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Erasmus & Luther: Their Attitude To Toleration -Robert H. Murray Litt.D.

THE agricultural regime was one that Luther understood: the business one was remote from him. In his Von Kauffs-bandlung und Wucher he spoke strongly on the action of the trading companies. He cared nothing for the foreign trade that brought wares from Calcutta, Calicut and other places. Were not these spices and costly fabrics of silk and cloth of gold only for purpose of luxury and display? What use did they serve? Did they not remove money from the people and their rulers? Here he anticipated a favourite argument of the mercantile school of the seventeenth century. True, patriarchs like Abraham bought and sold, but if they did they bought and sold cattle, wool, grain, butter and milk. These are God’s gifts which He raises from the earth and distributes among men. The new trade simply means the “throwing away of our gold and silver into foreign countries.” As he anticipated the mercantile theory, so he also obviously anticipated the Physiocratic theory. Nature worked along with man on the soil, and there was no such co-operation in business. The profit from trade is indeed unnatural. Moreover, a merchant can “in a short time become so rich as to be able to buy up emperors and kings.” This attitude is no new one. In the An den christlichen Adel Luther denounces the trading companies and the usury they exacted. He disavows acquaintance with figures, and cannot understand how a hundred florins can gain twenty annually. Here appears the mediæval notion that money was barren metal. It is far more important to till the soil than to trade. “It is, indeed,” he is persuaded, “high time that a bit were put in the mouth of the Fuggers and other companies.”

The reformer’s humanistic training appears in his statement that “we despise the arts and languages, but refuse to do without the foreign wares which are neither necessary nor profitable to us … Is not this a proof that we are true Germans, i.e. fools and beasts?” He insists that God “has bestowed upon us, as He has bestowed upon other nations, sufficient wool, hair, flax and everything else for becoming clothing, but now men squander fortunes on silk, satin, cloth of gold and absurd foreign goods.” He anticipates the doctrine of Lassalle when he holds that wages tend to the cost of the maintenance of the worker. It seemed to him that the price of an article depended on the cost of labour involved in making it, and in the state of society in which he lived such a crude criterion was not so unfair as it looks. The scholastic notion of a just price was a leading idea in his mind, and he thought that it was possible to fix this price. Profit might be made, but not such “as might cause loss to another.” He opposed the idea of buying cheaply and selling dearly: such a practice was “to open door and window to hell.” He also opposed the artificial scarcity which merchants like the Fuggers aimed at creating.

There was a new world around him: the effects of the discovery of Columbus could not be undone. Men were sending their goods no longer to Venice and the Mediterranean but to the north, that is, to the Atlantic Ocean. Money might be as barren as Luther thought it; the merchant class, however, stood in urgent need of it, and they offered high rates. Luther was unaware of the possibilities that lay hidden behind the discovery of America, still he did see that usury was growing, though he did not diagnose the cause with sufficient accuracy. It is hard to say whether he hated the devil or the Pope the more. It gave him peculiar pleasure to attack both simultaneously. In his An den christlichen Adel he exclaimed that “the greatest misfortune of the German nation is easily the traffic in interest.… The devil invented it, and the Pope, by giving his sanction to it, has done untold evil throughout the world.” He felt as strongly on this matter in 1539, when he published his An die Pfarhernn wider den Wucher zu predigen, as he felt in 1520. He held the same opinion in 1542. He would refuse usurers the sacrament, absolution and Christian burial. He quotes such texts as Exodus 22:25; Leviticus 25:36; Deuteronomy 23:19; St. Matthew 5:42; and, above all, St. Luke 6:35. Some say that the New Testament verses are only counsels, not commands: Luther maintains strongly that they are commands which bind men to obey them. Still, he allows some exceptions to his rigid rule. As the Emperor Justinian allowed mitigated usury to men in urgent need of money, Luther is willing to permit it where the loan is a work of mercy to the needy. Here is a case in point: In 1532 the widow of Wolfgang Jörger offered him 500 florins for the use of poor students of divinity in Wittenberg, asking him in what form she ought to give her bequest. He advised her to lend it at interest, and in this advice Melanchthon and his friends concurred.

In the midst of speculations like these came the explosion of the Peasants’ Revolt. Its primary motive was economic. The tyranny of the lords, the serfdom, the corvée, the game laws, the heavy taxes, the tithes had long pressed severely on the mass of the people. To these old grievances were added new motives in the prevalent intellectual unrest, and in the powerful leaven of the new religious teaching. That Luther had constantly inculcated the duty of obedience to the civil powers was manifest. That he had denounced the extreme wickedness of sedition was equally manifest. At the same time his democratic message of the brotherhood of man and the excellence of the humblest Christian worked in many ways undreamed of by himself. His gospel of Christian liberty was a mighty solvent. For the spiritual freedom which he taught, multitudes substituted freedom from political oppression, from social injustice and from economic burdens. His assaults upon many features of the existing order, his criticisms of the growing luxury of the wealthier classes, his denunciations of the rapacity and greed of the merchants and the commercial companies and of the tyranny and corruption of rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, all tended to inflame the populace and spread impatience and discontent. Roman law was widening its far-reaching influence. Like heady wine, the reading of the Bible intoxicated and exalted them, leading not to revolution but to absolute anarchy. Its influence was as much indirect as direct. For some Anabaptists, like other men from the Gnostics to Schleiermacher, denied the necessity of reading it. There was as much connexion between Luther and the outbreak as there was between Hus and the extreme fanatics of his party, or between Wyclif and Wat Tyler. “The people,” he informed the nobles, “neither can nor will endure your tyranny any longer. God will not endure it; the world is not what it once was when you drove and hunted men like wild beasts.” The extraordinary response he had met with, the confusion into which all Germany had been thrown by the Reformation, and the widespread weakening of respect for traditional authority resulting therefrom, made 1525 seem a peculiarly favourable time for the readjustment of the various classes of society to each other.

“Beginning in the autumn of 1524, in the highlands between the sources of the Rhine and the Danube, the rebellion swept north through Franconia and Swabia. The demands of the insurgents were embodied in Twelve Articles, drawn up not later than February 1525, by a Swabian, Sebastian Lotzer. The leading principle of this document is the entire assimilation of civil and divine law; all claims are supported by an appeal to the gospel, under the rule of which the peasants declare it to be their intention to live. The articles propose the free election by each parish of its pastor, the abolition of serfdom, the reduction of taxes and tithes, the reduction of exorbitant rents, the restoration to the community of lands unjustly appropriated by private persons, extra payment for extra labour, freedom to hunt, fish, and cut wood in the forests, the abolition of the heriot,” and the substitution of the old German for the new Roman law.

In response to the Twelve Articles of the Swabian peasants Luther sent forth his Exhortation to Peace. The revolt had broken out and the horrors of Wittenberg had taken place, though of this the writer was unaware when he wrote his hasty pamphlet. The second was merely one sheet, entitled Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants, or more shortly Against the Insurgent Peasants. It was composed before the complete defeat in the decisive days of May. In it Luther, like the Tudors, sacrificed liberty to order. The last is the Circular Letter concerning the Hard Booklet against the Peasants, published at the time when the revolt had been crushed in blood.

In the Exhortation to Peace the pamphleteer seeks to put the truth before the peasants and their lords, and he addresses each side in turn. He reminds the lords that “God has so ordained it that your furious raging neither can nor shall any longer be endured. You must become different and give way to the Word of God; if you refuse to do so willingly, then you will be forced to do it by violence and riot. If these peasants do not accomplish it, others must.” They are right in their demand to choose their own pastors, and in their repudiation of the heriot. They are wrong in their desire to divide the tithes between the priest and the poor: it is simply robbery, for the tithes belong to the Government. They are also wrong in craving the abolition of serfdom on the ground that Christ has freed all: this makes Christian freedom a carnal thing, and is therefore unjustifiable. The gospel is concerned with spiritual, not temporal, affairs. Earthly society cannot exist without inequalities; the true Christian finds his Christian liberty and his opportunity for Christian service in the midst of them and in spite of them.

