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Egalitarian millenarianism, Reformation and Reaction in Europe, 1452-1535: Part Four   Leave a comment

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Part Four – Wittenbergers and Allstedters, 1521-25:

While Martin Luther was hidden away from his enemies in the Wartburg Castle in the second half of 1521, the reformation at Wittenberg moved with disconcerting velocity, and he was kept abreast of these events in so far as tardy communications and the conditions of his concealment permitted. His opinion was continually sought, and his advice directed the developments, even though he was not in a position to take the initiative. Leadership fell to Philip Melanchthon, Professor of Greek; to Carlstadt, Professor and Archdeacon at the Castle Church; and to Gabriel Zwilling, a monk of Luther’s own order, the Augustinians. Under their leadership, the reformation for the first time assumed a form distinctly recognisable to the common man.

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Nothing which Luther had done to date had made any difference to the lives of ordinary folk, except for the initial attack on indulgences, but even that had not as yet proved especially effective. Luther was not able to say while at the Wartburg that indulgences had been discontinued in his own parish of Wittenberg. But during his absence in 1521 and 1522 one innovation had rapidly followed another. Priests and monks married; monks and nuns even married each other. The tonsured allowed their hair to grow. The wine in the mass was given to the laity, and they were suffered to take the elements into their own hands. Priests celebrated the sacrament without vestments, in plain clothes. Portions of the liturgy were recited in German and masses for the dead were discontinued. Vigils ceased, vespers were altered, images were smashed. Meat was eaten on fast days and endowments were withdrawn by patrons. The enrollment in the university declined because students were no longer supported by ecclesiastical stipends. The common people began to realise that their daily religious life was changing and that the Reformation meant something to them.

When three priests married in 1521 and were arrested by Albert of Mainz, Luther sent him a protest. Albert consulted the University of Wittenberg and Carlstadt answered with a work on celibacy, in which he went so far as to assert not only that a priest might marry but that he must, and should also be the father of a family. For obligatory celibacy, he would substitute obligatory matrimony and paternity. Under the fiery preaching of Gabriel Zwilling, the Augustinian monks began to leave the cloister. On 30 November, fifteen withdrew. The prior reported to the Elector:

It is being preached that no monk can be saved in a cowl, that cloisters are in the grip of the Devil, that monks should be expelled and cloisters demolished. Whether such teaching is grounded in the gospel I greatly doubt.

The Augustinians at Wittenberg held a meeting in January 1522 at which they decided, instead of disciplining the ‘apostate’ monks, that thereafter any member of the order should be free to stay or to leave as he might please. Next came the reform of the liturgy, which touched the common man more intimately because it altered his daily devotions. Here, Luther had already laid the groundwork for the most significant changes. His principle was that the mass was not a sacrifice but a thanksgiving to God and a communion of believers.

With a beard sufficient to deceive his own mother, the exile from the Wartburg appeared on the streets of Wittenberg on the fourth of December, 1521. He was immensely pleased with all that his colleagues had lately introduced by way of reform, but also irate because his recent tracts, which he had sent to Spalatin in manuscript, had not yet been published. These were On Monastic Vows, On the Abolition of Private Masses, and A Blast against the Archbishop of Mainz. At this moment, Luther was distinctly in favour of speeding up the reformation. But not by violence.

… Antichrist, as Daniel said, is to be broken without the hand of man. Violence will only make him stronger. Preach, pray, but do not fight. Not that all constraint is ruled out, but it must be exercised by the constituted authorities.

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The problem was, however, that the constituted authority was inhibitive of the reformation. Elector Frederick issued an order on 19 December in which he stated that while discussion might continue, there could be no changes to the mass until unanimity was reached. But Carlstadt chose to defy the Elector by inviting the populace to receive communion in both kinds at the New Year’s mass. When the Elector interposed, Carlstadt then offered the same communion for Christmas, issuing the public invitation only on the previous night. The populace was stirred up and Christmas Eve was celebrated by rioting. On Christmas Day, Carlstadt celebrated mass, passing from Latin to German in the liturgy. For the first time in their lives, the assembled people heard the words in their own tongue, This is the cup of my blood of the new and eternal testament, spirit and secret of the faith, shed for you to the remission of sins. 

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Under Carlstadt’s leading, the town council of Wittenberg issued the first city ordinance of the reformation. Mass was to be conducted as he had done it. Luther’s ideas on social reform were implemented. Begging was forbidden. Those genuinely poor should be maintained from a common fund. Prostitutes were to be banned. Then came quite a new point: images should be removed from the churches. During the preceding weeks, Zwilling had led an iconoclastic riot, overturning altars and smashing images and pictures of the saints. The author of this idea was Carlstadt himself, who took his stand squarely on the Scriptures of the old testament, especially the commandment not to make graven images, which reinforced his own experience of being distracted from spiritual worship by such images, especially those of Christ on the cross, which reminded the worshipper of the physical pain of his Saviour, rather than of the spiritual tribulations suffered. Coupled with the attack on art in worship went a redressing of the importance of music. Carlstadt called on his congregation to “relegate organs, trumpets and flutes to the theatre.”

While Wittenberg was convulsed by iconoclasm, three laymen arrived from Zwickau, claiming to be prophets and to have had intimate conversations with the Lord. Like Müntzer, they claimed that they had no need of the Bible, but relied on the Spirit. If the Bible were important, God would have dropped it directly from heaven, they said. They repudiated infant baptism and proclaimed the speedy erection of the kingdom of the godly through the slaughter of the ungodly, whether at the hands of the Turks or the godly themselves. Melanchthon was amazed by their audacity, reporting to the Elector:

I can scarcely tell you how deeply I am moved. But who shall judge them, other than Martin, I do not know. Since the gospel is at stake, arrangements should be made for them to meet with him. They wish it. I would not have written to if the matter were not so important. We must beware lest we resist the Spirit of God, and also lest we be possessed by the devil.

In his letters from the Wartburg, Luther rejected the idea of a disputation with ‘the prophets’ on religious grounds, because they talked to glibly:

Those who are expert in spiritual things have gone through the valley of the shadow. When these men talk of sweetness and of being transported to the third heaven, do not believe them. Divine Majesty does not speak directly to men. God is a consuming fire, and the dreams and visions of the saints are terrible… Prove the spirits; and if you are not able to do so, then take the advice of Gamaliel, and wait.

I am sure that we can restrain these firebrands without the sword. I hope the Prince will not imbrue his hands in their blood. I see no reason why on their account I should come home.

Frederick the Wise was harassed by one eruption after another. Next came an establishment reaction to the events at Wittenberg, news of which had reached Duke George over the border, in the area of Saxony controlled by the rival house to that of Prince Frederick. The Bishop of Meissen requested of Frederick permission to conduct a visitation throughout his domains, and Frederick consented, although making no promises to discipline offenders. Then, on 13 February Frederick issued instructions of his own to the university and to the chapter at the Castle Church:

We have  gone too fast. The common man has been incited  to frivolity, and no-one has been edified. We should have consideration for the weak. Images should be left until further notice. The question of begging should be canvassed. No essential portion of the mass should be omitted. Moot points should be discussed. Carlstadt should not preach any more.

