ON THE PRIMARY PRINCIPLES of LUTHER’S LIFE AND TEACHING
The present publication is offered as a contribution to the due celebration in this country of the fourth Centenary of Luther’s birth. Much has been written about him, and the general history of his life and work is being sketched by able pens. But no adequate attempt has yet been made to let him speak for himself to Englishmen by his greatest and most characteristic writings. The three works which, together with the 95 Theses, are included in this volume, are well known in Germany as the Drei Grosse Reformations-Schriften, or “The Three Great Reformation Treatises” of Luther; but they seem never yet to have been brought in this character before the English public. The Treatise on Christian Liberty has indeed been previously translated, though not of late years. But from an examination of the catalogue in the British Museum, it would appear that no English translation is accessible, even if any has yet been published, of the Address to the German Nobility or of the Treatise on the Babylonish Captivity of the Church. Yet, as is well understood in Germany, it is in these that the whole genius of the Reformer appears in its most complete and energetic form. They are bound together in the closest dramatic unity. They were all three produced in the latter half of the critical year 1520, when nearly three years’ controversy, since the publication of the Theses, on Oct. 31 1517, had convinced Luther of the falseness of the Court of Rome, and the hollowness of its claims; and they were immediately followed by the bull of excommunication in the winter of the same year, and the summons to the Diet of Worms in 1521. Luther felt, as he says at the commencement of his Address to the German Nobility, that “the time for silence had passed, and the time for speech had come.” He evidently apprehended that reconciliation between himself and the Court of Rome was impossible; and he appears to have made up his mind to clear his conscience, whatever the cost. Accordingly in these three works he spoke out with a full heart, and with the consciousness that his life was in his hand, the convictions which had been forced on him by the conduct of the Papacy and of the Papal theologians.
Those convictions had been slowly, and even reluctantly, admitted; but they had gradually accumulated in intense force in Luther’s mind and conscience; and when “the time for speech had come” they burst forth in a kind of volcanic eruption. Their maturity is proved by the completeness and thoroughness with which the questions at issue are treated. An insight into the deepest theological principles is combined with the keenest apprehension of practical details. In the Treatise on Christian Liberty we have the most vivid of all embodiments of that life of Faith to which the Reformer recalled the Church and which was the mainspring of the Reformation. In the Appeal to the German Nobility he first asserted those rights of the laity, and of the temporal power, without the admission of which no reformation would have been practicable, and he then denounced with burning moral indignation the numerous and intolerable abuses which were upheld by Roman authority. In the third Treatise, on the Babylonish Captivity of the Church, he applied the same cardinal principles to the elaborate Sacramental system of the Church of Rome, sweeping away by means of them the superstitions with which the original institutions of Christ had been overlaid, and thus releasing men’s consciences from a vast network of ceremonial bondage. The rest of the Reformation, it is not too much to say, was but the application of the principles vindicated in these three works. They were applied in different countries with varying wisdom and moderation; but nothing essential was added to them. Luther’s genius—if a higher word be not justifiable—brought forth at one birth, “with hands and feet,” to use his own image, and in full energy, the vital ideas by which Europe was to be regenerated. He was no mere negative controversialist, attacking particular errors in detail. His characteristic was the masculine grasp with which he seized essential and eternal truths, and by their central light dispersed the darkness in which men were groping.
It occurred therefore to my colleague and myself that a permanent service might perhaps be rendered to Luther’s name, and towards a due appreciation of the principles of the Reformation, if these short but pregnant Treatises were made more accessible to the English public; and although they might well be left to speak for themselves, there may perhaps be some readers to whom a few explanatory observations on Luther’s position, theologically and politically, will not be unacceptable. My colleague, in the Essay which follows this, has dealt with the political course of the Reformation during his career; and in the present remarks an endeavour will simply be made to indicate the nature and the bearings of the central principles of the Reformer’s life and work, as exhibited in the accompanying translations.
It is by no mere accident of controversy that the Ninty-five Theses mark the starting-point of Luther’s career as a reformer. The subject with which they dealt was not only in close connection with the centre of Christian truth, but it touched the characteristic thought of the Middle Ages. From the beginning to the end, those ages had been a stern school of moral and religious discipline, under what was universally regarded as the divine authority of the Church. St. Anselm, with his intense apprehension of the divine righteousness, and of its inexorable demands, is at once the noblest and truest type of the great school of thought of which he was the founder. The special mission of the Church since the days of Gregory the Great had been to tame the fierce energies of the new barbarian world, and to bring the wild passions of the Teutonic races under the control of the Christian law. It was the task to which the necessities of the hour seemed to summon the Church, and she roused herself to the effort with magnificent devotion. Monks and Schoolmen performed prodigies of self-denial and self-sacrifice, in order to realise in themselves, and to impose as far as possible on the world at large, the laws of perfection which the Church held before their vision. The glorious cathedrals which arose in the best period of the Middle Ages are but the visible types of those splendid structures of ideal virtues, which a monk like St. Bernard, or a Schoolman like St. Thomas Aquinas, piled up by laborious thought and painful asceticism. Such men felt themselves at all times surrounded by a spiritual world, at once more glorious in its beauty and more awful in its terrors, than either the pleasures or the miseries of this world could adequately represent. The great poet of the Middle Ages affords perhaps the most vivid representation of their character in this respect. The horrible images of the Inferno, the keen sufferings of purification in the Purgatorio, form the terrible foreground behind which the Paradiso rises. Those visions of terror and dread and suffering had stamped themselves on the imagination of the medieval world, and lay at the root of the power with which the Church overshadowed it. In their origin they embodied a profound and noble truth. It was a high and divine conception that the moral and spiritual world with which we are encompassed has greater heights and lower depths than are generally apprehended in the visible experience of this life; and Dante has been felt to be in an unique degree the poet of righteousness. But it is evident, at the same time, what a terrible temptation was placed in the hands of a hierarchy who were believed, in whatever degree, to wield power over these spiritual realities. It was too easy to apply them, like the instruments of physical torture with which the age was familiar, to extort submission from tender consciences, or to make a bargain with selfish hearts. But in substance the menaces of the Church appealed to deep convictions of the human conscience, and the mass of men were not prepared to defy them.
Now it was into this world of spiritual terrors that Luther was born, and he was in an eminent degree the legitimate child of the Middle Ages. The turning-point in his history is that the awful visions of which we have spoken, the dread of the Divine judgments, brought home to him by one of the solemn accidents of life, checked him in a career which promised all worldly prosperity, and drove him into a monastery. There, as he tells us, he was driven almost frantic by his vivid realization of the demands of the Divine righteousness on the one hand, and of his own incapacity to satisfy them on the other. With the intense reality characteristic of his nature he took in desperate earnest all that the traditional teaching and example of the Middle Ages had taught him of the unbending necessities of Divine justice. But for the very reason that he accepted those necessities with such earnestness, he did but realize the more completely the hopelessness of his struggles to bring himself into conformity with them. It was not because he was out of sympathy with St. Anselm or St. Bernard or Dante, that he burst the bonds of the system they represented; but, on the contrary, because he entered even more deeply than they into the very truths they asserted. Nothing was more certain to him than that Divine justice is inexorable; no conviction was more deeply fixed in his heart than that righteousness is the supreme law of human life. But the more he realized the truth, the more terrible he found it, for it seemed to shut him up in a cruel prison, against the bars of which he beat himself in vain. In one of his most characteristic passages, in the Introduction to his Latin Works, he describes how he was repelled and appalled by the statement of St. Paul respecting the Gospel, that ‘therein is the righteousness, or justice, of God revealed.’ For, he says, ‘however irreprehensible a life I had lived as a monk, I felt myself before God a sinner, with a most restless conscience, and I could not be confident that He was appeased by my satisfaction. I could not, therefore, love—nay, I hated—a God who was just and punished sinners; and if not with silent blasphemy, certainly with vehement murmuring, I was indignant against God. As if, I said, it were not enough that sinners, miserable and eternally ruined by original sin, should be crushed with all kind of calamity by the law of the Decalogue, but God by the Gospel must needs add grief to grief, and by the Gospel itself must inflict still further on us His justice and anger. I raged with this savage and disturbed conscience, and I knocked importunately at Paul in that place, with burning thirst to know what St. Paul could mean.’ Such an experience is not a mere revolt against the Middle Ages. In great measure it is but the full realization of their truest teaching. It is Dante intensified, and carried to the inevitable development of his principles.
But if this be the case, what it meant was that the Middle Ages had brought men to a deadlock. They had led men up to a gate so strait that no human soul could pass through it. In the struggle, men had devised the most elaborate forms of self-torture, and had made the most heroic sacrifices, and in the very desperation of their efforts they had anticipated the more vivid insight and experience of Luther. The effort, in fact, had been too much for human nature, and the end of it had been that the Church had condescended to human weakness. The most obvious and easy way out of the difficulty was to modify, by virtue of some dispensing authority, the extreme requirements of Divine justice, and by a variety of half-unconscious, half-acknowledged devices, to lessen the severity of the strait gate and of the narrow way. Such a power, as has been said, was an enormous temptation to unscrupulous Churchmen, and at length it led to the hideous abuses of such preaching of indulgences as that of Tetzel. In this form the matter came before Luther in his office as parish priest and confessor; and it will be apparent from the Theses that what first revolts him is the violation involved of the deepest principles which the Church of his day had taught him. He had learned from it the inexorable character of the Divine law, the necessity and blessedness of the Divine discipline of punishment and suffering; he had learned, as his first Thesis declares, that the law of Christian life is that of lifelong penitence; and he denounced Tetzel’s teaching as false to the Church herself, in full confidence that he would be supported by his ecclesiastical superiors. When he found that he was not—when, to his surprise and consternation, he found that the Papal theologians of the day, under the direct patronage of the Pope and the bishops, were ready to support the most flagrant evasions of the very principles on which their power had originally been based—then at length, though most reluctantly, he turned against them, and directed against the corrupted Church of the close of the Middle Ages the very principles he had learned from its best representatives and from its noblest institutions.
Luther, in the course of his spiritual struggles, had found the true deliverance from what we have ventured to call that deadlock to which the grand vision of Divine righteousness had led him. He realised that the strait gate was impassable by any human virtue; but he had found the solution in the promise of a supernatural deliverance which was offered to faith. To quote again his words in the preface to his Latin works already referred to: ‘At length by the mercy of God, meditating days and nights, I observed the connection of the words namely “therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith, as it is written: The just shall live by faith.” Then I began to understand the justice of God to be that by which the just man lives by the gift of God, namely, by faith, and that the meaning was that the Gospel reveals that justice of God by which He justifies us beggars through faith, as it is written: “The just shall live by faith.” Here I felt myself absolutely born again; the gates of heaven were opened, and I had entered paradise itself. From thenceforward the face of the whole Scriptures appeared changed to me. I ran through the Scriptures, as my memory would serve me, and observed the same analogy in other words—as, the work of God, that is, the work which God works in us; the strength of God, that with which He makes us strong; the wisdom of God, that with which He makes us wise; the power of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God. And now, as much as I had formerly hated that word, the Justice of God, so much did I now love it and extol it as the sweetest of words to me; and thus that place in Paul was to me truly the gate of paradise.’ In other words, Luther had realised that the Gospel, while reasserting the inexorable nature of the moral law, and deepening its demands, had revealed a supernatural and divine means of satisfying and fulfilling it. All barriers had thus been removed between God and man, and men had been placed in the position of children living by Faith on His grace and bounty. He offers to bestow upon them the very righteousness He requires from them, if they will but accept it at His hands as a free gift. Their true position is no longer that of mere subjects living under a law which they must obey at their peril. They may, indeed, by their own act remain in that condition, with all its terrible consequences. But God invites them to regard Him as their Father, to live in the light of His countenance, and to receive from Him the daily food of their souls. The most intimate personal relation is thus established between Himself and them; and the righteousness which they could never acquire by their own efforts He is ready to create in them if they will but live with Him in faith and trust. That faith, indeed, must needs be the beginning, and the most essential condition, of this Divine life. Faith is the first condition of all fellowship between persons; and if a man is to live in personal fellowship with God, he must trust Him absolutely, believe His promises, and rest his whole existence, here and hereafter, upon His word. But let a man do this, and then God’s law ceases to be like a flaming sword, turning every way, with too fierce an edge for human hearts to bear. It assumes the benignant glow of a revelation of perfect righteousness which God Himself will bestow on all who ask it at His hands.
This belief is essentially bound up with a distinction on which great stress is laid in the Theses. It touches a point at once of the highest theological import, and of the simplest practical experience. This is the distinction between guilt and punishment; or, in other words, between personal forgiveness, and the remission of the consequences of sins. In our mutual relations, a son may be forgiven by his father, a wrongdoer by the person whom he has injured, and yet it may neither be possible nor desirable that the offender should be at once released from the consequences of his offence. But for all generous hearts, the personal forgiveness is infinitely more precious than the remission of the penalty, and Luther had learned from the Scriptures to regard our relation to God in a similar light. He realized that he must live, here and hereafter, in personal relationship to God; and the forgiveness of God, the removal from him, in God’s sight, of the imputation and the brand of guilt, his reception into God’s unclouded favour—this was the supreme necessity of his spiritual existence. If this were assured to him, not only had he no fear of punishment, but he could welcome it, whatever its severity, as part of the discipline of the divine and loving hand to which he had trusted himself. His deepest indignation, consequently, was aroused by preaching which, under official sanction, urged men to buy indulgence from punishment, of whatever kind, as practically the greatest spiritual benefit they could obtain; and he devoted his whole energy to assert the supreme blessing of that remission from guilt, of which the preachers of indulgences said practically nothing. It is this remission of guilt, this personal forgiveness, which is the essential element in the justification of which he spoke. It involves of course salvation from the final ruin and doom which sin, and the moral corruption of our nature, would naturally entail; but its chief virtue does not consist in deliverance from punishment, nor does it in any way derogate from the truth that “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad.” What it taught men was to accept all God’s judgements and discipline in perfect peace of soul, as being assured of His love and favour.
No divine, in fact, has ever dwelt with more intense conviction on the blessedness of the discipline of suffering and of the Cross. The closing Theses express his deepest feelings in this respect, and a passage in one of his letters, written before the controversy about Indulgences had arisen, affords a most interesting illustration of the manner in which the principles he came forward to assert had grown out of his personal experience. “Away,” he says, in the 92nd and 93rd Theses, “with all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, ‘Peace, peace,’ and there is no peace. Blessed be all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, ‘The Cross, the Cross,’ and there is no Cross.” These somewhat enigmatic expressions are at once explained in the letter referred to, written to a Prior of the Augustinian order, on the 22nd of June, 1516. He says:—
“You are seeking and craving for peace, but in the wrong order. For you are seeking it as the world giveth, not as Christ giveth. Know you not that God is ‘wonderful among His saints,’ for this reason, that He establishes His peace in the midst of no peace, that is, of all temptations and afflictions.’ It is said ‘Thou shalt dwell in the midst of thine enemies.’ The man who possesses peace is not the man whom no one disturbs—that is the peace of the world; he is the man whom all men and all things disturb, but who bears all patiently, and with joy. You are saying with Israel, ‘Peace, peace,’ and there is no peace. Learn to say rather with Christ: ‘The Cross, the Cross,’ and there is no Cross. For the Cross at once ceases to be the Cross as soon as you have joyfully exclaimed, in the language of the hymn,
- “‘Blessed Cross, above all other,
- One and only noble tree.’”