Some say that the rebellion has been caused by doctrine of the prophet, but he avers that he has always taught obedience to the powers that be. Those who take the sword shall perish by the sword and every soul should be subject to the authorities in fear and honour. “If the Government is bad and intolerable, that is no excuse for riot and insurrection, for to punish evil belongs not to every one but to the civil authority who bears the sword.” Suffering tyranny is a cross given by God. Luther will pray for them. Christianity comports only with passive resistance. This is the leading feature of the argument, though the remarks on the lords were scarcely seasonable. If they “forbid the preaching of the Gospel and oppress the people so unbearably, then they deserve that God should cast them from their thrones.” He concludes that “tyrants seldom die in their beds; as a rule they perish by a bloody death. Since it is certain that you govern tyrannically and savagely, forbidding the preaching of the Gospel and fleecing and oppressing the people, there is no hope or comfort for you but to perish as those like you have perished.” The peasants afforded him more satisfaction as they grounded their claims on the Bible. It was only four years since his translation of the New Testament had appeared, and already its leaven was at work. When the peasants and he differed in their exegesis, this satisfaction becomes dimmed. The inner light of the mystic and that of Münzer were widely apart, and Luther came to regard Münzer’s fanatics as possessed by the devil. Extreme men, like this leader, urged the divine duty of ruthless slaughter. In his journeys through the rebellious districts Luther witnessed the violence, anarchy and rapine which characterize class warfare. Moved to alarm by these excesses he issues the pamphlet Against the Insurgent Peasants, about May 4, 1525.

He lives in the moment and takes no thought for the morrow. Sufficient unto the day is the change in view thereof. As Carlyle held that the skins of the French aristocracy bound the new edition of Rousseau’s works, so the skins of the German peasants bound the new version of Luther’s ideas. Is it not the prerogative of genius to be fertile in contradiction, to nourish its development on inconsistencies? He knew not whither he was going—he did not wish to know. Forces, incalculable forces, were driving him. God would provide the opportunity: God would reveal how it ought to be used. Had the men who executed Louis XVI been content with the Tennis Court Oath, the House of Bourbon might still be reigning in Paris.

The fates of theories are strange, and if the father of one of them could see the developments of some of his children, he would stand aghast. There is a statement of the theory of the Social Pact in the De Regimine Principum of St. Thomas Aquinas. To him, as to Hooker in his Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, it furnishes a cogent argument on behalf of absolute monarchy. To Locke it affords a convincing statement on the right of the individual to set a limit to the power of the State. To Rousseau it yields a clear account in favour of an extreme form of democracy. These doctrines are divergent: the Anabaptist application of Luther’s was simply more thorough. The revolutionary drew back in horror.

Blood, he argues, should be shed for three reasons: the peasants have broken their oath of fealty; they have rioted and plundered; and they have covered their terrible sins with the name of the Gospel. “Therefore let all who are able hew them down, slaughter and stab them, openly or in secret, and remember that there is nothing more poisonous, noxious, and utterly diabolical than a rebel. You must kill him as you would a mad dog; if you do not fall upon him, he will fall upon you and the whole land.” “I believe that there are no rebels left in hell, but all of them have entered into the peasants.” So strange are the times that a prince may merit heaven more certainly by shedding blood than by saying prayers. “Thou, O God, must judge and act. It may be that whoever is killed on the side of the authorities is really a martyr in God’s cause.”

Indulgence is to be shown to those led astray: many people joined the rebels against their will and under diabolical guiding. Terms then are to be offered to these men. Yet, he adds, “I will not forbid such rulers as are able to chastise and slay the peasants without previously offering them terms, even though the Gospel does not permit it.” That he had completely lost his mental balance is witnessed by the remark that “a pious Christian ought to be willing to endure a hundred deaths rather than yield a hair’s breadth to the cause of the peasants.”

At the battle of Frankenhausen, May 15, 1525, Philip of Hesse bore the sword to some purpose, for the rebels were utterly routed, many of them flying in the wildest panic. In this war at least a hundred thousand peasants were slaughtered, and from 1523 to 1546 no less than thirty thousand Anabaptists suffered in Holland and Friesland. Münzer was captured and put to death. His rising had inflicted so much damage that Luther and Melanchthon expressed their regret that he had been tortured only once. The latter was sorry that the beaten man had not been forced to confess that the Devil had inspired his revelations. Münzer had aimed at the extermination of all impious persons and the establishment of a kingdom of God formed of all the righteous on earth. This rather than rebaptism was the distinguishing tenet of the Anabaptists.

In his Circular Letter concerning the Hard Booklet against the Peasants to Chancellor Caspar Müller, Luther indulges in an exceedingly one-sided analysis of the character of the rebels. The analysis is all the more interesting, since it comes from a peasant’s son. “What,” he asks,” is more ill-mannered than a foolish peasant or a common man when he has enough and is full, and gets power in his hands?” “An ass must be beaten and the rabble governed by force. God knew this well, and therefore He gave the rulers not a fox’s tail but a sword.” The reactionary pleads that “a rebel does not deserve a reasonable answer, for he will not accept it; the only way to answer such foul-mouthed rascals is with the fist till their noses dribble. The peasants”—here is an aggravation of their offence—“would not listen to him or let him speak, therefore their ears must be opened by musket bullets so that their heads may fly into the air.”

He holds strongly that rebellion deserves neither mercy nor judgment, that there is nothing for it but to slaughter without compunction. He had never spoken of acting against the conquered and humbled, but solely of smiting those actually engaged in rebellion. His adversaries profess astonishment when he did not admonish the authorities who were not pious. His retort is that it was no part of his duty. “I say once more for the third time that I wrote for the benefit of those authorities who were disposed to act rightly in a Christian manner.” Erasmus, who had been watching the rebellion with loathing, said to him: “We are now reaping the fruit of your spirit. You do not acknowledge the rebels, but they acknowledge you, and it is well known that many who boast of the name of the Evangel have been instigators of this horrible revolt. It is true that you have attempted in your grim booklet against the peasants to allay this suspicion, but nevertheless you cannot dispel the general conviction that this mischief was caused by the books you sent forth against the monks and bishops in favour of evangelical freedom and against the tyrants, more especialy those written in German.” Had the writer cast his thoughts back to the year 1511, for instance, he would have remembered that other authors as well as the one he censures were then denouncing monks and bishops.

With this Circular Letter it is useful to compare A Circular to the Princes of Saxony concerning the Spirit of Revolt, July 1524. In it Luther examines Münzer’s apologia for the deeds of his followers. The Anabaptist leader urged the precepts of the Old Testament found in Genesis 11:2, Deuteronomy 7:12 and 12:2–3. Luther meets this appeal in a most striking fashion. He does not deny that such precepts remain, but he points out that “a certain Divine command then existed for such acts of destruction which is not given to us at the present day.”

This comparative view of the worth of the Bible was an amazing one to take, and had it prevailed countless lives might have been saved from violent deaths. Unfortunately its enunciator did not perceive the full significance of the truth he uttered. “I see something,” he confesses, “which the blessed Augustine saw not, and those that come after me will see that which I see not.” He implies his belief in the element of growth in divine revelation, a view that cuts the roots of intolerance. For growth implies change, a readjustment to the new and better conception of God. He came as near to the great principle of evolution in the books of the Bible as Herbert Spencer came to the principle of evolution itself before Darwin discovered it; but neither Luther nor Spencer understood fully the implications of their views. In his Table-talk Luther is at pains to explain the transitory authority of the Mosaic law. “We must,” he points out, “and do reject and condemn those that so highly boast of the rites and proceedings in Moses’ law (Judicialia) in temporary affairs, for we have our imperial and country laws under which we live and whereto we are sworn.… Moses’ law found and obliged only the Jews in that place which God made choice of.… Therefore let us recommend and leave Moses to his laws, except only the Moralia, which God hath planted in nature, as the Ten Commandments, which concern God’s true worship and service, and a civil life.” The view is as clear as Erasmus’s; for both recognize the fact that the Bible is a library containing sixty-six books written in widely different ages by widely different people. It is singular that one who enhanced the authority of the law so considerably looks askance on the political activity of the Prophets, which was “so much hay, straw, and wood among the genuine silver and gold” of their labours.

In the Circular to the Princes of Saxony concerning the Spirit of Revolt, he is persuaded that, according to God’s ordinance, the princes are the “rulers of the world,” and that Christ had said “My kingdom is not of this world,” thus assuming the standpoint of his treatise On the Secular Power. Therefore he draws the conclusion that it is urgent for them to prevent such disorders and to anticipate the revolt. His cause was from God, Münzer’s was not. What was the proof thereof? The sole proof advanced was the reassertion of his divine mission. So confident was he of this that he offered toleration to the Anabaptists. “Do not,” he requested, “scruple to let them preach freely.” In the heat of the contest with Münzer he held that “all should preach stoutly and freely as they were able and against whomsoever they pleased.… Let the spirits fall upon one another and fight it out.” The fittest would survive, for truth would conquer.

