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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 8 — Proposed Christian Republic for defence of civil rights

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Another Storm brewing in the Oberland — Protestantism still spreading in Switzerland — A Second Crisis — Zwingli proposes a European Christian Republic — Negotiates with the German Towns, the King of France, and the Republic of Venice — Philip of Hesse to be put at the Head of it — Correspondence between Philip and Zwingli — League for Defense of Civil Rights only — Zwingli's Labors for the Autonomy of the Helvetian Church.

THE peace which negotiation had given Zurich, Zwingli felt, would be short, but it was precious while it lasted, and he redoubled his efforts to turn it to account. He strove to carry the sword of the Spirit into those great mountains whose dwellers had descended upon them with the sword of the warrior, for he despaired of the unity and independence of his country save through the Gospel. His labors resulted, during this brief space, in many victories for the faith. At Schaffhausen fell the "great god," namely, the mass. The Reformation was consummated in Glarus, in the Appenzell, and introduced into parts of Switzerland which had re-rosined till now under the yoke of Rome. So much for the freedom of conscience guaranteed by the peace of Kappel. Every day, as the men of the Forest Cantons looked from their lofty snow-clad summits, they beheld the symbols of the Roman faith vanishing from the plains beneath them; convents deserted, the mass abolished, and village after village meeting, discussing, and by vote adopting the Protestant worship. As yet they had been able to maintain the purity of their mountains, thanks to the darkness and the foreign gold, but they were beginning to be defiled by the feet of the Protestants, and how soon their stronghold might be conquered, and the flag of the Gospel unfurled where the banner of Rome had so long and so proudly waved, they could not tell. A Popish historian of the time, describing the activity of Zwingli and his fellow-laborers, says: "A set of wretched disturbers of the peace burst into the Five Cantons, and murdered souls by spreading abroad their songs, tracts, and little Testaments, telling the people they might learn the truth itself from these, and one did not require any more to believe what the priests said." [1] While they were barring their gates in front, suddenly, as we have already said, Protestantism appeared in their rear. A shout came up from t]he Italian plains that the Gospel had entered that land, and that Rome had begun to fall. This brought on a second crisis.

We are approaching the catastrophe. Zwingli, meditating day and night how he might advance the Reformation and overthrow that terrible power which had held the nations so long in bondage, had begun to revolve mighty plans. His eye ranged over all Christendom; his glance penetrated everything; his; comprehensive and organizing mind, enlarged by the crisis through which Christendom was passing, felt equal to the task of forming and directing the grandest projects. He had already instituted a Christian co-burghery in Switzerland to hold in check the Popish cantons; this idea he attempted to carry out on a grander scale by extending it to the whole of Reformed Christendom. Why should not, he said, all the Protestant States and nations of Europe unite in a holy confederation for frustrating the plans which the Pope and Charles V. are now concocting for the violent suppression of the Reformation? It was at this time that he visited Marburg, where he met Philip of Hesse, between whom and himself there existed a great harmony of view on the point in question. Both felt that it was the duty of the Protestant States to put forth their political and military strength in the way of repelling force by force. They meditated the forming of a great Christian republic, embracing the Reformed Swiss cantons, the free cities of Southern Germany, and the Protestant Saxon States in Central and Northern Germany. Zwingli even turned his eyes to Venice, where a Protestant movement of a promising kind had recently presented itself. He sent an ambassador to the republic, who came back with a secret assurance of aid in case of need. The Reformer was not without hope of enlisting France in the league. Overtures to that effect had in fact. been made by Francis I., who seemed not unwilling to leave the path of violence on which he had entered, and take under his wing the Reformation of his country. This Protestant alliance was meant to extend from the Adriatic to the German Ocean, forming a Protestant power in Central Europe sufficient to protect conscience and the free preaching of the Gospel. This display of strength, Zwingli believed, would hold in check the emperor and the Pope, would be a rampart around the preachers and professors of the Protestant faith, and would prevent an Iliad of woes which he saw approaching to Christendom. The project was a colossal one.

At the head of this Protestant republic Zwingli proposed to place Philip the Magnanimous. Among the princes of that age he could hardly have made a better choice. It is probable that Zwingli communicated the project to him in his own Castle of Marburg, when attending the conference held in the autumn of that year (October, 1529) on the question of the Lord's Supper. The ardent mind of Philip would be set on fire by the proposal. He had in fact attempted to form a similar league of defense among the Reformed princes and cities of Germany. He had fretted under the restraints which Luther had imposed upon him; for ever as his hand touched his sword's hilt, to unsheathe it in defense of the friends of the Gospel, came the stern voice of the Reformer commanding him to forbear. He had been deeply mortified by the refusal of the Lutherans to unite with the Zwinglians, because it left them disunited in presence of

that tremendous combination of force that was mustering on all sides against them. Now came the same thing in another form; for this new defensive alliance promised to gain all the ends he sought so far as these were political. Switzerland and South Germany it would unite; and he hoped, indeed he undertook, to induce the princes and States of North Germany also to accede to the league; and thus what time the emperor crossed the Alps with his legions — and he was now on his way northward, having shaken hands with the Pope over the proposed extermination of Lutheranism — he would find such a reception as would make him fain again to retreat across the mountains.

