Bugenhagen, Luther, and Chemnitz
on Demonic Possession and Exorcism
On the day of the festival of Simon and Judas we arrived safely, by the grace of God, in Lübeck. Once I had gotten there the Devil gave public notice of himself and was recognized in a possessed girl, who, until this time, had been quite well. Before this, his presence in her was doubted, but now he claimed openly to be there and to have entered the young girl through an old woman’s curse. The girl had reminded the old woman (the Devil claimed) of a pound which she still owed her, to which the woman responded: “I’ll send the Devil into your body.”
I was with the girl today, who was well again. Because they feared that the Devil might return, the parents were still concerned. Her parents told me what else the Devil had said: “Aren’t there enough preachers here? Why is it that you had to call one from Wittenberg?” He also said: “Bugenhagen has come. I know him well, and have often been with him, etc.” When I had heard this from the girl’s father, in her presence, I laughed and was reminded of the verse in Acts 19: “Jesus I know well and Paul I know well, etc.” It is quite true that he has often tempted me and bothered me with his thousand tricks, trying to disprove my teaching and faith, but because of Christ, who helped me by His grace, he was not able to achieve anything except to provoke me to do battle with him. I have still not forgotten what he tried to do through the Silesian Sacramentalists, etc. In other sins it has seemed as if he was defeating me. But, Christ be thanked, though he was pleased to visit me, he was not pleased to stay. I would remind you again to pray for me in this matter, etc.
But to return to the situation: I asked the girl, who is about eighteen years old and continually bed-ridden, if, after she had come to herself again and was feeling well, she was aware of the way in which she had cursed and mocked. She answered no, that she knew nothing of this. Her parents told me the same thing. They, too, had questioned her when she had regained her senses as to why she had mocked so terribly. She had answered them: “I didn’t do it, it was the Devil in me; but I have no idea what I did.” They also told me the following: Yesterday, while the Devil was torturing her, the father began to quote to her from the Word of God, and, when that did not help, he took a copy of the German New Testament and held it in front of her. She, however, turned her face away and began biting the pillow that was under her head, etc. I spoke for a while with the girl and she gave proper Christian answers and a good understanding of her baptism. I was especially concerned to convince her not to get the idea that she was forced to belong to the Devil simply because he had tortured her, etc. Finally, I knelt, along with all who were present, laid my hands on her head, and prayed. She thanked me as I was leaving.
While I was writing this letter, however, a messenger came and told me that the Devil had tortured the girl again, had thrown her naked out of bed, and under a table, and then under a chair, and had twisted her neck so badly that she would have died had not her father quickly come to help. The girl’s parents pleaded that I should come. So I went, and, as I arrived in front of the house, I heard a loud scream. When I entered and reached the possessed girl I heard with my own ears these words: “Bugenhagen the traitor is coming! Oh the traitor, he wants to torture me and will not allow me to remain! Oh, I must go out!” I stood there dumbfounded, and even though I did not believe the liar, I nevertheless interpreted his words to refer not only to the possessed girl, but to the entire city; that is, that I would not tolerate the Devil’s kingdom in it. May the God of all mercy permit and accomplish this through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.
All those present claimed that the girl had not formerly known my name, and added that she had mocked horribly before I had entered the house. Now when she screamed, I yelled back and called her by name: “Elizabeth!” The Devil answered: “Elizabeth, Elizabeth.” Then I said: “Yes, are you trying to deny it? Why shouldn’t I call you Elizabeth? You gave me testimony today that you received that very same name in baptism, by which we are baptized into Christ.” He then began to pounce about, screaming so loudly that those present could not hear each other. But I fell to my knees and prayed earnestly with the intensity which the girl’s misery and despair wrung out of me, speaking loudly so that all could hear, that the Lord Jesus should free her – for He had said, “In my name they will drive out devils.” I think that the others were praying with me since I had turned my back to them. Meanwhile the Devil screamed: “I must go out! Oh I must go out!”, and tortured the girl horribly. But her father held her. Immediately after this she lay still, so that her father no longer had to hold her. She lay there, breathing heavily as if she was about to depart. Meanwhile the father told me what the Devil had said to him yesterday before I had arrived: “You doubt that I am present! Now look, I have given you a clear sign!” He pointed to a hole in the window which he had broken. “That,” said he, “is how I entered, etc.”
