Hero or villain? The moral dilemma of Martin Luther

Martin Luther from an old Orange Lodge banner TO PROTESTANTS, Martin Luther is a key figure in Protestant history. The writings of this Augustinian monk inspired the Protestant Reformation and chan…

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Mary Ann McCracken and the tragedy of 1798





LAST YEAR in our Radio Ulster history series The Long and the Short of It, comedian Tim McGarry and I explored the life and times of Mary Ann McCracken. Mary Ann is one of Tim’s heroines and although at the start I knew more about her slightly more famous brother, by the end of the work for the programme we had met a variety of people to talk about this extraordinary woman and I had a greater knowledge and a decided appreciation of her.


That story is, of course, wrapped up in the story of Harry, her beloved brother, better known as Henry Joy McCracken. But the story also involves other members of the family as well, for Henry’s brother William was also imprisoned with him for a time in 1797 and was involved in the same activities as his brother, while another brother John was diametrically opposed to their activities to the point where Mary Ann distrusted his motives.


The story of Mary Ann and Henry Joy is a story of Presbyterian times, of increasing middle class prosperity, of new political ideals, of radicalism fostered in Belfast and the villages and towns around. A story of a hoped for political alliance across the religious divide.


The McCrackens were a prosperous Belfast middle class family, but Presbyterians – as a rising middle class – were disadvantaged in a society which legislatively had side-lined Roman Catholics and Nonconformists. Hence the discontent and the desire to prompt change against political and social injustice.


Mary McCracken was born on the 8th of July 1770. She was the youngest but one of a large family, of whom four sons and two daughters lived to grow up, and several, including herself, attained to an advanced age. She was a delicate child, and thought to be suffering from consumption. She appears to have also been an active child and she was very fond of animals—a liking she retained to the end of her days.
Mary Ann was extremely fond of her bother Harry, or Henry Joy as was his proper name.


Henry Joy McCracken was born on August 31, 1767. He was a devout Presbyterian and one of those involved in founding the first Sunday School in Belfast and also a circulating library to encourage the habit of reading among the people and an increase in knowledge. He served his apprenticeship to the linen trade but later became a cotton manufacturer.


Henry Joy was a liberal thinker and was drawn to the movement for reform in society and to the cause of Catholic Emancipation. In 1790 he had become an intimate friend of Thomas Russell, librarian of the Linen Hall Library and a man admired too by his sister Mary Ann, although historians are divided as to whether this was an unrequited romantic admiration on her part. Russell and Henry Joy were the earliest supporters of Samuel Neilson in founding the Society of United Irishmen in Belfast in October 1791.


The original aim of the United Irishmen had been to seek change through reform. However McCracken became convinced that the government would not reform and he witnessed the outworkings of this in actions against the radicals, which forced them underground.


In June 1795 McCracken was one of a small band who, having ascended to the summit of the Cave Hill, took an oath never to desist from their efforts until independence had been achieved. He had set himself on a fatal course.


McCracken had come to the attention of the authorities and on 10 October 1796 he was arrested and taken to Dublin, where he ended up in Kilmainham gaol, his brother William already being imprisoned there. After 11 months his health broke down and he was released. In February 1798, however, McCracken was back in Dublin to meet the national executive of the United Irishmen and to advocate insurrection even without the assistance of the French, as he feared that continual attrition by the authorities would disable the movement. His view that it was better to act while they still could.


Dickson suggests in his work that McCracken was quite radical and had suggested the capture of the officers of the Belfast garrison while they were attending a musical entertainment on 21 May 1798 and the holding of them as hostages. The rejection of this proposal by the Belfast leadership is believed to have had a damaging effect on morale and suggested that once the reality of revolution had emerged, some were not so keen after all.


This comes across in the decision of Robert Simms, who had been appointed Adjutant General for County Antrim, to resign his post owing to disagreement over imminent rebellion. His place was taken by McCracken. In addition he became Commander in Chief of the army. There were just six days in which to prepare.


