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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 11 — Protestantism in Switzerland From Its Establishment in Zurich (1525) to the Death of Zwingli (1531)

Chapter 5 — Reformation consummated in Basle

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REFORMATION CONSUMMATED IN BASLE.

All Switzerland Moved – The Oberland – Surprise and Anger of its Herdsmen – Basle – Its Importance – Ecolampadius – Protestants of Basle Petition for Abolition of Mass – Popular Conflicts – Temporizing Policy of Council – Citizens take Arms – New Delays by the Council – New Demands of the People – The Night of the 8th of February – The City Barricaded – Two Thousand Men in Arms – The Senate's Half-concession – The Idols Broken – Idols of Little Basle – Edict of Senate Establishing the Reform – Ash-Wednesday – Oath of the People – Exodus of the Priests – Departure of Erasmus.

THE triumph of the Gospel in Bern was felt on sides. It gave new life to the Protestant movement in every part of the country. On the west it opened the door for the entrance of the Protestant faith into French-speaking Switzerland. Farel was already in those parts, and had commenced those labors which we shall afterwards have occasion to trace to that grand issue to which a greater was destined to conduct them. On the east, in German Helvetia, the movement, quickened by the impulse communicated from Bern, was consummated in those towns and villages where for some time it had been in progress. From the Grisons, on the Italian frontier, to the borders of the Black Forest, where Basle is washed by the waters of the Rhine, the influence of Bern's accession was felt, and the Protestant movement quickened.

The great mountains in the center of the land, where the glaciers have their seat, and the great rivers their birth-place, were alone unmoved. Not unmoved indeed, for the victory at Bern sent a thrill of surprise and horror through the Oberland. Shut up with their flocks in the mists and gorges of their mountains, living apart from the world, spending their days without books, untrained to reflect, nor ever coming in contact with a new idea, these mountaineers so brave, so independent, but so ignorant and superstitious, had but one aim, even to abide steadfast to the traditions of their fathers, and uphold Rome. That Switzerland should abandon the faith it had held from immemorial times they accounted a shameful and horrible thing. They heard of the revolution going on in the plains with indignation. A worship without mass, and a church without an image, were in their eyes no better than atheism. That the Virgin should be without matins or vespers was simply blasphemy. They trembled to dwell in a land which such enormities were beginning to pollute. They let drop ominous threats, which sounded like the mutterings of the thunder before the storm bursts and discharges its lightning's and hailstones on the plains below. Such a tempest was soon to break over Switzerland, but first the work of Reformation must proceed a little further.

Next to Zurich and Bern, Basle was the city of greatest importance in the Swiss Confederacy. Its numerous and rich foundations, its university, founded as we have said by Eneas Sylvius, nearly a century before, its many learned men, and its famous printing-presses enabled it to wield a various and powerful influence. It was the first spot in all Helvetia on which the Protestant seed had been cast. So early as 1505, we saw Thomas Wittembach entering its gates, and bringing with him the knowledge of the sacred tongues, and of that Divine wisdom of which these tongues have been made the vehicle. A few years later we find Zwingli and Leo Juda sitting at his feet, and listening to his not yet fully comprehended anticipations of a renovated age and a restored faith. [1] The seed that fell from the hand of Wittembach was reinforced by the writings of Luther, which the famous printer Frobenius scattered so plentifully on this same soil. After this second sowing came the preacher Capito, to be succeeded by the eloquent Hedio, both of whom watered that seed by their clear and pious expositions of the Gospels. In 1522, a yet greater evangelist settled in Basle, Ecolampadius, under whom the Reformation of this important city was destined, after years of waiting and conflict, to be consummated. Ecolampadius, so scholarly, so meek and pious, was to the prompt and courageous Zwingli what Melancthon was to Luther.

With all his great parts, Ecolampadius was somewhat deficient in decision and courage. We have seen him combating alone at Baden in 1526, and at Bern by the side of Zwingli in 1528, yet all the while he had not taken the decisive step in his own city. Not that he felt doubt on the question of doctrine; it was the dangers that deterred him from carrying over Basle to the side of Protestantism. But he came back from Bern a stronger man. The irresolute evangelist returned the resolved Reformer; and the learned Basle is now to follow the example of the warlike Bern.

