Today, however, is June 25, and this day marks the anniversary of the Presentation of the Augsburg Confession to Emperor Charles V, in 1530. Like the Festival of the Reformation, today is prominently marked on the Lutheran calendar as a minor festival of the Church Year, though it is not nearly as widely commemorated with special services, church plays, lectures, social events and other activities as Reformation is. Nevertheless, the Presentation of the Augsburg Confession represents a monumental shift in the history of the West – in both religious as well as political terms – as with Augustana the convictions of conscience were irrevocably placed at the center, and at the pinnacle, of civil liberty.
Conscience – that term has been referred to on our pages on numerous occasions – is the seat of an individual’s identity, is composed of what the individual is convinced is true as inseparable from the reality of his own existence. To deny conscience is to separate oneself form that reality. It is unthinkable for the person with a genuine connection to his own identity; he would rather die than suffer such separation. The Confessor – another term has been frequently used on our pages – is such a person who, called upon by his executioners to deny his own conscience, refuses, and who, instead, gives a clear defense for his convictions and submits himself to their sentence. The Martyr, is the person who suffers the fate promised by his executioners.
As Dr. Martin Luther stood against doctrinal error on the basis of Christian Conscience, and was called upon time and again, or otherwise compelled to make his Confession in his published writings and public disputations, he was giving ever more clear and compelling witness to the truth that he was convinced of, and giving ever wider broadcast of that Confession. And as a result, others were convinced of the Truth in the process. The people, from peasants up through the nobility, both in Germany and abroad, were swayed, and a movement grew to thunderous support of the Biblical doctrines he taught over against those held by the Papacy and enforced by the Empire.
These wicked authorities responded with all they had to offer: threats, punishments and condemnations. Did the Confessors of True Scripture Doctrine shrink back as a result, grow silent and recant their “bold convictions”? Perhaps many did, though it seems no historian has thought any of them deserved a single paragraph in the annals of history. What we do know, rather, is what historians have been moved to record: that those who were obliged by Conscience to live out their Christian convictions continued to give bold witness, in word and deed, Confessing that which they were convinced as a matter of Christian Conscience was True, that which was inseparable from their identity in Christ. Many of them found themselves in the company of fellows, while others found themselves in the company of martyrs. When finally ordered by the Empire to submit to the Pope’s decrees in opposition to Luther and the doctrines of Scripture, many businessmen and landowners, and even several of the German Princes who supported Luther, refused. Thus in a state of Protest against the the Emperor, he then called upon them to make their Confession before him at the Diet of Augsburg. They presented to him on June 25, 1530.
The following history begins where we left off in October of last year, with immediate after-effects of the posting of Luther’s Ninety-five Theses through the events leading to the Presentation of the Augsburg Confession, and its immediate political and religious impact.
- Click here for Part I of this series on the Life of Martin Luther
Click here for Part III of this series on the Life of Martin Luther
Dr. Martin Luther
From the Ninety-five Theses to the
Presentation of the Augsburg Confession11
Six months after the nailing up of the Theses, Luther was the hero of a general convention of the Augustinians in Heidelberg. He there submitted a series of propositions on philosophy and theology, which he defended with such convincing clarity and tact that he won for himself and his university great honor and renown. Better still, four learned young men who there heard him saw the truth of his positions, and afterward became distinguished defenders of the Reformation.
His cause, meanwhile, was rapidly gaining friends. His replies to Tetzel, Prierias, Hochstrat, and Eck had gone forth to deepen the favorable impression made by the Ninety-five Theses. Truth had once more lifted up its head in Europe, and Rome would find it no child’s play to put it down. The skirmish lines of the hierarchy had been met and driven in. The tug of serious battle was now to come.
Luther made the advance. He wrote out explanations (or “Resolutions”) of his Theses, and sent them, with a letter, to the pope. With great confidence, point, and elegance, but with equal submissiveness and humility, he spoke of the completeness of Christ for the salvation of every true believer, without room or need for penances and other satisfactions; of the evilness of the times, and the pressing necessity for a general reform; of the damaging complaints everywhere resounding against the traffic in indulgences; of his unsuccessful appeals to the ecclesiastical princes; and of the unjust censures being heaped upon him for what he had done, entreating His Holiness to instruct his humble petitioner, and condemn or approve, kill or preserve, as the voice of Christ through him might be. He then believed that God’s sanction had to come through the high clergy and heads of the Church. Many good Christians had approved his Theses, but he did not recognize in that the divine answer to his testimony. He said afterward: “I looked only to the pope, the cardinals, the bishops, the theologians, the jurisconsults, the monks, the priests, from Whom I expected the breathing of the Spirit.” He had not yet learned what a bloody dragon claimed to impersonate the Lamb of God.
While, in open frankness, Luther was thus meekly committing himself to the powers at Rome, they were meditating his destruction. Insidiously they sought to deprive him of the Elector’s protection, and answered his humble and confiding appeal with a citation to appear before them to answer for heresy.
Things now were ominous of evil. Wittenberg was filled with consternation. If Luther obeyed, it was evident he would perish like so many faithful men before him; if he refused, he would be charged with contumacy and involve his prince. One and another expedient were proposed to meet the perplexity; but to secure a hearing in Germany was all Luther asked.
To this the pope proved more willing than was thought. He was not sure of gaining by the public trial and execution of a man so deeply planted in the esteem of his countrymen, and by bringing him before a prudent legate he might induce him to retract and the trouble be ended; if not, it would be a less disturbing way of getting possession of the accused man. Orders were therefore issued for Luther to appear before Cardinal Cajetan at Augsburg.
