Martin Luther, part X – The Fanatics

While many new friends were joining the Reformation, even in the face of persecution, a principle of weakness was growing from within the ranks of the reformers. Two camps began to form, dividing the Protestant world—the Luther an and the Reformed.

Fanatics arose calling for forsaking all outward ordinances claiming men were to be guided by an inner light and that religion was exclusively a spiritual communion. Luther saw that this theory would end in the destruction of not only the outward but also the inward spirit of religion. At first the differences were confined to Luther and Carlstadt who had stood together against Dr. Eck. They differed in the Sacrament of the Supper, and Luther, who at an earlier time seemed to recognize the presence of Christ in the Sacrament as a symbol, reverted backward to the old position that the body and blood of Christ were actually present in the bread and wine but that these maintained their natural substance as well. “His doctrine of justification by faith alone implied the total renunciation of this idea; but, as regards the Sacraments, he did not so fully vindicate his freedom from the old beliefs.” History of Protestantism, book 1, 508

Carlstadt would not give in on this point and he also “attacked Luther on the subject of images . . . Luther not only tolerated the presence of images in the churches, like Zwingli, for the sake of the weak; he feared to displace them even when the worshippers desired their removal. He believed they might be helpful. Carlstadt denounced these tendencies and weaknesses as Popery.” Ibid, 509

Hatred of images began to be shown through acts of violence as churches and cloisters were broken into and images burned. Luther called on Frederick to curb this fanatical spirit. This is evidence that the reformer believed that the Reformation had more to fear from fanaticism within than from the persecutors.

Carlstadt began to decry Luther and Lutherans and Elector Frederick ordered him out of his dominions. Carlstadt moved southward spreading not only his views of the Supper and images but also proclaiming loudly his hatred of Luther and blaming him for all of his calamities.
The aged Elector began to fear that the Reformation was going too far. The necessary process of causing men to question and seek answers and the extreme ideas of some caused him alarm but his faith in the Reformed doctrine grew even as his health failed. He was at peace as he dictated his last instructions to his brother and called for reading of the promises of God’s word as he breathed his last.

War of the Peasants

The oppression of the German peasants had grown for centuries. The privileges to roam the forest and hunt and build their huts where they pleased, had been removed. They were expected to remain on their native property and by their sweat till the fields of their masters and spill their blood defending their masters in their quarrels. The small income that they were given was stripped from them by the priest by spiritual threat. As they compared their lot with their masters they were embittered.

The Reformation came on the stage and could have worked to heal the hearts of princes and their subjects, but its progress was prevented by force and then it was accused of causing the unrest that it could have cured if it had been allowed to grow. The poor, by imposed ignorance, knew of only one way to right the situation—death to their oppressors and destruction of their castles and lands. The rulers were content to shut their eyes to their own misdeeds and blame the Gospel for the unrest.

Some justification for this view was supplied as Thomas Munzer, a professed convert of the Reformation, used a religious element to fire the already hot tempers of the peasants. He put himself at the head of the revolted peasantry and taught them to put on the sword of Gideon and seek their liberty by their own hands. The peasants wrote twelve articles of demands which were quite moderate and reasonable but which the unwise princes chose to deny with their hands pressed to their swords.

Luther must now decide on the right course for the Reformation concerning this battle ready to erupt. “He knew that to ally so holy a cause as the Reformation with a movement at best but political, would be to profane it; and that to borrow the sword of men in its behalf was the sure way to forfeit the help of the mightier sword which alone could win such a battle. The Reformation had its own path and its own weapons, to which if it adhered, it would assuredly triumph in the end. It would correct all wrongs, would explode all errors, and pacify all feuds, but only by propagating its own principles, and diffusing its own spirit among men. Luther, therefore, stood apart.” Ibid, 514

This course made it possible for him to try to work with both parties. He was able to speak to each side. He told the peasants that they had chosen the wrong way to try to improve their lot. They must exercise Christian submission and wait for the healing power of the Gospel. He urged them to allow the process of reform to do its work and he argued that “it was preachers, not soldiers—the gospel, not rebellion, that is to benefit the world. And he warned them that if they should oppose the gospel in the name of the gospel, they would only rivet the yoke of their enemies upon their neck.” Ibid, 514

He worked faithfully with the princes reminding them of the tyranny which they and their fathers had long exerted toward the people. He spoke more plainly to the bishops revealing how they had hid the Gospel from the people replacing the doctrines of truth with fables and cheats. He said they were only reaping what they had sown and that God was using the peasantry as His instrument for their chastisement.

