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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 12 — Protestantism in Germany From the Augsburg Confession to the Peace of Passau

Chapter 1 — The Schmalkald League

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The Augsburg Confession – The Emperor's Hopes and Disappointments – Melanchthon's Despair – Luther's Courage – Formation of Schmalkald League – The Kings of France, England, etc., invited to Enter it – The Swiss Rejected – Luther's Hesitation – The Turk Invades Europe – Charles offers Peace to the Protestants – Peace of Ratisbon – The Church has Rest Fifteen Years.

WE have already traced the history of Protestantism in Germany from the day of the Theses (1517) to the day of the Augsburg Confession (1530). The interval between these two dates is short; but what a train of important and brilliant events marks its currency, and how different the Christendom of one era to the Christendom of the other! If the hammer of Luther, nailing his propositions to the door of the Schloss-kirk, sounded the knell of the Old times, the Augsburg Confession, presented only thirteen years afterwards, opens to us the gates of the New world. Where in all history are we to look for a transition so vast, accomplished in so short a time? Of all the factors in human affairs, that which despots commonly account the weakest, and of which they sometimes take no account at all, is immeasurably the strongest, – Conscience. It is more powerful than philosophy, more powerful than letters, more powerful than the sword. The schoolmen had toiled for ages to enlighten the world, but it was seen at last that their intellectual subtlety could not break the chains of the human soul. Their day faded into the night of mysticism. Next came the revival of letters, the sure prelude, it was said, of a new age.

But civilization and liberty did not come at the call of the Humanists, and after flourishing a little while letters began to retrace their steps towards the pagan tomb from which they had come. Scepticism was descending upon the world. But when the Word of God touched the conscience, the world felt itself shaken by a power mightier than that of schools or armies. It tottered upon its foundations. The veil was rent from the heart of Christendom.

We resume our narrative at the point where we broke it off the old town of Augsburg in the year 1530. What a numerous, brilliant, and motley gathering is that which its walls now enclose! Here are all the sovereign princes, dukes, and counts of the Empire, with their courts and their men-at- arms. Here are all the great scholars and theologians of Germany, her Popish dignitaries and her Protestant Reformers. Here too, in the train of the chief personages, is much that is neither princely nor scholarly – lacqueys and men-at-arms, idlers and sight-seers from far and near, who crowd the streets, fill the taverns, and disturb the peace and quiet of the city by engaging in battles of a different kind from those which exercise the prowess of the combatants in the Palatinate Chapel. A great place is empty in this vast gathering – that of Luther. But he is no farther off than the Castle of Coburg, where, sitting apart and maintaining a keen correspondence with his friends, he can make his spirit felt in the Diet and, unseen, guide the course of its debates.

All being gathered into Augsburg, in obedience to the summons of the emperor, at last with great pomp comes the emperor himself, Charles, master of two worlds. Behind him what a long and brilliant train! Kings, Papal legates, ambassadors, archbishops, priests, friars, and some ten thousand men-at-arms. It is Mediaevalism rising up in a power and glory unknown to it for ages, feeling instinctively that its last struggle is come with a power before which it is destined to fall.

Before crossing the Alps, Charles V. had had an. interview with the Pope at Bologna, and these two potentates had come to an understanding touching the policy to be pursued towards the Lutherans. They must be required to submit to the Church. This was the summary and simple solution that awaited the problem of the age. There was, it is true, the promise of a Council in the future, and of whatever reforms that Council might be pleased to grant; but, first, the Lutherans must return to their obedience. So then the end of the heresy was near – the Pope and the emperor, the two masters of Christendom, had decreed its extirpation. The brilliant assemblage now gathered from east to west of Germany had come to witness the burial of the Lutheran revolt, and the resurrection in new glory and power of Roman Catholicism.