Though the girl’s body was still moving, we were afraid that she was slipping away. While I sat and waited to see what would happen, she opened her eyes just as if she was awakening from sleep. I spoke to her with a quiet voice: “Elizabeth!” She answered: “What?” I continued: “Do you know what you have done and the way in which you mocked?” She answered: “No.” So I reminded her in the same way I had earlier in the day. Then I knelt and prayed with my hands on her head that she should be free, etc. Having finished praying, I asked her to say the Amen. This she did willingly.
And so I left; but I have been told that the Devil tortured her again that night, just as we read in the Gospel concerning the swine, etc., and screamed: “I must go out, but where shall be my habitation? There is a horse in Lünenburg; I will enter it, or perhaps the chain-maker.” Now the girl’s father was of the same profession and was, as we say, an adventurous man, since, to my surprise, he had spoken to me without fear from the start, as soon as he was certain that it was the Devil. Said he: “If it weren’t a sin there’s a lot I would ask the scoundrel and he would have to answer it all.” I, however, forbade him to ask anything secretly of the Tempter or to allow it of anyone else. I did not ask what else had happened.
I am puzzled that Satan can confuse people this way. But no matter what he does or says, he still shows that he is a stupid and condemned spirit. These things happened on the eve of All Saints Day, in the year 1530. May God graciously give us the victory against all of [the Devil’s] fiery darts through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (Johannes Bugenhagen, Letter to the Wittenberg Theologians [Nov. 1, 1530], in John Warwick Montgomery, Principalities and Powers [Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1973], pp. 181-83)
People are possessed [by the devil] in two ways: some corporally, according to their [external] humanity, and others spiritually, according to their spirit [or soul], as is the case with all the godless. In those who are corporally possessed and frenzied, the devil inhabits and vexes only the body, not the soul. So the soul remains secure and unharmed. The demons can be driven out of such people by prayer and fasting. (Martin Luther, Table Talk #1170 , Luther’s Works, Vol. 58 [Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2010], p. 75)
A brother in the Lord brought me your letter, and with it your question concerning a certain woman who is plagued by the devil. I am compelled to write briefly because I am burdened with a great number of other obligations. But since Theobald Diedelhuber, who is to be the bearer of this letter, is here, I wish to reply, even if for no other reason than to commend him to you.
The first thing you and your congregation ought to do is this: Pray fervently and oppose Satan with your faith, no matter how stubbornly he resists. About ten years ago we had an experience in this neighborhood with a very wicked demon, but we succeeded in subduing him by perseverance and by unceasing prayer and unquestioning faith. The same will happen among you if you continue in Christ’s name to despise that derisive and arrogant spirit and do not cease praying. By this means I have restrained many similar spirits in different places, for the prayer of the Church prevails at last. Consequently you should have no doubt, if you pray in truth and with perseverance, that this wicked spirit will be humbled.
The second thing is this: Carefully investigate whether that woman might be practicing some fraud by means of which all of you could be made objects of ridicule. In my own experience (apart entirely from what I have read in books) I have encountered such frauds, and afterward I reproached myself for my simplicity. The evil spirit takes delight (as he did from the beginning with Adam) in using a woman to make a fool of a man – if he cannot make him godless, as he much prefers to do. In short, whatever it is, whether it be in this woman or in others whom you mention, whether it be in the form of an incubus, a succubus, or other monstrosities, we nevertheless know that it is the devil. Therefore, we should not be inattentive and casual with regard to his fabrications and deeds, his realities and apparitions, but should fight against him with faith and prayer. The one whom he crucified lives. And by his own power the crucified One again triumphed over his crucifier in order that in the former we may triumph over the latter. (Martin Luther, Letter to Bernard Wurzelmann [Nov. 2, 1535], Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel [Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960], pp. 42-43)
What you write appears incredible to many. When, before you wrote to me, this case was reported here, I too thought that I was listening to a joke or a fable. But if things are as you write, I believe that this is to be taken as a sign that God is permitting Satan to imitate and portray the practice of certain princes who are everywhere robbing and devouring wealth without accomplishing anything.
