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  • Writer's pictureChapman Chen

Martin Luther's Crocodile Tears for Animals. By Dr. Chapman Chen

Summary: Martin Luther (1483-1586) was a hypocrite when it comes to animal rights. On the one hand, he praised the mouse for being a divine creature with such beautiful feet and hair (LW 1.52); on the other hand, he was a carnivorous glutton with a large belly (Cochlaeus 2003:352; Connolly 2008). On the one hand, he admitted that God made His covenant with not only humans but also the animals (LW 2.106; 2.143–4); on the other hand, he opined that if intimations of our animality did not make us anxious,we would not need the good news proclaimed in Genesis that we are superior to all the other creatures (LW 1.105; Clough 2009:50). Whereas he asserted that God is present in all earthly creatures, he insisted on his "Christian liberty" to eat animal flesh (LW 22:451). While conceding that God gave every animal a soul (LW 22.30, 22.37, 28.191), he argued that humans now have absolute tyrannical power over all the animals (LW 2.132). Luther's sympathy for trapped birds and hunted animals was therefore crocodile tears.

1. Who's Martin Luther

Martin Luther was a German priest, theologian, author, hymnwriter, professor, and Augustinian friar. He was the seminal figure of the Protestant Reformation, and his theological beliefs form the basis of Lutheranism.

2. Luther Speaking out for Innocent Creatures?

Sometimes, Martin Luther would ostensibly express sympathy for innocent little creatures being persecuted by humans.

Luther once said that the mouse was a "divine creature", beautiful in form, with "such pretty feet and such delicate hair’ that it must have been created with some plan in view (LW 1.52).

In 1521, after hunting for two days in Wartburg, he wrote a letter to his theologian-friend Spalatin, in which he confessed that he was "sick of this kind of hunting," which he compared to the work of the devil "who hunts innocent little creatures with his ambushes and his dogs," mentioning that he had even tried to save a poor little rabbit, though in vain.

In a letter he wrote to himself in 1534 on behalf of the birds in the Wittenberg Wood complaining at the traps his servant Wolfgang Sieberger has set for them, it says,

To our good and kind Dr. Martin Luther, preacher in Wittenberg. We thrushes, blackbirds, linnets, goldfinches, along with other well-disposed birds who are spending their summer at Wittenberg, desire to let you know that we are told on good authority that your servant, Wolfgang Sieberger,out of the great hatred he bears to us, has brought some old rotten nets to set up a fowling-ground for finches, and not only for our dear friends and finches,but in order to depriveus of the liberty of flying in the air and pickingup grains of corn, and also to make an attempt upon our lives, although we have not deserved such a punishment at his hands. (Luther, The Letters of Martin Luther, ed. Margaret A. Currie (London: Macmillan & Co, 1908), 300 (Letter no. 312). For information on Wolfgang Sieberger and his trapping, see LW 49.158 n.)

Moreover, Luther sometimes would hold animals up as good examples to be emulated by humans. For instance, in a sermon on Jesus' comparing himself to a hen protecting her chickens in his lament over Jerusalem (Matthew 23:37 KJV), Luther states,

Let us observe how a natural mother-hen acts. There is hardly an animal that takes care of its offspring so meticulously. It changes its natural voice turning it into a lamenting, mourningone; it searches, scratches for food and lures the chick to eat. When the mother-hen finds something, she does not eat it, but leaves it for the chicks; she fights seriously and calls her chicks away from the hawk; she spreads out her wings willingly and lets the chicks climb under her and all over her, for she is truly fond of them—it is, indeed, an excellent, lovely symbol. Similarly,Christ has taken unto himself a pitiful voice, has lamented for us and has preached repentance, has indicated from his heart to everyone his sin and misery. He scratchesin the Scripture, lures us into it, and permits us to eat; he spreads his wings with his righteousness, merit, and grace over us and takes us under himself in a friendlymanner, warms us with his natural heat, i.e., with his Holy Ghost who comes solely through him, and in the air fights for us against the devil. (LW 52.97-8)

Similarly, in his commentary on Luke 1.49, Luther remarks

All animals live in contentment and serve God, loving and praisingHim. Only the evil, villainouseye of man is never satisfied. (LW 21.320)

Elsewhere, Luther comments that animals keep the law of loving their neighbour while human beings do not (LW 51.10–11).

