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Humanizing the Reformers (2): Luther to Jonas on the Death of Melanchthon’s Son

In a previous post, we looked at Melanchthon’s response to the birth of Joachim Camerarius’s daughter and to the death of his own son, Georg, in August of 1529.

Two days after that event, Martin Luther wrote to his friend Justus Jonas about Georg’s death and Melanchthon’s grief. (The letter is mentioned here.)

Luther notes that Melanchthon–perhaps to the surprise of many modern readers–is a very sensitive and emotional man, a man who feels the vexations of life very deeply and powerfully. 

Luther therefore asks Jonas for prayer. He also asks him to write Melanchthon a letter of consolation.

Letters of consolation were part of the stock-in-trade of classical rhetoric; a famous surviving example is Servius Sulpicius Rufus’s consolatory letter to Cicero after his beloved daughter Tullia had died. Indeed, Luther asks Jonas to write “in keeping with his rhetorical training” (pro tua rhetorica). This can serve as a salutary reminder that “rhetorical” doesn’t mean “fake.” We see here an instance of the way in which humane learning can, and should, be married to the experiences of daily life and brought to bear in service of them. Language is medicine. Luther asks that Jonas administer it to their mutual friend sick with grief.

I have translated the relevant portion of the letter here. You can find the Latin here, and a different English version here.

Martin Luther to Justus Jonas

17 August 1529

The Lord took from our Philip his son Georg last Lord’s Day. You can imagine what care and anxiety we have here over consoling this man, whose heart is so very tender and so very emotional. It is amazing with what heaviness he endures the death of his son, not previously having been disquieted by such a misfortune. As much as you are able, pray for him that the Lord would console him; in addition, write him a letter of consolation in accordance with your rhetorical training. You know how important it is that this man live and be well. We are all afflicted together with him and full of sorrow, on top of my own daily sorrows. But the God of the humble and afflicted is not yet overcome [in him],1 although he2 continues to be exceedingly weak. At another time [I will write of] other things, when sorrow has hereafter abated.   

  1. I have added the words in brackets to clarify the sense.
  2. I.e. Melanchthon; there must be an unmarked change of subject here.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.