One other extract of the same import it may be well to quote from these early letters, as it is similarly the germ of one of the noblest passages in Luther’s subsequent explanation of the Ninety-five Theses. The letter was addressed to a brother Augustinian on the 15th of April, 1516. Luther says:—
“The cross of Christ has been divided throughout the whole world, and every one meets with his own portion of it. Do not you therefore reject it, but rather accept it as the most holy relic, to be kept, not in a gold or silver chest, but in a golden heart, that is, a heart imbued with gentle charity. For if, by contact with the flesh and blood of Christ, the wood of the Cross received such consecration that its relics are deemed supremely precious, how much more should injuries, persecutions, sufferings and the hatred of men, whether of the just or of the unjust, be regarded as the most sacred of all relics—relics which, not by the mere touch of His flesh, but by the charity of His most bitterly tried heart and of His divine will, were embraced, kissed, blessed, and abundantly consecrated; for thus was a curse transformed into a blessing, and injury into justice, and passion into glory, and the Cross into joy.”
The few letters, in fact, in our possession, written by Luther before he came forward in 1517, are sufficient to afford the most vivid proof both of the mature thought and experience in which his convictions were rooted, and of their being prompted, not by the spirit of reckless confidence to which they have sometimes been ignorantly ascribed, but by the deepest sympathy with the lessons of the Cross. The purport of his characteristic doctrine of justification by faith was not to give men the assurance of immunity from suffering and sorrow, as the consequence of sin, but to give them peace of conscience and joy of heart in the midst of such punishments. What it proclaimed was that, if men would but believe it, they could at any moment grasp God’s forgiveness, and live henceforth in the assured happiness of His personal favour and love. Of this blessing His promise was the only possible warrant, and like all other promises, it could only be accepted by Faith. Every man is invited to believe it, since it is offered to all for Christ’s sake; but by the nature of the case, none can enjoy it who do not believe it.
The ground, however, on which this promise was based affords another striking illustration of the way in which Luther’s teaching was connected with that of the Middle Age. Together with that keen apprehension of the divine judgments and of human sin just mentioned, the awful vision of our Lord’s sufferings and of His atonement overshadowed the whole thought of those times. St. Anselm, in the Cur Deus Homo, had aroused deeper meditation on this subject than had before been bestowed upon it; and in this, as in other matters, he is the type of the grand school of thought which he founded. As in his mind, so throughout the Middle Age, in proportion to the apprehension of the terrible nature of the Divine justice, is the prominence given to the sacrificial means for averting the Divine wrath. The innumerable Masses of the later Middle Ages were so many confessions of the deep-felt need of atonement; and formal as they ultimately became, they were in intention so many cries for forgiveness from the terrorstruck consciences of sinful men and women. Luther was a true child of the Church in his deep apprehension of the same need, and it was precisely because he realised it with exceptional truth and depth that he was forced to seek some deeper satisfaction than the offering of Masses could afford. He reasserted the truth that the need had been met and answered once for all by the Sacrifice on the Cross; and by proclaiming the sufficiency of that one eternal offering he swept away all the “Sacrifices of Masses,” while at the same time he provided the answer to the craving to which they testified. The doctrine of the Atonement, as asserted at the Reformation, is the true answer to that cry of the human conscience which the Church of the preceding age had vainly endeavoured to satisfy. The Sacrament, of which the Mass was a perversion, was thus restored to its true character on a pledge and an instrument of blessings bestowed by God, instead of a propitiatory offering on the part of men. The Cross of Christ, the favourite symbol of the mediæval Church, was thus held aloft by the Reformer in still deeper reality, as the central symbol of the Church’s message, and as the one adequate ground for the faith to which he called men.
Now the view of the Christian life involved in this principle of Justification by Faith found its most complete and beautiful expression in the Treatise “On Christian Liberty,” translated in this volume; and a brief notice of the teaching of that treatise will best serve to explain the connection between Luther’s cardinal doctrine and the other principles which he asserted. As is explained at the close of the introductory letter to Leo X. (p. 101), he designed it as a kind of peaceoffering to the Pope, and as a declaration of the sole objects he had at heart, and to which he desired to devote his life. “It is a small matter,” he says, “if you look to its bulk, but unless I mistake, it is a summary of the Christian life in small compass, if you apprehend its meaning.” In fact, it presents the most complete view of Luther’s theology, alike in its principles and in its practice, almost entirely disembarrassed of the controversial elements by which, under the inevitable pressure of circumstances, his other works, and especially those of a later date, were disturbed. Perhaps the only part of his works to compare with it in this respect is the precious collection of his House-postills, or Exposition of the Gospels for the Sundays of the Christian Year. They were delivered within his domestic circle, and recorded by two of his pupils, and though but imperfectly reported, they are treasures of Evangelical exposition, exhibiting in a rare degree the exquisitely childlike character of the Reformer’s faith, and marked by all the simplicity and the poetry of feeling by which his mind was distinguished. It is by such works as these, and not simply by his controversial treatises or commentaries, that Luther must be judged, if we wish either to understand his inner character, or to comprehend the vast personal influence he exerted. But in its essence, the Gospel which he preached, the substance of what he had learned from the temptations, the prayers, the meditations—tentationes, orationes, meditationes—of his life as a monk, is sufficiently embodied in the short Treatise on Christian Liberty.
The argument of the Treatise is summed up, with the antithetical force so often characteristic of great genius, in the two propositions laid down at the outset. “A Christian man is the most free lord of all and subject to none: A Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to every one.” The first of these propositions expresses the practical result of the doctrine of Justification by Faith. The Christian is in possession of a promise of God, which in itself, and in the assurance it involves, is a greater blessing to him than all other privileges or enjoyments whatever. Everything sinks into insignificance compared with this word and Gospel. “Let us,” he says, “hold it for certain and firmly established that the soul can do without everything except the word of God, without which none of its wants are provided for. But, having the word, it is rich and wants for nothing, since it is the word of life, of truth, of light, of peace, of justification, of salvation, of joy, of liberty, of wisdom, of virtue, of grace, of glory, and of every good thing.” If it be asked, “What is this word?” he answers that the Apostle Paul explains it, namely that “it is the Gospel of God, concerning His Son, incarnate, suffering, risen, and glorified through the Spirit, the Sanctifier. To preach Christ is to feed the soul, to justify it, to set it free, and to save it, if it believes the preaching . . . For the word of God cannot be received and honoured by any works, but by Faith alone.” This is the cardinal point around which not merely Luther’s theology, but his whole life turns. God had descended into the world, spoken to him by His Son, His Apostles, the Scriptures, and the voice of the Church, and promised him forgiveness in the present, and final deliverance from his evil in the future, if he would but trust Him. The mere possession of such a promise outweighed in Luther’s view all other considerations whatever, and absolute faith was due to it. No higher offence could be offered to God than to reject or doubt His promise, and at the same time no higher honour could be rendered Him than to believe it. The importance and value of the virtue of Faith is thus determined entirely by the promise on which it rests. These “promises of God are words of holiness, truth, righteousness, liberty, and peace, and are full of universal goodness, and the soul which cleaves to them with a firm faith is so united to them, nay, thoroughly absorbed by them, that it not only partakes in, but is penetrated and saturated by all their virtue. For if the touch of Christ was health, how much more does that most tender spiritual touch, nay, absorption of the word, communicate to the soul all that belongs to the word? In this way, therefore, the soul through faith alone, without works, is by the word of God justified, sanctified, endued with truth, peace, and liberty, and filled full with every good thing, and is truly made the child of God . . . As is the word, such is the soul made by it; just as iron exposed to fire glows like fire on account of its union with the fire.” Moreover, just as it is faith which unites husband and wife, so faith in Christ unites the soul to Him in indissoluble union. For “if a true marriage, nay, by far the most perfect of all marriages, is accomplished between them—for human marriages are but feeble types of this one great marriage—then it follows that all they have becomes theirs in common, as well good things as evil things; so that whatsoever Christ possesses, the believing soul may take to itself and boast of as its own, and whatever belongs to the soul, Christ claims as his . . . Thus the believing soul, by the pledge of its faith in Christ, becomes free from all sin, fearless of death, safe from hell, and endowed with the eternal righteousness, life and salvation of its husband Christ.”
It is essential to dwell upon these passages, since, the force of the Reformer’s great doctrine cannot possibly be apprehended as long as he is supposed to attribute the efficacy of which he speaks to any inherent quality in the human heart itself. It is the word and promise of God which is the creative force. But this summons a man into a sphere above this world, bids him rest upon the divine love which speaks to him, and places him on the eternal foundation of a direct covenant with God Himself in Christ. As in the Theses, so in this Treatise, Luther reiterates that it in no way implies exemption from the discipline of suffering. “Yea,” he says, “the more of a Christian any man is, to so many the more evils, sufferings, and deaths is he subject; as we see in the first place in Christ the first-born and in all His holy brethren.” The power of which he speaks is a spiritual one “which rules in the midst of enemies, in the midst of distresses. It is nothing else than that strength is made perfect in my weakness, and that I can turn all things to the profit of my salvation; so that even the cross and death are compelled to serve me and to work together for my salvation.” “It is a lofty and eminent dignity, a true and Almighty dominion, a spiritual empire in which there is nothing so good, nothing so bad, as not to work together for my good, if only I believe.”
If we compare this language with those conceptions of spiritual terror by which Luther had been driven into a monastery, and under which, like so many in his age, he had groaned and struggled in despair, we can appreciate the immense deliverance which he had experienced. The Divine promise had lifted him “out of darkness and out of the shadow of death, and had broken his bonds in sunder.” It is this which is the source of the undaunted and joyful faith which marks the whole of the Reformer’s public career. “Whose heart,” he exclaims, “would not rejoice in its inmost core at hearing these things? Whose heart, on receiving so great a consolation, would not become sweet with the love of Christ: a love to which it can never attain by any laws or works? Who can injure such a heart, or make it afraid? If the consciousness of sin, or the horror of death rush in upon it, it is prepared to hope in the Lord, and is fearless of these evils and undisturbed, until it shall look down upon its enemies.” Such a conviction, uttered in such burning language, lifted the same cloud of darkness and fear from the hearts of the common people of that day, and was welcomed as good tidings of great joy by multitudes of burdened and terror-stricken hearts. Nothing is more characteristic of Luther’s preaching, and of the Reformers who follow him, than the sense they display that they have before them souls “weary and heavy-laden.” Their language presupposes the prevalence of that atmosphere of spiritual apprehension and gloom already described, and their grand aim is to lead men out of it into the joy and peace and liberty of the Gospel. The consequence is that a new confidence, hope and energy is infused into the moral and spiritual world of that day. The tone of unbounded joy and hope which marks the earliest Christian literature, particularly in the Apostolic Fathers, re-appears in such a Treatise as we are considering, and in the whole religious thought of the Reformers; and it would almost seem as if the long agony of the Middle Ages had but enhanced the joy of the final deliverance.
It is unnecessary, for our present purpose, to dwell long upon the second point of the Treatise, in which Luther illustrates his second proposition that “a Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all and subject to every one.” It will be enough to observe that Luther is just as earnest in insisting upon the application of faith in the duties of charity and self-discipline as upon the primary importance of faith itself. The spirit of faith, he says, “applies itself with cheerfulness and zeal” to restrain and repress the impulses of the lower nature. “Here works begin; here a man must not take his ease; here he must give heed to exercise his body by fastings, watchings, labour, and other reasonable discipline, so that it may be subdued to the spirit, and obey and conform itself to the inner man and to faith.” Similarly, he will give himself up to the service of others, and it is partly with a view to rendering them such service that he will discipline his body and keep it in due energy and soundness. He starts from the belief that God, without merit on his part, has of his pure and free mercy bestowed on him, an unworthy creature, all the riches of justification and salvation in Christ, so that he is no longer in want of anything except of faith to believe that this is so. For such a Father, then, who has overwhelmed him with these inestimable riches of His, must he not freely, cheerfully, and from voluntary zeal, do all that he knows will be pleasing to Him and acceptable in His sight? “I will, therefore,” he says, “give myself as a sort of Christ to my neighbour, as Christ has given Himself to me; and will do nothing in this life except what I see will be needful, advantageous and wholesome for my neighbour, since by faith I abound in all good things in Christ.” These practical considerations will afford the measure by which a man determines the discipline to which he subjects himself, and the ceremonies which he observes. They will not be observed for their own sake, but as means to an end, and therefore will never be practised in excess, as though there were some merit in the performance of them. They are like the scaffoldings of builders, valuable only as a temporary assistance, in the construction of the building itself. “We do not condemn works and ceremonies; nay, we set the highest value on them. We only condemn that opinion of works which regards them as constituting true righteousness.” In asserting these principles, Luther was certainly putting the axe to the root of the portentous growth of ascetic and ceremonial observances which prevailed in his day, and which were too generally regarded as of the very essence of religion. He enabled men, as it were, to look on such ceremonies from the outside, as a thing external to them, and to reduce or rearrange them with a simple view to practical usefulness. But no more earnest exhortations to due self-discipline, and to true charity, could well be found than are contained in the second part of the De Libertate
It will be evident, however, what a powerful instrument of reformation was placed in men’s hands by the principles of this Treatise. Every Christian man, by virtue of the promise of Christ, was proclaimed free, so far as the eternal necessities of his soul were concerned, from all external and human conditions whatever. Nothing, indeed, was further from Luther’s intention or inclination than the overthrow of existing order, or the disparagement of any existing authority which could be reasonably justified. His letter to Pope Leo, prefixed to the Treatise we have been considering, shows that while denouncing unsparingly the abuses of the Court of Rome, he was sincere in his deference to the See of Rome itself. But the principle of justification enabled him to proclaim that if that See or any existing Church authority, misused its power, and refused to reform abuses, then, in the last resort, the soul of man could do without it. In that day at all events—and perhaps in our own to a greater extent than is sometimes supposed—this conviction supplied the fulcrum which was essential for any effectual reforming movement. As is observed by the Church historian Gieseler, in his admirable account of the early history of the Reformation, the Papacy had ever found its strongest support in the people at large. In spite of all the discontent and disgust provoked by the corruption of the Church and the clergy, an enormous though indefinite authority was still popularly attributed to the Pope and the ecclesiastical hierarchy. The Pope was believed to be in some sense or other the supreme administrator of spiritual powers which were effectual in the next world as well as in the present; and consequently when any controversy with the Church came to a crisis, men shrank from direct defiance of the Papal authority. They did not feel that they had any firm ground on which they could stand if they incurred its formal condemnation; and thus it always had at its command, in the strongest possible sense, the ultima ratio of rulers. The convictions to which Luther had been led at once annihilated these pretensions. “One thing and one alone,” he declared, “is necessary for life, justification and Christian liberty, and that is, the most holy word of God, the Gospel of Christ.” As we have seen, he proclaimed it “for certain, and firmly established, that the soul can do without everything except the word of God.” It is the mission of the Christian ministry, in its administration of the Word and Sacraments, to convey this Gospel to the soul, and to arouse a corresponding faith. But the promise is not annexed indissolubly to that administration, and the only invariable rule of salvation is that “the just shall live by faith.” By this principle, that vague fear of the spiritual powers of the hierarchy was removed, and men were endowed with real Christian liberty.
