Surprise! The Greatest German Hymnist of the Post-Reformation Era Was a Wend.

This article by David Zersen and Eric Mellenbruch first appeared in Serbska Protyka in the Fall 2017.

Click on the following link to see more pictures of Jan Krygar.

The Life and Ministry of Jan Krygar

The most prolific Lutheran composer of chorale tunes following Martin Luther’s Reformation is generally remembered as the German, Johann Crüger. He was, however, baptized on April 9, 1598, as Jan Krygar, in Gross Breesen, a Sorbian village in the Niederlausitz. His father, Georg, ran a prosperous tavern in this small village north of Guben. Difficult as were the times for many who suffered from diseases, burned homes, highway robbery, and the impact of wars, young Jan was able to complete without much trouble his basic education in the Gross Breesen village school and in the Latin school in Guben.  At the age of fifteen, in 1613, he began the typical life of a European wandering student, studying in Sorau, Breslau, Olmütz in Moravia, and, finally, Regensburg, seven-hundred kilometers from home. In Regensburg he began his musical education, studying for a year under Cantor Paulus Homburger, a pupil of Giovanni Gabrieli in Venice, and then continued his peripatetics through Hungary, Moravia, Austria and Saxony. His exposure to various Christian approaches to theology and worship gave a tolerance to his views that helped him in later positions.  At seventeen, he became a tutor for the children of Captain Blumenthal in Berlin, and in the same year he entered the Grayfriars Gymnasium in Berlin to study the foundations necessary for subsequent work in theology. In 1620 he began his studies at the university in Wittenberg, where Luther’s grandson taught and his great-grandson studied. He continued to study music privately while at Wittenberg.

In 1622 he left Wittenberg before graduating and accepted a call to Berlin where he would serve in two capacities, as cantor of St. Nicholas Church, the oldest church in Berlin, and as Music Director of the Grayfriars Gymnasium.  Krygaŕ was twenty-four and would remain in these two positions for 40 years until his death in 1663.

Krygar was responsible for daily worship services at the Gymnasium and for teaching the boys to read and to sing music. He also taught music theory and arithmetic. The position of cantor at St. Nicholas required playing the organ for Sunday worship, as well as for funerals, weddings, baptisms and school events. Krygar experienced numerous personal tragedies during these years. His mother who had been living with his family died in 1632, his wife, Maria Beling, the daughter of the Mayor of Bern, Switzerland, whom he had married in 1628, died in 1636, and ultimately their five children also died. Additionally, both the impact on the economy of the Thirty Year War and of failed crops plus the strife created in Berlin by religious differences among Christians would have depressed anyone. Given Krygar’s very meager salary there was little cause to be positive. Since 1630 he had not written any new tunes, nor had he published anything.

However, somehow, within months after the death of his wife, he met and married Elizabeth Schmidt, a woman half his age at only seventeen years. She was a woman filled with a joi de vivre, a gifted singer, with a positive spirit. Together they had fourteen children. Three years after this marriage, his most creative period began. He collected hymns and began to compose his own. In 1643, he met Paul Gerhard who became his friend and colleague. Later, Gerhard assumed the role of Assistant Pastor at St. Nicholas Church in 1657 and worked there with Krygar until the latter’s death in 1666.

Jan Krygar died on February 23, 1662 and was buried where he had served for forty years, in St. Nicholas Lutheran Church in Berlin. Nothing is known of his wife or his children, or, specifically, whether any of them became musicians after him. For 23 years, the great Wendish tune-smith worked with Paul Gerhard, Krygar setting tunes to Gerhard’s texts. Together they created during this golden era some of the most beloved and enduring hymnody the Christian church has ever known. ‘

The Music of Jan Krygar

Krygar’s musical activities were directly related to his two official positions in Berlin. For the Gymnasium he wrote three substantial educational works: Praecepta musicae figuralis (1625), Synopsis musica (1630, 1634), and Quaestiones musicae practicae (1650). He also, especially in the years 1619–1626 and 1645–1651, wrote motets and other choral works, including sets of both German and Latin Magnificats, which might have been sung either in church or in daily school chapel services. 

 

Today, however, he is chiefly remembered for his work in another field: Krygar was the most important composer, adapter, and editor of Lutheran hymn-tunes in the seventeenth century. At least seventy tunes are ascribed to him, a number of which are still sung today (Spěwarske za Ewangelskich Serbow contains eleven). And of the several hymnals he compiled and edited, Praxis Pietatis Melica went through no fewer than forty-five editions between 1644 and 1737. 

Part of the enduring popularity of his tunes is due to his association with great hymn-writers such as Paul Gerhardt and Johann Franck, for many of whose texts he wrote music. But Krygar’s work has features of its own that have kept his music a part, not only of Lutheran, but also of other church cultures.

