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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 10 — Rise and Establishment of Protestantism in Sweden and Denmark

Chapter 1 — Causes that influenced the reception or rejection of Protestantism in the various countries

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Germany -causes disposing it toward the New Movement — Central Position — Free Towns — Sobriety and Morality of the People — Switzerland — The Swiss — Hardy-Lovers of Liberty — The New Liberty — Some Accept, some Refuse —France— Its Greatness — Protestantism in France Glorified by its Martyrs — Retribution — Bohemia and Hungary— Protestantism Flourishes there — Extinction by Austrian Tyranny — Holland — Littleness of the Country—Heroism — Holland raised to Greatness by the Struggle — Belgium — Begins Well — Faints — Sinks down under the Two-fold Yoke of Religious and Secular Despotism.

WHAT we have already narrated is only the opening of the great drama in some of the countries of Christendom. Protestantism was destined to present itself at the gates of all the kingdoms of Europe. Thither must we follow it, and chronicle the triumphs it obtained in some of them, the defeat it sustained in others. But first let us take a panoramic view of the various countries, as respects the state of their peoples and their preparedness for the great, spiritual movement which was about to enter their territories. This will enable us to understand much that is to follow. In these opening Chapters we shall summarize the moral revolutions, with the national splendors in some cases, the national woes in others, that attended them, the historical record of which will occupy the pages that are to follow.

In some countries Protestantism made steady and irresistible advance, and at last established itself amid the triumphs of art and the higher blessings of free and stable government. In others, alas! it failed to find any effectual entrance. Though thousands of martyrs died to open its way, it was obliged to retire before an overwhelming array of stakes and scaffolds, leaving the barriers of these unhappy countries, as France and Spain, for instance, to be forced open by ruder instrumentality's at a later day. To the gates at which the Reformation had knocked in vain in the sixteenth century, came Revolution in the eighteenth in a tempest of war and bloody insurrections.

During the profound night that shrouded Europe for so many centuries, a few lights appeared at intervals on the horizon. They were sent to minister a little solace to those who waited for the dawn, and to give assurance to men that the "eternal night," to use the pagan phrase, had not descended upon the earth. In the middle of the fourteenth century, Wicliffe appeared in England; and nearly half a century later, Huss and Jerome arose in Bohemia. These blessed lights, welcome harbinger of morn — nay, that morn itself — cheered men for a little space; but still the day tarried. A century rolls away, and now the German sky begins to brighten, and the German plains to glow with a new radiance. Is it day that looks forth, or is it but a deceitful gleam, fated to be succeeded by another century of gloom? No! the times of the darkness are fulfilled, and the command has gone forth for the gates to open and day to shine in all its effulgence.

Both the place and the hour were opportune for the appearance of the Reformer. Germany was a tolerably central spot. The great lines of communication lay through it. Emperors visited it at times; imperial Diets were often held in it, which brought thither, in crowds princes, philosophers, and scribes., and attracted the gaze of many more who did not come in person. It had numerous free towns in which mechanical arts and burghal rights flourished together.

Other countries were at that moment less favorably situated. France was devoted to arms, Spain was wrapped up in its dignity, and yet more in its bigotry, which had just been intensified by the presence on its soil of a rival superstition — Islam namely — which had seized the fairest of its provinces, and displayed its symbols from the walls of the proudest of its cities. Italy, guarded by the Alps, lay drowned in pleasure. England was parted from the rest of Europe by the sea. Germany was the country which most largely fulfilled the conditions required in the spot where the second cradle of the movement should be placed. In its sympathies, sentiments, and manners Germany was more ecumenical than any other country; it belonged more to Christendom, and was, moreover, the connecting link between Asia and Europe, for the commerce of the two hemispheres was carried across it, though not wholly so now, for the invention of the mariner's compass had opened new channels for trade, and new routes for the navigator.

