Luther And The German Reformation From The Diet of Worms To The Close Of the Diet Of Augsburg (1521-1530)

Luther And The German Reformation From The Diet of Worms To The Close Of the Diet Of Augsburg (1521-1530)


The vigorous rhetoric which was distributed throughout Germany in the Edict of Worms was not followed by a corresponding vigor in action. The Emperor gave very little attention to the execution of the edict, being engrossed in a great struggle for the ascendancy in Italy against the French king and his allies. For nearly nine years together he was absent from Germany. During this time, the cause which he had put under the ban made continued progress. There were efforts, indeed, in various quarters, to carry through the order for repression; and the Reformation was honored with a list of martyrs. Severities were especially frequent after the year 1526. On one occasion, in Bavaria, nine were sentenced to the flames; and in another instance, twenty-nine were condemned to death by drowning. Still, in Germany at large,the interval between the Diet of Worms and the Diet of Augsburg was a time of opportunity for the Reformation.


As respects Luther himself, there was no abatement of the enormous energy and industry which he had exhibited in the preceding years. Even during his retirement in the Wartburg castle, which continued nearly a year, he still wrought with vigor, and discharged in no small measure the demands of leadership. He felt himself, indeed, to be at a disadvantage. He chafed under his enforced isolation, insomuch that he purposed at times to break away from it on his own responsibility. Ill health aggravated his mental disquiet. The consequence was, that, with his keen sensibility for the supernatural, he experienced what he considered to be satanic buffetings. History, it is true, is compelled to speak with doubt about his famous ink-bottle salute to the devil. But we have his own statement respecting the severity of his mental conflicts. 1 Epist. cccxliii: Sed mille credas me Satanibus objectum in hac otiosa solitudine. Tanto est facilius adversus incarnatum Diabolum, id est adversus homines, quam adversus spiritualia nequitiæ in cœlestibus pugnare. Through these perturbations, however, he continued to maintain a good hope for his cause. The words which he addressed to Sickingen find more than one echo in his writings at this time. "I have seen," he said, "a presumptuous smoke-cloud attempt to extinguish the sun; but the smoke passed away, the sun still shines." 2 Epist. cccxxiii. Thus abortive, he judged, would be all attempts to extinguish the gospel.


At the Wartburg, Luther made several additions to the list of his polemical treatises. By far the most important task, however, which occupied his leisure, was the translation of the Bible. The first draught of the New Testament was produced here. The work of translation was continued at Wittenberg, until at length, in 1534, the complete Lutheran Bible was given to the public. The enterprise may well be regarded as marking an epoch in the national history. It is true that other translations into the vernacular had preceded this of Luther. But none of them had any thing like the same adaptation to the people; none of them were such homelike produces to the German mind; none so brought out the riches of the German tongue; none were so true at once to the German and to the original; for, while it was a maxim with Luther that a translation must express the sense of the original, it was equally a maxim with him, that it must express that sense in the national idiom. Some of the conditions of a perfect translation were no doubt wanting. Luther and his colleagues did not have as complete a mastery of the original tongues of the Bible, especially the Hebrew, as was desirable. But a very fair degree of scholarship and great pains-taking were brought to the work. 1 There is evidence of the fact that Luther sometimes re-wrote a passage as many as fifteen times. Moreover, conditions were met which are beyond the reach of mere scholarship. "In order," says Häusser, "faithfully to reproduce the patriarchal simplicity, the homely and childlike character, of the Old and New Testaments, to imitate the poetic strains of the prophets and the Psalms, and again the popular straightforwardness of the Gospels, requires a vein of congeniality --the spiritual affinity of a mind which has preserved the simple and honest originality of an unsophisticated people. This cannot be acquired by all the learning in the world, though it may easily be unlearned in the world and among books. It was precisely these qualifications which Luther possessed. A genuine son of his own people, gifted with all the wealth and depth of the German mind, he could enter into that age of simple national faith; he made its spirit and language his own, and thus acquired the power of translating into German the religious-poetic and poetic-religious mode of expression." It is scarcely necessary to add, that the copies of the new German Bible, issued as fast as the hard-worked presses could supply them, became powerful instruments for the spread of evangelical truth.


