Skip to main content

Wittenberg's Wandering Spirits: Discipline and the Dead in the Reformation


This article examines early protestant efforts to confront the belief that souls in purgatory appeared to or haunted the living. It demonstrates that a series of Articles on the Conjuration of the Wandering Dead (1521 or 1522) long attributed to Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt were actually written by Martin Luther or a close disciple. More importantly, it shows that these Articles participated in an extended effort by Luther to realize the doctrinal foci of the Reformation in the daily lives of believers as they encountered apparitions and poltergeists, worried about lost loved ones, and faced their own deaths. Luther aimed, in particular, to discipline Christians’ senses of hearing and sight. Relating inward and outward senses, and explaining the apparent wandering dead as demons in disguise, Luther counseled Christians to hear the Word rather than the dead, to see Christ rather than the devil. Karlstadt also sought to realize doctrinal concentration, but in a manner shaped by his conception of faith as knowledge. Addressing anxiety about those who died before the Reformation, Karlstadt explained the wandering spirits as ignorant souls, destined for salvation but still needing to learn the right way. These wanderers spurred the living to diligent study of God's will.

Hide All

1 Lvtheri, Melanch, Carolostadii etc. Propositiones, Wittembergae uiua uoce tractatae . . . (Basel: Adam Petri, 1522), C1v-C3v, in Verzeichnis der im deutschen Sprachbereich erschienenen Drucke des 16. Jahrhunderts (Stuttgart: Anton Hiersemann, 1983–2000) (hereafter VD 16). This text is L 7642. In Alejandro Zorzin's index of Karlstadt's printed works (see idem, Karlstadt als Flugschriftenautor [Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1990], 273–307), it is number 51, while the first two collections are numbers 29 and 36. The terminus ante quem for the third collection—established by a dated transcription discovered by Dr. Hans-Peter Hasse—is August 26, 1522. The second collection was printed in September 1521. Thus, Zorzin concludes that the academic theses contained in the third collection were written between August 1521 and July 1522. Idem, Karlstadt als Flugschriftenautor, 235–236.

2 Because the term “protestant” was not in use in the early 1520s, the term “evangelical” will be used to describe Martin Luther, his allies, and their followers.

3 Stefan Oehmig, “Karlstadts Auffassung vom Fegefeuer. Entstehung und Wirkung,” in Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt (1486–1541), ein Theologe der frühen Reformation: Beiträge eines Arbeitsgesprächs vom 24.-25. November 1995 in Wittenberg, ed. Sigrid Looß and Markus Matthias (Wittenberg: Drei Kastanien Verlag, 1998): 73–120, 85. For Luther's Widerruf vom Fegefeuer, see D. Martin Luthers Werke. Kritische Gesamtausgabe, 73 vols. (Weimar: H. Böhlau, 1883-), 30.II: 367–390 (hereafter WA). Luther, to be sure, sought to revise teachings about purgatory already at the time of the Ninety-Five Theses and the later Explanations of the Ninety-Five Theses; see WA 1: 525–628; Luther's Works: American Edition, 55 vols. (Philadelphia, Penn.: Fortress; St. Louis, Mo.: Concordia, 1955–1986), 31: 83–252 (hereafter LW).

4 Bruce Gordon, “Malevolent Ghosts and Ministering Angels: Apparitions and Pastoral Care in the Swiss Reformation,” in The Place of the Dead: Death and Remembrance in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe, ed. Bruce Gordon and Peter Marshall (New York: Cambridge University, 2000): 87–109, notes that belief in ghosts was by no means limited to the laity or the uneducated.

5 Bruce Gordon and Peter Marshall, “Introduction: Placing the Dead in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe,” in The Place of the Dead, 3–4; this introduction offers an overview of prior research on “how groups of people in late medieval and early modern Europe sought to determine what the place of the dead should be.” The relevant research is too extensive to cite here.

