Special History Issue – Church History 1517-1799

The Reformation and Martin Luther

Richard Doctor

The intoxicating excesses of the Italian Renaissance were totally alienherald history issue to the conservative national culture emerging in northern Europe. In Germany, Wittenberg’s nobility still took medieval pride in their collection of relics of the saints. Fittingly, the relics were set off in gold and silver artwork and—to maintain the mystery—were only brought out for the great feast day of “All Saints.” Within the castle church, carvings of the Virgin Mary and the saints looked down from their perches approvingly. It was said that they stood ever ready as heavenly intercessors if entreated in prayer and remembered by burning a candle in their honor.

Midday on October 31, 1517, the day preceding “All Saints,” an Augustinian monk who served as the theology professor at the local university made his way to the church door of Wittenberg castle. There he hammered up a handwritten document in Latin entitled a “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.” The “disputation” set forth ninety-five theses challenging the theology of selling deliverance from sin. Martin Luther was certain this was bad Catholic theology. If a person was literate, as many of the town people were, he was literate in Latin, so Luther’s challenge was read and devoured with great interest. The literate then translated it for the benefit of bystanders.

Soon the wheels of ecclesiastical discipline began their slow inexorable movement to grind up this most recent challenger. But the world was changing. Seventy years earlier Johannes Guttenberg had built the first printing press using movable type, and the era of mass communication had begun. For the Papacy, the time-tested methods for dealing with dissent were to prove unworkable. Within two weeks, printed copies of the ninety-five theses were posted all over Germany; within five weeks they arrived at the Vatican. An emerging literate middle class could no longer be controlled by superstition and ignorance.

As events would unfold, compromise with Rome would prove to be impossible. The scriptural testimony that “the just shall live by faith” was to make a deeper and deeper impact on Luther’s belief. Luther was remarkable for his morally courageous, articulate, energetic, and unwavering stand for principle in opposition to Rome. At his trial in Worms on April 17, 1521, Luther, speaking in German, rather than Latin, stunned the audience by his closing statement:

“Unless I am convicted 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. Here I stand. God help me. Amen.”

Noblemen, risking their titles, lands, and lives would soon protect, hide, and actively aid Luther in advancing the cause of “Protestantism.” What began with an obscure professor’s challenge to indulgences ended with the changing of the face of Europe.

The Anabaptists

Soon blood was everywhere. Warfare, pestilence, and poverty became the rule of life. Fearsome executions awaited any—Catholic, Protestant, Anabaptist, and frequently Jew—who would not conform to the convictions of the local majority. Starting from that fateful day in Wittenberg, 150 years of unrelieved misery reigned in Europe. At long last the Peace of Westphalia (1648) set the modern map of Europe with Catholics and Protestants agreeing to an uneasy truce. But with the ending of broader warfare, a full generation of fighting continued within national borders to establish conformity to state worship, be it Protestant or Catholic.

The Reformation led to church ransacking and the burning of images and reliquaries. Church lands were confiscated. Monasteries and convents were emptied. Like Luther himself, many of the former celibate inmates were now married and raising families. In Luther’s case, his marriage to a former nun left pious adherents of Catholicism completely mortified.

Though Protestant churches now stood with stark interiors, they were more alive than ever. Christ was now considered the one mediator between God and man. The sermon, rather than the mass, now served as the focal point for the church service. Luther believed that “the Devil, the originator of sorrowful anxieties and restless troubles, flees before the sound of music almost as much as before the word of God.” In unison, it was the congregation that now sang the modern and soul-inspiring hymns including Luther’s chorale, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”

The presses continued their labors. Soon tracts and Bible texts were placed directly into the hands of a thoughtful and increasingly literate citizenry. Wherever Protestantism went, groups emerged, earnest to learn only from Scripture, without appealing to church authority. This “grass roots” religious movement soon proved unwilling to stop the reforming where Luther did. Anabaptists were wide-ranging in doctrine, but three issues characterized them. They took strong exception to any church-state union, maintaining that this was whoredom. They took exception with Luther and the leading Swiss reformer, Ulrich Zwingli, on the propriety of baptizing infants. Because they baptized adults, they were called “Anabaptists” or “those baptizing again.” They believed that baptism was only for those who had “received Jesus Christ and wished to have him for Lord, King, and Bridegroom, and bind themselves also publicly to him, and in truth submit themselves to him and betroth themselves to him through the covenant of baptism and also give themselves over to him dead and crucified and hence to be at all times subject, in utter zeal, to his will and pleasure.”—The Ordinance of God, Melchior Hofmann (1530).

A third point of contention was Luther’s support for the mass (embracing consubstantiation rather than the Catholic transubstantiation). Here the Anabaptists, Zwingli, and other reformers argued that Christ intended the bread and the wine at the last supper as a remembrance, or memorial, not as a sacrifice. Meeting with Zwingli to discuss the mass, Luther moved to the chalkboard writing only, “This is my body.” In his passionate and irascible manner the force of this effort broke the chalk he was holding. For Luther the discussion was ended.

