Luther and the Reformation: - The Life-Springs of Our Liberties
by Joseph A. Seiss
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Copyright, 1883,



The first part of this book presents the studies of the Author in preparing a Memorial Oration delivered in the city of New York, November 10, 1883, on the four hundredth anniversary of the birth of Martin Luther. The second part presents his studies in a like preparation for certain Discourses delivered in the city of Philadelphia at the Bi-Centennial of the founding of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. There was no intention, in either case, to make a book, however small in size. But the utterances given on these occasions having been solicited for publication in permanent shape for common use, and the two parts being intimately related in the exhibition of the most vital springs of our religious and civil freedom, it has been concluded to print these studies entire and together in this form, in hope that the same may satisfy all such desires and serve to promote truth and righteousness.

Throughout the wide earth there has been an unexampled stir with regard to the life and work of the great Reformer, and these presentations may help to show it no wild craze, but a just and rational recognition of God's wondrous providence in the constitution of our modern world.

And to Him who was, and who is, and who is to come, the God of all history and grace, be the praise, the honor, and the glory, world without end!




Human Greatness, 9.—The Papacy, 12.—Efforts at Reform, 14.—Time of the Reformation, 17.—Frederick the Wise, 18.—Reuchlin, 19.—Erasmus, 21.—Ulric von Huetten, 23.—Ulrich Zwingli, 24.—Melanchthon, 24.—John Calvin, 25.—Luther the Chosen Instrument, 27.—His Origin, 28.—Early Training, 29.—Nature of the Reformation, 32.—Luther's Spiritual Training, 34.—Development for his Work, 39.—Visit to Rome, 42.—Elected Town-Preacher, 45.—Made a Doctor, 45.—His Various Labors, 48.—Collision with the Hierarchy, 49.—The Indulgence-Traffic, 50.—Tetzel's Performances, 54.—Luther on Indulgences, 57.—Sermon on Indulgences, 59.—Appeal to the Bishops, 62.—The Ninety-five Theses, 63.—Effect of the Theses, 65.—Tetzel's End, 68.—Luther's Growing Influence, 68.—Appeal to the Pope, 69.—Citation to Rome, 70.—Appears before Cajetan, 71.—Cajetan's Failure, 72.—Progress of Events, 74.—The Leipsic Disputation, 75.—Results of the Debate, 76.—Luther's Excommunication, 78.—Answer to the Pope's Bull, 81.—The Diet of Worms, 83.—Doings of the Romanists, 85.—Luther Summoned to the Diet, 87.—Luther at the Diet, 90.—Refuses to Retract, 92.—His Condemnation, 95.—Carried to the Wartburg, 95.—Translation of the Bible, 96.—His Conservatism, 98.—Growth of the Reformation, 100.—Luther's Catechisms, 103.—Protestants and War, 103.—The Confession of Augsburg, 105.—League of Smalcald, 109.—Luther's Later Years, 111.—His Personale, 114.—His Great Qualities, 119.—His Alleged Coarseness, 123.—His Marvelous Achievements, 126.—His Impress upon the World, 127.—His Enemies and Revilers, 131.



Beginning of Colonization in America, 137.—Movements in Sweden, 138.—Swedish Proposals, 143.—Was Penn Aware of these Plans? 145.—The Swedes in Advance of Penn, 147.—The Men of those Times, 151.—Gustavus Adolphus, 152.—Axel Oxenstiern, 155.—Peter Minuit, 157.—William Penn, 159.—Estimate of Penn, 161.—Penn and the Indians, 162.—Penn's Work, 168.—The Greatness of Faith, 169.


Man's Religious Nature, 173.—Our State the Product of Faith, 174.—Gustavus and the Swedes, 176.—The Feelings of William Penn, 178.—Recognition of the Divine Being, 180.—Enactments on the Subject, 183.—Importance of this Principle, 185.—Religious Liberty, 187.—Persecution for Opinion's Sake, 189.—Spirit of the Founders of Pennsylvania, 190.—Constitutional Provisions, 193.—Safeguards to True Liberty, 194.—Laws on Religion and Morals, 197.—Forms of Government, 200.—A Republican State, 202.—The Last Two Hundred Years, 203.


A rare spectacle has been spreading itself before the face of heaven during these last months.

Millions of people, of many nations and languages, on both sides of the ocean, simultaneously engaged in celebrating the birth of a mere man, four hundred years after he was born, is an unwonted scene in our world.

Unprompted by any voice of authority, unconstrained by any command of power, we join in the wide-ranging demonstration.