On foot he undertook the journey, believed by all to be a journey to his death. But Maximilian, then in the neighborhood of Augsburg, gave him a safe-conduct, and Cajetan was obliged to receive him with civility. He even embraced him with tokens of affection, thinking to win him to retraction. Luther was much softened by these kindly manifestations, and was disposed to comply with almost anything if not required to deny the truth of God.
The interviews were numerous. Luther was told that it was useless to think that the civil powers would go to war for his protection; and where would he then be? His answer was: “I will be, as now, under the broad heavens of the Almighty.” Remonstrances, entreaties, threatenings, and proposals of high distinction were addressed to him; but he wanted no cardinal’s hat, and for nothing in Rome’s power would he consent to retract what he believed to be the Gospel truth till shown wherein it was at variance with the divine Word. Cajetan’s arguments tripped and failed at every point, and he could only reiterate that he had been sent to receive a retraction, not to debate the questions. Luther as often promised this when shown from the Scriptures to be in the wrong, but not till then.
Foiled and disappointed in his designs, and astounded and impatient that a poor monk should thus set at naught all the prayers and powers of the sovereign of face no more until he had repented of his stubbornness.
At this the friends of the Reformer, fearing for his safety, clandestinely hurried him out of Augsburg, literally grappling him up from his bed only half dressed, and brought him away to his university. He had answered the pope’s summons, and yet was free!
Cajetan was mortified at the result, and was upbraided for his failure. In his chagrin he wrote angrily to the Elector not to soil his name and lineage by sheltering a heretic, but to surrender Luther at once, on pain of an interdict. The Elector was troubled. Luther had not been proven a heretic, neither did he believe him to be one; but he feared collision with the pope.
Luther said if he were in the Elector’s place he would answer the cardinal as he deserved for thus insulting an honest man; but, not to be an embarrassment to his prince, he agreed to leave the Elector’s dominions if he said so. But Frederick would not surrender his distinguished subject to the legate, neither would he send him out of the country. It is hard to say which was here the nobler man, Luther or his illustrious protector.
The minds of men by this time were much aroused, and Luther’s cause grew and strengthened. The learned Melanchthon, Reuchlin’s relative and pupil, was added to the faculty at Wittenberg, and became Luther’s chief co-laborer. The number of students in the university swelled to thousands, including the sons of noblemen and princes from all parts, who listened with admiration to Luther's lectures and sermons and spread his fame and doctrines. And the feeling was deep and general that a new and marvelous light had arisen upon the world.12
It was now that Maximilian died (January 17, 1519), and Charles V., his grandson, a Spanish prince of nineteen years, succeeded to his place. The Imperial crown was laid at the feet of the Elector Frederick, Luther's friend, but he declined it in favor of Charles, only exacting a solemn pledge that he would not disturb the liberties of Germany. Civil freedom is one of the glorious fruits of the Reformation, and here already it began to raise barricades against despotic power.
Up to this time, however, there had been no questioning of the divine rights claimed by the hierarchy. Luther was still a Papist, and thought to grow his plants of evangelic faith under the shadow of the Upas of ecclesiasticism. He had not yet been brought to see how his Augustinian theology concerning sin and grace ran afoul of the entire round of the mediaeval system and methods of holiness. It was only the famous Leipsic Disputation between him and Dr. John Eck that showed him the remoter and deeper relations of his position touching indulgences.
This otherwise fruitless debate had the effect of making the nature and bearings of the controversy clear to both sides. Eck now distinctly saw that Luther must be forcibly put down or the whole papal system must fall; and Luther was made to realize that he must surrender his doctrine of salvation through simple faith in Christ or break with the pope and the hierarchical system.
Accepting the pontifical doctrines as true, Eck claimed the victory, because he had driven Luther to expressions at variance with those doctrines. On the other hand, Luther had shown that the pontifical claims were without foundation in primitive Christianity or the Holy Scriptures; that the Papacy was not of divine authority or of the essence of the Church; that the Church existed before and beyond the papal hierarchy, as well as under it; that the only Head of the universal Christian Church is Christ Himself; that wherever there is true faith in God’s Word, there the Church is, whatever the form of external organization; that the popes could err and had erred, and councils likewise; and that neither separately nor together could they rightfully decree or ordain contrary to the Scriptures, the only infallible Rule.
To all this Eck could make no answer except that it was Hussism over again, which the Council of Constance had condemned, and that, from the standpoint of the hierarchy, Luther was a heretic and ought to be dealt with accordingly.
Luther now realized that the true Gospel of God’s salvation and the pontifical system were vitally and irreconcilably antagonistic; that the one could never be held in consistency with the other; and that there must come a final break between him and Rome. This much depressed him. He showed his spiritual anguish by his deep dejection. But he soon rose above it. If he had the truth of God, as he verily believed, what were the pope and all devils against Jehovah? And so he went on lecturing, preaching, writing, and publishing with his greatest power, brilliancy, and effectiveness.
Some of the best and most telling products of his pen now went forth to multitudes of eager readers. The glowing energy of his faith acted like a spreading fire, kindling the souls of men as they seldom have been kindled in any cause in any age. His Address to the Nobility electrified all Germany, and first fired the patriotic spirit of Ulrich Zwingli, the Swiss Reformer. His book on The Babylonian Captivity of the Church sounded a bugle-note which thrilled through all the German heart, gave Bugenhagen to the Reformation, and sent a shudder through the hierarchy.13 Already, at Maximilian’s Imperial Diet at Augsburg (1518) to take measures against the Turk, a Latin pamphlet was openly circulated among the members which said that the Turk to be resisted was living in Italy; and Miltitz, the pope’s nuncio and chamberlain, confessed that from Rome to Altenberg he had found those greatly in the minority who did not side with Luther.