A pressing occasion called Luther from the castle. As false elements attached themselves to early Christianity, so also to the Reformation movement. A party arose in which there prevailed an intemperate spirit of innovation. They have commonly been called Anabaptists, though this term indicates only one feature of their teaching and practice, namely, their rejection of infant-baptism, and treatment of it as a nullity where already administered. They resembled to a considerable extent the Montanists of the early centuries. In other words, they were ultra spiritualists. They disparaged outward forms, exalted the inspirations of the Spirit above the written Word, and boasted, like the early sectaries, of prophets to whom the Lord was supposed to make direct communications of His will. Many grades, no doubt, were found among these enthusiasts, but the extremists of the class were downright fanatics. Zwickau was the first prolific source of the new order of prophets. Thomas Münzer was a leading spirit. A degree of notoriety was also attained by Nicholas Storch, Marcus Thomæ, Marcus Stübner, and Martin Cellarius. Visions and prophesyings entered plentifully into their programme. They looked for a religious revolution reaching quite beyond any thing which Luther had accomplished. They predicted a complete overturning of the existing order in Germany, and the speedy destruction of the ungodly. A few years, they said, would bring in the end of the world. With all the rest they cherished a fanciful mysticism, teaching that the Christian should rise into union with God until he reaches a state of complete quiescence and passivity.


Expelled from Zwickau, the new prophets carried their views to other quarters. Münzer proceeded in the first instance into Bohemia. Storch and Stübner made their way to Wittenberg. Here, in the absence of Luther, a means of attachment had been provided for them. A party, at the head of which were Carlstadt and a former member of the Augustinian cloister by the name of Zwilling, had become somewhat infected with the iconoclastic distemper. Impatient of delay, and careless of the prejudices of others, they wished to carry through sweeping reforms at a stroke. At the same time, an exaggerated stress upon the common priesthood of believers and the enlightening agency of the Holy Spirit led them to speak in slighting terms of the claims of learning. Thus the Zwickau prophets found ready allies, and matters at Wittenberg assumed a phase which gave serious trouble and apprehension to sober minds.


It needed a man like Luther to meet these violent enthusiasts, and Luther was ready for the task. He was troubled by no hesitating judgment as to the merits of their cause. In their overweening confidence, their easy-going familiarity with God, and their boasted superiority to the requirements of scholarly industry, he saw clear tokens of fanaticism. It was his opinion that they ought at once to be put under restraint, not, indeed, through any appeal to force, but through such a presentation of scriptural truth as should expose the unsoundness of their position. He resolved, therefore, to proceed to the theatre of the agitation. The will of his sovereign, he knew, would detain him at the Wartburg in the interest of his personal safety. But he exhorted Frederic to have no concern for his protection. "Be it known to your highness," he wrote, "that I am going to Wittenberg under a far higher protection than that of electors." 1 Epist. ccclxii. As bearing on the trouble at Wittenberg, see also Epist. ccclvi., ccclviii., ccclxi., coclxiv., ccclxvii., ccclxxi., ccclxxxi.


Once upon the field of the disturbance, Luther made himself master of the situation. For several days in succession he delivered discourses which are universally allowed to have been masterpieces of popular addresses. He urged the claims of charity, the duty of respecting the consciences of the weak, the necessity of distinguishing between the essential and the optional, and of overturning wrong views by the power of the Word before making haste to overturn outward rites and customs. In all this Luther was acting a consistent part. Notwithstanding the polemical violence which he sometimes employed against those whom he regarded as the enemies of the gospel, in dealing with customs and institutions he proceeded in general as the conservative reformer.


Wittenberg was won back to Luther, and the Zwickau enthusiasts found it advisable to seek other fields. Two or three years later the most daring and ambitious of the class obtained a grand opportunity in the peasant revolt.


As already indicated, the fundamental cause of the revolt was the intolerable burdens which were imposed upon the peasants, though an immediate stimulus was no doubt derived from the religious agitations of the time. The insurrection reached formidable dimensions, spreading from the region of the Upper Rhine through Swabia and Franconia, and extending into Thuringia and Saxony. As the uprising grew in strength, so also the demands of its partisans were augmented. The first manifesto which the peasants put forth, expressed in twelve articles, was by no means extravagant. Liberty to have preachers who should proclaim the pure gospel, and release from various forms of oppression and deprivation, were the sum of their requirements. But later more exacting demands were made. In some quarters the revolt was aggravated into a levelling project, and plunder, arson, and bloodshed attended its course. This was especially the programme in Thuringia, where Thomas Münzer took the leadership. Assuming to speak by the authority of God, Münzer exhorted the excited multitudes to proceed forward in a war of extermination until a11 dignitaries should be brought low. "Show no pity!" he exclaimed. "Regard not the woe of the ungodly!" But neither Münzer nor those addressed had long to think upon a scheme of vengeance. The sword descended upon their own necks. The undisciplined ranks of the insurgents were not able to withstand the well-appointed armies which at length took the field. A bloody atonement was rendered for the uprising. The peasants were cut down by the thousand and the ten thousand, and the discomfited survivors turned sadly back to their old burdens.