But the principle went still further; for it vindicated for the laity the possession of spiritual faculties and powers the same in kind as those of the clergy. All Christian men are admitted to the privilege of priesthood, and are “worthy to appear before God to pray for others, and to teach one another mutually the things which are of God.” In case of necessity, as is universally recognized, Baptism can be validly administered by lay hands, and English Divines, of the most unimpeachable authority on the subject, have similarly recognized that the valid administration of the Holy Communion is not dependent on the ordination of the minister by Episcopal authority. Luther urges accordingly that all Christians possess virtually the capacities which, as a matter of order, are commonly restricted to the clergy. Whether that restriction is properly dependent upon regular devolution from Apostolic authority, or whether the ministerial commission can be sufficiently conferred by appointment from the Christian community or congregation as a whole, becomes on this principle a secondary point. Luther pronounced with the utmost decision in favour of the latter alternative; but the essential element of his teaching is independent of this question. By whatever right the exercise of the ministry may be restricted to a particular body of men, what he asserted was that the functions of the clergy are simply ministerial, and that they do but exercise, on behalf of all, powers which all virtually possess. This principle Luther proceeded to assert in the first of the Treatises translated in this volume, the “Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation respecting the Reformation of the Christian Estate.” This Treatise is perhaps the one which appealed most widely and directly to the German nation at large. Luther completed it at the very moment when the Bull of excommunication against him was being prepared, and it contributed, perhaps more than anything, to paralyze the influence of that Bull with the mass of the people and their lay leaders. It appeared in August, 1520, and by the 18th of that month more than four thousand copies had been already dispersed—a prodigious circulation, considering the state of literature at that day. The reader, however, will not be surprised at this popularity of the Treatise when he sees with what astonishing vigour, frankness, humour, good sense, and at the same time intense moral indignation, Luther denounces in it the corruptions of the Church, and the injuries inflicted by the Court of Rome on the German people. So tremendous an indictment, sustained with such intense and concentrated force, could hardly be paralleled in literature. The truth of the charges alleged in it could be amply sustained by reference to Erasmus’s works alone, particularly to the Encomium Moriæ; but Erasmus lacked alike the moral energy necessary to rouse the action of the laity, and the spiritual insight necessary to justify that action. Luther possessed both; and it was the combination of the two which rendered him so mighty a force. It is this perhaps which essentially distinguishes him from previous reformers. They attacked particular errors and abuses, and deserve unbounded honour for the protests they raised, and Wycliff in particular merits the homage of Englishmen as one of the chief motive powers in the first reforming movement. But they did not assert, at least with sufficient clearness, the central principle without which all reform was impracticable—that of the equal rights of laity and clergy, and of the soul’s independence of all human power, by virtue of the truth of Justification by Faith. Luther’s doctrine of Christian liberty was the emancipation alike of individuals and of the laity at large. It vindicated for the whole lay estate, and for all ranks and conditions of lay life, a spiritual dignity, and a place in the spiritual life of the Church. It restored a sense of independent responsibility to all natural authorities; and it reasserted the sacredness of all natural relations. Practically, even if not theoretically, the Roman system had disparaged the ordinary relations of life as compared with the so-called “religious” or ecclesiastical. Luther, by placing all men and women on the same spiritual standing ground, swept away any such privileges; and gave men as clear a conscience, and as great a sense of spiritual dignity, in the ordinary duties of marriage, of fatherhood, and in the common offices of life, as in any ecclesiastical order.
The “Address to the Nobility of the German Nation” exhibits these principles, and their application to the practical problems of the day, in the most vigorous and popular form; and if some expressions appear too sweeping and violent, due allowance must be made for the necessity which Luther must have felt of appealing with the utmost breadth and force to the popular mind. But it remains to consider a further aspect of these principles which is illustrated by the third Treatise translated in this volume—that on the “Babylonish Captivity of the Church.” Luther, as has been seen, was appealing to laity and clergy alike, on the ground of their spiritual freedom, to abolish the abuses of the Roman Church. But it became at once a momentous question by what principles the exercise of that liberty was to be guided, and within what limits it was to be exerted. In a very short time fanatics sprung up, who claimed to exercise such liberty without any restrictions at all, and who refused to recognize any standard but that of their own supposed inspiration. But the service which Luther rendered in repelling such abuses of his great doctrine was only second to that of establishing the doctrine itself. The rule of faith and practice on which he insisted was indeed necessarily involved in his primary principle. Faith, as has been seen, was with him no abstract quality, but was simply a response to the word and promise of God. That word, accordingly, in its various forms, was in Luther’s mind the sole creative power of the Christian life. In the form of a simple promise, it is the basis of justification and of our whole spiritual existence; and similarly in its more general form, as recorded in the Holy Scriptures, it contains all truths, alike of belief and of practice, which are essential to salvation here and hereafter. The word of God, in whatever form, whether a simple promise, or a promise embodied in a Sacrament, or a series of revelations made by God’s Spirit to the soul of man, as recorded in the Bible, is the grand reality which, in Luther’s view, dwarfed all other realities on earth. It must needs do so, if it be a reality at all; but no one has ever grasped this truth with such intense insight as Luther. Consequently, in his view, the Anabaptist, who held himself emancipated from the authority of God’s word on the one side, was as grievously in error as the Romanist on the other, who superseded its authority by that of the Church; and in applying his great principle and working out the Reformation, Luther’s task consisted in upholding the due authority of the Scriptures against the extremes on both sides.
Now in the Treatise on the Babylonish Captivity of the Church he applies this rule, in connection with his main principle, to the elaborate sacramental system of the Church of Rome. Of the seven sacraments recognised by that church, he recognizes, strictly speaking, only two, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper; and the connection of this conclusion with the central truth he was asserting is a point of deep interest. Here, too, the one consideration which overpowers every other in his view is the supreme import of a promise or word of God. But there are two institutions under the Gospel which are distinguished from all others by a visible sign, instituted by Christ Himself, as a pledge of the Divine promise. A sign so instituted, and with such a purpose, constituted a peculiarly precious form of those Divine promises which are the life of the soul; and for the same reason that the Divine word and the Divine promise are supreme in all other instances, so must these be supreme and unique among ceremonies. The distinction, by which the two Sarcaments acknowledged by the Reformed Churches are separated from the remaining five of the Roman Church, is thus no question of names but of things. It was a question whether a ceremony instituted by Christ’s own command, and embodying His own promise in a visible pledge, could for a moment be put on the same level with ceremonies, however edifying, which had been established solely by the authority or custom of the Church. It was of the essence of Luther’s teaching to assert a paramount distinction between these classes of ceremonies and to elevate the two Divine pledges of forgiveness and spiritual life to a height immeasurably superior to all other institutions. He hesitates, indeed, whether to allow an exception in favour of Absolution, as conveying undoubtedly a direct promise from Christ; but he finally decides against it, on the ground that it is without any visible and divinely appointed sign, and is after all only an application of the Sacrament of Baptism.
If, moreover, the force of his argument on this subject is to be apprehended, due attention must be paid to the efficacy which he thus attributes to the two Sacraments. The cardinal point on which he insists in respect to them is that they are direct pledges from God, through Christ, and thus contain the whole virtue of the most solemn Divine promises. They are, as it were, the sign and seal of those promises. They are messages from God, not mere acts of devotion on the part of man. In Baptism the point of importance is not that men dedicate themselves or their children to Him, but that He, through His minister, gives them a promise and a pledge of His forgiveness, and of His Fatherly good will. Similarly in the Holy Communion the most important point is not the offering made on the part of man, but the promise and assurance of communion with the Body and Blood of Christ, made on the part of God. It is this which constitutes the radical distinction between the Lutheran and the so-called Zwinglian view of the Sacraments. Under the latter view they are ceremonies which embody and arouse due feelings on the part of men. On the former principle, they are ceremonies which embody direct messages and promises from God.
It may be worth while to observe in passing the position which Luther assumes towards the doctrine of Transubstantiation. What he is concerned to maintain is that there is a Real Presence in the Sacrament. All he is concerned to deny is that Transubstantiation is the necessary explanation of that Presence. In other words, it is not necessary to believe in Transubstantiation in order to believe in the Real Presence. There seems a clear distinction between this view and the formal doctrine of Consubstantiation as afterwards elaborated by Lutheran divines; and Luther’s caution, at least in this Treatise, in dealing with so difficult a point, is eminently characteristic of the real moderation with which he formed his views, as distinguished from the energy with which he asserted them. Another interesting point in this Treatise is the urgency with which he protests against the artificial restraints upon the freedom of marriage which had been imposed by the Roman See. It would have been too much to expect that in applying, single-handed, to so difficult a subject as marriage, the rule of rejecting every restriction not expressly declared in the Scriptures, Luther should have avoided mistakes. But they are at least insignificant in comparison with the value of the principle he asserted, that all questions of the marriage relation should be subjected to the authority of Holy Scripture alone. That principle provided, by its inherent force, a remedy for any errors in particulars which Luther or any individual divine might commit. The Roman principle, on the contrary, admitted of the most scandalous and unlimited elasticity; and of all the charges brought by Roman controversialists against Luther’s conduct, none is marked by such effrontery as their accusations on this point. While there are few dispensations which their Church is not prepared, for what it considers due causes, to allow, Luther recalled men’s consciences to the Divine law on the subject. He reasserted the true dignity and sanctity of the marriage relation, and established the rule of Holy Scripture as the standard for its due control.
Such are the main truths asserted in the Treatises translated in this volume, and it is but recognising an historical fact to designate them “First Principles of the Reformation.” From them, and by means of them, the whole of the subsequent movement was worked out. They were applied in different countries in different ways; and we are justly proud in this country of the wisdom and moderation exhibited by our Reformers. But it ought never to be forgotten that for the assertion of the principles themselves, we, like the rest of Europe, are indebted to the genius and the courage of Luther. All of those principles—Justification by Faith, Christian Liberty, the spiritual rights and powers of the Laity, the true character of the Sacraments, the supremacy of the Holy Scriptures as the supreme standard of belief and practice—were asserted by the Reformer, as the Treatises in this volume bear testimony, almost simultaneously, in the latter half of the year 1520. At the time he asserted them, the Roman Church was still in full power; and the year after he had to face the whole authority of the Papacy and of the Empire, and to decide whether, at the risk of a fate like that of Huss, he would stand by these truths. These were the truths—the cardinal principles of the whole subsequent Reformation, which he was called on to abandon at Worms; and his refusal to act against his conscience at once translated them into vivid action and reality. It was one thing for Englishmen, several decades after 1520, to apply these principles with the wisdom and moderation of which we are proud. It was another thing to be the Horatius of that vital struggle. These grand facts speak for themselves, and need only to be understood in order to justify the unprecedented honours now being paid to the Reformer’s memory.
It may not, however, be out of place to dwell in conclusion upon one essential characteristic of the Reformer’s position, which is in danger at the present day of being disregarded. The general effect of this teaching upon the condition of the world is evident. It restored to the people at large, to rulers and to ruled, to clergy and laity alike, complete independence of the existing ecclesiastical system, within the limits of the revelation contained in the Holy Scriptures. In a word, in Luther’s own phrase, it established Christian Liberty. But the qualification is emphatic, and it would be wholly to misunderstand Luther if it were disregarded. Attempts are made at the present day to represent him as a pioneer of absolute liberty, and to treat it as a mere accident of his teaching and his system that he stopped short where he did. But on the contrary, the limitation is of the very essence of his teaching, because that teaching is based on the supremacy and sufficiency of the Divine word and the Divine promise. If there were no such word and promise, no such Divine revelation, and no living God to bring it home to men’s hearts, and to enforce His own laws, Luther felt that his protest against existing authority, usurped and tyrannical as it might be, would have been perilous in the extreme. But when men shrank from the boldness of his proclamation, and urged that he was overthrowing the foundations of Society, his reply was that he was recalling them to the true foundations of Society, and that God, if they would have faith in Him, would protect His own word and will. The very essence of his teaching is summed up in the lines of his great Psalm:
- “Das Wort sie sollen lassen stahn,
- Und kein Dank dazu haben,
- Er ist bei uns wohl auf dem Plan
- Mit seinem Geist und Gaben.”
Luther believed that God had laid down the laws which were essential to the due guidance of human nature, that he had prescribed sufficiently the limits within which that nature might range, and had indicated the trees of which it could not safely eat. To erect any rules beyond these as of general obligation, to restrict the free play of nature by any other limitations, he treated as an unjust violation of liberty, which would provoke a dangerous reaction. But let men be brought face to face with God, and with His reasonable and merciful laws, let them be taught that He is their Father, that all His restrictions are for their benefit, all His punishments for their reformation, all His restraints on liberty for their ultimate good, and you have then established an authority which cannot be shaken, and under which human nature may be safely left to develop. In this faith, but in this alone, he let loose men’s natural instincts, he taught men that married life, and lay life, and all lawful occupations, were holy and divine, provided they were carried on in faith and in obedience to God’s will. The result was a burst of new life wherever the Reformation was adopted, alike in national energies, in literature, in all social developments, and in natural science. But while we prize and celebrate the liberty thus won, let us beware of forgetting, or allowing others to forget, that it is essentially a Christian Liberty, and that no other Liberty is really free. Luther’s whole work, and his whole power, lay in his recognition of our personal relation to God, and of a direct revelation, promise, and command, given to us by God. Any influences, under whatever colour, which tend to obscure the reality of that revelation, which would substitute for it any mere natural laws or forces, are undoing Luther’s work, and contradicting his most essential principles. If he was a great Reformer, it was because he was a great divine; if he was a friend of the people, it was because he was the friend of God.
THE POLITICAL COURSE of the REFORMATION IN GERMANY.
There is hardly any instance on record in the annals of history of a single peaceful event having exercised such a lasting and baneful influence on the destinies of a nation, as the coronation of Charles the Great at Rome towards the close of the eighth century. By placing the Imperial crown on the head of the then most powerful ruler in Christendom, Pope Leo III. symbolically established a spiritual supremacy over the whole Christian world, but more especially over Germany proper. It is true it was alleged that the new Cæsar was to be considered the secular head of the Christian world by the side of the spiritual head, but as it was the latter who crowned the former, it was evident that the sovereign pontiff arrogated to himself superior authority over the sovereign monarch.
Another disadvantage which resulted from that coronation was the peculiar nature of the newly created dignity, which became manifest by the designation, applied to Germany, of the “Holy Roman Empire of the German nation.” This self-contradictory title was intended to convey the notion that the German Emperors were—through transmission from the Greeks—the heirs and successors of the Roman Cæsars. They were not to be German sovereigns of the German monarchy, but Roman Emperors of the German Empire.
It is true the ancient German institution of royalty was not actually abolished, but it was so much eclipsed by the more pompous, though recent dignity, that in the course of time its former existence was almost entirely forgotten, or at least looked upon with contempt; so much so, that a German sovereign of the fourteenth century—Henry VII.—considered it an insult to be addressed as “King of Germany,” instead of as “King of the Romans.” Even the German Electoral Princes claimed to exercise the function of “Roman Senators.” The foreign stamp thus imprinted upon Germany at the time when she had only just begun to emerge from a state of barbarism had, therefore, a most pernicious influence on the Germans, diverting as it did the free development of their national character from its natural course. Thus it may be truly said, that on Christmas Eve of the year 799, Germany was conquered a second time, if not by the Romans, still by Rome.
