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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 27 — A retrospect–1517-1530–progress

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Glance back–The Path continually Progressive–The Gains Of Thirteen Years–Provinces and Cities Evangelised in Germany–Day Breaking in other Countries–German Bible–German Church–A Saxon Paradise–Political Movements–Their Subordination to Protestantism–Wittenberg the Center of the Drama–Charles V. and his Campaigns–Attempts to Enforce the Edict of Worms–Their Results– All these Attempts work in the Opposite Direction–Onward March of Protestantism–Downward Course of every Opposing Interest– Protestantism as distinguished from Primitive Christianity–The Two Bibles.

BEFORE the curtain rises on a new development of the great drama, let us pause, and cast a glance back on the track over which we have passed. The few moments we may spend in this retrospect will amply repay us by disclosing, more clearly perhaps than we saw them while we were narrating them, the successive and ascending stages of the movement. It may well amaze us to think how short our journey has been, measured by the time it has occupied; yet how long it is, measured by the progress which has been made. It was but yesterday that the monk's hammer awakened the echoes of the streets of Wittenberg, and now it seems as if centuries had rolled away since that day, and brought with them the new world in which we find ourselves. On ordinary occasions, many years, it may be ages, must pass before an idea can establish for itself a universal dominion in the minds of men. Hardly has Luther uttered his great idea when, like the light, it breaks out on the right hand and on the left, and shines from one end of heaven even unto the other.

How notable, too, the circumstance that our journey has been a continually progressive one! Steps backward there have been none. The point reached today has ever been in advance of that arrived at on the day before. How wonderful is this when we think that no one had marked out the Church's path from her house of bondage to a land of liberty! And still more wonderful is it when we reflect that those who were the first to tread that path often found their wisdom at fault. Ever and anon their courage failed and their faith faltered; and never were more than a few steps of their road visible at one time. All beyond lay hid in night, overhung by lowering clouds that seenled charged with thunder. But ever as the little Wittenberg band went forward, the cloud removed and stood further off. One, unseen but mighty,walked before them. And if at times the clouds returned, and the storm threatened to burst, they heard a sublime Voice speaking to them out of the darkness and saying, "When thou passest through the waters I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee; when thou walkest through the fire thou shalt not be burned: neither shall the flame kindle upon thee." [1]

Of these thirteen fruitful years between the 31st October, 1517, when Luther posted up his Theses, and the 25th June, 1530, when the Augsburg Confession was read in presence of the emperor, how surprising the gains when we come to reckon them up! Electoral Saxony is Reformed, and its sovereign is seen marching in the van of the Reforming princes. Hesse is evangelised, and its magnanimous landgrave has placed himself by the side of the elector as his companion in arms in the great battle of Protestantism. In Franconia, Silesia, East Friesland, Prussia, Brunswick, Luneburg, and Anhalt the light is spreading. The Gospel has been welcomed in the free towns of Nuremberg, Ulm, Augsburg, Strasburg, Lubeck, Bremen, Hamburg, and many others, bringing with it a second morning to the arts, the commerce, and the liberties of these influential communities. Every day princes, counts, and free cities press forward to enroll themselves in the Protestant host and serve under the Protestant banner; and in many cases where the ruler remains on the side of Rome, a not inconsiderable portion of his subjects have forsaken the old faith and embraced the Reformation.

Wider still does the light spread. It breaks out on all sides. The skies of Bohemia, Moravia, and Hungary have brightened anew– and already in these countries have been laid the foundations of a powerful Protestant Church, destined, alas! to sink all too soon under the gathering tempests of persecution. In Denmark and Sweden the Reformation is marching on to its establishment. The Protestant standard has been planted on the shores of Zurich, and the neighboring cantons are rallying round it. The Alps brighten from one hour to another, and the radiance with which they glow is reflected on the plains of Northern Italy. In France, at the court of Francis I., and in the Sorbonne, so jealous of its fame for orthodoxy, there are men who are not ashamed to confess that they have bowed to the authority of the Gospel, and consecrated their lives to its service. In England the Lollard movement, which appeared to have gone to sleep with the ashes of its martyrs, is awakening from slumber, and girding itself for a second career more glorious than the first. In Scotland the light of the new day is gladdening the eyes, and its breath stirring the souls of men.