Part of his genius was in fact to draw upon various sixteenth-century Reformation traditions of congregational music – Lutheran, Calvinist, and Bohemian Brethren – as well as the work of earlier seventeenth-century hymn-writers and editors such as Schein, Gesius, and Vulpius. His own tunes were largely a matter of evolution rather than revolution from these traditions and were embedded in hymnals containing much earlier material, so much so that it can be difficult to distinguish absolutely between adaptation and composition in the works attributed to him. Today it is also sometimes easy to forget his debt to earlier material since some of his most enduringly popular melodies show some more modern characteristics.

Very many of his melodies, however, do show the influence of sixteenth-century repertories, perhaps most of all the Genevan Psalm-tunes which were so prevalent in the Berlin of his day and which form a central part of the Psalmodia Sacra (1658) he published at the behest of the Reformed Brandenburg court. He used two simple note values (long and short) almost exclusively, with few more intricate rhythms, and most of his tunes have few large skips. His melodies often show some flexibility or ambiguity between duple and triple meter and make use of some gentle syncopations. Generally, however, they have an easy flow and an underlying sense of metrical regularity. All of these characteristics ally his melodies closely with those of the Genevan Psalter, more so than with the sometimes more angular early Lutheran tunes.

On the other hand, Krygar was working with German-language verse, and he continued to use the bar-form (AAB) phrase-structure so common in German vernacular song. He also wrote some melodies clearly in triple meter with dotted rhythms, and in collections such as the Geistliche Kirchen-Melodien (1649), he was by no means afraid to introduce much more lively and varied rhythms in the accompanying parts written for violins or cornetti.

These simple examples of Italianate concerted music remind that Krygar, despite his debt to the past, was very much a musician of his time, and his hymn-tunes themselves (as did his theoretical textbooks) also show evidence of the changes in music that were taking place. The tunes begin more strongly to emphasize certain tones (especially the first, fourth, and fifth notes of the scale) and to outline triads (chords), and thus to imply particular underlying harmonies. Nor was it necessary to imagine such an accompaniment: his hymnals were printed not only with tunes but also with bass lines and symbols (figures) indicating harmonies. Some of his collections, such as the aforementioned Geistliche Kirchen-Melodien, also had four vocal parts written out, with the melody in the highest voice as was the newer fashion (the so-called Kantional style) rather than in the tenor. And although many of Krygar’s tunes conform to one of the minor modes, a major-mode feel becomes more common in his work. 

In all, this blend of old and new makes Krygar’s tunes simple, attractive, and satisfying to sing. Their linearity and simple rhythms make them easy, their combination of grace and sturdiness make them appealing, and their harmonic underpinning gives them a sense of direction and completion. Some of these characteristics were absent from earlier tunes, while others were exaggerated in the work of later composers. This moderation between extremes has guaranteed the continued use and enjoyment of Krygar’s tunes alongside the words of the hymnists of his age.

Among the best remembered tunes with texts written by others are: Jesus Meine Zuversicht, Schmücke Dich, Wie Soll Ich Dich Emfangen, Nun Danket, Auf ,Auf Mein Herz, Frölich Soll Mein Herze Springen, Jesus Meine Freude, and many others. At least eight of his chorales were used in J.S. Bach’s vocal works.

Although the Sorb, Jan Krygar, is the greatest Lutheran hymnist of the 17th Century, he has more typically been known in the Christian world as the German Johann Crüger. Those who belong to his proper ethnic tradition, however, will appreciate it being acknowledged that he was, after all, a Sorb. Historians, musicians and students of culture may also enjoy, 355 years after his death, finally being corrected.

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Did Luther Really Say? Contexts for Luther’s Comments on the Wends

This article by David Zersen first appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of Concordia Historical Institute Quarterly. It is printed here by permission of the author.

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People checking the back pages of denominational publications or church newspapers this year may find numerous invitations to join a study/travel-group to Luther-land. They are being encouraged to explore the world in which 500 years ago Martin Luther issued his “Ninety-Five Theses about Indulgences,” allegedly nailing them to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Additionally, many journal articles and books being published in 2017 are rich with interesting or controversial approaches that explore themes related to the Quincentenary.[i] This article can be seen as supporting that trend.

Among Luther studies that continue to seek a following this year are those addressing his later views on the Jews[ii] or aspects of his personality that had a seismic effect on the world.[iii]  Such studies draw interest largely because their impact was first explored within the context of some much later event. Johannes Wallmann, for example, argues that Luther’s so-called antisemitism of the 1540s never drew significant interest until Hitler’s henchmen used it in their inhuman propaganda of the 1940s.[iv] Likewise, Luther’s complex personality never received much professional attention until in 1958 it was explored by Erik Erikson, a Danish psychoanalyst[v] and, subsequently, in 1961, popularized in a Broadway play.[vi] Other critical studies of Luther all-too-often find fault because a writer may not take seriously the historical, literary, or religious contexts in which Luther’s remarks were first made.[vii] This article seeks to address that shortcoming.

