History of the Reformation, vol. 3


Book 9—First Reforms. 1521 and 1522

Chapter 1

Progress of the Reformation—New Period—Usefulness of Luther’s Captivity in the Wartburg—Agitation in Germany—Melancthon and Luther—Enthusiasm

For four years an old doctrine had been again proclaimed in the Church. The great tidings of salvation by grace, published in earlier times in Asia, Greece, and Italy, by Paul and his brethren, and after many ages re-discovered in the Bible by a monk of Wittenberg, had resounded from the plains of Saxony as far as Rome, Paris, and London; and the lofty mountains of Switzerland had re-echoed its powerful accents. The springs of truth, of liberty, and of life, had been re-opened to the human race. Thither had the nations hastened in crowds, and drunk gladly; but those who had there so eagerly quenched their thirst, were unchanged in appearance. All within was new, and yet everything without seemed to have remained the same. HRSCV3 309.1

The constitution of the Church, its ritual, its discipline, had undergone no change. In Saxony, and even at Wittenberg, wherever the new ideas had penetrated, the papal worship continued with its usual pomp; the priest before the altar, offering the host to God, appeared to effect an ineffable transubstantiation; monks and nuns entered the convents and took their eternal vows; the pastors of the flocks lived without families; religious brotherhoods met together; pilgrimages were undertaken; believers hung their votive offerings on the pillars of the chapels; and all the ceremonies, even to the most insignificant observances of the sanctuary, were celebrated as before. There was a new life in the world, but it had not yet created a new body. The language of the priest formed the most striking contrast with his actions. He might be heard thundering from the pulpit against the mass, as being an idolatrous worship; and then might be seen coming down to the altar, and scrupulously performing the pomps of this mystery. In every quarter the new Gospel sounded in the midst of the ancient rites. The priest himself did not perceive this strange contradiction; and the people, who had admiringly listened to the bold language of the new preachers, devoutly practiced the old observances, as if they were never to lay them aside. Everything remained the same, at the domestic hearth and in social life, as in the house of God. There was a new faith in the world, but not new works. The sun of spring had shone forth, but winter still seemed to bind all nature; there were no flowers, no foliage, nothing outwardly that gave token of the change of season. But these appearances were deceitful; a vigorous sap was circulating unperceived below the surface, and was about to change the aspect of the world. HRSCV3 309.2

It is perhaps to this prudent progress that the Reformation is indebted for its triumphs. Every revolution should be accomplished in the mind before it is carried out externally. The inconsistency we have noticed did not even strike Luther at first. It seemed to him quite natural that the people, who read his works with enthusiasm, should remain devoutly attached to the abuses which they assailed. One might almost fancy he had sketched his plan beforehand, and had resolved to change the mind before changing the forms. But this would be ascribing to him a wisdom the honor of which belongs to a higher Intelligence. He carried out a plan that he had not himself conceived. At a later period he could recognize and discern these things: but he did not imagine them, and did not arrange them so. God led the way: it was Luther’s duty to follow. HRSCV3 309.3

If Luther had begun by an external reform; if, as soon as he had spoken, he had attempted to abolish monastic vows, the mass, confession, and forms of worship, most assuredly he would have met with a vigorous resistance. Man requires time to accommodate himself to great revolutions. But Luther was by no means the violent, imprudent, daring innovator that some historians have described. The people, seeing no change in their customary devotions, fearlessly abandoned themselves to their new teacher. They were even surprised at the attacks directed against a man who still left them their mass, their beads, their confessor, and attributed them to the low jealously of obscure rivals, or to the cruel injustice of powerful adversaries. Yet Luther’s opinions agitated their minds, renewed their hearts, and so undermined the ancient edifice that it soon fell of itself, without human agency. Ideas do not act instantaneously; they make their way in silence, like the waters that, filtering behind the rocks of the Alps, loosen them from the mountain on which they rest; suddenly the work done in secret reveals itself, and a single day is sufficient to lay bare the agency of many years, perhaps of many centuries. HRSCV3 310.1

