Monday, February 12, 2007

Martin Luther's Lax Attitude Towards Polygamy and Concubinage
This portrait [woodcut] of Luther by Hans Baldung Grien appeared on the title page of
the book Acta et res gestae D Martini Lutheri published in Strasbourg in 1521.





VOLUME III [of six]



[available online [txt]; see also the PDF version] The excerpt below is unedited; from pages 259-263. Luther's own words will be in blue, footnotes in green and different font, and page numbers in red:

* * * * *

Sanctity of marriage in the Christian mind involves
monogamy. The very word polygamy implies a reproach.
Luther s own feelings at the commencement revolted
against the conclusions which, as early as 1520, he had felt
tempted to draw from the Bible against monogamy, for
instance, from the example of the Old Testament Patriarchs,
such as Abraham, whom Luther speaks of as "a true,
indeed a perfect Christian." 1 It was not long, however,
before he began to incline to the view that the example of
Abraham and the Patriarchs did, as a matter of fact, make
polygamy permissible to Christians.

In September, 1523, in his exposition on Genesis xvi., he
said without the slightest hesitation : " We must take his
life [Abraham s] as an example to be followed, provided it
be carried out in the like faith " ; of course, it was possible
to object, that this permission of having several wives had
been abrogated by the Gospel ; but circumcision and the
sacrifice of the Paschal Lamb had also been abrogated, and
yet they " are not sins, but quite optional, i.e. neither sinful
nor praiseworthy. . . . The same must hold good of other
examples of the Patriarchs, namely, if they had many
wives, viz. that this also is optional." 5

In 1523 he advanced the following : "A man is not
absolutely forbidden to have more than one wife ; I could
not prevent it, but certainly I should not counsel it." He
continues in this passage : " Yet I would not raise the
question but only say, that, should it come before the
sheriff, it would be right to answer that we do not reject the
example of the Patriarchs, as though they were not right in
doing what they did, as the Manicheans say." 3

The sermons where these words occur were published at
Wittenberg in 1527 and at once scattered broadcast in
several editions. We shall have to tell later how the Land
grave Philip of Hesse expressly cited on his own behalf
the passage we have quoted.

Meanwhile, however, i.e. previous to the printing of his
sermons on Genesis, Luther had declared, in a memorandum

1 " Werke," Weim. ed., 6, p. 559 ; " Op. lat. var.," 6, p. 100, " De
captivitate babylonica," 1520, " an liceat, non audeo definire"

2 Ibid., 24, p. 304 ; Erl. ed., 33, p. 323. Sermons on Genesis.

3 Ibid., p. 305 = 324 ; on the date see Weim. ed., 14, p. 250 ff.


of January 27, 1524, addressed to Briick, the electoral
Chancellor, regarding a case in point, viz. that of an Orla-
munde man who wished to have two wives, that he was
" unable to forbid it " ; it " was not contrary to Holy
Scripture " ; yet, on account of the scandal and for the
sake of decorum, which at times demanded the omission
even of what was lawful, he was anxious not to be the first
to introduce amongst Christians " such an example, which,
was not at all becoming " ; should, however, the man, with
the assistance of spiritual advisers, be able to form a " firm
conscience by means of the Word," then the " matter might
well be left to take its course." 1 This memorandum, too,
also came to the knowledge of Landgrave Philip of Hesse. 2

Subsequently Luther remained faithful to the standpoint
that polygamy was not forbidden but optional ; this is
proved by his Latin Theses of 1528, 3 by his letter, on
September 3, 1531, 4 addressed to Robert Barnes for Henry
VIII. and in particular by his famous declaration of 1539
to Philip of Hesse, sanctioning his bigamy.

His defenders have taken an unfinished treatise which he
commenced in the spring of 1542 5 as indicating, if not a
retractation, at least a certain hesitation on his part ; yet
even here he shows no sign of embracing the opposite view ;
in principle he held fast to polygamy and merely restricts it
to the domain of conscience. The explanation of the writing
must be sought for in the difficulties arising out of the bigamy
of Landgrave Philip. Owing to Philip s representations
Luther left the treatise unfinished, but on this occasion he
expressly admitted to the Prince, that there were " four
good reasons " to justify his bigamy. 6

Needless to say, views such as these brought Luther into
conflict with the whole of the past.

Augustine, like the other Fathers, had declared that
polygamy was " expressly forbidden " in the New Testa-

1 " Brief wechsel," 4, p. 283 : " Viro qui secundam uxorem consilio
Carlstadii petit.

2 The Elector forwarded it together with a letter to Philip of Hesse
on July 3, 1540. See Enders, " Briefwechsel," ibid., No. 5.

3 " Werke," Weim. ed., 26, p. 523 ; " Opp. lat. var.," 4, p. 368,
in the " Propositiones de digamia episcoporum"

4 " Briefwechsel," 9, p. 92 ff.

5 " Werke," Erl. ed., 65, p. 206 ff.