Criticisms made of Luther’s invectives

Some examples of old and continuing criticisms of Luther’s language will be shared first, not because they are the main subject of this article, but because they imply that his invectives against individuals or groups were intended quite personally rather than participating in speech patterns known in his context. Additionally, Luther’s condescending views of diverse ethnic and cultural groups are often regarded from a modern perspective as racist prejudices rather than as off-the-cuff comments known among people in his area. These introductory comments will now provide perspective as this article begins to look more specifically at Luther’s use of language, especially as he seems to excoriate the Wends, also known as Sorbs.[viii]

Many have criticized Luther’s language saying that at times he writes as one who is “bull-headed, course-tongued, and intemperate.”[ix] For example, he felt justified in demanding that the pope and the riffraff that surrounded him should have their tongues torn out and be nailed to the gallows. He dismissed scriptural interpretations by the Jews as so much “piss and sh–.” As he grew older, he became so disillusioned about the Gospel’s rejection by the Jews and the Roman hierarchy that he believed they were in league with Satan and even unrefined language could be used appropriately to attack them. He likewise considered his headaches, insomnia, and temptation (Anfechtung) to be plagues of the Devil that justified all the barbs that language could fashion. “I am fed up with the world, and it is fed up with me,” he wrote to his wife, Katie. “I am like a ripe stool, and the world is like a giant anus, and so we’re about to let go of each other.” Although the many intellectually challenging monographs and lovely meditations found in Luther’s voluminous writings far outnumber these examples of Bierstube banter, many have been troubled by such uncouth vocabulary. Luther justified his words, however, by saying, that his enemies “assail me so atrociously… that they carried me [in my use of language] beyond the bounds of moderation.”[x]

In addition to being appalled by Luther’s unrefined use of language, others have been troubled by the condescension he seems to show with respect to people outside of his circle of family and colleagues. In addition to the castigating remarks made about the Jews and the Roman hierarchy referred to above, Luther often employed offensive words against debating partners, colleagues with whom he disagreed, the Turks, the Muslims, provinces in Germany outside Thuringia and Saxony, the Saxons themselves, the Wends, the citizens of Wittenberg, the members of his parish, and others.[xi] In reflection, later in life Luther wrote, “I have often tried to serve the world with outward dignity and holy seriousness. But God has not allowed it![xii]

As appreciation for  individualism asserted itself in Germany’s Renaissance (Fifteenth-Sixteenth centuries), and the languages of various countries gradually came to replace Latin as the language of scholars, curiosity about uniqueness sometimes vented itself in negative forms. Luther did have an inquisitive mind, and surely was fascinated at times by what he heard about the world outside Saxony. He had visited only Switzerland and Italy. What he knew of others was often hearsay and conjecture. He ruminated on the rumors in his free-wheeling comments during the dinner hour. Students and guests who lived at the former Black Cloister, remembered in disparate ways these reflections now published in the Table Talk volume of Luther’s Works (LW). One can’t miss the abusive nature of many of his judgements.[xiii] He notes that the “Bohemians gobble their food, the Wends steal, and the Germans get drunk.”[xiv] Luther’s negative views of Saxon Wittenberg at times echoed the remarks of contemporaries. Some of his friends wondered why a university should have been established in such a remote place and why God should choose it to be the starting point for the dissemination of His Word. It was, wrote Dr. Mellerstadt, as if [we live] in a slaughter yard where people survive without culture, civilization or discipline.[xv] Luther perhaps built on such biases that we today find surprising. Given the aura of distinction that Wittenberg has achieved in the last 500 years, it is difficult to imagine the disillusionment he shared with his wife, Katie when,  in 1545, he wrote that he wanted to leave this worthless little backwater in Saxony where only drunken, boorish and hypocritically pious people live.[xvi] Down through the years, especially since the publication of the Table Talk, many have been shocked to learn that Luther was rough-on-the-edges, and some of his critics have used these examples to assert that Luther was not a fit spiritual leader, perhaps even bordering on insanity.[xvii]

Revisiting the cultural contexts of Luther’s remarks about the Wends

These critical concerns raised by people troubled with Luther’s occasional coarseness provide helpful background for the real purpose of this article, an exploration of the context within which Martin Luther seems to have excoriated the Wends, Slavs who had a visible yet declining impact in Wittenberg and its environs. While useful for any student of Luther’s language and perspectives, this article also has special meaning in English-speaking countries like the United States and Australia, the two largest countries to which Wendish emigration extended itself in the mid-nineteenth century. Scattered groups of Wends settled in Nebraska and Iowa, but the largest immigration of 764 people established a colony in Lee County, Texas, in 1854. The Australian settlements took place over a ten-year period in Southern Australia beginning in 1848.[xviii] These nineteenth century immigrants in both countries knew themselves as Lutheran Wends and many thousands of their descendants are still proud of their heritage and continue to use this ethno-religious designation. They have a special reason for wanting to know why Luther, their 16th century spiritual mentor, had such negative things to say about them.

