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Andrews Uniuersity Seminary Studies, Spring 1984, Vol. 22, NO. 1, 81-97.

Reprinted material as indicated in Editor's Note, below.




Editor's Note: This article is a shortened and edited version of

Landeen's chapter "Martin Luther and the Deuotio Moderna in Herford" in Kenneth A. Strand, ed., The Dawn of Modern Civilization: Studies in Renaissance, Reformation and Other Topics Presented to Honor Albert Hyma (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1962, 19642), pp. 145-164. The "Devotio Moderna" or "New Devotion" mentioned in the initial paragraphs was an international religious-reform movement which originated in the Netherlands in the late fourteenth century and consisted of three related groups: the Brethren of the Common Life, the Sisters of the Common Life, and the Augustinian Canons Regular of the Congregation of Windesheim. Luther attended a school of the Brethren in Magdeburg during 1497-98.

(The presence of ellipses from Landeen's somewhat longer original essay is not indicated in this edited version, except in the case of some of the direct quotations; but there is herein no discontinuity in the main line of thought.) A brief sketch of highlights in Landeen's academic career appears at the end of this article.

The problem of the impact of the Deuotio Moderna on Martin Luther has in recent years received deserved recognition. The first American historian to call attention to the probable influence of Gerard Groote's movement on the Wittenberg Reformer was Albert Hyma, who, in his Christian Renaissance and later in T h e Brethren of the C o m m o n Life,' did not hesitate to assert that "the principles of the 'New Devotion' became the spiritual food of many thousands of devout men..., and would later... be crystallized in the lives of great reformers, like Luther...."2 That Hyma ascribes to the 'A. Hyma, T h e Christian Renaissance (Grand Rapids, Mich., 1924); id., T h e Brethren of C o m m o n Life (Grand Rapids, Mich., 1950).

2The Christian Renaissance, pp. 156-157.

82 WILLIAM M. LANDEEN "New Devotion'' a not inconsiderable influence on Luther is clear from this and other statements.

More recently this subject has received special attention by Rudolf Kekow in a doctoral dis~ertation.~ Kekow examines the problem with careful, though not exhaustive, investigation and arrives at the conclusion that the Devotio Moderna influenced Luther peripherally rather than essentially. It is not possible to establish a connection between the Reformer and the "New Devotion" in his central thinking.4 And, Karl August Meissinger has suggested that the influence of Groote's movement on Luther was much more passing in character than it was in the case of Erasmus, adding that we meet in Luther's later life with "no trace of a deeper influence.... " 5 But, Luther did know the Deuotio Moderna not only from his reading and study but also from considerable personal experience.

Various utterances by the Reformer on this subject must not be passed over too lightly. Scholars in the field could read with profit E. Barnikol's cogent essay on young Martin's stay in the Brethren School at M a g d e b ~ r gAnd what shall be said about the influence.~ on Luther of Gabriel Biel, the last and most distinguished leader of Groote's movement in Germany, except that much research remains before adequate conclusions can be reached on this important question?

The most completely, though by no means fully, documented relationship of Luther and the Brethren of the Common Life in Germany is the case of the Brethren House in Herford. Here we meet the Reformer in correspondence with the Brethren; he defends their rights in a serious crisis, and he pronounces specifically upon their beliefs and practices. It is our purpose in this study to assemble the available materials bearing on this interesting and important story.

SR.Kekow, Luther und die Devotio Moderna (Dusseldorf, 1937).

4Ibid., p. 18.

5K. A. Meissinger, Der katholische Luther (Munich, 1952), p. 24.

6E. Barnikol, "Martin Luther in Magdeburg und die dortige Bruderschule," in Theologische Arbeiten (Tubingen, 1917), pp. 1-62.

1. The Herford Brethren: Backgrounds, and Early Contacts with Luther The beginnings of the Brethren in Herford go back to 1426 when the priest Conrad Westerwold from Osnabriick obtained a large manor house on the periphery of Herford and proceeded to install a circle of Brethren who two years later were organized into a Brethren House. Papal approval came in 1431.7 The Sisters of the Common Life entered Herford in 1453.

The city of Herford came under the influence of Luther's ideas rather early. In 1522, Gerard Kropp, rector of the Augustinians in Herford, began to preach the new doctrines with success. It is plausible to hold that the Brethren and the Sisters in Herford knew about Kropp's activity, but their interest in Luther came from another source; namely, from Jacob Montanus, scholar, humanist, friend of Melanchthon, member of the Brethren House, and Father Confessor to the Sisters of the Common Life in Herford.

Jacob Montanus, also known as Jacob of Spires, came out of the Miinster circle of Brethren and humanists. He was a pupil of Alexander Hegius, the famous schoolmaster of Emmerich and Deventer, a schoolmate of John Busch, and a favorite of Rudolph von Langen, whose reform of the cathedral school in Miinster made it a famous center of humanistic culture in the early fifteenth century.