But the tempest waxed fiercer and louder every day. Luther’s growing influence all the more inflamed his enemies. Hochstrat had induced two universities to condemn his doctrines. In sundry places his books were burned by the public hangman. Eck had gone to Italy, and was “moving the depths of hell” to secure the excommunication of the prejudged heretic. And could his bloodthirsty enemies have had their way, this would long since have come. But Leo seems to have had more respect for Luther than for them. Learning and talent were more to him than any doctrines of the faith. The monks complained of him as too much given to luxury and pleasure to do his duty in defending the Church. Perhaps he had conscience enough to be ashamed to enforce his traffic in paper pardons by destroying the most honest and heroic man in Germany. Perhaps he did not like to stain his reign with so foul a record, even if dangerous complications should not attend it. Whatever the cause, he was slow to respond to these clamors for blood. Eck had almost as much trouble to get him to issue the Bull of Luther’s excommunication as he had to answer Luther’s arguments in the Leipsic Discussion. But he eventually procured it, and undertook to enforce it.
And yet, with all his zealous personal endeavors and high authority, he could hardly get it posted, promulgated, or at all respected in Germany. His parchment thunder lost its power in coming across the Alps. Miltitz also was in his way, who, with equal authority from the pope, was endeavoring to supersede the Bull by attempts at reconciliation. It came to Wittenberg in such a sorry plight that Luther laughed at it as having the appearance of a forgery by Dr. Eck. He knew the pope had been bullied into the issuing of it, but this was the biting irony, by which he indicated the character of the men by whom it was moved and the pitiable weakness to which such thunders had been reduced.
But it was a Bull of excommunication nevertheless. Luther and his doctrines were condemned by the chief of Christendom.14 Multitudes were thrown into anxious perturbation. If the strong arm of the emperor should be given to sustain the pope, who would be able to stand? Adrian, one of the faculty of Wittenberg, was so frightened that he threw down his office and hastened to join the enemy.
Amid the perils which surrounded Luther powerful knights offered to defend him by force of arms; but he answered, “No; by the Word the world was conquered, by the Word the Church was saved, and by the Word it must be restored.” The thoughts of his soul were not on human power, but centered on the throne of Him who lives for ever. It was Christ’s Gospel that was in peril, and he was sure Jehovah would not abandon His own cause.
Germany waited to see what he would do. Nor was it long kept in suspense.
In a month he discharged a terrific volley of artillery upon the Papacy by his book Against the Bull of Antichrist.
In thirteen days later he brought formal charges against the pope – first, as an unjust judge, who condemns without giving a hearing; second, as a heretic and apostate, who requires denial that faith is necessary; third, as an Antichrist, who sets himself against the Holy Scriptures and usurps their authority; and fourth, as a blasphemer of the Church and its free councils, who declares them nothing without himself.
This was carrying the war into Africa. Appealing to a future general council and the Scriptures as superior to popes, he now called upon the emperor, electors, princes, and all classes and estates in the whole German empire, as they valued the Gospel and the favor of Christ, to stand by him in this demonstration.
And, that all might be certified in due form, he called a notary and five witnesses to hear and attest the same as verily the solemn act and deed of Martin Luther, done in behalf of himself and all who stood or should stand with him.
Rome persisted in forcing a schism, and this was Luther's bill of divorcement.
Nay, more; as Rome had sealed its condemnation of him by burning his books, he built a stack of fagots on the refuse piles outside the Elster Gate of Wittenberg, invited thither the whole university, and when the fires were kindled and the flames were high, he cast into them, one by one, the books of the canon law, the Decretals, the Clementines, the Papal Extravagants, and all that lay at the base of the religion of the hierarchy! And when these were consumed he took Leo's Bull of excommunication, held it aloft, exclaiming with a loud voice, “Since thou hast afflicted the saints of God, be thou consumed with fire unquenchable!” and dashed the impious document into the flames.
Well done was that! Luther considered it the best act of his life. It was a brave heart, the bravest then living in this world, that dared to do it. But it was done then and forever. Wittenberg looked on with shoutings. The whole modern world of civilized man has ever since been looking on with thrilling wonder. And myriads of the sons of God and liberty are shouting over it yet.
The miner’s son had come up full abreast with the triple-crowned descendant of the Medici. The monk of Wittenberg had matched the proudest monarch in the world. Henceforth the question was, Which of them should sway the nations in the time to come?
The young emperor sided with the religion of the pope. The venerable Elector Frederick determined to stand by Luther, at least till his case was fairly adjudged. He said it was not just to condemn a good and honest man unheard and unconvicted, and that “Justice must take precedence even of the pope.”
Conferences of state now became numerous and exciting, and the efforts of Rome to have Luther’s excommunication recognized and enforced were many and various, but nothing short of a Diet of the empire could settle the disturbance.15
Such a Diet was convoked by the young emperor for January, 1521. It was the first of his reign, and the grandest ever held on German soil. Philip of Hesse came to it with a train of six hundred cavaliers. The electors, dukes, archbishops, landgraves, margraves, counts, bishops, barons, lords, deputies, legates, and ambassadors from foreign courts came in corresponding style. They felt it important to show their consequence at this first Diet, and were all the more moved to be there in force because the exciting matter of Reform was specified as one of the chief things to be considered. The result was one of the most august and illustrious assemblies of which modern history tells, and one which presented a spectacle of lasting wonder that a poor lone monk should thus have moved all the powers of the earth.