It is difficult to believe that the Erasmus who wrote the Praise of Folly is also the man who could upbraid another for speaking strongly against monks and bishops. It is far more difficult to believe that the Luther who wrote the statesmanlike Circular to the Princes of Saxony also wrote the prejudiced Circular Letter concerning the Hard Booklet against the Peasants. They seem to come from two distinct types of ability, yet they are composed by the same man at an interval of less than a year. Had a leader of Luther’s transcendent influence adhered to the opinion that the Old Testament possessed a lower value than the New, persecution would never have assumed the proportions it ultimately did. The New Testament would correspondingly have been exalted; and its principle of love, instead of the old one of hate, would have modified the attitude of one set of men to another when they found that their beliefs did not altogether agree. Jesus did not employ force in order to spread his message. “Compel them to come in,” He once said, but only one man was sent to carry out the command. Luther’s attitude would have been all the more significant; for Erasmus was a man of the New Testament. Hebrew he did not know any more than German. The cause of toleration would thus have received the influence of the Saviour, not that of the legislator.

Luther was, however, so absorbed in his conception of religion that he completely failed to recognize the inner meaning of the vision flashing across him for a moment and then disappearing for ever. He also failed adequately to understand the social and economic evils of the day. His task was to free men from what he regarded as the traditional ecclesiastical bondage. Peasant though he was by birth, his sympathies lay with the middle rather than with the lower classes, with the bourgeoisie rather than with the proletariat and the peasantry. In Germany as in England, the Reformation was essentially a middle-class movement. His position in 1524 and 1525 was an immensely serious one. He could not help seeing that his own teaching was influencing the attitude of the working classes to the established order, as well as to the established church. On the other hand the revolution threatened to assume such proportions that his infant following would be overwhelmed. Therefore he tells the rebels, “God would rather suffer the rulers who do what is wrong than the mob whose cause is just. The reason is that when Master Omnes wields the sword and makes war on the pretence that he is in the right, things fare badly.”

Luther recognized the stern necessity of putting down anarchy which veiled itself under the plea of liberty of conscience. To the reformer it was not liberty: it was sheer licence. Metternich shrewdly remarked that Napoleon III could not be Emperor “par la grâce de Dieu” and “par la volonté nationale.” Luther aimed at leadership on the ground that God reported to him. His message and the national will supported him in carrying it out. Like Napoleon III, he found in the Peasants’ War the impossibility of combining and reconciling the two reasons on which his leadership rested. The contradiction wrought the downfall of Napoleon III, and it almost wrought the downfall of Luther, till he threw in his lot with the prince against the people.

As More felt in his own day, as Burke felt long after, Luther felt that when a separation was effected between security—the security of society—and liberty, neither was safe. Sir Thomas More pleaded for toleration till toleration endangered the commonwealth. Edmund Burke argued for liberty in America: he refused to argue for licence in France. So, too, Martin Luther wrote on behalf of the freedom of a Christian man till revolt threatened that and much else besides. More was a conservative, Luther was a conservative, and Burke was a conservative. They were three of the great conservatives of history. The practice of all three seemed to depart widely from their creed. Coleridge, however, insists that in Burke’s writings at the beginning of the American Revolution and in those at the beginning of the French Revolution, the principles are the same and the deductions are the same. The evidence is not nearly so strong in the case of Luther, yet it might be urged in his defence, as in More’s and Burke’s, that had his knowledge of the facts been ample and, above all, had not his experience been cast into such a whirlpool as the Peasants’ Revolt, he might have arrived at conclusions far different from that of his pamphlets of 1524–5. Luther regarded Thomas Münzer’s policy of revolution just as More regarded Thomas Cromwell’s policy of reformation. Like Joseph II, the German reformer was tempted to take the second step before he had taken the first, but the moment he foresaw the consequences of raising his foot to take the second step he replaced his foot on the first step. He was not going to witness the devastation of Saxony by a spirit which, in the words of Burke, “breaks the locality of public affections.”

The experience of the Russian Revolution since March 1917 enables one to grasp the point of view of Luther in 1525 with additional insight. Luther was convinced, and very deeply convinced, that behind all human law lay a divine law, a divine order of society. Peasants are fitted to obey princes who are fitted to rule: status, not contract, was the ideal of society he decidedly favoured. The farmer may only rebel when he must rebel, that is, when the conditions are intolerable. The intolerable condition in 1525 was the danger that the Lutheran Gospel might lose and that the Peasants’ Gospel might win. Luther averted the danger by the sacrifice of the peasants—such is the irony of history—on the altar of individualism. He must preserve order, he must preserve peace in order that his message might have free course.

With piercing insight Shakespeare writes:

The heavens themselves, the planets and this centre.

Observe degree, priority, and place,

Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,

Office and custom, in all line of order:

And therefore is the glorious planet, Sol,

In noble eminence enthroned and sphered

Amidst the other: whose med’cinable eye

Corrects the ill aspects of planets evil,

And posts, like the commandment of a king,

Sans check, to good and bad. But when the planets

In evil mixture to disorder wander,

What plagues and what portents! what mutiny!

What raging of the sea! shaking of the earth!

Commotion in the winds, frights, changes, horrors,

Divert and crack, rend and deracinate

The unity and married calm of states

Quite from their fixture! O, when the degree is shak’d,

Which is the ladder of all high designs,

The enterprise is sick! How could communities,

Degrees in schools, and brotherhoods in cities,

Peaceful commerce from divisable shores,

The primogeniture and due of birth,

Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres, laurels,

But by degree, stand in authentic place?

Take but degree away, untune that string,

And, hark! what discord follows! Each thing meets

In mere oppugnancy: the bounded waters

Should lift their bosom higher than the shores,

And make a sop of all this solid globe:

Strength should be lord of imbecility,

And the rude son should strike his father dead:

Force should be right: or, rather, right and wrong

(Between whose endless jar justice resides)

Should lose their names, and so should justice too,

Then everything includes itself in power,

Power into will, will into appetite:

And appetite, an universal wolf,

So doubly seconded with will and power,

Must make perforce an universal prey,

And, last, eat up himself. Great Agamemnon,

This chaos, when degree is suffocate,

Follows the choking.

Force at last was the only remedy. But the pity was that once Luther prescribed this medicine he saw no need to stint the quantity. When Talleyrand charged the young diplomatist to beware of too much zeal, he gave a lesson from which Luther could have derived much profit. He was right, completely right, in advocating that the prince should not at that emergency bear the sword in vain, but he ought to have encouraged the return of the sword to its sheath at an earlier date. In later years he contemplated his conduct during the revolt, and he did not regret the advice he had tendered. “Preachers,” he says, “are the biggest murderers about, for they admonish the authorities to fulfil their duty and punish the wicked. I, Martin Luther, slew all the peasants in the rebellion, for I said they should be slain; all their blood is on my head. But I cast it on our Lord God, who commanded me to speak in this way.” Certainly his belief in his enslaved will lightened his burden of responsibility. It is always hard to reconcile order and progress, but to him order was heaven’s first law. He would cordially have endorsed the dictum of Tocqueville that Christianity orders that men should render unto Cæsar the things that are Cæsar’s, but it discourages the question whether Cæsar is entitled to the things. The outstanding effect of the rebellion was to drive him decisively to the side of authority: he could no longer afford to seem to take a revolutionary attitude. The possibility that the Anabaptists ought to be allowed freedom of discussion was henceforth dismissed.

The book Against the Heavenly Prophets, 1525, belongs to another class of opinion. In his account of The Secular Power, 1523, he maintained that “no prince may make war on his overlord, such as the king or the emperor or any other feudal superior, but must allow him to seize what he pleases. For the higher authorities must not be resisted by force, but merely bringing them to the knowledge of the truth. If they are converted it is well; if not, you are free from blame and suffer injustice for God’s sake.” Now of course the most urgent need was the protection of the people “against the devils who were teaching through the mouth of the Anabaptist prophets.” Compulsion by sword and by law were the means of protection. The secular power must force them to be outwardly pious. The law must be held over their heads in the same way that “Wild beasts are held in check by bars and chains in order that outward peace may prevail among the people; for this purpose the temporal authorities are ordained, and it is God’s will that they should be honoured and feared.” He deprecates any armed resistance to the supreme authority, even should the Gospel be oppressed. The Council of Erfurt resolved in 1525 “that it was by no means its mind, desire, or intention to oppose the people without necessity, contrary to evangelical equity and right, or to refuse them anything which it was its duty to permit or tolerate.”

In 1529 he still maintained that “even though the authorities act unjustly, God wills that they should be obeyed without deceit unless indeed they insist publicly on doing what is wrong towards God or men; for to suffer unjustly harms no man’s soul, indeed it is profitable to it.” The wine of success turned his head from such an attitude. As his position increased in strength after the Diet of Augsburg, 1530, his unwillingness to employ compulsion disappeared. Addressing the protesting princes, he tells them they must act as so many Constantines in defence of their cause, and not wince at bloodshed in order to protect the evangel against the furious soul-destroying attacks of the new Licinii. His inconsistency he glosses over by declaring that he was ready to render to Cæsar the things that were Cæsar’s, but that when Charles V forbade “what God in his word had taught and commanded,” then he was exceeding his duty. Under these circumstances, “God still retained what was his,” and “they, the tyrants, had lost everything and suffered shipwreck.” The faithful must accordingly forcibly oppose the action of the temporal power.