In the happy freedom which has come to us among the fruits of that man's labors we bring our humble chaplet to grace the memory of one whose worth and services there is scarce capacity to tell.


Some men are colossal. Their characters are so massive, and their position in history is so towering, that other men can hardly get high enough to take their measure. An overruling Providence so endows and places them that they affect the world, turn its course into new channels, impart to it a new spirit, and leave their impress on all the ages after them. Even humble individuals, without titles, crowns, or physical armaments, have wrought themselves into the very life of the race and built their memorials in the characteristics of epochs.

History tells of a certain Saul of Tarsus, a lone and friendless man, stripped of all earthly possessions, forced into battle with a universe of enthroned superstition, encompassed by perils which threatened every hour to dissolve him, who, pressing his way over mountains of difficulty and through seas of suffering, and dying a martyr to his cause, gave to Europe a living God and to the nations another and an everlasting King.

We likewise read of a certain Christopher Columbus, brooding in lowly retirement upon the structure of the physical universe, ridiculed, frowned on by the learned, repulsed by court after court, yet launching out into the unknown seas to find an undiscovered hemisphere, and opening the way for persecuted Liberty to cradle the grand empire of popular rule amid the golden hills of a new and independent continent.

And in this category stands the name of MARTIN LUTHER.

He was a poor, plain man, only a doctor of divinity, without place except as a teacher in a university, without power or authority except in the convictions and qualities of his own soul, and with no implements save his Bible, tongue, and pen; but with him the ages divided and human history took a new departure.

Two pre-eminent revolutions have passed over Europe since the beginning of the Christian era. The one struck the Rome and rule of emperors; the other struck the Rome and rule of popes. The one brought the Dark Ages; the other ended them. The one overwhelmed the dominion of the Caesars; the other humiliated a more than imperial dominion reared in Caesar's place. Alaric, Rhadagaisus, Genseric, and Attila were the chief instruments and embodiment of the first; Martin Luther was the chief instrument and embodiment of the second. The one wrought bloody desolation; the other brought blessed renovation, under which humanity has bloomed its happiest and its best.


Since Phocas decreed the bishop of Rome the supreme head of the Church on earth there had grown up strange power which claimed to decide beyond appeal respecting everybody and everything—from affairs of empire to the burial of the dead, from the thoughts of men here to the estate of their souls hereafter—and to command the anathemas of God upon any who dared to question its authority. It held itself divinely ordained to give crowns and to take them away. Kings and potentates were its vassals, and nations had to defer to it and serve it, on pain of interdicts which smote whole realms with gloom and desolation, prostrated all the industries of life, locked up the very graveyards against decent sepulture, and consigned peoples and generations to an irresistible damnation. It was omnipresent and omnipotent in civilized Europe. Its clergy and orders swarmed in every place, all sworn to guard it at every point on peril of their souls, and themselves held sacred in person and retreat from all reach of law for any crime save lack of fealty to the great autocracy.[1] The money, the armies, the lands, the legislatures, the judges, the executives, the police, the schools, with the whole ecclesiastical administration, reaching even to the most private affairs of life, were under its control. And at its centre sat its absolute dictator, unanswerable and supreme, the alleged Vicar of God on earth, for whom to err was deemed impossible.

Think of a power which could force King Henry IV., the heir of a long line of emperors, to strip himself of every mark of his station, put on the linen dress of a penitent, walk barefooted through the winter's snow to the pope's castle at Canossa, and there to wait three days at its gates, unbefriended, unfed, and half perishing with cold and hunger, till all but the alleged Vicar of Jesus Christ were moved with pity for his miseries as he stood imploring the tardy clemency of Hildebrand, which was almost as humiliating in its bestowal as in its reservation.

Think of a power which could force the English king, Henry II., to walk three miles of a flinty road, with bare and bleeding feet, to Canterbury, to be flogged from one end of the church to the other by the beastly monks, and then forced to spend the whole night in supplications to the spirit of an obstinate, perjured, and defiant archbishop, whom four of his over-zealous knights, without his orders, had murdered, and whose inner garments, when he was stripped to receive his shroud, were found alive with vermin!

Think of a power which, in defiance of the sealed safe-conduct of the empire, could seize John Huss, one of the worthiest and most learned men of his time, and burn him alive in the presence of the emperor!

Think of a power which, by a single edict, caused the deliberate murder of more than fifty thousand men in the Netherlands alone!


[1] Many assumed the clerical character for no other reason than that it might screen them from the punishment which their actions deserved, and the monasteries were full of people who entered them to be secure against the consequences of their crimes and atrocities.—Rymer's Foedera, vol. xiii. p. 532.