3. Martin Luther was a Glutton

While Luther would sometimes say some "kind" words for animals, he ate their flesh voraciously, wantonly, and ravenously all the same.

Despite the widespread belief that Luther lived in poverty, evidence suggests he was a well-fed man - weighing in at a hefty 150kg (330 pounds) when he died in 1546 at the age of 63 (Connolly 2008).

According to Cochlaeus (2003:352), every evening after a supper lavishly prepared and abundantly partaken of, with his belly inflated by food and drink, Luther would look out of the window of his residence and prayed for a little while. The weight put on the isolated largeness of Luther’s belly brought to mind the particular sins of gluttony and drunkenness, while also implying that Luther is a hypocrite, for he is himself a ‘belly-worshipper’, the very accusation he made against the Catholic clergy (cf. Fletcher 2021:36).

An archeological search by certain German scientists through the kitchen waste of his household provided clues that the Luthers regularly dined on roast goose and the tender meat of piglets, while during fasting periods they tucked into expensive fish including herring, cod, and plaice. Partridge, and song-birds - particularly robins - which the family hunted with clay whistles - often graced the Luthers' dinner table (Connolly 2008).

4. Luther Delving into Similarities between Humans and Other Animals

While consuming animal flesh insatiably, Luther did recognize a lot of similarities between humanity and their fellow creatures on Earth. In his commentary on Genesis 2:7, Luther states:-

Animal life has need of food and drink; it has need of sleep and rest; their bodies are fed in like manner by food and drink, and they grow; and through hunger they become faint and perish.

Thestomach receives the food, and when the food has been digested,passes it on to the liver, which produces blood, by which all the limbs are given fresh strength. In this regard there is no difference between man and beast. (LW 1.85)

Luther goes on to remark that the beasts ‘greatlyresemble’ human beings: ‘They dwell together; they are fed together; they eat together;they receive their nourishment from the same materials; they sleep and rest among us. Thereforeif you take into accounttheir way of life, their food, and their support, the similarity is great.’ (LW1.56).

Luther is even progressive enough to note that after the flood the covenant God makes is not only with Noah and his family, but with all the other animals (LW 2.106; 2.143–4)! So much the more, when lecturing on the opening of John’s Gospel, he notes the significance of affirming that God is still working to sustain the whole of creation (LW 22.28–9); and when preaching on 1 Timothy he quotes Psalm 36.6 ‘Man and beast Thou savest, O Lord’ and avows that God is fittingly called the ‘Saviour of all beasts’ (LW 28.326).

5. The "Distinctiveness" of Humankind

David Clough (2009:50), however, points out that Luther talks about all this human-animal continuity with the "rhetorical purpose" of underlining the uniqueness of humans despite these commonalities. "The structure of his depends on this negative interpretation of continuity: if intimations of our animalitydid not make us anxious,we would not be in need of the good news proclaimed in Genesis" that we are different from and superior to those other creatures to which we appear to be so similar (Clough 2009:50). For details of how in Luther's view, humans are superior to other animals, please refer to Section 9 below.

6. Luther: God is Present in ALL Creatures

In other writings Luther appears to be less nervous about affirming the similarities between humans and other creatures of God (cf. Clough 2009:51). For example, in a 1527 tract, Luther maintains that God " must be present in every single creature in its innermost and outermost being, on all sides, through and through... so that nothing can be more truly present and within all creatures than God himself with his power," on the ground that "it is him that makes the skin... the bones... every bit of the hair... every bit of the marrow. Indeed, he must make everything, both the parts and the whole" (LW 37.58).

7. Luther's "Christian Liberty" to Eat Meat?

The same "reformer", however, insists on his "Christian liberty" to eat the flesh of the animals (LW 22:451) in whom he confesses God is present. "For us nothing is more delicious than meat," admits Luther unabashedly (LW 1:72). "It is true that we are free to eat any kind of food, meats, fish, eggs, or butter. This no one can deny. God has given us this liberty... Because you forbid me to eat meat and presume to turn my liberty into law, I will eat meat in spite of you," pronounces Luther defiantly (LW 51:186).