It was not long before the conflict between the two principal elements in the government of the world—the secular and the clerical—broke out in the two-headed Empire. This antagonism became manifest even under Charles the Great himself, in spite of the splendour of his reign, and the firmness and circumspection of his government. The encroachments of the clergy soon showed in what sense they understood the division of power. It was the practical application of the old fable about the lion’s share. Everything was to be done for the clergy, but without it nothing. This ambitious aim revealed itself more openly and effectively under the descendants of Charles the Great, the internal dissensions of whose reigns greatly facilitated the victory of the clerical order in their interference in secular matters.
Under the powerful rule of Henry I. (919–936), surnamed “The Fowler,” or more appropriately “the founder of the German Empire,” and also under the still more splendid reign of his son, Otho the Great (936–973), nay, even under the first Frankish Emperors (1024–1056), the authority of the Roman hierarchy was considerably diminished, while on the other hand the influence of the German clergy at home had greatly increased; which circumstance was a powerful factor in the conflict between the iron Pope Gregory VII. and the impetuous and vacillating Emperor Henry IV. (1056–1106), and brought about in conjunction with the high-handed dealings of the self-dubbed “Roman Senators” of Germany, the degradation of the German Empire. The Papacy was now in the zenith of its power and glory, so that Gregory VII. could boastingly compare the Pope to the sun, and the Emperor to the moon; and although Henry IV. ultimately succeeded in taking revenge for his humiliation at Canossa, he never could wipe out its shame, and what is more, he was unable to suppress or eradicate the ideas represented by his defeated enemy, which had taken a firm hold on the minds of men. People believed in the supremacy of the Pope, even when he was driven from his seat of government; for his realm was of a spiritual kind and he had his invisible throne, as it were, in the hearts of Christian believers. An erring Pope was still the visible representative of the Church. The priests for the most part remained faithful to him under all circumstances. Such, however, was not the case with the Emperors and the Princes. In the first instance the former had no absolute power; secondly, they were elected by men, who considered themselves their equals, and lastly from the moment they lost their throne—no matter what the reasons were—they ceased to have a claim on the obedience of the people. The priests wished for a powerful Pope, because he was the natural guardian of their interests, whilst the German Princes objected to a powerful Emperor, because they trembled for their own independence and local authority.
If the German Emperors had not been constantly chasing the phantom of royal dignity in Italy, in order to be—plausibly at least—entitled to the vain-glorious designation of “Roman Kings,” they might have directed their whole energy to the consolidation of their power at home, and have held their own against Popes and Prince-Electors. Unfortunately, however, they were constantly attracted by the delusive brilliancy of possessions in Italy, as if by an ignis fatuus; thus leading on the best forces of Germany to moral and physical ruin, and leaving their native country an easy prey to scheming priests and ambitious nobles. The result was that, towards the end of the eleventh century, the Emperor of Germany had neither any influence on the priests, who now depended entirely upon Rome, nor any power over the nobles, whose fiefs had become hereditary; nor did he possess any considerable domains, or actual revenue in his Imperial capacity. He had nothing but the high-sounding titles of successor of the Cæsars and of ruler of the whole Christian world.
As a matter of course under these circumstances all progress of national life and culture was impeded. It did not spring spontaneously from within, nor did it receive any impulse from without. The Germans did not benefit intellectually in any way by their contact with the Italians. The conquered have often times become the teachers of their conquerors; but only when the latter settled in the vanquished country and made it their home. The German hordes, however, who crossed the Alps at the behests of their sovereigns, and urged on by the desire for adventure, warfare, and rapine, never permanently settled, as a body, in the flowery plains and flourishing towns of Italy. Numbers of those who survived the sanguinary battles fought in Italy, perished in the unused climate; the others returned home, frequently enriched by plunder and generally tainted by depraved morals. Thus the Germans did not even derive that small advantage from their connection with the Italians—who at that time did not themselves possess any literature or culture in the highest sense of the word—which a permanent settlement in Italy would have conferred on them.
The intellectual life of the Germans did not begin to flourish before the times of the Hohenstaufen (1138–1254). Unfortunately both Frederick I. (Barbarossa) and Frederick II. were almost constantly engaged in warfare with the Popes and the Italians, and both monarchs, especially the latter, utterly neglected the internal affairs of Germany, which country became a prey of the sanguinary contest between Guelphs and Ghibellines. The result was that Conrad IV., the last king from the Hohenstaufen dynasty in Germany, ruled without even a shadow of royal authority, and on his death, in 1254, the dissolution of the old German Empire may be said to have been complete.
During the lawless times of the Interregnum (1254–1273) the power of the German Princes consolidated itself more and more amidst the general anarchy. Order was restored, however, by Rudolf von Hapsburg (1273–1291), who concerned himself with the affairs of the country only. He had a right notion of what a King of Germany should be, and emancipated her—though temporarily only—from the fatal connection as an Empire with Rome. More than half a century later the Electoral Princes went a step further in this direction, by the formation of the Kurverein (1338) or “Election Union,” of Rhens, when the principle was adopted that the election of German Kings depended upon the Electoral Princes alone, and that the Pope had no voice whatever in the matter. This patriotic proceeding received, however, a counter-check in the unworthy dealings of the mercenary Charles IV. (1347–1378), who repaired to Rome to receive there the crown from the Pope. He little thought that by resuming the connection with Rome he conjured up the greatest danger for his own son and successor, Wenceslaus, who was deposed through the conspiracy of Boniface IX. with the priests, and his influence over the Electoral Princes.
In the course of time a new power—the third Estate—arose in Germany; namely, the Middle Classes as represented by the thriving cities of the Empire. The burghers generally sided with the Emperors, to whom they looked up as their natural protectors against the exactions of priests and nobles. But being imbued with a true mercantile spirit, they did not give away their good will for nothing; they asked for sundry privileges as compensating equivalents. The Emperors had, therefore, now to contend against three powerful elements, the clergy, the nobles, and the burghers. The first were, through their chief representatives—as we have seen—at all times the most dangerous antagonists to Imperial authority, and generally achieved the victory in their contests with it. It was only during the time in which the Papacy had transferred its seat of government to Avignon, that the Romish hierarchy received a check, chiefly in consequence of the depravity of the Papal Court and its surroundings. With the return of the Popes to Rome by the Decree of the Council of Constance (1411–1418), the Papacy recovered its former ground; but this recovery of the lost authority was external only, for with the cruel execution of John Huss—which no sensible Roman Catholic ever thought of justifying—the Papacy received a most fatal blow. That scandalous crime could not have been committed at a more unpropitious time both for the Roman hierarchy and the dignity of the Councils, which latter pretended, at times at least, to have received their mandate immediately from Christ, as the sovereign representatives of the universal Roman Catholic Church. The reforms in the Church, advocated by the celebrated French theologians Cardinal Peter d’Ailly and Chancellor John Gerson, had already met with the approval of numerous thinking men, and the doctrines of Wycliffe had also found, through the teaching of John Huss and his disciples, a sympathetic echo in the hearts of a large portion of the Christian community. Had the Council of Constance shown itself, not magnanimous, but merely just, towards the Bohemian Reformer, the ascendancy of the Councils, in general, over the Popes, would probably have been for ever established; whilst as it was, the next great Council—at Basle (1431–1449)—had to give way to the Pope, and the Roman hierarchy was once more re-established in its former strength and power.
The results of the Councils of Constance and Basle were, however, particularly disastrous to Germany. The former brought about the terrible wars of the Hussites, while the latter was the indirect cause of placing the Imperial power in the hands of Frederick III. (1440–1493), who was a staunch adherent of the Pope and delivered over to him the few rights and privileges which were still left to the German Empire. The Imperial dignity existed now in name only; for Frederick, who, as Heeren says, “had slumbered away more than half a century on the throne,” cared so little for Germany proper, that he remained absent from it for the space of full twenty-seven years. No wonder then that whilst the Imperial authority sank to the lowest level, the Papal supremacy rose higher than ever, and the Emperor became nothing more than the satellite of the Pope. Under these circumstances the German Princes began to raise the voice of opposition against their sluggish head; but as he was supported by the influential and subtle Pius II., all their efforts to make a stand against the encroachments of the Church were in vain.
A new order of things arose, however, when Maximilian, the son of Frederick III., was elected “Roman King” in 1486 by the Electoral Princes. The young King acquiesced in the constitutional demands of the Estates for concessions in return for various grants. Feuds were abolished for ever, an independent Chamber of Justice, Kammergericht, was established, and Germany received a new Imperial constitution. Nevertheless there were almost constant conflicts between the adventurous Maximilian and the Imperial Estates, so that the national unity, earnestly aimed at by both parties, could not be effected, in consequence of the absence of any connecting link between them. The only step which Maximilian took for the partial emancipation of Germany was his assumption of the title of “elected King of Rome” without being crowned by the Pope, and what is more, he also adopted the ancient title of King of Germany. This designation was, however, not intended to convey at the same time the notion of a severance from Rome in spiritual matters. This was now soon to be accomplished, but not by one bearing the imaginary crown of the Cæsars, nor by the decrees of a stately assembly. It was destined for one lowly born to break the fatal bondage in which Germany had been for centuries kept in durance vile by Rome.
One of the few blessings which Germany derived in former times from her otherwise deplorable decentralization, was the establishment, throughout the country, of educational and other beneficial institutions, which even found their way into the most obscure nooks and corners, where under other political conditions no Government would have thought of founding any establishment of the kind. This is the reason why culture and learning—but more especially the latter—spread more generally in Germany than in other countries. What great centralized Government would ever have chosen the insignificant place of Wittenberg, which resembled more a village than a town, as the seat of an University? And this, too, by the side of the Universities of Leipzig and Erfurt which already enjoyed a high reputation and were well endowed? Yet this was done by the Prince Elector of Saxony, Frederick, surnamed the Wise. He had himself received a learned education, and it was his legitimate ambition to see his petty electoral principality adorned by a High School. The Elector himself was, as is well known, very poor. The only means at his disposal for such a learned foundation were the proceeds from the sale of Indulgences in his Electorate, which had been collected in 1501 for the purpose of a war against the Turks. Those moneys were deposited with him, and he refused to give them up to the Pope even at the intercession of the Emperor, unless they were employed for the purpose for which they had been collected. The war against the Turks was not undertaken at the time, and so Frederick employed the money for the endowment of the new University. It was also a significant fact, that Wittenberg was the first German University which did not receive its “Charter” from the Pope, but from the then Emperor of Germany—Maximilian I. The Prince Elector hit further upon the expedient of connecting several clerical benefices with some of the professorial chairs, and he hoped, moreover, that the members of the Augustine Order, settled at Wittenberg, would furnish some teachers for the learned institution, which was established by him in 1502. The connection of the new University with that Order was in many respects an intimate one. It was specially dedicated to St. Augustine; and Staupitz, the vicar of that Order at Erfurt, was the first Dean of the Theological Faculty. Through his influence it was that several Augustine monks received a call to the University, and among those who responded was the monk Martin Luther.
The early history of the poor miner’s son may, in fact, serve as an illustration of the wholesome spread of education throughout Germany. Poor as his parents were, he had received a learned education, and became, in consequence of the religious turn of his mind, a monk. It was then in his double capacity of scholar and priest that he became connected with the University of Wittenberg (1508), and composed, and sent forth into the world, his famous 95 Theses, against the wholesale disposal of Indulgences (31st Oct., 1517). Luther issued his challenge to the theological world from religious motives only, and it so happened that it fully coincided with the political views of the Elector; but, to the credit of both Prince and monk, it should be remembered that there was no mutual understanding between them. They had never seen each other before the publication of the 95 Theses; nor did they correspond on the subject, although they were of one accord about it. Frederick always viewed it with disfavour, and begrudged that such large amounts of money should be sent to Rome under the cloak of Indulgences, and we have seen how he had employed the proceeds resulting from their former sale. Now, however, he must have objected still more to the attempt to drain his poor country, because the object of the sale was not a holy war—if ever a war can be so called—but the alleged erection of St. Peter’s Church. If such was really the case, it might be truly said that Leo X. undermined the Chair of St. Peter for the sake of the Church of St. Peter. But people were incredulous. It was whispered, that the Pope required the money for the benefit of his family. Another disagreeable element in the whole transaction was the then commonly known fact, that the Archbishop of Mentz had actually “farmed” the sale of the Indulgences in his own episcopal territory on condition that one half of the proceeds should fall to his share. He had promised to bear the expenses of obtaining the Pall himself, and having borrowed a considerable amount of money from the celebrated house of Fugger, he allowed their agents to travel about in company with the notorious Tetzel, as commercial controllers, and to take possession of half of the proceeds as they came in. Through this and other circumstances the affair assumed the ugly aspect of a very worldly and mercenary transaction, carried on in the meanest spirit. There was, besides, a tension between Frederick and the Prince Elector of Mentz; it was, therefore, natural that the step which Luther had taken should meet with his tacit approval. More than this Luther did not expect, for he well knew the lethargic character of Frederick; but under the circumstances that was quite sufficient, for the latter granted him shelter and protection, in spite of the urgent entreaties of zealots to deliver up the bold Augustinian monk at once to Rome.
The defence of the 95 Theses, which Luther transmitted to the Pope, was of no avail; for Leo X., urged by the fanatical Dominican Prierias—so notorious from the Reuchlin trial—cited the Wittenberg monk before an inquisitorial tribunal at Rome. Now for the first time it was seen how fortunate it was for Luther and the cause he defended, that he had found a prudent and humane protector in the Prince who exercised sovereign power in his own limited territory. To repair to Rome under the accusation of heresy would have been like plunging with open eyes into an abyss. Confiding and courageous as Luther was, he saw this himself very clearly, and it was at his request that the Saxon Court preacher, Spalatin, who was one of his most constant and zealous friends, persuaded the Emperor Maximilian as well as the Prince Elector—both of whom were at that time (1518) at the Diet of Augsburg—that the accused monk should be arraigned before a German tribunal. Frederick readily acquiesced, although, as he repeatedly declared, he did not fully share the views of Luther; and the Emperor also consented, partly because he required the moral support of the Prince Elector at the approaching election of a successor in the Imperial dignity, and partly because he hoped one day to make use of the enlightened monk, in his endeavour to bring about the much-needed reforms in the Church. In this sense it undoubtedly was, that he said to Frederick’s councillor, Pfeffinger: “Luther is sure to begin a game with the priests. The Prince Elector should take good care of the monk, as he might one day be of use.” It seems, therefore, that both friends and foes recognised (at an early stage) the great capacity which still lay hidden in the insignificant-looking monk. The Papal Nuncio, Cajetan, discovered at once, in his interview with him at Augsburg (1518), that he had to do with a superior power, when he heard the conclusive and thoughtful arguments of the Augustinian monk, and saw the divine fire of genius flashing from his eyes; and his friends already considered him of importance sufficient to induce them to bring about his sudden escape at night-time.
