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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 4 — Death and burial of Luther

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Preparations for War – Startling Tidings – Luther's Journey to Eisleben – Illness on the Road – Enters Eisleben – Preaches – His Last Illness – Death – His Personal Appearance – Varillas' Estimate of him as a Preacher – The Supper-table in the Augustine Convent – Luther's Funeral – The Tomb in the Schloss-kirk.

THE man of all others in Germany who loved peace was Luther. War he abhorred with all the strength of his great soul. He could not conceive a greater calamity befalling his cause than that the sword should be allied with it. Again and again, during the course of his life, when the opposing parties were on the point of rushing to arms the Reformer stepped in, and the sword leapt back into its scabbard. Again war threatens. On every side men are preparing their arms: hosts are mustering, and mighty captains are taking the field. We listen, if haply that powerful voice which had so often dispersed the tempest when the bolt was ready to fall shall once more make itself heard. There comes instead the terrible tidings – Luther is dead!

In January, 1546, the Reformer was asked to arbitrate in a dispute between the Counts of Mansfeld, touching the line of their boundaries. Though not caring to meddle in such matters he consented, moved chiefly by the consideration that it was his native province to which the matter had reference, and that he should thus be able to visit his birthplace once more. He was taken ill on the road, but recovering, he proceeded on his journey. On approaching Mansfeld he was met by the counts with a guard of honor, and lodged at their expense in his native town of Eisleben. "He was received by the Counts of Mansfeld and all escort of more than one hundred horsemen, and entered the town," writes Maimbourg, "more like a prince than a prophet, amidst the salute of cannon and the ringing of the bells in all the churches."

Having dispatched to the satisfaction of the counts the business that took him thither, he occasionally preached in the church and partook of the Communion; but his strength was ebbing away. Many signs warned him that he had not long to live, and that where he had passed his morning, there was he spending his eve – an eve of reverence and honor more than kingly. "Here I was born and baptised," said he to his friends, "what if I should remain here to die also?" He was only sixty-three, but continual anxiety, ceaseless and exhausting labor, oft-recurring fits of nervous depression, and cruel maladies bad done more than years to waste his strength. On the 17th of February he dined and supped with his friends, including his three sons – John, Martin, and Paul – and Justus Jonas, who had accompanied him. "After supper," says Sleidan, "having withdrawn to pray, as his custom was, the pain in his stomach began to increase. Then, by the advice of some, he took a little unicorn's horn in wine, and for an hour or two slept very sweetly in a couch in the stove.

When he awoke he retired to his chamber, and again disposed himself to rest." [1] Awakening after a short slumber, the oppression in his chest had increased, and perceiving that his end was come he addressed himself to God in these words: –

"O God, my heavenly Father, and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, God of all consolation, I give thee thanks that thou hast revealed unto me thy Son Jesus Christ, in whom I have believed; whom I have confessed; whom I have loved; whom I have declared and preached; whom the Pope of Rome, and the multitude of the ungodly, do persecute and dishonor; I beseech thee, my Lord Jesus Christ, receive my soul. O heavenly Father, though I be snatched out of this life; though I must now lay down this body; yet know I assuredly that I shall abide with thee for ever, and that no man can pluck me out of thy hands."

His prayer had winged its way upward: his spirit was soon to follow. Three times he uttered the words, his voice growing fainter at each repetition, "Into thy hands I commit my spirit; thou hast redeemed me, O God of truth!" and, says Sleidan, "he in a manner gently slept out of this life, without any bodily pain or agony that could be perceived." [2]

Thus does that sun go down whose light had filled for so many years, not the skies of Germany only, but those of all Christendom. The place left empty in the world by Luther's departure was like that which the natural sun leaves void in the firmament when he sets in the west. And, further, as the descent of the luminary of day is followed by the gathering of the shades and the deepening of the darkness around the dwellings of men, so too was the setting of this other sun. No sooner was Luther laid in his grave than the shadows began to gather round Germany, and soon they deepened into a night of calamity and war. We are not sure that the brilliance which departed when the tomb closed over the Reformer has to this day fully returned to the Fatherland.

Luther's career had been a stormy one, yet its end was peace. He had waged incessant battle, not with the emperor and the Pope only, but also with a more dreadful foe, who had often filled his mind with darkness. Yet now he dies expressing his undimmed joy and his undying trust in his Savior. It is also very remarkable that the man whose life had been so often sought by Popes, kings, priests, and fanatics of every grade, died on his bed; Luther often said that it would be a great disgrace to the Pope if he should so die. "All of you,

thou Pope, thou devil, ye kings, princes, and lords, are Luther's enemies; and yet ye can do him no harm. It was not so with John Huss. I take it there has not been a man so hated as I these hundred years." During the last twenty-five years of his life – that is, ever since his appearance at the Diet of Worms – the emperor's ban and the Pope's anathema had hung about him; yet there fell not to the ground a hair of his head. The great sword of the emperor, which conquered Francis and chastised the Turk, could not approach the doctor of Wittemberg. The Reformer lived in his little unarmed Saxon town all his days; he rose up and lay down in peace; he toiled day by day forging his bolts and hurling them with all his might at the foe; and that foe dreaded his pen and tongue more than the assault of whole armies. To be rid of him Rome would have joyfully given the half of her kingdom; but not a day, not an hour of life was she able to take from him. The ancient command had gone forth, "Touch not mine anointed and do my prophets no harm." And so we find Luther finishing his course, as the natural sun, after a day of tempest, is sometimes seen to finish his, amid the golden splendors of a calm eventide. [3]

