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On trade and usury

by Martin Luther


THE HOLY GOSPEL condemns and points out all sorts of works of darkness, as Saint Paul calls them, Romans, 13, 12; for it is a bright light that shines for all the world, and teaches how evil are the works of the world, and shows the right works which one should do towards God and his neighbor. Wherefore certain among the merchants have aroused themselves and become aware that in their occupation many evil tricks and harmful practices are in use, and that there is fear, it is true here, as Solomon the preacher says, that merchants can scarcely live without sin. Yea, I believe the saying of St. Paul strikes here, I. Timothy, 6, 10:

1 Martin Luther's address on " Trade and Usury " exhibits on the one hand his implicit faith in the Gospel, and on the other hand an unusual perspicacity and common sense. The way in which he reconciles the one with the other, where apparently they come into conflict, does honor to both his religious earnestness and his insight into the conditions and practical demands of life. Luther accepts Christ's ethics of non-resistance to evil, of lending where there is no hope of recovery, and of giving freely to those in need. These maxims, however, are practicable only in a society where all people are good Christians. If they were indiscriminately applied in this actual world of ours, which must be governed by a strong hand, the bad would soon take advantage of the pious and presume upon their patience. Luther therefore comes to the conclusion that business should be conducted strictly on cash terms with a view to reasonable profits. How little Luther would have people yield to goodnaturedness or sentimentality appears from his condemnation of going surety as a foolish self-indulgence. At the same time he calls attention to the dangers of buying and selling on time; he exposes the methods of fraudulent bankruptcy, of the artificial raising of prices by combinations, of cornering the market, and all other illegitimate business tricks which, it appears, were as common in his days as they are now.

Luther speaks with authority, because he makes himself the spokesman of the nation's conscience; and his sermon is remarkable for the loftiness of his conviction and the purity of his motive. Nevertheless, it contains some serious shortcomings which, even granting the divinity of Luther's mission, are due to the fact that the great reformer was after all a child of his age and limited by the narrow horizon of his time. In many respects he towered high above his contemporaries, but like most German clergymen of the sixteenth century he had a child-like belief in the paternalism of the government, which was expected to right all the wrongs that originated through the vices of bad people.

The pamphlet " On Trade and Usury" appeared in 1524; the same subjects in part had been

"Greed is the root of all evil;" and again, verse 9, "Those who desire to become rich, fall into temptation and the toils, and into many vain and harmful desires which sink people into destruction and damnation."

Now, although I think that this my epistle will be almost useless, because the mischief has made such inroads and in all matters gained such headway in all lands, and since, moreover, those who understand the Gospel might themselves judge in their own conscience what is right and what is wrong in such simple and plain matters; nevertheless, I am admonished and besought to touch these practices and to bring some of them to daylight (although the mob does not desire it), so that certain of them, though but few, may be rescued from the jaws and gorge of greed. For, indeed, it must be that certain are still to be found among merchants, as well as among other men, who cleave to Christ and would rather be poor with God than rich with the Devil, as the Thirty-seventh Psalm, verse 16, says: "A little with the just is better than great goods with the godless."

Of Foreign Luxuries.—Well then, for the sake of these we must speak. But now, this cannot be denied, that buying and selling is a necessary thing which we cannot do without, and which can be used in a Christian manner, especially in those points serving need and honor, for thus also the patriarchs sold cattle, wool, butter, milk, and other goods. They are gifts of God which he gives out of the earth and distributes among men. But foreign merchandise which brings from Calicut and India, and the like places wares such as precious silks, and jewels, and spices, which serve only love of show and no useful purpose, and drain the land and people of their money, should not be permitted if we had a government and princes. But I do not propose now to speak of these things; for I think that these things will needs be dropped of themselves finally when our money is all gone, as well as the display and gluttony; indeed, no writing or teaching else will do any good until need and poverty force us.

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