6 Thus Landgrave Philip, on May 16, 1542, to his theologian Bucer
(Lenz, " Philipps Briefwechsel," 2, p. 82).


ment as a " crime " (" crimen "J. 1 Peter Lombard, Thomas
Aquinas and Bonaventure speak in similar terms in the
name of the scholasticism of the Middle Ages. Peter
Paludanus, the so-called " Doctor egregius " (f 1342),
repeated in his work on the Sentences, that : " Under the
Gospel-dispensation it never had been and never would be
permitted." 2

It is, however, objected that Cardinal Cajetan, the famous
theologian and a contemporary of Luther, had described
polygamy as allowable in principle, and that Luther merely
followed in his footsteps. But Cajetan does not deny that
the prohibition pronounced by the Church stands, he merely
deals in scholastic fashion with the questions whether
polygamy is a contravention of the natural law, and whether
it is expressly interdicted in Holy Scripture. True enough,
however, he answers both questions in the negative. 3 In
the first everything of course depends on the view taken with
regard to the patriarchs and the Old Testament exceptions ;
the grounds for these exceptions (for such they undoubtedly
were) have been variously stated by theologians. In the
second, i.e. in the matter of Holy Scripture, Cajetan erred.
His views on this subject have never been copied and,
indeed, a protest was at once raised by Catharinus, who
appealed to the whole body of theologians as teaching that,
particularly since the preaching of the Gospel, there was no
doubt as to the biblical prohibition. 4

Thus, in spite of what some Protestants have said, it was
not by keeping too close to the mediaeval doctrine of matri-
mony, that Luther reached his theory of polygamy.

It is more likely that he arrived at it owing to his own

1 " De bono coniugali," c. 15 ; " P.L.," 40, col. 385 : " nunc certe
non licet: " Contra Faustum," 1. 22, c. 47 ; " P.L.," 42, col. 428 :
" nunc crimen est."

2 " In IV. Sent.," Dist. 33, q. 1, a. 1.

3 " Commentarii in Pentateuchum," Romae, 1531, f. 38 ; " Com-
mentarii in Evangelia," Venet., 1530, f. 77; " Epistolae s. Pauli
enarr.," etc., Venet. 1531, f. 142.

4 Ambr. Catharinus, " Annotationes in Comment. Cajetani," Lugd.,
1542, p. 469, " In hoc prorsus omnes theologi, neminem cxcipio, con-
aenaerunl." Cp. Paulus, " Luther und die Polygamie " (" Lit. Beilage
der Koln. Volksztng.," 1903, No. 18), and in " Cajetan und Luther iiber
Polygamie" (Hist.-pol. Blatter, 135, 1905, p. 81 ff.). On the opinions
in vogue regarding the Old Testament exceptions, see Hurter, " Theol.
spec.," 11 P. ii., 1903, p. 567, n. 605. Cp. Rockwell, "Die Doppelehe
Philipps von Hessen," p. 236 ff.


arbitrary and materialistic ideas on marriage. It was
certainly not the Catholic Church which showed him the
way ; as she had safeguarded the sanctity of marriage, so
also she protected its monogamous character and its in-
dissolubility. In Luther s own day the Papacy proved by
its final pronouncement against the adultery of Henry VIII.
of England, that she preferred to lose that country to the
Church rather than sanction the dissolving of a rightful
marriage (vol. iv., xxi. 1).

Toleration for Concubinage? Matrimony no Sacrament.

In exceptional cases Luther permitted those bound to
clerical celibacy, on account of "the great distress of
conscience," to contract " secret marriages " ; he even
expressly recommended them to do so. 1 These unions,
according to both Canon and Civil law, amounted to mere
concubinage. Luther admits that he had advised " certain
parish priests, living under the jurisdiction of Duke George
or the bishops," to " marry their cook secretly." 2

At the same time, in this same letter written in 1540,
he explains that he is not prepared to " defend all he had
said or done years ago, particularly at the commencement."
Everything, however, remained in print and was made use
of not only by those to whom it was actually addressed,
but by many others also ; for instance, his outrageous letter
to the Knights of the Teutonic Order who were bound by
vow to the celibate state. Any of them who had a secret,
illicit connection, and " whoever found it impossible to live
chastely," he there says, " was not to despair in his weak-
ness and sin, nor wait for any Conciliar permission, for I
would rather overlook it, and commit to the mercy of God
the man who all his life has kept a pair of prostitutes, than
the man who takes a wife in compliance with the decrees of
such Councils." " How much less a sinner do you think
him to be, and nearer to the grace of God, who keeps a
prostitute, than the man who takes a wife in that way ? " 3

Of the Prince-Abbots, who, on account of the position they
occupied in the Empire, were unable to marry so long as

1 Letter to the Elector of Saxony, 1540, reprinted by Seidemann in
Lauterbach, " Tagebuch," p. 198. 

2 Ibid.

3 Letter of December, 1523, " Werke," Weim. ed., 12, p. 237 f. ;
Erl. ed., 29, p. 16 (" Brief wechsel," 4, p. 266). For the letters, to the
Teutonic Order and concerning the Abbots, cp. our vol. ii., p. 120.


they remained in the monastery, he likewise wrote: "I
would prefer to advise such a one to take a wife secretly
and to continue as stated above [i.e. remain in office],
seeing that among the Papists it is neither shameful nor
wrong to keep women, until God the Lord shall send other
wise as He will shortly do, for it is impossible for things to
remain much longer as they are. In this wise the Abbe
would be safe and provided for." ]

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