The Forgotten Luther: Recovering the Social Dimension of the Reformation
By Paul Wee

Remembering the Legacy

Walking along Wittenberg’s Schlossstrasse, the Castle Street, on a late evening in January 2017, a steady snow was descending against the street lamps, creating a sense of nostalgia and even timelessness. You couldn’t help but wonder what it was like to be in this place 500 years ago. This question seemed to ask itself, “Would Martin Luther be happy with had happened to the reform movement that he and his colleagues initiated in 1517?” In this town, one thing is clear: the guardians of the historic Reformation sites and the merchants seem happy enough.

After closing time, the many lighted shop windows display a host of wares designed to recall events that had taken place back in the day when Herr Professor Dr. Luther and his family walked this very street. Along with portraits and Bibles and copper plaques with the 95 theses, there are a variety of “Martin & Katie” statues, replicas of the fish wagon in which, it is claimed, Katie made her escape from the cloister, Luther bobble-heads, “Here I stand” socks as well as an assortment of “Luther ales” that claim to be direct descendants of the popular brews that Katie produced for students and professors.

For several years Wittenberg has been preparing for the arrival of guests from around the world who come to commemorate that October day when the young Augustinian professor nailed his 95 theses for debate on the door of the Castle Church. In addition to the pageantry there will be a tantalizing array of lectures designed to recall Luther’s courageous endeavor to renew the church based on the biblical foundation of justification by grace through faith. There will be exhibits, dramas and debates around issues of past and present. At the core is this question: What might the Reformation of the 16th century mean for church and society today.

The missing dimension of the Reformation legacy

In spite of such an array of opportunities for discovering the contemporary meaning of the Reformation legacy, a significant dimension of the Reformation heritage appears to have been overlooked. During what has come to be known as “the Luther Decade,” the ten-year run-up to the 2017 commemoration, scant attention has been paid –– either in Germany or in the US –– to the manner in which Luther’s teachings led to concrete change in the everyday life of the common people. This is unfortunate since it is precisely this dimension of the Reformation heritage –– its sweeping social and economic reforms –– that might spark interest in and commitment to the church’s ministry today.

With notable exceptions,1 few historians or theologians have devoted their energies to documenting the ways in which the theological insights of the Reformation served to bring about change in the prevailing economy. The question is this: How did the Lutheran movement’s teachings –– on the priesthood of all believers, the two kingdoms, and the primacy of grace with its protest against the sale of indulgences –– serve to bring change to the lives of people who were exploited, not only by the church but by the rising class of economic entrepreneurs?

It is this dimension of Reformation history and theology –– call it the social dimension –– that has been conspicuously absent, not only from 500th anniversary preparations, but from the curricula of Lutheran colleges and seminaries and, consequently, from the preaching and teaching in Lutheran congregations. When Lutheran pastors are confronted with this question, “Are you familiar with Luther’s critique of the market economy and the structural reforms he initiated to address poverty in society?,” the inevitable response is either a blank stare or a possible reference to Luther’s role in the peasant’s revolt. When there is an acknowledgement of the fact that Luther wrote tracts against the practice of usury, lending money at excessive rates of interest, it is invariably depicted as something quite peripheral to Luther’s real passion. Why, it might be asked, has so little been written about Luther’s critique of the early market economy or about the alternative system, based on the Reformers’ initiatives, that the civil authorities put into practice?

One of the few Luther scholars who clearly recognized this deficiency is Carter Lindberg, former professor of church history at the School of Theology and Graduate School of Boston University. He writes, “Some scholars have argued that Luther was a political and social conservative whose two-kingdoms theology promoted subservience to political authorities and an ethical quietism. But if Luther was so conservative, how do we account for his life-long criticism of early capitalism as a systemic injustice, his call for government regulation of business and banking, and his contribution to social welfare legislation? A list of some of his writings shows his engagement with the burning financial and welfare issues of his day. Already in the Ninety-five Theses of 1517 and their “Explanations,” of 1518, Luther emphasized that Christians should support the poor rather than buying indulgences.2

In the following we will take a brief look at a) Luther’s critique of the emerging market economy, and b) Luther’s experiment in economic reform. A few implications for our own day will be suggested.

