corner graphic   Hi,    
Facebook image
Finding the new version too difficult to understand? Go to

The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 9 — History of Protestantism From the Diet of Worms, 1521, to the Augsburg Confession, 1530

Chapter 13 — Constitution of the Church of Hesse

Resource Toolbox

 1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11  12  13  14  15  16  17  18  19  20  21  22  23  24

 1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11  12  13  14  15  16  17  18  19  20  21  22  23  24  25  26  27

Francis Lambert–Quits his Monastery at Avignon–Comes to Zurich– Goes on to Germany–Luther Recommends him to Landgrave Philip– Invited to frame a Constitution for the Church of Hesse–His Paradoxes–The Priest's Commentary–Discussion at Homburg–The Hessian Church constituted–Its Simplicity–Contrast to Romish Organization–General Ends gained by Visitation–Moderation of Luther–Monks and Nuns–Stipends of Protestant Pastors–Luther's Instructions to them–Deplorable Ignorance of German Peasantry– Luther's Smaller and Larger Catechisms–Their Effects.

HESSE was an exception, not in lagging behind, but in going before the others. This principality enjoyed the labors of a remarkable man. Francis Lambert had read the writings of Luther in his cell at Avignon. His eyes opened to the light, and he fled. Mounted on an ass, his feet almost touching the ground, for he was tall as well as thin, wearing the grey gown of the Franciscans, gathered round his waist with the cord of the order, he traversed in this fashion the countries of Switzerland and Germany, preaching by the way, till at last he reached Wittenberg, and presented himself before Luther.

Charmed with the decision of his character and the clearness of his knowledge, the Reformer brought the Franciscan under the notice of Philip of Hesse. Between the thorough-going ex-monk and the chivalrous and resolute landgrave, there were not a few points of similarity fitted to cement them in a common action for the good of the Church. Francis was invited by the landgrave to frame a constitution for the Churches of Hesse. Nothing loth, Lambert set to work, and in one hundred and fifty-eight "Paradoxes" produced a basis broad enough to permit of every member exercising his influence in the government of the Church.

We are amazed to find these propositions coming out of a French cell. The monk verily must have studied other books than his breviary. What a sudden illumination was it that dispelled the darkness around the disciples of the sixteenth century! Passing, in respect of their spiritual knowledge, from night to noon-day, without an intervening twilight, what a contrast do they present to nearly all those who in after-days left the Romish Communion to enroll themselves in the Protestant ranks! Were the intellects of the men of that age more penetrating or was the Spirit more largely given? But to pass on to the propositions of the ex-monk.

Conforming to a custom which had been an established one since the days of the Emperor Justinian, who published his Pandects in the Churches, Francis Lambert, of Avignon, nailed up his "Paradoxes" on the church doors of Hesse. Scarce were they exposed to the public gaze, when eager hands were stretched out to tear them down. Not so, however, for others and friendly ones are uplifted to defend them from desecration. "Let them be read," say several voices. A young priest fetches a stool–mounts it; the crowd keep silence, and the priest reads aloud.

"All that is deformed ought to be reformed." So ran the first Paradox. It needed, thinks Boniface Dornemann, the priest who acted as reader, no runagate monk, no "spirit from the vasty depth" of Lutheranism to tell us this.

"The Word of God is the rule of all true Reformation," says Paradox second. That may be granted as part of the truth, thinks priest Dornemann, but it looks askance on tradition and on the infallibility of the Church. Still, with a Council to interpret the Bible, it may pass. The crowd listens and he reads Paradox the third. "It belongs to the Church to judge on matters of faith." Now the ex-monk has found the right road, doubtless thinks Dornemann, and bids fair to follow it. The Church is the judge.

"The Church is the congregation of those who are united by the same spirit, the same faith, the same God, the same Mediator, the same Word, by which alone they are governed." So runs Paradox the fourth. A dangerous leap! thinks the priest; the ex-monk clears tradition and the Fathers at a bound. He will have some difficulty in finding his way back to the orthodox path.

