E.G. White’s Misinformation

About Martin Luther’s Eschatology

by Yoel Natan

October 2006

Updated 20 Feb 2009

 

20 Feb 2009 Update:  That Luther persuaded himself that the Last Day would be no further off than 300 years can be found in the book The familiar discourses of Dr. Martin Luther, (1818), translated by H. Bell, pp. 7-8. I’m indebted to Seventh Day Adventist Mr. Michael Prewitt for finding the quotation recently. Here’s the quotation:

            I hope the last day of judgment is not far, I persuade myself verily it will not be absent full three hundred years longer; for God’s word will decrease and be darkened for want of true shepherds and servants of God. The voice will sound and heard erelong: ‘Behold the Bridegroom cometh.’ God neither will nor can suffer this wicked world much longer, He must strike in with the dreadful day, and punish the contemning of His Word, and so will quite beat out the barrel’s head.

 

The Suspect Quotation

      I came across this E.G. White statement from her The Great Controversy (1888), about Luther’s eschatological beliefs on the Ellen White, Org. website:

      Martin Luther placed the judgment about three hundred years in the future from his day.[1]

She copied it from a recent Millerite book published by a Seventh-day Adventist press, namely, Life Incidents (1868), by James White, now available at Google Books:

      Martin Luther…thought the Judgment about three hundred years in the future.[2]

      I searched for a possible source of this misinformation on the Web, and also in this book:

Plass, Ewald M. What Luther Says. Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, 1959.

I found nothing. The Luther quotations that I did find though would contradict this questionable assertion made by James White--and repeated without attribution E.G. White. Luther believed that Christ’s return was imminent—not three hundred years hence from his day—as one can see from this extract from the Wikipedia entry “Unfulfilled historical predictions by Christians”:

      Luther stated: ‘For my part, I am sure that the Day of Judgment is just around the corner. It doesn’t matter that we don't know the precise day... perhaps someone else can figure it out. But it is certain that time is now at an end’ (Reformation Principles and Practice: Essays in Honor of Arthur Geoffrey Dickens, p 169)…Another work says: ‘In all of his [Luther’s] work there was a sense of urgency for the time was short...the world was heading for Armageddon in the war with the Turk’ (Luther's View of Church History, John M. Headley, Yale University Press, 1963, pp 13,14).

James White’s quotation is even more dubious since he provided no provenance for the quotation, and he and the publisher just happens to be a Seventh-day Adventist. In other words, White would have a motive to manufacture a quotation of a great Reformer since this would serve to put Luther in the Millerite camp, thereby enriching and enhancing the reputation of the Millerites. The publisher would readily publish it so as to sell more SDA books, thereby enriching the publishers.

      Of course, there’s always the risk that the “three hundred years” assertion will be substantiated from Luther’s voluminous works—most of which have not been translated into English yet. With that caveat, one can say that the prophetess E.G. White seems to have copied misinformation about Luther’s eschatology into her “inspired” works, which books have been amply exposed as plagiarism.

      E.G. White was part of the American Millerite movement that predicted the end of the world in 1844, and so would have been partial to “date-setting” books and facts of questionable integrity. The assertion that Luther himself was a date-setter is doubly suspect coming from the likes of E.G. White and from books that she would read. This reminds one of the “prophet” Joseph Smith who copied many translation mistakes from the King James Bible into his Book of Mormon and into Smith’s inspired version of the Bible.

 

How to Trace a Suspect Luther Quotation (With Examples)

 

      Fortunately, most Luther quotations one comes across are sourced. However, even though one might be a lifelong Lutheran and have theological training, it is likely that one will run into an unfamiliar Luther quotation that is not sourced. Moreover, a search on the quotation on the Web may turn into a dead end.

      One cannot always resolve absolutely that Luther did not say something since one cannot always pinpoint the origin of the quotation to ask the author the source, or whether he made the quotation up. Nevertheless, the findings of a search should mention:

1)      How much time was sunk into looking for the quotation.

2)      What sources were consulted even if nothing useful was found in them.

3)      The title, page, and date of the earliest known instance of the quotation.

4)      Whether the earliest mention attributes the quotation to some earlier source that no longer exists or is otherwise unverifiable.

5)      Whether the suspect quotation is known in only America, England or Germany, since this would suggest the source of the bogus quotation. This would require searching the Internet in different languages, emailing foreign academics, etc.

6)      Whether the quotation contradicts Lutheran doctrine and what Luther was known to say.

7)      Whether there are variants to the quotation, and whether the variation involves wording or facts. Variations in wording may be just different translations or embellishments, but variations in facts make the quotation or paraphrase ever more suspect.

      I found different renditions of the Luther “Last Day” quotation, and I found some assertions that Luther predicted the end would come by 1600, within a hundred years[3] and within two hundred years. Also, one site said Luther made the prediction in the year 1500 (well before the Reformation), and another site said 1546, the year of Luther’s death. These variations in fact and style make one suspect the validity of the quotation. Here is a source that quotes Familiar Discourses, a book for which I was unable to locate a bibliography. Luther supposedly said:

      I hope the last day of judgment is not far, I persuade myself verily it will not be absent full three hundred years longer; for God’s word will decrease and be darkened for want of true shepherds and servants of God. The voice will sound and heard erelong: ‘Behold the Bridegroom cometh.’ God neither will nor can suffer this wicked world much longer, He must strike in with the dreadful day, and punish the contemning of His word.[4]

      An example of an embellishment may be a common saying attributed to Luther: “Why should the Devil have all the good music?!” A look at the index of the Luther quotation anthology Plass, Ewald M. What Luther Says. Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, 1959, reveals no entry for music, surprisingly. A search on Luther, musik and Satan in Google turns up a German wikipedia site with the quotation: “Die Musik ist die beste Gottesgabe - und dem Satan sehr verhasst (Tischreden).” If one does not trust ones own translation, one can use Google’s translator tool. The English translation is: The music is the best God gift - and the Satan much hates (Table Talk). It is possible that “Why should the Devil have all the good music?!” is an embellishment or polishing of this “Die Musik” quotation, or perhaps the true source is another passage in Luther’s Works and we are looking at a parallel passage.