Erasmus saw in the Anabaptists the one exception to his law of toleration. They were seditious, and in no case could he allow sedition. Therefore “the Anabaptists must under no circumstances be tolerated. The Apostles order us to obey civil authorities, and those men are loth to obey Christian princes. Let communion of goods in charity, let the possession and right of dispensing continue in the hands of those appointed. If they are so much in doubt among themselves about the Eucharist that they daily bring forth new and absurd opinions, how much wiser it would be to continue in the old beliefs until either the General Council or a revelation from on high reveal something definite. Any scruple about the worship and toleration of it is easily solved. No person worships the Eucharist except the whole Christ is in it, nor is any one so silly as to worship the human nature of Christ instead of the divinity. But the divinity is everywhere present. The abuses of this sacrament can be corrected. Formerly it was not shown to the world, but kept shut up in a particular place. It was not carried round at the festive games or through the fields by a priest on horseback. It was extended only to those who wished to partake. Now in England there is no house, no inn, I might almost say no brothel, where the sacrifice is not offered. Courtesans sell these emblems. In other matters likewise, if moderation be employed on all sides, perhaps these disturbances will gradually return to a somewhat tranquil state. This plan the Juliers-Cleves leader adopted, and he admits that the result was successful. Nor do I doubt that your state will fare likewise if the ecclesiastics allow it. I am afraid that they may do their own business as far as safety permits.”

The stormy year of 1525 obliged Luther in his discussion with Schwenckfeld to examine the amount of truth in the contention of the latter that the true Christian must be separated from the false, and that excommunication must go hand in hand with the Gospel. With this separatist conception the reformer always manifested sympathy, and now he announced his intention of keeping a register of the faithful and of having a watch set over their conduct. In the closing months of 1525 he composed the Deudsche Messe und Ordnung Gottis Diensts.

In spite of opposition from Philip of Hesse, Luther insisted on the retention of the form of the Mass he adapted, and he refused to hear of the substitution of German for Latin in this service. Strongly as he believed in the Invisible Church, he no less strongly believed in the Visible Church, insisting that the two distinguishing marks of the latter were the preaching of the Word of God and the administration of the two great sacraments. His conservatism is evident in the keeping of the sacred vestments, the lighted candles on the altar, the elevation of the Host, and the chalice, the slight though significant changes in the rites and hymns. The forms then were the same: the substance, however, was wholly different, for the Canon of the Mass, containing the fixed rule according to which the sacrifice is offered, was omitted. The fervent believer in the priesthood of the laity could allow no words to be employed which even faintly suggested the idea of a sacrificing priesthood.

In the preface to his German Mass and Service Book, he pleads for toleration. “Before all else, I would cordially ask and for the sake of the Lord, that all who see or would follow this order of ours in the worship of God would not impose it as a law binding anybody’s conscience thereto, but use their Christian freedom at pleasure, as where, and as long as matters make it seemly.” This plea for consideration, this argument for liberty, is in keeping with the view that whatever is not against Scripture might be allowed. What the Bible alloweth it commandeth. If such freedom is not permitted forms and customs harden into law which is often like that of the Medes and Persians in altering not. To Henry VIII he had said, “Free, free, free we will and ought to be in all things outside Scripture.” The limits of such freedom he defined in 1544: there was the utmost liberty in reference to all things neither commanded nor forbidden. This policy of letting indifferent ceremonies alone was alien to the spirit of the age. It was such a policy that had Luther seen its developments he would have shrunk from it.

If the new Mass is held publicly in the churches, many are present who are not within the fold. It would be a far different matter if the true believers assembled together “with their names registered and meeting together in some house or other,” where prayer, reading of the Bible, and the receiving of the sacrament would regularly take place, and “penalties, correction, expulsion by the ban, made use of according to the law of Christ.” The difficulty is that “I have not yet the necessary number of people for this, nor do I see many who are desirous of trying it.” He sorely desired to unite chosen Christians in a congregation apart from the ordinary members of the flock, thereby running contrary to the masterly contention of the Freedom of a Christian Man. In glowing language he had set forth the unity of the life of the humblest follower and that of the greatest saint. Now he narrows the whole conception to the small body of the faithful. They were to be the leaven to leaven the whole lump. From this exceptional principle he never departed. He beheld Saxony and he beheld the rest of Germany, but Europe as a whole escaped his vision. The boundaries of the world were being widened on an unprecedented scale. Simultaneously his boundaries contracted. From the Holy Roman Empire he came to see Saxony or Hesse. For a mighty State embracing the whole of Europe in theory he substituted the territorial province.

In 1522 he had held that it was not lawful for the individual to rebel against the Endchrist, that is, the papacy, and to make use of force. On the other hand, the secular authorities and the nobles “ought from a sense of duty to employ their regular authority for this purpose, each prince and ruler in his own land.” This opinion was flatly contradicted by his work On the Secular Power, which plainly taught that the prince had no concern of any kind in the religion of a country.

When princes came over to him he exhorted them to terminate insults and blasphemies against God, even if the ordinary life of the State sustained grievous injury thereby. The sovereign and the congregation at Wittenberg heard that the Mass was a perpetual blasphemy against God. As this scandal was public, the faithful could not tolerate it. It is the bounden duty of the State “to punish blasphemers … and in the same way they should punish, or at least not brook, those who teach that Christ did not die for our sins.” If the representatives of opposing beliefs will not agree, “then let the authorities step in and try each case, and, whichever party does not agree with the Scripture, let it be ordered to old its peace.” That is, the State was constituted the judge of doctrine. In A Circular Letter to the Princes of Saxony, 1524, he had permitted freedom of discussion. A year later he allowed the authorities no right to prevent every man “from teaching and believing whatever he wished, whether it be gospel or lie.” As with Erasmus, the only limit imposed was to be sedition or a disturbance of the public peace. The warm partisan of that inconsistent thinker, the Elector John Frederick of Saxony, the successor of the Elector John, adopted the opinion that the State must insist on uniformity of doctrine. He would, he announced, “recognize no sects or divisions in his lands or principalities” in order “to prevent harmful revolt and other unrighteousness.” Inconsistently he added that it was not his intention to “prescribe to any one what he should hold or believe.”

Melanchthon drew up the Code of Instructions for the Inspectors of Parsonages, softening the uncompromising attitude of Luther to justification by faith and the slavery of the human will. Festivals and holy days were not all to be abolished: he retained for instance, the festivals of our Lord, the feasts of the Annunciation, the Purification, and the Visitation of the Virgin Mary, and those of Mary Magdalene, St. Michael, St John the Baptist, and of the Twelve Apostles. Melanchthon enjoined that it was right for the people to partake of both elements in the Lord’s Supper: nevertheless, “the weaker brethren who from conscientious scruples (not from stiffneckedness) could not bring themselves to receive the Communion in both lands were to be allowed for a space of time to continue receiving only one element.” As he feared the spread of licence, he asked the preachers to correct erroneous ideas on the subject of Christian liberty. It did not mean freedom from State control and from taxation: it did mean freedom from the bondage of rites and ceremonies and from the law of Moses, deliverance from the Devil, and no unconditional obedience to church organization. He plainly insisted that his disciples must render to Cæsar the things that are Cæsar’s in no unconditional fashion, even though the rule of Cæsar was exceedingly stern. “We must submit,” concluded Melanchthon, “to all secular laws and ordinances as to the will and laws of God; for Solomon lays down, ‘Wisdom on the lips of kings,’ that is, whatever is ordered and decreed by rulers must be carried out as though it were the commandment of God. Whosoever boasts of the name of Christ must bear all hardships willingly, must give where he owes nothing, and pay though he be taxed unjustly.” The Elector John Frederick was so satisfied with these instructions that he submitted them to Luther, who expressed his hearty agreement with them.

The Elector Frederick the Wise so disliked taking strong measures that he frequently impressed on the Wittenberg leaders the need of caution. Matters assumed another aspect when in 1525 there came a change of ruler. The Elector John of Saxony was a zealous friend of the reformer, and soon became the real patron of Lutheranism. His attitude towards the innovations, combined with Luther’s tendencies, constituted a prime factor in the rise of a State-governed Church.

Another factor was the deplorable condition of the Lutheran congregations which had so far sprung up. They were scattered and devoid of organization. A further circumstance which contributed to bring about the State supremacy of a later date, was the corruption of not a few of the newly formed congregations, which urgently called for a strong hand and adequate means of coercion. The intervention of the prince in the 1525 insurrection also enhanced the influence of the ruler as a bulwark against a similar danger, ecclesiastically or otherwise.

