Martin Luther : The Protestant Reformation – Beacon Lights of History, Volume VI : Renaissance and Reformation by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VI : Renaissance and Reformation by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VI : Renaissance and Reformation

Dante : Rise of Modern Poetry
Geoffrey Chaucer : English Life in the Fourteenth Century
Christopher Columbus : Maritime Discoveries
Savonarola : Unsuccessful Reforms
Michael Angelo : The Revival of Art
Martin Luther : The Protestant Reformation
Thomas Cranmer : The English Reformation
Ignatius Loyola : Rise and Influence of the Jesuits
John Calvin : Protestant Theology
Lord Bacon : The New Philosophy
Galileo : Astronomical Discoveries

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VI : Renaissance and Reformation
John Lord

Topics Covered
Luther’s predecessors
Corruptions of the Church
Luther the man for the work of reform
His peculiarities
His early piety
Enters a Monastery
His religious experience
Made Professor of Divinity at Wittenberg
The Pope in great need of money to complete St. Peter’s
Indulgences; principles on which they were based
Luther, indignant, preaches Justification by Faith
His immense popularity
Grace the cardinal principle of the Reformation
The Reformation began as a religious movement
How the defence of Luther’s doctrine led to the recognition of the supreme authority of the Scriptures
Public disputation at Leipsic between Luther and Eck
Connection between the advocacy of the Bible as a supreme authority and the right of private judgment
Religious liberty a sequence of private judgment
Connection between religious and civil liberty
Contrast between Leo I. and Luther
Luther as reformer
His boldness and popularity
He alarms Rome
His translation of the Bible, his hymns, and other works
Summoned by imperial authority to the Diet of Worms
His memorable defence
His immortal legacies
His death and character

Martin Luther : The Protestant Reformation

A. D. 1483-1546.

Among great benefactors, Martin Luther is one of the most illustrious. He headed the Protestant Reformation. This movement is so completely interlinked with the literature, the religion, the education, the prosperity–yea, even the political history–of Europe, that it is the most important and interesting of all modern historical changes. It is a subject of such amazing magnitude that no one can claim to be well informed who does not know its leading issues and developments, as it spread from Germany to Switzerland, France, Holland, Sweden, England, and Scotland.

The central and prominent figure in the movement is Luther; but the way was prepared for him by a host of illustrious men, in different countries,–by Savonarola in Italy, by Huss and Jerome in Bohemia, by Erasmus in Holland, by Wyclif in England, and by sundry others, who detested the corruptions they ridiculed and lamented, but could not remove.

How flagrant those evils! Who can deny them? The papal despotism, and the frauds on which it was based; monastic corruptions; penance, and indulgences for sin, and the sale of them, more shameful still; the secular character of the clergy; the pomp, wealth, and arrogance of bishops; auricular confession; celibacy of the clergy, their idle and dissolute lives, their ignorance and superstition; the worship of the images of saints, and masses for the dead; the gorgeous ritualism of the mass; the substitution of legends for the Scriptures, which were not translated, or read by the people; pilgrimages, processions, idle pomps, and the multiplication of holy days; above all, the grinding spiritual despotism exercised by priests, with their inquisitions and excommunications, all centring in the terrible usurpation of the popes, keeping the human mind in bondage, and suppressing all intellectual independence,–these evils prevailed everywhere. I say nothing here of the massacres, the poisonings, the assassinations, the fornications, the abominations of which history accuses many of the pontiffs who sat on papal thrones. Such evils did not stare the German and English in the face, as they did the Italians in the fifteenth century. In Germany the vices were mediaeval and monkish, not the unblushing infidelity and levities of the Renaissance, which made a radical reformation in Italy impossible. In Germany and England there was left among the people the power of conscience, a rough earnestness of character, the sense of moral accountability, and a fear of divine judgment.

Luther was just the man for his work. Sprung from the people, poor, popular, fervent; educated amid privations, religious by nature, yet with exuberant animal spirits; dogmatic, boisterous, intrepid, with a great insight into realities; practical, untiring, learned, generally cheerful and hopeful; emancipated from the terrors of the Middle Ages, scorning the Middle Ages; progressive in his spirit, lofty in his character, earnest in his piety, believing in the future and in God,–such was the great leader of this emancipating movement. He was not so learned as Erasmus, nor so logical as Calvin, nor so scholarly as Melancthon, nor so broad as Cranmer. He was not a polished man; he was often offensively rude and brusque, and lavish of epithets, Nor was he what we call a modest and humble man; he was intellectually proud, disdainful, and sometimes, when irritated, abusive. None of his pictures represent him as a refined-looking man, scarcely intellectual, but coarse and sensual rather, as Socrates seemed to the Athenians. But with these defects and drawbacks he had just such traits and gifts as fitted him to lead a great popular movement,–bold, audacious, with deep convictions and rapid intellectual processes; prompt, decided, kind-hearted, generous, brave; in sympathy with the people, eloquent, Herculean in energies, with an amazing power of work; electrical in his smile and in his words, and always ready for contingencies. Had he been more polished, more of a gentleman, more fastidious, more scrupulous, more ascetic, more modest, he would have shrunk from his tasks; he would have lost the elasticity of his mind,–he would have been discouraged. Even Saint Augustine, a broader and more catholic man than Luther, could not have done his work. He was a sort of converted Mirabeau. He loved the storms of battle; he impersonated revolutionary ideas. But he was a man of thought, as well as of action.