The priest proceeds to Paradox fifth. "The Word is the true key. The kingdom of heaven is open to him who believes the Word, and shut against him who believes it not. Whoever, therefore, truly possesses the power of the Word of God, has the power of the keys." The ex-monk, thinks Dornemann, upsets the Pope's throne in the little clause that gives right to the Word alone to govern.

"Since the priesthood of the law has been abolished," says the sixth proposition, "Christ is the only immortal and eternal Priest; and he does not, like men, need a successor." There goes the whole hierarchy of priests. Not an altar, not a mass in all Christendom that this proposition does not sweep away. Tradition, Councils, Popes, and now priests, all are gone, and what is left in their room? Let us read proposition seventh.

"All Christians, since the commencement of the Church, have been and are participators in Christ's priesthood." The monk's Paradoxes are opening the flood-gates to drown the Church and world in a torrent of democracy. [1] At that moment the stool was pulled from under the feet of the priest, and, tumbling in the dust, his public reading was suddenly brought to an end. We have heard enough, however; we see the ground plan of the spiritual temple; the basis is broad enough to sustain a very lofty structure. Not a select few only, but all believers, are to be built as living stones into this "holy house." With the ex-Franciscan of Avignon, as with the ex-Augustinian of Wittenberg, the corner-stone of the Church's organization is the "universal priesthood" of believers.

This was a catholicity of which that Church which claims catholicity as her exclusive possession knew nothing. The Church of Rome had lodged all priesthood primarily in one man, St. Peter–that is, in the Pope–and only a select few, who were linked to him by a mysterious

chain, were permitted to share in it. What was the consequence? Why, this, that one part of the Church was dependent upon another part for salvation; and instead of a heavenly society, all whose members were enfranchised inan equal privilege and a common dignity, and all of whom were engaged in offering the same spiritual sacrifices of praise and obedience, the Church was parted into two great classes; there were the oligarchs and there were the serfs; the first were holy, the others were profane; the first monopolized all blessings, and the others were their debtors for such gifts as they chose to dole out to them.

The two ex-monks, Luther and Lambert, put an end to this state of things. They abolished the one priest, plucking from his brow his impious mitre, and from his hands his blasphemous sacrifice, and they put the one Eternal Priest in heaven in his room. Instead of the hierarchy whose reservoir of power was on the Seven Hills, whence it was conveyed downward through a mystic chain that linked all other priests to the Pope, much as the cable conveys the electric spark from continent to continent, they restored the universal priesthood of believers. Their fountain of power is in heaven; faith like a chain links them to it; the Holy Spirit is the oil with which they are anointed; and the sacrifices they present are not those of expiation, which has been accomplished once for all by the Eternal Priest, but of hearts purified by faith, and lives which the same divine grace makes fruitful in holiness. This was a great revolution. An ancient and established order was abolished; an entirely different one was introduced. Who gave them authority to make this change? That same apostle, they answered, which the Church of Rome had made her chief and corner-stone. St. Peter, said the Church of Rome, is the one priest: he is the reservoir of all priesthood. But St. Peter himself had taught a very different doctrine; speaking, not through his successor at Rome, but in his own person, and addressing all believers, he had said, "Ye are a royal priesthood." So then that apostle, whom Romanists represented as concentrating the whole priestly function in himself, had made the most unreserved and universal distribution of it among the members of the Church.

In this passage we hear a Divine voice speaking, and calling into being another society than a merely natural one. We behold the Church coming into existence, and the same Word that summons her forth invests her in her powers and functions. In her cradle she is pronounced to be "royal" and "holy." Her charter includes two powers, the power of spiritual government and the power of holy service. These are lodged in the whole body of believers, but the exercise of them is not the right of all, but the right only of the fittest, whom the rest are to call to preside over them in the exercise of powers which are not theirs, but the property of the whole body. Such were the conclusions of Luther and the ex-Franciscan of Avignon; and the latter now proceeded to give effect to these general principles in the organization of the Church of Hesse.

But first he must submit his propositions to the authorities ecclesiastical and civil of Hesse, and if possible obtain their acceptance of them. The Landgrave Philip issued his summons, and on the 21st October knights and counts, prelates and pastors, with deputies from the towns, assembled in the Church of Homburg, to discuss the propositions of Lambert. The Romish party vehemently assailed the Paradoxes; with equal vigor Lambert defended them. His eloquence silenced every opponent, and after three days' discussion his propositions were carried, and the Churches of Hesse constituted in accordance therewith.