If we consider the qualities of the people, there was no nation on the Continent so likely to welcome this movement and to yield themselves to it. The Germans had escaped, in some degree, the aestheticism which had emasculated the intellect, and the vice which had embruted the manners of the southern nations. They retained to a large extent the simplicity of life which had so favorably distinguished their ancestors; they were frugal, industrious, and sober-minded. A variety of causes had scattered among them the seeds of a coming liberty, and its first sproutings were seen in the interrogatories they were beginning to put to themselves, why it should be necessary to import all their opinions from beyond the Alps, where the people were neither better, braver, nor wiser than themselves. They could not understand why nothing orthodox should grow save in Italian soil.

Here, then, marked by many signs, was the spot where a movement whose forces were stirring below the surface in many countries, was most likely to show itself. The dissensions and civil broils, the din of which had distracted the German people for a century previous, were now silenced, as if to permit the voice that was about to address them to be the more distinctly heard, and the more reverentially listened to.

From the German plains we turn to the mountains

of Switzerland. The Swiss knew how to bear toil, to brave peril, and to die for liberty. These qualities they owed in a great degree to the nature of their soil, the grandeur of their mountains, and the powerful and ambitious States in their neighborhood, which made it necessary for them to study less peaceful occupations than that of tending their herds, and gave them frequent opportunities of displaying their courage in sterner contests than those they waged with the avalanches and tempests of their hills. Now it was France and now it was Austria, which attempted to become master of their country, and its valorous sons had to vindicate their right to independence on many a bloody field. A higher liberty than that for which Tell had contended, or the patriots of St. Jacob and Morat had poured out their blood, now offered itself to the Swiss. Will they accept it? It only needed that the yoke of Rome should be broken, as that of Austria had already been, to perfect their freedom. And it seemed as if this happy lot was in store for this land. Before Luther's name was known in Switzerland, the Protestant movement had already broken out; and, under Zwingli, whose views on some points were even clearer than those of Luther, Protestantism for awhile rapidly progressed. But the stage in this case was less conspicuous, and the champion less powerful, and the movement in Switzerland failed to acquire the breadth of the German one. The Swiss mind, like the Swiss land, is partitioned and divided, and does not always grasp a whole subject, or combine in one unbroken current the entire sentiment and action of the people. Factions sprang up; the warlike Forest Cantons took the side of Rome; arms met arms, and the first phase of the movement ended with the life of its leader on the fatal field of Cappel. A mightier champion was to resume the battle which had been lost under Zwingli: but that champion had not yet arrived. The disaster which had overtaken the movement in Switzerland had arrested it, but had not extinguished it. The light of the new day continued to brighten on the shores of its lakes, and in the cities of its plains; but the darkness lingered in those deep and secluded valleys over which the mighty forms of the Oberland Alps hang in their glaciers and snows. The five Forest Cantons had led gloriously in the campaign against Austria; but they were not to have the honor of leading in this second and greater battle. They had fought valorously for political freedom; but that liberty which is the palladium of all others they knew not to value.

To France came Protestantism in the sixteenth century, with its demand, "Open that I may enter." But France was too magnificent a country to become a convert to Protestantism. Had that great kingdom embraced the Reformation, the same century which witnessed the birth would have witnessed also the triumph of Protestantism; but at what a cost would that triumph have been won! The victory would have been ascribed to the power, the learning, and the genius of France; and the moral majesty of the movement would have been obscured if not wholly eclipsed. The Author of Protestantism did not intend that it should borrow the carnal weapons of princes, or owe thanks to the wisdom of the schools, or be a debtor to men. A career more truly sublime was before it. It was to foil armies, to stain the glory of philosophy, to trample on the pride of power; but itself was to bleed and suffer, and to go onwards, its streaming wounds its badges of rank, and its "sprinkled raiment" its robe of honor. Accordingly in France, though the movement early displayed itself, and once and again enlisted in its support the greater part of the intelligence and genius and virtue of the French people, France it never Protestantized. The state remained Roman Catholic all along (for the short period of equivocal policy on the part of Henry IV. is no exception); but the penalty exacted, and to this day not fully discharged, was a tremendous one. The bloody wars of a century, the destruction of order, of industry, and of patriotism, the sudden and terrible fall of the monarchy amid the tempests of revolution, formed the price which France had to pay for the fatal choice she made at that grand crisis of her fate.