Luther’s origin was of the humblest. Born in Eisleben, Nov. 10, 1483, the son of a poor peasant, his childhood was spent in penury. He was religious from a boy. He was religious when he sang hymns for a living, from house to house, before the people of Mansfield while at school there, and also at the schools of Magdeburg and Eisenach, where he still earned his bread by his voice. His devotional character and his music gained for him a friend who helped him through his studies, till at the age of eighteen he entered the University at Erfurt, where he distinguished himself in the classics and the Mediaeval philosophy. And here his religious meditations led him to enter the Augustinian monastery: he entered that strict retreat, as others did, to lead a religious life. The great question of all time pressed upon his mind with peculiar force, “What shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” And it shows that religious life in Germany still burned in many a heart, in spite of the corruptions of the Church, that a young man like Luther should seek the shades of monastic seclusion, for meditation and study. He was a monk, like other monks; but it seems he had religious doubts and fears more than ordinary monks. At first he conformed to the customary ways of men seeking salvation. He walked in the beaten road, like Saint Dominic and Saint Francis; he accepted the great ideas of the Middle Ages, which he was afterwards to repudiate,–he was not beyond them, or greater than they were, at first; he fasted like monks, and tormented his body with austerities, as they did from the time of Benedict; he sang in the choir from early morn, and practised the usual severities. But his doubts and fears remained. He did not, like other monks, find peace and consolation; he did not become seraphic, like Saint Francis, or Bonaventura, or Loyola. Perhaps his nature repelled asceticism; perhaps his inquiring and original mind wanted something better and surer to rest upon than the dreams and visions of a traditionary piety. Had he been satisfied with the ordinary mode of propitiating the Deity, he would never have emerged from his retreat.

To a scholar the monastery had great attractions, even in that age. It was still invested with poetic associations and consecrated usages; it was indorsed by the venerable Fathers of the Church; it was favorable to study, and free from the noisy turmoil of the world. But with all these advantages Luther was miserable. He felt the agonies of an unforgiven soul in quest of peace with God; he could not get rid of them, they pursued him into the immensity of an intolerable night. He was in despair. What could austerities do for him? He hungered and thirsted after the truth, like Saint Augustine in Milan. He had no taste for philosophy, but he wanted the repose that philosophers pretended to teach. He was then too narrow to read Plato or Boëthius. He was a self-tormented monk without relief; he suffered all that Saint Paul suffered at Tarsus. In some respects this monastic pietism resembled the pharisaism of Saul, in the schools of Tarsus,–a technical, rigid, and painful adherence to rules, fastings, obtrusive prayers, and petty ritualisms, which form the essence and substance of all pharisaism and all monastic life; based on the enormous error that man deserves heaven by external practices, in which, however, he can never perfect himself, though he were to live, like Simeon Stylites, on the top of a pillar for twenty years without once descending; an eternal unrest, because perfection cannot be attained; the most terrible slavery to which a man can be conscientiously doomed, verging into hypocrisy and fanaticism.

It was then that a kind and enlightened friend visited him, and recommended him to read the Bible. The Bible never has been a sealed book to monks; it was ever highly prized; no convent was without it: but it was read with the spectacles of the Middle Ages. Repentance meant penance. In Saint Paul’s Epistles Luther discovers the true ground of justification,–not works, but faith; for Paul had passed through similar experiences. Works are good, but faith is the gift of God. Works are imperfect with the best of men, even the highest form of works, to a Mediaeval eye,–self-expiation and penance; but faith is infinite, radiating from divine love; faith is a boundless joy,–salvation by the grace of God, his everlasting and precious boon to people who cannot climb to heaven on their hands and knees, the highest gift which God ever bestowed on men,–eternal life.

Luther is thus emancipated from the ideas of the Middle Ages and of the old Syriac monks and of the Jewish Pharisees. In his deliverance he has new hopes and aspirations; he becomes cheerful, and devotes himself to his studies. Nothing can make a man more cheerful and joyful than the cordial reception of a gift which is infinite, a blessing which is too priceless to be bought. The pharisee, the monk, the ritualist, is gloomy, ascetic, severe, intolerant; for he is not quite sure of his salvation. A man who accepts heaven as a gift is full of divine enthusiasm, like Saint Augustine. Luther now comprehends Augustine, the great doctor of the Church, embraces his philosophy and sees how much it has been misunderstood. The rare attainments and interesting character of Luther are at last recognized; he is made a professor of divinity in the new university, which the Elector of Saxony has endowed, at Wittenberg. He becomes a favorite with the students; he enters into the life of the people. He preaches with wonderful power, for he is popular, earnest, original, fresh, electrical. He is a monk still, but the monk is merged in the learned doctor and eloquent preacher. He does not yet even dream of attacking monastic institutions, or the Pope; he is a good Catholic in his obedience to authorities; but he hates the Middle Ages, and all their ghostly, funereal, burdensome, and technical religious customs. He is human, almost convivial,–fond of music, of poetry, of society, of friends, and of the good cheer of the social circle. The people love Luther, for he has a broad humanity. They never did love monks, only feared their maledictions.