            Did Luther really say that Wends laugh at the Word of God after the church service, are as dumb and foolish as cattle, and have no humor and vitality? Did he really say that they steal, are unfaithful and starve out the Wittenberg citizenry?[xix] Did he say that, in short, they are the worst and most evil of people?[xx] Scholars have accepted the challenge to understand why Luther might have said such things and under what circumstances. Two studies by Wendish scholars in 1936 and 1962 drew a number of conclusions about the reasons for Luther’s remarks. These studies were later challenged in a 1983 article in the European academic journal, Letopis.[xxi] In this article, never translated into English, “Die Beziehung Martin Luthers zu den Sorben” (The Relationship of Martin Luther to the Sorbs), Jan Malink asserts that because the two studies were based on questionable sources they should be reviewed. The implication of his own review is important for Luther studies because it demonstrates why Luther’s abusive words about the Wends need to be understood within their original context.

            As an aside, it should be noted that Luther’s main negative references to the Wends are found in the Tischreden,[xxii] but the American Edition of Luther’s Works (LW) has published only one-tenth of the commentary attributed to Luther in the German edition.  Therefore, Luther’s comments about the Wends in this article, including those in the first paragraph of this section, are translations made by the author either from the Weimarer Ausgabe (WA) or from the Malink German article. [xxiii]

In seeking to understand the original context for Luther’s remarks on the Wends, it is worth noting that until 1508 at the age of 24, he would have had little or no contact with Wends.  Before he received the opportunity to teach in Wittenberg, an area that had some history with the Wends, he had lived in Eisleben, Mansfeld, Magdeburg, Eisenach and Erfurt, all outside the Wendish territory. Wittenberg itself, when first appearing in history in 1180, was well-within the Wendish territory. Germanization in the Wittenberg area was strengthened when after 1293 it became a town and the residence of the Dukes and, subsequently, the Electors of Saxony.[xxiv] Writers who have ignored the chronological, geographical and cultural context have all too often implied that Luther’s language about the Wends was a reaction to their oppressive strength in Wittenberg. At his time, however, this was probably not likely.

 Malink explores this assumption when he questions the Mětšk and Wićaz explanations for Luther’s views of the Wends.  They believed that his personal interaction with Wends in Wittenberg, once a Wendish stronghold, led to his views. Malink specifically questions their overestimating the number of Wends in Wittenberg at Luther’s time.[xxv] The implication of this for Luther’s personal views of Wends is important. Mětšk and Wićaz place strong emphasis on a Ratzeberger version of the Table Talk in which Luther is supposed to have said to Martin Bucer, a reformer in southern Germany, “the largest numbers of people in my Wittenberg parish are poor laymen and Wends.” However, other more reliable versions of the 1540 conversation do not place Wends in his parish: “Dear God, in [my] church come girls under 16, women and old men, who don’t understand lofty words.” [xxvi]

            Malink pursues this matter diligently by giving four reasons for questioning the Ratzeberger version used by Mětšk and Wićaz:

  1. Since the twelfth century, there were significant groups from the West settling north-east of Wittenberg contributing to a Germanizing effect in the surrounding area, reducing the strength of the original Wendish presence.
  2. The sixteenth and seventeenth century documents about the visitations that took place in the Wittenberg judicatory provide no references to Wendish issues.
  3. A Saxon church officer, H. W. Kirchhof, writing in 1526, says that east of Torgau (30 miles from Wittenberg), near the forest, some farmers still seek to be and to speak Wendish (implying that they lived at a distance from Wittenberg).
  4. Luther never mentions anywhere in his writings that he did any pastoral counseling with a Wendish-speaking person.[xxvii]

In general, then, Malink believes that the 1936 and 1963 studies paid too much attention to misleading information in questionable sources and are not a reliable witness to Luther’s contact with Wends, either in Wittenberg generally, or in his parish, St. Mary’s. The implication, then, is that Luther’s comments about the Wends pass on long-standing, traditional hearsay common in the greater Wittenberg area, and are not personal vindictive views of Luther.

            Secondly, Malink believes that although large numbers of Wends are known to have studied to be Lutheran pastors at the Leukorea,[xxviii] there is little written evidence that Luther had personal relationships with many of them. An exception he gives is Johannes Briessman (1520-1523), who became responsible for the spread of the Reformation in Latvia. Malink concludes that the paucity of references in Luther’s writings to Wendish students has to imply that the Germanization of the areas from which students around Wittenberg came was already quite thorough.[xxix] Based on what is available in Luther’s own writings, this may be a valid conclusion. However, there is additional information that should be considered in order to form a broader assessment of the original context.

