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God's Babies

John McKeown

3. Martin Luther: Forerunner of Natalism?

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  • 1 An extract from an earlier version of this chapter was published as John McKeown, “Receptions of I (...)
  • 2 There were of course other sources for the rise of “family values,” including a new Renaissance id (...)

1Martin Luther is the most important figure in the 16th century change in attitudes toward marriage and childbearing in western Christianity.1 Although he had little to say about population size, he discussed human fertility more extensively than any other early Protestant leader. Luther paved the way for modern natalism through his rhetorical exaltation of the biological family. Before him the primary models of ideal Christian leadership had been celibate Jesus with his twelve disciples, or celibate Paul with his missionary associates and the planted churches, or later a bishop with a cathedral fellowship of celibate canons. After Luther the model was a homely pastor with a large family: a model to be imitated by the congregation (Carlson, “Fruitful” 23). Esteem of celibacy had limited the influence of social natalism in Christianity since its beginning.2 Luther provided biblical and theological arguments for changing the relative balance of esteem given to marriage and celibacy, with effects that went beyond Protestantism. For example Carlson discerned that “the shock of the Reformation” led to a shift in Catholic thought on the family and reproduction (18).

Luther’s words and their reception

2When modern Protestant natalists look to Christian history for support, the writer most often quoted is Martin Luther. Charles Provan in the first chapter of his book The Bible and Birth Control deploys fourteen quotations from Luther, many of them half a page long (2-32). Allan Carlson includes seventeen quotations from Luther in a 2007 article (“Children” 20-23), and also cites Luther in an earlier article (“Freedom” 196) and a co-authored book (Conjugal 12), all in support of natalism. So two very different natalists (Carlson is a professional historian, Provan a popular writer) both look to the Reformer for inspiration. Luther is also cited briefly by Mohler (“Mystery”), Bayly (15), Watters (117), French (34), and Houghton (56), of whom the first three are limited natalists while the other two are unlimited natalists.

3Luther’s writings do contain material amenable to natalism. For example, he seems to advocate universal early marriage, and many statements on this theme can be found in his writings. The example below is from near the beginning of Luther’s 1522 treatise on the Estate of Marriage, and is quoted by Provan (2) and Carlson (“Children” 21):

  • 3 Luther identified the first ordinance as the creation of gender in Genesis 1:27.

“Be fruitful and multiply.” From this passage we may be assured that man and woman should and must come together in order to multiply. Now this ordinance is just as inflexible as the first3 … since God gives it his blessing and does something over and above the act of creation. Hence, as it is not within my power not to be a man, so it is not my prerogative to be without a woman. Again, as it is not in your power not to be a woman, so it is not your prerogative to be without a man. For it is not a matter of free choice or decision but a natural and necessary thing, that whatever is a man must have a woman and whatever is a woman must have a man. For this word which God speaks, “Be fruitful and multiply,” is not a command. It is more than a command, namely, a divine ordinance which it is not our prerogative to hinder or ignore. Rather, it is just as necessary as the fact that I am a man, and more necessary than sleeping and waking, eating and drinking, and emptying the bowels and bladder. It is a nature and disposition just as innate as the organs involved in it. Therefore, just as God does not command anyone to be a man or a woman but creates them the way they have to be, so he does not command them to multiply but creates them so that they have to multiply. And wherever men try to resist this, it remains irresistible nonetheless and goes its way through fornication, adultery, and secret sins, for this is a matter of nature and not of choice. (LW 45.18)

4Luther makes a smaller number of statements praising human fertility, and these are even more amenable to natalists, especially since almost all of them shy away from teaching an imperative for single people to marry. Provan quotes the following words once in full (5-6), and again in part (28). They come from a sermon where Luther comments on Rachel’s envy (Genesis 30:1) of her sister’s reproductive success:

  • 4 The phrase “saintly fathers” here refers to the patriarchs in Genesis, including Abraham, Isaac, a (...)

Although we like and desire it in cattle, yet in the human race there are few who regard a woman’s fertility as a blessing. Indeed, there are many who have an aversion for it and regard sterility as a special blessing. Surely this is also contrary to nature. Much less is it pious and saintly. For this affection has been implanted by God in man’s nature, so that it desires its increase and multiplication. Accordingly, it is inhuman and godless to have a loathing for offspring. Thus someone recently called his wife a sow, since she gave birth rather often. The good-for-nothing and impure fellow! The saintly fathers4 did not feel like this at all; for they acknowledged a fruitful wife as a special blessing of God and, on the other hand, regarded sterility as a curse. And this judgment flowed from the Word of God in Gen. 1:28, where He said: “Be fruitful and multiply.” (LW 5.325)

5Luther’s words are important because of his past and present influence on Christianity. Cyriacus Spangenberg, a Protestant pastor and theologian, claimed in 1561 that Luther’s writings “may rightly be called … Paul’s mouth, … Peter’s key, and the Holy Spirit’s sword” and should “be held in all honor next to the Holy Bible” (Kolb 48). Luther’s influence extends beyond Lutherans to modern Evangelicals and others, whether consciously (Hendrix, “Future”) or subliminally. In the theological disputes after his death, factions within Lutheranism took quotations from Luther and deployed his words for “authoritative pronouncement,” as all sides were able to find support within his writings for contradictory systematizations of his thought (Kolb 41, 45). The size and character of Luther’s corpus of writings makes it especially susceptible to conflicting receptions and uses.

  • 5 Only a third of Luther’s writings, and less than a tenth of his two thousand surviving sermons, ap (...)
  • 6 Exceptions to this rule are his Bible translation, Catechisms, and the Smalcald Articles.

6Luther did not leave a systematic theology; instead his exegesis and thought is spread across a huge collection of sermons, treatises, and letters.5 The compiler of the index to Luther’s Works, Joel Lundeen, after reading the whole set recorded his impression that Luther “often wrote in a hurry” and rarely went back to revise (Foreword LW 55. vii).6 Much of it was occasional writing in response to events at Wittenberg or nearby. Many of his pastorally motivated works were designed to meet the needs of particular audiences (Hendrix, “Future” 128), so their retrieval today for use in contemporary debates requires close attention to their immediate historical context. Finally, since Luther’s thought continued developing up to the end of his life, self-contradiction is likely.

  • 7 These were identified using the Scripture Index in Luther’s Works (LW 55).
  • 8 Table Talk consists of snippets of Luther’s conversations with guests at his house. It was recorde (...)
  • 9 Most of Luther’s writings are referred to in (American) Luther studies by English titles, but for (...)
  • 10 Declamationes is entirely omitted from LW, but some sermons are translated in LS.
  • 11 The authenticity of Enarrationes is debated. Luther died three months after finishing the sermons, (...)

7Luther’s comments on the fruitful verses7 and his thoughts about human fecundity are scattered across many of his writings. The most significant are his references to “be fruitful and multiply,” which appear in commentaries on Genesis, Deuteronomy, Psalms, Isaiah, Hosea, and Zechariah; in sermons on marriage from 1519 and 1531; in the treatises Monastic Vows (1521), Estate of Marriage (1522), and Exhortation to the Knights of the Teutonic Order (1523); in a commentary on 1 Corinthians 7 that was written as a wedding present (1523); and within Table Talk.8 Luther’s commentaries are essentially sermons: they were usually preached from very brief outlines, and then published from hearers’ transcripts. He preached twice weekly to trainees for the Protestant ministry as a model of homiletics (the art of preaching) suitable for their congregations (Baue 410; Nestingen, “Front” 191). From 1523 to 1524 these sermons covered Genesis and were printed under the title Declamationes9 in 1527 (Mattox, Defender 31, 262).10 He returned to preach on Genesis at greater length from 1535 to 1545 and these were published by 1554, some years after Luther’s death, as Enarrationes.11

8Little research has been done on Luther’s writings with regard to the theme of human reproduction, let alone natalism in particular. David Yegerlehner’s PhD thesis about the historical reception of Old Testament “fruitfulness texts” devotes a section to Luther (160-72). He refers to the commentaries but not to the treatises, and provides little historical context. Jeremy Cohen’s survey of the ancient and medieval career of Genesis 1:28 stops at the year 1500, but his conclusion includes one page on Luther and claims he led a revolution in Christian interpretation of the verse (307). Surveys of Luther’s thought on the topics of marriage and family by Scott Hendrix in 2000 and Janet Strohl in 2008 say little about fertility. Steven Ozment does discuss it but does not deal with biblical reception (8, 101). Susan Karant-Nunn and Merry Wiesner survey research looking at Luther’s works from the perspective of gender and sexuality (7-8), but that is concerned with issues such as women’s status, and the matter of fecundity is rarely addressed directly.