About this time the Pope was in great need of money: this was Leo X. He not only squandered his vast revenues in pleasures and pomps, like any secular monarch; he not only collected pictures and statues,–but he wanted to complete St. Peter’s Church. It was the crowning glory of papal magnificence. Where was he to get money except from the contributions of Christendom? But kings and princes and bishops and abbots were getting tired of this everlasting drain of money to Rome, in the shape of annats and taxes; so Leo revived an old custom of the Dark Ages,–he would sell indulgences for sin; and he sent his agents to peddle them in every country.

The agent in Saxony was a very vulgar, boisterous, noisy, bullying Dominican, by the name of Tetzel. Luther abhorred him, not so much because he was vulgar and noisy, but because his infamous business derogated from the majesty of God and religion. In wrathful indignation he preached against Tetzel and his practices,–the abominable traffic of indulgences. Only God can forgive sins. It seemed to him to be an insult to the human understanding that any man, even a pope, should grant an absolution for crime. These indulgences were the very worst form of penance, since they made a mockery of virtue. And it was useless to preach against them so long as the principles on which they were based were not assailed. Everybody believed in penance; everybody believed that this, in some form, would insure salvation. It consisted in a temporal penalty or punishment inflicted on the sinner after confession to the priest, as a condition of his receiving absolution or an authoritative pardon of his sin by the Church as God’s representative. And the indulgence was originally an official remission of this penalty, to be gained by offerings of money to the Church for its sacred uses. However ingenious this theory, the practice inevitably ran into corruption. The people who bought, the agents who sold, the popes who dispensed, these indulgences used them for the vilest purposes.

Fortunately, in those times in Germany everybody felt he had a soul to save. Neither the popes nor the Church ever lost that idea. The clergy ruled by its force,–by stimulating fears of divine wrath, whereby the wretched sinner would be physically tormented forever, unless he escaped by a propitiation of the Deity,–the common form of which was penance, deeds of supererogation, donations to the Church, self-expiation, works of fear and penitence, which commended themselves to the piety of the age; and this piety Luther now believed to be unenlightened, not the kind enjoined by Christ or Paul.

So, to instruct his students and the people as to the true ground of justification, which he had worked out from the study of the Bible and Saint Augustine amid the agonies of a tormented conscience, Luther prepared his theses,–those celebrated ninety-five propositions, which he affixed to the gates of the church of Wittenberg, and which excited a great sensation throughout Northern Germany, reaching even the eyes of the Pope himself, who did not comprehend their tendency, but was struck with their power. “This Doctor Luther,” said he, “is a man of fine genius.” The students of the university, and the people generally, were kindled as if by Pentecostal fires. The new invention of printing scattered those theses everywhere, far and near; they reached the humble hamlet as well as the palaces of bishops and princes. They excited immediate and immense enthusiasm: there was freshness in them, originality, and great ideas. We cannot wonder at the enthusiasm which those religious ideas excited nearly four hundred years ago when we reflect that they were not cant words then, not worn-out platitudes, not dead dogmas, but full of life and exciting interest,–even as were the watchwords of Rousseau–“Liberty, Fraternity, Equality”–to Frenchmen, on the outbreak of their political revolution. And as those watchwords–abstractly true–roused the dormant energies of the French to a terrible conflict against feudalism and royalty, so those theses of Luther kindled Germany into a living flame. And why? Because they presented more cheerful and comforting grounds of justification than had been preached for one thousand years,–faith rather than penance; for works hinged on penance. The underlying principle of those propositions was grace,–divine grace to save the world,–the principle of Paul and Saint Augustine; therefore not new, but forgotten; a mighty comfort to miserable people, mocked and cheated and robbed by a venal and a gluttonous clergy. Even Taine admits that this doctrine of grace is the foundation stone of Protestantism as it spread over Europe in the sixteenth century. In those places where Protestantism is dead,–where rationalism or Pelagian speculations have taken its place,–this fact may be denied; but the history of Northern Europe blazes with it,–a fact which no historian of any honesty can deny.