Luther’s critique of the emerging market economy

When Luther arrived in the city of Wittenberg in 1508, he was immediately struck by the numbers of beggars looking for handouts on the street corners. Some of these beggars, he discovered, were students, others members of the mendicant orders, Franciscans and Dominicans in particular, others simply poor. Luther was convinced that if people were able-bodied, they should work; otherwise they were simply a drain and should be expelled from the community.3 Whether voluntary or involuntary, however, poverty was unacceptable for a follower of Christ. Anyone who reads Holy Scripture would understand immediately that God did not tolerate a situation in which some people had more material possessions than they needed while others went to bed hungry at night.

For Luther there were two main sources for this intolerable situation. The first was the church itself. By demanding that money be paid for holding masses and prayers of intercession for the dead, the church not only furthered a theology of works righteousness; it also drained the people of their economic resources. The sale of indulgences to free one’s relatives from Purgatory contradicted the central biblical message of God’s free grace in Christ. It also contributed to making people poor.
Luther’s protest was primarily against the medieval theology of achievement, the belief that salvation could be acquired through human effort. At its core it called in question the church’s insistence on the performance of works of charity, giving alms to the poor, saying masses, taking pilgrimages and other actions in so far as they are designed to attain God’s favor or reduce time in Purgatory. Luther’s teaching on justification by grace was thus at the heart of his social ethics. Christian actions expressing love for the neighbor, including care for the poor, Luther argued, were not a precondition for but a consequence of faith. Faith, Luther insisted, was itself a free gift of God’s grace.

Yet not only did the church, in its teaching of righteousness through works, contribute to the spiritual and material impoverishment of the people; it sought to obscure the harshness of this reality by romanticizing the state of poverty itself. It claimed that poverty and godliness went hand-in- hand, that to be poor was to claim a status that was pleasing to God. Luther found no biblical justification for the teaching of St. Francis of Assisi in which poverty was seen as a virtue and begging a sign of Christian humility. He accused the professional beggars of being parasites and asked that they be expelled from the community. Luther scholar, Albrecht Steinwachs notes that “Begging was at that time a lucrative business and this tempted many to go into the comfortable life of begging rather than take a normal job.4

St. Francis was not himself a bad person, claimed Luther; he was simply naïve and foolish.5 Furthermore, all who are able should undertake honest work. Work is a sign of dignity. For the Christian, work in the service of the community is the logical extension of the worship of God (Gottes-dienst), what Luther called “the liturgy after the liturgy.” Its value is not to be measured in terms of personal acquisition, but in terms of how it serves the common good.

Yet the worst culprit in the creation of a growing class of poor people was the new market economy and the leaders of business and banking who controlled it. These new entrepreneurs — in particular the Fugger banking house –– developed cartels, wrote the rules of trade, fixed prices, and exacted huge interest on borrowed capital. Luther’s attack on the new class of bankers was not only directed against their personal greed; it was directed against the structures and practices of the new market economy itself. The civil authorities needed to put constraints on the bankers and commercial interest. In Luther’s words, they needed to “put a bit in the mouth of the Fuggers and similar companies,6 In The Large Catechism Luther vents his anger:
“The poor are defrauded every day, and new burdens and higher prices are imposed. They all misuse the market in their own arbitrary, defiant, arrogant way, as if it were their right and privilege to sell their goods as high as they please without criticism.7
It is important to note that this attack on the bankers and moneylenders falls within the explanation to the Seventh Commandment, You are not to steal. Stealing, Luther maintained, was not only a transgression of individuals, but of corporate bodies, institutions of society.

