Martin Luther & Anabaptists On the Societal Ill of Extravagant Clothing

Martin Luther recently brought it to my attention that clothing was no less than one of the top 3 issues that the faced the State of his time. In “A Treatise of Good Works”[1] (1520) Martin Luther notes 3 evils the rulers (the State) in his time should address:

  • Make an end of gluttony & drunkeness. (men could live without seasonings & spices…)
  • Forbid the excessive costly clothing (This is indeed an unchristian thing…)
  • Drive out usurious buying of rent-charge, (which ruins the whole world and troubles our lands…)

Or listen to Luther request a German law to prohibit “extravagance in dress” in his writing “To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation”[2] click here:

In the first place, we require a general law and consent of the German nation against profusion and extravagance in dress, which is the cause of so much poverty among the nobles and the people. Surely God has given to us, as to other nations, enough wool, fur, flax, and whatever else is required for the decent clothing of every class; and it cannot be necessary to spend such enormous sums for silk, velvet, cloth of gold, and all other kinds of outlandish stuff. I think that even if the Pope did not rob us Germans with his unbearable taxes, we should be robbed more than enough by these secret thieves, the dealers in silk and velvet.

Roland Bainton, in his biography “Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther”[3] notes an additional concern of Luther:

He was in such a panic of disgust because the girls at Wittenberg were wearing low necks that he left home declaring that he would not return.

Thankfully his physician was able to convince Luther to return home.

These sentiments on dress are especially interesting since Martin Luther himself writes quite unsympathetically of the Anabaptist’s for speaking on the issue of proper attire for Christians & actually practicing wearing simple clothes in his own “Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount”[4]:

“…Anabaptists say… stop…dressing like other people…” -p.263

 “…they say, one must not wear satin or silk, red or variegated clothes.. .” p.264

And…

“…but he is a true Christian who proves it by his works, forsakes everything, does not accept any secular authority and rule; dresses in a gray coat; suffers hunger and sorrow, etc…

For the whole context:

“See, thus must they embellish themselves, both in doctrine and practice, so that they employ the same words that we hear, and along with this lead a beautiful attractive life; as now our anabaptist sectaries, in fact, mislead many people by crying out that we do not have the real gospel, because one may see that it yields no fruit, and the people continue to be bad, proud, avaricious, etc.; that there must be something more than the mere word and letter: the Spirit must do it, and they must honestly strive to live better; if it were the word of God it would surely also produce fruit. Then they go on and say they have the true understanding, and the right fruits and life. If a simple, inexperienced man hears this, he says: O, that is really so! lets himself thus be carried away by the taking words: Spirit, and fruits of the Spirit. Then they go further, and say: He who wants to be a Christian must not share in civil authority, or bear a sword, or have anything of his own, as it is with us; but he is a true Christian who proves it by his works, forsakes everything, does not accept any secular authority and rule; dresses in a gray coat; suffers hunger and sorrow, etc. These they call fruits of the Spirit. See, these are nothing but sheep’s clothing; with these they carry away crowds of the poor people…” -Martin Luther, Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount

Luther’s critique of the Anabaptist’s on this point is intriguing in two ways:

  • Luther apparently agrees with the Anabaptists in principle (perhaps not in extent?) that the issue of dress needed a solution in his society
  • Luther seems only to differ on how to achieve societal reform of dress and his solution is State laws on dress! (compared to Anabaptist’s voluntary community commitment)

It is quite interesting to read Luther and Anabaptist responses to the ills of society. Should a Christian promote a community who calls men voluntarily to avoid gluttony, drunkenness, costly clothing & usury…or have THE STATE with it’s coercive measures take on these tasks? The latter is the Luther/Constantinian model and the former the Apostolic/Anabaptist model.

And, we might do well to remember that Jesus Himself gave some warnings about money, food & clothing.

[1] A Treatise of Good Works, Martin Luther
[2] To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, Martin Luther (quote)
[3] Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, Roland Bainton
[4] Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, Martin Luther

2 Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing this fascinating history! This context (a class-divided culture where extravagant clothing was both a class marker and a way to try to climb the social ladder, and where clothing was a point of anxiety for even the state) helps explain the origin of the Anabaptist preoccupation with clothing and clothing rules. It is interesting to note that our reasons for clothing rules today are usually very different, having more to do with a general separation from worldliness (including “worldly” casual clothing, not just extravagant clothing) and a concern for sexual modesty. I’m sure there are lessons to mine there as we ponder these differences, but I’ll leave that for another time. 🙂

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    Reply

    1. I’ve added another quote you might have interest in. It indicates that Luther was clearly concerned for “modesty” as well. As always, appreciate your comments.

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply

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