Very likely those who are not in sympathy with this great idea of Luther, Augustine, and Paul may ignore the fact,–even as Caleb Gushing once declared to me, that the Reformation sprang from the desire of Luther to marry Catherine Bora; and that learned and ingenious sophist overwhelmed me with his citations from infidel and ribald Catholic writers like Audin. Greater men than he deny that grace underlies the whole original movement of the reformers, and they talk of the Reformation as a mere revolt from Rome, as a war against papal corruption, as a protest against monkery and the dark ages, brought about by the spirit of a new age, the onward march of humanity, the necessary progress of society. I admit the secondary causes of the Reformation, which are very important,–the awakened spirit of inquiry in the sixteenth century, the revival of poetry and literature and art, the breaking up of feudalism, fortunate discoveries, the introduction of Greek literature, the Renaissance, the disgusts of Christendom, the voice of martyrs calling aloud from their funeral pyres; yea, the friendly hand of princes and scholars deploring the evils of a corrupted Church. But how much had Savonarola, or Erasmus, or John Huss, or the Lollards aroused the enthusiasm of Europe, great and noble as were their angry and indignant protests? The genius of the Reformation in its early stages was a religious movement, not a political or a moral one, although it became both political and moral. Its strength and fervor were in the new ideas of salvation,–the same that gave power to the early preachers of Christianity,–not denunciations of imperialism and slavery, and ten thousand evils which disgraced the empire, but the proclamation of the ideas of Paul as to the grounds of hope when the soul should leave the body; the salvation of the Lord, declared to a world in bondage. Luther kindled the same religious life among the masses that the apostles did; the same that Wyclif did, and by the same means,–the declaration of salvation by belief in the incarnate Son of God, shedding his blood in infinite love. Why, see how this idea spread through Germany, Switzerland, and France and took possession of the minds of the English and Scotch yeomanry, with all their stern and earnest ruggedness. See how it was elaborately expanded by Calvin, how it gave birth to a new and strong theology, how it entered into the very life of the people, especially among the Puritans,–into the souls of even Cromwell’s soldiers. What made “The Pilgrim’s Progress” the most popular book ever published in England? Because it reflected the theology of the age, the religion of the people, all based on Luther’s theses,–the revival of those old doctrines which converted the Roman provinces from Paganism. I do not care if these statements are denied by Catholics, or rationalists, or progressive savants. What is it to me that the old views have become unfashionable, or are derided, or are dead, in the absorbing materialism of this Epicurean yet brilliant age? I know this, that I am true to history when I declare that the glorious Reformation in which we all profess to rejoice, and which is the greatest movement, and the best, of our modern time,–susceptible of indefinite application, interlinked with the literature and the progress of England and America,–took its first great spiritual start from the ideas of Luther as to justification. This was the voice of heaven’s messenger proclaiming aloud, so that the heavens re-echoed to the glorious and triumphant annunciation, and the earth heard and rejoiced with exceeding joy, “Behold, I send tidings of salvation: it is grace, divine grace, which shall undermine the throne of popes and pagans, and reconcile a fallen world to God!”

Yes, it was a Christian philosopher, a theologian,–a doctor of divinity, working out in his cell and study, through terrible internal storm and anguish, and against the whole teaching of monks and bishops and popes and universities, from the time of Charlemagne, the same truth which Augustine learned in his wonderful experiences,–who started the Reformation in the right direction; who became the greatest benefactor of these modern times, because he based his work on everlasting and positive ideas, which had life in them, and hope, and the sanction of divine authority; thus virtually invoking the aid of God Almighty to bring about and restore the true glory of his Church on earth,–a glory forever to be identified with the death of his Son. I see no law of progress here, no natural and necessary development of nations; I see only the light and power of individual genius, brushing away the cobwebs and sophistries and frauds of the Middle Ages, and bringing out to the gaze of Europe the vital truth which, with supernatural aid, made in old times the day of Pentecost. And I think I hear the emancipated people of Saxony exclaim, from the Elector downwards, “If these ideas of Doctor Luther are true, and we feel them to be, then all our penances have been worse than wasted,–we have been Pagans. Away with our miserable efforts to scale the heavens! Let us accept what we cannot buy; let us make our palaces and our cottages alike vocal with the praises of Him whom we now accept as our Deliverer, our King, and our Eternal Lord.”

Thus was born the first great idea of the Reformation, out of Luther’s brain, out of his agonized soul, and sent forth to conquer, and produce changes most marvellous to behold.

It is not my object to discuss the truth or error of this fundamental doctrine. There are many who deny it, even among Protestants. I am not a controversialist, or a theologian: I am simply an historian. I wish to show what is historically true and clear; and I defy all the scholars and critics of the world to prove that this doctrine is not the basal pillar of the Reformation of Luther. I wish to make emphatic the statement that justification by faith was, as an historical fact, the great primal idea of Luther; not new, but new to him and to his age.

I have now to show how this idea led to others; how they became connected together; how they produced not only a spiritual movement, but political, moral, and intellectual forces, until all Europe was in a blaze.

Thus far the agitation under Luther had been chiefly theological. It was not a movement against popes or institutions, it was not even the vehement denunciation against sin in high places, which inflamed the anger of the Pope against Savonarola. To some it doubtless seemed like the old controversy between Augustine and Pelagius, like the contentions between Dominican and Franciscan monks. But it was too important to escape the attention of even Leo X., although at first he gave it no thought. It was a dangerous agitation; it had become popular; there was no telling where it would end, or what it might not assail. It was deemed necessary to stop the mouth of this bold and intellectual Saxon theologian.

So the voluptuous, infidel, elegant Pope–accomplished in manners and pagan arts and literature–sent one of the most learned men of the Church which called him Father, to argue with Doctor Luther, confute him, conquer him,–deeming this an easy task. But the doctor could not be silenced. His convictions were grounded on the rock; not on Peter, but on the rock from which Peter derived his name. All the papal legates and cardinals in the world could neither convince nor frighten him. He courted argument; he challenged the whole Church to refute him.

Then the schools took up the controversy. All that was imposing in names, in authority, in traditions, in associations, was arrayed against him. They came down upon him with the whole array of scholastic learning. The great Goliath of controversy in that day was Doctor Eck, who challenged the Saxon monk to a public disputation at Leipsic. All Germany was interested. The question at issue stirred the nation to its very depths.