Luther's tracts and Tyndale's New Testaments have entered that country. [2] In 1528 the die is cast, and Scotland is secured for the Reformation; for now Patrick Hamilton is burned at the stake atSt. Andrews, and his martyr-pile becomes the funeral torch of the Papacy in that country. So wide is the sphere which thirteen short years have sufficed to fill with the light of Protestantism.

Nor must we omit to note that in the midst of the German nation, like a pillar of light, now stands the German Bible. The eye that sees this Light rejoices in it; the ear that hears this Voice blesses it. In the presence of this Divine teacher, human authority, which had so long held the understanding in chains, is

overthrown, and the German people, escaping from the worst of all bondage, enter on possession of the first and highest of all liberty, the liberty of conscience.

Further, in Saxony and Hesse there is now an organized Church. The ground, cleared of monasteries, convents, indulgence-boxes, and other noxious growths of mediaevalism, begins to be covered with congregations, and planted with schools. Pastors preach the Gospel, for whom salaries have been provided; and an ecclesiastical board administers Church discipline and exercises a general supervision over the clergy.

Protestantism, no longer a system of abstract doctrines, has now found an instrumentality through which to elevate the lives of men and reform the constitutions of society. Germany, from the wilderness it was a few years ago, is becoming a garden. Luther luxuriates over the rich verdure that begins to clothe Saxony. His pen has left us a fascinating description of it, and his words have all the warm coloring of the sacred idyll from which indeed his imagery would appear to be borrowed: "I went down into the garden of nuts, to see the fruits of the valley, and to see whether the vine flourished, and the pomegranates budded." [3] "It gives me great and singular pleasure," says the Reformer, writing to the elector, 22nd May,1530,"when I see that boys and girls can now understand and speak better concerning God and Christ, than formerly could have been done by the colleges, monasteries, and schools of the Papacy, or than they can do even yet. There is thus planted in your highness's dominions a very pleasant Paradise, to which there is nothing similar in the whole world. It is as if God should say, 'Most beloved Prince John, I commend these children to thee, as my most precious treasure; they are my celestial Paradise of pleasant plants. Be thou a father to them. I place them under thy protection and rule, and honor thee by making thee the president and patron of this heavenly garden.'"

Nor can we fall to mark, in fine, how entire and complete, all through this epoch, is the subordination of Political events to the Protestant movement.

If we take our stand at Wittenberg and cast our eyes over the wide field around us, attentively observing the movements, the plots, the combinations, and the battles that mark the progress of the great drama, our convictions become only the stronger the longer we gaze, that we are standing in the center of the field, and that this is the heart of the action.

From any other point of view all is confusion; from this, and from this alone, all is order. Events far and near, on the Bosphorus and on the Tagus, in the land of the Moslem and in the dominions of the Spaniard, find here their common point of convergence. Emperors and kings, dukes and princes, Popes and bishops, all move around Luther, and all have been given into his hand to be used by him as the work may require. We see Charles waging great campaigns and fighting great battles; all this hard service is for Romanism, he believes, but Protestantism comes in and gathers the spoils. In truth the emperor is about as helpful to the movement as the Reformer himself; for never does he put his hand upon his sword-hilt to strike it but straightway it bounds forward. His touch, so far from paralizing it, communicates new life to it. Let us mark how all things work in the reverse order, and establish the very thing which the emperor wishes to overthrow. Of this the Edict of Worms is a striking example. It was promulgated in the confident hope that it would effect the extinction of Protestantism: it becomes, on the contrary, one of the main means of establishing it. Each successive attempt to enforce that edict only resulted in lifting up Protestantism to a higher platform. The first effort made to execute it, in 1521, sent Luther to the Wartburg. No greater service could any one have done the Reformation at that hour. The Reformer is out of sight indeed, but only to do a most essential work. A few months elapse, and the German Bible is seen at the hearths of the German people.