Luther’s battle against ‘works-religion’ and sin

  • 12 Luther perceived other sources and types of sin, including the ways of market traders, business, a (...)

9Luther’s reception of “be fruitful and multiply” should be understood in the context of theological concerns that converged on the issue of celibacy. His emphasis on justification by faith, and his war with a religion of salvation by works (as he saw it), led him to attack vowed celibacy (Bultmann 425; Ozment 1). He was also deeply concerned about sin and its consequences, and one breeding ground of sin (in his view) was the compulsion of celibacy for priests which led to sexual immorality.12

10Luther’s ideas arose in the context of a unique event, the early 16th-century revolt within the elite of the Catholic church. Many of the early Protestant leaders were celibates (as monks, friars, priests, or in minor orders) before they changed allegiance (Chadwick, Reformation 151), and a central feature of the Reformation was the shift from a celibate to a married church leadership. This was experienced intensely by Luther, who had been an earnest monk of the Augustinian community but came to believe that he had lived a false piety that trusted in works for salvation. His vow was especially invalid in his eyes because it was against his father Hans’ wishes. Luther writes, “I recall that my father despised the monks … accordingly, when I first entered the monastery … my father bore this with the greatest reluctance” (LW 8.181). Later he wrote to his father:

  • 13 Luther included this letter to his father as the dedication of his treatise Monastic Vows in Novem (...)

It is now nearly sixteen years since I became a monk, against your wishes and without your knowledge … Your own plan for my future was to tie me down with an honourable and wealthy marriage … you said – “May it not prove an illusion and a deception.” That word penetrated and lodged in the depths of my soul, as if God had spoke through your mouth; but I hardened my heart against you and your word as much as I could. You said something else … “Have you not also heard that parents are to be obeyed?” … my vow was not worth a straw, because in taking it I was withdrawing myself from the will and authority of my parent.13 (LW 48.331)

  • 14 The chronology of the celibacy crisis is outlined by Bernhard Lohse (137-43).

11Luther intervened in the debate over compulsory celibacy for priests in 1520,14 and in To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation he observed that “many a poor priest is overburdened with wife and child, his conscience troubled” because of the “universal commandment forbidding priests to marry,” and he advised the Pope to “leave every man free to marry or not to marry” (LW 44.175). Later, while Luther was in exile at Wartburg in November 1521 one of the other monks at Wittenberg began urging his peers to abandon the monastery, and this prompted Luther to turn his attention to monastic celibacy (Lohse 141). By February 1522 the community was depleted from thirty friars to six, and by 1523 only three diehards remained of whom one was Luther, who kept to all his vows and wore his habit until October 1524, at a time when in some Protestant towns anyone seen in a habit risked being thrown out of church or pelted with mud (Chadwick, Reformation 153, 156). Luther believed that outward disciplines were beneficial if done with a good conscience, but perilous if regarded as good works to earn salvation.

Motives for the campaign

12Luther’s first motive for attacking vowed celibacy was his pastoral concern for the consciences of those constrained, either by their own scruples or pressure from others, to keep vows which they regretted. He was especially concerned about those who had been put inside religious houses as youths by their parents (LW 44.216), and also young adults who joined impetuously (LW 39.296). Luther’s treatise Monastic Vows declared such vows to be invalid, and in a 1524 pamphlet, How God Rescued an Honorable Nun, he argued that “God wants no forced service … They should be released because man is not created for celibacy but to multiply” (LW 43.87).

13His second motive arose from his view that an idle life in a monastery often led to sin. In his job as regional supervisor of Augustinian monasteries, Luther had been informed about cases of immorality. He criticized the wealthy religious orders for economic parasitism and permitting laziness. In his later writings he recalls the stories he heard about friars’ fornications, infanticide at nunneries, and “Italian marriages” (homosexuality) among supposed celibates (LW 39.241; 46:198). He is alluding to such rumours when he mentions common knowledge of the results of celibacy.

  • 15 The arrival in 1494 of syphilis, previously unknown in Europe, had provoked a debate. The emperor (...)

14Luther’s third motive was to save society from temporal disaster. He perceived a chain of consequence from the avoidance of marriage to sexual immorality which brought not only peril to souls but also temporal judgment on society.15 His belief in the link between sin (in general) and natural disasters is clear, for he wrote: “when new sins increase, new punishments also increase. Within our own time unusual kinds of diseases and disasters have become widespread” (LW 2.136). In 1538 while preaching on the destruction of Sodom (Genesis 19), he remarked that “this year, a goodly part of the earth in the territory of Naples … vanished because of an earthquake and an inundation – not by some chance, as the papists think, but because of the sins of the people” (LW 3.295). The contribution of sexual immorality is illustrated in his statement in 1522:

The estate of marriage, however, redounds to the benefit not alone of the body, property, honor, and soul of an individual, but also to the benefit of whole cities and countries, in that they remain exempt from the plagues imposed by God. We know only too well that the most terrible plagues have befallen lands and people because of fornication. (LW 45.44)

  • 16 Soteriology is the branch of doctrine concerning eternal salvation.

15His fourth motive arose from his soteriology16 that hinged on a doctrine of justification by faith alone. Writing in Good Works (LW 44.24) in 1520, and in Monastic Vows (LW 44.262, 290, 301), Luther identified the vows of monks and priests as the mainspring of papal theology and the religious culture (as he saw it) of salvation by works (Pelikan 76; Wendebourg 133). He also considered that religious people who were genuinely chaste but were trusting in that for their salvation were in spiritual peril, for “all nuns and monks who lack faith, and who trust in their own chastity and in their order … cannot boast that what they do is pleasing in God’s sight” (LW 45.41). These motives moved Luther, in his roles as pastor, prophet, and theologian, to urgent and forceful exegesis of Genesis to promote marriage and child-rearing as a religious vocation to replace vowed celibacy.

Strategy of promoting marriage

  • 17 A study of the elite of Württemberg found an average age at first marriage of 25.3 years for men a (...)

16The only solution to all these problems was marriage, the estate ordained in Genesis (LW 1.115). Luther deemed it the best antidote to lust and fornication, for “the married estate is for evermore a hospital to the sick, so that they do not fall into greater sin” (LS 91). So he urged early marriage. In 16th century western Europe, the average age at first marriage was around 25 for a man and 21 for a woman,17 but Luther in The Estate of Marriage asserted: “A young man should marry at the age of twenty at the latest, a young woman at fifteen to eighteen” (LW 45.48). The reason he gave is significant: “A girl of eighteen is ready for marriage, for this age feels the burning of the flesh” (LS 149). Luther’s concern is the age at which he considers temptation becomes too strong. His focus is the young adult’s spiritual welfare, not the potential for increasing the birth rate. Luther urged parents to help every one of their children to marry:

Parents should understand that a man is created for marriage, to beget fruit of his body (just as a tree is created to bear apples or pears), unless his nature is altered … by supreme grace or a special miracle. Therefore, they are in duty bound to assist their children to marry, removing them from the perils of unchastity. (LW 45.390)

17In 16th century Europe about 15% of adults never married (LS 7). Some of those were vowed celibates, and Luther considered that many chose that path because of the imagined spiritual superiority of celibacy. Many other people were simply unmarried, and Luther identified various reasons for that choice, including the bad reputation of marriage, worries about insufficient income, and canon law. He wanted to demolish anything that delayed or prevented marriage. Luther judged that many people remained single because marriage had been given a bad reputation (LW 45.22, 390). He complained: “The whole world still cries out about what an evil thing marriage is” (LS 24). According to one modern historian, in early 16th century Europe marriage had become a “despised, and rejected estate” (Ozment 4, 44). Luther’s assessment in 1522 was similar:

The estate of marriage has universally fallen into such awful disrepute … Every day one encounters parents who … deter their children from marriage but entice them into priesthood and nunnery, citing the trials and troubles of married life. Thus do they bring their own children home to the devil, as we daily observe; they provide them with ease for the body and hell for the soul. (LW 45.37)

  • 18 A fairer assessment might be that medieval Christians normally affirmed both celibacy and marriage (...)

18According to Protestant historiography this popular view was the result of medieval Catholic preachers denigrating marriage.18 Luther aimed to repair the damage. He advertised that “the most pleasant life is an average home life” (LS 149, Table Talk). Luther wanted to dissuade young people from entering religious orders, and persuade them to marry instead. In his 1523 commentary on 1 Corinthians 7, he wrote that “God has laid it upon me to preach about marriage and to tear the veil from the chastity which is of the devil, so that there may be less fornication and our poor youth may not be so pitiably and dangerously misled by falsely glorified chastity” (LW 28.5). In 1531 he exhorted wedding guests that “we must lift this estate even higher, praise and honor it even more” (LS 153).

