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The German Reformation From The Diet Of Augsburg To The Death Of Luther (1530-1546)

The German Reformation From The Diet Of Augsburg To The Death Of Luther (1530-1546)


Charles V. did not find the means of effecting the religious subjugation of the Protestants which he had threatened at the close of the Diet of Augsburg. The precarious nature of his relations with France, and the invasions of the Turks, who at this time, under their ambitious leader Soliman II., boldly aspired to the conquest of Europe, compelled Charles to a show of indulgence toward the heretics. Moreover,the Protestant states evinced a disposition to resist, if need be, by force of arms. In the closing days of the year 1530 they laid the foundation of the so-called Smalcald League, and the next year confirmed it by definitely pledging mutual defence in the enjoyment of their faith. Hence Charles assented to the peace of Nuremberg in 1532, which provided that religious affairs should remain unchanged till they could be settled lay a diet or council. The Emperor, as heretofore, was anxious for a general council, and in 1533 he persuaded the Pope to make a move in that direction. However, such a council as the Pope planned involved, in the view of the Protestants, their condemnation beforehand, and they declined participation. The council which finally was convened, that of Trent in 1545, was no joint assembly for the settlement of doctrinal disputes, such as Charles had designed, but a thoroughly Romish affair.


For the fifteen or sixteen years following the Diet of Augsburg, the relation of Charles V, to the Protestants of Germany was that of political manœuvring; the Emperor being held back, by the difficulties of his position, from any decisive steps toward repression. The Reformation cause, during this time, was continually adding to its allies. By 1540, it counted nearly the whole of Northern Germany on its side.


Some noteworthy stumbling-blocks, however, were thrown in the way of this general progress. Such was the Anabaptist fanaticism which raged in Münster. The Reformation had made considerable progress in Münster by the year 1533, under the leadership of the preacher Bernhard Rottmann; and the bishop had found it necessary to grant tolerance to the growing party of its adherents. There was a fair prospect that the whole city would be won to the Protestant cause. But at this juncture the Anabaptist distemper made its appearance. Rottmann himself caught the infection, and the city became a chosen resort for the extremists of the Anabaptist sect. Such in particular were John Mathys from Harlem and John Bockelson from Leyden, who played the rô1e of prophets or theocratic leaders. Adherents being rapidly won, the violent sectaries usurped the government, and in 1534 banished from the city all who were counted unbelievers. One excess led to another. Works of art perished before an indiscriminate iconoclasm. The principles of the wildest communism were adopted. Polygamy was declared lawful. John of Leyden, who finally added the dignity of king to that of prophet, took sixteen wives. Every thing was managed in the name of pretended revelations from heaven. A reign of terror prevailed, and it was instant death to disagree with the fanatical chief, or his principal agent, the sword-bearer Knipperdolling. But this mad revel was soon brought to an end. In 1535 the bishop and his allies, among whom were numbered some of the Protestant states, succeeded in overpowering the fanatics. A re-action to Romanism naturally followed; Protestantism was utterly ruined in Münster.

1 Ranke III. 356-405; Hase, Neue Propheten.


Another stumbling-block was the bigamy of Philip of Hesse. He was united with a wife whom political considerations rather than personal preference had brought to him. The dissatisfaction not unnaturally springing from lack of affinity was aggravated by bodily disorders and an unhappy propensity of his spouse. Philip, consequently, as a man of vigorous sensual physique, had experienced special temptation. Taking up with the lax code shamefully common in those days among princes, he had been guilty of great matrimonial infidelity. He was not a man of so little conscience as not to be seriously troubled over his misdemeanors, and for a long time had counted himself unworthy to receive the communion. Still, he had not the moral strength or resolution to stop his indulgence. In this strait he resorted to an expedient which, without increasing the sin of his conduct, increased the scandal of it beyond measure. As a way of satisfying at once his appetite and his conscience, he made choice of bigamy. Thinking it unjust to divorce his wife, who had borne him a large family of children, he concluded that, inasmuch as he could find no Divine ordinance on record against a plurality of wives, the best course would be to take a second wife, with the consent of the first. To obtain a fitting sanction for his project, he sent Bucer (who, with all his amiable traits, possessed an excessive aptitude for diplomacy and compromise) to confer with Luther and Melanchthon. These theologians were greatly disturbed by the proposition. Nevertheless, in consideration of the representations which were made to them, they were induced to give a kind of half consent. In their reply they stated that the sentence spoken at the creation, as also the words of Christ, plainly indicate that the proper idea of marriage is the union of one man and one woman. This must remain the law. They added, however, that there might be dispensations from this law in cases of extraordinary and pressing need. That Philip's was a case of this kind, they did not undertake positively to affirm, but contented themselves with the direction, that, if the Landgrave were resolved to contract a second marriage, it must be a secret one. I Epist. mdcccciv., mdccccv.