The Church constitution of Hesse is the first to which the Reformation gave birth; it was framed in the hope that it might be a model to others, and it differs in some important points from all of subsequent enactment in Germany. It took its origin exclusively from the Church; its authority was derived from the same quarter; for in its enactment mention was made neither of State nor of landgrave, and it was worked by a Church agency. Every member of the Church, of competent learning and piety, was eligible to the ministerial office; each congregation was to choose its own pastor. The pastors were all equal; they were to be ordained by the laying on of the hands of three others; they were to meet with their congregations every Sabbath for the exercise of discipline; and an annual synod was to supervise the whole body. The constitution of the Hessian Church very closely resembled that which was afterwards adopted in Switzerland and Scotland. [2] But it was hardly to be expected that it should retain its popular vigor in the midst of Churches constituted on the Institutions of Melancthon; the State gradually encroached upon its liberties, and in 1528 it was remodelled upon the principles of the Church constitutions of Saxony. [3]

Such were the labors that occupied the three years during which the winds were held that they should not blow on the young vine which was now beginning to stretch its boughs over Christendom.

This visitation marks a new epoch in the history of Protestantism. Hitherto, the Reformation had been simply a principle, standing unembodied before its opponents, and fighting at great disadvantage against an established and organised system. It was no longer so. It was not less a spiritual principle than before, but it had now found a body in which to dwell, and through which to act. It could now wield all the appliances that organization gives for combining and directing its efforts, and making its presence seen and its power felt by men. This organization it did not borrow from tradition, or from the existing hierarchy, which bore a too close resemblance to that of

the pagan temples, but from the pages of the New Testament, finding its models whence it had drawn its doctrines. It was the purity of apostolic doctrine, equipped in the simplicity of apostolic organizaton. Thus it disposed of the claims of the Romish Church to antiquity by attesting itself as more ancient than it. But though ancient, it was not like Rome borne down by the corruptions and decrepitudes of age; it had the innate celestial vigor of the primitive Church whose representative it claimed to be. Young itself, it promised to bestow a second youth on the world.

Besides the main object of this visitation, which was the planting of churches, a number of subsidiary but still important ends were gained. We are struck, first of all, by the new light in which this visitation presents the character of the Reformer. Luther as a controversialist and Luther as an administrator seem two different men. In debate the Reformer sweeps the field with an impetuosity that clears his path of every obstruction, and with an indignation that scathes and burns up every sophist and every sophism which his logic has overturned. But when he goes forth on this tour of visitation we hardly know him. He clothes himself with considerateness, with tenderness, and even with pity. He is afraid of going too far, and in some cases he leaves it open to question whether he has gone far enough. He is calm–nay, cautious –treading softly lest unwittingly he should trample on a prejudice that is honestly entertained, or hurt the feelings of any weak brother, or do an act of injustice or severity to any one. The revenues of the abbeys and cathedrals he touches no further than to order that they shall contribute a yearly sum for the salaries of the parish ministers, and the support of the schools. Vacant benefices, of course, he appropriates; here no personal plea appeals to his commiseration. Obstinate Romanists find forbearance at his hands. There was a clause in the Visitation Act which, had he chosen to enforce it, would have enabled him to banish such from Saxony; but in several instances he pleads for them with the elector, representing that it would be wiser policy to let them alone, than to drive them into other countries, where their opportunities of mischief would be greater. [4] If indulgent to this class, he could not be other than beneficent to nuns and monks. He remembered that he had been a monk himself. Nuns, in many instances, were left in their convents, and old monks in their chimney- corners, with a sufficient maintenance for the rest of their lives. "Commended to God" [5] was the phrase by which he designated this class, and which showed that he left to time and the teaching of the Spirit the dissolution of the conventual vow, and the casting-off of the monastic cowl. To expel the nun from her cell, and strip the monk of his frock, while the fetter remained on the soul, was to leave them captives still. It was a Higher who had been anointed to "proclaim liberty to the captive and the opening of the prison to them that are bound."