In this regard, Luther goes even further than St. Paul. While asserting that we can eat any meat sold in the market "without raising questions of conscience" (1 Corinthians 10:25 NIV), Paul diplomatically advised Christians to abstain from meat if it should offend other members of the church (probably because of the fact that the vegan Jerusalem Council led by Jesus' brother, James the Just, was still in power in those days). By contrast, Luther arrogantly declares, "if you cannot abstain from meat without harm to yourself, or if you are sick, you may eat whatever you like, and if anyone takes offense, let him be offended. Even if the whole world took offense, you are not committing a sin, for God can approve it in view of the liberty he has so graciously bestowed upon you" (LW 51:186).

8. Luther Concedes that Every Animal has a Soul

Luther also asserts that all animals, including human beings, derive their life from God, and recognizes that Hebrew word for soul -- nephesh or nefesh (נפש) -- denotes all animal life that lives and breathes (LW 22.30, 22.37, 28.191).

{Elsewhere Luther notes that God only breathed a living soul into Adam (LW 1.85–92), that only human beings will leave animal and enter spiritual life (LW 1.65), that only human beings know their Creator (LW 1.67), and that humans alone were created for eternal life (LW 22.30).}

9. Dominion Means Despotism to Luther

While he confesses on at least one occasion that every animal has a God-given soul, Luther interprets "dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth” (Genesis 1:28 KJV) as domination and despotism, claiming that humans are far superior to all other animals (cf. Clough 2009:45-46).

Luther seeks to affirm the superior characteristics of humans compared with other sentient being. For him this was particularly obvious before the fall:-

I am fully convinced that before Adam’s sin his eyes were so sharp and clear that they surpassed those of the lynx and eagle. He was strongerthan the lions and the bears, whose strengthis very great; and he handled them the way we handle puppies. (LW 1.62)

Had there been no fall Adam and his folk would have assembled to praise and extol God "for the dominion over all the creatures on the earth which had been given to mankind" (LW 1.105).

Even in the post-fallstate Luther suggeststhat "there is still a great differencebetween the human being and the rest of the animals" (LW 1.67). And according to Luther's commentary on Genesis 7, "even though the greater part of the world perishes [due to the Deluge], man nevertheless remains lord of the creatures" albeit over fewer creatures than there were previously (LW 2.100).

And when he comes to dwell onGenesis 9:2 "thefear of you shall be upon every beast," Luther argues that human dominionhas been enhanced and metamorphosed compared with that gifted to Adam: "until now the animalsdid not have to die in order to provide food for man, but man was a gentle master of the beasts rather than their slayer or consumer" but now "theanimals are subjectedto man as to a tyrant who has absolutepower over life and death" (LW 2.132).

From the point of view of the author (Chen 2021) of this article, "Dominion" in Genesis 1:28 KJV means not domination or despotism but "stewardship" (Linzey 2016) and "protection" (Halteman 2007), because 1. In Gen. 1:29, humans were given a vegan diet; 2. In Gen. 2:15 NIV, humans were instructed by God to "take care of" the Garden with all the animals in it; 3. God made His covenant with not only humans (Noah and his descendants) but also animals (Gen. 9:8-17); 4. God has compassion for all creatures (Psalm 145: 9). 5. Animals are our folk (Gen. 1:30). 6. Christ always sided with the marginalized (Matthew 25:40 NIV); 7. Jesus died at least partly for animal liberation. (Mark 11:18); 8. Via Jesus's crucifixion and resurrection, God reconciled himself to all groaning creatures and offered them hope of redemption (Colossians 1:19-20).

10. Theological Source of Luther's Wanton Gluttony

Luther's debaucheries can be traced back to the self-proclaimed apostle St. Paul's doctrine of justification by faith.

Luther taught that salvation and, consequently, eternal life are not earned by good deeds; rather, they are received only as the free gift of God's grace through the believer's faith in Jesus Christ, the redeemer from sin. He explains his concept of "justification" in the Smalcald Articles:- "All have sinned and are justified freely, without their own works and merits, by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus... this faith alone justifies us" (Luther, Martin. "The Smalcald Articles," in Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2005, 289, Part two, Article 1).

Apparently, this kind of concepts comes straight from St. Paul, who preaches that salvation comes by faith only, e.g., "And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness" (Romans 4:5 ESV); "For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law" (Romans 3:28 ESV); "For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast" (Ephesians 2:8-9 ESV).