To restrain and humble this gigantic power was the desideratum of ages. For two hundred years had men been laboring to curb and tame it. From theologians and universities, from kings and emperors, from provinces and synods, from general councils, and even the College of Cardinals—in every name of right, virtue, and religion—appeal after appeal and solemn effort after effort were made to reform the Roman court and free the world from the terrible oppression. Wars on wars were waged; provinces on provinces were deluged with blood; coalitions, bound by sacred oaths, were formed against the giant tyranny. And yet the hierarchy managed to maintain its assumptions and to overwhelm all remedial attempts. Whether made by individuals or secular powers, by councils or governments, the result was the same. The Pontificate still triumphed, with its claims unabridged, its dominion unbroken, its scandals uncured.

A general council sat at Constance to reform the clergy in head and members. It managed to rid itself of three popes between whom Christendom was divided, when the emperor moved that the work of reform proceed. But the cardinals said, How can the Church reform itself without a head? So they elected a pope who was to lead reform. Yet a day had hardly passed before they found themselves in a traitor's power, who reaffirmed all the acts of the iniquitous John XXIII., who had just been deposed for his crimes, and presently endowed him with a cardinal's hat!

When this pope, Martin V., died, the cardinals thought to remedy their previous mistake. They would secure their reforms before electing a pope. So they erected themselves into a standing senate, without which no future pope could act. And they each took solemn oath, before God and all angels, by St. Peter and all apostles, by the holy sacrament of Christ's body and blood, and by all the powers that be, if elected, to conform to these arrangements and to use all the rights and prerogatives of the sublime position to put in force the reforms conceded to be necessary.

But what are oaths and fore-pledges to candidates greedy for office? The tickets which elected the new pope had hardly been counted when he absolved himself from all previous obligations, disowned the senate of cardinals he had helped to erect, began his career with violence and robbery, plundered the cities and states of Italy, religiously violated all compacts but those which favored his absolute supremacy, brought to none effect the reform Council of Basle, deceived Germany with his specious and hollow concessions, averted the improvements he had sworn to make, and by his perfidy and cunning managed to retain in subordination to the old regime nearly the whole of that Christendom which he had outraged!

In spite of the efforts of centuries, this super-imperial power held by the throat a struggling world.

To break that gnarled and bony hand, which locked up everything in its grasp; to bring down the towering altitude of that olden tyranny, whose head was lifted to the clouds; to strike from the soul its clanking chains and set the suffering nations free; to champion the inborn rights of afflicted humanity, and conquer the ignorance and imposture which had governed for a thousand years,—constituted the work and office of the man the four hundredth anniversary of whose birth half the civilized world is celebrating to-day.


It has been said that when this tonsured Augustinian came upon the stage almost any brave man might have brought about the impending changes. The Reformers before the Reformation, though vanquished, had indeed not lived in vain. The European peoples were outgrowing feudal vassalage, and moving toward nationalization and separation between the secular and ecclesiastical powers. Travel, exploration, and discovery had introduced new subjects of human interest and contemplation. Schools of law, medicine, and liberal education were being established and largely attended. The common mind was losing faith in the professions and teachings of the old hierarchy. Free inquiry was overturning the dominion of authority in matters of thought and opinion. The intellect of man was beginning to recover from the nightmare of centuries. A mightier power than the sword had sprung up in the art of printing. In a word, the world was gravid with a new era. But it was not so clear who would be able to bring it safely to the birth.

There were living at the time many eminent men who might be thought of for this office had it not been assigned to Luther. Reuchlin, Erasmus, Huetten, Sickingen, and others have been named, but the list might be extended, and yet no one be found endowed with the qualities to accomplish the work that was needed and that was accomplished.


The Saxon Elector, Frederick the Wise, was the worthiest, most popular, and most influential ruler then in Europe. He could have been emperor in place of Charles V. had he consented to be. The history of the world since his time might have been greatly different had he yielded to the general desire. His principles, his attainments, his wisdom, and his spirit were everything to commend him. He founded the University of Wittenberg in hope that it would produce preachers who would leave off the cold subtleties of Scholasticism and the uncertainties of tradition, and give discourses that would possess the nerve and power of the Gospel of God. He sought out the best and most pious men for his advisers. He was the devoted friend of learning, truth, and virtue. By his prudence and foresight in Church and State he helped the Reformation more than any other man then in power. Had it not been for him perhaps Luther could not have succeeded. But it was not in the nature of things for the noble Elector to give us such a Reformation as that led by his humble subject. It is useless to speculate as to what the Reformation might have become in his hands; but it certainly could never have become what we rejoice to know it was, while the probabilities are that we would now be fighting the battles which Luther fought for us three and a half centuries ago.