By fixing prices and exacting exorbitantly high interest rates (up to 50%) on borrowed capital, banking institutions were worse than thieves and murderers. In Luther’s words, “Usury lives off the backs of the poor.8
“If we look at the world in all its situations, it is nothing but a big, wide stable full of great thieves. This is why these people are also called armchair bandits and highway robbers. Far from being picklocks and sneak thieves who pilfer the cash box, they sit in their chairs and are known as great lords and honorable, upstanding citizens, while they rob and steal under the cloak of legality.9

It is significant that Luther does not limit his critique of the exploitative economic structures to tracts alone. He places it squarely within the Catechism, which was the main teaching text of the reform movement, widely available to the people.
Furthermore, the new class of economic entrepreneurs was closely linked to the leadership of the church itself. Huge fees were paid for the offices of bishop and archbishop. The indulgence controversy was sparked by Luther’s protest of a deal made between Pope Leo X, Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz and the Fugger banking house.10

Luther’s experiment in economic reform

In the face of growing poverty in Wittenberg, made worse by an economic downturn, a meeting of the town council was called in 1520 to address the situation. From those deliberations, and with the support of Elector Frederick the Wise, there emerged a new city ordinance that became known as “The Order of the Common Purse (Beutelordnung),” later “The Order of the Common Chest (Kastenordnung).” The ordinance outlawed begging and established conditions designed to make begging unnecessary. It required that funds be collected from the citizens based on a family’s resources and ability to contribute. Luther called for a system of income sharing in which every noble, townsman, and peasant living in the parish shall, according to his ability and means, remit in taxes for himself, his wife, and his children a certain sum of money to the chest each year.11

“A local carpenter was commissioned to make a large wooden chest. Like the contemporary practice of requiring more than one signature for check cashing, the chest had three independent locks. There were four stewards of the chest, people deemed to be well acquainted with the needs of the people, one from each of the four quarters of the town. Carter Lindberg writes, “The only criterion for distribution of loans or outright gifts was to be the need of the recipient.12

Luther himself assisted in drafting similar ordinances that established community chests in other towns in Germany where the evangelical faith was taking hold. Following the success of the experiment in Wittenberg, Luther was requested by the civil authorities in the town of Leisnig, south of Wittenberg, to propose guidelines for a similar plan in that town.

The provisions of the Leisnig Common Chest Order of 1523 have been preserved in detail.13 The Order bore the subtitle, “Suggestions for How to Deal with Ecclesiastical Property.” Steinwachs, notes that, “Secular princes, who had long coveted the wealth of the church, were on the verge of confiscating the lands and property of church and monastery.14

Well aware of this, Luther recommended that the authorities act with haste to “devote all remaining property to the common fund of a Common Chest, out of which gifts and loans could be made in Christian love to all the needy of the land.15 The Leisnig Order called for a chest with four locks, the keys for which were maintained by four social institutions, excluding the church. Luther wrote that the Common Chest “shall be provided with four separate and distinct locks, each having its own key, so that the nobility shall have one of the keys, the council another, the town citizenry the third, and the rural peasantry the fourth.16 As the scope of the economic venture increased and new sources of income were realized, the Leisnig Order called for an increase in the number of directors to ten.

“The ten directors shall exercise all diligence in demanding and collecting for the Common Chest all rents, incomes, accounts and obligations, both the recurrent and the occasional, to the fullest possible extent but without oppressing the poor; and in preserving inviolate all such sources of income.17

As in Wittenberg, the Leisnig ordinance outlawed begging, a practice that, as we have seen, had come to be accepted and even prized as pleasing to God. In the Leisnig Ordinance the prohibition was directed primarily at voluntary poverty, especially begging by members of the mendicant orders. Luther proposed that “No monks, of whatever order they may be, shall henceforth have any sort of begging concession within our parish, either in the city or in the villages.18

Since there were so many beggars, the economic impact on the prohibition was considerable. Many ex-beggars in fact became dependent on the Common Chest until they were able to find work. In succeeding years the assets of the Common Chest would expand to include income from the sale of monasteries and convents as well as income from church hospitals and boarding houses. Its functions would also expand to include the provision of food and firewood for hospitals, salaries for school teachers, loans and grants for students, the purchase of corn and other commodities to serve the people in times of need and a more comprehensive system of social security for the elderly. For the first time a doctor was hired to provide free care for the poor.