For three months the Diet wrangled over the affair of Luther without reaching anything decided. The friends of Rome were the chief actors, struggling in every way and hesitating at nothing to induce the Diet and the emperor to acknowledge and enforce the pope’s decree. But the influence of the German princes, especially that of the Elector Frederick, stood in the way; Charles would not act, as he had no right to act, without the concurrence of the states, and the princes of Germany held it unjust that Luther should be condemned on charges which had never been fairly tried, on books which were not proven to be his, and especially since the sentence itself presented conditions with reference to which no answer had been legally ascertained.
To overcome these oppositions different resorts were tried. Leo issued a second Bull, excommunicating Luther absolutely, and anathematizing him and all his friends and abettors. The pope’s legate called for money to buy up influence for the Romanists: “We must have money. Send us money. Money! Money! or Germany, is lost!” The money came; but the Reformer’s friends could not be bought with bribes, however much the agents of Rome needed such stimulation. Trickery was brought into requisition to entrap Luther’s defenders by a secret proposal to compromise. Luther was given great credit and right, except that he had gone a little too far, and it was only necessary to restrain him from further demonstrations. Rome compromise with a man she had doubly excommunicated and anathematized! Rome make terms with an outlaw whom she had infallibly doomed to eternal execration! Yet with these proposals the emperor’s confessor approached Chancellor Brück. But the chancellor’s head was too clear to be caught by such treachery.
Then it was moved to refer the matter to a commission of arbitrators. This met with so much favor that the pope’s legate, Aleander, was alarmed lest Luther should thereby escape, and hence set himself with unwonted energy to incite the emperor to decisive measures.
Charles was persuaded to make a demonstration, but demanded that the legate should first “convince the Diet.” Aleander was the most famous orator Rome had, and he rejoiced in his opportunity. He went before the assembly in a prepared speech of three hours in length to show up Luther as a pestilent heretic, and the necessity of getting rid of him and his books and principles at once to prevent the world from being plunged into barbarism and utter desolation. He made a deep impression by his effort. It was only by the unexpected and crushing speech of Duke George of Saxony, Luther’s bitter personal enemy, that the train of things, so energetically wrought up, was turned.
Not in defense of Luther, whom he disliked, but in defense of the German nation, he piled up before the door of the hierarchy such an overwhelming array of its oppressions, robberies, and scandals, and exposed with such an unsparing hand the falsities, profligacies, cupidity, and beastly indecencies of the Roman clergy and officials, that the emperor hastened to recall the edict he had already signed, and yielded consent for Luther to be called to answer for himself.
In vain the pope's legate protested that it was not lawful thus to bring the decrees of the sovereign pontiff into question, or pleaded that Luther’s daring genius, flashing eyes, electric speech, and thrilling spirit would engender tumult and violence. On March 6th the emperor signed a summons and safe-conduct for the Reformer to appear in Worms within twenty-one days, to answer concerning his doctrines and writings.
So far the thunders of the Vatican were blank.
With all the anxious fears which such a summons would naturally engender, Luther resolved to obey it.
The pope’s adherents fumed in their helplessness when they learned that he was coming – coming, too, under the safe-conduct of the empire, coming to have a hearing before the Diet! – he whom the infallible Vicar of Heaven had condemned and anathematized! Whither was the world drifting?
Luther’s friends trembled lest he should share the fate of Huss; his enemies trembled lest he should escape it; and both, in their several ways, tried to keep him back.
Placards of his condemnation were placed before him on the way, and spectacles to indicate his certain execution were enacted in his sight; but he was not the man to be deterred by the prospect of being burnt alive if God called for the sacrifice.
Lying fraud was also tried to seduce and betray him. Glapio, the emperor’s confessor, who had tried a similar trick upon the Elector Frederick, conceived the idea that if Franz von Sickingen and Martin Bucer could be won for the plot, a proposal to compromise the whole matter amicably might serve to beguile him to the chateau of his friend at Ebernburg till his safe-conduct should expire, and then the liars could throw off the mask and dispose of him with credit in the eyes of Rome. The glib and wily Glapio led in the attempt. Von Sickingen and Bucer were entrapped by his bland hypocrisy, and lent themselves to the execution of the specious proposition. But when they came to Luther with it, he turned his back, saying, “If the emperor’s confessor has anything to say to me he will find me at Worms.”
But even his friends were alarmed at his coming. It was feared that he would be destroyed. The Elector’s confidential adviser sent a servant out to meet him, beseeching him by no means to enter the city. “Go tell your master,” said Luther, “I will enter Worms though as many devils should be there as tiles upon its houses!” And he did enter, with nobles, cavaliers, and gentry for his escort, and attended through the streets by a larger concourse than had greeted the entry of the emperor himself.16
Charles hurried to convene his council, saying, “Luther is come; what shall we do with him?”
A chancellor and bishop of Flanders urged that he be dispatched at once, and this scandalous humiliation of the Holy See terminated. He said Sigismund had allowed Huss to be burned, and no one was bound to keep faith with a heretic. But the emperor was more moral than the teachings of his Church, and said, “Not so; we have given our promise, and we ought to keep it.”
On the morrow Luther was conducted to the Diet by the marshal of the empire. The excited people so crowded the gates and jammed about the doors that the soldiers had to use their halberds to open a way for him. An instinct not yet interpreted drew their hearts and allied them with the hero. From the thronged streets, windows, and housetops came voices as he passed – voices of petition and encouragement – voices of benediction on the brave and true-voices of sympathy and adjuration to be firm in God and in the power of His might. It was Germany, Scandinavia, England, Scotland, and Holland; it was the Americas and hundreds of young republics yet unborn; it was the whole world of all after-time, with its free Gospel, free conscience, free speech, free government, free science, and free schoo1s – uttering themselves in those half-smothered voices. Luther heard them and was strengthened.