In the first place, numbers are important in this discussion. The population of Wittenberg when Luther arrived in 1512 was around 3000[xxx] and the student enrollment by then was about 1000. Roughly one-third of the community was populated by students. By contrast, Erfurt, the city from which Luther had come, had 18,000 residents in 1512, and was among the largest cities in the Holy Roman Empire.[xxxi] Wittenberg may have seemed like a backwater to Luther, but it is hard to believe that with the growing numbers of students, he encountered very few Wends in his classes. Gerald Stone addresses this issue in his new work, Slav Outposts in Central European History.[xxxii] With the early insistence on the vernacular in the Reformation, Wendish parishes wanting to move in the new reformed direction found themselves without clergy. The new university in Wittenberg, Stone writes, proceeded to supply them.[xxxiii] Some of them were ordained by Luther himself, as well as by Johannes Bugenhagen and Paul Eber, who kept explicit notes about the ordinands.[xxxiv] Interestingly, some of them, whom Luther himself ordained, were not graduates of Wittenberg or of any university, but because of the desperate need, they merely came to be tested and ordained. They came from many backgrounds, including those of sexton, schoolmaster, verger, cloth-maker, barrel-maker, rope-maker, window-maker, furrier, bookbinder and printer. Some were previously Roman Catholic priests. These included Wends like Paul Bossack, Johann Axt, Bartel Span, Nicolaus Poster and Gregorius Kirst. The notes kept by those ordaining the candidates often showed that the ordinand was going out to preach the Gospel in Wendish.[xxxv] The need to have pastors who could serve in the Wendish language for parishes in the process of reformation is made clear from this decree issued by the Upper Lusatian Estates in 1538:

Particularly since in the country and in the towns hitherto we have had to suffer a great shortage of pastors and clergymen on account of the Wendish language, every serf shall be diligently admonished by his masters, and from the pulpit too, so that if anyone has a friend or sons who are proficient in school-work and quick to learn, then he or they should with the utmost diligence be kept at school and not be suffered to lack any possible financial support and promotion. [xxxvi]

Records in Wittenberg show that by 1545 Wendish ordinands were being dispatched to numerous parishes.[xxxvii] While Saxony was at the forefront of the Reformation, the Lusatias[xxxviii] were close behind.[xxxix] Clearly, therefore, while Malink’s point may be correct that Wittenberg itself was no longer in Luther’s day a Wendish stronghold, the University had an important role in serving the needs of far-flung Wendish parishes, whether in towns or in the countryside. The fact that Luther made little mention of these potential ordinands may prove, not that he had no contact with them, but that his contact was self-understood and supportive. If that is the case– that in terms of personal relationships Luther may have had a positive view of the Wends–  and then his coarse remarks about them can’t be explained by saying that it is easy to be negative about people you don’t really know.

Scholars have posed several reasons for Luther’s negative comments about the Wends. Some have felt that because of his German self-consciousness, he simply condescended to Slavs in general and that he showed a tendency toward what today might be regarded as racism. While it should be granted that in certain humanistic circles of the Enlightenment there was a tendency toward German nationalism, Malink points out that Luther could also be as hard on the Germans (“a wild, raw, savage people”) as on others. Luther’s comments are better understand, not nationalistically, but both theologically, Malink believes, and in terms of the cultural context of the times.[xl] On the one hand, Luther never spoke negatively about the Wends in sermons, in his letters or in his published works.[xli] Further, his off-the-cuff remarks at the dinner table were ignored for 400 years until the notes and diaries now known as the Table Talk were finally published in 1929 as a part of the WA. Therefore, and importantly, these poignantly-passed lampoons never strengthened negative attitudes towards Wends among local people, German nationalists, or, for that matter, the sixteenth century theologians in Lutheran Orthodoxy. The comments were “dead-in-the-water” in the years following Luther. Although Luther’s reflections about other people may have been more unrefined than those of his contemporaries, in the free-wheeling conversations around the table, and particularly after a couple beers, things were said by Luther that had their counterparts in the vocabulary of his dining companions. His language did not represent condescension, prejudice or racism so much as it employed a hastily concocted and volatile street-talk put together with humor and slang rather than intellectual formulation. Malink himself believes that since words like Bauer (farmer) and Wend were often exchanged colloquially as terms for country people, Luther’s use of Wend may have simply implied a disdain for the boorishness of the uneducated, whatever their ethnic identity.[xlii]

            At a more theological level, Luther seems to have created a Doppelgänger system in which the common people surrounding Jerusalem were akin to the unsophisticated and reactionary types in the Wittenberg area. Acknowledging that Luther did not regard Wittenberg highly, as previously mentioned, one might understand this reference. He felt that the Jews around Jerusalem who were the worst of all people (see Ezekiel 7:24; Mt. 23:27-39), had as their counterpart the Wends around Wittenberg. Just as God chose to fight the Devil and dwell among the lowliest-of–the-low in the Jerusalem area, so also he chose to reveal the Gospel anew and fight the Devil among the rude and rough people in the environs around Wittenberg. Luther was using a medieval literary structure employing symbolic analogies to make his point. The revelation of God to the sinful people in Jerusalem was the prototype for another theological necessitas, this one being in Wittenberg.[xliii]  As previously stated, given the likelihood that famer and Wend had a common meaning for Luther and his contemporaries, this quote from Luther might not be too surprising: “If there had been a people more in need of repentance than the Wends, then the Gospel would have come to them first.”[xliv]