Luther’s protest against the exploitation of the weakest members of society places him directly in the line of the biblical prophets. Yet he went beyond protest to propose structural reforms that would change the face of Wittenberg and cities throughout Saxony and Germany. In later years, the economic model Luther proposed would have a profound effect on social life throughout Europe.19 Although cut short by the Counter Reformation and the wars of religion, Luther’s reforms would emerge centuries later in the form of movements that sought to ensure that legal guarantees were in place to provide care for the elderly, basic health care and education for the citizenry.20
Implications for today

Charity or justice: the false alternative

Luther’s commitment to systemic justice through the Order of the Common Chest was never seen as an alternative to acts of charity and compassion. He and wife, Katharina, always had something to give when the hungry came to their door. In his Theses, Luther wrote, “Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better deed than he who buys indulgences. (Thesis 43)

When the plague came to Wittenberg and most of their colleagues fled, Martin and Katharina remained behind to take care of the poor and the sick. Luther was continually gathering money to provide aid to widows, orphans and prisoners, as well as to monks and nuns who had left the monasteries and convents. He was said to be such a soft touch that it frequently upset the family budget. The Luthers were convinced that charity belonged to the compassionate lifestyle of the Christian. Yet the divine mandate was that the poor receive justice. This means that Christian people are to urge the civil government to do what it was called by God to do, namely, to enact legislation to ensure the fair distribution of the wealth of the community.

The new ecumenism: addressing the widening gap between rich and poor

On November 24, 2013, the Sunday of Christ the King, Pope Francis delivered his first encyclical, Evangelii Gaudium, at St. Peters in Rome. Clearly troubled by the widening gap between rich and poor in the world, the Pope addressed an issue that has always been challenging for the church, influencing the shape of economic structures:

“The need to resolve the structural causes of poverty cannot be delayed, not only for the pragmatic reason of its urgency for the good order of society, but because society needs to be cured of a sickness which is weakening and frustrating it, and which can only lead to new crises. Welfare projects, which meet certain urgent needs, should be considered merely temporary responses. As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems. Inequality is the root of social ills.”

With this statement –– as well as with much of Evangelii Gaudium –– Martin Luther would find little disagreement. Luther insisted that since in everyone “greed is a disobedient and unbelieving scoundrel,” it is the proper role of the civil authorities to limit the effects of greed by regulating the economy, even if this means instituting constraints on the amassing of personal fortunes. Pope Francis would certainly be in full agreement with that!

The mission of the church to ensure a more equitable sharing of the resources of the planet belongs clearly to all who understand themselves to be part of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. Might not a renewed ecumenical movement build not only on the significant agreements achieved in the area of doctrine, but on its common commitment to address the structural causes of poverty?

Recovering the social dimension of the Reformation

Whatever reasons might be adduced to account for the neglect of the study of Luther’s social and economic reforms, we cannot afford to ignore them today. The very integrity of historical research demands this. Yet more important is the fact that this lost dimension of Reformation history and theology is urgently needed to inform the mission of the church today.

At the 2017 gathering of the World Economic Forum (WEF), Oxfam claims that eight men own the same wealth as the 3.6 billion people who make up the poorest half of humanity.

According to UNICEF, 22,000 children die each day due to poverty. They die quietly in some of the poorest villages on earth, far removed from the scrutiny and the conscience of the world. Being meek and weak in life makes these dying multitudes even more invisible in death.

Fully a third of the global population of three billion is unable to read or write. Income differentials continue to widen for 80 per cent of the world’s population. Even in the United States, the wealthiest country, forty-nine million people (14.5% of the population) struggle each day to find enough food.

The economic reforms instituted in Luther’s day represent a concrete way in which the insights of Reformation theology were translated into the everyday lives of people. Although the specific form this concrete application took in Luther’s day is primarily of historical interest, the principles on which this application were based remain valid today.

In the face of a widening gap between the very wealthy and the masses of poor people today, the relevance of the economic reforms spawned by the Reformation would appear self-evident. One cannot, of course, superimpose Reformation –– or biblical –– models onto any society. Luther was clear that to do so would confuse gospel and law, the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Caesar. In his treatise, Trade and Usury, he wrote that “the world ought not and cannot be ruled according to the gospel and Christian love, but by strict laws and with sword and force, because the world is evil.”