Reuchlin was a learned and able man, and deeply conscious of the need of reform. When the Greek Argyrophylos heard him read and explain Thucydides, he exclaimed, "Greece has retired beyond the Alps." He was the first Hebrew scholar of Germany, and served to restore the Hebrew Scriptures to the knowledge of the Church. He held that popes could err and be deceived. He had no faith in human abnegations for reconciliation with God. He saw no need for hierarchical mediations, and discredited the doctrine of Purgatory and masses for the dead. He bravely defended the cause of learning against the ignorant monks, whom he hated and held up to merciless ridicule. He was a brilliant and persuasive orator. He was an associate and counselor of kings. He gave Melanchthon to the Reformation, and did much to promote it. Luther recognized in him a great light, of vast service to the Gospel in Germany. But Reuchlin could never have accomplished the Reformation. The vital principles of it were not sufficiently rooted in him. He was a humanist, whose sympathies went with the republic of letters, not with the wants of the soul and the needs of the people. When he got into trouble he appealed to the pope. And though he lived to see Luther in agonizing conflict with the hierarchy of Rome, he refrained from making common cause with him, and died in connection with the unreformed Church, whose doctrines he had questioned and whose orders he had so unsparingly ridiculed.


Erasmus was a notable man, great in talent and of great service in preparing the way for the Reformation. He turned reviving learning to the study of the Word. He produced the first, and for a long time the only, critical edition of the New Testament in the original, to which he added a Latin translation and notes. He paraphrased the Epistle to the Romans—that great Epistle on which above all, the Reformation moved. Though once an inmate of a monastery, he abhorred the monks and exposed them with terrible severity. He had more friends, reputation, and influence than perhaps any other private man in Europe. And he was deep in the spirit of opposition to the scandalous condition of things in the Church. But he never could have given us the Reformation. He said all honest men sided with Luther, and as an honest man his place would have been by Luther's side; but he was too great a coward. "If I should join Luther," said he, "I could only perish with him, and I do not mean to run my neck into the halter. Let popes and emperors settle matters."—"Your Holiness says, Come to Rome; you might as well tell a crab to fly. If I write calmly against Luther, I shall be called lukewarm; if I write as he does, I shall stir up a hornet's nest.... Send for the best and wisest men in Christendom, and follow their advice."—"Reduce the dogmas necessary to be believed to the smallest possible number. On other points let every one believe as he likes. Having done this, quietly correct the abuses of which the world justly complains."

So wrote Erasmus to the pope and to the archbishop of Mayence. Such was his ideal of reformation—a thing as impossible to bring into practical effect as its realization would have been absurd. It is easy to tell a crab to fly, but will he do it? As well propose to convert infallibility with a fable of AEsop as to count on bringing regeneration to the hierarchy by such counsels.

The waters were too deep and the storms too fierce for the vacillating Erasmus. He did some excellent service in his way, but all his counsels and ideas failed, as they deserved. Once the idol of Europe, he died a defeated, crushed, and miserable man. "Hercules could not fight two monsters at once," said he, "while I, poor wretch! have lions, cerberuses, cancers, scorpions, every day at my sword's point.... There is no rest for me in my age, unless I join Luther; and that I cannot, for I cannot accept his doctrines. Sometimes I am stung with desire to avenge my wrongs; but my heart says, Will you in your spleen raise hand against your mother who begot you at the font? I cannot do it. Yet, because I bade monks remember their vows; because I told persons to leave off their wranglings and read the Bible; because I told popes and cardinals to look to the apostles and be more like them,—the theologians say I am their enemy."

Thus in sorrow and in clouds Erasmus passed away, as would the entire Reformation in his hands.


Ulric von Huetten, soldier and knight, equally distinguished in letters and in arms, and called the Demosthenes of Germany, was a zealous friend of reform. He had been in Rome, and sharpened his darts from what he there saw to hurl them with effect. All the powers of satire and ridicule he brought to bear upon the pillars of the Papacy. He helped to shake the edifice, and his plans and spirit might have served to pull it down had he been able to bring Europe to his mind; but it would only have been to bury society in its ruins.