McCracken assembled on the morning of June 7 at Roughfort, where he led a small but growing detachment of men towards Antrim town. He had served in the Irish Volunteers and wore his Volunteer uniform, which is now in the care of the Ulster Museum. McCracken led the action at Antrim but disaster overtook the actions of the rebels and he was forced to retreat towards Donegore and then Slemish, where, among those who were in his band was James Orr, the Bard of Ballycarry.


One of Orr’s poems, The Wanderer, was about seeking shelter at Slemish and the Spartan Band did so but word reached them that the military was to seek to dislodge them, and they instead headed towards the Collin above Ballyclare. At Wee Colin, they were said to have heard the sounds of the cannons at Ballynahinch, where the United Irishmen under Henry Monroe had engaged in battle. McCracken decided to join the County Down rebels and travelled to the vicinity of Divis Mountain. But as he made his way he learned of the defeat of Monroe and briefly hoped to get south to Wexford to join the insurgents there.


Instead he remained on the Cave Hill, where his friend David Bodel gave him and others shelter. It was a far cry from the expectations which he had entertained at Roughfort on the morning of June 7.


Mary Ann went in search of her brother, something which would not have been easy amidst the furore and danger of a rebellion and a military crackdown. She found him at the Cave Hill.  The authorities were undoubtedly looking for him but he managed to evade them for three weeks, while Mary Ann sought to make arrangements for his safe departure from Belfast. A pass was procured for him using an assumed name and an arrangement was made with foreign-bound vessel to take him on board, either at Carrick or Larne. The aim was that Harry would find a new and safe life in America, which was to be refuge for so many of the 1798 participants.


McCracken and two companions, John Queery and Gavin Watt, then began the journey from the Cave Hill on July 7. The spent the night in a safe house at Greencastle and next morning set off again, McCracken wearing workman’s clothes and carrying a bag of carpenter’s tools.


Accounts now differ as to where there were when they were detected. One account says they were walking from Greencastle to the outskirts of Carrick, another that they were on the Commons above the town (which would make more sense if they were heading towards Larne).


What is not in question is that they had the misfortunate to meet some yeomen and that one of them recognised McCracken. There was an attempt made to buy their silence and also a scuffle in which a musket was disabled by Watt, who urged McCracken to run. The latter would not leave his two companions. The account of Edna Fitzhenry talks of the yeomen having halted at a public house to discuss an offer by McCracken to buy their freedom and that while three of the men were tempted, a fourth went off and returned with an officer, which ended the debate.


Mary Ann learned of his arrest on July 8, her 28th birthday. Her father was 78. When they visited her brother in his cell she noted that he had scratched a line from a poem which his mother had sent him on the Cave Hill: “A friend’s worth all the hazard we can run”.


On July 16 the prisoner was brought under heavy military escort to Belfast. He was tried there by court martial on July 17.


Before bringing the prosecution witnesses to the stand, the prosecutor, John Pollock, took Captain McCracken aside and told him he had enough evidence to hang him but that his life could be spared if he would say in whose place he had acted as Commander in Chief during the Rising. McCracken remained a man of principle.


The Prosecution was unable to persuade William Thompson, an English calico printer, to testify against his employer, while Samuel Orr, who had defected at Antrim, similarly failed to take the witness stand. But two men whom McCracken had never seen before, named Miniss and Beck, did give incriminating evidence and his fate was sealed.


The time between the sentence and the execution was extremely short – McCracken was told that he was ordered for immediate execution, something which visibly shocked him. The body was given to Mary Ann on the basis that interment must take place that evening otherwise the military would take charge of her brother’s corpse.


After failure to resuscitate Henry Joy by a surgeon which Mary had arranged, she stayed with her brother’s body while mourners filed past to pay their last respects. When the funeral procession set off to St. George’s churchyard, she was initially the only member of the family to follow the coffin, although a kindly man took her arm in his as they walked and her brother John ran after her and stayed by her side. When the first shovelful of earth fell on the coffin, she fainted, and it was John who brought her home.