But there was no danger he would betray the momentous trust. That morning, amid great rugged prayers which broke from him like massive rock-fragments hot and burning from a volcano of mingled faith and agony, laying one hand on the open Bible and lifting the other to heaven, he cast his soul on Omnipotence, in pledge unspeakable to obey only his conscience and his God. Whether for life or death, his heart was fixed.
A few steps more and he stood before Imperial majesty, encompassed by the powers and dignitaries of the earth, so brave, calm, and true a man that thrones and kings looked on in silent awe and admiration, and even malignant scorn for the moment retreated into darkness. Since He who wore the crown of thorns stood before Pontius Pilate there had not been a parallel to this scene.17
A weak, poor man, arraigned and alone before the assembled powers of the earth, with only the grace of God and his cause on which to lean, had demand made of him whether or not he would retract his books or any part of them, Yes or No. But he did not shrink, neither did he falter.
- “Since Your Imperial Majesty and Your Excellencies require of me a direct and simple answer, I will give it. To the pope or councils I cannot submit my faith, for it is clear that they have erred and contradicted one another. Therefore, unless I am convinced by proofs from Holy Scripture or by sound reasons, and my judgment by this means is commanded by God’s Word, I cannot and will not retract anything: for a Christian cannot safely go contrary to his Conscience.”
Simple were the facts. Luther afterward wrote to a friend: “I expected His Majesty would bring fifty doctors to convict the monk outright; but it was not so. The whole history is this: Are these your books? Yes. —Will you retract them? No. —Well, then, begone.” He said the truth, but he could not then know all that was involved in what he reduced to such a simple colloquy. With that Yes and No the wheel of ages made another revolution. The breath which spoke them turned the balances in which the whole subsequent history of civilization hung. It was the Yes and No which applied the brakes to the Juggernaut of usurpation, whose ponderous wheels had been crushing through the centuries. It was the Yes and No which evidenced the reality of a power above all popes and empires. It was the Yes and No which spoke the supreme obligation of the human soul to obey God and conscience, and started once more the pulsations of liberty in the arteries of man. It was the Yes and No which divided eras, and marked the summit whence the streams began to form and flow to give back to this world a Church without a pope and a State without an Inquisition.
Charles had the happiness at Worms to hear the tidings that Fernando Cortés had added Mexico to his dominions. The emancipated peoples of the earth in the generations since have had the happiness to know that at Worms, through the inflexible steadfastness of Martin Luther, God gave the inspirations of a new and better life for them!
After Luther and his friends left Worms the emperor issued an edict putting him and all his adherents under the ban of the empire, forbidding any one to give him food or shelter, calling on all who found him to arrest him, commanding all his books to be burned, and ordering the seizure of his friends and the confiscation of their possessions.
It was what Germany got for putting an Austro-Spanish bigot on the Imperial throne.
But the cause of Rome was not helped by it. Luther’s person was made safe by the Elector, who arranged a friendly capture by which he was concealed in the Wartburg in the charge of the knights.
No one knew what had become of him.
His mysterious disappearance was naturally referred to some foul play of the Romanists, and the feeling of resentment was intense and deep. Indeed, Germany was now bent on throwing off the religion of the hierarchy. No matter what it may once have been, no matter what service it may have rendered in helping Europe through the Dark Ages, it had become gangrened, perverted, rotten, offensive, unbearable. The very means Rome took to defend it increased revolt against it. It had come to be an oppressive lie, and it had to go. No Bulls of popes or edicts of emperors could alter the decree of destiny.
And a great and blessed fortune it was that Luther still lived to guide and counsel in the momentous transition. But Providence had endowed him for the purpose, and so preserved him for its execution. What was born with the Ninety-five Theses, and baptized before the Imperial Diet at Worms, he was now to nourish, educate, catechize, and prepare for glorious confirmation before a similar Diet in the after years.
While in the Wartburg he was forbidden to issue any writings. Leisure was thus afforded for one of the most important things connected with the Reformation. Those ten months he utilized to prepare for Germany and for the world a translation of the Holy Scriptures, which itself was enough to immortalize the Reformer’s name. Great intellectual monuments have come down to us from the sixteenth century. It was an age in which the human mind put forth some of its noblest demonstrations. Great communions still look back to its Confessions as their rallying-centers, and millions of worshipers still render their devotions in the forms which then were cast. But pre-eminent over all the achievements of that sublime century was the giving of God’s Word to the people in their own language, which had its chief center and impulse in the production of Luther's German Bible. Well has it been said, “He who takes up that, grasps a whole world in his hand – a world which will perish only when this green earth itself shall pass away.”
It was the Word that kindled the heart of Luther to the work of Reformation, and the Word alone could bring it to its consummation. With the Word the whole Church of Christ and the entire fabric of our civilization must stand or fall. Undermine the Bible and you undermine the world. It is the one, true, and only Charter of Faith, Liberty, and salvation for man, without which this race of ours is a hopeless and abandoned wreck. And when Luther gave forth his German Bible, it was not only a transcendent literary achievement, which created and fixed the classic forms of his country’s language,19 but an act of supremest wisdom and devotion; for the hope of the world is forever cabled to the free and open Word of God.
Up to the time of Luther's residence in the Wartburg nothing had been done toward changing the outward forms, ceremonies, and organization of the Church. The great thing with him had been to get the inward, central doctrine right, believing that all else would then naturally come right in due time. But while he was hidden and silent certain fanatics thrust themselves into this field, and were on the eve of precipitating everything to destruction. Tidings of the violent revolutionary spirit which had broken out reached him in his retreat and stirred him with sorrowful indignation, for it was the most damaging blow inflicted on the Reformation.