Ulrich Zwingli is ranked among Reformers, and he was energetic in behalf of reform. But he fell a victim to his own mistakes, and with him would have perished the Reformation also had it depended upon him. Even had he lived, his radical and rationalistic spirit, his narrow and fiery patriotism, his shallow religious experience, and his eagerness to rest the cause of Reformation on civil authority and the sword, would have wrecked it with nine-tenths of the European peoples.


Philip Melanchthon was a better and a greater man, and did the Reformation a far superior service. Luther would have been much disabled without him, and Germany has awarded him the title of its "Preceptor." But no Reformation could have come if the fighting or directing of its battles had been left to him. Even with the great Luther ever by his side, he could hardly get loose from Rome and retain his wholeness, and when he was loose could hardly maintain his legs upon the ground that had been won.


John Calvin was a man of great learning and ability. Marked has been his influence on the theology and government of a large portion of the Reformed churches. But the Reformation was twelve years old before he came into it. It had to exist already ere there could be a Calvin, while his repeated flights to avoid danger prove how inadequate his courage was for such unflinching duty as rendered Luther illustrious. He was a cold, hard, ascetic aristocrat at best, more cynical, stern, and tyrannical than brave. The organization for the Church and civil government which he gave to Geneva was quite too intolerant and inquisitorial for safe adoption in general or to endure the test of the true Gospel spirit. Under a regime which burnt Servetus for heresy, threw men into prison for reading novels, hung and beheaded children for improper behavior toward parents, whipped and banished people for singing songs, and dealt with others as public blasphemers if they said a word against the Reformers or failed to go to church, the cause of the Reformation could never have commanded acceptance by the nations, or have survived had it been received. The famous "Blue Laws" of the New England colonies have had to be given up as a scandal upon enlightened civilization; but they were largely transcribed from Calvin's code and counsels, including even the punishing of witches. For the last two hundred years the Calvinistic peoples have been reforming back from Calvin's rules and spirit, either to a better foundation for the perpetuation and honor of the Church or to a rationalistic skepticism which lets go all the distinctive elements of the genuine Christian Creed—the natural reaction from the hard and overstrained severity of a legalistic style of Christianity.

With all the great service Calvin has rendered to theological science and church discipline, there was an unnatural sombreness about him, which linked him rather with the Middle Ages and the hierarchical rule than with the glad, free spirit of a wholesome Christian life. At twenty-seven he had already drawn up a formula of doctrine and organization which he never changed and to which he ever held. There was no development either in his life or in his ideas. The evangelic elements of his system he found ready to his hand, as thought out by Luther and the German theologians. They did not originate or grow with him. And had the Reformation depended upon him it could never have become a success. So too with any others that might be named.


We may not limit Providence. The work was to be done. Every interest of the world and of the kingdom of God demanded it. And if there had been no Luther at hand, some one else would have been raised up to serve in his place. But there was a Luther, and, as far as human insight can determine, he was the only man on earth competent to achieve the Reformation. And he it was who did achieve it.

Looked at in advance, perhaps no one would have thought of him for such an office. He was so humbly born, so lowly in station, so destitute of fortune, and withal so honest a Papist, that not the slightest tokens presented to mark him out as the chosen instrument to grapple with the magnitudinous tyranny by which Europe was enthralled.

But "God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things that are mighty." Moses was the son of a slave. The founder of the Hebrew monarchy was a shepherd-boy. The Redeemer-King of the world was born in a stable and reared in the family of a village carpenter. And we need not wonder that the hero-prophet of the modern ages was the son of a poor toiler for his daily bread, and compelled to sing upon the street for alms to keep body and soul together while struggling for an education.

It has been the common order of Providence that the greatest lights and benefactors of the race, the men who rose the highest above the level of their kind and stood as beacons to the world, were not such as would have been thought of in advance for the mighty services which render their names immortal. And that the master spirit of the great Reformation was no exception all the more surely identifies that marvelous achievement as the work of an overruling God.


Luther was a Saxon German—a German of the Germans—born of that blood out of which, with but few exceptions, have sprung the ruling powers of the West since the last of the old Roman emperors. He came out of the bosom of the freshest, strongest, and hardiest peoples then existing—the direct descendants of those wild Cimbrian and Teutonic tribes who, even in their heathenism, were the most virtuous, brave, and true of all the Gentiles.

Nor was he the offspring of enfeebled, gouty, aristocratic blood. He was the son of the sinewy and sturdy yeomanry. Though tradition reports one of his remote ancestors in something of imperial place among the chieftains of the semi-savage tribes from which he was descended, when the period of the Reformation came his family was in like condition with that of the house of David when the Christ was born. His father and grandfather and great-grandfather, he says himself, were true Thuringian peasants.