A new era was beginning for the Reformation. Already truth was restored in its doctrine; now the doctrine is about to restore truth in all the forms of the Church and of society. The agitation is too great for men’s minds to remain fixed and immovable at the point they have attained. Upon those dogmas, now so mightily shaken, were based customs that were already tottering to their fall, and which must disappear with them. There is too much courage and life in the new generation for it to continue silent before error. Sacraments, public worship, hierarchy, vows, constitution, domestic and public life,—all are about to be modified. The ship, slowly and laboriously constructed, is about to quit the docks and to be launched on the open sea. We shall have to follow its progress through many shoals. HRSCV3 310.2

The captivity of the Wartburg separates these two periods. Providence, which was making ready to give so great an impulse to the Reformation, had prepared its progress by leading into profound retirement the instrument destined to effect it. The work seemed for a time buried with the workman; but the seed must be laid in the earth, that it may bring forth fruit; and from this prison, which seemed to be the reformer’s tomb, the Reformation was destined to go forth to new conquests, and to spread erelong over the whole world. HRSCV3 310.3

Hitherto the Reformation had been centered in the person of Luther. His appearance before the Diet of Worms was doubtless the sublimest day of his life. His character appeared at that time almost spotless; and it is this which has given rise to the observation, that if God, who concealed the reformer for ten months within the walls of the Wartburg, had that instant removed him for ever from the eyes of the world, his end would have been as an apotheosis. But God designs no apotheosis for his servant; and Luther was preserved to the Church, in order to teach, by his very faults, that the faith of Christians should be based on the Word of God alone. He was transported suddenly far from the stage on which the great revolution of the sixteenth century was taking place; the truth, that for four years he had so powerfully proclaimed, continued in his absence to act upon Christendom: and the work, of which he was but the feeble instrument, henceforward bore the seal not of man, but of God himself. HRSCV3 310.4

Germany was moved at Luther’s captivity. The most contradictory rumors were circulated in the provinces. The reformer’s absence excited men’s minds more than his presence could have done. In one place it was said that friends from France had placed him in safety on the other bank of the Rhine; in another, that he had fallen by the dagger of the assassin. Even in the smallest villages inquiries were made about Luther; travellers were stopped and questioned; and groups collected in the public places. At times some unknown orator would recount in a spirit-stirring narrative how the doctor had been carried off; he described the cruel horsemen tying their prisoner’s hands, spurring their horses, and dragging him after them on foot, until his strength was exhausted, stopping their ears to his cries, and forcing the blood from his limbs. “Luther’s body,” added he, “has been seen pierced through and through.” As they heard this, the listeners uttered cries of sorrow. “Alas!” said they, “we shall never see or hear that noble-minded man again, whose voice stirred our very hearts!” Luther’s friends trembled with indignation, and swore to avenge his death. Women, children, men of peace, and the aged, beheld with affright the prospect of new struggles. Nothing could equal the alarm of the partisans of Rome. The priests and monks, who at first had not been able to conceal their exultation, thinking themselves secure of victory because one man was dead, and who had raised their heads with an insulting air of triumph, would now have fled far from the threatening anger of the people. These men, who, while Luther was free, had given the reins to their fury, trembled now that he was a captive. Aleander, especially, was astounded. “The only remaining way of saving ourselves,” wrote a Roman-catholic to the Archbishop of Mentz, “is to light torches and hunt for Luther through the whole world, to restore him to the nation that is calling for him.” One might have said that the pale ghost of the reformer, dragging his chains, was spreading terror around, and calling for vengeance. “Luther’s death,” exclaimed some, “will cause torrents of blood to be shed.” HRSCV3 310.5

In no place was there such commotion as in Worms itself; resolute murmurs were heard among both people and princes. Ulrich Hutten and Hermann Busch filled the country with their plaintive strains and songs of battle. Charles V and the nuncios were publicly accused. The nation took up the cause of the poor monk, who, by the strength of his faith, had become their leader. HRSCV3 311.1