The disputants met in the great hall of the palace of the Elector. Never before was seen in Germany such an array of doctors and theologians and dignitaries. It rivalled in importance and dignity the Council of Nice, when the great Constantine presided, to settle the Trinitarian controversy. The combatants were as great as Athanasius and Arius,–as vehement, as earnest, though not so fierce. Doctor Eck was superior to Luther in reputation, in dialectical skill, in scholastic learning. He was the pride of the universities. Luther, however, had deeper convictions, more genius, greater eloquence, and at that time he was modest.

The champion of the schools, of sophistries and authorities, of dead-letter literature, of quibbles, refinements, and words, soon overwhelmed the Saxon monk with his citations, decrees of councils, opinions of eminent ecclesiastics, the literature of the Church, its mighty authority. He was on the eve of triumph. Had the question been settled, as Doctor Eck supposed, by authorities, as lawyers and pedants would settle the question, Luther would have been beaten. But his genius came to his aid, and the consciousness of truth. He swept away the premises of the argument. He denied the supreme authority of popes and councils and universities. He appealed to the Scriptures, as the only ultimate ground of authority. He did not deny authority, but appealed to it in its highest form. This was unexpected ground. The Church was not prepared openly to deny the authority of Saint Paul or Saint Peter; and Luther, if he did not gain his case, was far from being beaten, and–what was of vital importance to his success–he had the Elector and the people with him.

Thus was born the second great idea of the Reformation,–the supreme authority of the Scriptures, to which Protestants of every denomination have since professed to cling. They may differ in the interpretation of texts,–and thus sects and parties gradually arose, who quarrelled about their meaning,–but none of them deny their supreme authority. All the issues of Protestants have been on the meaning of texts, on the interpretation of the Scriptures,–to be settled by learning and reason. It was not until rationalism arose, and rejected plain and obvious declarations of Scripture, as inconsistent with reason, as interpolations, as uninspired, that the authority of the Scriptures was weakened; and these rationalists–and the land of Luther became full of them–have gone infinitely beyond the Catholics in undermining the Bible. The Catholics never have taken such bold ground as the rationalists respecting the Scriptures. The Catholic Church still accepts the Bible, but explains away the meaning of many of its doctrines; the rationalists would sweep away its divine authority, extinguish faith, and leave the world in night. Satan came into the theological school of the Protestants, disguised in the robes of learned doctors searching for truth, and took away the props of religious faith. This was worse than baptizing repentance with the name of penance. Better have irrational fears of hell than no fears at all, for this latter is Paganism. Pagan culture and Pagan philosophy could not keep society together in the old Roman world; but Mediaeval appeals to the fears of men did keep them from crimes and force upon them virtues.

The triumph of Luther at Leipsic was, however, incomplete. The Catholics rallied after their stunning blow. They said, in substance: “We, too, accept the Scriptures; we even put them above Augustine and Thomas Aquinas and the councils. But who can interpret them? Can peasants and women, or even merchants and nobles? The Bible, though inspired, is full of difficulties; there are contradictory texts. It is a sealed book, except to the learned; only the Church can reconcile its difficulties. And what we mean by the Church is the clergy,–the learned clergy, acknowledging allegiance to their spiritual head, who in matters of faith is also infallible. We can accept nothing which is not indorsed by popes and councils. No matter how plain the Scriptures seem to be, on certain disputed points only the authority of the Church can enlighten and instruct us. We distrust reason,–that is, what you call reason,–for reason can twist anything, and pervert it; but what the Church says, is true,–its collective intelligence is our supreme law [thus putting papal dogmas above reason, above the literal and plain declarations of Scripture]. Moreover, since the Scriptures are to be interpreted only by priests, it is not a safe book for the people. We, the priests, will keep it out of their hands. They will get notions from it fatal to our authority; they will become fanatics; they will, in their conceit, defy us.”

Then Luther rose, more powerful, more eloquent, more majestic than before; he rose superior to himself. “What,” said he, “keep the light of life from the people; take away their guide to heaven; keep them in ignorance of what is most precious and most exalting; deprive them of the blessed consolations which sustain the soul in trial and in death; deny the most palpable truths, because your dignitaries put on them a construction to bolster up their power! What an abomination! what treachery to heaven! what peril to the souls of men! Besides, your authorities differ: Augustine takes different ground from Pelagius; Bernard from Abélard; Thomas Aquinas from Dun Scotus. Have not your grand councils given contradictory decisions? Whom shall we believe? Yea, the popes themselves, your infallible guides,–have they not at different times rendered different decisions? What would Gregory I. say to the verdicts of Gregory VII.?