The Visitation of the Saxon Churches in 1525 constitutes a landmark in the growth of territorial power. Spalatin wished this very year that the sovereign would put the Christian bit into the mouth of all the clergy, so that they could only preach Lutheran doctrine: his wish was speedily fulfilled. The direct dependence of the sacerdotium on the imperium was as definitely marked in Saxony as it was in the East.

The Elector hears that “as the supreme head”—thus anticipating the view of Henry VIII by six years—he was to appoint four visitors who by his “orders should arrange for the erection and support of the schools and parsonages where this was wanted.” Two were to attend to material needs, and the Elector was reminded that all the monasteries and foundations had now fallen to his charge. The secularization of Church property had indeed begun. As “one appointed by God for the matter and empowered to act,” the Elector appointed the other two, who were to have a theological training for their duties of examining into the doctrine, preaching, and performance of spiritual duties. In 1728, more than 200 years later, Rousseau enjoined upon the sovereign prince the duty of arranging the worship and fixing the amount of dogma to be received by his subjects. The Church with Louis XIV and with Napoleon was a department of State, just as it was in Russia down to the Revolution of March 1917. On these principles the relations between Church and State in Saxony were founded. They conceded to the sovereign the right not only of drawing up rules for the revenues of the ecclesiastical body, but also the right of drawing up rules for the constitution and for the doctrine thereof. The Elector’s attitude to doctrine is that as sovereign he is not free to tolerate what he considers to be false worship or false dogma in his territories. Luther accepts this position without a grumble. In the preface to the Unterricht der Visitatorn an die Pharhern, he believes that “now by the unspeakable grace of God the gospel has been brought back to us once more, or rather has dawned on us for the first time.” “Here comes the Visitor,” comments Cochlæus, “wearing a new kind of mitre, setting up a new form of the papacy, prescribing new laws for divine worship and reviving what had long since fallen into disuse and dragging it forth into the light once more.” Cochlæus felt, what Milton felt, that new presbyter was but old priest writ large.

According to the Visitorial Instruction it is the duty of the sovereign to abolish public scandals, and hence to remove unworthy priests. He nominated pastors and provided for their support. He alone controlled the consistory, and as the divinely appointed authority he must abolish the remnants of Popish error. Those ministers who persisted in the error of their ways were to be removed and all the preachers “who advocate, preach, or hold any erroneous doctrines, are to be told to quit our lands in haste, and also that should they return they will be severely dealt with.” Whoever refuses to abide by the regulations of the sovereign in the dispensing of the sacraments is to leave the electorate. For “though it is not our intention to prescribe to any one what he is to hold or believe, yet we will not tolerate any sect or division in our principality in order to prevent harmful revolt and other mischief.” Any lay man who refused to abjure his error when requested to do so was obliged within a certain time to sell out and leave the country “with a warning of being severely dealt with.” To those thus expelled from their native land Luther writes, “Be careful to keep, as Paul teaches, the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace and charity.” “O liberty, what crimes have been committed in thy name,” exclaimed Madame Roland. “O unity of the Church, what crimes have been committed in thy name,” an expelled Saxon might well exclaim.

Luther stoutly defended the uniformity of worship and doctrine in all the countries over which he had control. Princes, like John of Saxony and Philip of Hesse, warmly endorsed the opinion he expressed in 1526 that where there was no such uniformity there would always be sects and revolts. It followed as a corollary from this that dissenting preachers must be removed. Actuated by this motive the inhabitants of Nürnberg, for instance, had “silenced the monks and shut up their monasteries.” Supported by the town council, Luther requested his sovereign to banish those who remained true to their old convictions; for such people must be swept away like “chaff from its threshing-floor.” Violent conversions are excused on the ground that “what is done by the regular authorities is not to be regarded as revolt.”

In 1527 the Elector ordered a visitation of the churches of the Saxon Electorate. The ecclesiastical visitors were particularly to bring to light any sect or schism their zeal could discover. Any “suspected of error concerning the sacraments or some doctrine of faith” were to be summoned and examined and, if necessary, hostile witnesses were to be heard. If they refused to abjure their error, they were commanded to sell their possessions within a given time and leave their land. Formally the people were not yet obliged by the ruler to attend Lutheran services, though that stage at length arrived in both the Electorate and Duchy of Saxony. The regulations of 1527 implied that all who did not attend such services were suspect.

Originally Luther had been content to allow each congregation to appoint a minister who might belong to it or come from outside: he then acted in their name and with their authority. The jurisdiction belonged to the congregation as a whole: this is clear in Luther’s Deutsche Messe. He adhered to his convictions in the priesthood of all believers, and hence the absolution from sin belonged to them all.

In the preface to the Unterricht, 1525, Luther makes some reservations which indicate that he is not quite happy in holding his opinion that the Elector has supreme control over Church as well as State. He protests that he cannot allow the directions in the Unterricht to be issued as a direct law, “lest we set up a new Papal decretal.” In order to remove the contradiction between his early views and those now entertained, he confessed that the prince agreed to the visitation at Luther’s own request “out of Christian charity and for God’s sake, though this was not indeed required of him as a secular ruler.” He admits that “although His Electoral Highness is not commanded to teach and exercise a spiritual rule, yet it is his duty as the secular authority to insist that no dissension, factions, and revolts, take place among his subjects.” For this reason did not the Emperor Constantine exhort Christians to unity in faith and doctrine? In addition to the four Visitors his Unterricht introduced “Superintendents.” They were to enforce the unity of the spirit for which the reformer professed such anxiety. In the directions to them coercion is staunchly defended. Whoever teaches or preaches against the Word of God what “is conducive to revolt against the authorities” is to be “prohibited” by the superintendent. If this procedure fails, the Elector is to take further steps. The Saxon Elector is a “Christian member”: he is a “Christian brother” in the Church of which he is “our emergency bishop,” as Luther terms him. The state of financial confusion is the chief reason that “his Electoral Highness, the embodiment of secular authority, should look into and settle things.” In this weak fashion Luther tries to conceal the altered position of his body from the ideal of the faithful gathered into a series of congregations outside the power of the State. The stars in their courses were fighting against him. Like Zwingli, he is compelled to allow the intervention of the prince if the anarchy of individuals is not to destroy the body he is striving to create. Unwillingly he faced the fact that his religious revolution led him to a political church. His aim was to allot to the prince not the duty of judging the Word of God, but that of defending it. Like Calvin, he does not intend that religion should depend on the State, and he wants to place the State at the service of religion.

In 1526 Luther expressed his opinion on tyrannicide. In his Table-talk he raises the question, “Whether it be lawful to kill a tyrant, who, at his pleasure, acts contrary to right and justice?” His answer, like Melanchthon’s, is in the affirmative, when he really oppresses his subjects by outrageous deeds of wrong; then the “citizens and subjects unite together” to destroy him just as they would any other murderer or highwayman. Luther in the course of the argument appeals to nature and law. In his Ob Kriegsleutte auch ynn seligen Stande seyn künden, 1526, he will not hear of the mob taking violent action “whereby the people rise and depose their lord or strangle him.” For “it does not do to pipe too much to the mob, or it will readily lose its head.”

As one turns over the Visitorial Instructions, it is not easy to believe that Luther had begun by insisting that the new gospel was to be set forth in a spirit of tolerance, a position taken up by Rupert of Deutz in the twelfth century and by Marsilius of Padua in the fourteenth. In 1518 and 1520 the reformer declared that “to burn heretics is against the will of the Holy Ghost.” In the latter year he maintained that “heretics must be overcome by argument, not by fire.” Two of the three great pamphlets of the year 1520 emphasize the fact that authority possesses no power to compel assent to a body of doctrine. The first of these, the Babylonian Captivity, asserts that “neither Pope, nor bishop, nor any man has a right to impose even a syllable on the Christian without his own consent.” “No laws can be imposed upon Christians by any authority whatsoever, neither by men, nor by angels, except with their own consent, for we are free of all things.” Such imposition takes away one of the most precious privileges of men, though few Christians realize the joy of Christian liberty. The second of these pamphlets, the Freedom of a Christian Man, approaches the problem from another point of view. The priesthood of the believer gives him by this very fact power over all such matters. How can any one therefore presume to order him when, by obeying the commandments, he is spiritually lord of all?