In the early periods of the mediaeval Church her missionaries came to these fiery warriors of the North and followed the conquests of Charlemagne, to teach them that they had souls, that there is a living and all-knowing God at whose judgment-bar all must one day stand to give account, and that it would then be well with the believing, brave, honest, true, and good, and ill with cowards, profligates, and liars. It was a simple creed, but it took fast hold on the Germanic heart, to show itself in sturdy power in the long after years.

This creed, in unabated force, descended to Luther's parents, and lived and wrought in them as a controlling principle. They were also strict to render it the same in their children.

Hans Luther was a hard and stern disciplinarian, unsparing in the enforcement of every virtue.

Margaret Luther[2] was noted among her neighbors as a model woman, and was so earnest in her inculcations of right that she preferred to see her son bleed beneath the rod rather than that he should do a questionable thing even respecting so small a matter as a nut.

From his childhood Luther was thus trained and attempered to fear God, reverence truth and honesty, and hate hypocrisy and lies. Possibly his parents were severer with him than was necessary, but it was well for him, as the prospective prophet of a new era, to learn absolute obedience to those who were to him the representatives of that divine authority which he was to teach the world supremely to obey.

But no birth, or blood, or parental drilling, or any mere human culture, could give the qualities necessary to a successful Reformer. The Church had fallen into all manner of evils, because it had drifted away from the apostolic doctrine as to how a man shall be just with God; which is the all-conditioning question of all right religion. There could then be no cure for those evils except by the bringing of the Church back to that doctrine. But to do anything effectual toward such a recovery it was pre-eminently required that the Reformer himself should first be brought to an experimental knowledge of what was to be witnessed and taught.

On two different theatres, therefore, the Reformation had to be wrought out: first, in the Reformer's own soul, and then on the field of the world outside of him.


[2] The maiden name of Margaret Luther, the mother of Martin, was Margaret Ziegler. There has been a traditional belief that her name was Margaret Lindeman. The mistake originated in confounding Luther's grandmother, whose name was Lindeman, with Luther's mother, whose name was Ziegler. Prof. Julius Koestlin, in his Life of Luther, after a thorough examination of original records and documents, gives this explanation.


It is hard to take in the depth and magnitude of what is called The Great Reformation. It stands out in history like a range of Himalayan mountains, whose roots reach down into the heart of the world and whose summits pierce beyond the clouds.

To Bossuet and Voltaire it was a mere squabble of the monks; to others it was the cupidity of secular sovereigns and lay nobility grasping for the power, estates, and riches of the Church. Some treat of it as a simple reaction against religious scandals, with no great depths of principle or meaning except to illustrate the recuperative power of human society to cure itself of oppressive ills. Guizot describes it as "a vast effort of the human mind to achieve its freedom—a great endeavor to emancipate human reason." Lord Bacon takes it as the reawakening of antiquity and the recall of former times to reshape and fashion our own.

Whatever of truth some of these estimates may contain, they fall far short of a correct idea of what the Reformation was, or wherein lay the vital spring of that wondrous revolution. Its historic and philosophic centre was vastly deeper and more potent than either or all of these conceptions would make it. Many influences contributed to its accomplishment, but its inmost principle was unique. The real nerve of the Reformation was religious. Its life was something different from mere earthly interests, utilities, aims, or passions. Its seat was in the conscience. Its true spring was the soul, confronted by eternal judgment, trembling for its estate before divine Almightiness, and, on pain of banishment from every immortal good, forced to condition and dispose itself according to the clear revelations of God. It was not mere negation to an oppressive hierarchy, except as it was first positive and evangelic touching the direct and indefeasible relations and obligations of the soul to its Maker. Only when the hierarchy claimed to qualify these direct relations and obligations, thrust itself between the soul and its Redeemer, and by eternal penalties sought to hold the conscience bound to human authorities and traditions, did the Reformation protest and take issue. Had the inalienable right and duty to obey God rather than man been conceded, the hierarchy, as such, might have remained, the same as monarchical government. But this the hierarchy negatived, condemned, and would by no means tolerate. Hence the mighty contest. And the heart, sum, and essence of the whole struggle was the maintenance and the working out into living fact of this direct obligation of the soul to God and the supreme authority of His clear and unadulterated word.


How Luther came to these principles, and the fiery trials by which they were burnt into him as part of his inmost self, is one of the most vital chapters in the history.

His father had designed him for the law. To this end he had gone through the best schools of Germany, taken his master's degree, and was advancing in the particular studies relating to his intended profession, when a sudden change came over his life.