Accepting contexts as better witnesses than words

            That Luther’s words were often coarse and unkind to individuals and ethnic groups has to be taken for granted. However, the original contexts for these words are important and need to be emphasized. Luther lived in an area that was once dominated by rural Slavs who had never explored the values of sophisticated machinery, literary composition or economic philosophy. They had no written language and many could not communicate in German.[xlv] They were largely poverty-stricken.[xlvi]As the Wittenberg area was Germanized, the Wends remained in remote villages in the countryside. Their contact with Wittenberg was largely as farmers who brought meat and produce to the market. Nevertheless, as Luther’s reformation spread, emphasizing the Gospel message, the translation of the Catechism and the Scriptures, and a subsequent written literature, Wends came to see the importance of training pastors and teachers to serve their parishes and schools.[xlvii] That Luther supported this trend is clear, even if all the details of his participation are not known. His comments recorded in the Table Talk are surely part of Luther’s rough and abusive style, but his encouragement for individual Wends in whose ordination he participated provides a counter-balance and context for the coarse and seemingly condescending language for which he was known.[xlviii] Further, Luther would surely want to be understood as a theologian, more than as a linguist or cultural commentator. He knew himself to be fighting, not against ethnic minorities and cultural sub-classes, but against principalities and powers, against Satan and all his minions. For such warfare, he needed the big guns, not only Scripture itself and the power of logical argument. Heiko Oberman summarizes, “In the total historical context… Luther’s scatology-permeated language has to be taken seriously as an expression of the painful battle fought body and soul against the Adversary, who threatens both flesh and spirt.”[xlix] He believes that modern analysts rob Luther’s abusive language of its significance if it is simply written off as bad breeding.[l] Likewise, suggesting that Luther’s negative comments about the Wends imply racism inserts a modern context into a Sixteenth Century one. As an intellectual who championed education and an interpretation of the Gospel that required linguistic and historical insight, he can be forgiven for challenging rural people without a written language who had not yet discovered Grace’s redeeming potential. Two-fistedly, he occasionally snatched-to-hand street-talk and ethnic slurs to make his points. It was a matter of urgency. Luther was not going to give the Devil his due. The Kingdom was at stake.

Endnotes:

[i] Biographies like James Kittelson’s (revised) Luther the Reformer and Martin Marty’s new October 31, 1517 set the stage. Specialty works like Robin Leaver’s The Whole Church Sings and Thomas McPherson’s Prayers of the Reformers (collections of prayers by numerous reformers) place new characters on the stage. Wittenberg Meets the World by Albert Garcia and John Nunes recasts the Reformation themes in the perspectives of black, Hispanic and other writers. Martin Luther and the Enduring Word of God by Robert Kolb examines the schools of biblical interpretation that Luther inspired and offers a cameo appearance by Luther himself. Here I Walk is lovely pilgrimage into Luther’s world by Andrew Wilson and his wife, Sarah Hinlicky Wilson (Lutheran Forum editor), who walked 1000 miles in seventy days from Erfurt to Rome. (All were published in either 2016 or 2017.)

[ii] Neelak Tjernagel, Martin Luther and the Jewish People (Milwaukee: Northwestern, 2016).

[iii] Lyndal Roper, Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet (New York: Random House,  2017).

[iv] Johannes Wallmann, “The Reception of Luther’s Writings on the Jews from the Reformation to the End of the 19th

Century,” Lutheran Quarterly 3 (1987): 48-60.

[v] Erik Ericson, Young Man Luther (New York: W.W. Horton, 1958).

[vi] John Osborne, Luther (London: Faber and Faber, 1961).

[vii] David Armstrong, Martin Luther: Catholic Critical Analysis and Praise (2011); Patrick O’Hare, Facts about Luther.

(1994).

[viii] The different usages of Wend and Sorb could introduce a long and complicated discussion not necessary for this article. A large territory between Hannover and Danzig was once populated by various Slav ethnic groups typically described by the majority contemporary historians with the German word Wende. Some, however, used a Slav word based on the term that the Wends (English word) used to refer to themselves, namely Serb. Latin and German words based on this term included Sorbe (Sorb in English). In 1947, this word came into common use in Upper Lusatia for German writers, as well as for scholarly writing in English. After 1990, many Lower Sorbs claimed that the German Sorbe had been imposed on them by the Communists and the Upper Sorbs. In Martin Luther’s own references, the German word Wende (English Wend) is always used, although, as Jan Malink points out, with three different meanings. (“Die Beziehung Martin Luthers zu den Sorben,” Letopis (30, 1983): 54-55). The fact that Malink’s article’s title used the term “Sorb”, however, reflects European scholarly usage in 1983 and subsequently. Further, those leaving Lusatia beginning in 1848 for Australia and in 1854 for the United States, knew themselves to be Wends and refer to themselves with that term even today. Because of the English-speaking audiences in the United States and Australia largely intended for this article, and to avoid constantly translating Luther’s own use of the word, “Wend” will continue to be used for the rest of this article. (cf. Gerald Stone, Slav Outposts in Central European History (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2016), Index, Wendish sense of the word, 2, 56, 77, etc.)