Once Luther has grasped principles he is not slow to apply them to details. If a man does not care to attend Mass, must he come? In 1520 he answers the question in his Erklerung … etlicher Artickel. His argument was that as Christ, the founder of the Church, had not made attendance at this sacrament compulsory, reception of the elements was not formally laid down, though “it would be a good thing to receive under both kinds.” While alone in the Wartburg he composed his Von der Beicht ob der Bapst Macht babe zu gepieten, 1521, and made his famous statement, “He (i.e. any man) is at liberty to make use of Confession if, as, and where he chooses. If he does not wish you may not compel him, for no one has a right or ought to force any man against his will. Notwithstanding, absolution is a great gift of God.” It is obvious from the whole context that he did not lightly esteem the Te absolvo of the priest. When, however, even it came into conflict with his principle, it must yield. In this booklet he powerfully urges the liberty of a Christian man, who ought to be unfettered either by law or custom. Though he always believed baptism to be essential to salvation, nevertheless if any one does not wish to be baptized, let him alone. The Larger Catechism of 1529 points out that “Here (i.e. in the Bible) we have God’s command and institution”: therefore it is “seriously and strictly commanded that we be baptized on pain of not being saved.” On September 17, 1521, he wrote to Haupold and others, “I will have no forcing and compelling. Faith and baptism I commend: no one, however, may be forced to adopt it, but only admonished and then left free to choose.” Von der Beicht ob der Bapst Macht babe zu gepieten is a sustained plea on the importance of men paying attention not to the desires of popes and councils on confession and baptism, but to the commands of God. His prejudices against the Pope and the Sacred College were at work and they blinded his eyes to the attractions of toleration, and in 1520 he informed Prierias that he coupled them with thieves and murderers. Still in 1521 he thought that “no one must be forced into the faith, but the Gospel must be set before everyone and all be admonished to believe, yet left free to obey or not. All the Sacraments must be free to every one.” There were lapses from this policy in 1522 and 1523 at Eilenburg, Altenburg, Wittenberg, and Schwarzburg. Still in his book On the Secular Power, which appeared in March 1523, he advocates a laissez-faire policy on the part of the prince. In it he adopts the Austinian view that the State possessed no coercive jurisdiction. The Christianity of the State was to him a doubtful proposition. Indeed the body politic exists for the sake of the wicked: the fall of man is its fundamental cause. That is, this body resembles W. von Humboldt’s Ideen, of which the essence is the denial that the State enjoys the right to be anything more than chief policeman: it is, in Huxley’s phrase, anarchy plus the policeman. It is removed by a world from the Hobbeian conception of the State: “non est super terram potestas quæ comparetur ei.”

On the whole Luther retains his belief in the conquering might of truth. Freedom of worship is as much the reformer’s ideal as freedom of teaching. In 1523 he allows the State no right of interference. He concedes that the resistance of heretics is part of the duty of bishops by virtue of their office, but princes ought not to meddle in such matters, “for heresy can never be overcome by a strong hand.” The extremes of Anabaptism did not at first shake him in his belief in toleration. Thomas Münzer and the fanatics bitterly attacked him, and it was a sore temptation to appeal to the assistance of the Elector Frederick and Duke John of Saxony. Still, great is truth and it will prevail over all forms of error. In spite of the violent statements of Münzer, “all should preach resolutely and freely as they were able and with whomsoever they please.… Let the spirits fall upon one another and fight it out. Should some be led astray, so much the worse.”

From the year 1525 there is a marked change in the attitude of Luther to toleration. Before then there had been instances of persecution due to him in Eilenburg and other towns. For the future, however, the tendency to freedom of conscience and to the independence of the Church is to be replaced by religious coercion and the interference of the State. No doubt the excesses of the Anabaptists were in part responsible for the change. Still he urged the Saxon princes to leave these men in peace. “Let them preach as they please”—such was his advice—“for there must needs be heresies.” He was careful to explain to Lazarus Spengler of Nürnberg, on February 4, 1525, that the Anabaptists were not to be coerced because they were not real blasphemers: they were only “like the Turks or straying Christians.” Two months later, he pleads that “the authorities are not to hinder any one from teaching and believing in what he pleases.” In 1525 he informed Carlstadt that each one was free to follow his own conscience, and to receive the sacrament or not just as he pleases. “Doctrinal command and compulsion are not to be tolerated.” In April 1525, in the very heart of the Peasants’ War, he still proclaims that “the authorities must not oppose what each one chooses to believe and teach, whether it be the truth or a lie.” He insinuates, however, that “it is enough that they hinder the preaching of feud and lawlessness.” In keeping with this he urges in 1525 that though “our princes do not force the people to faith and to the Gospel,” yet they “place a limit on outward abominations.” In a letter to Spalatin he develops the exception.

The Court chaplain, Spalatin, had unfortunately little belief in persuasion and much in compulsion. In a letter of May 1, 1525, he urges the example of the Mosaic law. This law in his judgment obliged the State to bring to an end blasphemy and idolatry, and “to put the Christian bit in the mouth of all the clergy.… Ah! that indeed would be a noble work.” The lengths to which the fanatical Protestants were proceeding greatly disturbed the mind of Luther, and he turned over in his mind the advisability of the use of this Christian bit. He felt that had not Carlstadt appeared “with the extreme men, all would have gone well with my undertaking. But though I alone lifted it out of the gutter, they covet the prize and poach on my preserves, yet, owing to the way they set about the matter, they were, in spite of their anxiety to destroy the Pope, really working for him.” His intense prejudice against all wearers of the papal tiara, whether they were as worldly as Leo X or as religious as Adrian VI, overcame his judgment, and he allowed his feelings to carry him to intolerance. There was always the horror of the head of Romanism, and combined with it was the growing dislike of the Anabaptists who, all unconscious of it, were thwarting the progress of the Evangel and were furthering the cause of Leo X.

The change in Luther’s mind is apparent in his letter to the Elector John on February 9, 1526, in which he expresses his view that “a secular ruler must not allow his officials to be led into strife and tumult by contumacious preachers, for this may result in rebellion and sedition, but in each locality there must be only one kind of preacher.” It was a clever appeal to make to the prince, who was naturally impressed by the argument that his power was in danger. In February 1531, the Elector John therefore declared his satisfaction with this memorandum, and that he would “for the future conduct himself in such matters as befitted a Christian.” The after-history of Saxony proves how well he so conducted himself. Carlstadt and Münzer had assisted in driving Luther towards the policy of State interference.

Slowly Luther returned, though in a new national form, to what had been the practice of Europe. In 1525 he clearly believes that the prince cannot force faith, but may he not repress abominable excesses? These excesses have frightened him. In consequence he reverts to the established custom. In 1526 he proclaimed that “in a country there must be one preaching only allowed.” Nor is he singular in this point of view: it is that of Zwingli in Switzerland and of Lambert in France. Zwingli, in his work De vera et falsa religione, lays it down quite plainly. Lambert in his Farrago maintains that “kings, princes, magistrates must drive the heretics from their lands.” He is certain that the law of Moses orders the death of those who persist in turning the faithful from the Word of God. Thinkers like him protest against the burning of men in France and the Low Countries; nevertheless they hold it to be their duty to act similarly in Germany and Switzerland.

In spite of hesitations, Luther presses on. In 1525 Catholicism is rooted out in Saxony. The goods of the Church and the monasteries are secularized, the priests banished, the old worship proscribed. In 1525 in Prussia, in 1526 in Hesse, and in 1527 in Liegnitz, Cujus regio, ejus religio is the order of the day. The towns suffer the same fate. The Mass is suppressed in 1525 at Zürich, in 1526 at Strassburg, in 1528 at Berne, in 1528 at Saint-Gall and Bâle, one of the homes of Erasmus, and in 1530 at Neuchâtel. The pamphlets of Luther everywhere prepared the way for this policy: they are the precursors of the Press. His policy also prepared the way for the day of the territorial prince. According to Henri Martin, Cardinal Richelieu “gave birth at once to the two great enemies, whose contest was to fill the modern world, absolutism and the Press.” Luther has a prior claim to their parentage.

The Church will suppress heresy, the State the heretics. The one, in the name of truth, will bind consciences: the other, in the name of unity, will bind bodies. Such a tie between Church and State had been very close since the fourteenth century, but then there had been only one Church and one State in Europe. All dissent from the common faith was relentlessly crushed by force. This tie Luther had snapped for ever. What was the new bond to be? The old unitary conception could not easily be dislodged. “If a man consider the original of this great ecclesiastical dominion,” thought Hobbes, “he will easily perceive that the papacy is no other than the ghost of the deceased Roman Empire sitting crowned upon the grave thereof.” As the Roman Church occupied the place of the Roman Empire, so the Lutheran Church occupied the place of the Roman Church. The unitary principle had been the determining one in Europe: it was henceforth to be the determining one in a nation. In the interests of unity there had been rigorous laws against heresy in the past, and in the interests of unity there were to be equally rigorous laws against heresy in the future. The Freedom of a Christian Man was a pamphlet addressed to the people. Five years after its publication the Peasants’ War had devastated one of the fairest lands of Germany. Once Luther had spoken manfully of the rights of conscience. The Saxon Visitation Articles, however, plainly prove that force is for the future to be an element in the propaganda of the Lutheran message. In 1527 the Visitors exercise jurisdiction over laymen, have power to examine any suspect of sacramental or other errors pertaining to the faith: witnesses are to be called. If the suspect refuses to abjure his errors, he is given a certain time to sell his lands and possessions and is banished. Practically the Visitation was the means by which the ruler was enabled to get rid of the remaining Roman Catholics. In its methods it reminds us of the Inquisition.