As for Luther, he naturally sympathized with the peasants in their grievances, and before the outbreak had rebuked the nobles in very plain terms for their oppressions. But he had no faith in appeals to the sword, and looked upon insurrectionary violence as a thing to be profoundly abhorred. Therefore, as the tumult of the revolt began to threaten the overthrow of all civil order, he counseled the putting of it down at any cost. He considered the slaughter which befell the peasants as in large part a righteous judgment. At the same time, he did not approve the rigor with which they were treated after their defeat, and warned those who disregarded the claims of mercy, that their hardness might be expected to bring on a repetition of the ordeal already suffered. 1 Epist. dccxxv., dccxxvii, mmccclxix.


Between the ferment at Wittenberg, and the close of the peasant revolt, occasion for some noted personal encounters had fallen in the way of Luther. The first of these was with a royal antagonist. Henry VIII. of England, who had great confidence in his ability to win trophies in the theological field, attempted a reply to Luther's "Babylonish Captivity," and published a defence of the seven sacraments. He was not without his reward. To say nothing of the fulsome laudations which flatterers lavished upon him, and which might lead him to think that he had written at the special dictation of the Holy Spirit, the Pope conferred upon him the honorable title, Defender of the Faith. The honor, however, was dearly bought; for the Saxon Reformer was held back by no awe of royalty, and scourged his Majesty as unmercifully as he would have the most plebeian opponent whose full-blown pride needed to be punctured. On the score of justice no complaint call be made against Luther for his small show of respect against his antagonist; for the treatise of Henry VIII., besides being no real reply to Luther from his standpoint, inasmuch as it was mainly occupied with traditional trumpery, was scurrilous and contemptuous to the last degree. On the score of policy the violent and disrespectful tone of Luther was more questionable. To be sure, it may have helped the King in forming his decision to fulfill the office of Defender of the Faith by other means than the pen; but, on the other hand, it diverted attention from the merits of the argument, and produced alienation in minds that might better have been conciliated. The choice of such a style appears to have been with Luther not merely a result of ebullition of feeling, but also of the deliberate conclusion that it was for the interest of his cause to show that the royal mantle could not protect the vilifier, and the champion of error. 1 Epist. ccccxii., ccccxxviii.


The answer to Henry VIII., which was written in 1522, naturally brought an increased pressure to bear upon Erasmus, from the English king and nobility, who wished him to enter the lists against Luther. No doubt their persuasions, and the value which he set upon their friendship, were one motive with the great humanist for giving open expression to his disagreement with the Reformer. As previously intimated, Erasmus chose the subject of free will as the ground of contention, and argued in favor of human ability. Luther replied in the treatise De Servo Arbitrio (1525). He published here in most undisguised form the strong views respecting Divine sovereignty and grace, which he not unnaturally embraced in the fervor of his reaction from Roman legalism. To all except ultra Augustinians, the De Servo Arbitrio must appear among the least acceptable of Luther's theological writings. It ceased early to represent the position of the great body of the Lutherans.


The year which marked the crisis of the peasant revolt and the reply to Erasmus was not so full of engagements for Luther, but that he found time to attend to a very important private matter. In 1525 he married Catharine von Bora, a nun who had abandoned the
cloister. 2 Luther seems not to have contemplated marriage till shortly before. Near the close of the preceding year he wrote: "So long as my sentiments continue to be what they have been and still me, I shall not take a wife: not because I am insensible to the charms of the sex, for I am neither wood nor stone; but my mind is diverted from the consideration of marriage since I daily expect death and the well-earned punishment of the heretic" (Epist. dcxxxvii.). A wish to defy his enemies and to place a seal upon his principles, 1 Epist. dccxv., dccxvi. as well as the attractions of the marriage state, led to this step. As a matter of course, calumnies were heaped upon him. Some quoted the prophecy that Antichrist was to be born of a monk and a nun. Erasmus, though he did not hesitate to jest over the marrying propensities of the Reformers, replied to this, "If the prophecy is true, how many thousands of Antichrists does the world already contain?" 2 Erasmus, Epist. dccci. In view of the result, the intemperate criticism wears the appearance of profane levity. The home of Luther was a scene of sacred companionship, and a nursery of piety. His daughter Magdalene lived and died as a saintly child, and his three sons were men of such exemplary lives that even the ready tongue of slander has not attempted to asperse them.