At this time (1528) the Lutherans were in a great majority in Basle. They were 2,500 against 600 Roman Catholics. [2] Tumults were of frequent occurrence, arising out of the religious differences. On the 23rd December the Reformed assembled without arms, to the number of 300 and upwards, and petitioned the magistrates to abolish the observance of the mass, saying that it was "all abomination before God," and asking why "to please the priests they should draw down his anger on themselves and their children." They further craved of the magistrates that they should interdict the Pope's preachers, till "they had proved their doctrine from the Word of God," and they offered at the same time to take back the mass as soon as the "Roman Catholics had shown from the Scriptures that it was good," which sounded like a promise to restore it at the Kalends of April. The Roman Catholics of Little Basle, which lay on the other bank of the Rhine, and was mostly inhabited by Romanists, assembled in arms, and

strove to obstruct the passage of the petitioners to the town hall. The Senate, making trial of soft words, advised both parties to retire to their homes, and – the hour we presume being late – " go to sleep." [3] The council affected to be neutral, the spirit of Erasmus pervading the higher ranks of Basle. Two days thereafter, being Christmas Day, both parties again assembled. This time the Reformed came armed as well as the Roman Catholics. The Roman Catholics were the first to stir; the terrible news that they were arming circulated from house to house, and brought out the Lutherans, to the number of about 800. The alarm still flying from door to door roused others, and at last the number amounted to 3,000. [4] Both parties remained under arms all night. After four days deliberation, during which the streets were in a state of tumult, and all the gates were closed except two, which were strongly guarded, the Senate hit on an expedient which they thought would suffice to restore the peace between the two parties. They enacted that the "Evangel" should be preached in all churches, and as regarded mass that every man should be at liberty to act as his conscience might direct; no one would be prevented giving attendance on it, and no one would be compelled to do so.

This ordinance made the scales incline on the side of the Reformers. It was a step in the direction of free preaching and free worship; the Reformed, however, refused to accept it as a basis of peace. The agitation still continued. Basle wore the appearance of a camp, which a sudden blow from either side, or a rash word, might at any moment change into a battle-field. News of what was going on in Basle flew through the Confederation. From both the Reformed and Popish cantons came deputies to offer their meditation. It was whispered among the Roman Catholics that the Lutherans were bringing in their confederates to fight for them. This rumor raised their fury to a yet higher pitch. A war of hearths seemed imminent. The Senate made another attempt to restore the peace. They decreed that a public disputation on the mass should take place on the second Sabbath after Pentecost, and that meanwhile in three of the churches only should mass be celebrated, and that only one mass a day should be said, high mass namely. [5] Now, thought the magistrates, we have found the means of restoring calm to the agitated waters. Basle will resume its lettered quiet.

These hopes were doomed to be disappointed. The publication of the edict evoked a greater tempest than ever. On the reading of it, loud and vehement voices resounded on both sides. "No mass – no mass – not even a single one – we will die sooner." [6] Counter-shouts were raised by the Romanists. "We are ready to die for the mass," cried they, waving their arms menacingly to add to the vehemence of their voices; "if they reject the mass – to arms! to arms!" [7]

The magistrates were almost at their wit's end. Their temporizing, instead of appeasing the tempest, was but lashing it into greater fury. They hit on another device, which but showed that their stock of expedients was nearly exhausted. They forbade the introduction of the German psalms into those churches where it had not been the wont to sing them. [8] It was hardly to be expected that so paltry a concession would mollify the Roman Catholics.

The Romish party, fearing that the day was going against them, had recourse to yet more violent measures. They refused the decree to hold a disputation on the mass after Pentecost. One thing was clear to them, that whether the mass was founded on the Word of God or not, it attracted to Basle large sums from the Popish districts, every penny of which would be cut off were it abolished. Seeing then, if its proof were dubious, its profit was most indubitable, they were resolved to uphold it, and would preach it more zealously than ever. The pulpits began to thunder against heresy; Sebastien Muller, preacher in the Cathedral of St. Peter, mounted the pulpit on the 24th January, 1529, and losing his head, at no time a cool one, in the excess of his zeal, he broke out in a violent harangue, and poured forth a torrent of abusive epithets and sarcastic mockeries against the Reformed. His sermon kindled into rage the mass of his hearers, and some Lutherans who were present in the audience were almost in risk of being torn in pieces. [9]

This fresh outbreak quickened the zeal on the other side, not indeed into violence, but activity. The Reformed saw that the question must be brought to an issue, either for or against the mass, and that until it was so their lives would not be safe in Basle. They, accordingly, charged their committee to carry their complaint to the Senate, and to demand that the churches should be provided with "good preachers" who would "proclaim to them the pure Word of God." Their Excellencies received them graciously, and promised them a favorable answer. The magistrates were still sailing on two tacks. [10]