The Anabaptists focused on Bible study and prophecy, and studied the tabernacle recognizing that its ordinances foreshadowed Christ. Some Anabaptist fellowships in northern Italy, Poland, and Romania also denied that God is triune. Nearly one hundred years later, writing on the eve of the thirty years war, one of their highest tributes comes from an implacable enemy:

“Among all the heretical sects which have their origin from Luther … not a one has a better appearance and greater external holiness than the Anabaptists. Other sects are for the most part riotous, bloodthirsty and given over to carnal lusts; not so the Anabaptists. They call each other brothers and sisters; they use neither profanity nor unkind language; they use no weapons of defense … they own nothing in private but have everything in common. They do not go to law before judicial courts but bear everything patiently, as they say, in the Holy Spirit. Who should suppose that under this sheep’s clothing only ravening wolves are hidden?”—Of the Cursed Beginnings of the Anabaptists, Christoph Fischer, Roman Catholic, (1615).

Quaker and Huguenot Testimony

“Bear the cross, and stand faithful to God, then he will give thee an everlasting crown of glory, that shall not be taken from thee. There is no other way that shall prosper than that which holy men of old have walked.”—Thomas Loe, Quaker, (1662).

Loe’s preaching in Oxford moved young William Penn to openly criticize the Church of England, leading to Penn’s expulsion from Oxford University. Penn, the son of a British Admiral, left for France and soon found his way to L’Academie Protestante de Saumur, then a flourishing center for Huguenot Protestant learning. It may be surprising to know that such a center briefly prospered in France. This was a consequence of the liberal policies in 1598 instituted by the Protestant-born and raised Henry IV. Henry desired to make amends for the horrors his predecessor Charles IX had perpetrated in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572. Conditions in the world were changing, and while horrors were yet to come, a new consciousness was slowly emerging. Although the Huguenots later would be expelled from France (1685), the tearing out of heretic’s tongues, nailing them to carts, burning them, or drowning them, and the horrors of massacres similar to that occurring on St. Bartholomew’s Day, were losing favor as accepted instruments of statecraft.

The air at Saumur was filled with discussion of the prophecies in Daniel and Revelation. Collective opinion held that the churches of Revelation were progressive and that the church was in the sixth, or Philadelphia stage. This point was not lost on Penn later in his life. Huguenot scholar Pierre de Launay (1573-1661) sought to determine when, during the Gothic and Vandal ravages of Rome, it was proper to begin counting the 1,260 days of Daniel using the day-for-a-year formula. By far, the most significant scholar of this period was Pierre Jurieu (1637-1713), then a young man himself. Writing after the Huguenot expulsion from France in 1686, Jurieu would extend de Launay’s methods concluding that the Lord’s special judgment would fall on France—the tenth part of the city—in the decade of 1780-90, and certainly by 1796.

Returning to England, Penn found himself among the Quakers and soon he was arrested for running afoul of the religious laws. The seriousness of the charges kept escalating, and eventually his treatise The Sandy Foundation Shaken put him in the Tower of London with the bishop charging blasphemy. Penn had criticized Trinitarian belief as unscriptural and illogical: “[For] what can any man of sense conclude but that here be three distinct infinites” and, “It is manifest then, though I deny the Trinity of Separate Persons in one Godhead, yet consequentially, I do not deny the deity of Jesus Christ.”

Cross and Crown

Penn’s seven months in the tower were spent writing No Cross—No Crown, a widely disseminated treatise that fixed the image of the Cross and Crown in the hearts and minds of the Lord’s people from that time forward. Penn’s words are simple, sincere, and scriptural: “What is our cup and cross that we should drink and suffer? They are the denial and offering up of ourselves, by the same spirit, to do or suffer the will of God for his service and glory, which is the true obedience of the cross of Jesus.”

Penn reexamined scriptural promises passed over since St. Augustine. Theologians had minimized the importance of the church’s life experiences with Augustine, considering these but memories “dissipated like clouds.” Penn recognized that these life experiences acquired under unfavorable conditions would be an eternal benefit; the consciousness of the church’s suffering with Christ was slowly emerging.

The death of Sir William Penn in 1670 left young Penn in control of the family fortune, including a massive debt owed to Sir William Penn by the crown. With this financial support, Penn now had the means to pursue his pilgrim ministry nearly full time, and he traveled throughout England, Ireland, and along the Rhine River preaching the Quaker doctrine. Recognizing that the crown could never remit the growing debt to his late father, he fixed upon asking the king for a colony in America in payment. His focus on this “holy experiment” of founding Pennsylvania, and planning and building its principle city of Philadelphia, would become his best-remembered legacy. Echoes of Saumur ring in the name Philadelphia.

