Joseph McCabe (1867-1955) was one of the most prolific authors of all time. He was brought up as a Roman Catholic, worked on Latin documents, and made himself very well-informed about Christianity, but turned against it. But he was extremely naive about Jews; bear this in mind.

Click for Detailed notes on McCabe - scroll down for selections from A Rationalist Encyclopaedia (1948).

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Luther, Martin, D.D. (1483-1546)

J. McCabe, Rationalists Encyclopaedia

Luther, Martin, D.D. (1483-1546). His father was of the peasant class, but he had improved his position, and he gave Martin a good education at the local Latin School and Erfurt University. There is no charge against his character either at school or in the Augustinian monastery which he entered. Whether he was neuropathic - some say epileptic - and terrified into a deeper piety by a thunderstorm is one of the idle disputes which distract attention from his real historical significance. This is, as regards the first part of his life, that the coarseness of his language reflects the normal coarseness of the monastic as well as the lay world of the time. We gather from him that life in this abbey was not irregular - no one suggests that all monasteries were - but the conversation appears to have been what modern taste calls filthy (not sexually). The grosser words of Luther are, of course, erased from English translations, but the Jesuit Father Grisar makes a malodorous bouquet of them (from Luther's Table Talk, etc.) in his German biography (Luther, 1911, Engl. trans., 1913), and the American Mgr. P. O'Hara (The Facts about Luther) finds in them "a Satanic desire to deify indecency." Luther obviously used this language, like Rabelais, to provoke laughter. This reflects on the character of his earlier monastic environment as much as on his later environment. In point of fact, his chief opponent, the celebrated friar-preacher Thomas Murner, often used the same coarse language in sermons delivered to crowds of burghers in the cathedrals and large churches. See his Narrenbeschweerung (in vile mediaeval German), of which Spanier published a modern edition (1894). As Gustav Jung shows, in his Geschlechtsmoral des deutschen Weibes im Mittelalter (1922), and, as is explained in many articles of this work, women as well as men of all conditions had then a sexual looseness and coarseness to which it is hardly possible to find a parallel in normal periods of history. A booklet privately printed in America, and attributed to Mark Twain, fairly represents conversation at the Court of Elizabeth.
      The second chief point in the modern Catholic attempt to weaken Luther's indictment of the Church is less crude, but equally unsound. It is to exaggerate "the social and political causes of the Reformation," with a suggestion that the corruption of the Church had much less to do with it, and was far less in volume, than the historians of the last century represented. A few recent historical writers have adopted this apologetic novelty. Even in a neutral work like Roy Pascal's Social Basis of the Reformation (1933) we find the social causation greatly exaggerated and the corruption of the Papacy, the priests, and the monks, so understated as to give an entirely false impression. How the political conditions ensured the success of the rebellion against Rome in the sixteenth century, though such revolt had repeatedly failed in earlier centuries, will be considered under the title Reformation, but they certainly did not cause the revolt. Of the social conditions, neither Luther nor any other Reformer took much notice. When the mass of the people, the peasants, taking their stand on the preaching of justice in the Gospels, rebelled against the foul and cruel conditions in which they lived, and appealed to Luther, he addressed a pamphlet (Against the Murderous Peasants) to the nobles urging them to "cut them (the peasants) down, slaughter and stab them." He said that their demand for the abolition of serfdom was "against the Gospels, and robbery." Melanchthon also appealed to the nobles to crush the peasants, and in one summer 150,000 of them were killed, the leaders having the flesh torn from them with red-hot pincers. It is, to say the least, extremely misleading to quote social conditions as a cause of the Reformation. It was, in fact, not so much the moral corruption as the adulteration of doctrine that moved Luther at first. He visited Rome in 1510, when the Papal Court was still brazenly corrupt, but he took no step until 1517, when Tetzel began to sell indulgences in his district. In later years he wavered between the two horns of the Christian dilemma: Paul, the founder of the religion, and Augustine, the founder of its theology, had been fanatically anti-sex; yet God was the author of nature. Luther robustly concluded that God meant men to enjoy sensual pleasure. Catholic writers on him go so far as to suggest that he contracted syphilis from one of the ex-nuns or other women who surrounded him in later years. See, especially, the vicious Luther of Father Grisar, and the works of Father Denifle and Mgr. O'Hara. He remains, in spite of the floods of ink that have been poured out about him, an enigmatic personality: certainly sincere and religious, but very far from "spiritual," as the word is now used, in his mature years. He did not inspire the revolt against Rome, if he "hatched the egg which Erasmus had laid." The revolt had, as we show in many articles, simmered and repeatedly overflowed from the eleventh century onward, and it was the corruption of the Papacy, the clergy, the monks, and the nuns, that counted most in its inspiration - not so much the vice itself, which shocked only a minority in so loose-living an age, as the hypocrisy of it in the clergy and their greed and parasitism. Books on Luther are either white (Protestant) or black (Catholic), and a portrait in half-tones is very desirable. Probably Prof. Mackinnon's Luther and the Reformation (4 vols., 1925-30) is the best now available, though it lacks candour and is overloaded with Protestant theology.


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