Not less considerate were his instructions to preachers. He counselled a moderate and wise course in the pulpit, befitting the exigencies of the age. They were to go forth into the wilderness that Christendom had become with the doctrine of the Baptist, "Repent." But in their preaching they were never to disjoin Repentance from Faith. These were two graces which worked together in a golden yoke; in vain would the former pour out her tears, unless the latter was near with her pardon. There was forgiveness, not in the confessor's box, but in the throne of Christ, but it was only faith that could mount into the skies and bring it down.

In the pulpit they were to occupy themselves with the same truths which the apostles and early evangelists had preached; they were not to fear that the Gospel would lose its power; they "were not to fling stones at Romanism;" the true light would extinguish the false, as the day quenches the luminosity that putrid bodies wear in the darkness.

With the spiritual inability of the will they were to teach the moral freedom of the will; the spiritual incapacity which man has contracted by the Fall was not to be pleaded to the denial of his responsibility. Man can abstain, if he chooses, from lying, from theft, from murder, and from other sins, according to St. Paul's declaration–"The Gentiles do by nature the things contained in the law." Man can ask the power of God to cure the impotency of his will; but it was God, not the saints, that men were to supplicate. The pastors were further instructed to administer the Sacrament in both kinds, unless in some exceptional cases, and to inculcate the doctrine of the real presence.

In his tour, the Reformer was careful to examine the peasantry personally, to ascertain the exact state of their knowledge, and how to shape his instructions. One day, as Mathesius relates, he asked a peasant to repeat the Creed. "I believe in God Almighty–" began the peasant. "Stop," said Luther. "What do you mean by 'Almighty? '" "I cannot tell," replied the man. "Neither can I," said Luther, "nor all the learned men in the world. Only believe that God is thy dear and true Father, and knows, as the All-wise Lord, how to help thee, thy wife, and children, in time of need. That is enough."

Two things this visitation brought to light. First, it showed how very general was the abandonment of the Romish doctrines and ceremonies throughout Saxony; and, secondly, how deplorable the ignorance into which the Church of Rome, despite her rich endowments, her numerous fraternities, and her array of clergy, had permitted the body of the common people to descend. Schools, preachers, the Bible,

all withheld. She had made them "naked to their shame." In some respects this made the work of Luther the easier. There was little that was solid to displace. There were no strong convictions to root up: crass ignorance had cleared the ground to his hand. In other respects, this made his work the more difficult; for all had to be built up from the foundations; the very first elements of Divine knowledge had to be instilled into the lower orders. With the higher ranks things were not so bad; with them Lutheranism was more a reality–a distinctly apprehended system of truth–than it had yet come to be with the classes below them. In the Altenburg district of the Saxon Electorate, only one nobleman now adhered to the Church of Rome. In the city the Gospel had been preached seven years, and now there were hardly ten men to be found in it who adhered to the Roman Church. [6] Of one hundred parishes, only four continued to celebrate mass. [7] The priests, abandoning the concubinage in which the Pope had allowed them to live, contracted marriage, in the majority of instances, with those with whom they had previously maintained relations of a less honorable kind. [8] Over against these gratifying proofs of the progress of the movement, others of a less satisfactory character had to be placed. The Lutheranism which had superseded the Romanian was, in many instances, interpreted to mean simply a release from the obligation to pay ecclesiastical dues, and to give attendance on church ceremonies. Nor does one wonder that the peasants should so have regarded it, when one recalls the spectacles of oppression which met the eyes of the visitors in their progress: fields abandoned and houses deserted from the pressure of the religious imposts. [9] From a people so completely fleeced, and whose ignorance was as great as their penury, the Protestant pastor could expect only inadequate and precarious support. The ministers eked out the miserable contributions of their flocks by cultivating each his little patch of land. While serving their Master in straits, if not in poverty, they saw without a murmur the bulk of the wealthy Popish foundations grasped by the barons, or used by the canons and other ecclesiastics who chose still to remain within the pale of the Roman Church. These hardships, they knew, were the inevitable attendants of the great transition now being effected from one order of things to another. Piety alone could open the fountains of liberality among the people, and piety must be the offspring of knowledge, of true knowledge of the Word of God. Pastors and schools were the want.