Inasmuch as you have to do here with a jocular spirit who in his leisure pokes fun at our security, we must first of all pray earnestly for the girl who is compelled to suffer such things on our account. In the second place, this spirit must in turn be ridiculed and derided, but he must not be attacked with any exorcisms or serious measures, for he laughs at all these things with diabolical scorn. We must persevere in our prayer for the girl and our contempt of the devil until finally, Christ permitting, he lets her alone. It would also be good if the princes who are accused by this sign would lay aside their vices, for the evil spirit indicates that he controls them mightily and securely.
I pray you, since the case deserves it, that you publish an account of it and that you investigate everything carefully to discover whether any deception is being practiced, especially whether the money or coins which the girl takes feel hard in the hands of others and are of the kind that can be used in the market place. For I have before been harassed by so many dissimulations, artifices, frauds, lies, tricks, etc., that I am necessarily reluctant to believe everything and everybody; I must believe only what I know I have myself done and said. Such is the power of the devil, the wickedness of the world, and the impudence of men today! Wherefore watch and be careful lest you too are deceived and I am led astray by you. As the proverb puts it, “Let experience be your guide.” (Martin Luther, Letter to Andrew Ebert [August 5, 1536], Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel, pp. 44-45) Note: Luther is here responding to a letter from Andrew Ebert, a preacher in Frankfurt on the Oder, in which Ebert had expressed his belief that a girl in his parish was possessed by the devil, and in which he had asked for Luther’s advice on what could be done to help her. Ebert reported that the girl snatched small coins from tables, or from the sleeves, coats, or beards of people who were standing nearby; that she placed these coins in her mouth; and that she chewed and swallowed them. He also reported that she had begun to speak in a German dialect that she had not known before. Luther was likewise informed that a Roman priest had come from a neighboring town, and had made use of consecrated herbs, holy water, and exorcism, but had failed to cure the girl.
...all the wretchedness and misery rampant in the world is the work of the devil, who delights in bringing ruin and death on man; for it was he who plunged all human nature into sin and death. But, as we learn from 1 John 3:8, “the reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” and to re-establish the divine works of life. This He proved so forcefully that even the Jews had to admit grudgingly that no man could perform such works. And even though they declared that no one but God could forgive sin, still His works stood before their eyes in testimony that He had this divine power and that He was the Man who could help man from death to life, against sin to righteousness, from strife to peace and every good. Thus we become assured not only of the doctrine that Christ is true God with the Father, but also that He is a merciful God and Savior; and we can recognize and apprehend the Father’s heart and will in all the works of the Lord Christ, for the true and blessed consolation of all wretched and aggrieved hearts and consciences. “Thus,” says Christ, “My works will aptly demonstrate to you that the Father is in Me and wants to be known through Me.”
But you say: “After all, the devil can work miracles and signs like Christ’s. How, then, can we found our belief on the miracles of Christ?” It is true that the devil can torment people and lay them low; or he can blind them temporarily or lame a member, as he often did through his witches and devilish whores, and then heal them again. Not that these people were really blind or lame, for to such he could not restore sight or a member; but he bewitches the people and dupes their five senses, so that they do not know better and are willing to swear an oath that it is real.
At times the devil also takes possession of a person and then lets himself be cast out by adjuration, blessing, etc. All this he does for the purpose of confirming his lies and deceptions and of impressing the people, so that because of these apparently great miracles they are seduced into idolatry. This he has accomplished to date with pilgrimages and the idolatrous adoration of saints, at one place with the Sacred Blood, at another with this or that Mary. He has filled the entire country with shameful delusions and has prompted people to throng to such places and everybody to make vows there and transfer their trust from God to his lies. For in the end it was nothing but devilish deception with which he made fools of the people and persuaded them to believe that they had really been helped. (Martin Luther, “Sermons on the Gospel of St. John” , Luther’s Works, Vol. 24 [Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1961), pp. 73-75)
The tax collector in Torgau and the councilor in Belgern have written me to ask that I offer some good advice and help for Mrs. John Korner’s afflicted husband. I know of no worldly help to give. If the physicians are at a loss to find a remedy, you may be sure that it is not a case of ordinary melancholy. It must, rather, be an affliction that comes from the devil, and must be counteracted by the power of Christ and with the prayer of faith. This is what we do, and what we have been accustomed to do, for a cabinetmaker here was similarly afflicted with madness and we cured him by prayer in Christ’s name.