19Lack of economic means of subsistence should not delay marriage in Luther’s view. Carlson quotes Luther’s assurance to poor men: “Let God worry about how they and their children are to be fed. God makes children; he will surely also feed them” (LW 45.49). This was not based on any optimistic cornucopian ideology since Luther considered that “today and always the whole creation is hardly sufficient to feed and support the human race” (LW 1.72). But the moral risks of young people delaying marriage outweighed any financial hardships. In the special case of wealthy estates that sought to avoid a subdivision of the family inheritance between too many heirs Luther had no sympathy and wrote: “It is even more disgraceful that you find princes who allow themselves to be forced not to marry, for fear that the members of their house would increase beyond a definite limit” (LW 1.118).

20Another obstacle to marriages was the “impediments” in canon law. These rules included a ban on polygamy, prohibition based on affinity that extended to a wide range of relatives and even to godparents and their relatives, strict control of divorce (with a requirement for annulment by church authority), and the ban on marriages between an adherent of another religion and a Christian. Luther called for abolition of all such impediments, except the ban on polygamy and the degrees of relatedness that were explicitly forbidden in Leviticus chapters 18 and 20. He wrote in Estate of Marriage, “let us now consider which persons may enter into marriage with one another” (LW 45.22), and proceeded to attack those canon laws one by one, including the impediment of faith:

The fifth impediment is unbelief; that is, I may not marry a Turk, a Jew, or a heretic [… but] marriage is an outward, bodily thing, like any other worldly undertaking. Just as I may eat, drink, sleep, walk, ride with, buy from, speak to, and deal with a heathen, Jew, Turk, or heretic, so I may also marry and continue in wedlock with him. Pay no attention to the precepts of those fools who forbid it. You will find plenty of Christians – and indeed the greater part of them – who are worse in their secret unbelief than any Jew, heathen, Turk, or heretic. A heathen is just as much a man or a woman – God’s good creation, as St. Peter, St. Paul, and St. Lucy. (LW 45.25)

21Luther’s view that, for example, it is appropriate for a Muslim to marry a Christian indicates how far he was from any motive of sectarian natalism because that is incompatible with mixed-faith marriages. Luther’s motive in wanting to remove these impediments was to help people escape the temptations that he thought were afflicting the unmarried. For the same reason he attacked Jerome for his “shameful book against Jovinian about widows who transgress against their first troth and fidelity, just as though it were improper for them to remarry” (LS 130). Luther wanted to encourage widows to remarry quickly. Removal of the impediments would, by increasing the possibilities for marriage, also increase the birth rate, but that was not Luther’s motive.

Child-rearing as penitential discipline

22Weddings might prevent fornication, but to remedy the sins of idleness and greed a further medicine was needed: the responsibilities of parenthood. Luther critiqued the lifestyle of monks and friars not only for producing fornication but also for its dependence on endowments and begging (by friars), which he suspected led to idleness and sloth. His vision for marriage transferred to the marital condition what he regarded as the better features of Augustinian penitential discipline (LS 13). In the new marriage service liturgy, written by Luther for Wittenberg in 1524, the minister was to declare marriage “a penitential institution in which the wife freely accepts the pain of childbirth … and the husband the pain of daily labor and worry over his family’s well-being” (Ozment 8).

23Commenting on Genesis 3 in Declamationes, Luther stated that God’s response to humankind’s fall was not the deserved penalty of immediate extinction, but instead curses that are designed to help the soul by hurting the body. Aside from death, the curses on woman and man only become fully operational in parenthood, since they relate to childbearing (for the woman), economically supporting the family (for the man), and the rearing of children (for both spouses). Those who avoid family life by staying unmarried were missing out on these means of grace and were likely to end up being punished spiritually instead:

He gives the woman her torment, but … absolves her of spiritual misery, and lays the penalty upon her body … God turns eternal punishment into a temporal and physical one … upon all those who shall become the daughters of Eve. It is not said to her alone. It is said as though they should all become pregnant … This is a gentle, gracious punishment … [but] the land is full of whores and knaves … everybody shies away from marriage because they might have grief with the bearing of children, that pertains to the woman, or the man because he has to provide for and nourish his wife and child … Nobody wants to bear this burden, but it must be borne. If you do not take a wife and eat your bread in the sweat of your brow, God will take his punishment from your body and lay it upon your soul. This is not a good exchange. He wants to be gracious to the soul and helpful, but He rightly wants to torment the body. On that account, where people stand in faith, they … bear this burden gladly – they take wives, labor, and let their lives be painful … where one finds a marriage in which the wife has no misfortune with children and in which the husband is not bitter, something is not right. The world is so crazy and foolish, contrary to God, that it is of the opinion that one can be married … only to have good days and live well. But God wants exactly the opposite. (LS 23)

24In 1535, preaching on Rachel’s desire for a son, Luther found the same fault in those who, although they marry, contrive to be childless:

For most married people do not desire offspring. Indeed, they turn away from it and consider it better to live without children, because they are poor and do not have the means with which to support a household. But this is especially true of those who are devoted to idleness and laziness and shun the sweat and the toil of marriage. But the purpose of marriage is not to have pleasure and to be idle but to reproduce and bring up children, to support a household. This of course is a huge burden full of great cares and toils. But you have been created by God to be a husband or wife and that you may learn to bear these troubles. (LW 5.363)

25Parenthood was construed by Luther as a religious vocation, and he hoped family households would be places of penance and discipline turned from self-oriented to other-oriented works of piety (Mattox, Defender 252). Luther’s reasons for wanting people to marry and rear children were primarily moral and spiritual rather than a natalist desire to increase the number of births.

Commands, and orders of creation

  • 19 With regard to contraception, Christian tradition condemned this for reasons that were not natalis (...)

26The nine arguments against birth control devised by Charles Provan include his claims that “multiply, and fill the earth” is a command to be obeyed today (5), that creation reveals child-bearing as “the natural function of women” (27), that “children are a blessing … the more the better” (7), and that choosing to beget “less children than possible” is a sin (9). Provan quotes Luther’s words in support of each of these ideas.19

27Provan portrays Genesis 1:28 as “the first command to a married couple.” This sits uneasily with his earlier quotation from Luther (which appears above on the first page of this chapter) that it is “not a command” but rather a “nature,” for God “does not command them to multiply but creates them so that they have to multiply” (4). There is a difference. Provan implies it is a command addressed only to married couples. By contrast, the scope of a law of nature must be the whole species, implying a necessity for all to marry. But that logic leads to a condemnation of those who choose singleness and that is incompatible with Christian history. The only exception to this logic could be cases in which the Creator miraculously alters an individual person’s physical nature.

Singleness against the law of nature?

28Whereas the early Church Fathers believed God had established the estate of celibacy alongside marriage, Luther seems to claim that the Bible, created nature, physiology, and medical wisdom all indicate that everyone is made to reproduce. Table Talk observes: “Marriage exists in all nature, for among all creatures there is the male and the female. Even trees are married” (LS 122). Luther also says,

God presents to our eyes the marital estate in all creatures, … among the birds, … animals, … fishes … male and female are to be found among trees, such as apples and pears … If one plants them beside one another, they grow and develop better near each other than otherwise. The man stretches out his branches toward the woman … The sky is the man and the earth the woman; for the earth is made fruitful by the sky. (LS 124)

29Luther asserted that “man is created … to eat, drink, produce fruit of his body, sleep, and respond to other calls of nature. It is not within the power of any man to alter this” (LW 45.391). He suggested that a celibate is “like a man who resolved not to urinate” and who, in Luther’s anecdote, “held off for four days and became very sick” (LW 28.29). According to this rhetoric, celibacy or even continence prolonged for more than a few days is against nature and unhealthy for the human body. Luther writes in Estate of Marriage:

  • 20 Luther is referring to fasting (hunger) and physical work, both monastic disciplines.
  • 21 The phrase “bear themselves out” refers to the premature death of women either during pregnancy or (...)

