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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 8 — History of Protestantism in Switzerland From A.D. 1516 to Its Establishment at Zurich, 1525

Chapter 1 — Switzerland – the country and the people

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The Reformation dawns first in England – Wicliffe – Luther – His No – What it Implied – Uprising of Conscience – Who shall Rule, Power or Conscience? – Contemporaneous Appearance of the Reformers – Switzerland – Variety and Grandeur of its Scenery – Its History – Bravery and Patriotism of its People – A New Liberty approaches – Will the Swiss Welcome it? – Yes – An Asylum for the Reformation – Decline in Germany – Revival in Switzerland.

IN following the progress of the recovered Gospel over Christendom in the morning of the sixteenth century, our steps now lead us to Switzerland. In Enghmd first broke the dawn of that blessed day. Foremost in that race of mighty men and saviours by whose instrumentality it pleased God to deliver Christendom from the thraldom into which the centuries had seen it fall to ignorance and superstition, stands Wicliffe. His appearance was the pledge that after him would come others, endowed with equal, and it might be with greater gifts, to carry forward the same great mission of emancipation. The success which followed his preaching gave assurance that that Divine Influence which had wrought so mightily in olden time, and chased the night of Paganism from so many realms, overturning its altars, and laying in the dust the powerful thrones that upheld it, would yet again be unloosed, and would display its undying vitality and unimpaired strength in dispelling the second night which had gathered over the world, and overturning the new altars which had been erected upon the ruins of the Pagan ones.

But a considerable interval divided Wicliffe from his great successors. The day seemed to tarry, the hopes of those who looked for "redemption" were tried by a second delay. That Arm which had "cut the bars" of the Pagan house of bondage seemed "shortened," so that it could not unlock the gates of the yet more doleful prison of the Papacy. Even in England and Bohemia, to which the Light was restricted, so far from continuing to brighten and send forth its rays to illuminate the skies of other countries, it seemed to be again fading away into night. No second Wicliffe had risen up; the grandeur, the power, and the corruption of Rome had reached a loftier height than ever–when suddenly a greater than Wicliffe stepped upon the stage. Not greater in himself, for Wicliffe sent his glance deeper down, and cast it wider around on the field of truth, than perhaps even Luther. It seemed in Wicliffe as if one of the theological giants of the early days of the Christian Church had suddenly appeared among the puny divines of the fourteenth century, occupied with their little projects of the reformation of the Church "in its head and members," and astonished them by throwing down amongst them his plan of reformation according to the Word of God. But Luther was greater than Wicliffe, in that borne up on his shield he seemed not only of loftier stature than other men, but loftier than even the proto-Reformer. Wicliffe and the Lollards had left behind them a world so far made ready for the Reformers of the sixteenth century, and the efforts of Luther and his fellow-laborers therefore told with sudden and prodigious effect. Now broke forth the day. In the course of little more than three years, the half of Christendom had welcomed the Gospel, and was beginning to be bathed in its splendor.

We have already traced the progress of the Protestant light in Germany, from the year 1517 to its first culmination in 1521 from the strokes of the monk's hammer on the door of the castle-church at Wittemberg, in presence of the crowd of pilgrims assembled on All Souls' Eve, to his No thundered forth in the Diet of Worms, before the throne of the Emperor Charles V. That No sounded the knell of all ancient slavery; it proclaimed unmistakably that the Spiritual had at last made good its footing in presence of the Material; that conscience would no longer bow down before empire; and that a power whose rights had long been proscribed had at last burst its bonds, and would wrestle with principalities and thrones for the scepter of the world. The opposing powers well knew that all this terrible significance lay couched in Luther's one short sentence, "I cannot retract." It was the voice of a new age, saying, I cannot repass the boundary across which I have come. I am the heir of the future; the nations are my heritage; I must fulfill my appointed task of leading them to liberty, and woe to those who shall oppose me in the execution of my mission! Ye emperors, ye kings, ye princes and judges of the earth, "be wise." If you co-operate with me, your recompense will be thrones more stable, and realms more flourishing. But if not – my work must be done nevertheless; but alas! for the opposers; nor throne, nor realm, nor name shall be left them.

One thing has struck all who have studied, with minds at once intelligent and reverent, the era of which we speak, and that is the contemporaneous appearance of so many men of great character and sublimest intellect at this epoch. No other age can show such a galaxy of illustrious names. The nearest approach to it in history is perhaps the well-known famous half-century in Greece. Before the appearance of Christ the Greek intellect burst out all at once in dazzling splendor, and by its achievements in all departments of human effort shed a glory over the age and country. Most students of history have seen in this wondrous blossoming of the Greek genius a preparation of the world, by the quickening of its mind and the widening of its horizon, for the advent of Christianity. We find this phenomenon repeated, but on a larger scale, in Christendom at the opening of the sixteenth century.

