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The German translation for the phrase “priesthood of all believers” is “Priestertum aller Gläubigen”. According to everything I have read, Martin Luther popularized the doctrine but did not use this exact German phrase anywhere in his writing.

What is the earliest known time this phrase appeared in print, either in German or English?

So far, this question has stumped Google and Microsoft Copilot.

To start things off, Google gets me back as far as the early 19th century:

  • 1860: The Priesthood of the Church by Newman Hall
  • 1857: The Religious Condition of Christendom by the Rev. Dr. Mallet of Bremen (from papers read at a conference in Berlin by the German branch of the Evangelical Alliance)
  • 1839: The Heresy of a Human Priesthood by R.M. Beverley
  • 1812: Seventh Day Baptist Yearbook

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To look for an exact translation of the German phrase for "priesthood of all believers" used by Martin Luther seems like looking for a needle in a haystack. What if he put it differently, writing, "All believers are priests", or "The spiritual priesthood is not confined to a few clergymen"?

However, there are a couple of tracts Luther published that deal with the doctrine of the priesthood of believers, so let me mention them, in case that helps refine your search.

When Luther became known as "the wild boar in the vineyard", this was in contrast to the previous academic style of Erasmus of Rotterdam (d.1536) who almost made the Reformation inevitable (laying the egg Luther hatched, the monks complained). In 1520 Luther issued a batch of fierce tracts, landing him with that description. One was called "The Babylonian Captivity". It assaulted five of the sacraments of the church, which undercut the role of a priesthood class, who, alone, were authorised to administer all seven of them.

"The repudiation of ordination as a sacrament demolished the caste system of clericalism and provided a sound system for the priesthood of all believers, since according to Luther ordination is simply a rite of the Church by which a minister is installed to discharge a particular office." Here I Stand, Roland Bainton, pp. 137-8, Lion, 1988

Then Bainton gives a quote from Luther's Babylonian Captivity tract which, may possibly contain some German wording akin to what you are searching for. Luther writes of the fabrication of ordination as a sacrament "whereby the clergy and the laity should be separated farther than heaven and earth, to the incredible injury of baptismal grace and to the confusion of evangelical fellowship. This is the source of that detestable tyranny over the laity by the clergy" (who rely on external anointing of their hands, the tonsure and their vestments to exalt themselves above lay Christians.) Luther adds,

"All of us who have been baptized are priests without distinction, but those whom we call priests are ministers, chosen from among us that they should do all things in our name and their priesthood is nothing but a ministry." (Ibid. p.138)

If the phrase looked for is not there, nor a similar one, it may be found in his other tract, Address to the German Nobility, in a third passage where Luther said that the magistrates were fellow Christians sharing in the priesthood of all believers. The first 'wall' of Rome that must tumble down was the teaching that the spiritual power [on earth] is above the temporal. Bainton said that Luther countered that with the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, and quotes Luther:

"If a priest is killed, a land is laid under an interdict. Why not in the case of a peasant? Whence comes this great distinction between those who are called Christians?" (Ibid. p.154)

Those two particular tracts of Luther's might benefit from reading through, to see whether that exact phrase, or similar ones, may be found.

There's just one more point that might be worth mentioning. What if the priesthood of all believers was silently stated in stone, over the centuries, by the way buildings were used for worship? Could religious architecture throw a light on to how what was, initially, a biblically-based belief of the earliest fellowships, physically move lay worshippers away from the theology, to feeling separate from a privileged priesthood class, then (with the Reformation) bring them back together with a sense of their equality as all being part of this spiritual priesthood: all aided by changing internal church building layout? The Middle Ages saw chambers with partitions (e.g. in the East, separation by the iconostasis, a massive solid screen which hid the altar from the laity when its doors were closed. In the West the division of chancel with the high altar and seats for clergy, and nave with pulpit, and a second altar for the laity.) But with the Reformation, the pulpit was visible to all, with a single table and baptistry close together. Separations were removed due to the belief in the priesthood of all believers.

If that is not worth mentioning, please ignore it, and just let those two tracts of Luther's remain for further investigation. I do not wish to irritate you by not fully answering the question, but hope to point you in a helpful direction.

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Priesthood of believer is mentioned by Philip Schaff in his comments on Montanism related by Eusebius.

They [Montanists] taught a rigid asceticism over against the growing worldliness of the Church, severe discipline over against its laxer methods, and finally the universal priesthood of believers (even female), and their right to perform all the functions of church officers, over against the growing sacerdotalism of the Church. Commentary on Eusebius' Church History Book V Chapter XVI

If accurate, Montanists taught circa CE 150. Here is Tertullian complaining, before his so-called conversion.

For even on laymen do they [heretics] impose the functions of priesthood. Tertullian, Prescription Against Heretics, Chapter XLI

At the same time, we do find this concept of the priesthood of all believers in Scripture.

Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ. 1 Peter 2:5

And hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father; to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen. Rev 1:6

So, to answer the OP, it appears the concept of the priesthood of believer has existed from the beginnings of the Christian Church. It lasted for a few hundred years. It was simply labeled as heresy and snuffed out by those who apparently had lost their power, priesthood, and pocketbook. Of course, the Reformation, the Restoration has recovered what is the believer's.

EDIT TO ADD for the PHRASE or APPLICATION

John Owen wrote circa CE 1650 (early than OP cited quotes).

All faithful ministers of the gospel, inasmuch as they are ingrafted into Christ and are true believers, may, as all other true Christians, be called priests; but this inasmuch as they are members of Christ, not ministers of the gospel. John Owen, Duty of Pastors ...

Andrew Miller wrote circa CE 1850 and used the exact phrase.

The only priesthood, then, in the church of God is the common priesthood of all believers. Andrew Miller, Short Papers, Chapter 8

There are numerous other references throughout the Reformation.

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  • The baptism makes believers priests under Christ our High Priest. Foreshadowed by Moses washing Aaron. And explains Christ's insistence of John washing (baptizing) Christ. You don't call yourself into the priesthood.
    – SLM
    Mar 27 at 16:46

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