“No, the Scriptures are the legacy of the early Church to universal humanity; they are the equal and treasured inheritance of all nations and tribes and kindreds upon the face of the earth, and will be till the day of judgment. It was intended that they should be diffused, and that every one should read them, and interpret them each for himself; for he has a soul to save, and he dare not intrust such a precious thing as his soul into the keeping of selfish and ambitious priests. Take away the Bible from a peasant, or a woman, or any layman, and cannot the priest, armed with the terrors and the frauds of the Middle Ages, shut up his soul in a gloomy dungeon, as noisome and funereal as your Mediaeval crypts? And will you, ye boasted intellectual guides of the people, extinguish reason in this world in reference to the most momentous interests? What other guide has a man but his reason? And you would prevent this very reason from being enlightened by the Gospel! You would obscure reason itself by your traditions, O ye blind leaders of the blind! O ye legal and technical men, obscuring the light of truth! O ye miserable Pharisees, ye bigots, ye selfish priests, tenacious of your power, your inventions, your traditions,–will ye withhold the free redemption, God’s greatest boon, salvation by the blood of Christ, offered to all the world? Yea, will you suffer the people to perish, soul and body, because you fear that, instructed by God himself, they will rebel against your accursed despotism? Have you considered what a mighty crime you thus commit against God, against man? Ye rule by an infernal appeal to the superstitious fears of men; but how shall ye yourselves, for such crimes, escape the damnation of that hell into which you would push your victims unless they obey you?

“No, I say, let the Scriptures be put into the hands of everybody; let every one interpret them for himself, according to the light he has; let there be private judgment; let spiritual liberty be revived, as in Apostolic days. Then only will the people be emancipated from the Middle Ages, and arise in their power and majesty, and obey the voice of enlightened conscience, and be true to their convictions, and practise the virtues which Christianity commands, and obey God rather than man, and defy all sorts of persecution and martyrdom, having a serene faith in those blessed promises which the Gospel unfolds. Then will the people become great, after the conflicts of generations, and put under their feet the mockeries and lies and despotisms which grind them to despair.”

Thus was born the third great idea of the Reformation, out of Luther’s brain, a logical sequence from the first idea,–the right of private judgment, religious liberty, call it what you will; a great inspiration which in after times was destined to march triumphantly over battlefields, and give dignity and power to the people, and lead to the reception of great truths obscured by priests for one thousand years; the motive of an irresistible popular progress, planting England with Puritans, and Scotland with heroes, and France with martyrs, and North America with colonists; yea, kindling a fervid religious life; creating such men as Knox and Latimer and Taylor and Baxter and Howe, who owed their greatness to the study of the Scriptures,–at last put into every hand, and scattered far and wide, even to India and China. Can anybody doubt the marvellous progress of Protestant nations in consequence of the translation and circulation of the Scriptures? How these are bound up with their national life, and all their social habits, and all their religious aspirations; how they have elevated the people, ten hundred millions of times more than the boasted Renaissance which sprang from apostate and infidel and Pagan Italy, when she dug up the buried statues of Greece and Rome, and revived the literature and arts which soften, but do not save!–for private judgment and religious liberty mean nothing more and nothing less than the unrestricted perusal of the Scriptures as the guide of life.

This right of private judgment, on which Luther was among the first to insist, and of which certainly he was the first great champion in Europe, was in that age a very bold idea, as well as original. It flattered as well as stimulated the intellect of the people, and gave them dignity; it gave to the Reformation its popular character; it appealed to the mind and heart of Christendom. It gave consolation to the peasantry of Europe; for no family was too poor to possess a Bible, the greatest possible boon and treasure,–read and pondered in the evening, after hard labors and bitter insults; read aloud to the family circle, with its inexhaustible store of moral wealth, its beautiful and touching narratives, its glorious poetry, its awful prophecies, its supernal counsels, its consoling and emancipating truths,–so tender and yet so exalting, raising the soul above the grim trials of toil and poverty into the realms of seraphic peace and boundless joy. The Bible even gave hope to heretics. All sects and parties could take shelter under it; all could stand on the broad platform of religion, and survey from it the wonders and glories of God. At last men might even differ on important points of doctrine and worship, and yet be Protestants. Religious liberty became as wide in its application as the unity of the Church. It might create sects, but those sects would be all united as to the value of the Scriptures and their cardinal declarations. On this broad basis John Milton could shake hands with John Knox, and John Locke with Richard Baxter, and Oliver Cromwell with Queen Elizabeth, and Lord Bacon with William Penn, and Bishop Butler with John Wesley, and Jonathan Edwards with Doctor Channing.

Luther Preaching at Wartburg After the painting by Hugo Vogel

Luther Preaching at Wartburg After the painting by Hugo Vogel

This idea of private judgment is what separates the Catholics from the Protestants; not most ostensibly, but most vitally. Many are the Catholics who would accept Luther’s idea of grace, since it is the idea of Saint Augustine; and of the supreme authority of the Scriptures, since they were so highly valued by the Fathers: but few of the Catholic clergy have ever tolerated religious liberty,–that is, the interpretation of the Scriptures by the people,–for it is a vital blow to their supremacy, their hierarchy, and their institutions. They will no more readily accept it than William the Conqueror would have accepted the Magna Charta; for the free circulation and free interpretation of the Scriptures are the charter of human liberties fought for at Leipsic by Gustavus Adolphus, at Ivry by Henry IV. This right of worshipping God according to the dictates of conscience, enlightened by the free reading of the Scriptures, is just what the “invincible armada” was sent by Philip II. to crush; just what Alva, dictated by Rome, sought to crush in Holland; just what Louis XIV., instructed by the Jesuits, did crush out in France, by the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. The Satanic hatred of this right was the cause of most of the martyrdoms and persecutions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It was the declaration of this right which emancipated Europe from the dogmas of the Middle Ages, the thraldom of Rome, and the reign of priests. Why should not Protestants of every shade cherish and defend this sacred right? This is what made Luther the idol and oracle of Germany, the admiration of half Europe, the pride and boast of succeeding ages, the eternal hatred of Rome; not his religious experiences, not his doctrine of justification by faith, but the emancipation he gave to the mind of the world. This is what peculiarly stamps Luther as a man of genius, and of that surprising audacity and boldness which only great geniuses evince when they follow out the logical sequence of their ideas, and penetrate at a blow the hardened steel of vulcanic armor beneath which the adversary boasts.