But how mortifying to this master of so many kingdoms! He who had been twice victorious over his great rival Francis I., who had dictated peace at almost the gates of Paris, who had bowed the Pope to his policy, was withstood, thwarted, beaten by these heretical princes and excommunicated preachers. He was compelled to hear them read their Confession in open Diet; and thus had he erected a stage, and got together an audience, for the greater eclat of that Lutheranism which he expected to see sink into eternal annihilation beneath the weight of his arms and the prestige of his authority. A whole winter's scheming with the Pope had suddenly collapsed.

But Charles could do something toward veiling the humiliation he could not but feel. He bade his theologians prepare an answer to the Confession of the Protestant princes and divines. Another unfortunate step. The blundering and sophistry of Dr. Eck acted as a foil to a document which combined the strength of Luther and the elegance of Melanchthon. The Augsburg Confession stood higher than ever. The emperor bade the Protestants consider themselves refuted. It would seem that he himself had but small faith in this refutation, for he made haste to throw his sword in along with the pen of Dr. Eck against the Protestants. On the 19th of November, 1530, he issued a decree, [1] addressed to the Protestant

princes, States and cities, commanding them, under peril of his displeasure, to return to their obedience to the See of Rome, and giving them till the next spring (15th of April) to make their choice between submission and war. Dr. Eck was rewarded for his services at the Council by the Bishopric of Vienna, which gave occasion to the witty saying of Erasmus, that "the poor Luther had made many rich." [2]

The edict of the emperor forbade from that hour all further conversions to Protestantism, under pain of forfeiture of goods and life; it further enacted that all which had been taken from the Roman Catholics should be restored; that the monasteries and religious houses should be rebuilt; that the old ceremonies and rites should be observed; and that no one who did not submit to this decree should sit in the Imperial Chamber, the supreme court of judicature in the Empire; and that all classes should assist with their lives and fortunes in carrying out this edict. [3] The edict of Spires was directed mainly against Luther; the ban of Augsburg was wider in its scope; it fell on all who held his opinions in Germany – on princes, cities, and peasants.

Melancthon was overwhelmed with dismay. He was "drowned," says Sleidan, "with sighs and tears." [4] Happily, Luther yet lived. His magnanimity and faith rose to the occasion. He looked the great emperor and his persecuting edict in the face, and in a characteristic publication foretold that the edict would be a failure, and that even the emperor's sword, strong as it was, was not strong enough to extinguish the light and bring back the darkness.

The spirit of Luther fired the princes. At Christmas, 1530, they met at Schmalkald to deliberate on the steps to be taken. That their religion and liberties must be defended at all costs was with them an axiom. The only question then was, How? They formed the League, known in history as the League of Schmalkald, engaging to stand by one another in the defense of their faith and their liberties, and in particular to resist any attempt that might be made by arms to carry out the Edict of Augsburg. [5] For this purpose they were to maintain, each of them, for the space of six years, a military force ready to assist any principality or town which might be attacked by the imperial arms.

It was not the question of their religious liberties only that made it seem expedient for the Protestant princes to form this confederacy. To this were added political considerations of no small weight. Recent successes had greatly increased the power, and widened in the same proportion the ambition, of Charles V. The emperor was at this moment revolving schemes dangerous to the constitution and civil liberties of Germany. He had made his brother Ferdinand of Austria be elected King of the Romans.

To elect a King of the Romans was to designate the future Emperor of Germany. This was a violation of the Golden Bull of Charles IV., inasmuch as it was a manifest attempt on the part of Charles to vest the imperial crown in his family, and to render that dignity hereditary which the Golden Bull declared to be elective. The Protestant princes saw revolution in all this. The emperor was making himself master. They must resist this usurpation in time; hence the Schmalkald League, made first at Christmas, 1530, and renewed a year after, at Christmas, 1531, with the addition of a great many princes and cities. They wrote to the Kings of France, England, Denmark, and to the maritime towns in the north of Germany, to enter the League, or otherwise assist in their enterprise. The answers returned were in every case favorable, though considerations of policy made the writers postpone joining the League for the present. This bold step failed at first to meet Luther's approval. It looked like war, and he shuddered at anything that threatened to bring war and the Gospel into contact. But when it was explained to him that the League was purely defensive; that it was meant to attack no one; that it was simply an arrangement for enabling its members to exercise unitedly, and therefore more successfully, their natural rights of self-defense, on behalf of what was dearer to them and to their countrymen than life itself, he acquiesced in the League of the princes.