The second attempt to put this edict in force at the Diet of Nuremberg, 1522, evoked the "Hundred Grievances" of the German nation. This was a second great advance, inasmuch as it identified the Protestant movement with the cause of Germany's independence. The third attempt, at the Diet of Nuremberg, 1524, to enforce the edict led to the virtual toleration of Protestantism. All that the princes could promise the emperor was that they would execute his decree against the Reformer if possible, but they had previously declared that this was not possible. Thus, under the tutelage of Protestantism a public opinion had been formed so powerful as to bring the imperial authority into a dead-lock.

The fourth attempt to execute the Edict of Worms, made at the Diet of Spires, 1526, led to. another most important concession to the Re-formel~. The virtual toleration of Protestantism by the previous Diet was now changed into a legal toleration, the princes agreeing by a majority of votes that, till a General Council should assemble; the States should take order about religion as each might judge right. Yet another attempt, the fifth, to enforce the edict, was made at the Diet of Spires, 1529. This most of all was helpful to it, for it evoked the famous Protest of the Lutheran princes. Protestantism had now become the public creed of the princes, States, and Churches of one half of Germany. It was idle longer to talk of the Edict of Worms; from this time forward Protestantism, could be suppressed only at the cost of a civil war.

Nevertheless, the emperor did make another attempt, the sixth, to execute the redoubtable edict, which so far had been formidable only to himself. Charles had just

triumphed over the "Holy League," and sealed his new alliance with the Pope by the promise of turning the whole influence of his policy, and should that not sufilce, the whole force of his arms, to the extermination of Protestantism. In order to fulfill that promise he convokes the Diet of Augsburg, 1530, and goes thither in person to make sure that this time his project shall not miscarry. It is now that he puts the top-stone upon the fabric which he had hoped to raze. The Augsburg Confession, prepared in prospect of this assembly, and read before the emperor and the Diet, formed the culmination of the German Reformation.

Protestantism in Germany was now in its zenith; it shone with a splendor it had never before and has never since attained. Thus at every new attempt to put the ban of the Empire in motion in order to crush Luther and extirpate Protestantism, it recoils on the throne of Charles himself. The sword unsheathed at Worms in 1521, instead of dealing the fatal stroke to the great movement which the man who drew it forth most firmly believed it would, becomes the instrument to open the Reformation's way through innumerable difficulties, and lead it on step by step to its consummation and glory.

Protestantism, then, is no petty cause which stole upon the stage of the world at this supreme hour, and which, intruding itself unbidden and without occasion amongst the great affairs of kings and emperors, was unable from its insignificance to make its influence be felt on the great issues then being determined. This is the only position which some historians of name have been able to find for it. According to them, Charles is the great master-spirit of the age; his battles are the great events that constitute its history; and his closet is the source and spring of all those influences that are changing the world, and molding the destinies of the nations. How superficial this view is we need not say. Our history has lifted the veil, and placed us in presence of a mightier Power.

Protestantism is the master; Charles is but the servant. It is as Protestantism wins that he sheathes or unsheathes the sword, that he makes peace or war: and as it is to serve its interests so is the emperor lifted up or cast down; so are his arms made resplendent with victory, or darkened with disaster and defeat. All men and things exist for the Reformation. It is this Power that originates, that controls, and that extorts the service of all around it. Every one who has eyes to see, and a heart to understand, must acknowledge that Protestantism stands at the very center of the field, lifting its head king-like above all other actors, and looking serenelydown upon the hosts of its foes. It girds itself with no weapons of war, it leads forth no armed hosts, it brandishes no battle-axe in its defense; yet it alone is safe. The lightnings flash, but their bolts pass without striking it. The thunder-cloud gathers, but rolls away and bursts in another quarter of the sky. The Powers that struggle and fight around it are smitten, one after another, first with decadence and in the end with ruin; but this grand cause is seen marching steadily onward to triumph. France is humiliated; her sovereign's head is bowed on the field of Pavia, not again to be lifted up with the knightly grace that adorned it of yore. A sudden bolt lays the glory of Rome in the dust, and the queen-like beauty then marred is fated nevermore to flourish in the same high degree. The mighty Empire of Charles V. is shattered by the rude shocks it sustains, and before going to the tomb that monarch is destined to see that consumption of the Spanish power setting in which was to continue till Spain should become the frightful wreck which we behold it at this day. But as regards Protestantism, its progress is liker that of a monarch going to be crowned.