Mary Ann McCracken lived into old age, dying in 1866 at the age of 96 years. She devoted the rest of her life to social reform, improving the lot of women, children and the poor. As an old woman of 88 she was to be found often at Belfast docks handing out literature opposing slavery to those emigrating to the United States.


Historians debate over whether she was a revolutionary or a reformist in her politics. In the late 1830s as Queen Victoria came to the throne, she wrote “And now a better day has dawned…in looking forty years back, and in thinking too, of those who were gone, how delighted they would have been at the political changes that have taken place – which could not possibly in their day have been anticipated, by peaceful means…”  It is likely she was thinking not of the Act of Union (although some Presbyterian rebel leaders welcomed that as well in 1800) but of two measures which had been brought about – Catholic Emancipation in 1829 and the Reform Act of 1832.


However, at an earlier stage, in 1797, a different Mary Ann McCracken appears to speak, in correspondence to her beloved brother when he was in Kilmainham jail.  She predicted in a letter to Henry Joy “If the complete Union of Ireland should demand the blood of some of her best Patriots to cement it, they will not sink (from) their duty, but meet their fate equally unappalled, whether it be on the scaffold or in the field convinced that in the end the cause of Union and of truth must prevail.”


This view was backed up by a strong faith in divine providence, expressed to her bother on the morning of his execution: “During the early part of the day, Harry and I had conversed with tranquillity on the subject of his death. We had been brought up in a firm conviction of an all-wise and over-ruling Providence, and the duty of entire resignation to the Divine will. I remarked that his death was as much a dispensation of Providence as if it had happened in the course of nature, to which he assented.”


Modern republicans would dispute that Mary Ann became a unionist, although she was henceforth involved not in revolution but in social reform. Presbyterians could point to the long established radical and reformist tradition which she represented and some would argue that, like most Presbyterians of north east Ulster, Mary Ann settled into the new political arrangements which came about with the Act of Union. Similarly some see her as a proto-feminist, an admirer of Mary Wollstonecraft, whose 1792 book A Vindication of the Rights of Women is cited by Mervyn Bragg (2006) as one of the 12 books that changed the world. Others see her as a social reformer who was interested in educating Belfast working-class girls not to be equal but to be more practical and position themselves better for their future lives, which would still be unequal. Yet there is the legacy of David Manson and his co-educational approach to be borne in mind too.


Perhaps ultimately Mary Ann is a figure of such stature that interpretation is entirely feasible. She will be remembered for her charitable works. Of her humanity there is no doubt, both in general terms and at a personal level.


After the death of her brother Rev. Steel Dickson came to Mary Ann to tell her that Harry had an illegitimate daughter, a little girl called Maria who was almost four. It is believed that her mother was Mary Bodel, whose father had sheltered McCracken on the Cave Hill. Her mother and family were assisted to emigrate to America by Mary Ann. The child had been left to the care of the McCracken family and despite initial objections from John, she was brought into the family, where she would grew to be Mary’s constant companion and a willing helper in all her charitable enterprises; Maria was a direct link to the brother she could never forget, and perhaps the child that she never had herself. In middle age Maria married William McCleery, a widower, another Belfast radical, and it was in their home that Mary Ann McCracken spent her last years.


In 1827 a Ballycarry man died in his new home in Charlottesville, Virginia. His name was John Neilson and he was personal architect to President Thomas Jefferson and designer of his famous house Monticello. John had lost his two brothers to the 1798 Rebellion, Samuel died on a prison ship and William (16) was hanged by the authorities outside his mother’s door. The family were deeply involved in the Rising. Consigned to a Plantation in the West Indies, John was freed when his ship was captured by the French and he ended up in Virginia and became an American citizen.


He had left a wife and his mother back in Antrim and for whatever reason was not reunited with the former, who is buried in Loughmorne. But before he died Neilson’s had made a request that his likeness would be taken back to Ireland to his mother. There was a circle of United Irish exiles and supporters around Jefferson in Virginia; one of the women, a lady named Leitch from Tyrone brought back the likeness across the Atlantic.