In 1528, for a short time, Luther returned to his old attitude to toleration. His motive for approving of it used to be love of truth, whereas now it is a pragmatic one. Severity to the heretic was perhaps advisable, but what if this practical argument were employed against Luther’s own followers? How much this weighed with him is clear from his letter of July 14, 1528, to Wenceslaus Link of Nürnberg. He was averse therefore to the imposition of the death penalty on the Anabaptists. Was there, however, not a way out of the difficulty? Their bodies ought not to be molested, but ought not their writings to be proscribed? This is often the first step on the road leading to intolerance: so it proved to the once tolerant reformer. The Elector John on January 17, 1528, proscribed the books and pamphlets of the Anabaptists, Sacramentarians and fanatics throughout the land. He travelled another step when, in accordance with the letter of the Saxon Visitation, he decreed the banishment of the Anabaptists. The Visitation Rules of 1528 are in accordance with this spirit. They declare that “all secular authority” is to be obeyed because the secular powers are not ordering “new worship, but enforcing peace and charity.”

Luther did not like the route he was taking. At Strassburg, the home of Wenceslaus Link, a follower, Peter Butz, was Town Clerk. In spite of his official position, he boldly protested against the coercive measures favoured by some of the Strassburg ministers. Luther himself expounded the Parable of the Good Seed and the Tares, and all friends of persecution avoided this parable, which was so fatal to their cause. For the point of it is that both the seed and the tares are to grow together till the Lord of the Harvest appear. Luther could not help himself if he advocated toleration when he chose such a text: it was always a favourite one with the supporters of freedom of opinion. His conclusion was that “we are not to fight the fanatics with the sword.”

A point of view is often as much due to a repelling force as to an attracting one. Carlstadt, for example, repelled Luther by his tendency to develop the new theology in showing its logical outcome. Instead of bringing Luther with him, Carlstadt sent him into the arms of Philip Melanchthon, whose theology was essentially that of a humanist. That is, the very extremity of the position Carlstadt occupied made Luther’s theology more moderate than it otherwise would have become. On the other hand, the intemperance of Carlstadt’s adherents forced the reformer to assume the attitude that they must be coerced. Therefore while Carlstadt drove Luther’s theology in one direction, practically he drove him in the opposite direction.

Luther was still at work on the Old Testament. In 1524 and 1525 he annotated the Books of Deuteronomy and of the Prophet Isaiah, in 1526 the Books of the Prophets Jonah, Habakkuk, Zechariah and Jeremiah, Ecclesiastes, and some of the Psalms, especially the 112th. In 1527 he again translated and commented on the Book of the Prophet Isaiah and preached sermons on the Books of Leviticus and Numbers. In 1528 he returned to his exegesis of the prophet Zechariah. In 1529 he preached sermons on the Book of Deuteronomy. In 1530 he translated the Books of the Prophets Daniel, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the Minor Prophets. These writings show how much the Old Testament was in his thoughts. The enactments in it against blasphemers and idolaters were matters on which he was steadily engaged. Might it not be possible that, in spite of his former writings, for example, On the Secular Power, the Elector of Saxony was the present-day representative of the Kings of Judah and Israel? From possibility to probability is but a short stage, especially when his young Church was reaping benefits from the inquisitorial methods of the Saxons. Had not his favourite Father, St. Austin, become intolerant under the pressure of circumstances? If we may compare small matters with large, just as the sects of Protestantism were saved from splitting up into ever-multiplying numbers by the polity of John Calvin, so the Lutherans might be saved by disciplinary measures.

Wenceslaus Link and Georg Spalatin believed that the Kings of Judah and Israel were patterns for imitation in their day. In 1530 Luther is beginning to teach that Roman Catholics were open blasphemers. The sacrifice of the Mass rendered the Atonement of none effect. When Christ died, He died once for all. Participation in the Mass and the value attached to the performance of good works robbed the death of Christ of all meaning. If he felt sternly to those he regarded in this light, he began to feel no less sternly to the foes of his own household, the Anabaptists. In 1530 a mandate had been issued against them, and six were executed early in the year at Reinhardsbrunn in the duchy of Saxe-Gotha: the new faith owned its bead-roll of martyrs.

Whatever lingering doubts the leader had on the question of toleration—the inexpediency of toleration—his own circle allayed them. He had given up the principle in favour of the question of practice, and the moment he made this momentous change he was intolerant: the cause was at work from 1525, though the occasion did not present itself till the early days of 1530. In the February of that year Melanchthon was of opinion that “even the Anabaptists do not advocate anything seditious or openly blasphemous,” nevertheless it was “in his judgment the duty of the authorities to put them to death.” In the spring of 1530 Luther, in his Commentary on Psalm lxxxii, says that “the faith is not to be imposed on any one, for he is free to believe what he pleases. He is not free to break out into teaching and blasphemy by which he seeks to rob God and Christians of their doctrine and Bible, enjoying all the time their (i.e. princes’) protection and all temporal advantages. Let him go where there are no Christians and do as he likes there.” He is inclined in this commentary to mingle the two motives of disbelief and sedition: unity in belief, in his opinion, leads to unity in the State. He proceeds to analyse the difference between the two kinds of heretics, the opposers of the faith and the opposers of the State. The body politic obviously has a right to punish the latter, but can it or ought it to punish the former? Yes, they too must be punished, for by intruding as preachers they imperil the faith, thereby provoking risings. The oath of the burghers constrains them not to listen to such preachers and to report these men either to their minister or to the authorities. As he mixes motives, so he mixes the two sets of rulers. If they will not cease their disturbances “then let the authorities hand over the knaves of that order to their proper master, that is, Master Hans (i.e. the hangman).” He still entertains some doubts—doubts which were gradually vanishing—when a man was simply a preacher. He entertains no manner of doubt when he taught revolt: Master Hans was clearly entitled to him.

When a man has not decidedly arrived at a decision, the application to him for advice brings the matter to a head. Wenceslaus Link, Georg Spalatin and Philip Melanchthon had been assisting in the process of the gestation of Luther’s thought. On March 17, 1530, Lazarus Spengler of Nürnberg sought through his acquaintance with Veit Dietrich an answer to the question of the practicability of toleration. Luther spoke to Dietrich, who at once wrote to Spengler. The outcome was that of course all offenders against public order were to be punished: so were the Sacramentarians or Zwinglians and the Papists, for they injured religion, and thereby morality. Spengler himself was perfectly well aware that in his own town there were warm friends to toleration. He knew earnest Christians who were most unwilling to persecute either the Sacramentarians or the Anabaptists, provided they did not set revolt in motion. These Christians appealed in support of their position to the letter of Luther himself written in July 1524 to the Saxon princes, “in which he approves of this view and admits it to be quite sound.” It is a noble speech: still, Luther had virtually thrown away the principle of authority, and expediency is not a matter for which he could make a stand.

He is no longer afraid of the consequences of his persecuting policy, though this fear weighed with him two years before. Others cannot claim for their conscience what he can claim for his. The reason is plain. He takes his stand on the Bible, which he can interpret without any possibility of mistake. He and he alone holds a key which can open the meaning to any passage. That is, he is the possessor, the complete and infallible possessor of truth. “I beseech you in the bowels of Christ,” Oliver Cromwell wrote to the Scots clergy in 1650, “think it possible that you may be mistaken.” Therein the Protector was wrong. No leader in the circumstances of either Luther or the Scots clergy can afford to think that he can in any wise be mistaken. Cecil Rhodes asked Lord Acton, “Why does not Mr. Theodore Bent say that the Zimbabwe ruins are Phœnician?” Lord Acton answered, “Because he is not quite sure they are.” “Ah,” replied the proconsul, “that is not the way that Empires are founded.”

If Luther permits persecution, may not Roman Catholic rulers persecute Lutheran precisely for the reasons for which Lutheran rulers persecute their subjects? Not at all. If they pursue this plan, they merely imitate the policy of those Kings of Israel who protect the true peoples. Such princes are false prophets themselves. Their Emperor, Charles himself, lacks certainty in his faith. He is not convinced, he cannot be convinced that “the doctrine of the Papists is true, and that he must therefore, in compliance with God’s command, exercise all his power to extirpate our heretical doctrines in his Empire.… We know he is not certain of this, and, in fact, cannot be certain.”