6 The Articles were first attributed to Karlstadt by Hermann Barge, Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt (Leipzig: Friedrich Brandstetter, 1905 [reprinted in 2 vols., Nieuwkoop: B. de Graaf, 1968]), I: 494–495. Recent scholars have affirmed this attribution, including Zorzin, Karlstadt als Flugschriftenautor, 234–240; Oehmig, “Karlstadts Auffassung,” 85–91; and Craig M. Koslofsky, The Reformation of the Dead: Death and Ritual in Early Modern Germany, 1450–1700 (New York: St. Martin's, 2000): 31–32, who follows Zorzin. Regarding Karlstadt himself, Ulrich Bubenheimer has been the leading researcher of recent decades; see his Andreas Bodenstein genannt Karlstadt (1486–1541),” Fränkische Lebensbilder 14 (1991): 4764.

7 Ein Sermon vom Stand der Christglaubigen Seelen von Abrahams Schoß vn[d] Fegfeur der abgeschydnen Seelen was first printed in Augsburg by Philipp Ulhart, possibly already at the end of December 1522; it is VD 16 B 6197. Zorzin's index (see number 52) records 6 subsequent editions. Citations here are from the Ulhart edition. For an excellent overview of the influence of this treatise, see Oehmig, “Karlstadts Auffassung,” 91–102.

8 Zorzin, Karlstadt als Flugschriftenautor, 239–240, points to the baptism issue. Thomas Müntzer and Nicholas Storch have been proposed as possible personal and intellectual influences upon Karlstadt's alleged shift. More certain is the intellectual influence of Wessel Gansfort (d. 1489) and his spiritual conception of purgatory. In addition to Zorzin, see Oehmig, “Karlstadts Auffassung,” 89; and Koslofsky, The Reformation of the Dead, 32. Koslofsky also points to the change in audience: “The shift from a collection of Latin academic theses to a vernacular sermon called for a message which would edify Karlstadt's parishioners. Gansfort's spiritual Purgatory could provide such a message of hope.” This essay argues that, in fact, the message and program of the Latin Articles also was advanced in a series of vernacular writings, authored by Martin Luther.

9 See section 3 below for a discussion of whether and how the Articles, especially the first eight, might have cohered with Luther's then-developing notion of the soul's sleep after death. See Thiede Werner, “Nur ein ewiger Augenblick. Luthers Lehre vom Seelenschlaf zwischen Tod und Auferweckung,” Luther 64, no. 3 (1993): 112125; and Thiede , “Luthers individuelle Eschatologie,” Lutherjahrbuch 49 (1982): 749. Summarizing Thiede's argument and its relationship to prior scholarship: Bernhard Lohse, Martin Luther's Theology: Its Historical and Systematic Development, trans. and ed. Roy A. Harrisville (Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress, 1999): 325–329.

10 As Gordon and Marshall note in their introduction, “Relations [between the living and the dead] were not only shaped by, but themselves helped to shape the processes of religious change” (3).

11 See esp. Koslofsky, The Reformation of the Dead, 19–39; in regard to Luther, see the scholarship cited in Note 9.

12 An appropriate term is “revenant”; this essay will refer to the “wandering dead” or “wandering spirits,” following the vocabulary of Luther and Karlstadt.

13 See Berndt Hamm's discussion of “normative centering” in Hamm, The Reformation of Faith in the Context of Late Medieval Theology and Piety: Essays by Berndt Hamm, ed. Robert J. Bast (Leiden: Brill, 2004): 1–49. Scholarship on religious and ecclesial discipline in the early modern era usually has initiated study in the later sixteenth century and focused extensively on the formal mechanisms of discipline, as well as the relationship between church and secular authorities. See esp. Heinz Schilling, ed., Kirchenzucht und Sozialdisziplinierung im frühneuzeitlichen Europa (Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 1994). For an English-language introduction to these themes: R. Po-chia Hsia, Social Discipline in the Reformation: Central Europe 1550–1750 (London: Routledge, 1989). More work is needed on discipline as a theme and goal of the early Reformation, and on the role of persuasion and exhortation to self-discipline.