It was to be given to a women in Belfast to be taken to the Widow Nelson in Islandmagee. The woman it was handed to in Belfast was someone who would not forget any man who had stood with her brother at the Battle of Antrim. Her name? Mary Ann McCracken. One small act of kindness in a lifetime devoted to others.

Hero or villain? The moral dilemma of Martin Luther

shouse calendar 011Martin Luther from an old Orange Lodge banner

TO PROTESTANTS, Martin Luther is a key figure in Protestant history. The writings of this Augustinian monk inspired the Protestant Reformation and changed forever the face of Europe and the world.

Martin Luther was born on 10 November 1483 in Eisleben in Germany, the son of a copper miner. He studied at the University of Erfurt and in 1505 decided to join a monastic order, becoming an Augustinian friar. He was ordained in 1507, began teaching at the University of Wittenberg and in 1512 was made a doctor of Theology. In 1510 he visited Rome on behalf of a number of Augustinian monasteries, and was appalled by the corruption which he found there.

Luther became increasingly angry about the clergy selling ‘indulgences’ – promised remission from punishments for sin, either for someone still living or for one who had died and was believed to be in purgatory, according to Church doctrine. On 31 October 1517, he published his ’95 Theses’, attacking papal abuses and the sale of indulgences.

Luther had come to believe that Christians were saved through faith and not through their own efforts.

This turned him against many of the major teachings of the Catholic Church. In 1519 -1520, he wrote a series of pamphlets developing his ideas – ‘On Christian Liberty’, ‘On the Freedom of a Christian Man’, ‘To the Christian Nobility’ and ‘On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church’. Thanks to the advent of the printing press, Luther’s ’95 Theses’ and his other writings spread quickly through Europe.

The famous monk sealed his fate by nailing his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral in 1517, and thus prompted a major theological and religious earthquake.

martin luther statue wittenberg Statue at Wittenberg to Luther

For many it was the start of the Protestant Reformation, although in fact Luther was one of a number of those who had been working to promote what they saw as a return to the principles of earlier Biblical times, among them also were Burkhard Waldus, John Wycliffe and John Huss.

In many parts of Europe and not least of all in Northern Ireland, the 500th anniversary of Luther’s public parting of the ways with the Roman Catholic Church, will be a cause not only of commemoration but also of celebration. Evangelicals will be at the forefront of commemorating what is a major historical landmark, and the Orange Order and Black Institution have announced plans to jointly celebrate the message of the Reformation as espoused by Luther.

The influence which Luther had on Europe is undeniable, and it was an impact which not only included religious thought but also economic development.

For many there are few to match Martin Luther.

But in a world where anti-Semitism is once again on the rise and Jewish communities are under sustained attack, there is a darker side to Martin Luther which cannot be ignored or brushed aside either.

Luther was, certainly at the end of his life, deeply anti-Semitic.

Until about 1536 he had been quite sympathetic to Jews and expressed the hope of converting them to Christianity.

But in later years, having seen failure in conversion attempts, he adopted a harder line.

He denounced Jewish people and urged that they should be persecuted. In his polemical book “On Jews and their Lies” he suggested means by which Christians should deal with Jews. His thoughts are chilling and, in all charity and fairness, are not far removed from those of the 20th century Nazi regime under Hitler.

Luther suggested in his publication setting fire to synagogues and Jewish schools, razing their houses to the ground, taking all their religious books away from them, forbidding rabbis to preach, taking all cash, silver or gold from them and ultimately expelling them from Germany.

Luther campaigned against Jews in Saxony, Brandenburg and Silesia and in August 1536 his prince, the Elector of Saxony, issued a law which prohibited Jews from living in his realm, conducting business there, or passing through it.

The Reformer was approached about obtaining permission for a rabbi to have an audience with the Prince, but he turned down every advance on this theme. “… I would willingly do my best for your people but I will not contribute to your [Jewish] obstinacy by my own kind actions. You must find another intermediary with my good lord” Luther is said to have commented.