Carlstadt submitted and agreed not to preach and Zwilling left Wittenberg. But the town council resolved to defy the elector by inviting Luther to come home. He had reached the turning point in his career. Less than a year before he had been the leader of the opposition, now he was called home to become the head of the government, albeit in a restricted area. Nevertheless, the change was vast between the role of railing against the execrable bull of Antichrist and that of providing a new pattern for Church, State and Society, a new constitution for the Church, a new liturgy, and a new Scripture in the vernacular.

Luther would never shirk a mundane task such as exhorting the elector to repair the city wall to keep the peasants’ pigs from rooting in the villagers’ gardens, but he was never supremely concerned about pigs, gardens, walls, cities, princes nor any of the blessings and nuisances of this mortal life. The ultimate problem was always man’s relationship with God. For this reason, political and social forms were to him a matter of comparative indifference. Whatever would foster the understanding, dissemination, and practice of God’s Word should be encouraged, and whatever impeded must be opposed. This is why it is futile to inquire as to whether Luther was a Democrat, aristocrat, autocrat, or anything else. Religion was for him the chief end of man, and all else peripheral.

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The question of why faith is so hard and reason so inadequate was for Luther a problem far deeper than logic. Luther often railed at reason, and he has been portrayed in consequence as a complete irrationalist in religion. But this is to mistake his meaning. He employed reason in the sense of logic to its uttermost limits. At Worms and often elsewhere he asked to be instructed by Scripture and reason. In the sense reason meant logical deduction from known premises; and when Luther railed against the harlot reason, he meant something else. Common sense is perhaps a better translation. He had in mind the way in which man ordinarily behaves, feels, and thinks. It is not what God says that is a foreign tongue, but what God does that is utterly incomprehensible.

Luther’s contemporary critics arise to inquire why, if a man, in the end, has no standing with God he should make the effort to be good. Luther’s answer is that morality must be grounded somewhere else than in self-help and the quest for a reward. The paradox is that God must destroy in us all illusions of righteousness before he can make us righteous. First, we must relinquish all claims to goodness. Then there is some hope for us. We are sinners and at the same time righteous, which is to say that however bad we are, there is a power at work in us which can and will make something out of us.

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In economics, Luther was opposed to the mechanisms of capitalism and wrongly assumed that the rise in prices was due to the rapacity of the capitalists. At the same time, he himself contributed unwittingly to the developments which he deplored. The abolition of monasticism and the expropriation of ecclesiastical lands and goods, the branding of poverty as a sin or at least a lack of beneficial providence, and the exaltation of work as the imitation of God helped to stimulate the spirit of economic enterprise.

In politics, Luther came to construct a theory of government which relied heavily, as in his theology, on Paul and Augustine. He was perfectly clear that coercion could never be eliminated from the political system because society as a whole can never be made fully Christian:

The world and the masses are and always will be unchristian, although they are baptised and nominally Christian. Hence a man who would venture to govern an entire community or the world with the gospel would be like a shepherd who would place in one fold wolves, lions, eagles and sheep. The sheep would keep the peace, but they would not last long. The world cannot be ruled with a rosary.

A Christian can serve as a magistrate, but a magistrate need not be a Christian for God to make use of him as his instrument. And in any case, Christianity is not necessary for sound political administration because politics belongs to the sphere of nature. Reason in its own sphere is enough to tell a man how to build houses and govern states. It was even reported, he noted, that there is no better government on earth than under the Turks, who have neither civil nor canon law, but only the Koran. The natural man can be trusted to recognise and administer justice provided he operates within the framework of the law and government and does not seek to vindicate himself.

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The most important distinction for Luther’s political thought, therefore, was between the lower and higher capacities of man, corresponding to nature and reason on the one hand and to grace and revelation on the other. The natural man, when not involved for himself, has enough integrity and insight to administer the state in accordance with justice, equity, and even magnanimity. These are civil virtues. But the Church inculcates humility, patience, long-suffering, and charity – the Christian virtues – attainable only by those endowed with grace, and consequently not to be expected from the masses. That is why society cannot be ruled by the gospel, and why theocracy is out of the question. Then again there are different levels involved. The God of the state is the God of the Magnificat, who exalts the lowly and abases the proud. The God of the Church is the God of Gethsemane, who suffered at the hands of men without retaliation or reviling and refused the use of the sword on his behalf.

By the beginning of 1525 the mass was at an end in Wittenberg. We cannot say that it had been suppressed by force, but there was certainly an element of coercion. Nevertheless, its demise was not inordinately hurried, since it had continued for two and a half years after Luther’s return from the Wartburg. Such changes had aroused in the papists intense antagonism, and they now had a new ‘champion’ in Pope Hadrian, who addressed Frederick the Wise with a veritable manifesto for the Counter-Reformation. But Luther’s fate, and that of his Reformation, no longer rested with the pope, the emperor, or the Elector Frederick alone, but with the German Diet meeting at Nürnberg in the spring of 1524. As at Worms, the Diet was divided. The Catholic party was rallied by the papal legate, who freely conceded past abuses but blamed them all on the deceased Leo X and called for obedience to his noble successor. In the absence of the emperor, its leadership among the laity fell to his brother Ferdinand of Austria who in his week of attendance tried to enforce the Edict of Worms on his own authority, a move quickly repulsed by the diet.

The Erasmians, the Humanists who had constituted the middle party at Worms, might have reacted in a more conciliatory manner than the main Catholic protagonists had not the pressures been so intense as to leave no room for neutrality. Reluctantly, the ‘mediators’ were driven into one camp or the other and went in both directions. The deepest offence felt by Luther lay in the stance taken by their leader, Erasmus of Rotterdam himself. He still felt that Luther had done much good and that he was no heretic. He had openly declared this in a colloquy earlier in the year. But he deplored the disintegration of Christendom which had shattered his dream of European concord following the outbreak of war between France and the empire three years earlier, at the end of the Diet of Worms. In the end, under pressure from his old friend, Pope Hadrian, he expressed the point on which he differed from Luther, the doctrine of man. He had already brought out a tract on this, entitled On the Freedom of the WillLuther thanked him for centring the discussion on this point:

You alone have gone to the heart of the problem instead of debating the papacy, indulgences, purgatory, and similar trifles. You alone have gone to the core, and I thank you for it.

Luther’s fundamental break with the Catholic Church was over the nature and destiny of man, and much more over destiny than nature. That was why he and Erasmus did not come to outright conflict. Erasmus was primarily interested in morals, whereas Luther’s question was whether doing right, even if it is possible, can affect man’s fate. Erasmus succeeded in diverting Luther from the course by asking whether the ethical precepts of the Gospels have any point if they cannot be fulfilled. Luther countered that man is like a donkey ridden now by God and now by the Devil, a statement which certainly seems to imply that man has no freedom whatever to decide for good or ill. Natural reason, however much it is offended, must admit the consequences of the omniscience and omnipotence of God, he argued. Erasmus perceived that the conflict lay between the power and goodness of God. He would rather limit the power than forfeit the goodness.

