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Comment: Slippery Slopes and Time Warps

Sat 25 Mar 2006 In: Comment

Pray tell, if same-sex marriage or civil unions will lead to recognition of heterosexual polygamy, what about Martin Luther, Philip of Hesse and Protestant sanction for bigamy in the sixteenth century? The Christian Right can't squirm out of this one by pointing to traditionalist fundamentalist Mormons or the Anabaptists in Munster (1535-36). Martin Luther himself, father of the Protestant Reformation, recognised the legitimacy of bigamy in certain circumstances. So, what were these circumstances? Put bluntly, they were realpolitik at its most banal. Philip of Hesse (1504-1567)was a German Landgrave of considerable intelligence and influence, who provided vocal support for the fledgeling Lutheran Reformation in the Diet (Parliament) of the Holy Roman Empire, as well as financial and military support. In 1526, Philip of Hesse wrote to Luther, Philip Bucer and Phillip Melancthon, asking what he should do, given that Christina of Saxony (1505-1549), his wife, was almost continuously drunk, in between managing to produce ten children for her husband. Lutheranism's best and brightest theologians hummed and hahhed about Philip of Hesse's request for just one additional wife, Margarethe van der Saale, and in the event of either Christina or Margarethe dying, Philip would revert to one wife, and anyway, biblical patriarchs like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had more than one spouse, as did King David. Luther equivocated for as long as he could, not willing to upset a delicate North German religious balance of power. It didn't help that Melancthon had advised Henry VIII of England not to divorce Katherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn, but have Anne Boleyn as a second bigamous spouse. Anyway, Luther relented, and concluded that while bigamy wasn't okay, it could be permitted if there were cases of severe need, and if someone felt a calling. Accordingly, Philip of Hesse married Margarethe in secret, and that secret was kept for about a decade, until someone blabbed. At that point, Catholic hardliners smirked, remarking that this was what happened if ex-celibate priests and nuns married, and open slather was the result. An embarrassed Luther backtracked, offending Philip of Hesse, who switched Reformation sides.Before then, he had admitted polygamous converts to Lutheranism, while looking the other way. (To be fair to the Lutherans, they weren't the only offenders in this regard. Given the proximity of Iberian Muslim polygamy in the Kingdom of Granada, Duns Scotus and Spanish Catholic theologians- Cardinal Cajetan, Veracruz, Palacious, Tostatus, Michael of Medina and Abulensis -all suggested that there was no foundation in 'natural law' for banning polygamy or bigamy. In 1437, Henry IV of Castile petitioned the Vatican for an extra wife, on the basis that his first spouse, Dona Blanca, was infertile, and the Papacy granted a dispensation. However, all this ended with the Council of Trent, which prohibited any further Catholic recognition of polygamy or bigamy. And embarrassingly for contemporary fundamentalists, John Milton called for both liberalised divorce laws and decriminalisation of polygamy in the seventeenth century). The fundamentalist community seems to have ignoreda time warp in their slippery slope. Given the august example of Martin Luther, exactly how can it be said that same-sex marriage and civil unions "lead" to plural heterosexual marriages, given the events of the sixteenth century chronicled above? Recommended: John Cairncross: After Polygamy Was Made a Sin: London: Routledge Kegan Paul: 1974. Hastings Eels: The Attitude of Martin Bucer Toward the Bigamy of Philip of Hesse: New Haven: Yale University Press: 1924. Philip of Hesse: Craig Young - 25th March 2006    

Credit: Craig Young

First published: Saturday, 25th March 2006 - 12:00pm

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