One contemporary wrote that Martin Luther had written many books in which he said that if anyone helped the Jews they would be doomed to perdition. The City of Strasbourg, which had permitted Luther’s works to be sold, relented on this stance when a Lutheran pastor argued in a sermon that his parishioners should murder Jews.

Of course, Martin Luther was simply reflecting a jaundiced view in the Europe of his lifetime. It was a view which had a particular interpretation of Christ’s martyrdom. Historians have questioned the Biblical portrayal of the passive Roman leader Pontius Pilate doing exactly what his Jewish subjects demanded despite his own reservations as being out of character from how the Romans ruled. It certainly put the Romans in a good light, and made the Jews entirely responsible for the crucifixion.  That in turn led to a stereotyping which would, ultimately, have murderous consequences on an unthinkable scale.

Historical study and research is now leaving much more open to question this cosy view of paternal Roman governance of Biblical Israel.

But that is somewhat of an irrelevance since it is post-Luther.

The tragedy is that Jews were persecuted throughout medieval Europe and that the roots of anti-Semitism are all too clear; they grew stronger in 19th and 20th century Europe, with disastrous and toxic consequences.

Is Martin Luther to blame for this? We have to rationally question how significant Luther’s arguments against Jews really were.

His thoughts on Jews at the end of his life were that they must convert to Christianity; “We want to deal with them in a Christian manner now. Offer them the Christian faith that they would accept the Messiah, who is even their cousin and has been born of their flesh and blood; and is rightly Abraham’s Seed, of which they boast. Even so, I am concerned [that] Jewish blood may no longer become watery and wild. First of all, you should propose to them that they be converted to the Messiah and allow themselves to be baptized, that one may see that this is a serious matter to them. If not, then we would not permit them [to live among us]…”

But there was a warning that if they would not convert, more affirmative action would have to be taken.

“They are,” he chillingly warned, “our public enemies.”

Modern historians believe that Luther’s anti-Jewish rhetoric contributed in a significant way to the development of antisemitism in Germany and that in the 1930s and 1940s it provided an ideal foundation for the Nazi Party’s attacks on Jews. Dairmaid Mac Culloch has argued that Luther’s 1543 pamphlet ‘On the Jews and their Lies’ was a blueprint for ‘Kristallnacht’ in Germany, when Jewish businesses and homes – and Jews themselves – were targeted for attack.

Bishop Martin Sasse of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Thuringa, Germany, noted that Kristallnacht had taken place on the anniversary of Luther’s birthday and wrote that “On November 10, 1938, on Luther’s birthday, the synagogues are burning in Germany.”

The late Dr. William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote in 1941 that “It is easy to see how Luther prepared the way for Hitler.”

There is no need to rehearse where this endemic anti-Semitism would ultimately lead.

The difficulty for those seeking to celebrate Luther’s 95 Theses is that there is a darker side to the Reformer. There is a dilemma in this, and it cannot be ignored by donning rose tinted spectacles.

Luther was not, of course, alone in holding such views. Nor should we ignore the fact that he did provide a major contribution to modern society when he took his stand against the corruption of the Church as he had witnessed it in his own lifetime. He played an important role in the Protestant Reformation, which is something that people have a right to commemorate.

But there can be no rational argument for ignoring the anti-Semitism which Luther espoused. Most especially at a time when Jewish schools have had to be guarded against attack in France and elsewhere, and Jews have been murdered in European cities simply because of their faith.

The 500th anniversary of Luther’s stand at Wittenberg perhaps gives an opportunity to reflect on how Christians dealt with and continue to deal with the marginalised in societies which they have dominated in the past. This includes how Christianity has related to Jews over the centuries and across the world.

An honest appraisal of such matters would be akin to going back to basics, which would be very appropriate after all, given that that was what Martin Luther saw himself doing in the first place with his own personal challenges to the Church of his day.

martin luther title page131Title page of Martin Luther’s “Jews and their Lies”, published in Wittenberg in 1543