It were vain, and superfluous to boot, to attempt drawing a character of Luther. He paints himself, and neither needs nor will permit any other, whether friend or foe, to draw his portrait. Immeasurably the greatest spirit of his age, his colossal figure filled Christendom. But we cannot be too often reminded whence his greatness sprang; and happily it can be expressed in a single word. It was his Faith – faith in God. There have been men of as commanding genius, of as fearless courage, of as inflexible honesty, of as persuasive popular eloquence, and as indefatigable in labor and unchangeable in purpose, who yet have not revolutionized the world. It was not this assemblage of brilliant qualities and powers which enabled Luther to achieve what he did. They aided him, it is true, but the one power in virtue of which he effected the Reformation was his faith. His faith placed him in thorough harmony with the Divine mind and the Divine government; the wisdom with which he spake was thus the wisdom of God, and it enlightened the world; the object he aimed at was what God had purposed to bring to pass, and so he prospered in his great undertaking. This is the true mystic potency of which priests in all ages have pretended, though falsely, to be possessed; it descended in all its plenitude upon Luther, but what brought it down from its native source in the skies was not any outward rite, but the power of faith.

There is one quality of the illustrious Reformer of which we have said little, namely, his eloquence in the pulpit. Of the extraordinary measure in which he possessed this gift we shall permit two Popish witnesses to bear testimony. Varillas says of him: "In him nature would appear to have combined the spirit of the Italian with the body of the German; such are his vivacity and his industry, his vigor and his eloquence. In the study of philosophy and scholastic theology he was surpassed by none; and at the same time none could equal him in the art of preaching. He possessed in perfection the highest style of eloquence; he had discovered the strong and the weak sides of the human understanding, and knew the ways by which to lay hold of both; he had the art of sounding the inclinations of his hearers, however various and eccentric they might be; he knew how to rouse or allay their passions, and if the topics of his discourse were too high and incomprehensible to convince them, he could carry all before him by a forcible attack on the imagination through the vehemence of his imagery. Such was Luther in the pulpit; there he tossed his hearers into a tempest and calmed them down again at his pleasure. But when he descended from the pulpit it was only to exercise a still more absolute reign in his private conversation. He stirred men's minds without discomposing them, and inspired them with his sentiments by a mode of which none could discover either the action or the traces. In short, he triumphed by the elegance of his German style over those who had been struck with his eloquence and captivated by his conversation; and as nobody spoke or wrote his native language so well as he, none have ever since spoken or written it with so much purity."

Another writer, hostile to Luther and the Reformation – Florimond de Raemond – speaking of his eloquence says: "When declaiming from the pulpit, as if smitten by a frenzy, with action suited to the word, he struck the minds of his hearers in the most marvelous manner, and carried them away in a torrent wherever he would – a gift and power of speech which is seldom found among the nations of the North."

There could hardly be a greater contrast than that between Luther in public, where his temper appeared so imperious and his onsets were so fierce and overwhelming, and Luther in private, where he was gentle as a child. In men like Luther the love of truth, which in public kindles into passion and vehemency in the face of opposition, becomes mildness and love in the midst of the congenial circle. "Whoever has known him and seen him often and familiarly," writes Melancthon of him, "will allow that he was a most excellent man, gentle and agreeable in society, not in the least obstinate and given to disputation, yet with all the gravity becoming his character. If he showed

any great severity in combating the enemies of the true doctrine, it was from no malignity of nature, but from ardor and enthusiasm for the truth." [4] Communion with God through his Word, and in prayer, were the two chief means by which he nourished his faith, and by consequence his strength. "I have myself," says Melancthon, "often found him shedding bitter tears, and praying earnestly to God for the welfare of the Church. He devoted part of each day to the reading of the Psalms and to invoking God with all the fervor of his soul." [5] His sublime task was to draw forth the light of the Word from its concealment, and replace it in the temple, in the school, and in the dwelling.

