Thomas Jefferson and Martin Luther on the Book of Revelation

Thomas Jefferson and Martin Luther on the Book of Revelation

I’m currently writing a popular-level book on eschatology, and it’s been so much fun working on the manuscript. I don’t want to share too many details about it just yet, but suffice it to say: I’m stoked for it to get published and into the hands of readers.

Working through old research notes, I rediscovered an interesting quote from Thomas Jefferson (yes, that Thomas Jefferson). He certainly has an opinion or two to share about Revelation. In short, he doesn’t have anything good to say about that last book of the Bible. He describes it as “the ravings of a Maniac, no more worthy, nor capable of explanation than the incoherences of our own nightly dreams.” I suspect many Christians would disagree with Jefferson, to say the least. You can read the rest of his thoughts in the link below.[1]

And then there’s Martin Luther, the acclaimed Protestant Reformer. In the first preface of his translation of Revelation in 1522, Luther’s descriptions are also quite negative. He describes the book as being “neither apostolic nor prophetic,” saying further that he “can in no way detect that the Holy Spirit produced it” (LW 35:398).  After accusing the author of Revelation of being somewhat smug and rather puzzling, Luther confesses, “My spirit cannot accommodate itself to this book. For me this is reason enough not to think highly of it: Christ is neither taught nor known in it” (LW, 35:398-399).

Luther later discarded this preface and replaced it with a new one in 1530. The second preface doesn’t carry the same negative tone as the first. In fact, he thinks readers can indeed “profit” from the book, particular in terms of finding “comfort” in the hope it emits, as well as the “warning” it gives with respect to trials and persecution (LW 35:409). He ends his new preface with the following paragraph:

“In a word, our holiness is in heaven, where Christ is; and not in the world, before men’s eyes, like goods in the market place. Therefore let there be offenses, divisions, heresies, and faults; let them do what they can! If only the word of the gospel remains pure among us, and we love and cherish it, we shall not doubt that Christ is with us, even when things are at their worst. As we see here in this book [of Revelation], that through and beyond all plagues, beasts, and evil angels Christ is nonetheless with his saints, and wins the final victory” (LW 35:411).[2]

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Notes:

  1. “From Thomas Jefferson to Alexander Smyth, 17 January 1825,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/98-01-02-4882. Accessed on 7/28/20 at 8:01am.
  2. Quotes from Luther come from Luther’s Works: Word and Sacrament, vol. 35, edited by E. Theodore Bachmann. Philadelphia: Muhlenberg, 1960.

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