Urged by the wrathful Papal Legate not to disgrace the honour of his Electoral house by giving shelter to a heretic friar, Frederick, encouraged by his own University, drily replied that as no scholar, either in his own or in foreign lands, had as yet refuted the theories of Luther, he would continue to give him shelter until that was done. This was no subterfuge on the part of Frederick. It was the key-note of his conduct, from the beginning of the Reformation to the end of his own life, to have the teachings of Luther properly tested by a learned discussion. The Pope, being desirous of securing the Elector’s co-operation at the impending Imperial election, humoured his learned whim, and tried to win him over by unctuous kindliness. Frederick was still a staunch Roman Catholic. He possessed a regular treasure of reliques—partly brought home from the Holy Land—which were displayed for the spiritual benefit of the devout on certain occasions, and it was known that he was yearning for the acquisition of the Golden Rose. Leo X. bestowed, therefore, on him that mark of apostolic favour, and dispatched to him as his Nuncio the Elector’s own agent at Rome, Carl von Miltitz, a native of Saxony.
What the imperious haughtiness of the pompous Papal Legate was unable to achieve was, partly at least, effected by the shrewd bonhomie of Miltitz. He imploringly appealed to Luther’s German good-nature, not to create any scandal in the Church, and after having agreed that the controversy should be submitted for investigation to the Archbishops of Würzburg and Treves, he obtained the promise of Luther to observe perfect silence on religious matters, provided his enemies would do the same, and to write an apologetic letter to the Pope. It is well known how badly the antagonists of Luther kept faith with him, and that he was obliged, in consequence, to break his conditionally promised silence, and to take part in the great public Disputation at Leipzig, in 1519. He now had to vindicate against Dr. Eck, his most bitter opponent, not only his own honour, but also that of his University, and this circumstance formed the subject of his justification before the Prince Elector, to whose personal esteem he attached the highest value. When, however, that Disputation ended, as is the case with most learned discussions, in something like a drawn battle, Luther was driven to a declaration virtually involving his secession from Rome.
About the time when the celebrated Disputation was going on at Leipzig, in which two peasants’ sons—for Dr. Eck was, like Martin Luther, the son of a peasant—took the most prominent part, another momentous gathering took place at Frankfort-on-the-Main. The Emperor Maximilian had died on 12th January, 1519, without being able to secure the succession in the royal dignity to his grandson Charles, Archduke of Austria and King of Spain and Naples. More than five months elapsed before the Electoral Princes assembled for the election of a new Emperor, and during that interval the “Vicariate of the Empire,” as it was styled, was put into the hands of Lewis V. of the Palatinate, and of Frederick the Wise, in accordance with a provision of the “Golden Bull,” which placed the Regency of the Empire, during a vacancy, in the hands of the rulers of those Electorates for the time being. The circumstance that the seat of the Imperial Government was at Wittenberg during the present short Interregnum bestowed not a little lustre both on Frederick and his University; but the work of the incipient Reformation was not particularly promoted by it, because it coincided with the truce which Luther faithfully kept until it was faithlessly broken by his antagonists.
There were three aspirants to the Imperial throne of Germany. First and foremost Maximilian’s grandson Charles, Archduke of Austria; secondly, Francis I., King of France, and thirdly, Henry VIII. of England. The last-named monarch did not, however, seriously press his candidature. It was only when he saw the two other sovereigns contending for the prize that he deemed the moment favourable for securing it to himself. When he received, however, the practical hint that the barren honour would not be worth the trouble and the necessary expenditure, and when, moreover, it was taken into account, that since the introduction of Christianity into England this country did in no way belong to the “Holy Roman Empire,” he prudently retired from all competition. Not so the ambitious Francis I., who spared neither promises nor bribes to secure his election, and obtained a party among the Electoral Princes.
If it should be asked, how it was actually possible that foreign kings ever thought of aspiring to a throne to which they had not even the shadow of a claim, the reason must be found in the above-mentioned circumstance, that the Imperial dignity of Germany was not a national institution, and that any Christian prince might think himself justified in aspiring to the crown of the “Holy Roman Empire,” accidentally bestowed upon the “German nation.” Were they not aware that in the thirteenth century two ecclesiastical Electoral Princes raised to the German throne, Richard of Cornwall and King Alfonso of Castile, respectively, in consideration of great bribes? And had not the French King sufficient wealth to buy the votes of both the secular and ecclesiastic Electoral Princes? He had, moreover, the precedent before him, that Philip VI. of Valois had, about a century before, endeavoured to transfer the dignity of the “Holy Roman Empire” from the Germans to the “Franks,” to whom it originally belonged.
Both the French and Austrians lavishly distributed money in all directions. Frederick the Wise alone kept his hands pure, and he strictly prohibited even his officials and servants from accepting any presents. For a moment the Princes had turned their eyes to Frederick himself. But he had no confidence in his capability to sustain worthily and efficiently the functions incumbent upon the Imperial dignity. The Empire, as such, invested him with no material power and resources, and his own dynastic power was insignificant. How should he be able to hold his own against the ambitious and frequently turbulent Princes? Why, even under the “Imperial Vicariate,” the peace of the land was broken. He, therefore, declined the proffered honour, and the Princes, fearing lest the powerful French King should curb their independence, suddenly remembered that he was a foreign sovereign, and that in order to keep up the national freedom of the Empire, they should give the preference to the Archduke Charles, who was, partially at least, of German descent. The latter, to whom also Frederick of Saxony finally gave his vote, was accordingly chosen Emperor, and he soon proved that it is not always the kinship which constitutes the sympathetic bond between a sovereign and his subjects.
The time which elapsed from the election of Charles to his arrival in Germany, more especially to his presence at the Diet of Augsburg in 1521, was most propitious for the spread of the work of Luther. It may be said that during that interval the Reformation assumed shape and form. Luther indefatigably continued to inculcate his religious principles on the minds of the people by sermons and numerous publications, and he found adherents so readily everywhere among all classes of the German nation, that Frederick, who still hoped the schism might be prevented by learned discussions, was of opinion, that if it should be attempted to suppress his teachings by force instead of by refutation, there would arise a great storm in Germany. Several distinguished members of the lower nobility, such as the brave Hutten and the martial Sickingen and many others, placed their swords at the disposal of Luther; the former was already active for him with the all-powerful weapon of the pen. Amidst this general commotion the humble Augustinian monk sent forth his powerful appeal, entitled: “To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation concerning the Reformation of the Christian Estate.” This production, which is rightly considered as the manifesto of the Reformation, clearly shows that Luther not only saw the clerical abuses, but also the political disadvantages under which Germany laboured and groaned. He was not what we should call a politician, but, unlike so many of his learned countrymen, he had a true patriotic instinct. The mere title of the appeal seems already to contain a protest against the designation of Germany as the Holy Roman Empire. That he addressed his appeal to the “Nobility” in general is only an additional proof of the remarkable tact which guided him throughout his career.
Some historians have blamed Luther for not having appealed to the “People.” But the reproach is wrong. The German people in general had no power whatever in those days. It only obtained in the course of time a voice in the management of public affairs through the Reformation. It was Luther who proclaimed the freedom of man, or rather the “Christian man.” The acknowledgment of political rights of the middle classes may, therefore, be said to date from the Reformation only. In appealing to the German Nobility, Luther addressed himself to the legitimate representatives of Germany; and he did so in the candid belief, that it was only necessary to open the eyes of those in power, in order to effect at once the abolition of any abuses. To address himself to the people, would have required his placing himself at the head of a revolution; but Luther was no revolutionist. It should also be remembered that a large number of noblemen had offered him support and shelter. Political power lay mainly in the hands of the nobles, who alone, in conjunction with the Emperor, could decide on the destiny of Germany. It is, however, a significant fact, that he wrote his appeal, not in Latin, but in German. In this way, indeed, he actually addressed himself to the German people.
In the meantime Leo X. had hurled his Bull of excommunication against Luther. When it arrived at Wittenberg both the University and the Government of the Prince Elector decided to take no notice of it, and now it again became manifest what a powerful support Luther had found in Frederick. On his return journey from the coronation of Charles V. at Aix-la-Chapelle, in 1520, the Papal Legates Aleander and Caraccioli demanded of the Elector, at Cologne, in the name of the Pope, to give effect to the Bull by burning the writings of Luther and punishing him as a heretic, or to deliver him to the Pope. The threat uttered on this occasion was certainly curious. In case the Papal Bull should not meet with ready obedience in Germany, the Legates menaced the country with the withdrawal of the title of the “Holy Roman Empire.” Germany would forfeit that dignity in the same way as the Greeks had lost it after having seceded from the Pope. A more fortunate fate, in truth, could not have befallen the German Empire than its total political severance from Rome; but in those days the empty glory of the baneful union was still highly valued, and so the Elector asked time to consider.
Erasmus, whom Frederick consulted, clothed his opinion on the religious controversy in the humorous reply, “that Luther had sinned in two points: he had touched the crown of the Pope and the bellies of the monks.” In his interview with Spalatin he was still more explicit, by expressing his conviction, that the attacks against Luther arose simply from hatred against the enlightenment of science and from tyrannical presumption. He further agreed with Luther in insisting on the question being examined and tried by the tribunal of public discussion. We know that this opinion fully coincided with the views of the Elector, and his answer to the threatening Papal Legates ran in accordance with his views. His additional and often-repeated assurance, that he had never made common cause with Luther, and that he would greatly disapprove of it, if the latter wrote anything adverse to the Pope, was of the greatest importance. This declaration was more decisive than if he had acknowledged himself openly in favour of the Reformer; he would then have been considered as a biassed partizan, whilst now he only played the part of an impartial patron, who wished to see his protégé judged by a fair trial. On his return to Saxony, Frederick sent to Luther a reassuring message, and the latter continued his work by teaching, writing and preaching, unmolested and without remission.
In other parts of Germany the Papal Bull was proclaimed with varying and unequal effect. Luther’s works were in the first instance burnt at Louvain, by command of Charles V., in his capacity of hereditary sovereign of the Netherlands. The same fate befell them at Cologne and Mentz. It will, therefore, readily be acknowledged that it was the Pope and his overzealous adherents who drove Luther to the committal of perhaps the boldest act ever accomplished by a single individual, more especially by one in Luther’s dependent position. By the public burning of the Papal Bull before the Elstergate of Wittenberg (1520), the act of secession from Rome was consummated. What no Emperor had dared before him, the humble Augustine monk accomplished courageously and deliberately. Well might he do so. He acted on conviction with that moral courage which knows no fear, and he had the German people at his back to support him.
“Your majesty must go to Germany and show there some favour to a certain Martin Luther, who is at the Court of Saxony and causes anxiety to the Roman Court by his sermons.” Such were the words which the shrewd Spanish ambassador, Don Juan Manuel, addressed to Charles V. from Rome in 1520. They were written at a time when it was still doubtful whether Leo X. would side in the impending struggle in Italy with the King of France or with the Emperor of Germany, and moreover at a time when the latter had reason to be dissatisfied with the course the Pope had taken. Leo X. had consented, in compliance with a petition from the Castilian Cortes, to introduce some reforms in the exercise of the Inquisition. This concession was, however, entirely opposed to the views of the young Emperor, who was completely guided by his Dominican confessor. Under these circumstances it was deemed expedient to make use of Luther as a kind of bugbear in order to frighten the Pope. To people not accustomed to the tortuous windings of politics it seems, of course, bewildering, that a heretic should be favoured in one country, in order to make it possible to enforce the rigours of the Inquisition in another country. In like manner Francis I. acted. In France he persecuted and burnt mercilessly the opponents of the Roman Catholic Church, whilst in Germany he befriended the adherents of the Reformation. This much, however, is certain, had Luther entertained the slightest suspicion at what price it was intended to extend indulgence to his work, he would have been the first to scorn that indulgence.
The advice of the diplomatic Spanish ambassador was, however, not followed. Pope and Emperor came to an amicable understanding. The former cancelled his concession to the Castilian Cortes, and promised the coveted assistance against Francis I., in Italy, whilst the latter pledged himself to crush the Reformation and to issue an Edict for the execution of the Papal Bull against Luther. Now it came to light how ill-advised was the election of Charles V. as Emperor of Germany. At the time when the celebrated Diet of 1521 assembled at Worms, the Emperor had his whole attention directed across the Alps. The affairs of Germany had only in so far any importance for him as they had any influence or bearing on the affairs of Italy. He took no note of the great objects which then agitated the hearts and minds of the Germans, and had he been able to recognise them, they would have excited in him no corresponding sympathy for them. He did not even fully understand the cultured language—as far as it existed in those days—of Germany, being able to speak Low German only. The political institutions of the country—the lingering fragments of the ancient German liberty—were thoroughly distasteful to him. He was also a bigoted Roman Catholic at heart, and—as we have seen—entirely opposed to all religious reforms. It must, therefore, be acknowledged, that among the many historical misfortunes which have befallen Germany—and no country perhaps has been tried by so many—the accession of Charles V. to the throne of the German Empire was one of the greatest. What might a German sovereign, with a due appreciation of the political and religious aspirations of the people, not have achieved at that important epoch, which was the turning-point in the history of Germany!
After the Emperor had laid his Edict regarding the Papal Bull before the Estates, they made him earnest representations, alleging that the people were throughout Germany so thoroughly impregnated by the doctrines of Luther, that any violent measures undertaken against him would call forth the greatest commotion. They submitted, therefore, to Charles the opinion that the Reformer should be summoned to Worms, not for the sake of any argumentative or learned disputation, but merely for a summary interrogatory. In case he should recant his doctrines concerning the Christian faith, he might further be interrogated about the minor points in his writings, and whatever was advisable should be adopted. If, however, he persisted in his refusal to recant, the necessary steps would be taken against him. We see by this that the Estates drew a distinction in Luther’s doctrines between those points which concerned the ecclesiastical administration only, and those which referred to the Christian faith proper and were chiefly contained in his work ‘On the Babylonish Captivity of the Church.’
Charles V. consented to this proposal, by which the Estates may be said to have betrayed the cause of the Reformation. Frederick was charged with the task of summoning Luther to Worms, but he prudently declined. As he was to be summoned in the name of the Emperor and the Estates, he ought to receive the citation direct from them. The stubborn character of the Elector being well known, the Emperor was obliged to yield also on this point, and in order to be consistent with official etiquette, Luther was addressed by Charles V. in the citation, issued on March 6, 1521, as “honourable, beloved, and pious!” A safe conduct for the journey to and from Worms accompanied the citation. A man less endowed with moral courage than Luther would nevertheless have shrunk from completing the journey. On his way to Worms he learned that a Mandate for the confiscation of his writings had been issued by the Emperor, and the Imperial herald actually asked him, whether he still intended to continue his journey. The Reformer undauntedly proceeded on his way, although the Imperial Mandate clearly showed him that his writings had already been unconditionally condemned, and that he was merely summoned to declare whether he would recant or not.
