Martin Luther is known for inspiring the German Protestant Reformation in 1517 and giving birth to Protestantism. Beyond mere theology, Luther also frequently wrote about the economic conditions in which he lived, often criticizing the conditions the budding medieval money economy created for his less-fortunate contemporaries. This Exhortation of 1540 confirms Luther’s keen understanding of the interplay between economic choice and its necessities far exceeding the limited grasp of the economy many will admit for a “mere monk”.
Luther writes this Exhortation while a food shortage in Wittenberg is aggravated by a severe mouse infestation. What really spurred his writing was that this shortage was actively turned into an outright famine through the actions of food speculators and money lenders. The price inflation they created forced many people to turn take out loans to be able to buy basic food items. While their ability to pay the exorbitant food prices turned into a question of life-and-death, it became evident that many were ruined by excessively high interest rates and other damaging conditions of their loans.
Because the authorities claimed powerlessness in the face of this situation, Luther urges clergy to confront lenders taking exploitive interest rates on loans (usurers) and their damaging business practices. Should these “devils in human shape” refuse to repent, Luther urges pastors to practically excommunicate them: Ban usurers from Holy Communion and fellowship, and even refuse Christian burials should they perish before repenting. Pastors failing to let the usurers in their midst “go to the devil” in this way, so Luther, do so at pain of “going to hell along with them” – even if they themselves are free of sin.
Luther’s pastoral view on economy strikes us moderns as utterly naïve and out of touch with experience and present reality. But arguably this is precisely what’s missing from our contemporary discourse of a more just economy.
Presented here in English for the first time, this Exhortation to preach against exploitive interest (usury) was first sold on Christmas 1539, many editions throughout Germany followed. A Latin translation in 1554 provided an international edition readily understood across the entire European continent.
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