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Martin Luther’s Will
Luther was too preoccupied with more important matters and far too generous a man to
be much concerned about his material possessions. The home in the Augustinian
monastery which the Elector John had provided for his family supplied rooms for
students, refuge for the poor and oppressed, shelter for an assortment of relatives, a
gathering place for reformers, and a hospice for those in need, who were all embraced by
Luther’s expansive generosity which far exceeded his limited means. For years he felt
that his few belongings scarcely warranted the drafting of a last will and testament. At
the beginning of the new year, 1542, however, it must have dawned on him that he
actually had now acquired some modest properties that he wished to secure for his wife
Katherine in the event of his death. He was plagued with illness his whole life and the
thought of his own death was constantly with him.
The antiquated Saxon law of that day was unjust to women, providing that a widow could
inherit only her dowry and personal effects, which were carefully specified in the
Sachsenspiegel. Luther once remarked that according to the Sachsenspiegel a woman
who had for many years faithfully served her husband was forced to leave the house like
a maid, since only a chair and a distaff belonged to her. The law actually said that the
house and property would not belong to the widow, but to the children, or, if there were
none, to the next blood relative of the man. Nevertheless, the husband had an opportunity
to assure his wife a specific income. By taking certain legal steps, including the
appointment of guardians for the children, he could reserve the use of a part of the estate
for his widow. Luther was opposed to formalities required by law and especially
resented the idea of appointing guardians, thus pushing Katherine aside. When
Melanchthon made his will, Luther commented, “I have no intention of making a will.
My books which are extant I leave to my children. May they understand that they are not
smarter than their forebears. I appoint you Katie, as universal heiress. You bore the
children and gave them your breast. You will not manage their affairs to their
disadvantage. I am hostile to guardians, who seldom do things correctly.”
In this will Luther disregarded legal forms and phrases, trusting to men’s sense of
justice and his own unique position as a well known public figure to establish the validity
of his will. In fact, he neglected to have the will confirmed by the Elector, which could
have easily have brought its legality into question. Luther’s trust, however, was
vindicated, and on April 11, 1546, shortly after his death, Elector John Frederick
confirmed the will with the statement that “although the registered document was
deficient in refinements and formalities which the laws require,” he would graciously
confirm it and would not fail to validate it, since he had always been favorably disposed
toward Dr. Martin and for the sake of those reasons and considerations indicated by
Luther in the document.
The original document is in the archives of the general convention of the
Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession in Budapest, Hungary.
Last Will and Testament
Martin Luther
Wittenberg, January 6, 1542
I, Martin Luther, doctor, etc. acknowledge with this my own handwriting that I
have given to my beloved and faithful housewife Katherine as an endowment (or
whatever one can call it) for her lifetime, which she will be at liberty to manage
according to her pleasure and to her best interest, and give it to her by the
authority of this document on this very present day,
To wit, the little holding at Zulsdorf, the same which I have purchased
and made useful, absolutely as I have had it up to now;
Secondly, as a dwelling the house of Bruno which I have bought under the
name of my man Wolf,
Thirdly, beakers and valuables, such as rings, necklaces, gratuities, gold
and silver, which should be worth about a thousand gulden.
I do this because, in the first place, as a pious and faithful spouse she has
at all times held me dear, worthy, and fine and through God’s rich blessings gave
birth to and reared for me five living children (who are still alive, God grant for a
long time).
Secondly, that she should herself assume and pay the debt, insofar as I am
still indebted (what I do not pay off during my lifetime), which may be about
four hundred fifty floorings, as far as I know. There could perhaps also be more.
Thirdly, and most of all, for this reason, that I do not want her to have to
look to the children for a handout, but rather the children should be obligated to
her, honor her, and be subject to her as God has commanded. For I have
certainly seen and experienced how the devil agitates and provokes the children,
be they ever so pious, contrary to this commandment through evil and jealous
gossips. This is especially true when the mothers are widows and the sons take
wives and the daughters, husbands and, in turn, mother-in-law daughter-in-law,
daughter-in-law mother-in-law!
For I maintain that a mother will be the best guardian for her own
children and will use such a holding and endowment not for the harm or to the
disadvantage of her children, but to their use and betterment, since they are her
flesh and blood whom she carried under her heart.
And even if after my death out of necessity or for some other reason (for I
can set no limit for God in his works and will) she would remarry, I have
confidence, and wish herewith to have such confidence expressed, that she will
act motherly toward our children and faithfully share everything with them, be it
the endowment or something else, as is only right.
And I hereby also humbly beg my most gracious lord, Duke John
Frederick, elector, etc., that his electoral grace will graciously protect and
administer such a gift or endowment.
I also ask all my good friends to be witnesses for my dear Katie and to
help defend her, when some idle gossips want to trouble or defame her, as
though she perhaps had a sum of ready cash on the side, which she would
purloin or embezzle from the poor children. I bear witness that there is no ready
cash except for the beakers and valuables listed above in the endowment.
Indeed, such a reckoning can be manifest to everyone, since people know how
much income I have had from my most gracious lord and beyond that I have not
received as income one heller or kernel from anyone, except what was a gift,
which is to be found cited above under the valuables and which in part is still
tied up with the debt. And yet, with this income and with donations I have built
and bought so much, and I ran such a big and burdensome household, that
among other things I must acknowledge it as an extraordinary, remarkable
blessing that I have been able to manage. The miracle is not that there is no
ready money but that there is not a greater debt. I ask this for this reason that the
devil, since he can come no closer to me, shall no doubt persecute my Katie an all
sorts of ways for this reason alone that she was, and (God be praised) still is, the
espoused housewife of the man Dr. Martin.
Finally, I also ask of every man, since in this gift or endowment I am not
using legal forms and terminology (for which I have good reasons), that he
would allow me to be the person which I in truth am, namely, a public figure,
known both in heaven and on earth, as well as in hell, having respect or
authority enough that one can trust or believe more than any notary. For as God,
the Father of all mercies, entrusted to me, a condemned, poor, unworthy,
miserable sinner, the gospel of his dear Son and made me faithful and truthful,
and has up to now preserved and grounded me in it, so that many in this world
have accepted it through me and hold me to be a teacher of the truth, without
regard for the pope’s ban, and the anger of the emperor, kings, princes, clerics,
yes, of all the devils, one should surely believe me much more in these trifling
matters; and especially since this is my very well known handwriting, the hope is
that it should suffice, when on can say and prove that it is Dr. Martin Luther’s
(who is God’s notary and witness in his gospel) earnest and well considered
opinion to confirm this with his own hand and seal. Executed and delivered on
Epiphany Day, 1542
M. Luther
I, Phillip Melanchthon, attest that this is the opinion and will and hand of the
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther, our most beloved teacher and father.
And I, Kaspar Cruciger, attest that this is the design and will and hand of the
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther, our most beloved father, wherefore I myself have signed
with my own hand.
And I, Johann Bugenhagen Pomeranus, likewise attest with my own hand.

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