The history of German Protestantism, in the four or five years preceding the Diet of Augsburg, was marked in particular by two important events, the organization of national churches, and the project of an alliance among the Protestant powers for their mutual defence.


In Saxony the first definite organization of a Protestant communion took place between 1527 and 1529. In default of bishops friendly to the Reformation, the initiative fell to the prince. By his appointment a commission was constituted, which was directed to visit the churches, correct abuses, examine the provisions for ministerial support, and instruct religious teachers in their duty. To provide for a measure of continued oversight, the prince nominated members of the clergy in different sections to act as superintendents, and devolved upon them a part of the functions which had formerly pertained to the bishops. The visitation, for which Melanchthon drew up the plan in 1527, was executed in the two following years. The result in one respect was rather chilling to the mind of Luther. It revealed such an amount of ignorance among the people as to cast doubt upon their fitness to have a principal share in the control of their ecclesiastical affairs. Thus the merits of a democratic type of church government received but moderate consideration. It was at this time, and under the impulse of the discoveries made respecting the need of religious instruction, that Luther prepared his catechisms. 1 In January, 1529, Luther writes: Modo in parando catechismo pro rudibus paganis versor (Epist. mlxvi.). In Hesse the organization of the Church was conducted according to the Saxon model, though at an earlier date (1526) the plan was discussed which was carried out among the French Protestants, and still prevails in the United States, the plan of a Church composed simply of believers voluntarily associated together, instead of an establishment holding relation to the population at large. 2 Ranke, II. 306, 307. An organization hardly second, in its ultimate bearing on the interests of Protestantism, to any consummated in this era, was that which was effected in Prussia. The Reformation early penetrated into this region, and gained numerous adherents in the Teutonic Order. The bishops here also embraced the Reformation. As, therefore, in 1525 the Teutonic Order was secularized, and the Grand Master Albert was acknowledged in the character of temporal ruler, nothing stood in the way of a Protestant régime in Prussia. In this régime the bishops retained very largely the spiritual functions which had pertained to their office previously.


In the year 1526, the cause of the Reformation in Germany appeared to be exposed to special danger. News came that Charles V., having conquered the French king, was now ready to undertake in earnest the suppression of heresy. The peril indeed was not as imminent as it seemed to be; for the Pope had no inclination to let Charles enjoy the fruits of his victory, and prepared for him a fresh conflict by releasing the French king from the engagements which he had made at the peace of Madrid. The Protestants, however, were led seriously to consider their means of defence. The result was the Torgau league, which included the elector of Saxony, Philip of Hesse, several less important princes, and the city of Magdeburg. The resolute front presented by the evangelical princes at the Diet of Spires in 1526 prevented the passage of measures adverse to their cause. In fact, this Diet really established the territorial principle which lay at the basis of the ecclesiastical organizations described above, -the principle that each state (for the time being) should manage church affairs within its limits according to its own discretion. But this concession in its full import was not long allowed. At the Diet of Spires in 1529 the Roman Catholic party was in the ascendant, and passed measures decidedly adverse to the progress of Reformation. The protest issued upon this occasion by the evangelical party fixed upon them the name of Protestants. Efforts were made immediately after the close of this Diet, to consummate an alliance with the Swiss, and thus to prepare for effective resistance in case of attack. This called up the doctrinal differences between Luther and Zwingli, the principal of which lay in Luther's affirmation and Zwingli's denial of the real bodily presence of Christ in the eucharist. Luther was in general extremely averse to warlike leagues in connection with religion. 1 Epist. mciv., mclxx., mcxci. "Luther," says Ranke, "was, of all men who have stood at the head of a movement world-wide in its significance, the one perhaps who was least inclined to have any thing to do with force and war " (III. 30). Least of all would he consent to an alliance with the Swiss errorists, as he deemed them. An unfortunate association of the Swiss leaders with the Anabaptist enthusiasts was early formed in his mind, and he never learned to rate them at their worth. A discussion which he held with Zwingli and Œcolampadius at Marburg in 1529 failed to bring about any substantial agreement. The Reformation, therefore, parted into two streams near its fountain-head.