God’s word does not admit of restraint; neither does it lie when it says, “Be fruitful and multiply.” You can neither escape nor restrain yourself from being fruitful and multiplying; it is God’s ordinance and takes its course. Physicians are not amiss when they say: if this natural function is forcibly restrained it necessarily strikes into the flesh and blood and becomes a poison … That which should have issued in fruitfulness and propagation has to be absorbed within the body. Unless there is terrific hunger20 or immense labor or supreme grace, the body cannot take it; it necessarily becomes unhealthy and sickly. Hence we see how weak and sickly barren women are. Those who are fruitful, however, are healthier, cleanlier, and happier. And even if they bear themselves weary – or ultimately bear themselves out – that does not hurt. Let them bear themselves out.21 This is the purpose for which they exist. It is better to have a brief life with good health than a long life in ill health. (LW 45.45-46)

30Although this would raise birth rates in practice, Luther’s focus here is on the adult, and specifically her physical health, rather than quantity of offspring. However in Declamationes, his early Genesis sermons, he does seem to portray reproduction as the main purpose of life. Eve had been created alongside Adam

to help him to give birth in accordance with God’s word, “Be fruitful and multiply.” … Women are not created for any other purpose than to serve man and to be his assistant in producing children. (LS 17)

31Luther affirmed that celibacy may be received as a gift, which could hardly be denied as the apostle Paul and most of the Early Fathers were celibate, but in the 1520s he portrayed celibacy as a theoretical possibility, rather than a live option, by arguing that it cannot be chosen. He also suggested that the gift of celibacy had become rarer after the early church era and vanishingly rare in his own time, which may be linked to his belief that the moral quality of humankind had continued to decline after the apostolic era (LW 2.7). An open letter in 1523 on Why Virgins Are Allowed to Leave the Convent in a Godly Way explains that nuns may and should leave because

it is impossible that the gift of chastity is as common as the convent. A woman is not created to be a virgin, but to bear children. In Genesis 1, God was not speaking just to Adam, but also to Eve when He said, “Be fruitful and multiply,” as the female organs of a woman’s body, which God has created for this reason, prove. And this was not just said to one or two women, but to all of them, with no exceptions. God establishes this not through our oaths or our free will, but through His own powerful means and will. Whenever He has not done this, a woman should remain a woman, and bear children, for God has created her for that. (LS 140)

32In a letter of 1524 to three nuns, Luther went further in that he attempted to persuade contented nuns that their way of life must be false because the gift of celibacy had become very rare in his time:

Scripture and experience teach that among many thousands there is not one to whom God gives the grace to maintain pure chastity. A woman does not have the power herself. God created her body to be with a man, bear children and raise them, as Scripture makes clear in Genesis 1. Her bodily members, ordained by God for this, also demonstrate this. This is as natural as eating and drinking, sleeping and waking up. It is created by God and He also wants what is natural, that is men and women being together in marriage. (LS 141)

Rhetorical use of “be fruitful and multiply”

  • 22 As in the carnivalesque Against Hans Wurst (1541) and Against the Papacy at Rome (1545), for which (...)

33In general, Luther’s method of argument was “to take everything to its logical limit, to drive matters to extremes,” and to set up paradoxes (Matheson, Rhetoric 174), and his approach to theology tends toward sharp polarities. Also, his expressive style tends to hyperbole in polemic and “extreme formulation” in exegesis (Pelikan 19). Sometimes he was deliberately offensive to stir up his readers.22 I contend that Luther’s portrayal of “be fruitful and multiply” as a law of nature compelling all to marry, and making it impossible to abstain from conjugal relations, is an example of this style and should not be taken at face value. His meaning was easily mistaken even by contemporaries: in 1528 Johann Lansburg of Cologne wrote that Luther’s idea of chastity as “beyond human nature” was an insult to courtiers, merchants, and all who had to be away from home for days on end, since it implied that they and their wives were inevitably guilty of adultery (Ozment 24).

  • 23 Written in November 1521 and published in February 1522.
  • 24 Near the end of this treatise Luther recognizes that his case against vows could be turned against (...)

34Evidence for the presence of hyperbole comes where Luther makes apparently contradictory statements within one piece of writing. In his 1521 treatise on Monastic Vows23 he urges that “all monks be absolved from their vows” (LW 44.283) and that any monk who finds lust irresistible should be free to marry (LW 44.337).24 Luther imagines their colleagues saying to monks in that frame of mind, “You must pray to God for grace,” and Luther responds to those counsellors that

you are trying to compel God to revoke his word, that divine commandment of nature by which he created all things, “Increase and multiply.” All this is absurd and puerile. Each one is left to see from his own experience whether this law, or rather, privilege of increasing and multiplying, is quite settled and established, or whether he has the power to change things. (LW 44.339)

35The claim seems to be that Genesis 1:28 testifies to an unalterable created order that makes celibacy impossible. But a few pages later Luther writes: “We do not advocate marriage as an easy way out … We want it to be permitted, to be a matter of option, so that the man who is able may be continent for as long as he wants” (LW 44.395). The central idea of the treatise was after all that “lifelong poverty, obedience, and chastity may be observed, but cannot be vowed” (LW 44.315).

36Less than a year later Estate of Marriage includes what seems to be a strong assertion (quoted above) that an immutable law of nature compels marriage for everyone. Later in the treatise he states that celibacy is impossible, because “he who refuses to marry must fall into immorality. How could it be otherwise, since God has created man and woman to produce seed and to multiply?” (LW 45.45). However a few pages further on Luther qualifies what he has just written:

In saying this, I do not wish to disparage virginity, or entice anyone away from virginity into marriage. Let each one act as he is able, and as he feels it has been given to him by God. I simply wanted to check those scandal-mongers who place marriage so far beneath virginity. (LW 45.47)

37Admittedly during this period Luther became increasingly antagonistic to celibacy. In 1520 he made a few critical remarks with balancing statements; in 1521 there are many apparently absolute statements disallowing celibacy but also some balancing remarks; but in 1522 he heaps up hyperbole against singleness with only one qualifying statement at the end. Despite the imbalance in his rhetoric, Luther did not really believe that nature compelled everyone to marry.

Marriage and reproduction is not commanded

38Luther in the early 1520s was torn between a wish to allow voluntary celibacy and a worry that the mere existence of religious houses sent the wrong message to people: that life in the world is spiritually inferior (Chadwick, Reformation 152). His treatise Monastic Vows rejects permanent vows and condemns the idea that works justify, but allows voluntary monastic life with temporary vows as a legitimate path for Christians (Wendebourg 141), for “if you live with men of like mind … without your thinking thereby that you are better than he who takes a wife or takes up farming, then in that case you are neither wrong to take vows nor wrong to live in this way” (LW 44.304). This exception was temporarily submerged by waves of Reformation hostility to monasticism, but in later years it resurfaced.

39Further evidence that Luther did not make marriage a law of nature appeared in the case of Oldenstadt Abbey. Duke Ernst of Luneberg disendowed that Benedictine house, and Abbot Gottschalk (who accepted Protestant theology) wrote to Luther asking if they could stay on there as monks under a modified Rule. Luther replied affirmatively in February 1528, and added on a personal note that if monasticism had been practised in this manner earlier he would have stayed as a monk “because by virtue of this spirit of freedom it brings them joy.” Luther also wrote to Duke Ernst advising that monks “in the freedom of the Spirit” could “with great benefit remain in the monastery,” and in general defending those monasteries and convents which had re-ordered their houses in a Protestant manner (Wendebourg 142; Chadwick, Reformation 168).

40Luther intervened in other cases. The best documented is Herford, where local pastors and the Town Council wanted to close both houses (Brothers and Sisters) of the Brethren of the Common Life, who obeyed a Rule of celibacy without permanent vows (Brecht 30; Chadwick, Reformation 166). Luther wrote to the Council in 1533 that “such communities are extraordinarily pleasing to me,” and he also wrote to the Brethren: “Your habit and your customs which you have so laudably preserved are in no way contrary to the Gospel but help its progress against the fanatics who want to pull everything down” (Chadwick, Reformation 167). To the Sisters he wrote: “Your way of life, since you teach and live according to the Gospel, pleases me no end … If only there had been, and were, more convents like yours” (Wendebourg 143). The Town Council relented, but instead proposed to stop new novices joining. Melancthon complained: “What is this new doctrine which forbids people to stay unmarried?” Luther agreed and described the Town Council in October 1534 as the “new Pharisees” (Chadwick, Reformation 167). Luther knew that celibacy was not made impossible by any law of nature, and that singleness was an option which an individual could choose.

  • 25 The date is sometime before March 1539 according to Pelikan.

41In Table Talk for September 1538, discussing a letter from some nuns, Luther said, “One should allow such nuns to stay,” adding that he felt similarly about all well-ordered houses: “Nor have I proposed anything else from the beginning” (LW 54.312). Luther portrayed pious husbands in midlife renouncing marital relations: Jacob after Bilhah’s adultery “lived as a celibate to the end of his life,” as did David after Absalom’s betrayal (Mattox 251, citing LW 6.255; 6.278). One of the prompts to Luther’s early battles against vowed celibacy had been his concern for young people. After the antagonism of the early 1520s he expressed a positive appreciation of voluntary celibacy in the 1530s, and preached in 1539 about “young people” that “if some have the gift of continence and are able to live chastely without marriage, let them by all means have the benefit of continence and do without a wife” (LW 3.210).25 Contrary to his 1520s rhetoric, he affirms that even young people are not compelled by any law of nature to marry and reproduce.