14 Hamm, Reformation of Faith, 3.

15 See the remarks of Berndt Hamm, The Early Luther: Stages in a Reformation Reorientation, trans. Martin J. Lohrmann (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2014), 131–132.

16 Luther's 1519 Sermon on Preparing to Die will be discussed below. Claudia Resch, Trost im Angesicht des Todes. Frühe reformatorische Anleitungen zur Seelsorge an Kranken und Sterbenden (Tübingen: A. Francke Verlag, 2006), has demonstrated that early evangelical clergy were instructed to console the dying; however, literature on preparation for death—which concerned the living and not the presently dying—sought not only to console but also to guide, exhort, and admonish Christians. Current scholarship on evangelical ars moriendi literature has failed to discern purposes beyond consolation; see Austra Reinis, Reforming the Art of Dying: the ars moriendi in the German Reformation (1519–28) (Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2007). The disciplinary nature of Luther's 1519 sermon provokes Thiede's objection that it risked turning faith into a work and leading Christians “into fundamental uncertainty and fear”; see Thiede, “Luthers individuelle Eschatologie,” 19.

17 On salvation as learning and faith as knowledge (Erkenntnis) in Karlstadt's writings, see Evener Vincent, “Divine Pedagogy and Self-Accusation: Reassessing the Theology of Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 87, no. 3 (July 2013): 335367.

18 Oehmig, “Karlstadts Auffassung,” 77; see also Zorzin, Karlstadt als Flugschriftenautor, 237n16. Barge, Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt, II: 9n20 mentions but does not discuss the relevant passage.

19 Barge, Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt, II: 5.

20 Zorzin, Karlstadt als Flugschriftenautor, 236; Oehmig, “Karlstadts Auffassung,” 87–89.

21 The Articles will be cited parenthetically according to number.

22 WA 1: 563.18–39; LW 31: 138–39. The passages cited are Ecclesiastes 11:3, Revelation 14:13, Galatians 6:8 and 6:10, John 9:4, and Hebrews 9:27. Oehmig, “Karlstadts Auffassung,” 84, notes Karlstadt's use of these passages in Sermon vom Stand; the parallel to Luther's Explanations is more direct.

23 “Coniurationes hae, non nisi sub praetextu religionis placent Kakodaemoni, ne illius astus praesentiatur.”

24 See Zorzin, Karlstadt als Flugschriftenautor, 237, 237n18. It is not clear that the “sword” in the passage—“Diabolus similis uolens esse altissimo suos praestigiosos characteres sacrosanctis immiscet euangeliis, quo gladius mellitus fiat, et uenenum dulce”—refers to scripture “als bitterem, richtenden Wort Gottes” (Zorzin) instead of to the devil's intention to slay through deceit. The former meaning would be very uncharacteristic for Luther.

25 See Susan E. Schreiner, Are You Alone Wise? The Search for Certainty in the Early Modern Era (New York: Oxford University, 2011): 294–295.

26 My translations from the Luther Bible.

27 Zorzin, Karlstadt als Flugschriftenautor, 236. On the Wittenberg movement and Karlstadt's role in it, see the excellent account of Jens-Martin Kruse, Universitätstheologie und Kirchenreform. Die Anfänge der Reformation in Wittenberg, 1516–1522 (Mainz: von Zabern, 2002), 279–389.

28 See Jared Wicks, Luther's Reform: Studies on Conversion and the Church (Mainz: von Zabern, 1992), 189–196; see also Hamm, The Early Luther, 110–111.

29 See Martin Brecht, Martin Luther, trans. James L. Schaaf, 3 volumes (Philadelphia, Penn.: Fortress, 1985–1993): II: 15–18; Josef Benzing and Helmut Claus, Lutherbibliographie. Verzeichnis der gedruckten Schriften Martin Luthers bis zu dessen Tod, 2nd. ed. (Baden-Baden: Valentin Koerner, 1989), nos. 1061–1067.

