of the luther trees
In European history special events or speeches have been connected with trees.
Also in the bible trees were often linked with special events. Examples are the tree of knowledge, the tree of life with Adam and Eve, the olive branch as a sign of bond between God and Noah as well as Jesus comparing himself with a grapevine and dies at a wooden cross.
Trees also play a special role in the commemoration of the Reformation. There are certain events when trees were planted in memory of Martin Luther and his work. Until today they receive special attention.
About the trees under which Luther supposedly preached and which still exist today
A special species of Luther trees are the ones under which Luther supposedly preached. E.g. in Worms-Pfiffligheim still exists the torso of an elm tree, which used to be 30 m high with a volume of 9 m. Allegedly Luther stopped here on his way to the Reichstag in Worms and preached under that tree.
We do not know if it is true, because there a many legends about that tree. But we do know that Luther preached a lot when he was travelling. Not only in churches, but also outdoors, at an open window or on village squares. There were often many more listeners than space in a church building. Luther even developed a special kind of sermons: the travelling sermon. They did not stick to the given bible text for the Sunday but were picking out central themes of the Reformation.
The mythological meaning of trees (lime, oak, elm)
Not only Luther trees play a role for us. In the bible we do know the tree of knowledge. “Do not eat from it!” warned God Adam and Eve. When they still did it, it changed their life.
The oak of Mamre has been standing in Hebron since the time of Abraham. Under this tree Abraham welcomed three men. But look, it was God himself visiting Abraham.
At another time a tree helped the Israelites. They were hunting their opponent Absalom through an impassable wood until he entangled himself with his long hair in the branches of a terebinth.
Psalm 1 praises the man following God: “ … he is liked a tree, planted at the river, bringing fruit at his time.”
The New Testament tells us about Zacchary, who was of short stature and climbed up a tree to see Jesus.
Also Jesus himself liked telling parables with trees: e.g. he compares faith with the small grain of a mustard seed that becomes a high tree with birds building their nest in its branches.
In another parable a meagre fruit bearing fig tree gets a second chance. Or Jesus was talking about the kingdom of God: it is as close as the summer, when the fig trees are greening.
Judas hanging himself up after his betrayal is a dark legend, which is not told by the bible.
Of special beauty and deep theological meaning is the description of the cross as a living tree in painting and songs, e.g. in the German church song “Wood on Jesus’ shoulder”: “Wood on Jesus’ shoulder, cursed by the world, became tree of life, strongly bearing fruit.” (Evangelical hymnbook, page 97).
Special care and honour receive the trees, under which Martin Luther supposedly preached. Well known is the elm tree in Worms-Pfiffligheim/Rhineland-Palatinate. In Treuenbrietzen/Brandenburg is a lime tree under which Luther preached, because the local church was too small. Also in the small village of Möhra in Thuringia, the ancestral seat of Luther’s family, Luther himself supposedly having a sermon under the lime tree on May 4th in 1521.
On November 2nd in 1617 the commemoration was especially under the impression of the catholic renewal. The plan, that Reformed Christians and Lutherans were celebrating together, failed. But all Protestants agreed in celebrating Luther as a fighter against papacy and as the founder of a new church.
In this year the Prussian king intended not to commemorate the Reformation as victory over the Catholics to keep the unity of the empire. But the celebrations were under the impression of the division of the several protestant movements. The sermons often talked about the “true churches” and offended others.
At the voluminous celebrations in 1817 Luther was stylized as a national hero. But it also stands for the new approach of the different Protestant churches of harmonization. At the Wartburg castle both the Reformation and the Battle of the Nations close to the city of Leipzig were commemorated. The many speeches included anti-French opinions and there were sermons against the goals of the French Revolution. At the anniversary in 1817 in whole Germany oaks were planted to remember Martin Luther.
The 400th birthday of Martin Luther was celebrated. At many places in Germany monuments were inaugurated and also trees were planted. Partly Martin Luther was honoured as the founding father of the German people. In this year mainly oaks were planted and exported to other places. Also the Luther oak in Wittenberg was planted in this year.
The celebrations of 1917 were strongly under the impression of World War I. Often they were connected with paroles of hanging on. Together with Reich chancellor Hindenburg Luther was honoured as the “saviour of all Germans in times of great despair”.
Also in this year the commemoration of Luther was linked with a political message. Luther was named as “the best comforter of the Germans”. In the celebrations the disunity of the Christians was highlighted, because of the several views on the National Socialists. In 1933 fewer trees were planted. Lime trees were preferred.
In the Western part of Germany Luther’s birthday was honoured by scientific speeches. In the communist Eastern part (German Democratic Republic, GDR) Luther was debased as a “betrayer of the farmers” for a long time. But in 1983 he was celebrated as a pioneer of an early civil revolution.
The peace and environmental movement of the GDR used the date to remember Luther but was also demonstrating against the environmental program of the political system by planting lime trees.
EKD Schrift : Rechtfertigung und Freiheit, 500 Jahre Reformation 2017,2014
EKD Schrift: Perspektive 2017,2013
Die Zeit vom 25.08.2008: Artikel von Hartmut Lehmann: Die Deutschen und ihr Luther