Saved through childbirth: then and now

42The polemical concerns discussed in the previous section were not the only influences on Luther’s exegesis and he was not simply mining Genesis in support of his Reformation agenda. The hermeneutic for Christian application of the Old Testament that he inherited and developed governed his interpretation, especially for the long series of sermons in which he worked through Genesis systematically.

43Examples of God’s people exercising faith in God’s promises attract Luther’s interest and comment when he preaches on Genesis, because of his theological emphasis on justification by faith alone. Some major characters in Genesis receive divine promises of numerous descendants: notably Abraham (at 13:16 and other verses), Sarah (17:16), Isaac (26:4), and Jacob (28:12; 35:11). Luther finds them exercising a faith oriented toward hopes for childbirth. That alone would guarantee strong links in Luther’s commentaries between salvation and reproduction, but it goes deeper because of his idea about the saving faith of Adam and Eve.

  • 26 Seed is the old translation for offspring, used in quotations from Luther in LW. When he uses a ca (...)

44Perhaps when we imagine exemplars of faith those two are not first in line, and we may wonder what was the divine promise by which they exercised faith? God’s curse upon the snake in Eden ‒ “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15) ‒ was understood by ancient tradition, which Luther followed, as the first prophecy of Jesus’ birth, the protoevangelion (the first gospel).26 Luther also believed that when Adam and Eve heard God speak these words they understood the prophecy: “Adam and Eve were encouraged by this promise. Wholeheartedly they grasped the hope of their restoration … When Eve had given birth to her first-born son, she hoped that she already had that Crusher” (LW 1.193). They were justified by faith in this promise, in their hope for a baby that would save them, for the prophecy “contains the word of life by which they came back to life” (Mattox, Defender 61 citing Declamationes). Luther, linking Genesis 1:28 and 3:15-17, discerned many divine purposes converging on childbirth:

[Adam] understood that he was to produce offspring, especially since the blessing, “Increase and multiply,” had not been withdrawn, but had been reaffirmed in the promise of the Seed who would crush the serpent’s head. Accordingly, in our judgment Adam did not know Eve simply as a result of the passion of his flesh; but the need of achieving salvation through the blessed Seed impelled him too. (LW 4.237)

45Luther portrays Adam as a model (especially for the original audience of his sermons: ministerial candidates) in another way, as the first gospel preacher, who passed on the promise of the coming birth of the Savior to his descendants, who each in turn transmitted it across the generations:

This Light shone on the patriarchs before the Flood. They had the promise of the woman’s Seed, who was to crush the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15). He was their Life and Light too. He illumined them to life eternal. With this promise they comforted themselves and bolstered their faith. Of Him they preached wherever they dwelt and thus passed this on to their progeny.
(Mattox, Defender 24)

46The lineage passed on the word until it reached Abraham for whom, Luther thought, it was reinforced by direct communication from God. Therefore all the patriarchs and their wives (the matriarchs) knew this promise and labored to bring it to fruition. But they did not know when the Savior’s birth would happen, so they were eagerly anticipating it in each birth.

47Luther suggested that Eve mistakenly assumed that her firstborn son would be the promised Savior. Eve “had something greater in mind about him, as though Cain would be the man who would crush the head of the serpent” (LW 1.242). Baue notes that Luther based this idea on a fresh Latin translation of Genesis 4:1 which says (rendered in English), “Eve said, I have acquired the man of the Lord,” and suggests that this “goes a long way toward explaining the anxiety of Sarah and other barren women in the Bible. Someday one mother in Israel would be the mother of God” (Baue 410). Each woman descended from Eve heard the promise and wondered if she would be the one favored to bear the Christ child (Nestingen, “Front” 190, citing LW 1.191; 6.227). Those women, in Luther’s reading, were aware of that special extra reason to marry and bear children.

48Luther links the protoevangelion with God’s later promises that Abraham would have many descendants (Mattox, Defender 61, 62, 95). Commenting on the promise “count the stars... so shall your offspring be” at Genesis 15:5, he claims that “Moses implies in a hidden fashion that this passage includes the promise about the spiritual and heavenly Seed, while previously he is speaking solely of physical descendants” (LW 3.18). Luther also links another theophany, in which God says that all nations will be blessed through Abraham, to the messianic birth: “Thus it is an outstanding distinction that God bestows on Abraham when He speaks with him and gives him the promise concerning the Seed who was to bless all nations” (LW 2.236). From Luther’s perspective, all the promises of descendants, in addition to their undoubted thematic significance for the founding and building of the Israelite nation, also carry this association with messianic hope.

49The saints of Genesis are saved by faith in these promises. Abraham and Sarah were elderly and infertile, but (eventually) they put their faith in God’s promise of a son, and in “things not yet seen” (LW 3.17). Commenting on the episode in which Sarah hears a promise by three mysterious visitors that she will bear a child in her old age and laughs in disbelief (Genesis 18:9-15), Luther draws a parallel with Christian faith awakening in one of his congregation: “it is necessary for Sarah to hear a word by which she, as though brought back to life, may rise again to the hope of fruitfulness; for the word is truly a voice that raises from death” (LW 3.211). So infertility is associated with spiritual death and fertility with spiritual life, but it is a metaphor: Luther wants his audience, like Sarah, to exercise faith, but the object of faith now is the Gospel, not biological fecundity.

Imitating the faith of patriarchs and matriarchs

50One medieval approach to exegesis presented edifying literal exegeses of Genesis’ narratives. Luther followed this tradition and refers to “the four righteous women, Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel” (LS 37). He read Israel’s patriarchs and matriarchs as exemplars of virtue (Hendrix, “Background” 235, 238). Some stories about them are paradigms of repentance in which the hero strays into sin but God gracefully speaks, restores, and renews the promise. But in other stories they are exemplars of a good life, and Luther labors to explain that actions which seem morally dubious actually spring from faith (Mattox, Defender 8, 21). For example, “Lot … is a saintly and guiltless man; he is beyond reproach” (LW 3.280). This contrasts with Calvin who usually finds fault with the characters of Genesis, whereas “Luther seems to find faith and faithfulness, along with nobility tempered by suffering, wherever he turns” (Thompson, “Hagar” 224).

51The story of the rivalry of Leah and Rachel, the two wives of Jacob, to bear sons for him runs from Genesis 29:16 to 30:24. Leah, the wife less favored by Jacob strives to win appreciation through reproductive success. “Leah became pregnant and gave birth to a son.... Surely my husband will love me now” (29:32). It seems that bearing the first son did not achieve all she hoped for, but additional sons subsequently improve her status. “Now at last my husband will become attached to me, because I have borne him three sons” (29:34). The other wife, Rachel, now becomes distressed and fights back by using her maidservant as a surrogate child-bearer (30:3). Faced with this narrative of polygamy, favoritism (29:31), aphrodisiac drugs (30:14), and payment for conjugal relations (30:16), many earlier commentators had turned to allegory. Luther, however, strove to practice literal exegesis (Forde 244; Meyer 435). The repentance motif was not an option here, for at the low point (29:31) Rachel is oppressed and God has pity on her distress; then the story advances to successive triumphs (for both wives), and there is no divine word against the competition or its methods. The only exegetical option for Luther is that Rachel is a hero of faith and an edifying model for his student-pastors’ wives.

52The lesson for Luther’s hearers is faith in God’s word, not the specific goals for which Sarah or Rachel exercised faith. Throughout the Genesis narratives, the Old Testament saints have faith in God and His provision of things for which they hope: descendants, later the promised land (though Luther makes less of that), deliverance from enemies, and prosperity. Luther did not collapse the distance between ancient Israel and the New Testament, and noted that “the external promises are like a shell; but the essential part of the nut … is Christ and eternal life” (LW 3.149). Back then, it was “enclosed in this shell … of the material blessing concerning … the descendants of Abraham.” But “this temporal blessing is now at an end. For the shell has been opened and broken” (LW 3.150, see also 3.148). Luther agrees with the Early Fathers that the promise to Abraham must be spiritualized, because “the promise concerns the spiritual seed, that is, the believers, more than it does the physical descendants” (LW 3.152). The object of faith now would be Jesus’ cross, not Israelite nation-building, or a second messianic birth, but this is only occasionally explained by Luther, whereas his praise of the exemplary faith and life of the patriarchs and matriarchs extends across his commentaries. Contemporary natalist retrieval often quotes Luther without appreciating this.