Fifteen days passed away, but there came no answer from the Senate. Meanwhile, a constant fire of insults, invectives, and sanguinary menaces was kept up by the Roman Catholics upon the Reformed, which the latter bore with wonderful patience seeing that they formed the vast majority of the citizens, and that those who assailed them with these taunts and threatenings were mostly the lower orders from the suburb of the Little Basle. The Reformed began to suspect the Senate of treachery; and seeing no ending to the affair but a bloody encounter, in which one of the two parties would perish, they convoked an assembly of the adherents

of the Reformation. On the 8th February, 800 men met in the Church of the Franciscans, and after prayer to God, that he would direct them to those measures that would be for his glory, they entered on their deliberations.

To the presence of "the fathers and relatives of the priests" in the council they attributed that halting policy which had brought Basle to the edge of an abyss, mad resolved, as the only effectual cure, that the council should be asked to purge itself. [11] They agreed, moreover, that the election of the senators henceforward should be on a democratic basis – above-board, and in the hands of the people.

"Tomorrow," said the council, somewhat startled, "we will give you an answer."

"Your reply," rejoined the citizens, "must be given tonight."

No eyes were to be closed that night in Basle. The Senate had been sitting all day. There was time for an answer, yet none had been forthcoming. They had been put off till tomorrow. What did that mean? Was it not possible that the intervening night would give birth to some dark plot which the Senate might even now be hatching against the public safety? They were 1,200 men, all well armed. They sent again to the council-hall to say, "Tonight, not tomorrow, we must have your answer." It was nine of the evening. The Senate replied that at so late an hour they could not decide on a matter of so great moment, but that to-morrow they should without fail give their answer, and meanwhile they begged the citizens to retire in peace to their homes. [12]

The citizens resolved not to separate. On the contrary they sent once more, and for the last time, to the Senate, to demand their answer that very night. Their Excellencies thought good no longer to trifle with the armed burghers. Longer delay might bring the whole 1,200 warriors into the Senate House. To guard against an irruption so formidable, they sent a messenger when near midnight to say that all members of Senate who were relatives of priests would be excluded from that body, and as to the rest of their demands, all things touching religion and policy would be regulated according to their wish. [13]

The answer was so far satisfactory; but the citizens did not view it as a concession of their demands in full. Their enemies might yet spring a mine upon them; till they had got something more than a promise, they would not relax their vigilance or retire to their dwellings. Dividing themselves into three companies they occupied three different quarters of the city.

They planted six pieces of cannon before the Hotel de Ville; they barricaded the streets by drawing chains across them; they took possession of the arsenal; they posted strong guards at the gates and in the towers on the wall; and kindling immense torches of fir-trees, they set them on high places to dispel with their flickering beams the darkness that brooded over the city. So passed the night of the 8th February, 1529, in Basle.

The leaders of the Romanists began to quail before the firm attitude of the citizens. The burgomaster, Henry Meltinger with his son-in-law, and several councilors, stole, under cover of the darkness, to the Rhine, and embarking in one of the boats that lay moored on its banks, made their escape on its rapid current. Their flight, which became known over-night, increased the popular uneasiness and suspicion. "They are gone to fetch the Austrians," said the people. "Let us make ready against their return." When day broke they had 2,000 men in arms. [14]

At eight in the morning the Senate sent to the committee of the citizens to say that they had designated twelve senators, who were to absent themselves when religious affairs were treated of, but that the men so designated refused to submit unconditionally, and had appealed their cause for a hearing before the other cantons. The citizens were willing to meet them there, but on this condition, that the appellants paid their own expenses, seeing they were prosecuting their own private quarrel, whereas the citizens defending the cause of the commonwealth and posterity were entitled to have their charges defrayed from the public treasury. [15] On this point the Senate sat deliberating till noon without coming to any conclusion. Again the cry of treachery was raised. The patience of the burghers was exhausted. They sent a detachment of forty men to inspect all the posts in the city in case of surprise. The troops marched straight to the Cathedral of St. Peter. One of them raising his halberd struck a blow with all his force on a side door. It was that of a closet in which the idols had been stowed away. The door was shivered; one of the images tumbled out, and was broken in pieces on the stony floor. A beginning having been made, the idols, one after another, were rolled out, and soon a pile of fragments – heads, trunks, and limbs – covered the floor. Erasmus wondered that "they wrought no miracle to save themselves, for if all accounts were true, prodigies had been done on more trivial occasions."

