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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 8 — The Pardon-Monger and the Plague

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The Two Proclamations – Pardon for Money and Pardon of Grace – Contemporaneous – The Cordelier Samson sent to Switzerland – Crosses St. Gothard – Arrives in Uri – Visits Schwitz-Zug – Bern – A General Release from Purgatory – Baden – "Ecce Volant!" – Zurich – Samson Denied Admission – Returns to Rome – The Great Death – Ravages – Zwingli Stricken – At the Point of Death – Hymn – Restored – Design of the Visitation.

IT is instructive to mark that at the very moment when Rome was preparing for opening a great market in Christendom for the pardon of sin, so many preachers should be rising up, one in this country and another in that, and, without concert or pre-arrangement, beginning to publish the old Gospel that offers pardon without money. The same year, we may say, 1517, saw the commencement of both movements. In that year Rome gathered together her hawkers, stamped her indulgence tickets, fixed the price of sins, and enlarged her coffers for the streams of gold about to flow into them. Woe to the nations! the great sorceress was preparing new enchantments; and the fetters that bound her victims were about to be made stronger.

But unknown to Rome, at that very hour, numbers of earnest students, dispersed throughout Christendom, were poring over the page of Scripture, and sending up an earnest cry to God for light to enable them to understand its meaning. That prayer was heard. There fell from on high a bright light upon the page over which they bent in study.Their eyes were opened; they saw it all–the cross, the all-perfect and everlasting sacrifice for sin–and in their joy, unable to keep silence, they ran to tell the perishing tribes of the earth that there was "born unto them a Savior who is Christ the Lord."

"Certain historians have remarked," says Ruchat, [1] "that this year, 1517, there fell out a prodigy at Rome that seemed to menace the 'Holy Chair' with some great disaster. As the Pope was engaged in the election of thirty-one new cardinals, all suddenly there arose a horrible tempest. There came the loud peals of the thunder and the lightning's terrific flash. One bolt struck the angel on the top of the Castle of St. Angelo, and threw it down; another, entering a church, shivered the statue of the infant Jesus in the arms of his mother; and a third tore the keys from the hands of the statue of St. Peter." Without, however, laying stress upon this, a surer sign that this chair, before which the nations had so long bowed, was about to be stripped of its influence, and the keys wrested from the hands of its occupant, is seen in the rise of so many evangelists, filled with knowledge and intrepidity, to publish that Gospel of which it had been foretold that, like the lightning, it should shine from the east even unto the west.

We have already seen how contemporaneous in Germany were the two great preachings–forgiveness for money, and forgiveness through grace. They were nearly as contemporaneous in Switzerland.

The sale of indulgences in Germany was given to the Dominicans; in Switzerland this traffic was committed to the Franciscans. The Pope commissioned Cardinal Christopher, of Forli, general of the order, as superintendent-in-chief of the distribution in twenty-five provinces; and the cardinal assigned Switzerland to the Cordelier Bernardin Samson, guardian of the convent at Milan. [2] Samson had already served in the trade under two Popes, and with great advantage to those who had employed him. He had transported across the mountains, it was said, from Germany and Switzerland, chests filled with gold and silver vessels, besides what he had gathered in coin, amounting in eighteen years to no less a sum than eight hundred thousand dollars. [3] Such were the antecedents of the man who now crossed the Swiss frontier on the errand of vending the Pope's pardons, and returning with the price to those who had sent him, as he thought, but in reality to kindle a fire amid the Alps, which would extend to Rome, and do greater injury to the "Holy Chair" than the lightning which had grazed it, and passed on to consume the keys in the hands of the statue of St. Peter.