Accordingly you should proceed as follows: Go to him with the deacon [assistant preacher] and two or three good men. Confident that you, as pastor of the place, are clothed with the authority of the ministerial office, lay your hands upon him and say, “Peace be with you, dear brother, from God our Father and from our Lord Jesus Christ.” Thereupon repeat the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer over him in a clear voice, and close with these words: “O God, almighty Father, who hast told us through thy Son, ‘Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it you’ [John 16:23]; who hast commanded and encouraged us to pray in his name, ‘Ask, and ye shall receive’ [John 16:24]; and who in like manner hast said, ‘Call upon me in the day of trouble: I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify me’ [Psalm 50:15]; we unworthy sinners, relying on these thy words and commands, pray for thy mercy with such faith as we can muster. Graciously deign to free this man from all evil, and put to nought the work that Satan has done in him, to the honor of thy name and the strengthening of the faith of believers; through the same Jesus Christ, thy Son, our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, world without end. Amen.” Then, when you depart, lay your hands upon the man again and say, “These signs shall follow them that believe; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover” [Mark 16:17-18].
Do this three times, once on each of three successive days. Meanwhile let prayers be said from the chancel of the church, publicly, until God hears them.
Insofar as we are able, we shall at the same time unite our faithful prayers and petitions to the Lord with yours.
Farewell. Other counsel than this I do not have. (Martin Luther, Letter to Severin Schulze [June 1, 1545], Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel, p. 52)
Once, during the life of Dr. Martin Luther, a young woman was brought to Wittenberg who was born in the land of Meissen, who was often vexed and tormented by the devil. And a letter was written to blessed Dr. Martin that he should save and rescue this young woman, who was 18 years old, from the evil spirit. When this virgin was brought to Dr. Martin, he asked her at that time whether she could say her faith [the creed]. She answered, “Yes.” Then the blessed Dr. Martin commanded her to say it. As she now began and came to the article [of the creed] and these words, “And I believe in Jesus Christ, His only-begotten Son, our Lord,” she could no longer speak, but the evil spirit began to convulse and torment her. Then Dr. Luther spoke, “I know you well, you devil. You would really like it if someone would set up a big ceremony with you and celebrate you greatly. You will find none of that with me.” Then he commanded that she be brought to his sermon in the church on the next day, and afterwards be brought into the sacristy, and he told the other servants of the church to come into the sacristy in addition.
The virgin was obedient and came to the sermon of the doctor, but afterwards, when they wanted to bring her into the sacristy, she fell down and struck and convulsed around, so that several students had to carry her into the sacristy and lay her at the feet of blessed Dr. Martin, and they locked the door to the sacristy, and all the servants of the church with several students stayed therein.
Then Dr. Martin began, and made this short admonition to the servants of the Church, which should be well observed by all preachers of the divine Word who find themselves in the same situation, and they should do nothing different.
He began and spoke: “Now and at our time, people should not drive out devils as it was done at the time of the Apostles and shortly thereafter, when it was necessary to do miracles and signs for the sake of the Gospel, to confirm it as a new doctrine, which now and at our time is not necessary, since the Gospel is not a new doctrine, but has been sufficiently confirmed. And if anyone wants to drive them out as was done at that time, he tempts God,” he said.
“One should also not drive out the devils with conjurations, by commanding, like some in the papacy and even some of our own people do, but one should drive them out with prayers and contempt. For the devil is a proud spirit, who cannot stand prayer and despising, but desires a ceremony. Therefore no one should make a ceremony with him, but should despise him as much as possible.”