It is hard for men to keep their footing amid deep and vast commotions and not drift into ruinous excesses. Storch, and Müntzer, and Carlstadt, and Melanchthon himself, were dangerously affected by the whirl of things. Even good men sometimes forget that society cannot be conserved by mere negations; that wild and lawless revolution can never work a wholesome and abiding reformation; that the perpetuity of the Church is an historic chain, each new link of which depends on those which have gone before.
There was precious gold in the old conglomerate, which needed to be discriminated, extracted, and preserved. The divine foundations were not to be confounded with the rubbish heaped upon them. There was still a Church of Christ under the hierarchy, although the hierarchy was no part of its life or essence. The Zwickau prophets (led by Nicholas Storch), with their new revelations and revolts against civil authority; the Wittenberg iconoclasts (led by Andreas Carlstadt), with their repudiation of study and learning and all proper church order; and the Sacramentarians (also led by Carlstadt, and later, in Geneva, by Ulrich Zwingli), with their insidious rationalism against the plain Word, were not to be entrusted with the momentous interests with which the cause of the Reformation was freighted. And hence, at the risk of the Elector’s displeasure and at the peril of his life, Luther came forth from his covert to withstand the violence which was putting everything in jeopardy. Grandly also did he reason out the genuine Gospel principles against all these parties. He comprehended his ground from center to circumference, and he held it alike against erring friends and menacing foes. The swollen torrent of events never once obscured his prophetic insight, never disturbed the balance of his judgment, never shook his hold upon the right. With a master-power he held revolutions and wars in check, while he revised and purified the Liturgy and Order of the Church, wrought out the evangelic truth in its applications to existing things, and reared the renewed habilitation of the pure Word and Sacraments.
It was now that Pope Leo died. His glory lasted but eight years. His successor, Adrian VI, was a moderate man, of good intentions, though he could not see what evil there was in indulgences. He exhorted Germany to get rid of Luther, but said the Church must be reformed, that the Holy See had been for years horribly polluted, and that the evils had affected head and members. He was in solemn earnest this time, and began to change and purify the papal court. To some this was as if the voice of Luther were being echoed from St. Peter’s chair, and Adrian suddenly died, no man knows of what,20 and Clement VII, a relative of Leo X., was put upon the papal throne.
In 1524 a Diet was convened at Nuremberg with reference to these same matters. Campeggio, the pope’s legate, thought it prudent to make his way thither without letting himself be known, and wrote back to his master that he had to be very cautious, as the majority of the Diet consisted of “great Lutherans.” At this Diet the Edict of Worms was virtually annulled, and it was plain enough that “great Lutherans ” had become very numerous and powerful.
Luther himself had become of sufficient consequence for Henry VIII, king of England, to write a book against him, for which the pope gave him the title of “Defender of the Faith,” and for which Luther repaid him in his own coin. Erasmus also, long the prince of the whole literary world, was dogged into the writing of a book against the great Reformer. Poor Erasmus found his match, and was overwhelmed with the result. He afterward sadly wrote: “My troops of friends are turned to enemies. Everywhere scandal pursues me and calumny defiles my name. Every goose now hisses at Erasmus.”
In 1525, Luther’s friend and protector, the Elector Frederick, died. This would have been a sad blow for the Reformation had there been no one of like mind to take his place. But God had the man in readiness. “Frederick the Wise” was succeeded by his brother, “John the Constant.”
In Hesse, in Holland, in Scandinavia, in Prussia, in Poland, in Switzerland, in France, everywhere, the Reformation advanced. Duke George of Saxony raged, got up an alliance against the growing cause, and beheaded citizens of Leipsic for having Luther’s writings in their houses. Eck still howled from Ingolstadt for fire and fagots. The dukes of Bavaria were fierce with persecutions. The archbishop of Mainz punished cities because they would not have his priests for pastors. The emperor from Spain announced his purpose to crush and exterminate “the wickedness of Lutheranism.” But it was all in vain. The sun had risen, the new era had come!
Luther now issued his Catechisms, which proved a great and glorious aid to the true Gospel. Henceforth the children were to be bred up in the pure faith. Matthesius says: “If Luther in his lifetime had achieved no other work but that of bringing his two Catechisms into use, the whole world could not sufficiently thank and repay him.” A quarrel between the emperor and the pope also contributed to the progress of the Reformation. A Diet at Speyer in 1526 had interposed a check to the persecuting spirit of the Romanists, and granted toleration to those of Luther’s mind in all the states where his doctrines were approved. The respite lasted for three years, until Charles and Clement composed their difference and united to wreak their wrath upon Luther and his adherents.
A second Diet at Speyer, in 1529, revoked the former act of toleration, and demanded of all the princes and estates an unconditional surrender to the pope’s decrees. This called forth the heroic Protest of those who stood with Luther. They refused to submit, claiming that in matters of divine service and the sou1’s salvation conscience and God must be obeyed rather than earthly powers. It was from this that the name of Protestants originated – a name which half the world now honors and accepts.