Luther’s appearance before the Diet of Worms may be considered as the first official recognition of the German people as a power; for it was only by representing the danger which would arise from the unconditional condemnation of the Reformer before being heard, that the Emperor was induced to consent to the step which was resented by the Papal Legate and his party. The wrath of Aleander greatly increased, when the Imperial Estates presented to Charles V. their gravamina respecting the abuses of the Church, the abolition of which they had a right to expect in accordance with the capitulation made at the time of the Emperor’s election. That petition, which is generally regarded as a pendant to Luther’s programme of the Reformation, as contained in his address to the “Christian Nobility of the German Nation,” and which had even obtained the approval of George, Duke of Saxony (that great opponent of Luther), was, formally at least, “graciously” received by the Emperor.
When Luther arrived at Worms both his adherents and antagonists were startled. The former trembled for his safety, and the latter feared the influence of his presence—his eloquence and the victorious power of inner conviction. The Emperor’s expectations of so remarkable a personage—who was capable of inspiring such a high degree of enthusiasm and aversion—must, therefore, have been very great, and we do not wonder at his disappointment on seeing before him an insignificant-looking monk. He did not believe in the power of the mind, and it was quite natural in the young monarch that he should have looked forward to a commanding, giantlike figure, with a thundering voice, somewhat like Dr. Eck, who derived no little benefit from these accessories, so advantageous both on the political and religious platform. Even after Luther had produced—on the second day of his appearance before the Diet—a deep impression on almost all his hearers, Charles V. could never be brought to believe that the meek Augustinian monk was the author of all the energetic and impetuous compositions which passed under his name.
Luther’s public refusal to recant unless convinced of his error through the Scriptures, was the official proclamation of the Reformation, and well might he exclaim, on the evening of the 18th of April, on coming home from perhaps the most memorable sitting of any Diet—“Ich bin durch!” But the decision of the Emperor was also taken, and on the morning of the 19th of April he declared to the Diet—in a French document written in his own hand—“that as a descendant of the most Christian German Emperors, and the Catholic Kings of Spain, he had resolved to maintain everything which had been adopted by his ancestors, more especially at the Council of Constance. . . . That he will not hear Luther again, but let him go back to Wittenberg in accordance with his safe conduct, and then he will proceed with him as a heretic.”
The fanatic advisers of the Emperor certainly wished that he should not only strictly adhere to the doctrines confirmed by the Diet of Constance, but that he also should follow its example, set by the execution of Huss, with respect to Luther; for the simple reason “that there is no need of keeping faith with heretics.” Charles V. had, however, not been informed in vain of the disposition of the people regarding the Reformer. He also took into account the views of the Imperial Estates.
The times had evidently changed since the Council of Constance. It was no longer safe to burn a heretic after he had received Imperial protection; and it may be assumed futhermore that the young monarch also possessed too much sense of honour to listen to the ruthless suggestions of his fanatical advisers. After some more attempts to induce Luther to retract—all of which, of course, proved futile—he allowed him to depart; but as he had uttered the threat to treat the excommunicated monk as a heretic, after the expiration of his safe conduct, Frederick, who was not undeservedly called the Wise, considered it expedient to bring Luther, by means of a stratagem, to a place of safety.
The sudden disappearance of Luther naturally caused great anxiety among his adherents; but his opponents seemed to have instinctively guessed the truth. They knew very well how little they themselves were to be trusted, and suspected that his friends had secretly saved him from their clutches. Cardinal Eleander even went nearer the mark, and expressed his opinion, that the “Saxon fox” had hidden the monk. Charles V. himself took no cognisance of the occurrence; nay, he even cautiously deferred the promulgation of the Edict against Luther, and it was only after Frederick the Wise, accompanied by the Palatine Elector, had left Worms on account of illness, that the Emperor summoned to his private residence the three clerical Electors, together with the Elector of Brandenburg, and several other members of the Imperial Estates, and communicated to them the long-expected Edict. The Imperial ban was thus promulgated on May 25, without the formal sanction of the Diet. And in order to stamp it with the appearance of legality, it was postdated to the 8th of May, when the Estates were still together in good numbers. But it was at the same time an ominous date; for on that day an alliance was concluded between the Emperor and the Pope to the effect “to have the same friends and without exception the same enemies; the same willingness and unwillingness for defence and attack.”
Another expedient was resorted to in order to gain some plausibility for the illegally issued Edict. It was sophistically averred that, as the Diet had already decided that Luther was to be proceeded against, in case he should not recant, there was no further necessity for obtaining the additional sanction of that body for the publication of the Edict. By this decree the Papal ban was confirmed, and Luther himself was now outlawed as a heretic, and his books were prohibited. The Emperor having accomplished this step, which was one of the most momentous in the eventful course of the Reformation, now hastened to the Netherlands, and strengthened by the league with the Pope and Henry VIII., soon began his great war against the King of France.
It is an amiable trait in human nature, though frequently bordering on weakness, to endeavour to find out the good side of any evil. Thus it has been considered a propitious coincidence that the German Empire had some “claims” on certain territories in Italy. For it was, in a great measure, in consequence of this fact, that the war broke out between the Emperor of Germany and the King of France, which necessitated the absence of the former from his German domains for several years and gave the Reformation time for its consolidation and expansion. We will not deny the advantages which resulted from that political combination, but it is to a certain extent counterbalanced by the ill which it produced. Without the contingency of that war, Charles V. would have had no occasion for leaguing himself with the Pope, the Edict of Worms would, in all probability, never have been issued, and the pressing demand for a General Council would have been acceded to. Luther would not have been obliged to hide himself at the Wartburg, and the subsequent troubles at Wittenberg would certainly never have broken out; and finally the firm hand of a sovereign residing in the country would have stemmed the torrent of the Peasants’ War at the outset. Another drawback resulting from the absence of Charles V. was his utter estrangement from Germany, whose aspirations he neither cared for nor understood.
During the first few months after the departure of Charles from Germany the work of the Reformation went on undisturbed. The Edict of Worms found, in general, no responsive reception there. Its effect quite vanished before the impression made by Luther’s manly, nay heroic, conduct in presence of the Diet. The rumour which had got abroad that he had been captured by an enemy of the Elector Frederick and perchance killed, rather promoted than damaged his cause. It aroused warm sympathy for the Reformer and increased the hatred against his enemies, who were alleged to have resorted to brutal force, because they could not disprove his arguments. In fact, the adoption of the Reformation was now so general, that Luther’s antagonists hardly dared to denounce them openly. It is well known, that the Elector of Mentz would not give permission to the Minorite monks to preach against Luther. The Edict of Worms was thus practically set at defiance, and in spite of its prohibition not to publish any thing in favour of the Reformation, numerous writings in its favour issued from the German printing presses.
Whilst the seed which Luther had sown on German soil began to produce a magnificent harvest, and he himself was busy at the Wartburg, under the disguise of Junker Georg, with various religious writings, but more especially with the great work of his life, the translation of the Bible from the original text, some of his adherents began to precipitate matters at Wittenberg under the leadership of the impassioned Carlstadt. A time of general dissolution suddenly came on, in which there was a violent rupture with the past. Mass was abrogated, monks left their convents, and priests married. Holy images were destroyed, and nearly all the usages of the Roman Catholic Church were abruptly abolished. Other innovations were introduced, and the movement tended towards the introduction of a Christian socialism, or rather communism. If Luther had not been absent, the movement would never have broken out, and Melanchthon, who was present, was quite perplexed and not energetic enough to be able to stem the surging tide of the Revolution. The Prince Elector, too, looked on quite bewildered, and, imbued with a sense of unbounded tolerance, he fancied that, after all, the revolutionary “saints” might be right.
When Luther heard of the local excesses at Wittenberg, he suddenly left his “Patmos,” in order to find out for himself the real state of things. In travelling to and from Wittenberg, where he stayed a few days only, he had to pass the territory of his great opponent, the Duke of Saxony. This was at the beginning of December, 1521, consequently only a few months after the publication of the Edict of Worms, and his conduct shows both his moral courage, of which he has given so many striking proofs, and his anxiety for the cause of the Reformation.
Soon, however, he was to give still more striking proofs of both. For after the “prophets of Zwickau,” those deluded and deluding disciples of Thomas Münzer had chosen the birthplace of the Reformation for their field of action, more especially when he heard of the innovations introduced in his own community since his furtive visit there, he defied all danger, and disregarded the remonstrances of the Elector Frederick not to leave his place of refuge. His heart was so devoid of fear and he had so much confidence in the righteousness of his cause, that he actually declared to the Prince Elector that he might give to the latter greater protection than he could receive from him. He apologised nevertheless for his disobedience to Frederick, and a few days after his arrival at Wittenberg at the beginning of March, 1522, he began the series of sermons by which he soon allayed the storm and extended both his influence and reputation.
Several of the religious innovations introduced during the absence of Luther were quite in accordance with his views, but he chiefly objected to the violent manner in which the established usages were thrown over. Thus he approved the abolition of the Mass, but considered that it ought not to have been done in a way which was vexatious to another portion of the Christian community. The secular authorities should have been consulted and everything done in a legal manner. Luther was, besides, tolerant in the highest degree. He did not wish to force others to adopt his theories; he merely wanted to convince them. His mode of acting was concisely summed up in the following words, which contain the keynote of his activity as a Reformer: “I will preach about it, speak about it, write about it; but I will compel and drive no one by force; for belief is to be accepted freely and spontaneously. Take me as an example. I have opposed the Indulgences and the Papists, but not with force. I have only worked, preached, and written the Word of the Lord; else I have done nothing . . . I have done nothing; the Word has done and accomplished everything. If I had wished to proceed turbulently, I could have caused great bloodshed in Germany, and I might have played such a game at Worms, that even the Emperor would not have been safe,” etc.
These words, which Luther uttered in his celebrated sermons preached after his return to Wittenberg, not only fully reveal to us one of his principal characteristics as a Reformer, but contain at the same time a full revelation of the cause of the peaceful course of the Reformation during his lifetime. He held the reins in his firm hands, and it would only have required an encouraging signal on his part, and the furies of civil war would have been at once let loose. But those words also confirm the charge which has been brought forward against the Imperial Estates, that they had betrayed the cause of the Reformation at the Diet of Worms. They had the German people at their back, and the Emperor, with all his Spanish and Italian courtiers and Papal Legates, would have been powerless. Had only some of them given signs of energetic opposition, the Emperor would, in all probability, have yielded. That the Princes did not fully answer Luther’s expectations caused him considerable grief, and now he had experienced another disappointment in the conduct of the middle classes—the people proper—a portion of whom eagerly supported the violent innovations of the extreme reformers. But the greatest disappointment with regard to the healthiest class of the people—the peasants—was yet in store for him.
The effect which resulted from Luther’s return to Wittenberg was doubly beneficial. It allayed the turbulent excitement at home, and prevented the breaking out of a storm abroad, which had well-nigh been conjured up by Duke George of Saxony at the “Imperial Regency,” or Reichsregiment; which body conducted the government of the Empire in the absence of the Emperor, and had assembled at Nuremberg during the troubles at Wittenberg. The Duke actually prevailed upon the members of the Imperial Regency to issue an Edict enjoining the Bishops of Naumburg, Meissen and Merseburg, energetically to suppress all religious innovations; but when quiet had been restored at Wittenberg the tide turned in Luther’s favour, partly owing to the direct and indirect influence of the Elector of Saxony; and thus the Edict of Worms was virtually set at naught. The Imperial Regency did not rest satisfied, however, with the tacit approval of the doctrines of Luther, and when Adrian VI., who had succeeded Leo X. in 1522, demanded through his Nuncio that a check should be put to the Lutheran innovations, the Imperial Regency replied by a Resolution in which it declared its refusal to carry out the Edict of Worms. On the other hand it demanded “the summoning of a General Council, if possible within a year’s time, in a German town and under the co-operation of the Emperor.” It was, of course, understood that the secular Estates should also take part in that council, and perfect immunity for a free expression of opinion was at the same time admitted. Moreover, one hundred gravamina with respect to the prevailing abuses of the Church were handed to the Legate.
One of the most remarkable features in the passing of the above Resolution was the circumstance that it even obtained the consent of the adherents of the Pope, and that the views of the latter regarding the necessity of Church reforms, in some degree at least, contributed to it. Adrian VI. was in almost every respect the opposite of Leo X. He had the welfare of the Church truly at heart, and fully saw the abuses which had crept in through the depravity of its representatives. He therefore energetically and earnestly urged the necessity of reforming the Church, or rather the clergy. He himself showed the way by setting, in his own person, the example of a true Apostolic Pontiff, by leading the life of a humble and austere monk, whereas Leo X. had surrounded himself with regal pomp and the luxuries of an Asiatic potentate. On the other hand Adrian was also an orthodox Dominican, and detested the religious innovations more intensely than his predecessor did, who, as a true Medici, being an enthusiastic admirer of art and a zealous cultivator of polite literature, was quite indifferent to ecclesiastical and religious matters. Leo X. was opposed to Luther because, as Erasmus expressed it, “he had touched the Papal crown,” whilst Adrian took up the gauntlet against the Reformer because, in his opinion, the latter weakened the corner-stone of the Church and undermined its very foundations. For this reason he had sent his Nuncio Chieregati to the Imperial Regency at Nuremberg with the demand to have the Edict of Worms carried into effect. This demand was only consistent with the Pope’s line of action; but the times had changed, even during the short space which had elapsed since Charles V. had issued his Edict against Luther by a shuffling proceeding, and the Imperial Regency openly refused to enact it.
That the Estates should have been able thus to act in defiance of both Pope and Emperor, was in itself the result of the influence which the Reformation exercised on the political status of the German people. The civic element now assumed a political importance which it never enjoyed before. The commoner began to feel his dignity, as a man, as a member of the State. The teachings of Luther had set free human intelligence and free thought, which had been so long held imprisoned and bound by political and religious tyranny, and the people began—to think and reason for themselves. From the moment this was done, they were free, and as soon as they obtained political rights, they well understood how to assert them. The re-establishment of an Imperial Regency on a “constitutional basis,” formed one of the principal stipulations at the election of Charles V., and the Deputies having been chosen by the Electoral Princes and the various “Circles,” or districts into which Germany was then divided, the commonwealth was for the first time officially represented at a German constitutional assembly. We have seen how worthily the members of the Imperial Regency had discharged their trust; and it may be said, that from that moment dates the political emancipation of Germany.
The answer of the Imperial Regency to Adrian VI. was the first political triumph of the Reformation, but its effect was considerably weakened by several events which occurred shortly after. First came the rising of the knights—who constituted the lower nobility—under the banner of the brave and restless Franz von Sickingen. Grave discontent reigned among the knights with the doings of the all-powerful “Suabian League,” formed in 1488 by the Estates of Suabia for the maintenance of general peace, and also with the encroachments of the Princes; and Sickingen, aided by Ulrich von Hutten, united the lesser nobles into one body with the avowed object of breaking the power of the higher nobility, and of acknowledging one head only—the Emperor. It has been plausibly assumed, that Sickingen pursued a more ambitious aim, and he has therefore been compared with Wallenstein. Sickingen professed, however, another object in his enterprise: the furtherance of the cause of the Reformation; and at the head of a large and powerful army, he directed his first attack (Sept. 1522), against the Archbishop of Treves. The knights were defeated, their leader lost his life, and Hutten wandered away—outlawed and proscribed—to find an exile’s grave in a small island of Switzerland. The enemies of Luther considered, or pretended to consider, the Reformation as the main cause of Sickingen’s undertaking, and this circumstance estranged from the Reformer a number of his adherents and confirmed his antagonists in their enmity against him, although he had no immediate connection with the revolt of the nobles.