30 See note 1 above.

31 WA 10.I.1: 576.4–584.8; LW 52: 171–177.

32 WA 10.I.1: 584.9–585.3; LW 52: 177–178 (translation altered). Luther underlines that he does not criticize the “natural knowledge” available to reason for the sake of daily living, but “idle dreams and useless thoughts about things which do not exist, and about which they are ignorant.”

33 WA 10.I.1: 585.4–11; LW 52: 178.

34 See as well Luther's treatises on the abuse of the mass, WA 8: 411–76; 482–563; esp. 534.18–537.34; LW 36: 133–230; esp. 194–198. Written at the end of 1521 and published in January 1522, these treatises confirm the nearness of the Articles to Luther's thought and program in regard to the wandering dead.

35 WA 10.I.1: 585.11–17; LW 52: 178.

36 WA 10.I.1: 585.18–587.2; LW 52: 178–179.

37 WA 10.I.1: 587.3–14 (“Die wort gottis, darauff du trotzen solt, sind die Luce. 16”); LW 52: 179–180.

38 WA 10.I.1: 587.14–588.19; LW 52: 180.

39 See also WA 10.I.1: 592.3–16; LW 52: 183.

40 According to Luther, Deuteronomy 18 condemns and commands avoidance of eight classes of persons who deal in demonic knowledge, including “die todten, die wandellenden geyster.” WA10.I.1: 590.12–591.15; LW 52: 181–182. The magi of Matthew 2 belonged to the first of these groups, the “weyßsager”; see Luther's discussion at WA 10.I.1: 559.11–563.12; LW 52: 160–163.

41 WA 10.I.1: 588.19–589.17; LW 52: 180–181.

42 The Sermon on Preparing to Die appeared in 25 editions before 1525, including in Latin and Dutch translations; see Benzing and Claus, Lutherbibliographie, nos. 435–460. Modern studies of the sermon are too numerous to list here; very useful and informative is Hamm, The Early Luther, 110–153 (“Luther's Instructions for a Blessed Death, Viewed against the Background of the Late Medieval Ars Moriendi”).

43 WA 2: 685.20–688.22; LW 42:100–103.

44 WA 2: 687.31–690.32; LW 42: 102–106.

45 WA 2: 691.22–695.15; LW 42: 108–112.

46 See also Hamm, The Early Luther, 131–132, 144–145.

47 The sermons would have been preached on the first Sunday after Trinity Sunday, June 22, 1522, and June 7, 1523. An edition of the first sermon was printed four times in 1522, but without Luther's knowledge or consent. Luther himself oversaw the production of a corrected edition, printed 14 times from 1523–1525, including in three low-German editions. See Benzing and Claus, Lutherbibliographie, nos. 1374–1392. Both editions are provided by WA 10.III: 176–200 (no. 33); this essay cites from the edition issued under Luther's direction. The 1523 sermon was printed only once, by Jobst Gutknecht in Nürnberg. See Benzing and Claus, Lutherbibliographie, no. 1792; and for the text, WA 12: 592–597 (no. 19). A Latin transcription by Rörer is found at WA 11: 127–131.

48 WA 10.III: 191.11–192.23. This hell is “where God's Word is not”; it is “an empty, unbelieving, sinful, evil conscience.”

49 WA 10.III: 192.24–193.20.

50 WA 10.III: 193.29–194.21.

51 WA 10.III: 195.14–18: “Denn wyr yhe auß dem Euangelio gewiß sind, das viel todten aufferweckt sind, wilche wyr bekennen muessen, das sie yhr endlich urteyl nicht empfangen gehabt haben. Also muegen wyr auch noch nicht von yrgent eynem andern gewiß seyn, das er seyn endlich urteyl habe.”