The measure undoubtedly was right in itself, and was demanded by the circumstances of extreme peril in which Protestantism was now apparently placed. It linked the Protestant States of Germany into one confederation, under the regis of which the Protestant faith might be preached, and its doctrines professed, without terror of the stake. Further, we recognize in the Schmalkald League a decided step in the progress of Protestantism. Protestantism as a principle or doctrine was developed in the teaching of the Reformers. But Protestantism was never meant to remain a mere principle. Its mission was to create around it a new political, social, and intellectual world. At the center of that world the Protestant principle took its place, sitting there as on a throne, or rather dwelling in it as its soul, and in times of peril calling to its defense all those forces – arts, letters, free constitutions which itself had created. The beginning of this new political world was at Schmalkald.

A great many princes and free cities, in addition to the original confederates, had subscribed the League, and now its attitude was a somewhat imposing one. The Swiss Protestant cantons held out their hand, but were repulsed. They were held to be disqualified by their sentiments on the Lord's Supper. [6] This was a grave error. It was nearly as great an error on the other side when the Kings of France and England, who could hardly be more orthodox in the eyes of the Germans than were the Zwinglians, were

invited to join the League. [7] Happily these monarchs sent replies which saved the Leaguers from the political entanglements in which an alliance with these scheming and selfish potentates would have been sure to land them. [8] This was the very danger that Luther had feared. He foresaw the League growing strong and beginning to lean on armies, neglecting the development of the religious principle in whose vitality alone would consist the consolidation, power, and success oft heir federation. If the rampart should smother the heavenly fire it was meant to enclose, both would perish together.

When the spring of 1531 came, the emperor, instead of beginning hostilities, paused. The sword that was to have swept German Protestantism from the face of the earth, and which was already half drawn, was thrust back into its sheath. Besides the Schmalkald League, other things had arisen to convince the emperor of the extreme hazard of attempting at this moment to enforce the Edict of Augsburg. France, whose monarch was still smarting from the memories of Pavia and the imprisonment at Madrid, threatened to break the peace and commence hostilities against him. The irrepressible Turk was again appearing in the east of Europe. Further, the emperor had given umbrage to the Popish princes of Germany by making his brother Ferdinand be elected King of the Romans, and so could not; count on the aid of his own party. Thus, ever as Charles put his hand upon his sword's hilt, a new difficulty started up to prevent him drawing it. It must have seemed, even to himself, as if a greater power than the Schmalkald Confederacy were fighting against him.

The issue was that Charles, on a survey of his position, found that he must postpone the enforcing of the Edict of Augsburg to a more convenient time, and meanwhile he must come to an understanding with the Protestants. Accordingly, after tedious and difficult negotiations, a peace was agreed upon at Nuremberg, July 23rd, and ratified in the Diet at Ratisbon, August 3rd, 1532. In this pacification the emperor granted to the Lutherans the free and undisturbed exercise of their religion, until such time as a General Council or an Imperial Diet should decide the religious question; and the Protestants – now seven princes and twenty-four cities – promised to aid the emperor in his war against the Turk. [9] Thus the storm that looked so dark rolled away without inflicting any harm on those over whom it had lowered so ominously. The finest army which united Christendom had yet raised marched against the Turks; "and the emperor," says the Abbs Millot, "who had not yet appeared at the head of his troops (a thing surprising in an age of heroism), on this occasion took the command. He had the glory of disconcerting a formidable enemy, whose forces are said to have amounted to three hundred thousand men." [10] Solyman, intimidated by this display of force, withdrew his devastating hordes without coming to a battle; and the emperor leaving Germany in order to superintend the vast military projects he was now setting on foot in other countries, the Church had rest from persecution, and the period of her tranquillity was prolonged for well-nigh a decade and a half.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, October 27th, 2020
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30
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