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Those who had broken with Rome were not themselves united. Partly through defections from Lutheranism and partly through the independent rise of variant forms of evangelicalism the pattern of diversity was displayed. Luther had already begun to perceive that he was closer to Rome than to the radicals: I take the middle road, he wrote, finding himself now in the position formerly occupied by the Erasmians at Worms. When they were driven to the wall, the Lutherans emerged as the middle group between the papists and the sectaries. In many respects, they were the heirs to Erasmus, who saw the great abuse of Catholicism, not as did Luther in the exaltation of man but in the externalisation of religion. The inner life of man had already been set in opposition to the literature of the Scriptures by the Zwickau prophets and Thomas Müntzer.

The experience of the spirit was made the necessary qualification for Church membership. Infant baptism was consequently rejected, if not indeed all baptism, on the ground that outward water “profiteth nothing”. The Church of the spirit is of necessity a sect which may seek to preserve its integrity by segregation from society or may attempt to dominate the world through the reign of the saints. Here is the concept of all the Protestant theocracies. Within the religious community, leadership falls to the Spirit-filled, be they clerical or lay, and the outcome may well be the abolition of a professional ministry.

Another Erasmian idea was the restitution of primitive Christianity, a restoration of the religion of the spirit. The whole pattern of these ideas was alien to Luther, who found it impossible to separate the spirit from the flesh because man is a whole. For him, art, music and the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist are appropriate expressions of religion. The attempt to build a church on a selective basis did intrigue him, and his fury against the sectaries was in large measure intensified by the conflict within himself. But the notion of a Protestant theocracy was to him as abhorrent as the papal monarchy. The real question for the Lutherans in Wittenberg was whether the physical forms of worship were an aid or an impediment to faith. In the end, Carlstadt’s Biblicism restrained him from rejecting the Lord’s Supper entirely, as a means of grace. He retained the rite because of Christ’s own commandment: This do in remembrance of me.

Similarly, he rejected infant baptism as having no scriptural basis. The Zwickau prophets had done this before him, and the Anabaptists were to make this the cardinal tenet of their sect. The essential point was the necessity of an adult experience of religious conviction. Luther had also proclaimed the priesthood of all believers and though Carlstadt would not go as far as rejecting the need for a professional ministry altogether, but he wished as a minister not to be set apart from his fellows by their use of Herr Doktor or Herr Pfarrer, but to be addressed simply as good neighbour or Brother Andreas. He gave up any distinctive garb and wore only a play grey coat, declining the financial support of his congregation and undertaking instead to earn his living at the plough. While he cared nothing for the whole hierarchy of academic degrees, he cared mightily for a trained ministry and perceived that if Carlstadt’s plan prevailed the outcome would be not that the peasant would know as much as the preacher, but the preacher would know no more than the peasant. He made fun of Carlstadt for reeling off Hebrew quotations in a peasant’s smock.

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Thomas Müntzer gave a much more turn than Carlstadt to the separation of spirit and flesh by rejecting not only infant baptism, but all baptism, and by applying this dualism to the spirit versus the letter of Scripture. Those who rely on the letter, he said, are the scribes against whom Christ railed. Scripture as a mere book is but paper and ink. “Bible, Babel, bubble!” he cried. As a written record, it did not reassure him because he observed that it is convincing only to the convinced. He pointed out that the Turks were well-acquainted with the Bible, but remained completely alienated from the Christian religion. In 1523 Müntzer had succeeded in having himself elected as the minister in the Saxon town of Allstedt. The only overt act, however, was the burning of a chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary in March 1524. This prompted Luther to address the princes of Saxony:

These Allstedters revile the Bible and rave about the spirit, but where do they show the fruits of the spirit, love, joy, peace, and patience? Do not interfere with them so long as they confine themselves to the office of the Word. Let the spirits fight it out, but when the sword is drawn you must step in, be it they or we who take it. You must banish the offender from the land. Our office is simply preaching and suffering. Christ and the apostles did not smash images and churches, but won hearts with God’s Word. The Old Testament slaughter of the ungodly is not to be imitated. If these Allstedters want to wipe out the ungodly, they will have to bathe in blood. But you are ordained of God to keep the peace, and you must not sleep.

The young prince John Frederick, nephew and heir apparent to Frederick the Wise, was already being associated with his uncle and his father in the administration of Saxony. He wrote to a subordinate in August 1524, linking together Carlstadt and Müntzer:

I am having a terrible time with the Satan of Allstedt. Kindliness and letters do not suffice. The sword which is ordained of God to punish the evil must be used with energy. Carlstadt also is stirring up something, and the Devil wants to be Lord.

For Carlstadt, the association was both unjust and unfortunate. He had already written to Müntzer that he would have nothing with his covenant, nor with bloodshed. But the iconoclastic riots in Orlamünde and Allstedt appeared to be of one stripe. Carlstadt was summoned to Jena for an interview with Luther and convinced him of the injustice of the charge of rebellion. When, however, Luther visited Orlamünde and witnessed the revolutionary temper of the congregation, he came to question the sincerity of the disclaimer and acquiesced in the banishment of Carlstadt, who was compelled to quit Saxony, leaving behind his pregnant wife and daughter, to join him later. In departing, he used the same words Luther had used after Worms, that he was leaving “unheard and unconvinced,” and that he had been expelled by his former colleague who was twice a papist and a cousin of the Antichrist.

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In July 1524, Müntzer was summoned to preach at Weimar in the presence of Frederick the Wise and his brother Duke John, who had abandoned the Catholic faith to become a follower of Luther. Müntzer had the temerity to seek to enlist them among his followers. He took as his text Daniel’s interpretation of the dream of Nebuchadnezzar and began by saying that the Church was an undefiled virgin until corrupted by the scribes who murder the Spirit and assert that God no longer reveals himself as of old. He further declared:

But God does disclose himself in the inner word in the abyss of the soul. The man who has not received the living witness of God knows really nothing about God, though he may have swallowed a hundred thousand Bibles. God comes in dreams to his beloved as he did to the patriarchs, prophets and apostles. He comes especially in affliction. That is why Brother Easychair rejects him. God pours out his Spirit upon all flesh, and now the Spirit reveals to the elect a mighty and irresistible reformation for us. This is the fulfillment of the prediction of Daniel about the fifth monarchy. You princes of Saxony, you need a new Daniel to disclose unto you this revelation and to show your rule. Think not that the power of God will be realized if your swords rust in the scabbard. Christ said that he came not to bring peace but a sword, and Deuteronomy says “You are a holy people. Spare not the idolators, break down their altars, smash their images and burn them in the fire.” The sword is given to you to wipe out the ungodly. If you decline, it will be taken from you. Those who resist should be slaughtered without mercy as Elijah smote the priests of Baal. Priests and monks who mock the gospel should be killed. The godless have no right to live. May you like Nebuchadnezzar appoint a Daniel to inform you of the leadings of the spirit. 