The Electoral Court approached Melanchthon at the end of 1530, and he drafted a statement on the duty of the State in these questions. The authority which stirred him was one which felt the seditious character of the Anabaptists and other sects. This was a motive which weighed with him and Luther, and with both men the religious motive was also one which counted. Melanchthon unmistakably advocated a regular system of force. The extremists should suffer the penalty of death for offences against good government, civil and ecclesiastical, and it is the duty of the State to preserve order. How can any systems of Church government be sustained if they are allowed to teach that men can become holy without either preaching or common worship? They insist that “our baptism and preaching is not Christian, and therefore that ours is not the Church of Christ.” Luther signed this dreadful document with the words, “It pleases me, Martin Luther.” The words, however, after his signature, suggest that old thoughts still linger in his memory, for “though it may appear cruel to furnish them by the Word, yet it is even more cruel of them to condemn the preaching office and not to teach any certain doctrine to persecute the true doctrine, and, in addition to all this, to seek to destroy the kingdoms of the world.” Luther, it is clear, had not shaken himself free from his old tendency to toleration.

An official document sometimes yields more information than a private letter, for it embodies the opinions not of one man but of a body. The preface of the Smaller Catechism, 1531, is therefore significant: “Although we neither can nor should force any one into the faith, yet the people must be led to it in order that they may know what is right or wrong in those among whom they live.” In a letter in 1545 to the Elector John Frederick, Philip took occasion to remark that “if this sect (i.e. the Anabaptists) be punished so sternly by us, then we, by our example, give our enemies, the Papists, reasons to behave in exactly the same way, for they regard us as no better than Anabaptists.”

In spite of the views of some German historians, e.g. Paulus, it is impossible to maintain the position that Luther was a persecutor on purely religious grounds. Almost the very last sermon he preached in 1546 had for its text the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares, and both the spirit and the letter of compulsion are completely absent from it. Luther in his new attitude was at least as much in fear of the danger to the State as to his Church. Philip of Hesse was also afraid for the very same reason. “We cannot find it in our conscience,” he informed the Elector John of Saxony in 1532, “to put any one to death by the sword on account of religion unless we possess clear evidence of other crimes as well.” Nor does this statement stand alone. Philip expresses himself just as strongly to the Elector, John’s successor, in 1545: “Were all those to be executed,” he wrote, “who are not of our faith, what then should happen to the Papists and the Jews, for the latter are guilty of even greater error than the Anabaptists?”

Duke George of Saxony had bitterly opposed the coming of Lutheranism to the Duchy, and he persecuted its followers, taking the ground that both the Church and the State had for the last thousand years sanctioned such a measure. Moreover, was not such severity a law of the Holy Roman Empire? Here was a case where Luther felt that his former teaching stood in no need of correction. When Duke George in 1533 banished Lutherans, thereby imitating what the Saxon Visitors had ordered at least six years earlier, the reformer promptly denounced such tyrannous action. Banishment was now found to be “a devilish and criminal thing.” Had he not explained in his book On the Secular Power, published ten years ago, that the prince had no jurisdiction in religious matters? He now emphasizes this standpoint, still maintaining that the authority of the prince “only extends over life and property in secular matters.”

This very year Philip of Hesse appealed to the Elector John Frederick, begging him to exercise moderation towards the Roman Catholics. He was as uncompromising as Duke George himself. Taking his stand on the memorandum on the execution of the Anabaptists drawn up by the Wittenberg theologians and lawyers for his father, he endorsed their view that such seditious men might with a good conscience suffer the severest penalty of the law. In 1527 twelve men and one woman had been executed, and there had been other sufferers in 1530, 1532 and 1538. The Elector had behind him the Visitation Rules of 1527. His authority must be maintained. “Though it is not our intention,” he explained, “to prescribe to any one what he must hold or believe, yet in order to guard against rebellions and other disorders, we refuse to recognize or permit any sects or schisms within our princedom.” It is not so difficult then to understand why in 1534 in his memorable Exposition of Psalm ci, Luther termed David “the scourge of the heretics.” He urged Duke Albert of Prussia to expel the Prussians, for their teaching broke the harmony of belief: unity was an essential of the Church and State. In 1533 in his Home-Postils he urged the position that “the worldly authorities bear the sword with orders to prevent all scandal, so that it may not enter and inflict harm. But the most dangerous and horrible scandal is where false doctrine and worship penetrates.… They (i.e. State officials) must resist it (i.e. such scandal) stoutly, and realize that nothing else will avail save their use of the sword and of the full extent of their power in order to preserve the doctrine pure and the worship clean and undefiled.” The fierceness of his zeal was blinding him increasingly. He rejoiced at the death of those rare spirits, Sir Thomas More and Bishop Fisher, in 1535. His joy arose in part from the circumstance that the latter had just been created a member of the Sacred College. “Oh, that our Right Reverend Cardinals, Popes and Roman Legates,” he wrote, “had more kings of England to destroy them.” He expressed on December 2, 1536, his satisfaction to King Christian of Denmark when that sovereign expelled his bishops, “who never cease to persecute God’s Word and to harass the secular power.”

In 1536 Melanchthon on behalf of the Wittenberg theologians drew up another memorandum, which he, Luther, Bugenhagen and Cruciger signed on June 5. It covered the same ground as the memorandum of the year 1530. It is evident from the present one that its authors were uncomfortably aware of the dangers of condemning the sectaries on the ground of their teaching. It was, they studiously pointed out, “all the easier to judge them” if they preached sedition. “Some argue,” they proceed, “that the secular authorities have no concern whatever with spiritual matters. This is going much too far.… The rulers must not only protect the life and property of their subjects, but their chief duty is to promote the honour of God and to prevent blasphemy and idolatry.”

The memorialists were familiar with the dislike of Philip of Hesse to use force, and in the memorandum of 1536 they have him in their mind. He had been moving from the path of toleration since 1525, though the first open break did not come till 1530. Now he makes some return to his old position. “Seeing that His Serene Highness the Landgrave informs us that certain leaders and teachers of the Anabaptists … have not fulfilled their undertaking (i.e. to leave the country) your Serene Highness may with a good conscience cause them to be punished with the sword, for this reason also, that is, they have not kept their oath or promise. Such is the rule.” Then come the exceptions, which were capable of extension in the hands of Philip of Hesse. “Nevertheless, your Serene Highness may at all times allow justice to be temporarily tempered with mercy, according to the circumstances.”

Luther was not solitary in thinking that justice ought to be tempered with mercy. There were others who had not bowed the knee to the terrible Baal of force, who felt that you could do most things with swords—except sit on them. In 1533 at Augsburg the Lutheran lawyer, Conrad Hel, with Conrad Peutinger and Johann Rehlinger protested that the Town Council had no right to use coercion. The following year Christoph Ehem, a Lutheran patrician of the same town, advocated in his book universal and unconditional toleration, asking the Council to place some bridle and restraint upon his own preachers. Two years later another Lutheran, Johann Forster, entered a plea on behalf of toleration. Bucer was anxious to secure the assistance of the magistrates in putting down Roman Catholic worship, and Forster was no less anxious to dissuade the civic authorities from such a course. As some Nürnberg townsmen in 1530 appealed to Luther’s letter of July 1524 to the Saxon princes, so now Forster was confident that the tolerating spirit had not entirely disappeared from the reformer, and accordingly he made a personal appeal to him.

The progress of the Reformation had taken place in spite of persecution: perhaps one may say the progress occurred in part on account of persecution. For it is impossible to believe half-heartedly when the stake is the penalty. There were Lutherans whose faith in justification waxed strong in the inquisitor’s torture-chamber. There is a fierce joy in enduring the rack for a creed that is dearer than life. From this standpoint, force is a vital condition of all religious beginnings. Under its influence loose ideas become firm, and the vacillator turns resolute. It is possible that the relaxation of persecution is partly the reason of the scepticism of our own day. Our faith is wavering because we are not liable to suffer death for it. Similarly to-day there is many a fervent patriot in the trenches and at home who five years ago was lukewarm in his loyalty.


There are stray references to this subject in many books. Theology in Extremis: Or a Soliloquy that may have been delivered in India, June 1857, by Sir Alfred Lyall, possesses insight in the matter. Tennyson characterized it as a fine poem: as a contribution to the understanding of the past it is no less fine. “They would have spared life to any of their English prisoners who should consent to profess Mahometanism, by repeating the usual short formula; but only one half-caste cared to save himself in that way.” Cf. Lyall’s Verses written in India, 9–17.

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