"Everywhere we find," said Luther, "poverty and penury. The Lord send laborers into His vineyard! Amen." "The face of the Church is everywhere most wretched," he wrote to Spalatin. "Sometimes we have a collection for the poor pastors, who have to till their two acres, which helps them a little. The peasants have nothing, and know nothing: they neither pray, confess, nor communicate, as if they were exempted from every religious duty. What an administration, that of the Papistical bishops!"

The Reformer had seen the nakedness of the land: this was the first step toward the remedying of it. The darkness was Cimmerian. He could not have believed, unless he had had personal knowledge of it, how entirely without intellectual and spiritual culture the Church of Rome had left the German peasant. Here was another misdeed for which Rome would have to account at the bar of future ages: nor was this the least of the great crimes of which he held her guilty. Her surpassing pride he already knew: it was proclaimed to the world in the exceeding loftiness of the titles of her Popes. The tyranny of her rule he also knew: it was exhibited in the statutes of her canon law and the edicts of her Councils. Her intolerance stood confessed in the slaughter of the Albigenses and the stake of Huss: her avarice in the ever-multiplying extortions under which Germany groaned, and of which he had had new and recent proofs in the neglected fields and unoccupied dwellings that met his eye on his visitation tour. What her indulgence boxes meant he also knew. But here was another product of the Romish system. It had covered the nations with a darkness so deep that the very idea of a God was almost lost. The closer he came to this state of things, the more appalling and frightful he saw it to be. The German nations were, doubtless, but a sample of the rest of Christendom.

It was not Romanism only, but all religion that was on the point of perishing. "If," said Luther, writing to the Elector of Saxony soon thereafter, "the old state of things had been suffered to reach its natural termination, the world must have fallen to pieces, and Christianity have been turned into Atheism." [10]

The Reformer made haste to drive away the night which had descended on the world. This, in fact, had been the object of his labors ever since he himself had come to the knowledge of the truth; but he now saw more clearly how this was to be done. Accordingly the moment he had ended his visitation and returned to Wittenberg, he sat down, not to write a commentary or a controversial tract, but a catechism for the German peasantry. This manual of rudimentary instruction was ready early next spring (1529). It was published in two forms, Shorter and a Larger Catechism. The former comprised a brief and simple exposition of the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Lord's Prayer, and the Sacraments, with forms of prayer for night and morning, and grace before and after meals, with a "House-table" or series of Scripture texts for daily use; his Larger Catechism contained a fuller and more elaborate exposition of the same matters. Few of his writings have been

more useful.

His Commentaries and other works had enlightened the nobility and instructed the more intelligent of the townspeople; but in his Catechisms the "light was parted" and diffused over the "plains," as it had once been over the "mountain-tops." When the earth is a parched desert, its herbs burned up, it is not the stately river rolling along within its banks that will make the fields to flourish anew. Its floods pass on to the ocean, and the thirsty land, with its drooping and dying plants, tasting not of its waters, continues still to languish. But with the dew or the rain-cloud it is not so.

They descend softly, almost unseen and unheard by man, but their effects are mighty. Their myriad drops bathe every flower, penetrate to the roots of every herb, and soon hill and plain are seen smiling in fertility and beauty. So with these rudiments of Divine knowledge, parted in these little books, and sown like the drops of dew, they penetrated the understandings of the populations among which they were cast, and wherever they entered they awoke conscience, they quickened the intellect, and evoked a universal outburst, first of the spiritual activities, and next of the intellectual and political powers; while the nations that enjoyed no such watering lay unquickened, their slumber became deeper every century, till at last they realised their present condition in which they afford to Protestant nations a contrast that is not more melancholy than it is instructive.

Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, March 22nd, 2018
the Fifth Week of Lent
There are 10 days til Easter!
Search Historical Writings
Enter query in the box below
To report dead links, typos, or html errors or suggestions about making these resources more useful use our convenient contact form
Powered by Lightspeed Technology