52 WA 10.III: 194.22–195.27.

53 WA 10.III: 195.28–196.17.

54 WA 10.III: 196.18–197.18. Luther remarks, 197.19–22: “Darumb sey klůg und wisse, das Got will uns nichts wissen lassen, wie es mit den todten zů gehe, auff das der glawbe raum behallte durch Gotis wort, der da glewbt, das Gott nach dißem leben die glewbigen selig macht, die unglewbigen verdammet.”

55 WA 10.III: 197.22–198.19; included in the printed edition of the sermon is a cross reference to the Christmas Postils and Luther's treatise on the mass.

56 WA 10.III: 198.20–199.14.

57 WA 10.III: 199.15–200.16. Incidentally, the verb Luther uses to describe the custodian's idol-enabled practice is “weyssagen”—the same verb used for the magi of Matthew 2.

58 Lohse, Luther's Theology, 328 (“By means of these various ideas Luther intended to translate the biblical statements.”).

59 WA 12: 592.5–6.

60 WA 12: 595.38–596.9; cf. WA 11: 130.1–12.

61 WA 12: 596.10–24; cf. WA 11: 130.13–23.

62 WA 12: 596.26–33; cf. WA 11: 130.25–26.

63 WA 12: 596.33–34; cf. WA 11: 130.29–30. See also WA 12: 596.41–597.1; WA 11: 130.32–33.

64 WA 12: 596.34–41; cf. WA 11: 130.30–32.

65 WA 12: 597.1–13; cf. WA 11: 130.33–131.3.

66 WA 12: 595.31–37. Significantly different is WA 11: 129.31–34.

67 See esp. Thiede, “Nur ein ewiger Augenblick,” 116–124; and Thiede, “Luthers individuelle Eschatologie,” 26.

68 See Thiede, “Nur ein ewiger Augenblick,” 120–124; and Lohse, Luther's Theology, 326–328.

69 Lohse, Luther's Theology, 326n4.

70 D. Martin Luthers Werke. Kritische Gesamtausgabe. Briefwechsel, 18 vols. (Weimar: H. Böhlau, 1930–1948), 2: 442.4–26; LW 48: 360–361 (emphasis added). In the ensuing, Luther declares that he does not think purgatory “a certain place” or that all souls “who remain outside heaven or hell are in purgatory.” Describing purgatory as “that punishment which they call a foretaste of hell and under which Christ, Moses, Abraham, David . . . [et al.] suffered,” Luther states that this punishment certainly is felt “in body,” but it cannot be proven that it occurs “outside the body,” although Luther thinks that it does. The LW translator renders in corpore and extra corpus as “physically” and “emotionally.” In fact, the opposition is between an experience felt while alive and a post-mortem experience.

71 On these two points, see WA 12: 596.26–31, cited along with other passages by Thiede, “Luthers individuelle Eschatologie,” 38; and Thiede, “Nur ein ewiger Augenblick.” The relevant remarks are severely compressed in WA 11: 130.25–26. For Thiede's reconciliation of Luther's two manners of discussing the afterlife, see his “Luthers individuelle Eschatologie,” 28–41. Certainly, Thiede risks imagining a systematic intention (see esp. ibid., 29) behind disparate exegetical efforts with disparate aims. Lohse, Luther's Theology, 328, is duly critical of Thiede's elevation of Seelenschlaf to a “doctrine (Lehre).”

72 On the relationship of common ground and diversity in the Reformation, see esp. Berndt Hamm, “Einheit und Vielfalt der Reformation—oder: was die Reformation zur Reformation machte,” in Reformations-theorien. Ein kirchenhistorischer Disput über Einheit und Vielfalt der Reformation (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Reprecht, 1995), 57–127.

73 See Oehmig, “Karlstadts Auffassung,” 78–79; and Hans-Peter Hasse, Karlstadt und Tauler: Untersuchungen zur Kreuzestheologie (Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus Gerd Mohn, 1993).

74 Ulrich Bubenheimer, Thomas Müntzer: Herkunft und Bildung (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1989): 183–185; for the dates of Müntzer's residence in Wittenberg, see ibid., 152.