The courage and wisdom of the Reformer were evident as Luther spoke with these parties at the brink of war, but his mediation was not successful in preventing the cruel violence which soon erupted. Insurrection began to spread like wildfire, in the summer of 1524, filling towns with tumults, sedition and terrors. The twelve articles were published and demands for their enforcement were followed by armies of peasants who trampled fields, looted barns and storehouses, demolished castles of the nobility, and burned convents to the ground.

Death and destruction raged from town to town and the princes seemed to be chased before this whirlwind. But they recovered and joined their forces to oppose the rebels. On May 15th, 1525, they found the rebel camp of Munzer and his forces who were poorly armed. The princes sent a messenger with an offer of pardon if the rebels would lay down their arms. The rebels killed the messenger at Munzer’s suggestion and both camps prepared for battle. Munzer stood before his army and claimed that the Lord would fight for them and that they would be delivered as Israel at the Red Sea, David with Goliath, and Jonathan when he attacked the Philistine garrison. He vowed that his own coat would catch all the bullets shot at them and insisted that victory was theirs.

The first onset of battle, however, found the rebels at flight with Munzer among the first to try to escape. He was captured and more than five thousand peasants were slain. The battle moved into another region where over two-hundred castles had burned besides noblemen’s houses and monasteries. “Luther raised his voice again, but this time to pronounce an unqualified condemnation on a movement which, from a demand for just rights, had become a war of pillage and murder. He called on all to gird on the sword and resist it.” Ibid, 517

The war ended with terrible retaliation taken by the princes against the peasants. Estimates of the slain range from 50,000 to 100,000, with the high figure probably more accurate. Munzer was decapitated after torture on the rack where he admitted his crimes. Other rebel leaders were convicted and died with dreadful tortures.

In the end, the revolt was not seen in the places where the Gospel had taken hold. The differences between Protestantism and Romanism were illustrated. If only the Reformation had been allowed to do its work in all of the provinces, how different would have been the result. “This outbreak taught the age, moreover, that Protestantism could no more be advanced by popular violence than it could be suppressed by aristocratic tyranny.” Ibid, 518

The Battle of Pavia

Romanism, because it mixed with the politics of Europe, found its fortunes rose and fell with the King or Emperor with which it sided. Protestantism, free from this encumbrance, was able to develop principles and find its course apart from the turmoil of the political arena. But, God could intervene in the political arena for the benefit of the Reformation. Marvelous was the outcome where man could never have maneuvered such victories. This was made manifest in the Battle of Pavia and the resulting Diet at Spires and the effects of these on Protestantism.

The Kings of France and Spain were battling one another for possession of Italy. Of course, the Pope thought that he was rightful ruler and he used his political influence to try to keep these two kings of about equal power so that one would check the other. All three were agreed on one thing however, they were enemies of the Reformation. During the course of battle, the Spanish Charles V defeated the French Francis I, capturing the well fortified Pavia and taking Francis captive. The king was carried to Madrid as a trophy and spent a year in captivity. Charles worked out an agreement for Francis’ release which stipulated among other things that they would fight together the Turks and the enemies of the Church, rooting out heretics.

Charles thought this was his chance to finally rid the world of the hated monk who had none to defend him. He called for a diet at Augsburg for the purpose of executing the Edict of Worms. The prospects for Protestantism grew darker every hour. The emperor had never been stronger and Frederick was now dead. The princes which backed Protestantism were new to the cause and were discouraged by the dangers. Germany was divided, the Ratisbon League was rampant and it appeared that the author of the Edict of Worms was about to carry out the order. “The only man who did not tremble was Luther . . . He knew that if the Gospel had been stripped of all earthly defense it was not because it was about to perish, but because a Divine hand was about to be stretched out in its behalf, so visibly as to give proof to the world that it had a Protector, though ‘unseen’, more powerful than its enemies.” Ibid, 521

Luther Marries

While calamity seemed about to strike, Luther did not run but he took Catherine von Bora as his wife. Many of his friends were stunned that he could make such a move while disaster seemed eminent. “Even some of the disciples of the Reformation were scandalized at Luther’s marrying an ex-nun, so slow are men to cast off the trammels of ages.

