“Preface to the Ordinance of a Common Chest”

Luther’s concern to provide for the poor through both charity' and social assistance first surfaced in his sermons on usury in 1519 and 1520.10 He elaborated these calls for social reform in his “Open Letter to the Christian Nobility' of the German Nation Concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate” (1520), in which he urged the princes and nobility' to eliminate the mendicant orders in their territories to help erase begging from the land11 and expressed hope for the liberation of Germany from the pope’s “intolerable taxing and fleecing.”12

The Wittenberg town council responded to Luther’s “Open Letter” by' drafting an ordinance that would “ensure the regulation of public assistance to the city’s house poor and . . . make begging unnecessary.” Luther’s then-colleague and later-adversary' Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt assisted in the preparation of the ordinance while Luther was detained in the Wartburg Castle after the Diet of Worms.13 The resulting ordinance, “The Order of the City of Wittenberg,” was published in 1522. It resolved to gather the property' of the “cloisters” and “all the income from the churches, all of the brotherhoods, and the guilds” into a common chest, which would be used “to provide for the poor people” under the supervision of two town council delegates, two delegates from the community, and a secretary'. Beggars were to be either urged to work or expelled from the city, except that those who had fallen into poverty' through age, sickness, or misfortune were to be provided for from the common chest. The common chest would also make loans to “poor artisans” and was to “provide for poor orphans, the children of poor people, and maidens who shall be given an appropriate dowry for marriage.” Wittenberg’s common chest was also designed to provide loans to “citizens and residents” who were burdened by' high interest rates, “for example, five to six percent.” The chest would offer refinancing at a four-percent rate.14

The Wittenberg ordinance did not directly refer to the need for ongoing taxation, but it did acknowledge that the income from churches, brotherhoods, and guilds might become insufficient at some point to meet the city’s goal of providing for the poor through the common chest. In that case “shall others, be they

Martin Luther’s redistributive theology 165 priests or citizens, according to what they have, yearly contribute a sum of money for the maintenance of the multitude of the poor.”15 This provision reflects the way in which Luther’s idea of distributive and redistributive justice, discussed in more detail below, took into consideration both the abundance of those with more and the needs of those with less. The amount of the priests’ and citizens’ contributions would depend on “what they have,” but, at the same time, “[t]he only criterion for distribution of loans or outright gifts was to be the need of the recipient.”16

Luther’s ideas about social assistance embodied in the Wittenberg ordinance were well received elsewhere. Other towns approached him hoping for his assistance in drafting legislation. One of the first was Leisnig, a town south of Wittenberg with a parish that also included eleven surrounding villages. Jurisdiction of the city had been granted to the abbot of Buch, a nearby Cistercian monastery, in 1191 and confirmed repeatedly thereafter.17 From its earliest moments, the evangelical movement in Leisnig found itself in conflict with the monastery, as the abbot in Luther’s day was hostile to the Reformation.18 In 1522 the town appealed to Luther. In response, he spent a week in Leisnig preparing a church order that included a common chest.19 The congregation proceeded to take over all the church properties in the parish and set up an organization to administer them for the assistance of “the poor and needy.”20 Five months later, in January 1523, the town council and the congregation sent Luther a formal letter requesting his advice on a proposed ordinance to codify these measures.21 Luther responded with his “Preface to the Ordinance of a Common Chest” and had the ordinance printed and published with his preface.22

The Leisnig common chest was to have ten elected directors—two from the nobility, two from the town council, three from the citizenry, and three from the rural peasantry. The directors were to meet on a weekly basis and give triennial reports to the whole community.23

The Leisnig ordinance, unlike its Wittenberg precursor, explicitly provided for ongoing taxation.24 The Leisnig tax provision stated in full:

Wherever the rents, collections, revenues, and contributions to the resources and stores of our common chest, as itemized above, should prove insufficient for the maintenance and support of our pastoral office, office of sacristan, schools, needy poor, and the buildings owned in common, as these have been daily set forth in orderly sequence, we the nobility, council, craft supervisors, gentry, and commoners dwelling in the city and villages of our whole parish, for ourselves and our posterity, and by virtue of our fraternal agreement, have unitedly resolved and consented that 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, in order that the total amount can be arrived at and procured which the deliberations and decisions of the general parish assembly, on the basis of investigation in and experience with the annual statements, have determined to be necessary and sufficient. To this end, throughout the entireextent of our parish, even’ householder, domestic servant, journeyman of the various handicrafts, and other persons who are not home owners but who share in the enjoyment and use of our parish rights shall individually contribute annually one silver groschen; that is, three new pennies, the fourth part of the groschen, every quarter at the Ember fast. Each master or mistress shall diligently collect this money and turn it over to the ten directors at each Ember fast. The parish assembly solemnly purposes and promises that to the honor of God and the love of our fellow Christians we shall never spare ourselves this trifling annual contribution in view of the fact that hitherto, since time out of mind, both residents and nonresidents throughout our common parish have by many methods and devices been overburdened and fleeced incessantly the year round with exorbitant and intolerable impositions and assessments. By the grace of God these practices have now been restored to the true freedom of the Christian spirit. It is the duty of even’ Christian to see that such Christian liberty is not misused as a cover for shameful avarice.25