Religious in his temper and training, and educated in a creed which worked mainly on man's fears, without emphasizing the only basis of spiritual peace, he fell into great terrors of conscience. Several occurrences contributed to this: (1) He fell sick, and was likely to die. (2) He accidentally severed an artery, and came near bleeding to death. (3) A bosom friend of his was suddenly killed. All this made him think how it would be with him if called to stand before God in judgment, and filled him with alarm. Then (4) he was one day overtaken by a thunderstorm of unwonted violence. The terrific scene presented to his vivid fancy all the horrors of a mediaeval picture of the Last Day, and himself about to be plunged into eternal fire. Overwhelmed with terror, he cried to Heaven for help, and vowed, if spared, to devote himself to the salvation of his soul by becoming a monk. His father hated monkery, and he shared the feeling; but, if it would save him, why hesitate? What was a father's displeasure or the loss of all the favors of the world to his safety against a hopeless perdition?

Call it superstition, call it religious melancholy, call it morbid hallucination, it was a most serious matter to the young Luther, and out of it ultimately grew the Reformation. False ideas underlay the resolve, but it was profoundly sincere and according to the ideas of ages. It was wrong, but he could not correct the error until he had tested it. And thus, by what he took as the unmistakable call of God, he entered the cloister.

Never man went into a monastery with purer motives. Never a man went through the duties, drudgeries, and humiliations of the novitiate of convent-life with more unshrinking fidelity. Never man endured more painful mental and bodily agonies that he might secure for himself an assured spiritual peace. Romanists have expressed their wonder that so pure a man thought himself so great a sinner. But a sinner he was, as we all; and to avert the just anger of God he fasted, prayed, and mortified himself like an anchorite of the Thebaid. And yet no peace or comfort came.

A chained Bible lay in the monastery. He had previously found a copy of it in the library of the university. Day and night he read it, along with the writings of St. Augustine. In both he found the same pictures of man's depravity which he realized in himself, but God's remedy for sin he had not found. In the earnestness of his studies the prescribed devotions were betimes crowded out, and then he punished himself without mercy to redeem his failures. Whole nights and days together he lay upon his face crying to God, till he swooned in his agony. Everything his brother-monks could tell him he tried, but all the resources of their religion were powerless to comfort him or to beget a righteousness in which his anguished soul could trust.

It happened that one of the exceptionally enlightened and spiritual-minded monks of his time, John Staupitz, was then the vicar-general of the Augustinians in Saxony. On his tour of inspection he came to Erfurt, and there found Luther, a walking skeleton, more dead than alive. He was specially drawn to the haggard young brother. The genial and sympathizing spirit of the vicar-general made Luther feel at home in his presence, and to him he freely opened his whole heart, telling of his feelings, failures, and fears—his heartaches, his endeavors, his disappointments, and his despair. And God put the right words into the vicar-general's mouth.

"Look to the wounds of Jesus," said he, "and to the blood he shed for you, and there see the mercy of God. Cast yourself into the Redeemer's arms, and trust in his righteous life and sacrificial death. He loved you first; love him in return, and let your penances and mortifications go."

The oppressed and captive spirit began to feel its burden lighten under such discourse. God a God of love! Piety a life of love! Salvation by loving trust in a God already reconciled in Christ! This was a new revelation. It brought the sorrowing young Luther to the study of the Scriptures with a new object of search. He read and meditated, and began to see the truth of what his vicar said. But doubts would come, and often his gloom returned.

One day an aged monk came to his cell to comfort him. He said he only knew his Creed, but in that he rested, reciting, "I believe in the forgiveness of sins."—"And do I not believe that?" said Luther.—"Ah," said the old monk, "you believe in the forgiveness of sins for David and Peter and the thief on the cross, but you do not believe in the forgiveness of sins for yourself. St. Bernard says the Holy Ghost speaks it to your own soul, Thy sins are forgiven thee."

And so at last the right nerve was touched. The true word of God's deliverance was brought home to Luther's understanding. He was penitent and in earnest, and needed only this great Gospel hope to lift him from the horrible pit and the miry clay. As a light from heaven it came to his soul, and there remained, a comfort and a joy. The glad conclusion flashed upon him, never more to be shaken, "If God, for Christ's sake, takes away our sins, then they are not taken away by any works of ours."

The foundation-rock of a new world was reached.