Every step carries it into a wider arena, and every year lifts it to a higher platform, till at length on the 25th of June, 1530, the crowning honor is placed on its brow, in presence of the assembled puissances, spiritual and temporal, of the Empire, with the emperor at their head, who, here to assist at its obsequies, becomes the unintentional witness of its triumph.

The characteristic of the Reformation as distinguished from primitive Christianity was its power of originating social action. It put forth on nations an influence of a kind so powerful that nothing like it is to be found in any previous age of the world. As the Gospel, in early times, held on its way among the nations, it called one individual here and another there to be its disciple. Those whom it thus gathered out of the mass it knit into a holy brotherhood, an evangelical Church. Still, though a great multitude, comprehending men of every kindred and tongue, these disciples remained blended with their several nationalities: they did not stand out before the world as a distinct social and Political community. They were a spiritual kingdom only. When the magistrate permitted them the open profession of their faith, they thankfully accepted the privilege; when they were denied it, they were content to die for the Gospel: they never thought of combining to demand as a right the open and unchallenged profession of their faith.

But the Reformation, by quickening and evolving the social instinct in man, brought with it a new order of things. It gave birth not merely to regenerated individuals, like primitive Christianity, but to regenerated societies. No doubt the Gospel in the sixteenth century began where the Gospel in the first century had begun, with the renewal even of the individual; but it did not end there. It called bodies corporate into being, it communicated to them the

idea of social rights, and supplied an organization for the acquisition and the exercise of these rights. The Reformation thus erected a platform on which it was possible to develop a higher civilization, and achieve a more perfect liberty, than the human race had yet known. Even leaving out of view the Christian graces, which formed of course the basis of that civilization, the civic virtues now shot up into a stature, and blazed forth with a splendor, which far transcended anything of the kind that Greece and Rome had witnessed in their short-lived heroic age. Where-ever the Reformation came, the world seemed to be peopled with a new race. Fired with the love of liberty, and with the yet more sacred love of truth, men performed deeds which brightened the lands in which they were done with their glory. Whatever country it made its home it ennobled by its valor, enriched by its industry, and sanctified by its virtues. The fens of Holland, the mountains of Switzerland, and the straths of Scotland became its seat, and straightway, though till now rude and barbarous, these regions were illumin ed with a glory brighter than that which letters and arms had shed on Italy and France. There it converted burghers and artisans, weavers and tillers of the soil into heroes and martyrs. Such was the new life which the Reformation gave, and such the surprising and hitherto unknown transformations which it wrought on the world.

Under the Reformation society attained its manhood. The manhood of the individual Christian was reached under primitive Christianity, but the manhood of society was not realized till the Reformation came. Till that time society was under tutors and governors. Despotism flourished previous to that epoch, as being the only form of government compatible in those ages with the peace and good order of States. Till the Reformation permeated nations with the Gospel, they had absolutely no basis for freedom. The two great necessities of States are liberty and order. The Gospel is the only power known to man that can bestow these two indispensable gifts. Atheism, by emancipating the conscience from superstitious thraldom, can give liberty, but in giving liberty it destroys order. Despotism and superstition can give order, but in maintaining order they extinguish liberty. But Christianity gives both. Inasmuch as it sets free the conscience, it gives liberty; and inasmuch as it rules the conscience, it maintains order. Thus the Reformation, making the influence of the Bible operative over the whole domain of society, was the first to plant in nations a basis for freedom; and along with liberty and order it bestowed the capacity of a terrestrial immortality. The nations of antiquity, after a short career of splendor and crime, followed each other to the grave. If atheism did not precipitate them into anarchy, and so cause them to perish in their own violence, superstition held them in her chains till they sunk in rottenness and disappeared from the earth. The balance, in their case, was ever being lost between the restraint which conscience imposes and the liberty which knowledge gives, and its loss was ever followed by the penalty of death; but the Gospel is able to maintain that balance for ever, and so to confer on nations a terrestrial, even as it confers on the individual a celestial, immortality.