Dr. Luther spoke further, “One should drive out the devil with and through prayer in such a way that one prescribes for the Lord Christ no rule, no means and manner, no time or place when and how he should drive out the devils, for that would be tempting God. But we persist in prayer so long, knock and rap [at the door] so long, until God hears our prayer, as He Himself says, Matth. 7[:7], ‘Ask and you will receive, seek and you will find, knock and it will be opened to you.’ But Uzziah, he tempts God by setting and prescribing the time for Him, in which He should help him, Judith 7[:30]. Therefore he is rightly rebuked by Judith, Judith 8[:11-27].”
Dr. Luther laid his right hand on the head of the virgin, just like one lays hands on those who are being ordained and consecrated to the preaching office. And he commanded the servants of the Gospel to do the same, and commanded further that they speak after him: First, the Apostles’ Creed. Next, the Our Father. Third, Dr. Luther spoke these words, John 16[:23b-24]: “Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in My name, that will He give to you. Until now you have asked nothing in My name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.” After these words, the blessed doctor called upon God mightily and prayed that He would rescue and save the poor young woman from the evil spirit which was in her for the sake of Christ and of His holy name, that thereby He would be praised, honored, and glorified. After this prayer and admonition, he stepped away from the girl and shoved her with his foot, and mocked Satan, saying, “You proud devil, you would gladly see me set up a ceremony with you, but you will not experience that. I won’t do it. Do what you want, I will not give up.”
After this procedure, they took the young woman the next day back to Meissen from Wittenberg. And afterwards they wrote and reported several times to Dr. Luther and others that the evil spirit after this no longer tormented and convulsed the girl as previously. (Höker, in Ludwig Dunte, Decisiones casuum conscientiae , pp. 100-103; translated by Benjamin Mayes)
...in men that are possessed the devil often instigates the movements and actions of their mind, will, and heart; and he himself speaks and does many things through them, for which there is no application of the mind, will, and heart in the possessed. (Martin Chemnitz, Examination of the Council of Trent, Part I [Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1971], p. 422)
The exorcists they [the papalists] have transformed into magical enchanters. For at one time it was a special gift with the human voice and with divine power to scourge, harass, torture, and cast the devil out of bodies, or at least to control him. Tertullian, in Apologeticus, testifies that in his time this gift was still in the church. And Cyprian says, Bk. 4, Letter No. 77: “This is done also today through exorcists.” Also Ambrose, Bk. 1, ch. 4: “Another is more concerned to exorcise those who suffer from an evil spirit.” That this gift was still present also at the time of Augustine is gathered from De civitate Dei, Bk. 10, ch. 22. Indeed, in the age of Chrysostom and Prosper possessed persons were brought into the church and often were set free by the communal prayers of the church.
Afterward, when this gift ceased, in order that the rank of exorcists might nevertheless be retained, another duty was invented which might be assigned to them, namely, to prepare the catechumens, who were to be baptized, with exorcisms and by blowing on them for Baptism, as the book De Ecclesiasticis dogmatibus, ch. 51, testifies. And Gregory of Nazianzus says: “Do not be discouraged with the rather long discipline of exorcism, and do not grow weary on account of its length.” But such a peculiar action of exorcising was not found in the apostolic church, nor was this the office of the exorcists in the ancient church, and now it is not even observed among the papalists. However, this example shows what a bad imitation accomplishes. When the gift of casting out demons had ceased, and they wanted nevertheless to retain the order of exorcists, a different and new duty was invented which could be assigned to them. Some indeed retained the recitation of exorcisms, although they did not have the gift of casting out demons. From there the bad imitation finally passed over to superstitious exorcisms and to more truly magical incantations. And since the demons scoff at these exorcisms, there is now nothing left with the papalists of the office of exorcists except the bare title, for those who practice exorcisms among them are not the persons who have been especially ordained for this. How then do the Tridentine fathers promise to restore the function of exorcists the way it was in the ancient church, since they do not have and are not able to bestow the gift of casting out demons? In the ancient church there were prophets or seers, and also evangelists, as Eusebius testifies, Bk. 3, ch. 37. How silly it would be to make particular orders in the church of these offices, although these gifts have ceased! That is also how matters stand with the exorcists. (Martin Chemnitz, Examination of the Council of Trent, Part II [Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1978], pp. 689-90)
A Reformation-Era Exorcism
Martin Luther throwing an inkwell at the devil, at Wartburg Castle
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