"He discharged his mission in Helvetia with not less'impudence," says Gerdesius, "than Tetzel in Germany." [4] Forcing his way (1518) through the snows of the St. Gothard, and descending along the stream of the Reuss, he and his band arrived in the canton of Uri. [5] A few days sufficing to fleece these simple mountaineers, the greedy troop passed on to Schwitz, there to open the sale of their merchandise. Zwingli, who was then at Einsiedeln, heard of the monk's arrival and mission, and set out to confront him. The result was that Samson was obliged to decamp, and from Schwitz went on to Zug. On the shores of this lake, over whose still waters the lofty Rossberg and the Righi Culm hang a continual veil of shadows, and Rome a yet deeper veil of superstition and credulity, Samson set up his stage, and displayed his wares. The little towns on the lake sent forth their population in such crowds as almost to obstruct the sale, and Samson had to entreat that a way might be opened for those who had money, promising to consider afterwards the case of those who had none. Having finished at Zug, he traveled over the Oberland, gathering the hard cash of the peasants and giving them the Pope's pardons in return. The man and his associates got fat on the business; for whereas when they crossed the St. Gothard, lank, haggard, and in rags, they looked like bandits, they were now in flesh, and daintily apparelled. Directing his course to Bern, Samson had some difficulty in finding admission for himself and his wares into that

lordly city. A little negotiation with friends inside, however, opened its gates. He proceeded to the cathedral church, which was hung with banners on which the arms of the Pope were blazoned in union with those of the cantons, and there he said mass with great pomp. A crowd of spectators and purchasers filled the cathedral. His bulls of indulgences were in two forms, the one on parchment and the other on paper. The first were meant for the rich, and were charged a dollar. The others were for the poor, and were sold at two batzen apiece. He had yet a third set, for which he charged a much higher sum. A gentleman of Orbe, named Arnay, gave 500 dollars for one of these. [6] A Bernese captain, Jacob von Stein, bartered the dapple-grey mare which he bestrode for one of Samsoh's indulgences. It was warranted good for himself, his troop of 500 men, and all the vassals on the Seigniory of Belp [7] and may therefore be reckoned cheap, although the animal was a splendid one. We must not pass without notice a very meritorious act of the monk in this neighborhood. The small town of Aarberg, three leagues from Bern, had, some years before, been much damaged by fire and floods. The good people of the place were taught to believe that these calamities had befallen them for the sin they had committed in insulting a nuncio of the Pope. The nuncio, to punish the affront he had received at their hands, and which reflected on the Church whose servant he was, had excommunicated them, and cursed them, and threatened to bury their village seven fathoms deep in the earth. They had recourse to Samson to lift off a malediction which had already brought so many woes upon them, and the last and most dreadful of which yet awaited them. The lords of Bern used their mediation for the poor people.

The good monk was compassionate. He granted, but of course not without a sum of money, a plenary indulgence, which removed the excommunication of the nuncio, and permitted the inhabitants to sleep in peace. Whether it is owing to Samson's indulgence we shall not say, but the fact is undeniable that the little town of Aarberg is above ground to this day. [8] At Bern, so pleased was the monk with his success, that he signalized his departure with a marvellous feat of generosity. The bells were tolling his leave-taking, when Samson caused it to be proclaimed that he "delivered from the torments of purgatory and of hell all the souls of the Benrose who are dead, whatever may have been the manner or the place of their death." [9] What sums it would have saved the good people of Bern, had he made that announcement on the first day of his visit! At Bern, Lupullus, formerly the schoolmaster, now canon, and whom we have already met with as one of Zwingli's teachers, was Samson's interpreter.

"When the wolf and the fox prowl about together," said one of the canons to De Wattville, the provost, "your safest plan, my gracious lord, is to shut up your sheep and your geese." These remarks, as they broke no bones, and did not spoil his market, Samson bore with exemplary good nature.

From Bern, Samson went on to Baden. The Bishop of Constance, in whose diocese Baden was situated, had forbidden his clergy to admit the indulgence-monger into their pulpits, not because he disapproved his trade, but because Samson had not asked his permission before entering his diocese, or had his commission countersigned by him. The Cure of Baden, however, had not courage to shut the door of his pulpit in the face of the Pope's commissioner.