The first result of the rising and of the defeat of the knights was, that several Princes now assumed a somewhat hostile attitude towards the Imperial Regency, that had shown itself so tolerant respecting religious reforms; but a still severer blow threatened that body from another quarter. The wealthy German cities sent a deputation to Charles V. in Spain, with a petition against some ordinances which the Imperial Chamber had decided upon and which were considered detrimental to their commercial interests. The Emperor, dissatisfied with that liberal Institution, readily promised a new administration. This promise was fulfilled at the next Diet, in 1524, at Nuremberg, when it was decided to reorganise the Imperial Regency by electing for it entirely new members. Those who consented to this proceeding were influenced, partly by political and partly by commercial reasons, but as regards religious matters there was still a majority in favour of the Reformation. On this account it came to pass that a Resolution was carried at the Diet, to convoke another assembly of the Estates in the same year at Spires, the points to be discussed there being in the meantime drawn up for the Princes by scholars and counsellors. Till then the Resolution of the preceding Diet, “that the Gospel should be allowed to be freely preached,” was to remain in force. Thus the mission of the Papal Nuncio Campeggi, who had been sent to Germany by Clement VII. (the successor of Adrian VI. since 1523) to bring about the enactment of the Edict of Worms, proved unsuccessful. It is true the Diet passed a Resolution, that the Edict of Worms should be executed, but this decision was rendered ineffective by the additional elastic clause: “As far as possible.” At the same time the demand for a General Council was added.
The above Mandate now shared the fate of most compromises; inasmuch as it satisfied neither party. Luther himself and his followers saw in it an indirect confirmation of the Edict of Worms, and he expressed his indignation at it in an outspoken publication, in which he bitterly reproached the Emperor and the Princes for their treatment of him. He had now lost all confidence in both. But the Emperor’s indignation at the Nuremberg Mandate was not less strongly marked, and he issued an Edict, in which he energetically denied the Estates the right of interference in religious matters, demanding at the same time the strict execution of the Edict of Worms. The constant recurrence of the Emperor and the adherents of the Pope to that Edict must not surprise us. It is the point upon which the whole movement turned; for if the condemnation of Luther was confirmed, all his reforms and his adherents would be comprised in that condemnation.
Various circumstances now combined to strengthen the effect of the Emperor’s new Edict. The Papal Nuncio Campeggi succeeded in inducing several influential forces, hostile to the Reformation, to form a League for the protection of the old faith. The Archduke Ferdinand and the Dukes of Bavaria—Princes who had for some time been conspiring with the Roman Curia—together with a number of Prelates, assembled for that purpose in the summer of 1524 at Ratisbon, and agreed upon stringent measures against the Reformation. They decided to give effect to the Edict of Worms, to proscribe again the works of Luther, and even to forbid to their subjects the attending of the University of Wittenberg.
The next step of the Ratisbon Convention was now to obtain the co-operation of Charles V., which was effected easily enough, inasmuch as the projected measures fully coincided with his own views; and being about to attack Francis I. in France itself, from the direction of Italy, he stood in great need of the Pope’s tacit acquiescence. He issued, therefore, a stringent Edict, in which the convocation of a General Council was strictly prohibited, and all interference in religious matters was energetically forbidden. Those who dared to set at nought the provision of the Edict, would render themselves liable to a charge of high treason, and on conviction would be punished with the highest degree of the Imperial Ban, (Acht- und Aberacht). In that Imperial Order Luther himself—one of the noblest men who ever lived—was likened to some loathsome monster.
The Convention of Ratisbon, which was chiefly brought about by foreign influence, may be said to have caused the first violent rupture among the German people, and to be the origin of all the calamities which befell Germany in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Without that Convention the projected General Council would, in all probability, have been held, the proposed reforms would have been peacefully and legally discussed, and there would not have occurred that violent disruption among the Germans, of which the evil effects, not only from a religious, but also from a political point of view, have not yet entirely disappeared. The only advantage which resulted from the Ratisbon Convention was the agreement to introduce a number of internal reforms in the Church. Thus the improved state of Roman Catholicism is entirely due to the doctrines of Luther and his Reformation.
The year 1525 was perhaps the most trying in Luther’s career. He had hitherto been disappointed in the Princes and the burghers, and now he experienced the mortification of seeing that class of people, from which he sprang himself, entering on a path which must needs prove injurious to themselves, and to the cause for which he lived and worked. Various risings of the Peasants had taken place before the time of the Reformation, in consequence of the inhuman treatment to which they were subjected by the nobles. The exactions of the priests were likewise intolerable. Some local risings took place in 1524; but in the following year that terrible contest, known as “The Peasants’ War,” broke out in the south of Germany with all the fury of long-pent up despair. The origin of the insurrection must therefore be sought solely in the cause, which produced the risings of slaves or serfs in ancient and modern times. It was the revolt of men who felt their inner worth, and who were determined to shake off an unbearable yoke. The enemies of Luther attributed, however, the outbreak of the war to the influence of his teachings, in the same way as they attributed to these any other public calamity which then befell Germany; just as in modern times blinded political passions will trace the cause of the failure of a harvest, for instance, to the fact of this or that party being in power.
The first programme of the Peasants, as contained in the well-known Twelve Articles, was moderate enough. Even Luther did not entirely reject their demands, some of which he wished to see referred to the decision of legal authorities. He admonished the Peasants, however, not to have recourse to brutal violence, and at the same time he exhorted the nobles to lend a merciful ear to the cries of the sufferers. The last clause of the Twelve Articles must have struck in his heart a sympathetic chord. The Peasants declared that their demands shall not stand, in case they should be refuted by Scripture, which statement seems to be an echo of Luther’s own declaration at the Diet of Worms. But it was just that external similarity which turned out so fatal for the cause of the Reformation. The Peasants borrowed the phraseology, as it were, of Luther; they clothed their grievances in the language of the Gospel, and thus gave to the enemies of the Reformation the plausible pretext of confounding it with their own insurrection. It was of little avail for Luther himself to protest against the allegation of the insurgents that their rising was founded on a religious basis, since his enemies persistently took the form for the substance.
If all the rebellious Peasants had strictly adhered to their first programme, their cause might yet have taken a favourable turn; but, as is generally the case with revolutionary movements, there soon arose an extreme party which aimed at the total subversion of the existing order of things. Here again it was unfortunate that some points started in the manifesto of that party had been previously advocated by Luther, for his unjust antagonists laid all their demands, which have been compared to the French revolutionary doctrines of 1783, to his charge. The climax of the insurrectionary outbreak was, however, reached by the doings of Thomas Münzer and his followers, who preached and practised evangelical communism, and who accelerated by their fanatic and fantastic conduct the tragic catastrophe in this sanguinary drama. Luther was now in a most critical position. He made every effort to stem the tide of the revolution—he energetically exhorted both Princes and Peasants, and travelled about as a missionary of peace; but all in vain. His influence seemed, for the first time, to have lost its effect, and friends and foes censured him alike. The former reproached him with having deserted his own cause, whilst the latter blamed him as the originator of this fatal war. Thomas Münzer and his followers even accused Luther of base servility towards the Princes; and one of the grossest calumnies perhaps ever brought forward against a man of Luther’s stamp, was the charge that he had written his vehement publication, “against the murderous robber-bands of the Peasants,” after their total defeat. But this was untrue. He wrote it, in fact, whilst the Peasants were in the ascendancy, and whilst they disgraced their victory by barbarous acts of cruelty. When the nobles got the upper hand, and wreaked their vengeance in a most inhuman manner on the vanquished, the wrath of Luther was turned against the cruel victors. He pleaded for mercy even for the guilty, and with some of the Princes his intercession was successful. Large numbers of defeated Peasants were allowed, by Landgrave Philip of Hesse and the Prince Elector John of Saxony, the brother and successor of the Elector Frederick, to return home unmolested, whilst the Bishop of Würzburg and other anti-Lutheran lords distinguished themselves by a most refined cruelty in their treatment of the Peasant prisoners.
In addition to the various disasters which befell Luther—and in him the whole of Germany—in the calamitous year of 1525, he also had the misfortune to lose his friend and protector, the Elector of Saxony, who died in the spring of that year. Frederick had looked with true paternal compassion on the insurgent Peasants, and had life and health been spared him, he might have quelled the civil war by the dint of his authority, or at least have mitigated its evils. Besides him, there was no one in Germany who enjoyed the same universal respect, and both the Imperial Regency and the Estates were, as a body, powerless. If Germany had been ruled over at that time by a sovereign residing in the country, and caring for the welfare of his people, the Peasants’ War would never have assumed such gigantic dimensions, nor would its consequences have been so fatal. But whilst Germany was convulsed by one of the most sanguinary of intestine wars, the Emperor resided in Spain, and his army fought and defeated the King of France before Pavia; which circumstance may serve as an additional proof of the evil caused by the election of Charles V. as head of the German Empire.
The only interest which the Emperor manifested with reference to Germany consisted in his relentless efforts to exterminate the Lutheran doctrines. Thus he again and again issued from Spain energetic admonitions to the Princes and Bishops to make a firm resistance against the Reformation; promising and threatening at the same time to come shortly to Germany himself, in order to crush the heretics. These acts, together with the consultation at Mentz at which a number of priests agreed on the suppression of Lutheran heresy, induced the Landgrave Philip of Hesse, and John the Elector of Saxony, in the spring of 1526, to form the so-called “League of Torgau” for the protection and defence of the Reformation. Luther himself, being, in principle, against all armed resistance to any constituted authority, had consistently opposed the formation of that or any other League, with a view to revolt.
Luther was of opinion that a bad Prince must be patiently borne with, like any other scourge or calamity sent by Heaven. In this sense it was, that he taught “that the badness and perversity of a government does not justify active resistance or rebellion.” Indeed he considered the sufferings inflicted by a tyrannical ruler on his subjects as part and parcel of a man’s destiny upon earth. It was his Christian duty to suffer. According to his opinion man was not destined to be happy in this world, where he has been placed as a martyr. Such were his honest convictions and his views of life; his denial of the right of resistance arose therefore from a purely religious feeling, and not from any servile instinct. Surely a man who speaks in the following strain of Princes cannot be accused of servility: “From the beginning of the world,” says Luther, “a good Prince has been a rare bird and a pious Prince a still rarer one. They are as a rule the greatest fools and worst knaves upon earth. If there is a Prince who is a wise and pious man, or a Christian, it is a great miracle and the best sign of divine grace for a country. Therefore one must always expect the worst from them, and not hope for any good from them. They are the scourges and the executioners of God, and He employs them to punish the wicked and to maintain external peace.”
Luther was well aware of the fact that Germany required a thorough reform as regards its civic or secular government, more especially as he had found out that both the Princes and the Emperor had betrayed the German people. With that dignified self-consciousness which is quite compatible with true modesty, he said: “At times it seems to me as if the Government and the Jurists also required a Luther.” If there had been during his time a great man in Germany, capable of achieving in politics what he had himself achieved in religion, he would undoubtedly have co-operated with him. For Luther was a true German patriot, if ever there was one, as is evident from so many of his writings, and more especially from his appeal to the “Christian Nobility of the German Nation.” What he abhorred was the use of brutal force, either by Princes or by the people, for the acquisition of political freedom, and this was—as we have seen—in strict accordance with his religious views. His notions of the individual freedom of man had also a religious basis. He regarded man as designed to be a free being, but it was only Christian belief which imparted to him that stamp of true freedom. This view Luther forcibly expressed in the well-known antithesis in his Treatise, ‘Concerning Christian Liberty:’ “A Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to every one.”
The liberty of man, as interpreted by Luther, may be regarded by some persons as only of limited extent, and as having merely an ideal existence, but at any rate it marks a great progress in the history of civilization, and may be considered as the germ of the emancipation of the human race. It was the first step in the acknowledgment of the right of man as a human being. The principle of political freedom which now benefits the adherents of all creeds in civilized society must therefore be traced back to the Reformation. If the teachings of Luther had not first freed the Christian man, the liberty of man, in general—the equality of men—would scarcely have met with such a ready recognition in later centuries.
If Luther had not so strenuously opposed all active resistance against authority, the political course of the Reformation would certainly have taken a different turn; and it was fortunate enough for its consolidation, that some of the Princes, who otherwise followed his teachings, did not share his opinions on that subject. The formation of the above-mentioned League of Torgau was the first result of that difference of opinion; and when the Diet assembled, in the summer of 1526, at Spires, the Princes John and Philip, strengthened by their union, could dare to acknowledge and practise openly the doctrines of the Reformation in the face of the Diet. In vain did the Imperial Commissioners urge the Estates to carry out at last the Edict of Worms. The Diet was, however, so much the less inclined to obey the Emperor’s behests on this point, because he was now himself at enmity with the Pope. Clement VII. being afraid of the ascendency of Charles V. after his victory at Pavia, released the French King from his solemn oath at the Peace of Madrid, and formed with him and several Italian Princes the League of Cognac, also blasphemously called the “Holy League,” which was directed against Charles V. The Estates, therefore, eagerly seized the opportunity of declaring that the antagonism between Pope and Emperor made it impossible for them to give effect even indirectly to the Papal Excommunication against Luther. The Turk was also threatening from the East, and the Estates did not consider it prudent to cause dissensions among the German people. They resolved therefore to petition the Emperor, through an embassy, to come in person to Germany and to convoke a General Council. They further decided that in matters of religion, perfect freedom and tolerance should prevail.
The Resolution of the Diet of Spires in 1526 was of considerable moment. The Reformation was now formally acknowledged and legalised, and had gained full time to recover lost ground and to obtain a firm footing throughout Germany. It also was a fortunate coincidence that Charles V. was now occupied in Italy with his war against the Pope and Francis I., whilst his brother Ferdinand, now King of Hungary and Bohemia, was encumbered by his troubles in those countries.
In consequence of the absence of both the Emperor and his locum tenens from Germany, the projected General Council was not convoked, and the next Diet did not assemble before the year 1529, at Spires. Till then the Reformation had full scope to expand; but after the armies of Charles V. had captured Rome, and a terrible pestilence had well-nigh destroyed the French troops in Italy, the Emperor was again free to terrorize over Germany. He concluded peace with Clement VII. at Barcelona, and with Francis I. at Cambray, and the first result of the diplomatic union between the three belligerents was a combination of their efforts to crush the “heresy” in Germany. Soon after the beginning of the Diet at Spires, a palpable proof was given that a great change had taken place in public affairs since 1526. On March 15, 1529, the Imperial Commissioners laid a Mandate before the Diet to the effect that the Resolution of the last Diet at Spires, which granted free exercise of religion, should be revoked, and that, on the other hand, the Edict of Worms should be enforced. The majority, though now consisting of adherents of the Pope, did not accept the proposal exactly in that form; but still they issued a Decree, the general acceptance of which would have implied a total condemnation of the Reformation on the part of its supporters.