Zwingli's journey to Marburg had been of signal importance to him in this respect. He had correctly divined the secret policy of the emperor, but at Strasburg he had obtained information which had given him a yet surer and deeper insight into the designs of Charles. His informant was the town sheriff, James Sturm, a far-seeing statesman, devoted to the Reformed cause, and enjoying the friendship of many men of influence and position in Germany and France. Through them Sturm came into possession of important documents disclosing the emperor's plans against the Reformers. Zwingli forwarded copies of these to the secret council of Zurich, with the remark, "These are from the right workshop."

The substance of these documents is probably contained in the statements which Zwingli made to those statesmen who had his confidence. "The emperor," said he, "stirs up friend against friend, and enemy against enemy, in order to force himself between them as mediator, and then he decides with a partiality that leans to the interests of the Papacy and his own power. To kindle a war in Germany he excites the Castellan of Musso [2] against the Grisons, the Bishops of Constance and Strasburg against the cities of Constance and Strasburg, Duke George of Saxony against John, Elector of Saxony; the Bishops of the Rhine against the Landgrave of Hesse; the Duke of Savoy against Bern, and the Five Cantons against Zurich. Everywhere he makes division and discord. When the confusion has come to a head and all things are ripe he will march in with his Spaniards, and befooling one party with fair words, and falling upon the other with the sword, he will continue to strike till he has reduced all under his yoke. Alas! what an overthrow awaits Germany and all of us under pretense of upholding the Empire and re-establishing religion." [3]

After his return from Marburg, Zwingli corresponded with the landgrave on this great project. "Gracious prince," wrote he on the 2nd of November, 1529, "if I write to your Grace, as a child to a father, it is because of the confidence I have that God has chosen you for great events, which I dare not utter…. We must bell the cat at last." [4] To which the landgrave answered, "Dear Mr. Huldreich, I hope through the providence of God a feather will fall from Pharaoh, [5] and that he will meet with what he little expects; for all things are in the way of improvement. God is wonderful. Let this matter touching Pharaoh remain a secret with you till the time arrives." [6]

Like a thunder-cloud charged with fire, the emperor was nearing Germany, to hold the long-announced Diet of Augsburg. The Reformer's courage rose with the approach of danger. The son of the Tockenburg shepherd, the pastor of a little town, dared to step forth and set the battle in array against this Goliath, the master of so many kingdoms. "Only base cowards or traitors," he wrote to Councilor Conrad Zwick of Constance, "can look on and yawn, when we ought to be straining every nerve to collect men and arms from every quarter to make the emperor feel that in vain he strives to establish Rome's supremacy, to destroy the privileges of the free towns, and to coerce us in Helvetia. Awake, Lindau! Arouse, ye neighbor cities, and play the men for your hearths and altars! He is a fool who trusts to the friendship of tyrants. Even Demosthenes teaches us that nothing is so hateful in their eyes as the freedom of cities. The emperor with one hand offers us bread, but in the other he conceals a stone." [7]

Had the object aimed at been the compelling of the Romanists to abandon their faith or desist from the practice of its rites, Zwingli's project would have been supremely execrable; but the Reformer did not for a moment dream of such a thing. He never lost sight of the great fact, that by the preaching of the Gospel alone can men be enlightened and converted. But he did not see why States, to the extent to which God had given them the power, should not resist those treacherous and bloody plots which were being hatched for the destruction of their faith and liberties. Luther disapproved of this policy entirely. Christians, he said, ought not to resist the emperor, and if he requires them to die they are to yield up their lives.

It was by the stake of the martyr and not by the sword of the State, he never ceased to remind men, that the Gospel was to triumph. Luther, reared in a convent and trained in habits of submission to authority, was to a much greater extent than Zwingli a man of the past. Zwingli, on the other hand, born in a republic, with all the elements and aspirations of constitutional liberty stirring in his breast, was a man of the present. Hence the different policies of these two men. It is impossible to say to what extent the atrocities that darkened the following years would have been prevented, had Zwingli's plan been universally acted upon. But the time for it was not yet come; and the Great Ruler

by willing it otherwise has thrown a moral grandeur around the Reformation, which could not have belonged to it had its weapons been less spiritual and its triumph less holy.

In the midst of these negotiations for banding the Protestants in a great European confederacy for the defense of their civil and religious liberties, Zwingli did not for a moment abate his labors as a pastor. The consolidation of the Gospel in Switzerland must be the basis of all his operations. In 1530 he held synods in various parts of the country. At these measures were adopted for perfecting the autonomy of the Church: the ministers were examined; incapable and scandalous pastors were removed; superintendents to watch over moral and administer discipline were appointed; and arrangements set on foot for giving a competent salary to every minister. In February, 1531, it was agreed that whenever any difficulty should arise in doctrine or discipline an assembly of divines and laymen should be convoked, which should examine what the Word of God says on the matter, and decide accordingly. [8]


Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, September 25th, 2018
the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25
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