One of the first

to mark this was Ruchat, the eloquent historian of the Swiss Reformation. "It came to pass," says he, "that God raised up, at this time, in almost all the countries of Europe, Italy not excepted, a number of learned, pious, and enlightened men, animated with a great zeal for the glory of God and the good of the Church. These illustrious men arose all at once, as if by one accord, against the prevailing errors, without however having concerted together; and by their constancy and their firmness, accompanied by the blessing from on high, they happily succeeded in different places in rescuing the torch of the Gospel from under the bushel that had hidden its light, and by means of it effected the reformation of the Church; and as God gave, at least in part, this grace to different nations, such as the French, English, and Germans, he granted the same to the Swiss nation: happy if they had all profited by it." [1]

The country on the threshold of which we now stand, and the eventful story of whose reformation we are to trace, is in many respects a remarkable one. Nature has selected it as the chosen field for the display of her wonders. Here beauty and terror, softness and ruggedness, the most exquisite loveliness and stern, savage, appalling sublimity lie folded up together, and blend into one panorama of stupendous and dazzling magnificence. Here is the little flower gemming the meadow, and yonder On the mountain's side is the tall, dark, silent fir-tree. Here is the crystal rivulet, gladdening the vale through which it flows, and yonder is the majestic lake, spread out amid the hushed mountains, reflecting from its mirror-like bosom the rock that nods over its strand, and the white peak which from afar looks down upon it out of mid-heaven. Here is the rifted gorge across which savage rocks fling their black shadows, making it almost night at noon-day; here, too, the glacier, like a great white ocean, hangs its billows on the mountain's brow; and high above all, the crowning glory in this scene of physical splendors, is some giant of the Alps, bearing on his head the snows of a thousand winters, and waiting for the morning sun to enkindle them with his light, and fill the firmament with their splendor.

The politics of Switzerland are nearly as romantic as its landscape. They exhibit the same blending of the homely and the heroic. Its people, simple, frugal, temperate, and hardy, have yet the faculty of kindling into enthusiasm, and some of the most chivalric feats that illustrate the annals of modern war have been enacted on the soil of this land. Their mountains, which expose them to the fury of the tempest, to the violence of the torrent, and the dangers of the avalanche, have taught them self-denial, and schooled them into daring. Nor have their souls remained unattempered by the grandeurs amid which they daily move, as witness, on proper occasions, their devotion at the altar, and their heroism on the battle-field. Passionately fond of their country, they have ever shown themselves ready, at the call of patriotism, to rush to the battlefield, and contend against the most tremendous odds. From tending their herds and flocks on those breezy pasture-lands that skirt the eternal snows, the first summons has brought them down into the plain to do battle for the freedom handed down to them from their fathers. Peaceful shepherds have been suddenly transformed into dauntless warriors, and the mail-clad phalanxes of the invader have gone down before the impetuosity of their onset, his spearmen have reeled beneath the battle axes and arrows of the mountaineers, and both Austria and France have often had cause to repent having incautiously roused the Swiss lion from his slumbers.

But now a new age had come, in which deeper feelings were to stir the souls of the Swiss, and kindle them into a holier enthusiasm. A higher liberty than that for which their fathers had shed their blood on the battle-fields of the past was approaching their land. What reception will they give it? Will the men who never declined the summons to arms, sit still when the trumpet calls them to this nobler warfare? will the yoke on the conscience gall them less than that which they felt to be so grievous though it pressed only on the body? No! the Swiss will nobly respond to the call now to be addressed to them. They were to see by the light of that early dawn that Austria had not been their greatest oppressor: that Rome had succeeded in imposing upon them a yoke more grievous by far than any the House of Hapsburg had put upon their fathers. Had they fought and bled to rend the lighter yoke, and were they meekly to bear the heavier? Its iron was entering the soul. No! they had been the bond-slaves of a foreign priest too long. This hour should be the last of their vassalage. And in no country did Protestantism find warriors more energetic, or combatants more successful, than the champions that Switzerland sent forth.

Not only were the gates of this grand territory to be thrown open to the Reformation, but here in years to come Protestantism was to find its center and head-quarters. When kings should be pressing it hard with their swords, and chasing it from the more open countries of Europe, it would retreat within this mountain-guarded land, and erecting its seat at the foot of its mighty bulwarks, it would continue from this asylum to speak to Christendom. The day would come when the light would wax dim in Germany, but the Reformation would retrim its lamp in Switzerland, and cause it to burn with a new brightness, and shed all around a purer splendor than ever was that of morning on its Alps. When the mighty voice that was now marshalling the Protestant host in Germany, and

leading it on to victory, should cease to be heard; when Luther should descend into his grave, leaving no one behind him able to grasp his scepter, or wield his sword; when furious tempests should be warring around Protestantism in France, and heavy clouds darkening the morning which had there opened so brightly; when Spain, after a noble effort to break her fetters and escape into the light, should be beaten down by the inquisitor and the despot, and compelled to return to her old prison–there would stand up in Switzerland a great chief, who, pitching his pavilion amid its mountains, and surveying from this center every part of the field, would set in order the battle a second time, and direct its movements till victory should crown the combatants.

Such is the interest of the land we are now approaching. Here mighty champions are to contend, here wise and learned doctors are to teach: but first let us briefly describe the condition in which we find it–the horrible night that has so long covered those lovely valleys and those majestic mountains, on which the first streaks of morning are now beginning to be discernible.


Lectionary Calendar
Saturday, September 23rd, 2017
the Week of Proper 19 / Ordinary 24
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