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An Open Letter to The Christian Nobility
by Martin Luther (1483-1546)

Luther's Cover Letters

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An Open Letter to The Christian Nobility
of the German Nation
Concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate, 1520
by Martin Luther (1520)
Introduction and Translation by C. M. Jacobs

Works of Martin Luther:
With Introductions and Notes
Volume II
(Philadelphia: A. J. Holman Company, 1915)


Luther's Cover Letters

To the Esteemed and Reverend Master
Licentiate Of holy Scripture and Canon at Wittenberg,
my special and kind friend;
Doctor Martin Luther.

The grace and peace of God be with thee, esteemed and reverend dear sir and friend.

The time to keep silence has passed and the time to (Eccl 3:7) speak is come, as saith Ecclesiastes. I have followed out intention[1] and brought together some matters touching the reform of the Christian Estate, to be laid before the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, in the hope that may deign to help His Church through the efforts of the laity, since the clergy, to whom this task more properly belongs, have grown quite indifferent. I am sending the whole thing to your Reverence, that you may pass judgment on it and, if necessary, improve it.

I know full well that I shall not escape the charge of presumption in that I, a despised monk, venture to address such high and great Estates on matters of such moment, and to give advice to people of such high intelligence. I shall offer no apologies, no matter who may chide me. Perchance I owe my God and the world another pie of folly, and I have now made up my mind honestly to pay that debt, if I can do so, and for once to become court jester; if I fail, I still have one advantage, -- no one need buy me a cap or cut me my comb.[2] It is a question which one will put the bells on the other.[3] I must fulfill the proverb, "Whatever the world does, a monk must be it, even if he has to be painted in."[4] More than once a fool has spoken wisely, and wise men often have been arrant (1 Cor 3:18) fools, as Paul says, "If any one will be wise, let him become a fool." Moreover since I am not only a fool, but also a sworn doctor of Holy Scripture, I am glad for the chant to fulfill my doctor's oath in this fool's way.

I pray you, make my excuses to the moderately intelligent, for I know not how to earn the grace and favor of the immoderately intelligent, though I have often sought to do with great pains. Henceforth I neither desire nor regard their favor. God help us to seek not our own glory, but His alone! Amen.

Wittenberg, in the house of the Augustinians,
on the Eve of St. John the Baptist (June 23d),
in the year fifteen hundred and twenty.


To His Most Illustrious and Mighty Imperial Majesty,
and to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation,
Doctor Martin Luther.

Grace and power from God, Most Illustrious Majesty, and most gracious and dear Lords.

It is not out of sheer forwardness or rashness that I, a single, poor man, have undertaken to address your worships. The distress and oppression which weigh down all the Estates of Christendom, especially of Germany, and which move not me alone, but everyone to cry out time and again, and to pray for help,[5] have forced me even now to cry aloud that God may inspire some one with His Spirit to lend this suffering nation a helping hand. Oft times the councils[6] made some presence at reformation, but their attempts have been cleverly hindered by the guile of certain men and things have gone from bad to worse. I now intend, by the help of God, to throw some light upon the wiles and wickedness of these men, to the end that when they are known, they may not henceforth be so hurtful and so great a hindrance. God has given us a noble youth to be our head and thereby has awakened great hopes of good in many hearts;[7] wherefore it is meet that we should do our part and profitably use this time of grace.

In this whole matter the first and most important thing is that we take earnest heed not to enter on it trusting great might or in human reason, even though all power in the world were ours; for God cannot and will not suffer a good work to be begun with trust in our own power or reason. Such works He crushes ruthlessly to earth, as it (Ps. 33:16) is written in the xxiii Psalm, "There is no king saved by the multitude of an host: a mighty man is not delivered by much strength." On this account, I fear, it came to pass of old that the good Emperors Frederick I[8] and II[9] and many other German emperors were shamefully oppressed and trodden under foot by the popes, although all the world feared them. It may be that they relied on own might more than on God, and therefore they had to fall. In our own times, too, what was it that raised the bloodthirsty Julius II[10] to such heights? Nothing else, I fear, except that France, the Germans and Venice relied (Judges 20:21) upon themselves. The children of Benjamin slew 42,000 Israelites[11] because the latter relied on their own strength.

That it may not so fare with us and our noble young Emperor Charles, we must be sure that in this matter are dealing not with men, but with the princes of hell, who can fill the world with war and bloodshed, but whom war and bloodshed do not overcome. We must go at this work despairing of physical force and humbly trusting God; we must seek God's help with earnest prayer, and fix our minds on nothing else than the misery and distress of suffering Christendom, without regard to the deserts of evil men. Otherwise we may start the game with great prospect of success, but when we get well into it the evil spirits will stir up such confusion that the whole world will swim in blood, and yet nothing will come of it. Let us act wisely, therefore, and in the fear of God. The more force we use, the greater our disaster if we do not act humbly and in God's fear. The popes and the Romans have hitherto been able, by the devil's help, to set kings at odds with one another, and they may well be able to do it again, if we proceed by our own might and cunning, without God's help.


[1] Unserm furnchmen nach. See Introduction, p.57.

[2] An ironical comparison of the monks' cowl and tonsure with the headgear of the jester.

[3] i.e., Which one turns out to be the real fool.

[4] The proverb ran, Monachus semper praesens, "a monk is always there." See WANDER, Deutsches Sprichworterlexicon, under Monch, No. 130.

[5] Evidently a reference to the Gravamina of the German Nation; See GEBHARDT, Die Grav. Der Deutschen Nation, Breslau, 1895.

[6] Councils of the Church, especially those of Constance (1414-18), and of Basel (1431-39).

[7] Charles V. was elected Emperor in 1519, when but twenty years of age. Hutten expresses his "hopes of good" from Charles in Vadiscus (BOCKING, IV, 156).

[8] Frederick Barbarossa (1152-1190).

[9] Frederick II (1212-1250), grandson of Barbarossa and last of the great Hobenstaufen Emperors. He died under excommunication.

[10] Pope Julius II (1503-1513). Notorious among the popes for his unscrupulous pursuit of political power, he was continually involved in war with one and another of the European powers over the possession of territories in Italy.

[11] Luther's recollection of the figures was faulty.

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Rev. Robert E. Smith
Walther Library
Concordia Theological Seminary.

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