75 Unlike Karlstadt, Müntzer does not seem to have extended his concept of purgatory into the afterlife; see The Collected Works of Thomas Müntzer, ed. Peter Matheson (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1988), 46n299 (henceforth CWTM).

76 For Müntzer's letter, see Thomas Müntzer Briefwechsel, ed. Siegfried Bräuer and Manfred Kobuch, vol. 2 of Thomas-Müntzer-Ausgabe. Kritische Gesamtausgabe, ed. Helmar Junghans and Armin Kohnle (Leipzig: Sächsische Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2010), 127–139; here, 136.3–137.1 (henceforth TMA II). As possible objects for Müntzer's criticism 136n52 lists the Articles, presuming Karlstadt to be the author, and Luther's Misuse of the Mass. An English translation of the letter is found in CWTM 43–46.

77 See TMA II: 150–154; CWTM 52–53. For a helpful study of the correspondence between Karlstadt and Müntzer, see Siegfried Bräuer, “Der Briefwechsel zwischen Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt und Thomas Müntzer,” in Querdenker der Reformation: Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt und seine frühe Wirkung, ed. Ulrich Bubenheimer and Stefan Oehmig (Würzburg: Religion & Kultur Verlag, 2001): 187–210.

78 Oehmig, “Karlstadts Auffassung,” 77; Zorzin, Karlstadt als Flugschriftenautor, 237.

79 Sermon vom Stand, a2r-v; a3v. At a4r, Karlstadt criticizes the “foolish priests, popes, and bishops” who taught “that we should be troubled.”

80 Ibid., a3v.

81 Ibid., a4r-v; see also ibid., b2v-b3r, c2v.

82 Ibid., a4v, b3r, b4r.

83 Ibid., a4v-b1v. To be noted here is the influence of the gospel of John (chapters 6, 11, 15, and 17 are cited), as well as of the Theologia Deutsch.

84 Sermon vom Stand, b1v-b3r. Karlsltadt's comparison of the three grades to darkness, the morning sun, and the mid-day sun was likely learned from Wessel Gansfort; see Koslofsky, The Reformation of the Dead, 27–34.

85 Sermon vom Stand, b3v-b4r.

86 Ibid., b4v-c1r.

87 It is necessary to consult the Vulgate and Karlstadt's German translation at ibid., a2r. See Barge, Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt, II: 6n16. For Karlstadt's concept of Seelenschlaf, see Sermon vom Stand, a3v-a4r, b1v (“ain süesser schlaff”), b3v-b4v, c1v.

88 Sermon vom Stand, c1v; Karlstadt cites Song of Songs 5:2.

89 Sermon vom Stand, c1v-c2r. Later, “Derwegen mag ich ain solche angstliche senligkait zu[o] got in den seelen ain fegfewer nennen / wiewol sy getro[e]st sein vnd ain tewer go[e]ttlich leben haben . . . [Das Fegefeuer soll] nyemandts küelen . . . / wiewol es die selen engstet.”

90 Sermon vom Stand, c2v. Karlstadt cites I Peter 4:6—a passage with which he has far less difficulty than Luther. For Luther's struggles to interpret this passage, see WA 12: 375.25–376.24; LW 30: 121; and, in regard to I Peter 3:19–20, WA 12: 367.27–369.30; LW 30: 113–115, 121.

91 Sermon vom Stand, c3r.

92 Ibid., c3r-v.

93 Ibid., c3v. The “gayst des schlaffs / oder der durch beyssenden anmechtigkait” is first mentioned on c3r, where Karlstadt gives “spiritu[m] co[m]punctionis et extasis” as the Latin equivalent.

94 Ibid., a4v, b3r, b4r, c3v.

95 Karlstadt als Flugschriftenautor, 239–240.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Church History
  • ISSN: 0009-6407
  • EISSN: 1755-2613
  • URL: /core/journals/church-history
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 2
Total number of PDF views: 126 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 176 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 21st January 2018. This data will be updated every 24 hours.