      Here is another example of tracing down a suspect Luther quote on vocation. The author of a 2005 Lutheran Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota, editorial said that the vocation quote could only be traced back to an “Our Daily Bread” devotional from 1994. The editor wrote:

      Nowhere could I find a website that made reference to any of Luther’s works when quoting this alleged statement. Instead, the reference, if any, is to the September 5, 1994 (Labor Day), usage in “Our Daily Bread,” the daily devotional provided by Radio Bible Class; see http://www.rbc.org/odb/odb-09-05-94.shtml (accessed 11 August 2005).[5]

Yet another example of running down a quotation comes from the Luther.de site that says:

      Many more legends about Luther and trees swirl around, one of the best known should be mentioned, the famous saying: ‘If I knew that tomorrow was the end of the world, I would plant an apple tree today!’ is attributed to Luther. One must remember, that the first written evidence of this saying comes from 1944...

The 1944 date may come from Martin Schloemann’s book which has a section on the apple-tree quote.[6]

      I, Yoel Natan, think the Luther apple seedling quotation was invented and attributed to Luther in 1944 or before, but it comes by way of an ancient rabbi, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, who survived the sacking of Jerusalem in 70AD. Claudia J. Setzer wrote:

      While they [rabbis] retained the idea of longing for a messiah, they did not encourage chasing after one. A Tannaitic source reads, “He [Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai] used to say: ‘If there were a plant in your hand and they should say to you, ‘Look, the Messiah is here!’ Go and plant your plant, and after that go forth to receive him’ (‘Abot R. Nat. B 31).[7]

      The search for a quotation is similar to looking for the proverbial dropped coin underneath a streetlight. The odds are that the coin rolled out of the lighted area, but looking in the pitch-black area requires a flashlight. The easy-to-search lighted area in a Luther quote search would be:

1)      Using search engines using quotation marks around phrases and other techniques.

2)      Looking in the index of popular Luther quotation anthology books such as Plass, Ewald M. What Luther Says. Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, 1959.

If the quote cannot be found in the lighted area, then one needs to grab a flashlight:

3)      One can search of Luther’s Works in print or on CD. If the words of the quotation are common words like Judgment Day and three hundred years, a thorough search becomes more tedious, and that’s if the words are even listed in the subject index (usually the last volume of the set). Luther’s Works on CD would come in handy for searches. I recall seeing one such CD for $200-something, but a college or seminary (not necessarily Lutheran) library might have the CD in their circulation collection. Exact phrase searches on the CD is better than looking for individual words.

4)      Sometimes Luther’s Works will be advertized as a “complete set,” but that doesn’t mean it contains every word Luther said and wrote—only his most popular writings. The English versions are all abridged, so not locating a quotation in the English version does not absolutely mean Luther did not say it. Exhaustive collections are the German Weimar edition and perhaps the Italian (?) Politica E Vita Religiose A Firenze Tra ‘300 E ‘500. I do not know whether the exhaustive version(s) of Luther’s Works are on CD, but assuredly an abridged German version would be on CD.

5)      Asking Lutheran academics at colleges and seminaries whether they heard of the quotation before. UK and most German academics know English, so one need not restrict oneself to American academics.

 

© Yoel Natan. All rights reserved.

 



[1] White, E.G. The Great Controversy, 1888 (1911 edition), p. 356, as compiled in Rea, Walter T. “The White Lie! “The Great Controversy,” The Ellen White Research Project, http://www.ellenwhite.org/rea/rea9.htm, accessed 25 Oct 2006.

[2] White, James. Life Incidents in Connection with the Great Advent Movement: As Illustrated by the Three Angels of Revelation XIV. Steam Press of the Seventh-day Adventist Publishing Association, 1868 (373 pages), p. 220, as compiled in Rea, Walter T. “The White Lie!…Ibid.

[3] One person wrote: “Back around 1500, Luther became convinced that he was living in the ever-popular End Times and that the world would be coming to a bloody, gruesome, gore-drenched, bile-washed, bone-shattering, sinner-roasting, screeching halt in no more than 100 years... Ah, that Luther...ever the pipe dreamer” http://www.geocities.com/alma-geddon/doomwish1.html.

[5] F.J.G. “What Luther Didn’t Say about Vocation,” Word & World—Theology for Christian Ministry, luthersem.edu, Fall 2005, luthersem.edu/word&world/EditorialFall2005.shtm.

[6] Schloemann, Martin. Luthers Apfelbäumchen: Ein Kapitel deutscher Mentalitätsgeschichte seit dem Zweiten Weltkrieg. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen, 1994, pp. 246–251.

[7] Carroll, John T. et al. The Return of Jesus in Early Christianity. Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, Massachusetts, 2000, pp. 180-181.