The provision contains patent ambiguities: whether the tax is an emergency measure designed to maintain chest resources at a certain level or a regular contribution from the inception of the program, whether the amount of the tax is set or means-tested, and whether the assembly has the authority to adjust the amount. Nevertheless, several themes emerge. First, as in the Wittenberg ordinance, ability and needs were both in view. The tax was to be paid (at least in the first paragraph) according to each taxpayer’s “ability and means” but explicitly for the maintenance of the “needy poor” (among other purposes). Secondly, the tax provision purported to be the product of “fraternal agreement” among all affected classes of local society.26 It was a “united” resolve, entered into with full consent. Thirdly, the levy’ was to be measured and consistent, not overly burdensome and arbitrary like the impositions to which the parish was accustomed.

Another feature is the implicit redistributive structure of the Leisnig ordinance’s annual tax provision. The resources of the common chest were required to be maintained at a level sufficient to meet the needs of the poor, as determined by the investigation and experience of the parish assembly. Luther himself, in the preface, lauded the ordinance’s elevation of need over all other worthy causes. The confiscated property of the Leisnig parish monasteries can be distributed in a number of ways, he wrote, but need-based administration of that property in the common chest is preferable to the others:

The third way is the best, however, to devote all the 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 in the land, be they nobles or commoners .... Now there is no greater service of God than Christian love which helps and serves the needy, as Christ himself will judge and testify at the last day, Matthew 25. This is why the possessions of the church were formerly called bona ecclesiae, that is, common property, a common chest, as it were, for all who were needy among the Christians.27

If we think of taxation as implicating three interests—the needs of the state, the needs of the poor, and the interests of property owners—Luther linked the needs of the state to the needs of the poor rather than to the interests of property owners. He also subordinated the state’s other revenue needs to the necessities of the poor. “If we have to spend such large sums every year on guns, roads, bridges, dams, and countless similar items to insure the temporal peace and prosperity of a city,” Luther asked, “why should not much more be devoted to our poor neglected youth?”28 Luther considered the ruler’s protection a means to the state’s ultimate end, which is the provision of life’s basic necessities. He wrote in his explanation of the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer in his Large Catechism:

It would therefore be fitting if the coat of arms of every upright prince were emblazoned with a loaf of bread instead of a lion or a wreath of rue, or if a loaf of bread were stamped on coins, in order to remind both princes and subjects that it is through the princes’ office that we enjoy protection and peace and that without them we could neither eat nor preserve the precious gift of bread.29

The contrast between Luther’s insistence on an axis between the ruler and the poor, on the one hand, and the modern alliance of the state’s interest in efficiency with the taxpayer’s economic liberty, on the other, deserves emphasizing. Luther saw a reorientation underway in the economy of his day, away from the needs of the poor as its highest priority. He observed a new profit economy emerging in his place and time, an economy that he was sure would divorce the possession of money from its use for human needs, feed avarice, and erode the common good.30 Abandonment of the focus on need could only mean capitulation to the idea that economic principles and laws are autonomous—a perspective that Luther considered “idolatrous.”31

More was at stake in the redistribution of monastic property than merely a decision about what to do with surplus assets suddenly on hand; at issue was a theological reappraisal of poverty. Even in the “Ninety-five Theses,” Luther was already reacting against the idea that the poor are the treasure of the church, supplying the rich with the opportunity to do good works through almsgiving.32 Luther’s forceful opposition to begging marked a shift from the late medieval efforts merely to control begging to a stance that insisted on the abolition of begging. This shift, Lindberg argues, may have been prompted by sensitivity to the “deleterious effects of widespread begging,” but responded equally to an awareness of the implications of Luther’s “theology of justification by grace alone, which precludes any salvific benefits to poverty and to alms.”33

Paul Warde’s detailed study of state formation in Germany in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which pays particular attention to the Duchy of Württemberg in the southwestern part of the German world, demonstrates that by 1568 legislation of the Lutheran period had already established a state church, created a school system in which the use of the vernacular was becoming widespread, and “codified the tax, property, poor relief and inheritance systems.”34

A “secularization of charity” was already underway before the 1520s, when the focus shifted suddenly in German towns that embraced the evangelical cause from alleviating poverty through voluntary giving to centrally administered welfare.35 However, the earlier changes had resulted from a push to correct abuses in the system of almsgiving.36 Once salvation came to be perceived as the foundation rather than the goal and achievement of life, “the energy and resources poured into acquiring other-worldly capital” could be “redirected to this-worldly activities.”37 A theology highlighting salvation as purely the gift of God had the effect of deflating the soteriological significance of both poverty and almsgiving.38 Thus, the Lutheran towns’ establishment of common chests could be considered an expression of the “brotherly love” that was the “fruit” of realizing that “all temporal and eternal blessings won by our Lord and Savior Christ out of pure grace and mercy are granted unto us by the eternal God.”39

