Although Jonathan Edwards has been dubbed “America’s theologian,” only one theologian has symbolized the hopes and sanctified the heroes of every American generation since the 17th century: Martin Luther (1483–1546). In fact, when Lyman Beecher praised the immortal Edwards for reviving “vital religion” during the Great Awakening, Beecher called him “the Luther of New England.” Even Jonathan Edwards, it seemed, stood in the shadow of the German reformer.
As the seminal figure of the Protestant Reformation, Luther was to each successive generation of American evangelicals—and to Protestants throughout the world—a person of legend.
For example, in Hanover, Virginia, in the 1740s, a group of revivalists was called to county court to explain their lack of attendance at the established church. When asked their denomination, they couldn’t answer with certainty. Samuel Davies says, “As we knew but little of any Denomination of Dissenters, except Quakers, we were at a Loss what Name to assume. At length recollecting that Luther was a noted Reformer, and that his Doctrines were agreeable to our Sentiments, . . . we declared ourselves Lutherans.”
Apparently, even backwoods dissenters in Southeastern Virginia venerated the name of Martin Luther. Likewise, one Southern evangelical called the ministry of George Whitefield “another Reformation.” In the colonies, Luther became a symbol of spiritual renewal, theological recovery, and antiestablishment to a people who saw themselves in a similar light.
Unlike reformers such as John Calvin or John Owen or John Knox (or any other theologian with the name John), Martin Luther’s power to captivate the American imagination wasn’t found chiefly in his theology. Instead, Luther continued to enjoy a near-mythical status among evangelicals into the late 18th and early 19th centuries because he embodied American republican ideals like independence, virtue, and even patriotism.
Luther’s Power in American History
After the birth of the United States, evangelicals found new ways to compare themselves with the famous reformer that had very little to do with Protestant doctrine. For instance, according to a well-known preacher, “the men that breathe the breath that fanned the flame of the Revolution” are also “the men that are in sympathy with Luther.” In other words, those who loved their political freedom also loved Luther.
As the lowly German friar who had defied Pope Leo X and rebuked the spiritual tyranny of the Catholic Church, Martin Luther now represented the spirit of liberty and boldness that appealed to a generation of patriots. Luther was no longer a revivalist but a revolutionary. Conversely, those who opposed freedom of religion were included with the “numberless popes” who stood in the way of progress and the right of private judgment. According to Baptist John Leland, “True patriotism will rope the pope.” Just as Luther was rebranded as the quintessential patriot, so loyalism was framed as popery.
In the colonies, Luther became a symbol of spiritual renewal, theological recovery, and antiestablishment to a people who saw themselves in a similar light.
As the nation descended into civil war, Martin Luther sometimes emerged in American politics, but this time as a symbol of hope and strength. When Harriet Beecher Stowe heard that very few clergymen in Boston were willing to publicly oppose the evils of the Fugitive Slave Act (1850), she wished a courageous pastor would come and preach against it, that “some Martin Luther would arise to set this community right.” Luther the Protestant reformer was also a moral reformer, a prophetic figure of bravery who was willing to do the right thing and speak truth to power. More than perhaps any other attribute, this aspect of Luther’s persona was the most praiseworthy in the hearts and minds of American evangelicals.
Myth, Mascot, Mantle
In some ways, Luther was a mantle to be assumed, not just a hero to be adored. Even among evangelicals who were suspicious of Roman Catholic “superstition” and veneration of martyrs, Luther at times enjoyed an elevated status.
In the 1870s, when Robert Richardson chronicled a series of articles written by Alexander Campbell in the 1810s attacking the uneducated and rude behavior of local youths, Richardson concluded that “Alexander had, as has been well said of Luther, an ‘inflexible’ reliance on the conclusions of his own understanding and on the energy of his own will.” Even for denominations that rejected so many of the teachings of the magisterial reformers, Martin Luther was still a symbol of individualism, encouraging evangelicals to lean on their own understandings.
Yet in this version of Luther there is embodied a host of contradictions. Ironically, the man who wrote a treatise called On The Bondage of the Will (1525) inspired many evangelicals to look to the power of the will. He was a kind of Protestant saint for people who rejected sainthood. Luther was, in some sense, an American evangelical mascot, a German priest similar enough to American evangelicals to allow them to fashion themselves into his image and yet distant enough to be molded comfortably into theirs. Luther was also a hero in the more formalist denominations. In the late 19th century, Reformed Episcopalians hailed George David Cummins as “our Luther.”
In some ways, Luther was a mantle to be assumed, not just a hero to be adored.
In the early 20th century, when scholarly interest in Jonathan Edwards was at a low ebb, a so-called Luther renaissance was taking place, as German and some American universities “were determined to deepen the liberal notion of Luther as merely a pioneer of intellectual liberty.” Even among liberal theologians, Luther was useful for the life of the mind. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, another Luther renaissance occurred, but from conservative evangelicals in the “Young, Restless, and Reformed” movement who sought to recover the Reformed theology of their spiritual forebears.
After 300 years of American evangelicalism, Martin Luther offers to each generation an inspiring example of theological conviction and the potential for religious and spiritual change, as well as a somewhat misleading mirror by which evangelicals can see the very best of themselves.