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A Mighty Fortress Is Our God

A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing;
Our helper He amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing.
For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and pow'r are great, and, armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.

Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing;
Were not the right Man on our side,
The Man of God’s own choosing.
Dost ask Who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He;
Lord Sabaoth is His name, from age to age the same,
And He must win the battle.

And tho’ this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us;
We will not fear
For God hath willed His truth to triumph through us.
The prince of darkness grim - we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo! his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.

That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him Who with us sideth.
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill; God’s truth abideth still,
His kingdom is forever.

"A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" is often called the Battle Hymn of the Reformation. It has been translated into almost every known language. There are at least 80 different versions in the English language alone! This hymn was written by Martin Luther around the time when the term "Protestant" was first heard.

This hymn became the battle cry during the Protestant Reformation. During those times when the Reformation seemed to be failing, Luther would say to his friend Melancthon, "Let's sing the 46th Psalm." Without any doubt, this hymn drew its inspiration from Psalm 46. This hymn so captured the spirit of the Reformation that when Protestant emigrants were forced into exile or when martyrs were on their way to their death, they would sing out "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God."

Luther began the Protestant Reformation in 1517. Today, the Lutheran denomination still bears his name. Luther was the son of Hans and Margarethe Luder. He was born on November 10, 1483, at Eisleben, Saxony. His father was a native of Thuringia, and a copper miner.

Luther was educated at Magedburg and Eisenach. In addition to being a reformer, he was very active in the area of church music. As a young student, Luther earned money to pay his school fees by singing in the streets of Eisenach. Besides singing, Luther also played the lute. He received an MA at Erfurt in 1505. After his graduation, he entered the monastery in Erfurt, and was ordained in 1507.

The following year in 1508, Luther was appointed to the faculty of the University of Wittenburg. There he lectured on the physics and dialetics of Aristotle. In 1510, Luther spent much of the year in Rome. He was shocked by the corruption of the Church. Upon his return from Rome, he compared the corrupted practices of the Church with the teachings in the Bible. In 1512, he received his Doctor of Divinity degree and began to promote a theology that was more Biblical.

On October 31, 1517, he nailed 95 theses on the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church against the Roman Catholic Church. That document contained an attack on papal abuses and the sale of indulgences by church officials. These indulgences were releases by the Catholic Church from the penalties for one’s sin through the payment of money. He was called to Rome to answer his theses, but the University of Wittenberg prevented him from going.

He was branded a heretic by the Church and an outlaw by the State. But Elector Frederick the Wise of Saxony protected him so that he was able to continue his reforming work. Because of his remarkable efforts, the doctrine of salvation by faith alone was re-founded. The Bible was brought into the homes of the common people in their languages. Luther also wrote many new hymns by using familiar folk songs and poetry. One of which was "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God."

This was what Luther said about the gift of music:

"After theology, there is nothing that can be placed on a level with music. It drives out the devil and makes people cheerful. It is a gift that God gave to birds and to men. We need to remove hymn singing from the domain of monks and priests and set the laity to singing. By the singing of hymns the laity can publicly express their love to the Almighty God."

Luther died February 18, 1546, in Eisleben, Germany. At age 63, he was buried at Wittenberg, Germany. But his legacy continued.

Today, many Protestants admire Martin Luther. He represents a respected saint to their beliefs and moral values. Christians often quote him. Theologians write books on him. And many even name their children after him, for example, Martin Luther King Jr.

Unfortunately, there was another side of Luther, which few Christians would like to talk about. It was about his anti-Semitic beliefs. He had a cruel hatred for the Jews. This poses an unwanted dilemma for many Christians because Luther not only represents the birth of Protestant Christianity, he also portrays the genesis of a special brand of Jewish hatred that flourished in Germany.

Although Luther did not invent anti-Semitism, he promoted it to a level never before seen in Europe. Martin Luther did not bear his anti-Jewishness out of youthful pride or unfounded Christian doctrines. On the contrary, Luther in his youth days expressed a great optimism about getting the Jews to be converted to Christianity. He wanted the Jews to believe in Jesus Christ after years of researching. Luther wanted the Jews to acknowledge and confess the true beliefs of the Christian faith.

Luther wrote several papers that were really positive toward the Jewish community. It was in his later years that his anti-Semitism developed. In 1523, one of Luther’s works was "Jesus Christ Was Born A Jew" in which he made references to the original Jewish roots of Christianity.

But Luther lived in the midst of a very anti-Semitic time period and environment. Jews were discriminated against. They lived in ghettos, and their activities were restricted. The Jews were treated badly and were expelled from some areas. Then they had to flee to another area, where they lived until they got kicked out again. In this way, the local business people, merchants, traders and bankers got rid of the unwanted competitions with the help of their governing rulers.

In his later years, Luther began to realize that the Jews would not be converted according to his wishes. His anti-Jewishness grew slowly over time. He was greatly influenced by some anti-Jewish theologians such as Lyra, Burgensis and John Chrysostom. His thoughts did not come from science or reason, but rather from the Holy Scriptures and from what he believed.