In June of the year 1530, the German Diet assembled at Augsburg. Thither came Charles V., fresh from the repeated victories which had crowned his arms. It was understood that he had resumed cordial relations with the Pope, and that this reconciliation meant a determined effort to extirpate heresy. It was with considerable trepidation, therefore, that the Protestant princes concluded to respond to his summons. They came, however, and with the fixed determination to sacrifice every thing sooner than the cause of evangelical truth. Charles met them in a rather lordly temper at first, but he soon concluded that it was best to make a fair use of the policy of conciliation. A respectful hearing was accordingly given to the claims of the Reformation party.


Before the arrival of the Emperor, the Protestants had concluded that their cause would be best served by "formal confession of faith. The task of preparing such was executed by Melanchthon. His genius seems to have been well suited to the special exigency. A confession free from all partisan rancor, moderate in tone, but still clear and positive in its statement of the evangelical faith, was demanded, for the best effect upon the Diet. And such was the Augsburg Confession as it came from the hands of Melanchthon, and was read before the assembled dignitaries (June 26, 1530). It consisted of a preface and two parts. The first part contained twenty-one articles of faith. The second part contained seven articles relative to abuses in the Church, under which were included he withholding of the cup from the laity, enforced celibacy, private masses and connected abuses, requirement of specific confession, distinctions of meats, exaggerated stress upon monastic vows, and unwarranted assumption of ecclesiastical power.

1 The confession was signed by John, Elector of Saxony, who had succeeded Frederic in 1525; by the Margrave George of Brandenburg; by Philip of Hesse; Duke Ernest of Lunenberg; Prince Wolfgang of Anhalt; and the cities of Nüremberg and Reutlingen.


The effect produced by the reading of the confession was decidedly favorable to the Protestants. Gross prejudices and misconceptions were removed from the minds of many who had been taught to regard the Protestants as wild fanatics. So strong a Roman Catholic as the Duke of Bavaria confessed that the doctrines of the Lutherans were not so utterly crude as had been represented. Reproaching Dr. Eck for the false impressions he had given, he asked him if he could refute by sound reasonings the Lutheran confession. Even the proud and pretentious controversialist had the honesty to reply, that, while he could refute the confession from the fathers and the councils, he could not from the Scriptures. "I understand," quickly replied the Duke: "the Lutherans, according to you, are in Scripture, and we are outside." 1 Luther in his Tischreden (No. 26) tells quite as good a story of Archbishop Albert. While at this Diet, he was observed, on a certain occasion, by one of his councilors, to be reading the Bible. "Most gracious Elector and Lord," said the councilor, "what does your Highness make of this book?" -- "I know not," replied the archbishop "what kind of a book it is, for all that it contains is against our side."


To offset the prestige thus gained by the Protestants, the Romanists appointed a commission to prepare a refutation. This was read before the Diet, and the Emperor affected to consider it a sufficient answer to the teachings of the Reformers. His actions, however, agreed ill with the confidence expressed; for the Protestants were not allowed a single copy of the refutation for their more perfect consideration, except under very obnoxious conditions. The unexpected courage and resolution of the Reformation party led, at length, to attempts at an adjustment of creeds. Conferences were held; both parties made concessions. On the side of the Protestants, Melanchthon showed himself especially anxious for an agreement, and, in the view of many, yielded too much. But these attempts were artificial, and, as was natural, miscarried. The Diet closed with a threat of war hung over the Protestants. They were allowed till the 15th of the next April, to reconcile themselves with the Church. During this time they were to avoid all innovations, print nothing on questions of faith, and attempt to convert no one to their beliefs.


The total result was favorable to the Protestant cause. "The Diet of Augsburg," says D'Aubigné, "destined to crush the Reformation, was what strengthened it forever. It has been usual to consider the Peace of Augsburg (1555) as the period when the Reform was definitely established. That is the date of legal Protestantism; evangelical Christianity has another, -the autumn of 1530. In 1555 was the victory of the sword and of diplomacy; in 1530 was that of the Word of God and of faith; and this latter victory is, in our eyes, the truest and the surest." Book xiv., chap. xii.