After a brisk trade of some days, the monk proposed to signalise his deparure by an act of grace, similar to that with which he had closed his performances in Bern. After mass, he formed a procession, and putting himself at its head, he marched round the churchyard, himself and troop chanting the office for the dead. Suddenly he stopped, looked fixedly up into the sky, and after a minute's pause, he shouted out, "Ecce volant! "– " See how they fly!" These were the souls escaping through the open gates of purgatory and winging their way to Paradise. It struck a wag who was present that he would give a practical commentary on the flight of the souls to heaven. He climbed to the top of the steeple, taking with him a bag of feathers, which he proceeded to empty into the air. As the feathers were descending like snow-flakes on Samson and his company, the man exclaimed, "Ecce Volant! "–" See how they fly!" The monk burst into a rage. To have the grace of holy Church so impiously travestied was past endurance. Such horrible profanation of the wholesome institution of indulgences, he declared, destowed nothing less than burning. But the citizens pacified him by saying that the man's wits were at times disordered. Be this as it may, it had turned the laugh against Samson, who departed from Baden somewhat crestfallen. [10]

Samson continued his journey, and gradually approached Zurich. At every step he dispensed his pardons, and yet his stock was no nearer being exhausted than when he crossed the Alps. On the way he was told that Zwingli was thundering against him from the pulpit of the cathedral. He went forward, notwithstanding. He would soon put the preacher to silence. As he came nearer, Zwingli waxed the bolder and the plainer. "God only can forgive," said the preacher, with a solemnity that awed his hearers; "none on earth can pardon sin. You may buy this man's papers, but be assured you are not absolved. He who sells indulgences is a sorcerer, like Simon Magus; a false prophet, like Balaam; an ambassador of the king of the bottomless pit, for to those

dismal portals rather than to the gates of Paradise do indulgences lead."

Samson reached Zurich to find its gates closed, and the customary cup of wine–a hint that he was not expected to enter–waiting him. [11] Feigning to be charged with a special message from the Pope to the Diet, he was admitted into the city. At his audience it was found that he had forgotten his message, for the sufficient reason that he had never received any. IIe was ignominiously sent away without having sold so much as a single pardon in Zurich. Soon thereafter he re-crossed the Alps, dragging over their steeps a wagonful of coin, the fruits of his robbery, and returned to his masters in Italy. [12]

He was not long gone when another visitant appeared in Switzerland, sent of God to purify and invigorate the movement–to scatter the good seed on the soil which Zwingli had ploughed and broken up. That visitant was the plague or "Great Death." It broke out in the August of that same year, 1519. As it spread from valley to valley, inflicting frightful ravages, men felt what a mockery were the pardons which thousands, a few months before, had flocked to purchase. It reached Zurich, and Zwingli, who had gone to the baths of Pfaffers to recruit his health, exhausted by the labors of the summer, hastened back to his flock. He was hourly by the bedside of the sick or the dying. [13] On every side of him fell friends, acquaintances, stricken down by the destroyer. He himself had hitherto escaped his shafts, but now he too was attacked. He lay at the point of death. Utterly prostrate, all hope of life was taken away. It was at this moment that he penned his little hymn, so simple, yet not a little dramatic, and breathing a resignation so entire, and a faith so firm–

"Lo! at the door
I hear Death's knock!
Shield me, O Lord,
My strength and rock.

"The hand once nailed
Upon the tree,
Jesus, uplift –
And shelter me,

"Willest Thou, then,
Death conquer me
In my noon-day?...
So let it be!

"Oh! may I die,
Since I am Thine;
Thy home is made
For faith like mine."

Thus he examined, at that awful moment, the foundations of his faith; he lifted his eyes to the cross; he knew whom he had believed; and being now more firmly persuaded than ever of the Gospel's truth, having put it to the last awful test, he returned from the gates of the grave to preach it with even more spirituality and fervor than before. Tidings of his death had been circulated in Basle, in Lucerne – in short, all the cities of the Confederation. Everywhere men heard with dismay that the great preacher of Switzerland had gone to his grave. Their joy was great in proportion when they learned that Zwingli still lived. [14] Both the Reformer and the country had been chastened, purified, and prepared, the one for his mighty task, and the other for the glorious transformation that awaited it.

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