It was von Langen who, in or about 1512, sent Jacob Montanus to the Brethren House in Herford to assist the Brethren in their school activities in that city.* Just when and how Jacob Montanus came under Luther's influence escapes us. It must have been before 1523, and the medium could well have been Melanchthon. When the now fragmentary correspondence between Wittenberg and the Brethren in Herford opens with Luther's letter to Montanus on July 26, 1523, there is already a fraternal and well-established relationship between this

humanist and the Reformer. Wrote Luther:

7L. Holscher, "Geschichte des Gymnasiums zu Herford I," in Programm des Friedrichs-Gymnasiums zu Herford 1869. The Statutes of the house were published in Theologische Monatsschrift, 2 (Mainz, 185 1): 543-582.

8J. B. Nordhoff, Denkwiirdigkeiten aus dem Miinsterischen Humanismus (Miin


ster, 1874), pp. 93, 123.84 WILLIAM M. LANDEEN

Grace and peace. It is true, my best Jacob, that one theme keeps me preoccupied constantly, namely, the grace of Christ.

This is the reason which you and all my friends must bear in mind if I do not write at all, or write seldom or briefly.

Concerning your latest communication on the subject of confession, I believe most assuredly that it is permissible to omit completely a recital of each and every sin. A general confession of sins is sufficient to receive the solace of the Gospel and the remission of sins....9 The adherents of the Deootio Moderna in Herford were accepting Luther, and by 1525 both the Brethren and the Sisters of the Common Life had gone over to the Wittenberger. In that year both Gerard Wiscamp, the rector, and Henry Telgte, the prorector of the Brethren House, were imprisoned "as Lutherans and heretics" by Bishop Eric of Paderborn and Osnabriick, and were released only when the Brethren paid the sum of 300 gulden as a fine, and further assured the Bishop that they would pay another 1000 gulden should they ever fall into the same heresy again. Actually, Bishop Eric was suing the Brethren in Herford for this latter sum when his death in 1534 stopped the case.10 That Luther fell back on Jacob Montanus during these years of change in Herford seems certain. He says so expressly in his first

letter to Gerard Wiscamp, rector of the Brethren House, dated September 2, 1527:"

9Luther's Werke, Briefwechsel, Weimar Ausgabe (hereinafter cited as WA-Br), 3:117. Additional light on the Herford Brethren has recently been shed by Robert Stupperich, "Luther und das Fraterhaus in Herford," in Geist und Geschichte der Reformation. Festgabe Hanns Ruchert (Berlin, 1966),pp. 219-238.

1OThe Brethren argued that their promise to pay 1000 gulden had been forced on them and was therefore invalid. See WA-Br 4:244, and L. Holscher, Reformationsgeschichte der Stadt Herford (Herford, 1888), p. 16.

"That Luther and Montanus exchanged letters during these years is further substantiated by a letter from Montanus to Willibald Pirckheimer, dated April 23, 1526, in which he asks Pirckheimer "to return the letters to Luther and Melanchthon which, I believe, you have." See WA-Br 3:lly. The editors of Luther's correspondence say (WA-Br 4:244) that Gerard Wiscamp became rector in 1528. This cannot be correct. He was imprisoned with his prorector in 1525 as responsible for the heresy of all the Brethren in his house and was held responsible ever after. Further, Luther's letter to him on September 2, 1527, is plainly written to him as rector.

Grace and peace. My previous letters have not been sent to you but to Montanus; now I am writing you, my dear Gerard, because I know that you and he are as one heart and mind in the Lord. When you show Montanus these lines thank him and ask that the Brethren pray for me the more solicitously, since their prayers and labor are of first concern to me. And I rejoice to be so well remembered by these pious men.

My commentary on Zechariah is now half finished, being delayed by the state of my health. Likewise, the Prophets in the vernacular have had to silence their harps because of our dispersion.l2 Ask Jacob to pray for us without ceasing that the fears and rumors of the pest may be stilled by the strong medicine of our Lord Christ, and that we again may be together to finish what we have begun.... I 3 The letter indicates clearly the state of affairs among the Brethren in Herford. Up to this time Jacob Montanus had been the chief spokesman for the Reformer and had actually carried both the Brethren and the Sisters of the Common Life with him in his endeavor. But from this point and on, Gerard Wiscamp, as rector of the house, is recognized as the leader of the Brethren, and Luther is specific in the matter. "You and he" (Montanus), says Luther, "are as one heart and mind in the Lord." It is plausible to hold that Luther had not been fully persuaded until he wrote this letter in response to one from Rector Gerard, that the Brethren in Herford had genuinely embraced his doctrines. His letter leaves no doubt that he had fully accepted them as his followers.

Luther alluded in the letter to his state of health. Soon after, he passed through a period of intense depression (Anfechtungen) and sickness. Gerard Wiscamp sent him a letter of consolation which elicited the following reply: "Grace and peace. I have received your communication of sympathy, my dear Gerard, with much pleasure and gratitude. Christ will reward you in eternity." l 4 QThe pest in and about Wittenberg had caused many students and professors to flee to the University of Jena.

13 WA-Br 4:243-244.

14WA-Br 4319-320, January 1, 1528. Luther's illness fell in October, and Wiscamp's letter of sympathy was probably written in November, 1527.

86 WILLIAM M. LANDEEN The correspondence continues, now in a lighter vein. Rector Gerard had sent the Luther family some lamps, and the Reformer

replies in his best humor:

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