Birth a sign of grace, barrenness a sign of wrath

53One of Provan’s claims is that to limit one’s offspring is a negation of blessing, as “God views childlessness or less children than possible as a negative occurrence, something which he uses as a punishment” (9). Provan argues that since infertility is “a bad and undesirable thing,” it follows that voluntary infertility (birth control) must be contrary to God’s purposes:

Luther had this to say about sterility, “… saintly women have always regarded childbirth as a great sign of grace. Rachel is rude and exceedingly irksome to her husband when she says: Give me children or I die! She makes it clear that she will die of grief because she sees that barrenness is a sign of wrath. And in Ps. 127:3 there is a glorious eulogy of offspring: “Lo, sons are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward.” Surely it is a magnificent name that children are the gift of God. Therefore Hannah laments so pitiably, and John’s aged mother Elizabeth leaps for joy and exults: “The Lord has taken away my reproach.” Thus when the world was still in a better state, barrenness was considered a sign of wrath; but childbirth was considered a sign of grace. (Provan 10, quoting LW 3.134)

54However, immediately preceding Provan’s extract is the word “Consequently,” and the previous sentences give Luther’s reason why these women regarded childbirth as a “sign of grace” and infertility as a “sign of wrath.” Provan ignores them and also misses the significance of the context of this quotation, which is in the middle of Luther’s comments on the divine command to circumcise boys (Genesis 17:10-11), where God

applies the law of circumcision to this so-called lewd member, which has to do with … the propagation of all flesh … God selects this member because he wants to point to original sin … Yet this is not actually a condemnation; it is rather a threat and a display of wrath. (LW 3.136)

55Luther identifies circumcision as a “sign of wrath” through its bodily location in the “lewd member” which he linked to original sin. Similarly, the curse on childbearing in Genesis 3:15 is a mitigation of divine wrath, for “The woman’s members were condemned to punishment, but they were not condemned to sterility” (LW 3.135; Meyer 433). Luther considers:

if God had merely wanted to be angry and to punish and not also to forgive and have compassion, He would have said: “You shall remain barren.” … Eve gained the sure hope of salvation, inasmuch as both a holy Seed had been promised and the blessing of giving birth and of multiplying had remained, which God did not take away. (LW 3.134)

56Luther does not exclude the mundane reasons for desiring offspring, but these are not his focus. First, the “holy Seed” refers to the birth of Jesus, for which Eve hopes. Second, the word of blessing (1:28) had given her fertility, and since God warned that sin would be punished by death, she expected complete loss of blessing. God mitigates his punishment and does not take away his blessing, so conception and birth are a sign of grace for Eve. Each future generation similarly looks anxiously for childbirth as evidence that God’s blessing is still with them. Luther comments on the text “Isaac prayed to the LORD for his wife, because she was barren” (Genesis 25:21) that the saints of Genesis were afflicted by

fear and worry about perpetual barrenness, which they considered to be a curse. For the fathers laid very great stress on this statement (Gen. 1:28): “Be fruitful and multiply.” They felt that a special blessing of God rested on this statement; and because they did not multiply, they supposed that they were cursed and under God’s wrath. (LW 4.337)

  • 27 Especially the wives (Sarah, Rebekah, Leah, Rachel, Tamar, and others), because in the pre-modern (...)
  • 28 A point obvious to Luther and confirmed by him elsewhere is that in the new covenant Christians sh (...)

57Third, the covenant that God makes with Abraham includes a promise that his descendants will be numerous, a great nation. So from then onward, that is another reason why his descendants and their wives (including Rachel)27 hope anxiously for births. Often their bad behavior gave them reason to fear that God might remove the covenant blessing, at least from some family branches (2 Kings 17:18). Each birth is a sign that God continues to be faithful to His covenant promise.28 Provan continues by discussing Deuteronomy 7:12 and complains:

Yet in our culture, barrenness is “no big deal” and people are always attempting to tell sterile couples that “everything is all right.” But everything is not all right! Listen to what Martin Luther had to say, commenting upon Rachel’s great desire to have children: “… from this it is clear that the very saintly women were not lustful but were desirous of offspring and the blessing. For this was the cause of envy in Rachel, who, if she had been like other women whom our age has produced in large numbers, would have said: ‘What is it to me whether I bear children or not? Provided that I remain the mother of the household and have an abundance of all other things, I have enough.’ But Rachel demands offspring so much that she prefers death to remaining sterile … Therefore she is an example of a very pious and continent woman whose only zeal and burning desire is for offspring, even if it means death …. this feeling is decidedly praiseworthy. ‘If I do not have children, I shall die’ says Rachel. ‘I prefer being without life to being without children.’ … [X] Consequently, she determines either to bear children or die. Thus later she dies in childbirth. This desire and feeling of the godly woman is good and saintly.” (Provan 10-11, citing LW 5.328)

  • 29 In general, and especially for an author as verbose as Luther, the use of ellipses in quotations i (...)

58This use of Luther’s comment on Genesis 30:2 is defective. The worst problem is the ellipsis by Provan which I have marked [X].29 The missing text is as follows:

There was no small reason for this desire, for Jacob undoubtedly proclaimed to both that he had the promise that the Blessed Seed would be born from him, and because of this proclamation the desire for acquiring offspring was kindled, especially in Rachel. (LW 5.328)

59“Blessed Seed” refers to Jesus, and by omitting this reason, Provan loses the gospel message that Luther found in the story and which is central to his exegesis of it. Luther wanted to clarify what Rachel’s motive for conceiving offspring was, and also what it was not (lust). The messianic motive is repeated in Luther’s text immediately after Provan’s quotation ends:

For they did not look at the shameful and wretched pleasure of the flesh in marriage. No, they looked at the blessing of offspring for the sake of the Promised Seed. (LW 5.328)

60Provan mistakenly focuses on the temporary objects of faith, and also too readily commends imitation of the culture, lifestyle, and actions of the patriarchs of Genesis and their wives. Obviously natalism was not a phenomenon in his time, but Luther was in general wary of imitation of Biblical characters’ behavior, and with regard to issues such as polygamy and armed resistance he urged contemporary Christians against copying them. He warned that the Israelite patriarchs “have an extraordinary call and impulse. You do not. Therefore when such accounts are presented, you must remember not to lay stress on the examples or deeds” (LW 3.292; see also Mattox, Defender 178). Christians should only be like the patriarchs in having faith in God’s word, not in imitating their behavior.

Luther’s apocalyptic eschatology

  • 30 For the historiography in Reformation studies of the terms apocalyptic, millenarian, chiliasm, and (...)

61I will now move beyond Provan’s appropriation of Luther’s words to consider other natalist arguments and assess whether Luther was a pioneer of natalism. The possibility of cornucopian or sectarian natalist ideas finding support in Luther are affected by his eschatology. He expected an imminent apocalypse: the Second Coming of Jesus, the resurrection of the dead, and the Last Judgement. Modern historians debate many details, such as whether Luther was more apocalyptic than other early Reformers and whether his anticipation of the end increased in his later years,30 but that Luther’s future horizon was short is a consensus (Parsons 628). Nestingen claims that “apocalypticism was the controlling factor in Luther’s response to the challenges of his day” (“End” 257). Oberman and Barnes consider that eschatology was central to Luther’s theology. Lohse disagrees, but affirms its presence (333) and admits that expectation of the end of the world was “more intense” among Europeans in the early 16th century than in earlier or later periods (33). Others have traced the rise of apocalypticism in the late 15th century (Reid 56; Nestingen, “End” 204). Apocalyptic language can sometimes be merely conventional (Lohse 332-34), and when Luther refers to a “last day” it may simply always be existentially close (Parsons 644). However, even if one grants that his phrases such as “the last hour has come” (LW 44.241), “the day of the Lord is drawing near” (LW 2.24), and “now at the end of the world” (LW 2.13) represent language of that type, there is other specific evidence for the imminence of Luther’s expectation of the end.

62The first evidence is Luther’s “self-understanding as an end-time prophet” (Matheson, Imaginative 83), and also his later belief that the Papacy was the ultimate Antichrist (Cunningham and Grell 4), the persecutor of the true church in the last days. In a letter in 1545, Luther declared: “I believe that we are the last trumpet which prepares for and precedes the advent of Christ” (Gritsch 276). Luther saw himself as a second Noah, and his lifetime as being like the last days before the Flood (Parsons 644). All this suggests his expectation of an imminent end.

