The sixteenth-century papacy never succeeded in setting fire to Martin Luther, much to its chagrin. Support from a string of Saxon princes and political events in the Holy Roman Empire combined to keep Luther from Rome's grasp until he succumbed, aged 62, to a natural death. Intriguingly, there was much speculation in Luther's day and for several centuries afterwards about what would have happened if Rome had succeeded in sending the reformer to the stake -- speculation, that is, about whether he would have actually burned or not. From rather early in Luther's reforming career the opinion circulated that Luther was in fact insusceptible to burning -- that he was, in other words, incombustible per se.
Arguments for Luther's innate fireproof status were summarized in an early eighteenth-century Latin work titled Lutherus non combustus by Justus Schoeppfer, pastor of St. Anna's Kirche in Eisleben, Germany. Schoeppfer's work was taken seriously enough, even in the midst of the European Enlightenment, to merit a second, German edition of the work - Unverbrannter Luther - some years later.
The difficulty, of course, in establishing whether Luther was combustible or not is that, as noted, no one ever succeeded, to our knowledge, in lighting a match to him. Nor are we privy to any reports about Luther stumbling into the stove or otherwise coming into contact with heat sufficient to prove or disprove his fireproof status. The arguments for Luther's incombustibility seem to consist principally of various historical accounts about objects or persons closely related to Luther which themselves proved impervious to fire -- objects or persons who participated, as it were, in Luther's own proper incombustibility.
So, for instance, a 1521 pamphlet describing Luther's trial at Worms notes that, while Luther was permitted to leave Worms unharmed, the Diet decided to burn his books and a picture of his person to reinforce charges of heresy against him. The books apparently burned just fine, but the picture of Luther refused to succumb to the flames, at least until it was removed, enclosed in a box made of pitch, and reinserted into the fire. In 1522, on the occasion of a burning of Luther's books in Thorn, Prussia, another picture of Luther similarly defied its natural fate. In 1634, nearly a century after Luther's death, an image of Luther inexplicably survived the destruction by fire of a Lutheran pastor's study in Artern, Germany. And in 1689 when fire broke out in Luther's birth-house in Eisleben, the only surviving picture from the areas affected by flame was one of the reformer.
Luther seems to have imparted his gift of incombustibility to places he previously occupied in addition to portraits of himself. When fires destroyed the Augustinian monastery in Magdeburg in 1631, the cell and bunk an adolescent Luther had occupied during a one-year stint as a student there were remarkably preserved. Even more remarkably, the house in which Luther was born -- although it finally succumbed, as noted, to flames in 1689 -- was preserved from fires which ravaged the surrounding houses and town of Eisleben in 1569, 1601, and 1671.
Even more extraordinary than such miraculous preservation of pictures and places associated with Luther was that of one particular person associated with him. In 1527 a disciple of Luther named Leonhard Keyser was sentenced to death for heresy in Schärding in Bavaria. According to a published pamphlet which detailed his execution, the ropes binding Keyser to the stake burned when his pyre was lit but the man himself remained unharmed. Displeased with this turn of events, Keyser's executioners pulled him from the flames and dismembered him, and then returned him in pieces to the fire. Even then, his body wouldn't burn. Authorities were ultimately forced to wait for the flames to subside so they could take Keyser's unsinged body parts and throw them into the local river.
Needless to say, Rome was keen to discredit stories about the incombustibility of Luther's person, pictures, or disciples as soon as such began circulating in early modern Europe. Thus she pointed out that Luther had been successfully burned in effigy in the ecclesiastical capital city itself in 1519. To put the matter to rest (among other points made), Luther-puppets were tried, condemned to death for heresy, and successfully burned in Altenburg, Vienna, and Munich in 1522, 1567, and 1597 respectively.
Protestant claims of Luther's incombustibility persisted despite these counter-measures.
The late R.W. Scribner, whose research into early modern perceptions and accounts of Luther's incombustibility is summarized in what I've written thus far, suggested in his work on this subject at least two ways of accounting for historical belief in Luther's fireproof status. One could categorize such belief as a continuation of medieval superstition which credited other religious items -- most notably, the consecrated bread of the Mass -- as insusceptible to fire. So strong, in fact, was the conviction that the Eucharistic host could not burn that persons were known to cast the consecrated bread (Christ's body, in medieval understanding) into buildings where fires had broken out in order to quell the flames and preserve said buildings, thus treating the sacred element as the medieval equivalent of a fire extinguisher.
One could, alternatively, ascribe belief in Luther's incombustibility to Jan Hus's legendary prophecy on the occasion of his own burning at the Council of Constance (1415) that, whatever the institutional church's success in cooking his goose, a swan would arise whom they would prove unable to burn. The problem here, however, is that Hus never actually made such a prophecy. Hus did express, shortly before his martyrdom, his expectation that stronger "birds" than he (Hus meaning "goose" in Czech) would arise to carry on his reforming work. Luther himself, in 1531, transformed Hus's comment into a prophecy which found its fulfillment in him. But it wasn't until several years after Luther's death that Hus's "prophecy" assumed the form it possesses in church historical folklore today (complete with the description of a potentially incombustible swan). Indeed, the evolution of the legend concerning Hus's prophecy would seem to be the result, rather than the cause, of convictions about Luther's incombustibility, which (as noted) were taking shape as early as 1521.
A third possibility never considered by Scribner -- nor, for that matter, by most scholars -- is that early modern folk believed Luther and certain Lutheran objects/disciples, by way of participation, were fireproof because they were, in fact, fireproof. Personally, I'm inclined towards this opinion. Stranger things have happened (Exodus 14.21-25; John 2.7-10; John 6.16-21; Matthew 14.13-21; Luke 24.1-8; Acts 1.9-11).
Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida. This blog entry is based upon R. W. Scribner's article "Incombustible Luther: the Image of the Reformer in Early Modern Germany," Past and Present 110 (1986): 38-68.