When some bishops sought to silence Luther and his followers, he emitted an angry roar that was almost a tocsin of revolution. In a pamphlet “Against the Falsely Called Spiritual Order of the Pope and the Bishops” (July 1522), he branded the prelates as the “biggest wolves” of all, and called upon all good Germans to drive them out by force.
It were better that every bishop were murdered, every foundation or cloister rooted out, than that one soul should be destroyed, let alone that all souls should be lost for the sake of their worthless trumpery and idolatry. Of what use are they who thus live in lust, nourished by the sweat and labor of others?... If they accepted God’s Word, and sought the life of the soul, God would be with them.... . But if they will not hear God’s Word, but rage and rave with bannings and burnings, killings and every evil, what do they better deserve than a strong uprising which will sweep them from the earth? And we would smile did it happen. All who contribute body, goods, and honor that the rule of the bishops may be destroyed are God’s dear children and true Chirstians.146
He was at this time almost as critical of the state as of the Church. Stung by the prohibition of the sale or possession of his New Testament in regions under orthodox rulers, he wrote, in the fall of 1522, a treatise On Secular Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed. He began amiably enough by approving St. Paul’s doctrine of civil obedience and the divine origin of the state. This apparently contradicted his own teaching as to the perfect freedom of the Christian man. Luther explained that though true Christians do not need law, and will not use law or force on one another, they must obey the law as good examples to the majority, who are not true Christians, for without law the sinful nature of man would tear a society to pieces. Nevertheless the authority of the state should end where the realm of the spirit begins. Who are these princes that assume to dictate what people shall read or believe?
You must know that from the beginning of the world a wise prince is a rare bird indeed; still more so a pious prince. They are usually the greatest fools or the worst knaves on earth. They are God’s jailers and hangmen, and His divine wrath needs them to punish the wicked and preserve outward peace.... I would, however, in all fidelity advise those blinded folk to take heed to the short saying in Psalm CVII: “He poureth contempt upon princes.” I swear to you by God that if through your fault this little text becomes effective against you, you are lost, though every one of you be as mighty as the Turk; and your snorting and raving will help you nothing. A large part has already come true. For .... the common man is learning to think, and... contempt of princes is gathering forces among the multitude and the common people.... . Men ought not, men cannot, men will not suffer your tyranny and presumption much longer. Dear princes and lords, be wise and guide yourselves accordingly. God will no longer tolerate you. The world is no longer what it was when you hunted and drove people like so much game.147
A Bavarian chancellor charged that this was a treasonable call to revolution. Duke George denounced it as scandalous, and urged Elector Frederick to suppress the publication. Frederick let it pass with his usual equanimity. What would the princes have said had they read Luther’s letter to Wenzel Link (March 19, 1522)?—“We are triumphing over the papal tyranny, which formerly crushed kings and princes; how much more easily, then, shall we not overcome and trample down the princes themselves!” 148 Or if they had seen his definition of the Church?—“I believe that there is on earth, wise as the world, but one holy, common Christian Church, which is no other than the community of the saints.... I believe that in this community or Christendom all things are in common, and each man’s goods are the other’s, and nothing is simply a man’s own.” 149
These were casual ebullitions, and should not have been taken too literally. Actually Luther was a conservative, even a reactionary, in politics and religion, in the sense that he wished to return to early medieval beliefs and ways. He considered himself a restorer, not an innovator. He would have been content to preserve and perpetuate the agricultural society that he had known in his childhood, with some humane improvements. He agreed with the medieval Church in condemning interest, merely adding, in his jovial way, that interest was an invention of Satan. He regretted the growth of foreign trade, called commerce a “nasty business,” 150 and despised those who lived by buying cheap and selling dear. He denounced as “manifest robbers” the monopolists who were conspiring to raise prices; “the authorities would do right if they took from such people everything they have, and drove them out of the country.”151 He thought it was high time to “put a bit in the mouth of the Fuggers.”152 And he concluded ominously, in a blastOn Trade and Usury (1524):
Kings and princes ought to look into these things and forbid them by strict laws, but I hear that they have an interest in them, and the saying of Isaiah is fulfilled, “Thy princes have become companions of thieves.” They hang thieves who have stolen a gulden or half a gulden, but trade with those who rob the whole world.... . Big thieves hang the little ones; and as the Roman senator Cato said, “Simple thieves lie in prisons and in stocks; public thieves walk abroad in gold and silk.” But what will God say to this at last? He will do as he says by Ezekiel: princes and merchants, one thief with another, He will melt them together like lead and brass, as when a city burns, so that there shall be neither princes nor merchants any more. That time, I fear, is already at the door.153