Yet the Christian, based on the gospel’s mandate to love and serve the neighbor, is called to provide counsel and guidance to the civil authorities.

Those who are fortunate to visit Wittenberg in 2017 and beyond might wish to check out the Common Chest in the Luther Museum but also visit the city archives and ask to see the detailed record of income and expenditures from the year 1524. One of the foremost Luther scholars in the world today, Dr. Martin Treu, of the Luther Memorials Foundation of Saxony- Anhalt, might be available to explain the history of the Common Chest as well as the relationship of the economic reforms to the theology of the Reformation.

If the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran movement is to provide an impetus to the renewal of the church today, it will be well advised to review the Order of the Common Chest and ask how the principles on which it was based might motivate a creative response to the intolerable levels of poverty today. In spite of greatly diminished numbers and influence, especially in Europe and North America, the churches of the Reformation will mark the anniversary with thanksgiving. Banners are already flying in the heart of the old city, historic buildings are being renovated and the two iconic churches, St. Mary’s, or the Parish Church, where Luther frequently preached, and All Saints, or the Castle Church, site of the posting of the theses on the eve of All Saints in 1517, are receiving lavish makeovers. On the day itself, October 31, 2017, one can expect that in Wittenberg and in Lutheran communities around the world bells will ring, speeches will be delivered and sermons will proclaim the centrality of God’s free grace for the life of faith.

In Wittenberg and in many communities around the world, one can expect that commemorations will feature a call to re-energize efforts to express the unity of the church. Ecumenical initiatives will not only involve the evangelical churches that owe their beginnings to the Reformation period but –– following the historic signing of the Joint Agreement on Justification by the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation in 1999 –– the Roman Catholic Church as well. This historic visit of Pope Francis to the birthplace of the Lutheran World Federation in the Cathedral of Lund, Sweden on October 31, 2016, was a tangible sign of a significant agreement on the very issue that had brought division in the 16th century.


Foremost among them in the English speaking world is Carter Lindberg. One of his books, Beyond Charity: Reformation Initiatives for the Poor, (Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1993), offers a well-documented study of the social-economic reforms initiated by Martin Luther. See also Samuel Torvend, Luther and the Hungry Poor: Gathered Fragments (Fortress, 2008), Foster R. McCurley, Social Ministry in the Lutheran Tradition (Fortress, 2008),
Lindberg, 120
Luther’s Works, vol. 45, “Ordinance of a Common Chest, Preface”, Helmut T. Lehmann, general editor, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1962, pp. 159-76
LW, vol. 45, p. 196
LW, vol. 2, p, 327; see also vol.22, pp. 50-52 and vol. 44, p. 255
Page 7
LW, vol. 44, p. 213
Martin Luther, “The Large Catechism,” The Book of Concord, ed. Robert Kolb and Timothy Wengert, (Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2000), 418
LW, vol. 51, p. 419
“The Large Catechism”, p. 417
LW, vol. 45, p.288n
LW, vol. 45, p. 192, This provision of the Leisnig Ordinance applied to Wittenberg as well,
Lindberg, p. 120
LW, vol. 45, pp. 158-94
LW, vol. 45, p. 161
LW, vol. 45, p. 172
LW, vol. 45, p. 183
LW, vol. 45, p. 184
LW, vol. 45, p. 185
See Die Entstehung einer Sozialen Ordnung Europas, by Theodor Strohm and Michael Klein, (Heidelberg, 2004)
These included a movement in the 19th century led by Karl Marx. Carter Lindberg writes, “Karl Marx’s admiration of Luther as ‘the first German political economist’ stems not only from Luther’s excoriation of early capitalism, but also from Luther’s sense of the essence of capitalism and its inner drive to buy labor and reproduce itself.” (Beyond Charity, p. 114)
LW, vol. 31, p. 29, Thesis 43
Pope Francis,
LW vol. 45, p. 170
LW, vol. 45, p. 264
Material in this article first appeared in Lutheran Forum in the spring of 2014.