Great was the first Leo, when from his rifled palace on one of the devastated hills of Rome he looked out upon the Christian world, pillaged, sacked, overrun with barbarians, full of untold calamities,–order and law crushed; literature and art prostrate; justice a byword; murders and assassinations unavenged; central power destroyed; vice, in all its enormities, vulgarities, and obscenities, rampant and multiplying itself; false opinions gaining ground; soldiers turned into banditti, and senators into slaves; women shrieking in terror; bishops praying in despair; barbarism everywhere, paganism in danger of being revived; a world disordered, forlorn, and dismal; Pandemonium let loose, with howling and shouting and screaming, in view of the desolation predicted alike by Jeremy the prophet and the Cumaean sybil;–great was that Leo, when in view of all this he said, with old patrician heroism, “I will revive government once more upon this earth; not by bringing back the Caesars, but by declaring a new theocracy, by making myself the vicegerent of Christ, by virtue of the promise made to Peter, whose successor I am, in order to restore law, punish crime, head off heresy, encourage genius, conserve peace, heal dissensions, protect learning; appealing to love, but ruling by fear. Who but the Church can do this? A theocracy will create a new civilization. Not a diadem, but a tiara will I wear, the symbol of universal sovereignty, before which barbarism shall flee away, and happiness be restored once more.” As he sent out his legates, he fulminated his bulls and established tribunals of appeal; he made a net-work of ecclesiastical machinery, and proclaimed the dangers of eternal fire, and brought kings and princes before him on their knees. The barbaric world was saved.

But greater than Leo was Luther, when–outraged by the corruptions of this spiritual despotism, and all the false and Pagan notions which had crept into theology, obscuring the light of faith and creating an intolerable bondage, and opposing the new spirit of progress which science and art and industry and wealth had invoked–he courageously yet modestly comes forward as the champion of a new civilization, and declares, with trumpet tones, “Let there be private judgment; liberty of conscience; the right to read and interpret Scripture, in spite of priests! so that men may think for themselves, not only on the doctrines of eternal salvation but on all the questions to be deduced from them, or interlinked with the past or present or future institutions of the world. Then shall arise a new creation from dreaded destruction, and emancipated millions shall be filled with an unknown enthusiasm, and advance with the new weapons of reason and truth from conquering to conquer, until all the strongholds of sin and Satan shall be subdued, and laid triumphantly at the foot of His throne whose right it is to reign.”

Thus far Luther has appeared as a theologian, a philosopher, a man of ideas, a man of study and reflection, whom the Catholic Church distrusts and fears, as she always has distrusted genius and manly independence; but he is henceforth to appear as a reformer, a warrior, to carry out his idea, and also to defend himself against the wrath he has provoked; impelled step by step to still bolder aggressions, until he attacks those venerable institutions which he once respected,–all the frauds and inventions of Mediaeval despotism, all the machinery by which Europe had been governed for one thousand years; yea, the very throne of the Pope himself, whom he defies, whom he insults, and against whom he urges Christendom to rebel. As a combatant, a warrior, a reformer, his person and character somewhat change. He is coarser, he is more sensual-looking, he drinks more beer, he tells more stories, he uses harder names; he becomes arrogant, dogmatic; he dictates and commands; he quarrels with his friends; he is imperious; he fears nobody, and is scornful of old usages; he marries a nun; he feels that he is a great leader and general, and wields new powers; he is an executive and administrative man, for which his courage and insight and will and Herculean physical strength wonderfully fit him,–the man for the times, the man to head a new movement, the forces of an age of protest and rebellion and conquest.

How can I compress into a few sentences the demolitions and destructions which this indignant and irritated reformer now makes in Germany, where he is protected by the Elector from Papal vengeance? Before the reconstruction, the old rubbish must be cleared away, and Augean stables must be cleansed. He is now at issue with the whole Catholic régime, and the whole Catholic world abuse him. They call him a glutton, a wine-bibber, an adulterer, a scoffer, an atheist, an imp of Satan; and he calls the Pope the scarlet mother of abominations, Antichrist, Babylon. That age is prodigal in offensive epithets; kings and prelates and doctors alike use hard words. They are like angry children and women and pugilists; their vocabulary of abuse is amusing and inexhaustible. See how prodigal Shakspeare and Ben Jonson are in the language of vituperation. But they were all defiant and fierce, for the age was rough and earnest. The Pope, in wrath, hurls the old weapons of the Gregorys and the Clements. But they are impotent as the darts of Priam; Luther laughs at them, and burns the Papal bull before a huge concourse of excited students and shopkeepers and enthusiastic women. He severs himself completely from Rome, and declares an unextinguishable warfare. He destroys and breaks up the ceremonies of the Mass; he pulls down the consecrated altars, with their candles and smoking incense and vessels of silver and gold, since they are the emblems of Jewish and Pagan worship; he tears off the vestments of priests, with their embroideries and their gildings and their millineries and their laces, since these are made to impose on the imagination and appeal to the sense; he breaks up monasteries and convents, since they are dens of infamy, cages of unclean birds, nurseries of idleness and pleasure, abodes at the best of narrow-minded, ascetic Asiatic recluses, who rejoice in penance and self-expiation and other modes of propitiating the Deity, like soofists and fakirs and Braminical devotees. In defiance of the most sacred of the institutions of the Middle Ages, he openly marries Catherine Bora and sets up a hilarious household, and yet a household of prayer and singing. He abolishes the old Gregorian service; and for Mediaeval chants, monotonous and gloomy, he prepares hymns and songs,–not for boys and priests to intone in the distant choir, but for the whole congregation to sing, inspired by the melodies of David and the exulting praises of a Saviour who redeems from darkness into light. How grand that hymn of his,–