Why the stipulation of secrecy? Because, as Luther explains elsewhere, the case was not to be made a precedent; and, moreover, an open marriage would imply a dispensation from the law of the realm which they had no power to give. They were acting simply as confessors, or spiritual advisers, and as such allowed that it might be safer for his soul, and less objectionable in the sight of God, for Philip to take an additional wife than to continue in adulterous license. 2 Epist. mmdxvi., mmdxli.


That Luther and Melanchthon made the concession that they did, was undoubtedly an enormous mistake. That they were guilty of moral obliquity, is not so clear. Certainly they cannot be charged with inventing a theory to meet a case. Earlier expressions of theirs indicate a belief that under certain extraordinary conditions a dispensation from the law of monogamy might legitimately be granted. 3 Epist. dlxxii., mccccx. See also J. C. Hare, Vindication of Luther. Melanchthon, as Hare testifies, had taken the same ground which appears in Luther's epistles. Nor would it seem that they were altogether alone in this. There is evidence that some contemporary Romanists conceived that a dispensation for a plural marriage was not strictly out of question. 4 Köstlin, II. 485, 676; D' Aubigné, Book XX., chap. v. One may surmise, indeed, that the Wittenberg divines were moved by a spirit of unworthy compliance in dealing with the proposition of the Landgrave, and were not perfectly settled in the conviction that there was such an exigency with him as constituted adequate ground for a dispensation, This is possible, but it is not proved. All that can be said is, that Melanchthon was undoubtedly a man of more than average conscientiousness, and that few men have lived who were less inclined than Luther to take counsel with mere expediency where any principle was concerned.


The bigamous marriage took place in 1540, and the scandal was not long in following. Deplorable as was the affair, it was not without some compensations. Luther and his associates were sufficiently instructed by this one experience, and thereafter were more than content to allow the law of monogamy to stand in unqualified force. If a second compensation were to be noted, it might be found in the revelation that was called forth of Luther's staunchness and strength, in the hardihood with which he bore the opprobrium, and in the might with which he lifted up Melanchthon from the very gates of death.


Before this interval of negotiation and political finesse had merged into the stern ordeal of battle, Luther passed away (Feb. 18, 1546). His departure, so far as his personal fortunes were concerned, was in peace and unshaken faith. Among his last words was the thrice-repeated sentence: "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit. Thou hast redeemed me, Thou faithful God." So ended a stormy life; so passed away one of the great men of history. He had indeed his faults and weaknesses, too prominent to be concealed. His nature was too vehement for evenness and consistency. Some of his eminent virtues bordered close upon vices. His zeal for the faith ran, at times, into unseemly passion; his steadfastness to his conviction, into apparent willfulness and stubbornness; his hatred of shams, into disdain and abuse. But with all these detracting features, Luther exhibited that which must ever command admiration. We see in him a marked individuality, an heroic temper, a consummate genius, a deeply religious spirit, a peculiarly faithful embodiment of strong national traits. As David was the man of Israel, so Luther was the man of Germany. As David embodied the chivalry, the patriotism, the lyric talent, the domestic affection, and the religious ardor of Israel, so Luther embodied the leading features of the German mind and heart. His words thrilled the men of his time, and to-day are in large part fresh and living. To soberness and mirth he alike paid tribute. Few have shown so fully the gift of easy transition from seriousness to pleasantry. A many-sided, rich, and powerful nature was that of Luther. Says one who has never accepted Protestantism: "It was Luther's overpowering greatness of mind, and marvelous many-sidedness, which made him to be the man of his time and of his people; and it is correct to say that there never has been a German who has so intuitively understood his people, and in turn has been by the nation so perfectly comprehended, I might say absorbed by it, as this Augustinian monk at Wittenberg. Heart and mind of the Germans were in his hand like the lyre in the hand of the musician. Moreover, he has given to his people more than any other man in Christian ages has ever given to a people, language, manual for popular instruction, Bible, hymns of worship; and every thing which his opponents in their turn had to offer or to place in comparison with these, showed itself tame and powerless and colorless by the side of his sweeping eloquence. They stammered: he spoke with the tongue of an orator; it is he only who has stamped the imperishable seal of his own soul alike upon the German language and upon the German mind; and even those Germans who abhorred him as the powerful heretic and seducer of the nation cannot escape; they must discourse with his words, they must think with his thoughts." 1 Döllinger; quoted by G. P. Fisher, History of the Reformation.

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