The signers of this Protest also pledged to each other their mutual support in defending their position. Zwingli urged them to make war upon the emperor. He himself afterward took the sword, and perished by it. Calvin, Cranmer, Knox, and even the Puritan Fathers as far as they had power and occasion, resorted to physical force and the civil arm to punish the rejecters of their creed. Luther repudiated all such coercion. The sword was at his command, but he opposed its use for any purposes of religion. All the weight of his great influence was given to prevent his friends from mixing external force with what should ever have its seat only in the calm conviction of the soul. He thus practically anticipated Roger Williams and William Penn and the most lauded results of modern freedom – not from constraint of circumstances and personal interests, but from his own clear insight into Gospel principles. Bloody religious wars came after he was dead, the prospect of which filled his soul with horror, and to which he could hardly give consent even in case of direst necessity for self-defense; but it is a transcendent fact that while he lived they were held in abeyance, most of all by his prayers and endeavors. He fought, indeed, as few men ever fought, but the only sword he wielded was “the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God.”
And yet another Imperial Diet was convened with reference to these religious disturbances. It was held in Augsburg in the spring of 1530. The emperor was in the zenith of his power. He had overcome his French rival. He had spoiled Rome, humbled the pope, and reorganized Italy. The Turks had withdrawn their armies. And the only thing in the way of a consolidated empire was the Reformation in Germany. To crush this was now his avowed purpose, and he anticipated no great hardship in doing it. He entered Augsburg with unwonted magnificence and pomp. He had spoken very graciously in his invitation to the princes, but it was in his heart to compel their submission to his former Edict of Worms. It behooved them to be prepared to make a full exhibit of their principles, giving the ultimatum on which they proposed to stand.
Luther had been formulating articles embodying the points adhered to in his reformatory teachings. He had prepared one set for the Marburg Conference with the Swiss divines (the Marburg Articles). He had revised and elaborated these into the Seventeen Articles of Schwabach. He had also prepared another series on abuses, submitted to the Elector John at Torgau (the Torgau Articles). All these were now committed to Melanchthon for careful elaboration into complete style and harmony for use at the Diet. Luther assisted in this work up to the time when the Diet convened, and what remained to be done was completed in Augsburg by Melanchthon and the Lutheran divines present with him. Luther himself could not be there, as he was a dead man to the law, and by command of his prince was detained at Coburg while the Diet was in session.
The first act of the emperor was to summon the protesting princes before him, asking of them the withdrawal of their Protest. This they refused. They felt that they had constitutional right, founded on the decision of Speyer, to resist the emperor’s demand; and they did not intend to surrender the just principles put forth in their noble Protest. They celebrated divine service in their quarters, led by their own clergy, and refused to join in the procession at the Roman festival of Corpus Christi. This gave much offense, and for the sake of peace they discontinued their services during the Diet.
At length they were asked to make their doctrinal presentation. Melanchthon had admirably performed the work assigned him in the making up of the Confession, and on the 25th day of June, 1530, the document, duly signed, was read aloud to the emperor in the hearing of many.
The effect of it upon the assembly was indescribable. Many of the prejudices and false notions against the Reformers were effectually dissipated. The enemies of the Reformation felt that they had solemn realities to deal with which they had never imagined. Others said that this was a more effectual preaching than that which had been suppressed. “Christ is in the Diet,” said Justus Jonas, “and He does not keep silence. God’s Word cannot be bound.” In a word, the world now had added to it one of its greatest treasures – the renowned and imperishable AUGSBURG CONFESSION.
Luther was eager for tidings of what transpired at the Diet. And when the Confession came, as signed and delivered, he wrote: “I thrill with joy that I have lived to see the hour in which Christ is preached by so many confessors to an assembly so illustrious in a form so beautiful.”
Even Reformed authors, from Calvin down, have cheerfully added their testimony to the worth and excellence of this magnificent Confession – the first since the Athanasian Creed. A late writer of this class says of it that “it best exhibits the prevailing genius of the German Reformation, and will ever be cherished as one of the noblest monuments of faith from the pentecostal period of Protestantism.” The Romanists attempted to answer the noble Confession, but would not make their Confutation public. Compromises were proposed, but they came to naught. The Imperial troops were called into the city and the gates closed to intimidate the princes, but it resulted in greater alarm to the Romanists than to them. The confessors had taken their stand, and they were not to be moved from it. The Diet ended with the decision that they should have until the following Spring to determine whether they would submit to the Roman Church or not, and, if not, that measures would then be taken for their extermination.
The emperor’s edict appeared November 19th, and the Protestant princes at once proceeded to form a league for mutual protection against attempts to force their consciences in these sacred matters. It was with difficulty that the consent of Luther could be obtained for what, to him, looked like an arrangement to support the Gospel by the sword. But he yielded to a necessity forced by the intolerance of Rome. A convention was held at Smalcald at Christmas, 1530, and there was formed the League of Smalcald, which planted the political foundations of Religious Liberty for our modern world.
By the presentation of the great Confession of Augsburg, along with the formation of the League of Smalcald, the cause of Luther became embodied in the official life of nations, and the new era of Freedom had come safely to its birth. Long and terrible storms were yet to be passed, but the ship was launched which no thunders of emperors or popes could ever shatter.21
When the months of probation ended, France had again become troublesome to the emperor, and the Turks were renewing their movements against his dominions. He also found that he could not count on the Catholic princes for the violent suppression of the Protestants. Luther’s doctrines had taken too deep hold upon their subjects to render it safe to join in a war of extermination against them. The Zwinglians also coalesced with the Lutherans in presenting a united front against the threatened bloody coercion. The Smalcald League, moreover, had grown to be a power which even the emperor could not despise. He therefore resolved to come to terms with the Protestant members of his empire, and a peace – at least a truce – was concluded at Nuremberg, which left things as they were to wait until a general council should settle the questions in dispute.
