"Martin Luther and other reformers were inspired to create a religious climate in which God could restore lost truths and priesthood authority” – LDS Apostle M. Russell Ballard, quoted in the current LDS Sunday School manual
“Even if they [the Jews] were punished in the most gruesome manner that the streets ran with their blood, that their dead would be counted, not in the hundred thousands, but in the millions… they are the devil's children, damned to Hell...” – Martin Luther
I am indebted to one of my regular Mormon readers for providing the inspiration for today’s post. He is welcome to identify himself in the comments section below, but will remain anonymous in this essay. Our friend objected to a Sunday School teacher’s praise of Martin Luther last week, and took the extraordinary step of emailing a church department in Salt Lake City to urge them to rethink their positive views of a vicious anti-Semite. Although I had nothing to do with the letter, he copied me on it. This is not the first time that I have encountered anti-Luther sentiment in the LDS community (though it pales when compared to anti-Mormon sentiment among some Lutherans), and I think that a brief public discussion of this topic would be useful.
According to LDS theology, the original, “true” Christian church lost its priesthood and accompanying divine authority shortly after the deaths of the original apostles. A restoration of God’s priesthood, along with prophets, apostles, and revelation, became necessary. However, only God, not man, could restore this authority, and it is an axiom of our faith that this happened when the restored Church of Jesus Christ was organized in 1830 by a modern prophet, Joseph Smith.
That said, we have great admiration for those Protestant reformers who rebelled centuries earlier against the excesses of the dominant church in Europe and attempted to restore original Christianity on their own. We don’t believe that they were authorized by God to organize their churches, but we do believe that some of them were inspired to create what became Protestantism, which ultimately led to the founding of a mostly Protestant country in the Americas where God’s true church could be restored. Given that Martin Luther was the first great Protestant leader, it is understandable that he is often praised in LDS literature for his boldness and determination.
That said, I agree with the LDS Luther-haters on a basic level. After all, if Luther had had the power to implement his publicly expressed policies vis-à-vis the Jews, there would have been no need for Hitler and his Final Solution: all of Germany’s Jews would have been exterminated or expelled centuries ago. Not only do I find Luther’s anti-Semitic rants deplorable, but his religious legacy supports my thesis that those who hate Jews almost always hate Mormons as well. Having grown up in Frankenlust Township in a small Michigan city that was half-German, I am well aware of lingering anti-Mormon feelings among Lutherans. In high school I befriended the son of a Lutheran pastor who hated the LDS Church: after a few arguments, we agreed to discuss everything but religion.
In the end, viewing this controversy through a Jewish prism yields valuable insights that allow me to support Mormon praise for one of the Nazis’ heroes. First of all, neither Jews nor Mormons expect perfection from religious leaders, and believe that deeply flawed people can nevertheless receive divine inspiration to further God’s purposes. Solomon, the great Israelite king who built the First Temple in Jerusalem, later turned to idolatry and incurred God’s wrath. Moses killed a man, the Apostle Peter publicly denied on three occasions that he had known Jesus, and the Apostle Paul persecuted Christians before his miraculous conversion. None of these actions prevent Mormons from praising these men for the positive things that they did while under God’s inspiration. If Martin Luther posted his 95 theses in Wittenberg as a result of God’s influence, then he deserves to be honored for it, regardless of his subsequent descent into hatred and bigotry.
When considering LDS leaders’ praise of Luther, it’s helpful to compare it to Jewish leaders’ praise for some pro-Israel Christian leaders who also happen to be anti-Mormon. Does this bother me? Not in the slightest, because I know that Jews are praising those Christians for their support of Israel, not their anti-Mormon activities. In a similar vein, Mormons who aren’t too keen on Luther (like yours truly) would do well to remember that LDS leaders have never praised his anti-Semitism, only his role in establishing Protestantism.
I always mention Luther’s anti-Semitism when he is brought up in a Mormon setting, and encourage my fellow anti-Luther Mormons to do likewise. However, we can’t let our opposition to one feature of his ministry blind us to his significant religious contributions. Martin Luther was an inspired man for a period of time, and we do no harm to Jews by acknowledging this.