In this emergency several German Princes and Imperial towns gave proof of a most praiseworthy moral courage. John, Prince Elector of Saxony, Philip, Landgrave of Hesse, George, Margrave of Brandenburg, Duke Ernest of Brunswick-Luneburg, Prince Wolfgang of Anhalt, and fourteen Imperial free towns, having in vain demurred against the decision of the Diet, laid before it a Protest against the pernicious decree, declaring at the same time, that in matters of religion and conscience the decision of majorities was not binding. How deep was the impression which that remarkable step had produced on the minds of the German people, may be inferred from the fact that it gave occasion to single out the adherents of Luther as a body and to apply to them the name of Protestants.
The rupture between the two religious parties was now complete. They no longer formed merely two different shades of the same party, but were distinguished from each other even as to the name. Roman Catholics stood opposite Protestants. In one respect the new appellation was a gain; for it embraced all the members of that Christian community, which did not acknowledge the supremacy of the Pope. On the other hand the name has the disadvantage that it is like the word “Reformation,” of a negative character. It is true the Protest of the Princes actually was a positive assertion of the right of conscience, but popular interpretation applied to it the character of an aggressive document, and the adherents of Luther were consequently regarded henceforth in the light of a merely malcontent party. The term “Lutherans”—Lutheraner—does not embrace the whole body of those who seceded from the Roman Catholic Church. Luther himself deprecated, moreover, the distinction of being called a “founder of a religion,” and although one of the greatest theological authorities of our times is still inclined to consider him as such, it seems to me—if I may venture to express an opinion on anything touching a theological subject—that Luther merely modified and reformed an established religious faith, but did not found one. The designation “Old Catholic” might perhaps have been the most appropriate, and would not perchance have caused such a violent disruption among the members of the great Christian community.
At the Diet of 1529 the Protestants had gained a moral victory, but they had suffered a material defeat; for the government of the Empire was now entirely in the hands of their antagonists. It seemed, therefore, prudent to prepare for future emergencies, and some of the Protestant Princes began negotiations with several cities, both German and Swiss. A comprehensive scheme was devised which, if successfully carried out, would have entirely changed the political aspect of Germany, if not of Europe. Unfortunately this plan, the execution of which could alone have saved the cause of Protestantism, was frustrated by the well-known theological difference between the adherents of Luther and Zwingli. Thus, instead of first combining against the common enemy, and subsequently in firm union settling the theological differences, or even leaving them unsettled, the logical order of the proceeding was reversed. The Theologians first assembled to discuss their religious differences, and the result was that fatal schism which divided the camp of the Protestants, and permanently damaged their cause. Luther and his more immediate followers decided that it would not be justifiable to form an alliance with the Zwinglians, and further, that it would be an offence against law and religion to offer armed resistance to the Emperor. The co-operation of Upper Germany, Suabia and Switzerland was lost in consequence, and—in face of the armed and threatening enemy—all preparations for defence were neglected on account of religious scruples. “Surely,” says Ranke, “this was not prudent, but it was grand.”
Whilst the German Theologians discussed religious subjects and the “right of resistance,” Charles V. strengthened his position in Italy, and Clement VII. placed on his head, at Bologna, the crown of Charles the Great. The Emperor was surrounded on this occasion chiefly by Italian Princes and Spanish Grandees, and only one or two German Princes were present. The coronation was, therefore, against the “ancient German custom,” but Charles was crowned as a Roman and not as a German Emperor of Germany. He might have been like Henry the Fowler, another founder or regenerator of the German Empire, whereas he renovated the Imperial dignity only so far as his own personality was concerned. This step was very significant, and may serve as a clue to his subsequent course of action.
It is well known that the Pope and Emperor distrusted each other, but they were diplomatic enough to assume the mask of mutual friendship. There was, moreover, one powerful bond of union between them, namely, the determination to eradicate German “heresy.” This resolve was one of the principal motives of the Emperor’s journey to Germany, in the summer of 1530, for the purpose of holding a Diet at Augsburg. The writ issued on that occasion was peaceful and gracious enough. His avowed object was “to settle the prevailing discord, and to learn and graciously to consider everybody’s conviction, opinion, and views, for the benefit of Christian truth.”
It may reasonably be assumed that the Emperor was benevolently disposed, and would have preferred to see his point carried by gentle means. His benevolence was, however, of that conditional kind only, which first tries peaceful means, but subsequently has recourse to arbitrary and violent measures, should the gentle measures prove futile. He was not imbued with that absolute benevolence and clemency which shows mercy even to the guilty, or the supposed guilty. The Roman Catholic Princes were aware of this disposition of the Emperor, and of his secret agreement with the Pope, though the Protestant Princes implicitly believed in his peaceful and gracious assurances. The latter now hopefully looked forward to an amicable settlement of the prevailing discord, and at once proceeded to draw up a Programme, containing the substance of the reformed creed.
It did not take long however for the Protestants to see their error. Even before the Emperor’s arrival at Augsburg he urged the Elector John of Saxony not to allow the preachers he had brought with him to preach in public. This demand was repeated in Augsburg, in the Emperor’s presence, after his arrival in that city, to the Elector of Saxony, and several other Protestant Princes. The theological defence of the evangelical sermons by the Landgrave of Hesse merely served to arouse the wrath and indignation of Charles. When, however, the aged warrior, the Margrave George of Brandenburg emphatically exclaimed: “Sire, before renouncing the word of God, I would rather kneel down on this spot and let my head be cut off,” the Emperor was deeply moved by this energetic protest, and uttered in his Low-German vernacular the reassuring words: “No heads off! no heads off, my dear Prince!”
The Protestant Princes also declined to join in the public procession on the festival of Corpus Christi, which was celebrated the following day, in spite of the Emperor’s earnest invitation to attend it. Charles was startled by this stubborn resistance. He had cherished the hope that the halo of worldly glory which surrounded him, together with his brilliant entry into Augsburg, would dazzle and overawe the Protestant Princes; but they remained firm. Neither threats nor promises could move them. They were quite of a distinct caste from the Princes who had betrayed the cause of the Reformation at Worms; they were conscious of the risk they ran, and were ready to die for their religious convictions. It is true they were greatly encouraged by Luther, who, in order to be nearer to them while the Diet was held at Augsburg, had repaired to Coburg. He addressed to the Prince Elector of Saxony from his second “Patmos,” as it were, letters of exhortation and comfort, full of energy and of that irresistible eloquence which is the result of inner conviction. Whenever the Princes and Melanchthon wavered, they were inspired by Luther’s cheering and manly words, which proved particularly effective during the course of the Diet.
The religious contest being the first subject which was brought before the Diet, the Protestant Princes presented, on 25th June, 1530, their “Confession of Faith,” which had been prepared by Melanchthon. There were two versions of it, one in German and another in Latin. The Emperor naturally desired to have the second version read, but the Protestant Princes advised him patriotically to admit on German soil the German version. This step may be considered as one of the results of the Reformation. Luther had awakened in the Germans the feelings of nationality and patriotism, and had also politically freed them from the fetters of Roman bondage.
The profession of faith of the Protestant Princes, known as the “Augsburg Confession,” was drawn up in such a conciliatory spirit and contained so many concessions to Roman Catholicism, that some kind of agreement seemed to be possible, if not near at hand. The Protestants had now honestly fulfilled their duty. In accordance with the Imperial rescript they had laid their profession of faith before the Diet; and confidently expecting a similar profession on the part of the Roman Catholics, they looked forward to the promised mediation of the Emperor. But instead of drawing up a declaration in a defensive and conciliatory spirit, as had been done by the Protestants, the Catholic party at the Diet forming the majority, issued an aggressive “Refutation,” which, receiving the Emperor’s full approval, was issued in his name, with the appended threat, that in case the Protestants should henceforth not obediently return to the Roman Catholic faith, “the Emperor would proceed against them as befitted a Roman Emperor—the protector and defender of the Church.” Manifest proofs that the admonitions of Charles V. were not mere empty threats were soon given. He made the Protestant Princes individually feel his displeasure, and he seemed fully determined to give effect to his threats by the force of arms. Fortunately the warning of the Prince Elector of Mentz in reference to the Turks of Hannibal ad portas, had the desirable effect of paving the way for mediation.
At the Conference which was held in August, 1530, for the purpose of effecting an agreement between the contending parties, a spirit of reconciliation prevailed. Both sides made concessions, and it was agreed to refer certain points of difference which were still pending to a General Council; so that there was a near prospect of a mutual understanding. Some agreement would, in all probability, have been brought about, but for the relentless spirit of fanaticism of the Roman Curia, as represented by the Legate Campeggi. It was he who frustrated the success of all further attempts at a reconciliation by inducing the Emperor and the majority of the Diet to make such conditions as the Protestants could not accept. The allied Princes remained firm, and as the attitude of the Imperial Court became more and more threatening, and the Theologians could not agree among themselves, the energetic Landgrave Philip of Hesse suddenly left Augsburg at the beginning of August. The Emperor was so startled by this unexpected event, that he ordered the gates of the city to be watched by his soldiers; but, too late, the bird had already flown. The Prince Elector of Saxony still remained behind, but his son, the hereditary Prince, had some time previously returned home and was now in perfect safety. It was, therefore, useless to attempt a coup de main against the leaders of the Protestant party.
The Emperor’s disappointment was great, and the more so, as he was indignant against the Protestant Princes on account of their refusing to consent to the election of his brother Ferdinand as “King of Rome.” Charles V. now proceeded to the last step which made the breach between the two great portions of the German nation irremediable. On the 22nd of September, 1530, he communicated to the Estates the draft of the Decree upon which he had resolved with reference to the religious contest, and which announced his determination “to carry out unconditionally the Edict of Worms.” The Protestants were treated in that Decree as a mere sect, and their doctrines—of all shades—were indiscriminately condemned. All the usages of the old creed were to be maintained intact, and the rights of the Ecclesiastical Princes were to be fully restored, under pain of the Imperial ban. This Imperial Decree, which was virtually a total abolition of the work of the Reformation, was finally issued on the 19th of November with the additional clause—which savoured of mockery—that a time of respite should be granted to the Protestants until the 15th April, 1531, to enable them to declare their adhesion to the contested points. In the meantime the Emperor was to use his efforts with the Pope to convene a General Council to discuss the abolition of certain unquestionable abuses in the Church.
This amounted to an open declaration of war, and the Protestant Princes were prudent enough to take their measures accordingly.
The Diet of Augsburg in 1530 may be considered, in some respects, as the key-stone in the religious and political course of the Reformation. The “Augsburg Confession” practically completed the work of the Reformation from a religious point of view, whilst the Imperial Edict marked out in distinct features the line of action which the Papal and Imperial party was resolved to pursue towards the Protestants. It was an ultimatum in due form. All the subsequent events in the history of the Reformation—even as far down as the Peace of Westphalia in 1648—must, therefore, be regarded as merely the natural sequence of the Diet of Augsburg, and do not actually belong to the making or unmaking of the Reformation.
The stern necessity of self-defence caused at last the Protestant Princes to form the “Convention” or “League of Smalkald” in December 1530. Even Luther was induced to approve of it, and some of his writings, more especially his ‘Warning to my beloved Germans,’ showed that he no longer viewed self-defence in the light of rebellion. The schism among the Germans was now political as well as religious. A compact body stood armed, not against the sovereign power of the German Empire, but against the Roman Emperor of the German nation; against the monarch who identified himself with the Pope. Charles V. fully recognised the drift of the Protestant opposition, and it is not quite improbable that on account of it he insisted on the speedy election and coronation of his brother Ferdinand as “Roman King,” which took place at Cologne at the end of 1530, and at Aix-la-Chapelle at the beginning of the following year. The Protestant Princes protested against this proceeding, as being contrary to the Imperial Constitution of Germany; but we have already seen that Charles cared very little either for the laws or the aspirations of the German people. The illegal election of Ferdinand necessarily widened the breach between the Emperor and the Protestant Princes, who plainly saw the danger impending from the supremacy of the house of Hapsburg.
The Dukes of Bavaria, who also aspired to the Imperial dignity, looked grudgingly on the ascendency of the Hapsburgs, and seemed inclined—staunch Roman Catholics though they were—to make common cause with the Protestants. Moreover the Turks were again threatening an invasion of the Austro-German provinces, and all these circumstances combined, induced the Emperor to conclude with the Protestant Princes, in the summer of 1532, the “Peace of Nuremberg.” Considerable concessions were made to the Protestants, and the promise of a “General, free and Christian Council,” was again held out; but of far greater moment was the fact, that by consenting to the “Peace of Nuremberg,” the Emperor actually recognised the members of the “Smalkaldic League” as a regularly constituted power, with which it was desirable to come to an amicable understanding. The political element, which, as we have seen, had been at work throughout the course of the Reformation, became henceforth a more and more powerful factor in the struggle between the two hostile camps of the German nation.
After the Diet of Augsburg in 1530, Charles was again occupied with his military enterprises abroad, and remained absent from Germany for the space of nine years. His brother, King Ferdinand I., was likewise prevented from effectively interfering with religious affairs in consequence of the troubles in his hereditary dominions, and so the Reformation had again free scope to make its way through the greater portion of Germany. The indulgence granted to the Protestants was, however, apparent only. Both Charles and his brother treacherously bided their time to enter on the struggle of annihilation against them. That time seemed to them to have arrived when Charles, in conjunction with Henry VIII., had forced the King of France to sign the Peace of Crepy in 1544. It is true the Emperor consented to convene a Council in December, 1545, and so he did at Trent, but the Princes of Hesse and Saxony justly declined to attend it. The Emperor’s hostile intentions against the Protestants now became patent, first by his renewed League with Paul III., the successor of Pope Clement VII., and afterwards by the mustering of his forces. If the Protestants had acted with energy and concord they might, with the greatest ease, have defeated the small Imperial forces in the summer of 1545; but instead of this they gave the Emperor full time to collect a considerable army.
In the meantime Martin Luther, the life and soul of the Reformation, had died on the 18th of February, 1546, and was spared the pain of witnessing the outbreak of the unfortunate Smalkaldic War, which laid Germany prostrate at the feet of the Emperor and his Spaniards. This calamity was, of course, due mostly to the fact that the old German Empire identified itself with the Papacy and considered itself bound to defend its cause. It is, however, a significant fact, that Charles V. was actually the last Roman Emperor of Germany crowned by a Pope. When he proceeded for his coronation, in 1530, to the Church of St. Petronio at Bologna, through a wooden structure which had been erected to connect his Palace with the church, the temporary passage gave way a few steps behind the Emperor. Popular superstition saw in this an evil omen—for Germany, it proved to be a happy one—and prophesied that Charles would be the last German Emperor thus crowned. The prophecy became true, but it was not in Italy that the link was broken which connected Germany with Rome. This was done in Germany itself, and as we have seen, by the humble peasants’ son, Martin Luther.
Luther it was who actually freed Germany from the secular and spiritual bondage of Rome; for although the Protestants had been vanquished in the Smalkaldic war, they were not entirely crushed. The spirit of the Reformation survived, and exercised its beneficial influence not only throughout Germany, but over the whole of the civilised world, and it is in this sense that the Reformation is universally considered as the beginning of a New Era in the history of the world. The Reformation is the source, directly or indirectly, by action or by reaction, of everything great and noble which has taken place from about the beginning of the sixteenth century. Through the Reformation alone men of all creeds have become free and enlightened. And this is the reason why not only the Theologian, but also the political and literary Historian hails the work of the Reformation as one of the greatest blessings ever bestowed on mankind.