“With Catherine von Bora there entered a new light into the dwelling of Luther. To sweetness and modesty, she added a more than ordinary share of good sense. A genuine disciple of the Gospel, she became the faithful companion and help-meet of the Reformer in all the labours and trials of his subsequent life.” Ibid, 522

The Diet at Spires

Events seemed to foretell a repeat of the crusades and the extinction of Protestantism but to the amazement of all the storm moved and dispensed its fury over Rome.

One would have thought that the Pope would have thrown his lot with Charles at this important juncture but in a suicidal policy he turned from the emperor and called for a league against him. Clement did not want the emperor to be too strong for he designed to set Italy as an independent kingdom with he himself as its temporal monarch. His dream, of restoring the power of the papacy to its glories under Gregory VII, misled him. The “Holy League,” of all the nations who feared the emperors overgrown power, was set in motion with the King of England at its head.

In Germany, meantime, the diet at Augsburg had been so poorly attended in the autumn of 1525, that it was adjourned to midsummer of the next year in Spires. June of 1526, found the assembling of all the electoral princes except the Prince of Brandenburg. None was aware of the league against the emperor.

The Reformed princes made a strong showing, riding into the city with large retinues of armed retainers bearing a banner embroidered with five letters which stood for, in translation, “The Word of the Lord endureth for ever.” Under this banner they would conquer. They first demanded a church for the preaching of the gospel and when denied they opened their hotels for worship. On one occasion as many as 8,000 were gathered to hear the sermon. Luther’s tracts were freely distributed and helped to move the public strongly in the Reformed direction.

Charles had made his brother Ferdinand of Austria to preside over the diet. He thought to see something of the movement of the diet before reading his brothers instructions. In August, the Reformed princes gave a paper with certain complaints against the policies of the emperor. Seeing the diet turning toward Wittenberg, Ferdinand drew forth the emperor’s letter demanding that all within his kingdom move forward according to the form and tenor of the Edict of Worms. What was to happen now? What was to be done? The Reformation seemed at the Red Sea, blocked on every side.

At this hour a strange rumor reached Spires. There was strife between the emperor and the pope! Here were the great workings of the unseen hand made evident. The mighty confederacy was broken into two camps as the walls of the Red Sea and the Protestant army under its sacred banner were to march through to safety. “Instead of girding himself to fight against Lutheranism for the Pope, Charles must now ask the aid of Lutheranism in the battle that he was girding himself to fight against the Pope and his confederate kings.” Ibid, 529. “Thus the storm passed away. Nay, the crisis resulted in great good to the Reformation.” Ibid, 530

The Diet of Spires resulted in a decree which made the existence of Protestantism legal in the Empire with every state free to act in religion according to its own judgment. “This edict was the first legal blow dealt at the supremacy and infallibility of Rome.” Ibid, 530

By November, an army of 20,000 was marching through the snow to join the emperor’s general and march on Rome with an iron chain with which to hang the Pope. On the 5th of May, the troops reached Rome and were within the walls in hours. The Pope and his cardinals fled to the Castle of St. Angelo, and when he would not surrender the attack began.

In the first assault, the general was slain and the army left without a strong leader. The unrestrained army proceeded to plunder the magnificent city of the accumulated wealth of centuries. Their rage and greed resulted in unsparing and pitiless pillage. Even the corpses of the Popes were robbed of their rings and ornaments. Plunder was piled in heaps in the market places.

The remaining inhabitants suffered cruel tortures. Estimates of the number of victims range from 5,000 to 10,000 with all ages, ranks and both sexes suffering together. The more than 30,000 armed men of the city knew no bravery. They might have stopped the advancing army or chased them from their walls if they had been courageous. But in a matter of days, the city fell from the prime of her medieval glory which it had taken centuries to develop and which centuries have not been able to restore.

The End