- Seiss, J. Luther and the Reformation: The Life-Springs of Our Liberties. Philadelphia: Porter & Coates. 1888. pp. 68-111. (return)
- A writer of the Roman Church, in a. vein of somewhat mingled sarcasm and seriousness, remarks: “The university had reason to be proud of Luther, whose oral lectures attracted a multitude of strangers; these pilgrims from distant quarters joined their hands and bowed their heads at the sight of the towers of the city, like other travelers before Jerusalem. Wittenberg was like a new Zion, whence the light of truth expanded to neighboring kingdoms, as of old from the Holy City to pagan nations.” (return)
- Glupio, the confessor of Charles V., stated to Chancellor [of Saxony] Brück at the Diet of Worms: “The alarm which I felt when I read the first pages of the Captivity cannot be expressed; they might be said to be lashes which scourged me from head to foot.” (return)
- The Bull was issued June 15, 1520. It specified forty-one propositions out of Luther's works which it condemned as heretical, scandalous, and offensive to pious ears. It forbade all persons to read his writings, upon pain of excommunication. Such as had any of his books in their possession were commanded to burn them. He himself, if he did not publicly recant his errors and burn his books within sixty days, was pronounced an obstinate heretic, excommunicated and delivered over to Satan. And it enjoined upon all secular princes, under pain of incurring the same censure, to seize his person and deliver him up to be punished as his crimes deserved; that is, to be burnt as a heretic. (return)
- Audin, in his Life of Luther, says: “A monk who wore a cassock out at the elbows had caused to the most powerful emperor in the world greater embarrassments than those which Francis I., his unsuccessful rival at Frankfort, threatened to raise against him in Italy. With the cannon from his arsenal at Ghent and his lances from Namur, Charles could beat the king of France between sunrise and sunset; but lances and cannon were impotent to subdue the religious revolution, which, like some of the glaciers which he crossed in coming from Spain, acquired daily a new quantity of soil” (Vol. i., chap. 25). Again, in chap. 30, he says of the emperor: “The thought of measuring his strength with the hero of Marignan was far from alarming him, but a struggle with the monk of Wittenberg disturbed his sleep. He wished that they should try to overcome his obstinacy.” (return)
- “The reception which he met with at Worms was such as he might have reckoned a full reward of all his labors if vanity and the love of applause had been the principles by which he was influenced. Greater crowds assembled to behold him than had appeared at the emperor's public entry; his apartments were daily filled with princes and personages of the highest rank; and he was treated with all the respect paid to those who possess the power of directing the understanding and sentiments of other men – a homage more sincere, as well as more flattering, than any which preeminence in birth or condition command.” —Robertson’s Charles V., vol. 1. p. 510. (return)
- A Romanist thus describes the picture: “When the approach of Luther was heard there ensued one of those deep silences in which the heart alone, by its hurried pulsations, gives sign of life. Attention was diverted from the emperor to the monk. On the appearance of Luther everyone rose, regardless of the sovereign’s presence. It inspired Werner with one of the finest acts of his tragedy... Heine has glorified the appearance at Worms. The Catholic himself loves to contemplate that black gown in the presence of those lords and barons caparisoned in iron and armed with helmet and spear, and is moved by the voice of ‘that young friar’ who comes to defy all the powers of the earth.” —Audin’s Life of Luther.
“All parties must unite in admiring and venerating the man who, undaunted and alone, could stand before such an assembly, and vindicate with unshaken courage what be conceived to be the cause of religion, of liberty, and of truth, fearless of any reproaches but those of his own conscience, or of any disapprobation but that of his God.” —Roscoe’s Life of Leo X., vol. iv. p. 36.
Luther himself, afterward recalling the event, said: “It must indeed have been God who gave me my boldness of heart; I doubt if I could show such courage again.” (return)
- “With this noble protest was laid the keystone of the Reformation. The pontifical hierarchy shook to its center, and the great cause of truth and regenerate religion spread with electric speed. The marble tomb of ignorance and error gave way, as it were, of a sudden; a thousand glorious events and magnificent discoveries thronged upon each other with pressing haste to behold and congratulate the mighty birth, the new creation, of which they were the harbingers, when, with a steady and triumphant step, the peerless form of human intellect rose erect, and, throwing off from its freshening limbs the death-shade and the grave-clothes by which it was enshrouded, ascended to the glorious resurrection of that noontide luster which irradiates the horizon of our own day, rejoicing like a giant to run his race.” —John Mason Good’s Book of Nature, p. 321. (return)
- Chevalier Bunsen says: “It is Luther’s genius applied to the Bible which has preserved the only unity which is, in our days, remaining to the German nation – that of language, literature, and thought. There is no similar instance in the known history of the world of a single man achieving such a work.” (return)
- The death of Adrian VI, on the 14th of September, 1523, was a subject of general rejoicing in Rome. There was a crown of flowers hung to the door of his physician, with a card appended which read, “To the saviour of his country.” (return)
- “The Reformation of Luther kindled up the minds of men afresh, leading to new habits of thought and awakening in individuals energies before unknown to themselves. The religious controversies of this period changed society, as well as religion, and to a considerable extent, where they did not change the religion of the state, they changed man himself in his modes of thought, his consciousness of his own powers, and his desire of intellectual attainment. The spirit of commercial and foreign adventure on the one hand and, on the other the assertion and maintenance of religious liberty, having their source in the Reformation, and this love of religious liberty drawing after it or bringing along with it, as it always does, an ardent devotion to the principle of civil liberty also, were the powerful influences under which character was formed and men trained for the great work of introducing English civilization, English law, and, what is more than all, Anglo-Saxon blood, into the wilderness of North America.” —Daniel Webster, Works, vol. i. pg. 94. (return)