Müntzer admitted that the princes could not carry out these tasks effectively unless they were informed of God’s purposes. That they could not attain for themselves since they were still too far from God. Therefore, he concluded, they must have at their court a priest who has fitted himself to interpret their dreams and visions, just as Daniel did at the court of Nebuchadnezzar. The Biblical allusions which accompany this recommendation show clearly enough that he saw himself as the inspired prophet who was to replace Luther in the favour of the princes, as Daniel replaced the illuminated scribes. In this way, he reckoned to acquire such influence over the rulers of the land that he would be able to direct them in making the necessary preparations for the Millennium.

On returning to Allstedt, however, he did not wait for the Saxon princes’ reaction to his preaching, but escaped by night over the town walls and fled from Saxony. The régime of Carlstadt would have been authoritarian and that of Müntzer’s saints intolerant of the godless. Yet it could not be denied that both agitators had been expelled by the sword of the magistrate, who was now in danger of creating martyrs out of the radicals. This became more likely because of the rise of rival forms of evangelicalism, namely Zwinglianism and Anabaptism. Adding to this maelstrom was the confluence of religious ferment with the vast social unrest of the Peasants’ War in which Müntzer played a leading role. Despite this, he does not seem to have shown as much interest in improving the material lot of the peasants among whom he lived, or in the nature of future society as in the mass extermination which was supposed to usher it in.

Yet Müntzer might still have imagined his Millennium as egalitarian, even as communistic. He knew the young Humanist, Ulrich Hugwald, who had written a work prophesying that mankind would return to Christ, to Nature, to Paradise, which he defined as a state without war or want or luxury and in which every person would share all things with their brethren. Moreover, on the grounds that a peasant’s life was nearest to that which God had appointed for Adam and Eve, Hugwald ended by turning himself into a peasant. So did the Humanist, Karlstadt, a close associate and even a disciple of Müntzer.  According to Histori Thomá Muntzers, written while Muntzer’s story was very fresh in people’s minds, Müntzer taught that there should be neither kings nor lords and also, on the strength of a misunderstanding in Acts iv, that all things should be held in common.

In a pamphlet which he now produced, The explicit unmaking of the false belief of the faithless world, Müntzer made it plain that the princes were now unfit to play any part at all in bringing about the Millennium,…

for they have spent their lives in bestial eating and drinking, from their youth onwards they have been brought up most delicately, in all their life they have never had a bad day and they neither wish nor intend to accept one.

 Indeed it is the princes and the lords and all the rich and powerful who, by stubbornly maintaining the existing social order, prevent not only themselves but also others from attaining the true faith:

The powerful,self-willed unbelievers must be put down from their seats because hinder the holy, genuine Christian faith in themselves and in the whole world, when it is trying to emerge in all its true, original force… the great do everything in their power to keep the common people from perceiving the truth.

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Bound together by common interest in financial profit, they so harass the poor with their usury and taxes that the poor have no time left in which to study and follow the Law of God. Yet, Müntzer argued, all this is no reason for despair; on the contrary, the very excesses of the tyranny which now oppresses the world are a sure sign that the great consummation is indeed at hand. It is precisely because God is sending his light his light into the world that…

… certain (lords) are only now really beginning to hamper and harass, to shear and shave, to threaten all Christendom and shamefully and most cruelly torture and kill their own folk and strangers too.

It was now the Poor who were the potential Elect, charged with the mission of inaugurating the egalitarian Millennium. They would emerge as the one true Church, but even they were not yet fit to enter their appointed glory. First, they too must be broken of their worldly desires, so that they could with sighs and prayers recognise their abject condition and at the same time their need for a new, God-sent leader. Just as he had previously offered his services to the princes as a new Daniel, so he now proposed himself as this leader of the people.

He then issued a more virulent pamphlet, this time against Luther, whom he had come to regard as his arch-enemy. Just as much as Müntzer, Luther performed all his deeds in the conviction that the Last Days were at hand. But in his view, the sole enemy was the Papacy, in which he saw the Antichrist, the false prophet; it was by the dissemination of the true Gospel that the Papacy would be overcome. The Kingdom which replaced it would not be of this world. An armed revolt would, therefore, be irrelevant and pernicious, because it would shatter the social order which allowed the world to be disseminated, and would discredit the Reformation which, to Luther, was the most important event in the world. On the other hand, Müntzer for his part saw in Luther an eschatological figure, the Beast of the Apocalypse or the Whore of Babylon. In attacking Luther in The most amply called-for defence Müntzer formulates most coherently his doctrine of social revolution. He maintains that in the hands of ‘the great’ the Law of God becomes simply a device for protecting property, which they themselves have appropriated. In a bitter attack upon Luther he exclaims:

The wretched flatterer is silent… about the origin of all theft… Look, the seed-grounds of usury and theft and robbery are our lords and princes, they take all creatures as their property: the fish in the water, the birds in the air, the plants on the ground, have all got to be theirs… They publish God’s commandments amongst the poor and say “God has commanded, thou shalt not steal.” … They oppress all people, and shear and shave the poor ploughman and everything that lives, yet if (the ploughman) commits the slightest offence, he must hang.

Luther’s greatest crime is that he justifies these injustices:

You wily fox… by your lies you have made sad the heart of the righteous man, whom God has not saddened, and thereby you have strengthened the power of the ungodly scoundrels, so that they shall continue in their old ways. Therefore things will go with you as with a fox when it is caught. The people will become free and God alone means to be Lord over them.

Ironically enough, the princes whom Müntzer had chiefly in mind, the Elector Frederick and Duke John, were alone among the German princes in being extremely tolerant, having been profoundly disoriented by the vast upheaval in their territories which the Wittenbergers had inaugurated. In dealing with the revolutionaries of Allstedt both brothers showed equal uncertainty. It was more as a gesture of defiance that Müntzer, a week after his hearing at Weimar, broke his parole and climbed over the wall to make his way to the free imperial city of Mülhausen. The large Thuringian town had been in a state of turbulence for over a year and was half-full of paupers, who in times of crisis always showed themselves ready for radical social experiments. Here he found a small but enthusiastic following. Yet when a revolt broke out it was quickly suppressed and Müntzer, once more expelled, resumed his wanderings towards Nürnberg. There he published two revolutionary tracts, which were confiscated by the Town Council and he was forced to leave again. He was then recalled to Mülhausen, where a former monk, Heinrich Pfeiffer, led the poorer burghers in a successful revolution against the Town Council in March 1525. But the event which enabled Müntzer to show himself as a revolutionary in action was the outbreak of the Peasants’ War.