In 1543, Luther wrote a book, "On The Jews And Their Lies." This book took the hatred for the Jews to a new level. It contained a remarkable study into the Bible but with some of his fanatical reasonings and arguments. It was at the ripe age of 60, at the prime of his maturity, that Luther wrote this little but dangerous book. In supporting his beliefs, he proposed to set fire to the Jews' synagogues and schools, to take away their homes, to forbid them to pray or teach, or even to utter the name of God.

Luther wanted to "be rid of them" and requested that the government and ministers to deal with these problematic people. He requested pastors and preachers to follow his example by issuing warnings against the Jews. He went on to claim that "We are at fault in not slaying them" for avenging the death of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Three years later, Luther died. But these overly zealous desires of his were eventually carried out by Hitler's Nazi government, about four hundred years later, in the 1940s.

As Luther was an honorable and admired Christian leader to the Protestants, his fervent speeches and written words sowed the irretrievable seeds of anti-Semitism, beyond the 20th century, into the Church and into the Third Reich. His beliefs were religiously held with great esteem by not only Adolf Hitler but also the majority of the German population in the 20th century!

Luther unconsciously set the stage for the future of German nationalistic fanaticism. William L. Shirer in his "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich," put it concisely:

"Through his sermons and his magnificent translations of the Bible, Luther created the modern German language, aroused in the people not only a new Protestant vision of Christianity by a fervent German nationalism and taught them, at least in religion, the supremacy of the individual conscience.

But tragically for them, Luther's siding with the princes in the peasant rising, which he had largely inspired, and his passion for political autocracy ensured a mindless and provincial political absolutism which reduced the vast majority of the German people to poverty, to a horrible torpor and a demeaning subservience.

Even worse perhaps, it helped to perpetuate and indeed to sharpen the hopeless divisions not only between classes but also between the various dynastic and political groupings of the German people. It doomed for centuries the possibility of the unification of Germany."

In Mein Kampf, Hitler listed Martin Luther as one of the greatest reformers in world history. Like Luther, Hitler spoke and rose against the Jews. The Nazi plan to create a German Reich Church laid its bases on the "Spirit of Dr. Martin Luther." The first physical violence against the Jews came on November 9-10, 1938. On Kristallnacht, also known as Crystal Night, the Nazis killed the Jews, shattered their glass windows, and destroyed hundreds of synagogues, just as Luther had proposed.

In Daniel Johah Goldhagen's book, Hitler's Willing Executioners, he wrote:

"One leading Protestant churchman, Bishop Martin Sasse published a compendium of Martin Luther's antisemitic vitriol shortly after Kristallnacht's orgy of anti-Jewish violence. In the foreword to the volume, he applauded the burning of the synagogues and the coincidence of the day: 'On November 10, 1938, on Luther's birthday, the synagogues are burning in Germany.' The German people, he urged, ought to heed these words 'of the greatest antisemite of his time, the warner of his people against the Jews.'"

Besides the book "On the Jews and Their Lies," Luther also wrote "Against the Sabbatarians." His vehement attacks on the Jews had a great impact on the modern German believers. The Holocaust and the eliminationist form of anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany would not have occurred without the deadly influences from these books of Luther.

Julius Streicher was one of Hitler's top henchmen and the publisher of the anti-Semitic Der Sturmer. He was asked during the Nuremberg Trials if there were any other publications in Germany which had treated the Jewish question in an anti-Semitic way. Streicher put it well:

"Dr. Martin Luther would very probably sit in my place in the defendants' dock today, if this book had been taken into consideration by the Prosecution. In the book 'The Jews and Their Lies,' Dr. Martin Luther writes that the Jews are a serpent's brood and one should burn down their synagogues and destroy them..."

Indeed, no historian has yet to put Martin Luther on trial for his incitement of crimes against humanity. Today, white-supremacists and Neo-Nazis still continue to spread Luther's hatred for the Jews. They still quote from his books as proof for their deep convictions and beliefs.

I hereby wish to make clear that the purpose of this article is not to put down the reformer of our Christian faith, Martin Luther. I aim to provide a historical and unbiased study of his life, both the good and the bad. By bringing this information to light, I desire to see that anti-Semitism would stop spreading its deadly poison inside and outside the Church.

I also desire that the Church would find the antidote by reversing the curses of anti-Semitism. In the Abrahamic Covenant (Genesis 12:1-3), God said, "I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you." The only way out is to bless the children of Abraham, namely, the Jews.

About the hymn, "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God," I believe it is free from the effects of anti-Semitism as it was written in Luther's younger days, about the year of 1517 at age 34, when he was more tender-hearted towards God and His beloved people.

It will remain as one of my favourite hymns.

Did we in our own strength confide,
Our striving would be losing;
Were not the right Man on our side,
The Man of God’s own choosing.
Dost ask Who that may be?
Christ Jesus, it is He;
Lord Sabaoth is His name
From age to age the same,
And He must win the battle.

Written on:
16 August 2004