In practical politics William Penn proved highly capable as a lawgiver, mediator, and practical pacifist. His bold unarmed approach to the Indian chiefs at the great elm of Shakamaxon had caused them to set down their bows and arrows. Penn’s governance was becoming legendary. Long after his passing there still was talk of the Indians’ deep mourning over the death of their dear brother to whom they had bound themselves “to live in love.” Voltaire, who usually could manage only derisive comments about religion, praised Penn as the greatest lawgiver since antiquity. Although the revolution to follow was not to be accomplished by pacifist means, Penn’s hopes were that God would make his colony “the seed of the nation.” And so it would prove.

With the religious wars of Europe ended, the following century was one of explosive growth on every front of human inquiry. Modern medicine and science began. The earth was known to revolve around the sun, the orbit of the moon was explained, light was understood, and mechanical engines were developed to replace the muscle-power of draught animals. Math problems unsolved for thousands of years were solved. New musical forms opened unexplored realms of experience for the human spirit. The social well-being of common people became the focus of interest for new sciences seeking to understand social, political, and economic theory. All of this fed the minds of those who thought about a revolution in the social and political order. Most importantly, this all impacted religion. With an eye to the recent past, there was a suspicion of all things religious among the elite. Agnosticism, deism, and Unitarianism became the preferred expressions of spirituality among society’s leaders.

France and Philadelphia—1776-1799

While France was the focal point for much of this effort, it would be pamphlets in English and distributed overseas that were to fan the embers of revolution in the American colonies. Following a declaration of independence originating from Philadelphia on July 4, 1776, the American colonies successfully broke from England after five years of fighting. Seizing on this example, the revolution came home to France. Heeding cries of “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity,” it was the common citizens who led an exceptionally bloody revolution, serving notice to monarchs everywhere that their days were numbered. The French revolution also led to the rise of Napoleon.

Napoleon represents a decisive watershed in world history, for the world had never seen anyone quite like him before nor has it since. Like Alexander the Great, Napoleon had a vision not only for conquest but for remaking the culture of Europe. The pope’s co-operation with the Allies against the French Republic, and the murder of the French attaché, Basseville, at Rome, led to Napoleon’s attack on the Papal States, concluding in the Truce of Bologna (June 25, 1796). But in an attempt to revolutionize Rome, the French General Duphot was shot and killed; whereupon the French took Rome on February 10, 1798, and proclaimed the Roman Republic on February 15. Because the pope refused to submit, he was forcibly taken from Rome on the night of February 20 and brought first to Siena and then to Florence. At the end of March 1799 though seriously ill, he was hurried to Parma, Piacenza, Turin, then over the Alps to Briançon and Grenoble, and finally to Valence where he succumbed to his sufferings before he could be brought further.

Entering into a concordant with Pius VII, the successor of Pius VI crowned on March 1800, Napoleon tersely laid out his terms. The refusal of Pius VII to acquiesce sufficiently resulted in fourteen years of house arrest and his removal from Italy to Fontainebleau. Although Pius would return in triumph to Rome in 1814 after Napoleon’s fall, for the rest of the century the Papacy would see only an unremitting loss of prestige, power, and property.

None of these epoch-defining events was lost on John Lathrop (1731-1820), a Yale-educated divinity scholar. Lathrop was particularly active in drawing attention to the prophetic studies of Jurieu, who had predicted the French revolution nearly one hundred years earlier. Lathrop’s work recognized the critical importance of biblical chronology. Soon William Miller (1782-1849) and others would bring out additional pearls long hidden.

Freedom of Religion

At the same time, U.S. president John Adams’ prudence alone prevented a war in 1799 that would have placed the young republic into combat against Napoleon. From Adams’ office in Philadelphia, the first seat of government, it was possible to look out on the streets and witness the great changes wrought by acting on religious vision. He knew that the power of religion could be exercised for good or ill. In general, Adams’ belief was that it had been exercised for ill and he strongly supported the separation of church and state. In this he played a critical role. As soon as the constitution for the new nation was ratified, he immediately criticized it as incomplete because it had failed to define the protection of human rights. Jefferson and Madison agreed to draft a “Bill of Rights” to correct this oversight. The opening phrase of the first of ten amendments to the constitution ratified December 15, 1791, marks a turning point for church and state. For the first time in any nation’s history freedom of worship was official state policy: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

It had been 265 years since Felix Manz, the first Anabaptist martyr, perished in the “third baptism” under the freezing waters of the Limmat River near Wellenberg, Switzerland. At last the Anabaptist entreaty for the separation of church and state was law. As the nineteenth century dawned, a culture in Europe and North America holding religious, social, political, and scientific world-views unimagined by Luther held world stage. This fulfils Christ’s promise to the church of Philadelphia, “Behold, I have set before thee an open door, and no man can shut it” (Revelation 3:8). In the next century, economic upheaval from a movement soon to be called the “industrial revolution,” and scientific advances, would provide Christianity with its greatest challenges, and its greatest triumphs.

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