Nothing did so much as the Peasants’ War to make Luther recoil against a too drastic departure from the pattern of the Middle Ages. The Peasants’ War did not arise out of any immediate connection with the religious issues of the sixteenth century because agrarian unrest had been brewing for fully a century. Uprisings had occurred all over Europe, including one in Hungary in 1514 which was put down in a particularly savage manner (see the woodcut below). In southern Germany, the peasants suffered from changes which ultimately should have ministered to their security and prosperity. Feudal anarchy was being superseded through the consolidation of power in nation-states in Early Modern Europe. Spain, England and France were good examples of this, but in Germany, this had happened only on a territorial basis; and in each political unit, the princes were endeavouring to integrate the administration with the help of a bureaucracy of salaried court officials. The expenses were met by increased levies on the land. In time-honoured tradition, the peasants, of course, had to ‘foot’ the bill.

(to be continued…)

 

Appendix: The Punishment of Peasant Rebels in Hungary, 1514…

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Egalitarian millenarianism, Reformation and Reaction in Europe, 1452-1535: Part Three   Leave a comment

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Part Three – From Zwickau to Worms: Martin Luther and Thomas Müntzer:

Thomas Müntzer was born into modest comfort in Thuringia in 1488 or 1489. When he first came clearly into public view, in his early thirties, Müntzer appears neither as a victim nor as an enemy of social injustice but rather as an ‘eternal student’, extraordinary learned and intensely intellectual. After graduating from university he became a priest and led a restless, wandering life, always choosing places where he could hope to further his studies. Profoundly versed in the Scriptures, he learned Greek and Hebrew, read patristic and scholastic theology and philosophy, also immersing himself in the writings of the German mystics. Yet he was never a pure scholar; his voracious reading was carried on in a desperate attempt to solve a personal problem. For Müntzer was at that time a troubled soul, full of doubts about the truth of Christianity and even about the existence of God but obstinately struggling after certainty, in fact in that labile condition which so often ends in a conversion.

Müntzer came from Zwickau and revived some of the ideas of the earlier ‘prophets’ from that town, but with much greater allure because of his learning, ability and intense enthusiasm. Müntzer held, with the Catholic Church, that the Bible is inadequate without a divinely inspired interpreter, but that interpreter is not the Church nor the pope but the prophet, the new Elijah, the new Daniel, to whom is given the key of David to open the book sealed with seven seals.

Martin Luther, who was some five or six years older than Müntzer, was just then emerging as the most formidable opponent that the Church of Rome had ever known and also, if only incidentally and transiently, as the effective leader of the German nation. In 1519 he had questioned the supremacy of the Pope in public disputation with John Eck in Leipzig and in 1520 he published, and was excommunicated for publishing, the three treatises which formed the manifestos of the German Reformation. During the summer of 1520, he delivered to the printer a sheaf of tracts which are still referred to as his primary works: The Sermon on Good works in May, The Papacy at Rome in June, and The Address to the German Nobility in August. The Babylonian Captivity followed in September and The Freedom of the Christian Man in November. The latter three were more immediately pertinent to the controversy with the Papal Curia.

The most radical of these three in the eyes of contemporaries was the one dealing with the sacraments, entitled  The Babylonian Captivity, with reference to the enslavement of the sacraments of the Church. This assault on Catholic teaching was more devastating than anything that had preceded it: and when Erasmus read the tract, he exclaimed, “the breach is irreparable.” The reason was that the pretensions of the Roman Catholic Church rested so completely on the sacraments as the exclusive channels of grace and upon the prerogatives of the clergy, by whom the sacraments were administered. Luther with one stroke reduced the number of sacraments from seven to two. Confirmation, marriage, ordination, penance, and extreme unction were eliminated. The Lord’s Supper and baptism alone remained. According to Luther, a sacrament must have been directly instituted by Christ and must be distinctively Christian. He did not utterly abolish penance, recognising the need for contrition and regarding confession as useful, provided it was not institutionalised. The key point of divergence was with regard to absolution, which he said was only a declaration by a man of what God had decreed in heaven and not a ratification by God of what that man had ruled on earth.

In Luther’s eyes, the Church had made the sacrament of the mass mechanical and magical. He, too, would not subject it to human frailty and would not concede that he had done so by positing the necessity of faith, since faith was a gift from God, but given when, where and to whom he will and efficacious without the sacrament, whereas the sacrament was not efficacious without faith. On this belief, Luther affirmed:

I may be wrong on indulgencies, but as to the need for faith in the sacraments I will die before I will recant. 

This insistence upon faith diminished the role of the priests who may place a wafer in the mouth but cannot engender faith in the heart. Neither is Christ sacrificed in the mass because his sacrifice was made once and for all upon the cross, but God is present in the elements because Christ, being God, declared, “This is my body.” The ‘official’ view called transubstantiation was that the elements retained their accidents of shape, taste, colour and so on, but lose their substance, for which is substituted the substance of God. Luther rejected this position on rational rather than biblical grounds. The sacrament for him was not a chunk of God fallen like a meteorite from heaven. God does not need to fall from heaven because he is everywhere present throughout his creation as a sustaining and animating force, and Christ as God is likewise universal, but his presence is hidden from human eyes. For that reason, God has chosen to declare himself to mankind at three loci of revelation. The first is Christ, in whom the word was made flesh. The second is Scripture, where the word uttered is recorded. The third is the sacrament, in which the Word is manifest in food and drink. The sacrament does not conjure up God as the witch of Endor but reveals him where he is.

Nonetheless, Luther’s view of the Lord’s Supper pointed the Church in one direction and his view of baptism pointed it to another. That is why he could be at once to a degree the father of the Congregationalism of the Anabaptists and of the territorial church of the later Evangelicals. This was the product of Luther’s individualism, not that of the Renaissance Humanists, but the fulfilment of the individual’s capacities; it is not the individualism of the late scholastic, who on metaphysical grounds declared that reality consists only of individuals and that aggregates like Church and State are not entities but simply the sum of their components. Luther was not concerned to philosophise about the structures of the Church and State; his insistence was simply that every man must answer for himself to God. That was the extent of his individualism.

Baptism rather than the Lord’s Supper was, for Luther, the sacrament which linked the Church to society. For the medieval Christian community, every child outside the ghetto was by birth a citizen and by baptism a Christian. Regardless of personal conviction, the same persons constituted the State and the Church. An alliance of the two institutions was thus natural. Here was a basis for Christian society. The greatness and the tragedy of Luther were that he could never relinquish either the individualism of the eucharistic cup or the corporatism of the baptismal font. This doctrinal duality would have made him a troubled spirit in a tranquil age, but his age was not tranquil. Rome had not forgotten him. The lifting of the pressure on him was merely opportunistic, with the papacy waiting for the arrival of the Most Catholic Emperor in Germany,  from Spain,  before resuming its persecution of Luther. On 10 October, Luther received the Papal Bull, Exsurge Domine, excommunicating him.