Let us turn eastward to Bohemia and Hungary. They were once powerful Protestant centers, their proud position in this respect being due to the heroism of Huss and Jerome of Prague. Sanctuaries of the Reformed faith, in which pastors holy in life and learned in doctrine ministered to flourishing congregations, rose in all the cities and rural districts. But these countries lay too near the Austrian Empire to be left unmolested. As when the simoom passes over the plain, brushing from its surface with its hot breath the flowers and verdure that cover it, and leaving only an expanse of withered herbs, so passed the tempest of Austrian bigotry over Bohemia and Hungary. The Protestantism of these lands was utterly exterminated. Their sons died on the battle-field or perished on the scaffold. Silent cities, fields untilled, the ruins of churches and houses, so lately the abodes of a thriving, industrious, and orderly population, testified to the thorough and unsparing character of that zeal which, rather than that these regions should be the seat of Protestantism, converted them into a blackened and silent waste. The records of these persecutions were long locked up in the imperial archives; but the sepulcher has been opened; the wrongs which were inflicted by the court of Austria on its Protestant subjects, and the perfidies with which it was attempted to cover these wrongs, may now be read by all; and the details of these events will form part of the sad and harrowing pages

that are to follow.

The next theater of Protestantism must detain us a little. The territory to which we now turn is a small one, and was as obscure as small till the Reformation came and shed a halo around it, as if to show that there is no country so diminutive which a great principle cannot glorify. At the mouth of the Rhine is the little Batavia. France and Spain thought and spoke of this country, when they thought and spoke of it at all, with contempt. A marshy flat, torn from the ocean by the patient labor of the Dutch, and defended by mud dykes, could in no respect compare with their own magnificent realms. Its quaking soil and moist climate were in meet accordance with the unpoetic race of which it was the dwelling-place. No historic ray lighted up its past, and no generous art or chivalrous feat illustrated its present. Yet this despised country suddenly got the start of both France and Spain. As when some obscure peak touched by the sun flashes into the light, and is seen over kingdoms, so Holland:, in this great morning, illumined by the torch of Protestantism, kindled into a glory which attracted the gaze of all Europe. It seemed as if a more, than Roman energy had been suddenly grafted upon the phlegmatic Batavian nature.

On that new soil feats of arms were performed in the cause of religion and liberty, which nothing in the annals of ancient Italy surpasses, and few things equal. Christendom owed much at that crisis of its history to the devotion and heroism of this little country. Wanting Holland, the great battle of the sixteenth century might not have reached the issue to which it was brought; nor might the advancing tide of Romish and Spanish tyranny have been stemmed and turned back.

Holland had its reward. Disciplined by its terrible struggle, it became a land of warriors, of statesmen, and of scholars. It founded universities, which were the lights of Christendom during the age that succeeded; it created a commerce which extended to both hemispheres; and its political influence was acknowledged in all the Cabinets of Europe. As the greatness of Holland had grown with its Protestantism, so it declined when its Protestantism relapsed. Decay speedily followed its day of power; but long afterwards its Protestantism again began to return, and with it began to return the wealth, the prosperity, and the influence of its better age.

We cross the frontier and pass into Belgium. The Belgians began well. They saw the legions of Spain, which conquered sometimes by their reputed invincibility even before they had struck a blow, advancing to offer them the alternative of surrendering their consciences or surrendering their lives. They girded on the sword to fight for their ancient privileges and their newly-adopted faith; for the fields which their skillful labor had made fruitful as a garden, and the cities which their taste had adorned and their industry enriched with so many marvels. But the Netherlanders fainted in the day of battle. The struggle, it is true, was a sore one; yet not more so to the Belgians than to the Hollanders: but while the latter held out, waxing ever the more resolute as the tempest grew ever the more fierce, till through an ocean of blood they had waded to liberty, the former became dismayed, their strength failed them in the way, and they ingloriously sank down under the double yoke of Philip and of Rome.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, October 20th, 2020
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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