[ix] Erik Gritsch, “The Unrefined Reformer,” Christian History 12, 3 (1993): 35. 

[x]Gritsch, 35.  Each of the Luther comments in this paragraph are quoted by Gritch.

[xi] “The people in Meissen are proud and arrogant in their claim to wisdom which they don’t possess. The Thuringians are neglectful of their duty and greedy. The Bohemians outdo all others in haughtiness The Bavarians are stupid and lacking in talent, which accounts for the fact that they are more upright. The Franconians and Swabians are simple, honorable and obliging. The Swiss are the most distinguished of the Germans, courageous and candid. The Wends are thieves and a very bad sort of people. The Dutch or Batavians are real buffoons. The Rhinelanders are crafty adventurers who are intent on their own advantage.” LW, 54, 1540, #5081, 386. See also Heiko Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil (New Haven: Yale, 1989), 299.

[xii] Oberman, 321.

[xiii] Aaron J. Gurjewitsch, Das Weltbild des mittelalterlichen Menschen (Dresden: Verlag der Kunst, 1978), 86.

[xiv] Jan Malink, “Die Beziehung Martin Luthers  zu den Sorben,” Letopis 30 (1983): 60.

[xv] Malink, 61.

[xvi] Malink, 43.

[xvii] Heribert Smolinski, “Luther’s Roman Catholic Critics,” The Oxford Handbook of Martin Luther’s Theology, ed. Robert Kolb et.al. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016); John A. O’Brien, Martin Luther (New York City: Paulist Press, 1953), 24: (“… only God knows the extent of the influence upon his thought and conduct of the psychic scars and emotional disorders, with their recurrent moods of melancholy and despair that drove him to the very borders of insanity.”

[xviii] Trudla Malinkowa, Shores of Hope: Wends Go Overseas (Austin: Concordia, 2009), 8-27, 113-144…

[xix] They starve out the Wittenberg citizenry because they provide much of the produce needed to be sold in the markets, and if their fruits and vegetables are not available, people would go hungry.

[xx] Gritsch, 35.

[xxi] Frido Mětšk, in “Die Sorben und die Universiät Wittenberg” in Wiener slavistisches Jahrbuch, Bd. 9 (1962), 32-62 wrote that Luther’s tie with the nobility led him to take a pro-German stance that condescended to the Slavic Wends. Ota Wićaz  in a 1936 lecture to the Mácica Serbska (later published in 1967 by Mětšk) claimed that the Wends surrounding Wittenberg were all farmers and Luther had a negative view of farmers.

[xxii] Volume 54 of the American Edition of Luther’s Works.

[xxiii] Initially, some clarification regarding the use of sources needs to precede an initial review of Luther’s words. Not all of the references cited by Malink can be found in the American Edition of Luther’s Works and Malink uses the German/Latin Weimarer Ausgabe (WA) in his research. Most of Luther’s references to the Wends are found in the six volumes of the( WA )Tischreden (Table Talk) yet, the American Edition has published only one volume of Luther’s total comments, representing only one-tenth of the passages from the Tischreden published in the (WA). Therefore, the references from the Table Talk in this article will often be this author’s English translations of Luther’s remarks about the Wends found otherwise only in the (WA).

[xxiv] Gerald Stone, Slav Outposts in Central European History: The Wends, Sorbs, and Kashubs (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), 83.

[xxv] Malink, 55.

[xxvi] WA, TR, 4, 635, #5047.

[xxvii] Malink, 62.

[xxviii] Leucorea, meaning “white hill” in Greek, is the original name of the university in Wittenberg.  After the University of Halle merged in 1817 with what remained of Wittenberg’s university, the name Leucorea continues to be used for the Martin Luther Halle-Wittenberg University programming/conferencing that takes place in Wittenberg.

[xxix] Malink, 58.

[xxx]http://www.luther.de/en/uniwes.html. Wittenberg had a population of 4000 by the time Luther died, and the student enrollment was close to 3000. 

[xxxi] “Demographics,” Erfurt, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erfurt. Last modified Mar 7, 2017.

[xxxii] Gerald Stone, Slav Outposts in Central European History: The Wends, Sorbs and Kashubs (Bloomsburg: London, 2016), 82-87.

[xxxiii] Stone 84.

[xxxiv] Stone 85.

[xxxv] Stone 85.

[xxxvi] Stone 84 from Knauthe 1767, 235 and Kurzer Entwurf 1767, 9-10.

[xxxvii] Charles Wukasch, A Rock Against Alien Waves: A History of the Wends (Austin: Concordia, 2008), 16. During the Reformation, some forty Wends were ordained in Wittenberg.

[xxxviii] The Wendish territory, Lusatia, lying roughly between Berlin and Dresden, was divided into Upper and Lower Lusatia, each area speaking related, but different Wendish languages. Upper Lusatia ultimately became largely Roman Catholic, while Lower Lusatia became Lutheran.