Anthropological studies of the type popular in the 1970s tended to assume that welfare states began to emerge in early modern Europe as collective management of the land gave way to “private-property-based agriculture” that produced “casualties” requiring “collectively sponsored welfare provision.” More recent accounts, however, are “far less inclined to privilege single forms of explanation.”40 Hans-Christoph Rublack argues that new principles guiding social change and legislation in the early modern period typically began as a form of “social action” in response to “pre-theoretical” concerns of daily life but were then legitimized and converted to social policies through the use of “verbal” or “integrative” norms.41 Codification of law in late fifteenth-century Germany, for instance, made frequent use of the norms of justice, peace, unity, and the common weal, all four “directed towards ‘the praise of God.’”42 For all that, appeals to these norms are no less genuine and the rhetoric no less sincere.43 The impact of theological and philosophical ideas on legislation is hard to gauge. It seems plausible, however, that ideas are often criticisms of, and reactions to, social, economic, and political circumstances44 and that these criticisms and reactions can, and sometimes do, influence actions and decisions. Although more work is called for to establish the exact path that Luther’s teachings on poor relief and his endorsement of the Leisnig ordinance followed in influencing the emergence of the modern welfare state in Germany and the Nordic countries, Luther seems to have done more than articulate changing circumstances. The rhetorical power with which he insisted on justification by grace through faith infused the secularization of charity with energy in ways that the rest of this chapter will suggest.

Despite the power of Luther’s rhetoric in his preface, the shift proved difficult in Leisnig. The town council was reluctant to levy taxes for poor relief15 and claimed that it could not relinquish its right to dispose of endowments without the elector’s express permission. The congregation appealed to the elector, who appointed a tax commission to hear the dispute. After several weeks of negotiation, a compromise was reached in which the parties would present their differences to the elector as they arose. Luther himself traveled to Leisnig again in August 1523, probably at the elector’s request, and found that the town council was still withholding funds. Luther was unable to break the impasse. He asked the elector to enforce the Leisnig ordinance, but the elector, characteristically, hesitated.46 In November 1524, Luther wrote to the elector’s advisor Georg Spalatin that he “deeply regretted that the Leisnig attempt, the first of its kind, which should have been such an example of success, had turned out to be such a miserable example of failure.” It was not until 1529 that the Saxon visitation committee, a Lutheran revival of a medieval custom, confirmed the common chest at the same time that it recognized Leisnig’s independence from the abbot of Buch.47

The transition from individual to centralized poor relief was challenging for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that almsgiving rather than redistribution through tax-and-transfer systems had been the central instrument of poor relief in the Middle Ages. Taxation often had a different purpose, that of funding the state. As previous chapters have shown, in the feudal period kings were expected to live off their own resources, but in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries an increase in the number of servants prompted interest in taxation. The first justification of exceptional taxes was war, particularly the crusades. By the end of the thirteenth century, however, it was typical of rulers to extend these taxes to maintain order.48 Towns were also in a difficult situation, as they often arose outside the feudal structure. They could meet their revenue needs only by expanding their territories and levying taxes on their new citizens.49 By the fifteenth century, “the income drawn directly from the landed estates of the prince was overtaken by taxation as the main source of finance for the activities of central governments.”50

Thus, Luther’s support for regular, general, and centralized taxation coincided with the emergence of precisely that kind of taxation as the main—perhaps only— way of funding the increasingly expensive governments of Europe. However, the tax revenue needed for poor relief was in direct competition with the tax revenue needed to sustain the administrations of territories and towns. Luther (and Calvin after him) saw this tension. Luther’s chief charge against the princes and nobility in his “Admonition to Peace” (1525) was that they collected taxes “for their own profit and advantage” rather than for “the welfare of their subjects.”51 It is little wonder that even Leisnig, a town of only 1500 people,52 took seven years to implement the terms of its own ordinance. Taxation in Luther’s thinking may have been conceptually rooted in theology, but the general impulse behind collecting taxes in the 1520s was pragmatic: the needs of administration. The story of competing visions of taxation—redistributive versus administrative—had begun in earnest.

As noted, the Leisnig ordinance anticipated a deliberately redistributive role for taxation. The ordinance assumed a Christian consensus in which “the nobility, council, craft supervisors, gentry’, and commoners dwelling in the city and villages of the assembly and parish of Leisnig,. . . upon the considered and mature counsel of men learned in the divine Scriptures” (i.e., Luther) agreed fraternally “that, according to human opinion, all the internal and external possessions of Christian believers are to serve and contribute to the honor of God and the love of the fellow-Christian neighbor.”53 Redistribution of resources for the benefit of the poor was a spiritually motivated act for Luther. After the initial failure of the Leisnig ordinance, Luther preached a sermon in which he offered ideas on how a city could establish a system of poor relief. He added ruefully, “But we do not have the personnel for this, therefore I do not think we can put it into effect until God makes Christians.”54

The precise connection between the love of neighbor and relief of the poor depended, for Luther, on the logic of redistribution in his overall theology’. To that connection we turn.

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