“A mighty fortress is our God,
A bulwark never failing.”

He makes worship more heartfelt, and revives apostolic usages: preaching and exhortation and instruction from the pulpit,–a forgotten power. He appeals to reason rather than sense; denounces superstitions, while he rebukes sins; and kindles a profound fervor, based on the recognition of new truths. He is not fully emancipated from the traditions of the past; for he retains the doctrine of transubstantiation, and keeps up the holidays of the Church, and allows recreation on the Sabbath. But what he thinks the most of is the circulation of the Scriptures among plain people. So he translates them into German,–a gigantic task; and this work, almost single-handed, is done so well that it becomes the standard of the German language, as the Bible of Tindale helped to form the English tongue; and not only so, but it has remained the common version in use throughout Germany, even as the authorized King James version, made nearly a century later by the labor of many scholars and divines, has remained the standard English Bible. Moreover, he finds time to make liturgies and creeds and hymns, and to write letters to all parts of Christendom,–a Jerome, a Chrysostom, and an Augustine united; a kind of Protestant pope, to whom everybody looks for advice and consolation. What a wonderful man! No wonder the Germans are so fond of him and so proud of him,–a Briareus with a hundred arms; a marvel, a wonder, a prodigy of nature; the most gifted, versatile, hard-working man of his century or nation!

At last, this great theologian, this daring innovator, is summoned by imperial, not papal, authority before the Diet of the empire at Worms, where the Emperor, the great Charles V., presides, amid bishops, princes, cardinals, legates, generals, and dignitaries. Thither Luther must go,–yet under imperial safe conduct,–and consummate his protests, and perhaps offer up his life. Painters, poets, historians, have made that scene familiar,–the most memorable in the life of Luther, as well as one of the grandest spectacles of the age. I need not dwell on that exciting scene, where, in the presence of all that was illustrious and powerful in Germany, this defenceless doctor dares to say to supremest temporal and spiritual authority, “Unless you confute me by arguments drawn from Scripture, I cannot and will not recant anything … Here I stand; I cannot otherwise: God help me! Amen.” How superior to Galileo and other scientific martyrs! He is not afraid of those who can kill only the body; he is afraid only of Him who hath power to cast both soul and body into hell. So he stands as firm as the eternal pillars of justice, and his cause is gained. What if he did not live long enough’ to accomplish all he designed! What if he made mistakes, and showed in his career many of the infirmities of human nature! What if he cared very little for pictures and statues,–the revived arts of Greece and Rome, the Pagan Renaissance in which he only sees infidelity, levities, and luxuries, and other abominations which excited his disgust and abhorrence when he visited Italy! He seeks, not to amuse and adorn the Papal empire, but to reform it; as Paul before him sought to plant new sentiments and ideas in the Roman world, indifferent to the arts of Greece, and even the beauties of nature, in his absorbing desire to convert men to Christ. And who, since Paul, has rendered greater service to humanity than Luther? The whole race should be proud that such a man has lived.

We will not follow the great reformer to the decline of his years; we will not dwell on his subsequent struggles and dangers, his marvellous preservation, his personal habits, his friendships and his hatreds, his joys and sorrows, his bitter alienations, his vexations, his disappointments, his gloomy anticipations of approaching strife, his sickened yet exultant soul, his last days of honor and of victory, his final illness, and his triumphant death in the town where he was born. It is his legacy that we are concerned in, the inheritance he left to succeeding generations,–the perpetuated ideas of the Reformation, which he worked out in anguish and in study, and which we will not let die, but will cherish in our memories and our hearts, as among the most precious of the heirlooms of genius, susceptible of boundless application. And it is destined to grow brighter and richer, in spite of counter-reformation and Jesuitism, of Pagan levities and Pagan lies, of boastful science and Epicurean pleasures, of material glories, of dissensions and sects and parties, as the might and majesty of ages coursing round the world regenerates institutions and nations, and proclaims the sovereignty of intelligence, the glory and the power of God.


Ranke’s Reformation in Germany; D’Aubigné’s History of the Reformation; Luther’s Letters; Mosheim’s History of the Church; Melancthon’s Life of Luther: Erasmi Epistolae; Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Thomas Cranmer : The English Reformation

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VI : Renaissance and Reformation