63His statements about world chronology are the second pointer. Luther never predicted a specific year for end-times events, but he followed the tradition of dividing history into six millennia preceding Christ’s second advent, and he asserted: “The world is six thousand years old and thereafter it will break apart” (Parsons 644). Luther’s chronological treatise, Supputatio annorum mundi, published in 1541, identified the sixth millennium as an era of papal power after the spiritual decline and fall of the church (Gritsch 275). Luther was unsure of exactly when the church had begun falling, but he came to focus on the rise of the papacy and especially on Pope Gregory I, who began his reign in AD 590 (Reid 56). Given a millennial scheme, that might point to 1590 as a significant date, though he admitted an earlier or later date for the end was possible.

64The third piece of evidence is his view that prophecies from the Bible (and Saxon folklore) were being fulfilled, and that signs of the end were appearing. Luther wrote in 1541 that “the last day must be at hand. For almost all the signs have now appeared” (Lohse 33).

The last day is at hand. My calendar has run out. I know nothing more in my Scriptures. All the firmaments and the course of the heavens are slowing down and approaching the end. For a whole year the [river] Elbe has remained at the same level and this too is a portent. (LW 54.134)

  • 31 Luther is here drawing an analogy between his own old age and the world’s decrepitude.

65Commenting on Genesis, he discerned the “extreme old age of this world” (LW 6.188). Luther wrote in a letter in December 1544 to Jacob Propst: “It looks to me as if the world, too,31 has come to the hour of its passing, and has become an old wornout coat … Nothing good can be expected, therefore, except that the day of glory … may be revealed” (LW 50.245). These words suggest his expectation for an imminent end of the world.

66Luther’s view on the proximity of the end seems to have fluctuated as his theology developed, and was also temporarily affected by personal circumstances and events such as the Peasants’ War in 1525 (Oberman, Luther 278). However his persistent belief, in common with many of his contemporaries, was that the horizon of the world’s future was a few years rather than decades or centuries (Headley; Oberman, Luther 12). Sectarian natalism requires a long-range vision of a secular future, at least several generations, time for the advantage of a higher birth rate to accumulate. If only for that reason, sectarian natalism would be alien to Luther.

67Luther would find cornucopian belief even stranger. He believed that humankind’s abilities and dominion had collapsed after the Fall, and that since the Flood there had been progressive and irreversible decline both in the Earth and in humankind: “We may assume that the closer the world was to Adam’s Fall, the better it was; but it has deteriorated from day to day until our times, in which live the dregs and, as it were, the ultimate dung of the human race” (LW 2.7; Barnes 32). Luther’s comment on the collapse of Adam’s dominion (cited earlier) is not amenable to a cornucopian view: “By contrast, today and always the whole creation is hardly sufficient to feed and support the human race. Therefore what this dominion consisted of we cannot even imagine” (LW 1.172). Luther, unlike the Hussites, did not expect the end of the age to bring earthly renewal, but rather the end of the world (Oberman, Roots 27). He believed that their Gospel proclamation would provoke a backlash from Satan that might hasten the last battle, and predicted that “the entire world will slide into obedience to the Antichrist … It is not our job to hold it back” (Oberman, Roots 43, 33).

Preserving the human species and society

68Luther was determined to reform churches and to amend the nation, in spite of the imminent end of the world. Oberman calls this an “interim ethic” of preserving society (Roots 35, 36). It allowed room in his thought for a worldly pragmatism desiring sufficient reproduction for the survival of humankind and the nation. Anyone born into the pre-modern situation of high premature mortality would, if concerned for society’s welfare, advocate high fecundity. Social natalists go a step further and claim that the necessity of preventing population decline should have priority over individual preferences. It would be fair to identify Luther as a social natalist of this type, though it did not much occupy his attention.

69Luther’s praise of human fecundity must be set in its demographic context. In the 16th century, over a third of infants died before the age of five (Ozment, 101), and, indeed, there was significant mortality among older children, young adults, and at all ages. Before and during Luther’s formative early years, the population of Europe was lower than it had been two hundred years earlier. Numbers had begun falling around 1300, probably due to agricultural over-extension and small climate changes (Livi Bacci 38), even before the Black Death struck Europe around 1350. A slow decrease in population had continued into the 1400s, followed by stability until 1475, when it began increasing (Cunningham and Grell, 14-15). That was the demographic situation into which Luther was born in 1483, and the context for his praise of high fertility. Abandoned farmland was still abundant and being reclaimed in his lifetime (Livi Bacci 42, 88), evidence of the late medieval decline in the German population. This meant that any small increases in population which Luther might have anticipated could easily be accommodated. If he considered the longer-term future, which is unlikely, Luther was also aware of contemporary discoveries of new territory overseas, writing that “of late, many islands and lands have been discovered” (Lohse 16), so there would have been no reason for concern about overcrowding.

70Luther identifies the temporal maintenance of humankind as one benefit of marriage. In his sermon at the wedding of Sigmund von Lindenau in 1545, he observed: “The human race would go out of existence” were it not for marriage (LS 98). He says in Table Talk: “When we look backward and think about the past, marriage is not so bad, for by means of it the future and the world are maintained. For our parents … lived out their faith inasmuch as they obeyed God’s command to raise children” (LS 125). Though he used this as an additional argument in favor of marriage in Table Talk and wedding sermons, he does not deploy it in his treatises against vows of celibacy, perhaps regarding temporal maintenance as a weaker argument than moral reasons. He does, however, turn to this point to explain, though not excuse, why Lot’s daughters (Genesis 19:30-38) resorted to incest (as with other stories, Luther looks for ways to present the behavior of the men and women of Genesis as models of faith whenever possible):

Thus they devise this plan … because of their extraordinary compassion for the entire human race … Lot’s daughters thought: “God does not want to destroy the human race; He wants to preserve it. But now there is nobody left besides our father” … Thus it is nothing but genuine concern for preserving the human race that troubles the saintly girls. (LW 3.280, 310)

71The verbs (in English translation) that appear in Luther’s comments on birth and population are “preserve,” “maintain,” “increase,” and “multiply.” He commented on a law in Deuteronomy (24:5): “It is fair that a bridegroom be granted a year with his bride … that the commonwealth may increase through progeny and families” (LW 9.241). To modern ears the words “increase” and “multiply” likely bring to mind the rapid increase in total population experienced in the 20th century, but that is alien to medieval demographic experience and was not the concept in Luther’s mind. In a sermon in January 1525, when he preached that the purpose of childbirth is “so that the human race is maintained” (LS 95), he explicitly stated that reproduction has the same purpose for humankind as for all species, and therefore “the body of a Christian must fructify and multiply just like that of other human beings, birds, and all the animals” (LW 28.26). Luther did not imagine that God intended all species to increase absolutely in successive generations: it was commonly known that wild animal populations did not continuously rise decade after decade. Rather, the word “multiply” refers to reproductive efforts replacing the regular losses to death. Luther believed that reproduction is part of all life in order to ensure the survival of species: “For when God once said (Gen. 1:28): Be fruitful, that Word is effective to this day and preserves nature in a miraculous way” (LW 4.4). In another text, Luther treats the words “preserve” and “increase” as amounting to the same thing:

When God says: “It is not good that man should be alone” … God is speaking of the common good or that of the species, not of personal good … he was not yet in possession of the common good which the rest of the living beings who propagated their kind through procreation had. For so far Adam was alone; he still had no partner for that magnificent work of begetting and preserving his kind. Therefore “good” in this passage denotes the increase of the human race. (LW 1.115-16)

72Luther shared in the common cultural desire to maintain the paternal lineage and family name. Around the time of his marriage in June 1525, he mentioned the various reasons why he was taking this step. Writing to his friend Nicholas von Amsdorf, he referred to “my father’s wish for progeny, which he so often expressed” (LW 49.117). Writing to John Ruhel, he wrote that “I cannot deny my father the hope of progeny” (Bainton 290). In a letter to his father that is prefixed to Monastic Vows, Luther mentions his duty to provide grandchildren as one reason invalidating his vow of celibacy (LW 48.331). However, he does not deploy this argument in the main work, nor in any of his treatises. Perhaps he did not consider it a sufficiently weighty theological argument for reproduction.

Nursery of the church

73Marriage and reproduction have the potential to benefit not only civil society, but also the church. Luther pleaded that “marriage should be treated with honor; from it we all originate, because it is a nursery not only for the state but also for the church and the kingdom of Christ until the end of the world” (LW 1.240). He points out that bishops, the Pope, and the Early Fathers all owe their existence to marriage. But neither state nor church is blessed by mere biological increase unless the offspring are well brought up. Luther preached in 1519 in a sermon on marriage: “It is not enough, however, merely for children to be born … Heathens, too, bear offspring,” but parents must “raise children to the service, honor and praise of God and seek nothing else out of it, which unfortunately seldom happens” (LW 44.12). From this we may draw the implication that rearing a few children disciplined as good citizens and educated in Scripture is a better practice of parenthood than bearing many children but neglecting their discipline and education.