At Wittenberg, his colleagues and friends, and especially Melancthon, were at first sunk in the deepest affliction. Luther had imparted to this young scholar the treasures of that holy theology which had from that time wholly occupied his mind. Luther had given substance and life to that purely intellectual cultivation which Melancthon had brought to Wittenberg. The depth of the reformer’s teaching had struck the youthful Hellenist, and the doctor’s courage in maintaining the rights of the everlasting Gospel against all human authority had filled him with enthusiasm. He had become a partner in his labors; he had taken up the pen, and with that purity of style which he derived from the study of the ancients, he had successively, and with a hand of power, lowered the authority of the fathers and councils before the sovereign Word of God. HRSCV3 311.2

Melancthon showed the same decision in his learning that Luther displayed in his actions. Never were there two men of greater diversity, and at the same time of greater unity. “Scripture,” said Melancthon, “imparts to the soul a holy and marvelous delight: it is the heavenly ambrosia.”—“The Word of God,” exclaimed Luther, “is a sword, a war, a destruction; it falls upon the children of Ephraim like a lioness in the forest.” Thus, one saw in the Scriptures a power to console, and the other a violent opposition against the corruptions of the world. But both esteemed it the greatest thing on earth; and hence they agreed in perfect harmony. “Melancthon,” said Luther, “is a wonder; all men confess it now. He is the most formidable enemy of Satan and the schoolmen, for he knows their foolishness, and Christ the rock. The little Grecian surpasses me even in divinity; he will be as serviceable to you as many Luthers.” And he added that he was ready to abandon any opinion of which Philip did not approve. On his part, too, Melancthon, filled with admiration at Luther’s knowledge of Scripture, set him far above the fathers of the Church. He would make excuses for the jests with which Luther was reproached, and compared him to an earthen vessel that contains a precious treasure beneath its coarse exterior. “I should be very unwilling to reprove him inconsiderately for this matter,” said Melancthon. HRSCV3 311.3

But now, these two hearts, so closely united, were separated. These two valiant soldiers can no longer march side by side to the deliverance of the Church. Luther has disappeared; perhaps he is lost forever. The consternation at Wittenberg was extreme: like that of an army, with gloomy and dejected looks, before the blood-stained body of the general who was leading them on to victory. HRSCV3 311.4

Suddenly more comforting news arrived. “Our beloved father lives,” exclaimed Philip in the joy of his soul; “take courage and be firm.” But it was not long before their dejection returned. Luther was alive, but in prison. The edict of Worms, with its terrible proscriptions, was circulated by thousands throughout the empire, and even among the mountains of the Tyrol. Would not the Reformation be crushed by the iron hand that was weighing upon it? Melancthon’s gentle spirit was overwhelmed with sorrow. HRSCV3 311.5

But the influence of a mightier hand was felt above the hand of man; God himself deprived the formidable edict of all its strength. The German princes, who had always sought to diminish the power of Rome in the empire, trembled at the alliance between the emperor and the pope, and feared that it would terminate in the destruction of their liberty. Accordingly, while Charles in his journey through the Low Countries greeted with an ironical smile the burning piles which flatterers and fanatics kindled on the public places with Luther’s works, these very writings were read in Germany with a continually increasing eagerness, and numerous pamphlets in favor of the reform were daily inflicting some new blow on the papacy. HRSCV3 311.6

The nuncios were distracted at seeing this edict, the fruit of so many intrigues, producing so little effect. “The ink with which Charles V signed his arrest,” said they bitterly, “is scarcely dry, and yet the imperial decree is everywhere torn in pieces.” The people were becoming more and more attached to the admirable man who, heedless of the thunders of Charles and of the pope, had confessed his faith with the courage of a martyr. “He offered to retract,” said they, “if he were refuted, and no one dared undertake his task. Does not this prove the truth of his doctrines?” Thus the first movement of alarm was succeeded in Wittenberg and the whole empire by a movement of enthusiasm. Even the Archbishop of Mentz, witnessing this outburst of popular sympathy, dared not give the Cordeliers permission to preach against the reformer. The university, that seemed on the point of being crushed, raised its head. The new doctrines were too firmly established for them to be shaken by Luther’s absence; and the halls of the academy could hardly contain the crowd of hearers. HRSCV3 312.1