(Jesus teaches the exact opposite:- salvation is attained through compassionate and righteous deeds or works based on love for God and love for our neighbors (Luke 10:27 NIV; Matt. 22:37-40 KJV), even for our enemies (Matt. 5:44 KJV), and through prayer cum fasting (Mark 9:29 KJV; Matt. 17:21 KJV), not just having faith. Likewise, James the Just, Jesus' natural brother and the leader of the Jerusalem Council, places a premium on works combined with faith:- "So... faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead... a person is justified by works and not by faith alone" (James 2:14-16, 2:24 ESV).)

Under Paul's heretic influence, Martin Luther actually confesses in a July-1530 letter to Jerome Weller, "Whenever the devil worries you with these thoughts, seek the company of men at once, or drink somewhat more liberally... or even commit some little sin from hatred and contempt of the devil... Would God I could commit some real brave sin to ridicule the devil" (Dau 1917:119-122).

11. Luther's Animal Love Discourse is Just Crocodile Tears

In conclusion, Luther's anecdotes and speeches about his sympathy for animals are just crocodile tears, or jokes, or, at the best, allegories. No doubt, David Clough (2009:57) thinks that the passage in which Luther carefully observes how a mother-hen takes care of her chicks is more than allegorical, that "Luther sees in their attentive maternal care nothing short of an image of Christ, rooted in Christ’s self-identification with a mother hen." Yet, actions speak louder than words. In reality, Luther mercilessly ate birds like roast goose; and robins - which his family hunted with clay whistles - often ended up on the Luthers' dinner table.

Another instance. In the letter in which Luther confesses that he is sick of hunting helpless, cute creatures like a rabbit, he states a preference for hunting animals that could be allegorized as "wicked teachers", like bears, wolves, boars and foxes, as if these animals deserved to be abused and victimized. In Clough's words, "it is notable that even at the end of the hunting letter, Luther describes his comments as joking, making this a common thread in each of these letters in which he identifies and empathizes with the situation of non-human animals" (Clough 2009:55).

Needless to say, the tone of the 1534 letter he wrote to himself in on behalf of the birds in the Wittenberg Wood complaining at the traps his servant has set for them is notably jocular rather than serious.

Indeed, based on his own writings, the animals are far inferior to humans in Luther's mind, so much so that "animals are subjected to man as to a tyrant who has absolute power over life and death" (LW 2.132).

In a word, Martin Luther the so-called "reformer" did not care about the well-being of the animals at all. He only cared about his insatiable Satanic appetite.


Chen, Chapman (2021). "Does "Dominion" over Animals in Genesis Mean Stewardship or Despotism?" HKBNews, July 17.

Clough, David (2009). "The Anxiety of the Human Animal: Martin Luther on Non-human Animals and Human Animality." in Creaturely Theology: On God, Humans and Other Animals. Edited by Celia Deane-Drummond and David Clough. London: SCM Press, 41-60.

Cochlaeus, Johannes (2003). "The Deeds and Writings of Martin Luther from the Year of the Lord 1517 to the Year 1546 Related Chronologically to All Posterity by Johannes Cochlaeus", in E. Vandiver and R. Keen (eds), Luther’s Lives: Two Contemporary Accounts of Martin Luther (Manchester, 2003).

Connolly, Kate (2008). "Researchers dig up the dirt on father of Protestantism." The Guardian, Oct. 27.

Dau, W.H.T. (1917). Luther Examined and Reexamined: a Review of Catholic Criticism and a Plea for Revaluation (Concordia Pub. House, 1917).

Fletcher, Holly (2021). "Belly-Worshippers and Greed-Paunches: Fatness and the Belly in the Lutheran Reformation." German History, Volume 39, Issue 2, June 2021, 173–200.

Halteman, M. C. (2011). "Varieties of Harm to Animals in Industrial Farming." Journal of Animal Ethics, 1(2), 122–131.

Linzey, Andrew (2016). "Christian Theology and Animal Rights." FRA. (

Luther, Martin (1958). Luther's Works (abbrev. LW). Ed. Jaroslav Pelikan. Saint Louis: Concordia.

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