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The Bull was sparse in its reproof. Luther’s views on the mass were condemned only at the point of the cup to the laity. None other of the seven sacraments received notice, except for penance. There was nothing about monastic vows, only a disavowal of Luther’s desire that princes and prelates might suppress the sacks of the mendicants. There was nothing about the priesthood of all believers. The articles centred on Luther’s disparagement of human capacity even after baptism, on his derogation from the power of the pope to bind and loose penalties and sins, from the power of the pope and councils to declare doctrine, from the primacy of the pope and of the Roman Church. The charge of Bohemianism had plainly lodged, because he was condemned on the score of introducing certain of the articles of John Hus. Luther’s articles were not pronounced uniformly heretical but condemned as heretical, or scandalous, or false, or offensive to pious ears, or seductive of simple minds, or repugnant to Catholic truth, respectively. The entire formula was stereotyped and had been used in the condemnation of Hus. Despite his initial blasts against the Bull, Luther’s prevailing mood was expressed in a pastoral letter to a minister who was prompted to leave his post, written in October:

Our warfare is not with flesh or blood, but against spiritual wickedness in the heavenly places, against the world rulers of this darkness. Let us then stand firm and heed the trumpet of the Lord. Satan is fighting, not against us, but against Christ in us. We fight the battles of the Lord. Be strong therefore, if God is for us, who can be against us?…

If you have the spirit, do not leave your post, lest another receive your crown. It is but a little thing that we should die with the Lord, who in our flesh laid down his life for us. We shall rise with him and abide with him in eternity. See then that you do not despise your holy calling. He will come, he will not tarry, who will deliver us from every ill. 

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Meanwhile, Luther had already published another mighty manifesto of Reformation in his Address to the German Nobility. The term ‘nobility’ was used, in a broad sense, to cover the ruling classes in Germany from the emperor down. Some contend that in this tract Luther broke with his earlier view of the Church as a persecuted remnant and instead laid the basis for a church allied with and dependent on the State.  Luther adduced three grounds for his appeal. The first was simply that the magistrate was the magistrate, ordained by God to punish evildoers. All that Luther demanded of him was that he should hold the clergy to account before the civil courts, that he should protect citizens against ecclesiastical extortion and that he should vindicate the state in the exercise of its civil functions, free from clerical interference. The theocratic pretentiousness of the Church was to be rejected.

Yet Luther was far more concerned for the purification of the Church than for the emancipation of the state. The second ground was that the Church’s temporal power and inordinate wealth must be stripped away in order to emancipate it from worldly concerns and enable it to better perform its spiritual functions. He used the language of the Christian society in asserting that the temporal authorities are baptised with the same baptism as we, building upon the sociological sacrament administered to every babe born into the community. In such a society, Church and State are mutually responsible for the support and correction of each other. His third ground for the appeal was that magistrates were fellow Christians sharing in the priesthood of all believers, which was made to rest on the lower grade of faith implicit in the baptised infant. Luther’s whole attitude to the reformatory role of the magistrate was essentially medieval, but it was deeply religious in tone. The complaints of Germany were combined with the reform of the Church, and the civil power itself was directed to rely less on the arm of the flesh than upon the hand of the Lord.

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Underlying his ‘appeal to Caesar’ was a deep indignation against the corruption of the Church, however, as again and again the pope was shamed by a comparison with Christ (seen in the cartoon by Cranach above). This theme went back through Hus to Wyclif. In contrast to the pope’s view that promises to heretics are not binding, Luther argues that heretics should be vanquished with books, not with burnings. He ended his Address to the German Nobility with an uncompromising appeal to heaven:

O Christ, my lord, look down. Let the day of thy judgment break and destroy the devil’s nest at Rome!

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In the meantime, the papal bull was being executed in Rome and Luther’s books were being burned in the Piazza Navona. The bull was printed and sealed for wider dissemination. The two men charged with this task as papal nuncios were John Eck and Jerome Aleander, a distinguished Humanist and former rector of the University of Paris. But in the Rhineland, the emperor ruled only by virtue of his election. When at Cologne on 12 November Aleander tried to have a bonfire, having gained the consent of archbishop, the executioner refused to proceed without an express imperial mandate. The archbishop asserted his authority, and the books were burned. At Mainz, at the end of the month, the opposition was more violent. Before applying the torch, the executioner asked the assembled crowd whether the books had been legally condemned. When they, with one voice, cried “No!”, he stepped down and refused to act. Aleander again appealed to Albert, the archbishop, and secured his authorisation to destroy a few books the following day. The order was carried out by a gravedigger with no witnesses apart from Aleander and a few women who had brought their geese to market. Aleander was pelted with stones and had to be rescued by the abbot. Ulrich von Hutten came out in verse with an invective both in Latin and German:

 O God, Luther’s books they burn.

Thy godly truth is slain in turn.

Pardon in advance is sold,

And heaven marketed for gold

The German people is bled white

And is not asked to be contrite.

 

To Martin Luther wrong is done –

O God, be thou our champion.

My goods for him I will not spare,

My life, my blood for him I dare.

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Luther’s ‘private’ response to receiving the papal bull, given in his letter to Spalatin, to which he appended a copy of his reply in Latin, Against the Execrable Bull of Antichrist, was apocalyptic in tone and content:

When since the beginning of the world did Satan ever so rage against God? I am overcome by the magnitude of the horrible blasphemies of this bull. I am almost persuaded by many and weighty arguments that the last day is on the threshold. The Kingdom of Antichrist begins to fall. I see an unsuppressible insurrection coming out of this bull, which the Roman ‘curia’ deserves.

His public pronouncements were also, now, almost equally uncompromising in their millenarianist, direct condemnation of the ‘curia’:

You then, Leo X, you cardinals and the rest of you at Rome, I tell you to your faces: “If this bull has come out in your name then… I call upon you to renounce your diabolical blasphemy and audacious impiety, and, if you will not, we shall all hold your seat as possessed and oppressed by Satan, the damned seat of Antichrist, in the name of Jesus Christ, whom you persecute.”

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He added the caveat, however, that he was still not persuaded that the bull was the work of the pope, but rather that of that apostle of impiety, John Eck. Nevertheless, as to the content of his reply, he left his readers in no doubt of his determination to hold to the beliefs he had expressed in it and his previous articles:

It is better that I should die a thousand times than that I should retract one syllable of the condemned articles. And as they excommunicated me for the sacrilege of heresy, so I excommunicate them in the name of the sacred truth of God. Christ will judge whose excommunication will stand.

Two weeks after the appearance of this tract another came out so amazingly different as to make historians wonder if it was written by the same man. It was entitled Freedom of the Christian Man and commenced with a deferential address to Leo X. In it, he issued a disclaimer of personal abusiveness and a statement of faith. He was not fighting a man, but a system. Then followed Luther’s canticle of freedom, but if he supposed that this would mollify the pope, he was naïve. The deferential letter itself denied the primacy of the pope over councils, and the treatise asserted the priesthood of all believers. The pretence that the attack was directed, not against the pope, but against the curia is the device commonly employed by constitutionally minded revolutionaries who do not like to admit that they are rebelling against a head of a  government or church.

