Dr. Martin Luther, to his Most Serene and Mighty Imperial Majesty, and to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation:
The grace and strength of God be with you, Most Serene Majesty! And you, most gracious and well-beloved lords!
It is not out of mere arrogance and perversity that I, an individual, poor and insignificant, have taken it upon me to address your lordships. The distress and misery which oppress all ranks of Christendom, especially in Germany, have moved not me alone, but everybody, to cry aloud for help; this it is that now compels me to cry out and call upon God to send down his Spirit upon some one who shall reach out a hand to this wretched people. Councils have often put about some remedy, which has always been promptly frustrated by the cunning of certain men, so that the evils have only grown worse; which malice and wickedness I now intend, God helping me, to expose, so that, being known, they may cease to effect such scandal and injury. God has given us a young and noble sovereign for our leader, thereby stirring up fresh hope in our hearts; our duty is to do our best to help him and to avail ourselves to the full of this opportunity and his gracious favor.
The Romanists have, with great adroitness, drawn three walls round themselves, with which they have hitherto protected themselves, so that no one could reform them, whereby all Christendom has suffered terribly.
First, if pressed by the temporal power, they have affirmed and maintained that the temporal power has no jurisdiction over them, but, on the contrary, that the spiritual power is above the temporal.
Secondly, if it were proposed to admonish them with the Scriptures, they objected that no one may interpret the Scriptures but the Pope.
Thirdly, if they are threatened with a council, they invented the notion that no one may call a council but the Pope.
Thus they have privily stolen from us our three sticks, so that they may not be beaten. And they have dug themselves in securely behind their three walls, so that they can carry on all the knavish tricks which we now observe. . .
Now may God help us, and give us one of those trumpets that overthrew the walls of Jericho, so that we may blow down these walls of straw and paper, and that we may have a chance to use Christian rods for the chastisement of sin, and expose the craft and deceit of the devil; thus we may amend ourselves by punishment and again obtain God's favor.
Let us, in the first place, attack the first wall.
There has been a fiction by which the Pope, bishops, priests, and monks are called the 'spiritual estate'; princes, lords, artisans, and peasants are the 'temporal estate.' This is an artful lie and hypocritical invention, but let no one be made afraid by it, and that for this reason: that all Christians are truly of the spiritual estate, and there is no difference among them, save of office. As St Paul says (I Cor. xii), we are all one body, though each member does its own work so as to serve the others. This is because we have one baptism, one Gospel, one faith, and are all Christians alike; for baptism, Gospel, and faith, these alone make spiritual and Christian people.
As for the unction by a pope or a bishop, tonsure, ordination, consecration, and clothes differing from those of laymen--all this may make a hypocrite or an anointed puppet, but never a Christian or a spiritual man. Thus we are all consecrated as priests by baptism, as St Peter says: 'Ye are a royal priesthood, a holy nation' (I Pet. ii. 9); and in the Book of Revelation: 'and hast made us unto our God (by Thy blood) kings and priests' (Rev. v. 10). For, if we had not a higher consecration in us than pope or bishop can give, no priest could ever be made by the consecration of pope or bishop, nor could he say the mass or preach or absolve. Therefore the bishop's consecration is just as if in the name of the whole congregation he took one person out of the community, each member of which has equal power, and commanded him to exercise this power for the rest; just as if ten brothers, co-heirs as king's sons, were to choose one from among them to rule over their inheritance, they would all of them still remain kings and have equal power, although one is appointed to govern.
And to put the matter more plainly, if a little company of pious Christian laymen were taken prisoners and carried away to a desert, and had not among them a priest consecrated by a bishop, and were there to agree to elect one of them ... and were to order him to baptize, to celebrate the mass, to absolve and to preach, this man would as truly be a priest, as if all the bishops and all the popes had consecrated him. That is why, in cases of necessity, every man can baptize and absolve, which would not be possible if we were not all priests. This great grace and virtue of baptism and of the Christian estate they have annulled and made us forget by their ecclesiastical law . . .
Since then the 'temporal power' is as much baptized as we, and has the same faith and Gospel, we must allow it to be a priest and bishop, and account its office an office that is proper and useful to the Christian community. For whatever has undergone baptism may boast that it has been consecrated priest, bishop, and pope, although it does not beseem every one to exercise these offices. For, since we are all priests alike, no man may put himself forward, or take upon himself without our consent and election, to do that which we have all alike power to do. For if a thing is common to all, no man may take it to himself without the wish and command of the community. And if it should happen that a man were appointed to one of these offices and deposed for abuses, he would be just what he was before. Therefore a priest should be nothing in Christendom but a functionary; as long as he holds his office, he has precedence; if he is deprived of it, he is a peasant or a citizen like the rest. Therefore a priest is verily no longer a priest after deposition. But now they have invented characteres indelibiles, and pretend that a priest after deprivation still differs from a mere layman. They even imagine that a priest can never be anything but a priest--that is, he can never become a layman. All this is nothing but mere talk and a figment of human invention.