[xxxix] Stone 87. Lusatia (Lausitz in German) is the historic homeland of the Wends, divided into upper and lower regions. They bordered on various countries like Poland and Saxony, but in 1871, the entire homeland became a part of Germany.

[xl] Malink 59.

[xli] Malink 62.

[xlii] Malink 61.

[xliii] WA, 43, 285.

[xliv] Malink 62.

[xlv] Stone, 97.

[xlvi] Stone, 83.

[xlvii] Stone, 87.

[xlviii] Individual contacts with Wends are worth mentioning here. Philip Melanchton’s son-in-law, Caspar Peucer, was a Wendish student in Wittenberg who in 1543 took up lodging with the Melanchthons, just a couple doors down from the Luther home. Luther died three years later, so he may have known Peucer who married Magdalena Melanchton and became the Dean and Rector of Wittenberg University. A Wend also served for years as Luther’s Assistant (Wukasch, 16).

[xlix] Oberman, 109.

[l] Oberman, 109. 

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Austin’s Luther Statue Talks to Students – by Dr David Zersen

This article by David Zersen was originally published in Pomhaj Bóh, the Wendish language church newspaper in Lusatia.

Statues of and memorials to Martin Luther are well-known in Germany and in the United States, but none of them were erected before the mid-nineteenth century. The first statue of Luther was erected in Wittenberg in 1821, but the most famous one, designed by Ernest Rietschel, was the centerpiece of the memorial to the Reformers, erected in 1868 in Worms. Rietschel had died in 1861, but had already laid out the design for the memorial complex that would be finished by his three students, Donndorf, Kietz and Schilling. By 1884, a replica of this statue would be erected in Washington D.C. and in the years that followed, another ten replicas would be constructed throughout the United States. Typically, these statues were placed on the campuses of Lutheran universities and seminaries. Even more significantly, however, the heroic impression lent by the 14-foot tall Luther in Rietchel’s design, made a mid-nineteenth century statement with which Concordia University Texas did not want to identify.

In 1998 when Concordia’s statue was designed, the institution was an undergraduate school that granted only baccalaureate degrees. (Today it grants both Masters and Doctor’s degrees.) Its students entered the university at the age of eighteen and would complete their education by the time they were twenty-one. Concordia’s then president, Dr. David Zersen, had seen many of the Rietschel replicas on Lutheran campuses in which the Reformer demonstrated his “Here I stand” posture with his Bible. Zersen wanted something different for a university founded largely by descendants of Wendish immigrants in 1926 and which enrolled students who weren’t always sure what they wanted to study and who they wanted to become.

Conferring with Eloise Krabbenhoft, a local artist and sculptor, the two discussed possible portrayals. Mrs. Krabbenhoft explored the idea of having Luther sit on a bench so that students could sit next to him and, as it were, have a chat. Zersen, however, had learned something interesting in a 1998 communication from Martin Treu, curator of the Luther Museum in Wittenberg. It was discovered, Treu explained, when the Castle Church was renovated in 1892, that an examination of Luther’s skeleton proved that he was 5 feet 2 inches tall. Feeling that it would be important for students today to identify not with a heroic Luther on a prominent pedestal, but with someone they could cluster around, it was decided to have a standing statue.

Additionally, Krabbenhoft and Zersen wanted a Luther who looked like the students who entered Concordia University Texas at years of age. Realizing that Luther attended the University in Erfurt from 1501-1505, precisely when he was between 18 and 21, Krabbenhoft and Zersen wondered how to portray a Luther at that age. Knowing that the earliest depiction of Luther was Lucas Cranach’s engraved portrait of Luther as a monk at the age of 37, Krabbenhoft employed the technology used by detectives to identify presumed suspects. Working her way back from age 37 to 18 with forensic computer technology, Krabbenhoft created a face for Luther that had never been seen since 1501.

Furthermore, since the Bible was such an important symbol for Lutherans and because Concordia University was affiliated with the Lutheran church, the artist chose to give a special treatment to the book in Luther’s hands. When Friedrich Schorlemmer, at Concordia in 2001 to receive an honorary doctorate, saw the sculpture, he was stunned by the treatment of the student and said that it was the best of the Luther statues he had ever seen. Usually the Luther statues are 25 feet tall and show the Reformer heroically proclaiming, “I have found the truth.” “Here, however, is the eighteen year old student, perusing the Scriptures,” Schorlemmer said, “and seeking the truth. It is the perfect statue for a Lutheran university.”

Luther has moved from the old campus in downtown Austin to the new campus in the bordering hill country west of the city. However, he still has a prominent place at the entrance to the campus. And, as was originally intended, he is an approachable fellow student with whom the co-eds can have a chat. Sometimes, they place a Santa Claus hat on his head or a Palestinian scarf around his neck and ask what he might be thinking about current events or matters of faith. And Austin’s unique likeness of the Reformer, 500 years later, says what only Concordia’s students in Austin, Texas can be expected to hear.

David Zersen

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