History is just a second Bible, with this difference, that it is written, not like the first in letters, but in great facts. The letters and the facts, however, are charged with the same meaning. In the first Bible–that written in letters–the Creator has made known the attributes of his character, and the great principles on which he conducts his government of his creatures; and he has warned nations that, if they would aspire to greatness and seek to be happy, they must base their power on the principles of truth and righteousness on which he rules the world. In harmony with his government theirs cannot be otherwise than stable and prosperous; but if they place themselves in opposition to it, by adopting as their fundamental and guiding maxims those principles which he has condemned, they will inevitably, sooner or later, come into collision with his omnipotent and righteous rule, and be broken in pieces by the shock and ground to powder. This great truth we read in the one Bible in words plain and unmistakable; we read it in the other in those beacons of warning and examples for imitation that rise on every side of us–in this nation overthrown, and covered with the darkness of ruin; in that seated on the foundations of truth, and rising sublime with the lights of liberty and morality shining around it.

Five lines, or five words, may suffice to announce a great principle; but five centuries or ten centuries may pass away before a nation has made full proof of the truth or the falsehood of that principle. The nation selects it as its corner-stone; it frames its law and policy according to it; its national spirit and action are simply the development of that principle; it goes on, working out its problem, for centuries; the end comes at last; the nation rises, we shall suppose, to wealth, to liberty, to renown; how manifest is it that the principle was true, and that in selecting it the nation chose "the better part!" Or it brings disaster, disgrace, and overthrow; equally manifest is it that the principle was false, and that in selecting it the nation chose "the worse part."

Let us take an instance illustrating each side of the principle. Spain fallen from the summit of power, her sierras treeless and flowerless, her plains a desert, her towns hastening to decay, her people steeped in ignorance, in poverty, and in barbarism, proclaims the supreme folly of which she was guilty when she chose to rest her greatness upon a conscience governed by the inquisition.

Britain, the seat of law, the sanctuary of justice, the

fountain of knowledge, the emporium of commerce, and the bulwark of order and liberty, proclaims not less emphatically the wisdom of her choice when she made her first requisite a conscience emancipated and guided by the Bible.

Providence ever sends its instructors into the world, as the first preachers of Christianity were sent into it, by twos. Here have we Spain and Britain, the two great instructors of the world. They differ in that each is representative of a different principle; but they agree in that each teaches, the one negatively and the other positively, the self-same lesson to mankind. They are a tree of the knowledge of good and evil to the nations, as really as was the tree in the midst of the garden of old. How manifest is it that a fertilising dew has descended upon the one, and that a silent malediction has smitten the other! The Mount Ebal of Christendom, with the curse upon its top, stands over against the Mount Gerizim, from whose summit the blessing, like a star, beams out before the nations.

With history's page open before us, we have verily no need that one should demonstrate to us that there is a God, and that the Bible is a revelation of his character and will. The latter truth is continually receiving authentication and fulfillment in acts of righteousness and dispensations of terror for what are the annals of the world and the chronicles of the race but a translation into fact of the laws and principles made known in Holy Writ? God in no age, and in no land, leaves himself without a witness. The facts of history are the testimony of his being, and the proof of his Word. They are the never-ceasing echo of that awful Voice, which at the very dawn of national history proclaimed the attributes of the Divine character, and the principles of the Divine government, from the top of Sinai. In history that Voice is speaking still.


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Monday, December 10th, 2018
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