It follows, then, that between laymen and priests, princes and bishops, or, as they call it, between 'spiritual' and 'temporal' persons, the only real difference is one of office and function, and not of estate . . .
But what kind of Christian doctrine is this, that the 'temporal power' is not above the 'spiritual,' and therefore cannot punish it! As if the hand should not help the eye, however much the eye be suffering . . . Nay, the nobler the member the more bound the others are to help it . . .
Therefore I say, forasmuch as the temporal power has been ordained by God for the punishment of the bad and the protection of the good, we must let it do its duty throughout the whole Christian body, without respect of persons, whether it strike popes, bishops, priests, monks, nuns, or whoever it may be . . .
Whatever the ecclesiastical law has said in opposition to this is merely the invention of Romanist arrogance . . .
Now, I imagine the first paper wall is overthrown, inasmuch as the 'temporal' power has become a member of the Christian body; although its work relates to the body, yet does it belong to the 'spiritual estate' . . .
It must indeed have been the archfiend himself who said, as we read in the canon law, 'Were the pope so perniciously wicked as to be dragging hosts of souls to the devil, yet he could not be deposed. This is the accursed, devilish foundation on which they build at Rome, and think the whole world may go to the devil rather than that they should be opposed in their knavery. If a man were to escape punishment simply because he was above his fellows, then no Christian might punish another, since Christ has commanded that each of us esteem himself the lowest and humblest of all (Matt. xviii. 4; Luke ix. 48).
The second wall is even more tottering and weak: namely their claim to be considered masters of the Scriptures . . . If the article of our faith is right, 'I believe in the holy Christian Church,' the Pope cannot alone be right; else we must say, 'I believe in the Pope of Rome,' and reduce the Christian Church to one man, which is a devilish and damnable heresy. Besides that, we are all priests, as I have said, and have all one faith, one Gospel, one Sacrament; how then should we not have the power of discerning and judging what is right or wrong in matters of faith? . . .
The third wall falls of itself, as soon as the first two have fallen; for if the Pope acts contrary to the Scriptures, we are bound to stand by the Scriptures to punish and to constrain him, according to Christ's commandment . . . 'tell it unto the Church' (Matt. xviii, 15-17) . . . If then I am to accuse him before the Church, I must collect the Church together . . . Therefore when need requires, and the Pope is a cause of offense to Christendom, in these cases whoever can best do so, as a faithful member of the whole body, must do what he can to procure a true free council. This no one can do so well as the temporal authorities, especially since they are fellow-Christians, fellow- priests . . .
[Luther proceeds to treat of matters to be discussed at the Council.]
What is the use in Christendom of those who are called 'cardinals'? I will tell you. In Italy and Germany there are many rich convents, endowments, holdings, and benefices; and as the best way of getting these into the hands of Rome they created cardinals, and gave to them the bishoprics, convents, and prelacies, and thus destroyed the service of God. That is why Italy is almost a desert now: the convents are destroyed, the sees consumed, the revenues of the prelacies and of all the churches drawn to Rome; towns are decayed, and the country and the people ruined because there is no more any worship of God or preaching. Why? Because the cardinals must have all the wealth. The Turk himself could not have so desolated Italy and so overthrown the worship of God.
Now that Italy is sucked dry, they come to Germany. They begin in a quiet way, but we shall soon see Germany brought into the same state as Italy. We have a few cardinals already. What the Romanists really mean to do, the 'drunken' Germans are not to see until they have lost everything . . .
Now this devilish state of things is not only open robbery and deceit and the prevailing of the gates of hell, but it is destroying the very life and soul of Christianity; therefore we are bound to use all our diligence to ward off this misery and destruction. If we want to fight Turks, let us begin here--we cannot find worse ones. If we rightly hang thieves and behead robbers, why do we leave the greed of Rome unpunished? for Rome is the greatest thief and robber that has ever appeared on earth, or ever will; and all in the holy names of Church and St. Peter . . .
[Luther proceeds to outline '57 Articles for the Reformation of Christendom,' including restrictions on the sending of contributions to Rome, reduction of the number of monks and mendicants, and the reformation of schools and universities.]
. . . Poor Germans that we are--we have been deceived! We were born to be masters, and we have been compelled to bow the head beneath the yoke of our tyrants, and to become slaves. Name, title, outward signs of royalty, we possess all these; force, power, right, liberty, all these have gone over to the popes, who have robbed us of them. They get the kernel, we get the husk . . . It is time the glorious Teutonic people should cease to be the puppet of the Roman pontiff. Because the pope crowns the emperor, it does not follow that the pope is superior to the emperor. Samuel, who crowned Saul and David, was not above these kings, nor Nathan above Solomon, whom he consecrated . . . Let the emperor then be a veritable emperor and no longer allow himself to be stripped of his sword or of his scepter! . . .
From: Luther's Primary Works, Wace and Buchheim, trans. (London; 1896) in: B.J. Kidd, ed., Documents Illustrative of the Continental Reformation (Oxford; 1911). Reprinted in: Readings in World Civilizations, Vol. II: The Development of the Modern World , 3rd ed., (New York; St. Martin's, 1995) pp. 9-13.