74The assumption that faith is likely to be inherited by children from parents is severely qualified in Luther’s writings. Parents and children hang between heaven and hell. For the parents, “bringing up their children properly is their shortest road to heaven. In fact, heaven itself could not be made nearer or achieved more easily than by doing this work” (LW 44.12). But Luther continues:

By the same token, hell is no more easily earned … than [by] spoiling children … False natural love blinds parents so that they have more regard for the bodies of their children than they have for their souls … “If you beat him with the rod you will save his life from hell” … O what a truly noble, important, and blessed condition the estate of marriage is if it is properly regarded! O what a truly pitiable, horrible, and dangerous condition it is if it is not properly regarded! (LW 44.13)

75In 1520 Luther repeated his warning to parents who fail to train children properly: “O how perilous it is to be a father or mother … parents cannot earn hell more easily … If they had not had children, perhaps they might have been saved” (LW 44.83, 86). This might prompt some to think twice before embarking on marriage and childbearing. But even if the parents do well there is no automatic progression for their offspring from infant baptism to salvation, for each one must believe.

The flesh has its gifts, but nothing is owed them except bread and water. Eternal life does not come to the children of the flesh; it comes to the children of the promises, that is, to those who believe … God added a blessing for married people when He said: “Increase and multiply.” But this is a physical blessing and is restricted to the filling of the earth. No matter how saintly a father and a mother are, this is nevertheless of no advantage to the children born to them. Nor are the children saved on this account. If they are to be saved, they must become children of the promise, and they themselves must believe the promise. (LW 4.52)

76On the protoevangelion, the messianic prophecy perceived in Genesis 3:15, Luther comments that “without this promise procreation would indeed continue to go on among people, as well as among the other living beings, but it would be nothing else than a procreation to death” (LW 1.195).

77Though there is material in Luther’s writings amenable to natalism, much of it arose from other motivations. The history of early Lutheranism shows that his writings have always been susceptible to conflicting types of reception. Similarly, in recent debates on gender “there is plenty of ammunition in Luther’s words for both sides” (LS 8). Provan’s use of Luther often misleads because he ignores the historical, theological, and hermeneutical context. Carlson, by contrast, shows awareness of context and his presentation is fair, though he sometimes mistakes Luther’s rhetoric, for example on the impossibility of celibacy (“Children” 20). Despite intemperate words in the 1520s, Luther did not believe that natural law prevented celibacy. Also, the later doctrines of Lutheran theologians on the “orders of creation” should not be read back into Luther’s occasional polemics. Luther confronted a Catholic culture that regarded celibacy as a work meriting righteousness. As a counterweight, he elevated marriage and childbearing. We can imagine that if he encountered people holding the opposite view, and regarding childrearing as a “good work,” he would equally have resisted that as a distractor from justification by faith.

78Luther’s eschatology and secular pessimism put him far from cornucopian ideology, and his short temporal horizon left no time for sectarian natalism. Insofar as Luther had any interest in demography (the topic is not prominent in his thought), it was a common secular pragmatism desiring the perpetuation of the human species and one’s family name, though even that was tempered by his eschatology. Luther is amenable to the idea that obligation to perpetuate the nation through reproduction outweighs personal goals such as the wish for a retired life of prayer and study. Very few earlier Christian writers would accept that view (though it was common among Stoics and other early non-Christian writers), so it is fair to regard Luther as a forerunner of social natalism.


1 An extract from an earlier version of this chapter was published as John McKeown, “Receptions of Israelite Nation-building: Modern Natalism and Martin Luther.” Dialog: A Journal of Theology 49.2 (2010): 133-140.

2 There were of course other sources for the rise of “family values,” including a new Renaissance ideal of children and family, as well as social and economic changes.

3 Luther identified the first ordinance as the creation of gender in Genesis 1:27.

4 The phrase “saintly fathers” here refers to the patriarchs in Genesis, including Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

5 Only a third of Luther’s writings, and less than a tenth of his two thousand surviving sermons, appear in the English translation of his works (LW). That is changing, with plans for a new series of twenty volumes by Concordia Publishing, but for now some of the material in the German edition of Luther’s works (WA) that is not in LW has been translated in secondary sources, so those are cited here. I found especially helpful Luther on Women: A Sourcebook (LS), edited by Susan Karant-Nunn and Merry Wiesner, whose choice of extracts for translation prioritized material that does not appear in LW.

6 Exceptions to this rule are his Bible translation, Catechisms, and the Smalcald Articles.

7 These were identified using the Scripture Index in Luther’s Works (LW 55).

8 Table Talk consists of snippets of Luther’s conversations with guests at his house. It was recorded by Luther’s disciples and later edited to safeguard his reputation, so it should be treated with caution as a source.

9 Most of Luther’s writings are referred to in (American) Luther studies by English titles, but for these two series of sermons on Genesis (presumably to avoid confusion) the Latin titles are commonly used (as in Mattox, Defender).

10 Declamationes is entirely omitted from LW, but some sermons are translated in LS.

11 The authenticity of Enarrationes is debated. Luther died three months after finishing the sermons, and they were published by his disciples, especially Veit Dietrich. In 1936, Peter Meinhold claimed that Enarrationes was edited to support Melanchthon during theological disputes after Luther’s death (Nestingen, “Front” 187-89). Consequently, until the 1990s little use was made of Enarrationes in Luther studies, though Jaroslav Pelikan (the editor of LW) was confident that the words are mostly Luther’s (LW 1. x-xi). A rehabilitation began in the 1990s. After surveying this debate, Mickey Mattox in 2003 concluded that Enarrationes preserves the “authentic voice” of Luther (Defender 81, 263-73), and I find his argument convincing.

12 Luther perceived other sources and types of sin, including the ways of market traders, business, and usury. His idea of sin was not narrow in scope.

13 Luther included this letter to his father as the dedication of his treatise Monastic Vows in November 1521. His father Hans had risen from being a peasant to a mine-owner and had paid to send his son to Erfurt University to become a lawyer. Martin’s decision at age 23 to abandon this career and enter a monastery provoked his father temporarily to “cut me off from all further paternal grace.” Erik Erikson judged Luther’s relation with his parents significantly formative for his thought, but most historians are wary of psychological methods.

14 The chronology of the celibacy crisis is outlined by Bernhard Lohse (137-43).

15 The arrival in 1494 of syphilis, previously unknown in Europe, had provoked a debate. The emperor Maximilian (in a 1497 edict) declared it to be a punishment for blasphemy, but others linked it to sexual immorality (Cunningham and Grell 248-53).

16 Soteriology is the branch of doctrine concerning eternal salvation.

17 A study of the elite of Württemberg found an average age at first marriage of 25.3 years for men and 21.4 for women (Ozment 38).

18 A fairer assessment might be that medieval Christians normally affirmed both celibacy and marriage but esteemed the former more highly.

19 With regard to contraception, Christian tradition condemned this for reasons that were not natalist (as discussed in chapter 1), and Luther followed that tradition with little comment.

20 Luther is referring to fasting (hunger) and physical work, both monastic disciplines.

21 The phrase “bear themselves out” refers to the premature death of women either during pregnancy or labor, or later as a result of its effects. Luther suggests that infertile women are sickly because they have not reproduced, rather than the reverse possibility of their being infertile because they are sickly or malnourished.

22 As in the carnivalesque Against Hans Wurst (1541) and Against the Papacy at Rome (1545), for which Luther commissioned a set of cartoons with a defecation theme to illustrate his text (Matheson, Rhetoric 212).

23 Written in November 1521 and published in February 1522.

24 Near the end of this treatise Luther recognizes that his case against vows could be turned against marriage vows, and his attempt to distinguish between vows in the two circumstances is unconvincing.

25 The date is sometime before March 1539 according to Pelikan.

26 Seed is the old translation for offspring, used in quotations from Luther in LW. When he uses a capital “S” for the word “Seed,” it always denotes the one unique child, the foretold Messiah.

27 Especially the wives (Sarah, Rebekah, Leah, Rachel, Tamar, and others), because in the pre-modern world infertility would normally be blamed on the wife.

28 A point obvious to Luther and confirmed by him elsewhere is that in the new covenant Christians should look to a different sign of forgiveness: the Cross of Christ.

29 In general, and especially for an author as verbose as Luther, the use of ellipses in quotations is helpful. Many of the ellipses Provan makes are harmless, but in this case he removes a section essential for comprehension of the surrounding text.

30 For the historiography in Reformation studies of the terms apocalyptic, millenarian, chiliasm, and eschatology, see Darrell Reid (55).

31 Luther is here drawing an analogy between his own old age and the world’s decrepitude.


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