arbitrate a dispute. During his absence he sent charming letters to his wife—as on February 1 :
I wish you peace and grace in Christ, and send you my poor, old, infirm love. Dear Katie, I was weak on the road to Eisleben, but that was my own fault.... . Such a cold wind blew from behind through my cap upon my head that it was like to turn my brain to ice. This may have helped my vertigo, but now, thank God, I am so well that I am sore tempted by fair women, and care not how gallant I am. God bless you.56
He dined merrily on February 17. Early the next morning he fell ill with violent stomach pains. He weakened rapidly, and the friends who gathered by his bedside made it clear that he was dying. One of them asked him, “Reverend father, will you stand steadfast by Christ and the doctrine you have preached?” He answered, “Yes.” Then an apoplectic stroke deprived him of speech, and in its course he died (February 18, 1546). The body was taken back to Wittenberg, and was buried in the Castle Church on whose door he had pinned his Theses twenty-nine years before.
Those years were among the most momentous in history, and Luther had been their strident and dominant voice. His faults were many. He lacked appreciation of the historic role that the Church had played in civilizing northern Europe, lacked understanding of mankind’s hunger for symbolic and consolatory myths, lacked the charity to deal justly with his Catholic or Protestant foes. He freed his followers from an infallible pope, but subjected them to an infallible book; and it has been easier to change the popes than the book. He retained the most cruel and incredible dogmas of medieval religion, while allowing almost all its beauty to be stamped out in its legends and its art, and bequeathed to Germany a Christianity no truer than the old one, far less joyous and comforting, only more honest in its teaching and personnel. He became almost as intolerant as the Inquisition, but his words were harsher than his deeds. He was guilty of the most vituperative writing in the history of literature. He taught Germany the theological hatred that incarnadined its soil until a hundred years after his death.
And yet his faults were his success. He was a man of war because the situation seemed to demand war, because the problems he attacked had for centuries resisted all the methods of peace. His whole life was a battle—against the sense of guilt, against the Devil, the Pope, the Emperor, Zwingli, even against the friends who would have compromised his revolt into a gentlemanly protest politely heard and carefully forgotten. What could a milder man have done against such handicaps and powers? No man of philosophic breadth, no scientific mind restricting belief to the evidence, no genial nature making generous allowances for the enemy, would have flung down so world-shaking a challenge, or would have marched so resolutely, as if in blinders, to his goal. If his predestinarian theology was as repugnant to reason and human kindness as any myth or miracle in the medieval faith, it was by this passionate irrationality that it moved the hearts of men, It is hope and terror that make men pray, not the evidence of things seen.
It remains that with the blows of his rude fist he smashed the cake of custom, the shell of authority, that had blocked the movement of the European mind. If we judge greatness by influence—which is the least subjective test that we can use—we may rank Luther with Copernicus, Voltaire, and Darwin as the most powerful personalities in the modern world. More has been written about him than about any other modern man except Shakespeare and Napoleon. His influence on philosophy was tardy and indirect; it moved the fideism of Kant, the nationalism of Fichte, the voluntarism of Schopenhauer, the Hegelian surrender of the soul to the state. His influence on German literature and speech was as decisive and pervasive as that of the King James Bible on language and letters in England. No other German is so frequently or so fondly quoted. Along with Carlstadt and others, he affected the moral life and institutions of Western man by breaking away from clerical celibacy, and pouring into secular life the energies that had been diverted to monastic asceticism, idleness, or piety. His influence lessened as it spread; it was immense in Scandinavia, transitory in France, superseded by Calvin’s in Scotland, England, and America. But in Germany it was supreme; no other thinker or writer cut so deep a mark into the German mind and character. He was the most powerful figure in German history, and his countrymen love him not less because he was the most German German of them all.