His personal appearance has been well sketched by one of his biographers: "In stature he was not much above the ordinary height, but his limbs were firmly set; he had an open, right valiant countenance; a broad German nose, slightly aquiline; a forehead rather wide than lofty, with beetling brows; large lips and mouth; eyes full of lustre, which were compared to the eagle's or the lion's; short curling dark hair, and a distinguishing wart on the right cheek. In the early part of his career his figure was emaciated to the last degree, subsequently it filled out, and in his latter years inclined to corpulency. His constitution was naturally of the strongest cast; one of the common mould must have sunk under his unparalleled energy; and he was never better than with plenty of toil and study, and a moderate diet, such as his accustomed herring and pease." [6]

As the patriarchs of old sat in the door of their tent to bid the wayfarer welcome to its shade and hospitality, so dwelt Luther in the Augustine convent. It's door stood open to all. Thither came the poor for alms, the sick for medicine, and distinguished strangers from all parts of Europe to see and converse with its illustrious occupant. The social meal was the supper. Luther would come to the table, weary with the labors of the day, not unfrequently holding a book in his hand, in which he would continue for some time reading. All kept silent till he had lifted his eyes from the page. Then he would inquire the news; this was the signal for conversation, which soon became general. Around his board would be gathered, it might be, some of his fellow-professors; or old friends from a distance, as Link from Nuremberg, or Probst from Bremen; or eminent scholars from distant lands; or statesmen and courtiers, who chanced to be traveling on some embassy. Men of every rank and of all professions found their way to the supper-table in the Augustine convent, and received an equal welcome from the illustrious host.

In those days news traveled slowly, for the newspaper was not then in being, and the casual traveler was often the first to bring the intelligence to Wittemberg, that some great battle had been fought, or that the Turk had again broken into Christendom, or that a new Pope had to be sought for the vacant chair of St. Peter. No likelier place was there to get early information of what was passing in the world than at the supper-table in the Augustine. If the guests were delighted, the traveler too was rewarded by hearing Luther's comments on the news he had been the first to retail.

How often were statesmen astonished at the deeper insight and truer forecast of the Reformer in matters belonging to a province which they deemed exclusively their own! With terrible sagacity he could cut right into the heart of a policy, and with characteristic courage would tear the mask from kings. Or it might happen that some distinguished scholar from a distant land was a guest in the Augustine. What an opportunity for ascertaining the true translation of some word, which had occurred, it might be, in a passage on which the Reformer had been occupied that very day! If the company at table was more promiscuous, so, too, was the conversation. Topics grave and gay would come up by turns. Now it was the scheme of the monarch, and now the affairs of the peasant that were passed in review. Shrewd remarks, flashes of wit, bursts of humor, would enliven the supper-room. The eye of Luther would begin to burn, and with beaming face he would look round on the listeners as he scattered amongst them his sayings, now serious, now playful, now droll, but always embodying profound wisdom. Supper ended, Aurifaber, or some other of the company, would retire and commit to writing the more notable things that had just fallen from the Reformer, that so in due time what had been at first the privilege of only a few, might become the property of all in Luther's Table Talk. A Latin chant or a German hymn, sung by a chores of voices, in which Luther's tenor was easily distinguishable, would close the evening.

Luther was dead: where would they lay his dust? The Counts of Mansfeld would fain have interred him in their own family vault; but John, Elector of Saxony, commanded that where his labors had been accomplished, there his ashes should rest. Few kings have been buried with such honors.

Setting out for Wittemberg, relay after relay of princes, nobles, magistrates, and peasants joined the funeral procession, and swelled its numbers, till it looked almost like an army on its march, and reminded one of that host of mourners which bore the patriarch of Old Testament story from the banks of the Nile to his grave in the distant Machpelah. As the procession passed through Halle and other towns on its route, the inhabitants thronged the streets so as almost to stop the cortege, and sang, with voices thrilling with emotion., psalms and hymns, as if instead of a funeral car it; had

been the chariot of a conqueror, whose return from victory they were celebrating with paeans. And truly it was so. Luther was returning from a great battle-field, where he had encountered the powers and principalities of spiritual despotism, and had discomfited them by the sword of the spirit. It was meet, therefore, that those whom he had liberated by that great victory should carry him to his grave, not as ordinary men are carried to the tomb, but as heroes are led to the spot where they are to be crowned. On the 22nd of February, the cavalcade reached Wittemberg. As it drew near the gates of the town the procession was joined by Catherine von Bora, the wife of Luther. The carriage in which she was seated, along with her daughter and a few matrons, followed immediately after the body, which, deposited in a leaden coffin covered with black velvet, was carried on a car drawn by four horses. It was taken into the Schloss-kirk, [7] and some funeral hymns being sung, Pomeranus ascended the pulpit and gave an appropriate address.

Melancthon next delivered an eloquent oration, after which the coffin was lowered into the grave by certain learned men selected for the purpose, amid the deep stillness, broken only by sobs, of the princes, magistrates, pastors, and citizens gathered round the last resting-place of the great Reformer. [8]

Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, October 22nd, 2020
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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