The priests raised an outcry, and attempted resistance, but this only hastened the consummation they deplored. The people came running to the cathedral. The priests fled before the hurricane that had swept into the temple, and shutting themselves up in the vestry, listened with dismay and trembling, as one and another of the idols was overturned, and crash succeeded crash; the altars were demolished, the pictures were torn down, and the fragments being carried out and piled up, and set on fire in the open squares, continued to burn till far in the evening, the citizens standing round and warming their hands at the blaze in the chilly air. The Senate, thinking to awe the excited and insurgent citizens, sent to ask

them what they did. "We are doing in an hour," said they, "what you have not been able to do in three years." [16]

The iconoclasts made the round of Basle, visiting all its churches, and destroying with pike and axe all the images they found. The Romanists of Little Basle, knowing the storm that was raging on the other side of the Rhine, and fearing that it would cross the bridge to their suburb, so amply replenished with sacred shrines, offered to purge their churches with their own hands. The images of Little Basle were more tenderly dealt with than those of St. Peter's and other city churches. Their worshippers carried them reverently to upper rooms and garrets, and hid them, in the hope that when better times returned they would be able to bring them out of the darkness, and set them up in their old places. The suburban idols thus escaped the cremation that overtook their less fortunate brethren of St. Ulric and St. Alban. [17]

The magistrates of Basle, deeming it better to march in the van of a Reform than be dragged at the tail of a revolution, now granted all the demands of the citizens. They enacted, 1st, that the citizens should vote in the election of the members of the two councils; 2ndly, that from this day the idols and mass should be abolished in the city and the canton, and the churches provided with good ministers to preach the Word of God; 3rdly, that in all matters appertaining to religion and the commonweal, 260 of the members of the guilds should be admitted to deliberate with the Senate. [18] The people had carried the day. They had secured the establishment of the Protestant worship, and they had placed the State on a constitutional and popular basis. Such were the triumphs of these two eventful days. The firmness of the people had overcome the neutrality of the Senate, the power of the hierarchy, the disfavor of the learned, and had achieved the two liberties without shedding a drop of blood. "The commencement of the Reformation at Basle," says Ruchat, "was not a little tumultuous, but its issue was happy, and all the troubles that arose about religion were terminated without injury to a single citizen in his life or goods."

The third day, 10th of February, was Ash-Wednesday. The men of Basle resolved that their motto that day should be "Ashes to ashes." The images that had escaped cremation on the evening of the 8th were collected in nine piles and burned on the Cathedral Square. [19] The Romanists, Ecolampadius informs us, "turned away their eyes, shuddering with horror." Others remarked, "the idols are keeping their Ash-Wednesday." The idols had the mass as their companion in affliction, fragments of the demolished altars having been burned in the same fires.

On Friday, 12th of February, all the trades of the city met and approved the edict of the Senate, as an "irrevocable decree," and on the following day they took the oath, guild by guild, of fidelity to the new order of things. On next Sunday, in all the churches, the Psalms were chanted in German, in token of their joy. [20]

This revolution was followed by an exodus of priests, scholars, and monks. The rushing Rhine afforded all facilities of transport. No one fled from dread of punishment, for a general amnesty, covering all offenses, had set all fears at rest. It was dislike of the Protestant faith that made the fugitives leave this pleasant residence. The bishop, carrying with him his title but not his jurisdiction, fixed his residence at Poirentru. The monks peaceably departed "with their harems" [21] to Friburg. Some of the chairs in the university were vacated, but new professors, yet more distinguished, came to fill them; among whom were Oswald Myconius, Sebastien Munster, and Simon Grynaeus. Last and greatest, Erasmus too departed. Basle was his own romantic town; its cathedral towers, its milky river, the swelling hills, with their fir-trees, all were dear to him. Above all, he took delight in the society of its dignified clergy, its polite scholars, and the distinguished strangers who here had gathered round him. From Basle this monarch of the schools had ruled the world of letters. But Protestantism had entered it, and he could breathe its air no longer. He must endure daily mortification's on those very streets where continual incense had been offered to him; and rather than do so he would leave the scene of his glory, and spend the few years that might yet remain to him elsewhere.

Embarking on the Rhine in presence of the magistrates and a crowd of citizens, who had assembled to do him honor, he spoke his adieu to his much-loved Basle as the boat was unmooring: "Jam Basilea vale!" [22] (Basle, farewell, farewell!) and departed for Friburg, in Brisgau. [23]


Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, June 21st, 2018
the Week of Proper 6 / Ordinary 11
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