Although it was to be many years before Evangelical churches appeared on a territorial basis, there now existed a recognisable Lutheran party among the German ‘nobles’ to whom Luther had appealed. Many of the clergy also joined it, though they clung firmly to ‘the old religion’. It was as a follower of Luther that Thomas Müntzer first broke away from Catholic orthodoxy; all the deeds which have made him famous were done in the midst of the great religious earthquake which first cracked and at length destroyed the massive structure of the medieval Church. Yet he himself abandoned Luther almost as soon as he had found him; it was in ever fiercer opposition to Luther that he worked out and proclaimed his own doctrine.

What Müntzer needed if he was to become a new man, sure of himself and of his aim in life, was not to be found in Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone.  It was to be found, rather, in the militant and bloodthirsty millenarianism that was unfolded to him when in 1520 he took up a ministry in the town of Zwickau and came into contact with a weaver called Nikla Storch. Zwickau lies close to the Bohemian border, where Storch himself had been born. It was essentially the old Táborite doctrines which were being revived in his teaching. He proclaimed that now, as in the days of the Apostles, God was communicating directly with his Elect; the reason for this was that the Last Days were at hand. First, the Turks must conquer the world and Antichrist must rule over it; but then, and it would be very soon, the Elect would rise up and annihilate all the godless so that the Second Coming could take place and the millennium begin. What most appealed to Müntzer in this programme was the war of extermination which the righteous were to wage against the unrighteous. Abandoning Luther, who had the previous year refused to lead a knights’ crusade with Hutten, he now talked and thought only of the Book of Revelation and of such incidents from the Old Testament of as Elijah’s slaughter of the priests of Baal, Jehu’s slaying of the sons of Ahab and Jael’s assassination of the sleeping Sisera. Contemporaries noted and lamented the change that had come over him, the lust for blood which at times expressed itself in sheer raving. By contrast, for all his use of apocalyptic tropes to attack the papacy, Luther wrote to Spalatin in January 1521:

I am not willing to fight for the gospel with bloodshed… The world is conquered by the Word, and by the Word the Church is served and rebuilt. As Antichrist rose without the hand of man, so without the hand of man will he fall. 

For Müntzer, the Elect must prepare the way for the Millennium. Like Luther, however, he believed that he who would be saved must be prepared to suffer as the historical Christ had done, must be purged of all self-will and freed from everything that binds him to the world and to created beings. ‘The Cross’ may include sickness and poverty and persecution, all of which must be borne in patience, but above all, they will include intense mental agonies, weariness with the world and with oneself, loss of hope, despair, terror. According to Müntzer, but also in traditional doctrine, only when this point has been reached, when the soul has been stripped utterly naked, can direct communication with God take place. Such beliefs had been held by many Medieval Catholic mystics, but when Müntzer came to speak of the outcome of this suffering, he followed an altogether less orthodox tradition. For him, once ‘the living Christ’ enters the soul it is for evermore; the man so favoured becomes a vessel of the Holy Spirit. Müntzer even speaks of his ‘becoming God’; endowed with perfect insight into the divine will and living in perfect conformity with it, such a man is incontestably qualified to discharge the divinely appointed eschatological mission. That is precisely what Müntzer claimed for himself.

As soon as Storch had enabled him to find himself Müntzer changed his way of life, abandoning reading and the pursuit of learning, condemning the Humanists who abounded among Luther’s followers, ceaselessly propagating his eschatological faith among the poor. In the middle of the fifteenth-century silver-mines had been opened up at Zwickau, turning the town into an important industrial centre, three times the size of Dresden. From all over southern and central Germany labourers streamed to the mines, with the result that there was a chronic surplus of manpower. Moreover, the uncontrolled exploitation of the silver ore resulted in an inflation which reduced all the skilled workers, including those in the traditional weaving industry, to near-penury. A few months after he arrived at Zwickau, Müntzer became a preacher at the church where the weavers had their special altar, and he used the pulpit to denounce the local preacher, a friend of Luther’s, who enjoyed the favour of the well-to-do burghers. Before long the whole town was divided into two hostile camps and the antagonism between them was becoming so sharp that violent disorders seemed imminent.

Müntzer was readily able to find support for his view of the spirit in the Scripture itself, where it is said that the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life (II Cor. 3:6). Luther replied that of course the letter without the spirit is dead, but the two are no more to be divorced than the soul is to be separated from the body. The real menace of Müntzer in Luther’s eyes was that he destroyed the uniqueness of Christian revelation in the past by his elevation of revelation in the present. In his own experience, Luther had no great contemporary revelation of his own. On the contrary, in times of despondency, the advice to rely upon the spirit was for him a counsel of despair, since within he could find only utter blackness. In such times, only the assurance he received from the written Word of God of the stupendous act of God in Christ would suffice. Luther freely avowed his weakness and his need for historic revelation. Had Müntzer drawn no practical consequences from his view, Luther would have been less outraged, but Müntzer proceeded to use the gift of the Spirit as a basis for the formation of a church. He is the progenitor of sectarian Protestant theocracies, based not as in Judaism primarily on blood and soil, nor as in Catholicism on sacramentalism, but rather on inner experience and the infusion of the Spirit. Those who are thus reborn can recognise each other and can join a covenant of the Elect, whose mission is to erect God’s kingdom.

Müntzer did not expect the elect to enter into their inheritance without a struggle. They would have to slaughter the ungodly. At this point, Luther was horrified because the sword is given to the magistrate, not the minister, let alone to the saints. In the struggle, Müntzer recognised that many of the godly would fall, and he was constantly preaching on suffering and cross-bearing as a mark of the elect. Luther was often taunted as “Dr Easychair and Dr Pussyfoot,” basking in the favour of the princes. His reply was that the outward cross is neither to be sought nor evaded. The constant cross is suffering within. So, who was really the champion of the inner spiritual life?

Meanwhile, Luther was himself facing a divided public opinion. Those who were for him were numerous, powerful and vocal. Aleander, the papal nuncio in Germany, reported that nine-tenths of the Germans cried “Luther” and the other one-tenth, “Death to the pope.” This was undoubtedly an exaggeration as far as the Germans were concerned, but even if it were true, there was by now a middle party, both within the German states and more broadly in Europe, headed personally by Erasmus, who, despite his statement that the breach was irreparable, did not desist from efforts at mediation and even penned a memorandum proposing the appointment by the emperor and the kings of England and Hungary of an impartial tribunal. The Erasmians as a party sensed less than their leader the depth of the cleavage between Luther and the Church and between Luther and themselves.

Curiously, however, some of the greatest obstructionists were in the Vatican, because the pope had seen his worst fears realized in the election of Charles as emperor, and was trying to curb his power by supporting France. But Charles, for all his Spanish orthodoxy, knew how to use Luther as a weapon in this power struggle. At the same time, Aleander was intimidated by Hutten’s fulminating, and when the pope sent his bull of excommunication against both Luther and Hutten, Aleander withheld the publication and sent it back to Rome to have Hutten’s name removed. Such communications took months, which explains why Luther was actually outlawed by the empire before he was formally excommunicated by the Church.

