THE REFORMED CHURCH
(FROM THE FALL OF CONSTANTINOPLE, 1453 A.D TO THE END OF THE THIRTY YEARS’ WAR, 1648)
THE REFORMATION IN GERMANY
In this period of two hundred years, the great fact which arrests attention is the Reformation, which began in Germany and spread over all northern Europe, resulting in the establishment of national churches owning no allegiance to Rome. Let us notice some antecedent forces leading to the Reformation, and greatly furthering its progress.
One of these was that remarkable movement known as the literature, art and science; the change from medieval Ages the interest of scholars had been in religious truth, with philosophy as related to religion; and the chief thinkers and writers, as we have seen, were churchmen. But in this awakening a new interest arose in classic literature, Greek and Latin, in are, soon drawing apart from religion, and withe that interest came the first gleams of modern science. The leaders of the movement were generally not priests nor monks, but laymen, especially in Italy, where the Renaissance began, not as a religious but a literary movement, yet not openly anti-religious, so much as skeptical or inquiring. Most of the Italian students of the period were men devoid of religious life; even the popes of that time were marked by culture, rather than faith. North of the Alps, in Germany, England and France, the movement was more religious, awakening a new interest in the Scriptures, Greek and Hebrew, and a search for the true foundations of faith, apart from the dogmas of Rome. Everywhere, South and North alike, the Renaissance
undermined the Roman Catholic Church.
The invention of printing called forth a herald and ally of the coming reform, in the press. The discovery was made by Gutenberg, in 1456, at Mayence on the Rhine, that books could be printed from moveable types, and with ease disseminated by the thousand. Before this invention, from the beginning of time, books had been circulated only as rapidly as they could be copied out by hand. A Bible in the Middle Ages cost the wages of a working man for a year. It is significant as showing the desire of that time, that the first book printed by Gutenberg was the Bible. The press brought the Scriptures into common use, and led to their translation and circulation in all the languages of Europe. The people who read the New Testament soon realized that the papal church was far from the New Testament ideal. And the new teachings of the Reformers, as fast as they appeared, were set forth in books and pamphlets, which were circulated by the million throughout Europe.
There was also arising in Europe a spirit of nationality. This differed from the medieval strifes between emperors and popes, in that it was more a popular than a kingly movement. The patriotism of the people was beginning to manifest itself in an unwillingness to submit to a foreign rule over their own national churches; to resist the appointment by a pope in a distant land, of bishops, abbots, and church dignitaries; a disposition to withhold the contribution of “Peter’s pence” for the support to the pope and the building of stately churches in Rome; and a determination to abridge the power of the church councils, bringing the clergy under the same laws and courts with the laity. This national spirit was a strong support to
While the spirit of reform and of independence was awakening through all Europe, the flame burst forth first in Germany, in the electorate of Saxony, under the leadership of Martin Luther, a monk and professor in the University of Wittenberg. Let us notice some of its earlier stages.
The reigning pope, Leo X, needing large sums of money for the completion of St. Peter’s Church at Rome, permitted an agent named John Tetzel to go through Germany selling certificates, signed by the pope himself, purporting to bestow the pardon of all sins, not only upon the holders of the certificates, but upon friends living or dead in whose behalf they were purchased, without confession, repentance, penance, or absolution by a priest. Tetzel told the people “As soon as your coin clinks in the chest, the souls of your friends will rise out of purgatory to heaven,” Luther preached against Tetzel and his selling of pardons, denouncing his teaching in no measured terms.
The exact date fixed upon by historians as the beginning of the Great Reformation, is October 31, 1517. On the morning of that day Martin Luther nailed to the oaken door of Wittenberg Cathedral a parchment containing ninety-five these or statements, nearly all relating to the sale of indulgences, but in their application striking at the authority of the pope and the priesthood. The rulers of the church vainly endeavored to coerce and to cajole Luther, but he stood firm, and the storm only made him resolute in his opposition to doctrines and practices not countenanced by Holy Scripture.
After many controversies, and the publication of pamphlets which made Luther’s opinion known throughout Germany, his teachings were formally condemned, and he was excommunicated by a bull of Pope Leo X in June, 1520. The Elector Frederick of Saxony was commanded to deliver up Luther for trial and punishment, but, instead, he gave him ample protection, as he sympathized with his views. Luther met the excommunication with defiance, called it “the execrable bull of Antichrist.” and on December 10, 1520, publicly burned it at the gates of Wittenberg, before an assemblage of the University professors, the students and the people. With the papal bull he burned also copies of the canons or laws enacted by the Roman authorities. This act constituted Luther’s final
renunciation of the Roman Catholic Church.
In 1521, Luther was summoned before the Diet or Supreme Council of the German rulers, meeting at Worms on the Rhine. The new emperor, Charles the Fifth, gave him the promise of a safe conduct, and Luther went to the assembly; though warned by his friends that he might meet the fate of John Huss in similar circumstances at the Council of Constance, in1415. Luther said “I will go to Worms, though as many devils were aiming at me as tiles on the roof.” On April 17, 1521, Luther stood before the Diet over which the emperor was presiding, and in answer to the question whether he would retract the statements in his books, replied what was disproved by Scripture or reason, ending with the words: “Here I stand ; I can do naught else. God help me. Amen.” The emperor Charles was to be kept with heretics, but he permitted him to leave Worms in peace.
While Luther was traveling homeward, he was suddenly arrested by soldiers of the Elector Frederick and taken, for his safety, to the castle of the Wartburg in Thuringia. He remained there nearly a year, in disguise, while storms of war and revolt were raging in the empire. But he was not idle, for during this retirement he made his translation of the New Testament into the German tongue, a work which alone would have made him immortal, for his version is regarded as the foundation of the German written language. This was in 1521; the Old Testament was not completed until several years later. Coming from Wartburg back to Wittenberg, he resumed his leadership in the movement for a Reformed church, just in time to save it from extravagant
The division of the German states into the reformed and Roman branches was between the North and South. The Southern princes, led by Austria, adhered to Rome, while those of the North were mainly followers of Luther. A Diet was held at Spires in 1529, in the vain hope of reconciling the two parties. At this Diet, the Catholic rulers were in the majority, and condemned the Lutheran doctrines. The princes forbade any teaching of Lutheranism in states where it had not become dominant; and in the states already Lutheran required that the Catholics should be allowed the free exercise of their religion. To this unequal ruling the Lutheran princes made a formal protest and from that time they were known as Protestants, and their doctrines as the Protestant religion.