Where, how and by whom his case should be handled was, therefore, the dilemma which was faced by Charles V. A decision was reached upon the point on 4 November 1520, after his coronation at Aachen, when he went to confer with ‘Uncle Frederick’ the Wise, who was marooned by gout in Cologne. Frederick secured an agreement from Charles that Luther would not be condemned without a hearing. The University of Wittenberg promptly pointed to the possibility of a hearing before the forthcoming Diet of Worms, before the assembled German nation. Frederick transmitted the proposal to the emperor’s counsellors and received a reply from His Majesty a reply dated 28 November addressed to his “beloved Uncle Frederick” in which he invited Luther to defend his views at Worms. The appeal to Caesar had been heard, the invitation marking an amazing reversal of policy. The Defender of the Faith, who had been burning Luther’s books, now invited their author to a hearing. Had the emperor been won over by Erasmus’ policy? Had some disquieting political news disposed him to bait the pope and cultivate the Germans? His motives elude historians. The invitation was issued at the end of November, but Luther did not actually appear at the diet until the April of 1521.

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As the princes and nobles began to arrive in Worms at Epiphany, Charles gave Frederick the Wise an assurance that he would take personal responsibility for Luther’s case. When Luther received this news, he replied to Frederick that he was heartily glad that His Majesty will take to himself this affair, which is not mine but that of the whole German nation. While Luther’s coming was awaited, a lampoon was published in Worms, entitled the Litany of the Germans:

Christ hear the Germans; Christ hear the Germans. From evil counselors deliver Charles, O Lord. From poison on the way to Worms deliver Martin Luther, preserve Ulrich von Hutten, O Lord. Suffer not thyself to be crucified afresh. Purge Aleander, O Lord. The nuncios working against Luther at Worms, smite from heaven. O Lord Christ, hear the Germans.

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Had Luther been prepared to abandon the attack on the sacraments he had made in The Babylonian Captivity, he might indeed have rallied a united German nation for the reduction of papal power and extortion. The diet might have wrung from the pope the sort of concessions already granted to the strong nation-states of France, Spain and England. Schism might have been avoided, and religious war could have been averted. To a man like Frederick, this compromise proposed by the Erasmians must have seemed most appealing, but he was also resolved to make no overtures which would give the emperor an opportunity to evade his newly accepted responsibility. So it was that on the sixteenth of April, Luther entered Worms in a Saxon two-wheeled cart with a few companions. He was examined by an official of the Archbishop of Trier, who confronted him with a pile of his books and asked whether he had written them and whether he wanted to defend or retract all or part of them. 

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He asked for time to consider his response and was recalled at six the following evening, when the same question was put to him. He answered:

Since then Your Majesty and your lordships desire a simple reply, I will answer without horns and without teeth. Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.

The earliest printed version added, before ‘God help me’, the words:

Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise.

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These words, though not recorded on the spot, may nevertheless be genuine, because the listeners at the moment may have been moved to write them down. The emperor then called in the electors and a number of the princes to ask their opinions. They requested time to reflect before responding. “Very well,” he said, “I will give you my opinion,” and he read a statement from a paper that he himself had composed in French:

A single friar who goes counter to all Christianity for a thousand years must be wrong. Therefore I am resolved to stake my lands, my friends, my body, my blood, my life and my soul. Not only I, but you of this noble German nation, would be forever disgraced if by our negligence not only heresy but the very suspicion of heresy were to survive… I will proceed against him as a notorious heretic, and ask you to declare yourselves as you promised me.

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On the following day the electors declared themselves fully in accord with the emperor, but out of six, only four signed the declaration. The dissenters were Ludwig of the Palatinate and Frederick of Saxony. On the sixth of May, the Emperor presented to a diminishing diet the final draft of the Edict of Worms, prepared by Aleander. Luther was charged with attacking the seven sacraments after the manner of ‘the damned Bohemians’. The Edict of Worms, passed by a secular tribunal entrusted with a case of heresy at the instance of Lutherans and against the opposition of the papists, was at once repudiated by the Lutherans as having been passed by only a rump, and was sponsored by the papists because it was a confirmation of the Catholic faith. The Church of Rome, which had so strenuously sought to prevent turning the Diet of Worms into an ecclesiastical council, became in the light of the outcome the great vindicator of the pronouncement of a secular tribunal on heresy. Now an outlaw, on his way home to Wittenberg he was taken into refuge in the Wartburg Castle under the protection of Frederick of Saxony. There he devoted his energies to translating the New Testament from Greek into German, in the tradition of Wyclif, so that all Germans might be able to read it for themselves.

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Above: Luther’s room at the Wartburg, where he translated the New Testament.

Meanwhile, that same month, the Town Council of Zwickau had intervened to dismiss the troublesome newcomer, Thomas Münzer; whereupon a large section of the populace, under Storch’s leadership, rose in revolt. The rising was put down, and many arrests were made, including more than fifty weavers. Müntzer himself went into exile in Bohemia, apparently in the hope of finding some Táborite groups there. In Prague he preached with the help of an interpreter; he also published in German, Czech and Latin a manifesto announcing the founding of a new church in Bohemia which was to consist entirely of the Elect and which would, therefore, be directly inspired by God. His own role he now defined in terms of the same eschatological parable of the wheat and the tares which had been invoked during the English Peasants’ Revolt:

Harvest-time is here, so God himself has hired me for his harvest. I have sharpened my scythe, for my thoughts are most strongly fixed on the truth, and my lips, hands, skin, hair,soul, body, life curse the unbelievers.

Müntzer’s appeal to the Bohemians was a failure and he was expelled from Prague. For the next couple of years, he wandered from place to place in central Germany, in great poverty but sustained by an unshakable confidence in his prophetic mission. He no longer used his academic titles but signed himself Christ’s messenger. His very hardships assumed in his eyes a messianic value:

Let my sufferings be a model for you. Let the tares all puff themselves up as much as ever they like, they will still have to go under the flail along with the pure wheat. The living God is sharpening his scythe in me, so that later I can cut down the red poppies and the blue cornflowers.

His wanderings came to an end when, in 1523, he was invited to take up a ministry at the small Thuringian town of Alstedt. There he married, created the first liturgy in the German language, translated Latin hymns into the vernacular and established a reputation as a preacher which extended throughout central Germany. Peasants from the surrounding countryside, above all some hundreds of miners from the Mansfeld copper-mines, came regularly to hear him. As many as two thousand outsiders flocked to his preaching. Together with the residents of Alstedt, these people provided him with a following which he set about turning into a revolutionary organisation, the League of the Elect. This league, consisting in the main of uneducated, was Müntzer’s answer to the university which had always been the centre of Luther’s influence. Now spiritual illumination was to oust the learning of the scribes; Alstedt was to replace Wittenberg and become the centre of a new Reformation which was to be both total and final and which was to usher in the Millennium. He was able to report thirty units ready to slaughter the ungodly…

(…to be continued).

Appendix: From R. Stupperich’s article (1977) in The History of Christianity. Berkhamsted: Lion Publishing. 

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