Luther saw not yet what all this discovery meant, nor whither it would lead. He was as innocent of all thought of being a Reformer as a new-born babe is of commanding an army on the battlefield. But the Gospel principle of deliverance and salvation for his oppressed and anxious soul was found, and it was found for all the world. The anchor had taken hold on a new continent. In essence the Great Reformation was born—born in Luther's soul.


More than ten years passed before this new principle began to work off the putrid carcass of mediaeval religion which lay stretched over the stifled and suffocating Church of Christ. There were yet many steps and stages in the preparation for what was to come. But from that time forward everything moved toward general regeneration by means of that marrow doctrine of the Gospel: Salvation by loving faith in the merit and mediation of Jesus alone.

Staupitz counseled the young monk to study the Scriptures well and whatever could aid him in their right understanding, and gave orders to the monastery not to interfere with his studies.

On May 2, 1507, he was consecrated to the priesthood.

Within the year following, at the instance of Staupitz, Frederick the Wise appointed him professor in the new University of Wittenberg.

May 9, 1509, he took his degree of bachelor of divinity. From that time he began to use his place to attack the falsehoods of the prevailing philosophy and to explore and expose the absurdities of Scholasticism, dwelling much on the great Gospel treasure of God's free amnesty to sinful man through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ, on which his own soul was planted.

Staupitz was astounded at the young brother's thorough mastery of the sacred Word, the minuteness of his knowledge of it, and the power with which he expounded and defended the great principles of the evangelic faith. So able a teacher of the doctrines of the cross must at once begin to preach. Luther remonstrated, for it was not then the custom for all priests to preach. He insisted that he would die under the weight of such responsibilities. "Die, then," said Staupitz; "God has plenty to do for intelligent young men in heaven."

A little old wooden chapel, daubed with clay, twenty by thirty feet in size, with a crude platform of rough boards at one end and a small sooty gallery for scarce twenty persons at the other, and propped on all sides to keep it from tumbling down, was assigned him as his cathedral. Myconius likens it to the stable of Bethlehem, as there Christ was born anew for the souls which now crowded to it. And when the thronging audiences required his transfer to the parish church, it was called the bringing of Christ into the temple.

The fame of this young theologian and preacher spread fast and far. The common people and the learned were alike impressed by his originality and power, and rejoiced in the electrifying clearness of his expositions and teachings. The Elector was delighted, for he began to see his devout wishes realized. Staupitz, who had drunk in the more pious spirit of the Mystic theologians, shared the same feeling, and saw in Luther's fresh, biblical, and energetic preaching what he felt the whole Church needed. "He spared neither counsel nor applause," for he believed him the man of God for the times. He sent him to neighboring monasteries to preach to the monks. He gave him every opportunity to study, observe, and exercise his great talents. He even sent him on a mission to Rome, more to acquaint him with that city, which he longed to see, than for any difficult or pressing business with the pope.


Luther performed the journey on foot, passing from monastery to monastery, noting the extravagances, indolence, gluttony, and infidelity of the monks, and sometimes in danger of his life, both from the changes of climate and from the murderous resentments of some of these cloister-saints which his rebukes of their vices engendered.

When Rome first broke upon his sight, he hailed it reverently as the city of saints and holy martyrs. He almost envied those whose parents were dead, and who had it in their power to offer prayers for the repose of their souls by the side of such holy shrines. But when he beheld the vulgarities, profanities, paganism, and unconcealed unbelief which pervaded even the ecclesiastical circles of that city, his soul sunk within him.

There was much to be seen in Rome; and the Roman Catholic writers find great fault with Luther for being so dull and unappreciative as to move amid it without being touched with a single spark of poetic fire. They tell of the glory of the cardinals, in litters, on horseback, in glittering carriages, blazing with jewels and shaded with gorgeous canopies; of marble palaces, grand walks, alabaster columns, gigantic obelisks, villas, gardens, grottoes, flowers, fountains, cascades; of churches adorned with polished pillars, gilded soffits, mosaic floors, altars sparkling with diamonds, and gorgeous pictures from master-hands looking down from every wall; of monuments, statues, images, and holy relics; and they blame Luther that he could gaze upon it all without a stir of admiration—that he could look upon the sculpture and statuary and see nothing but pagan devices, the gods Demosthenes and Praxiteles, the feasts and pomps of Delos, and the idle scenes of the heathen Forum—that no gleam from the crown of Perugino or Michael Angelo dazzled his eyes, and no strain of Virgil or of Dante, which the people sung in the streets, attracted his ear—that he was only cold and dumb before all the treasures and glories of art and all the grandeur of the high dignitaries of the Church, seeing nothing, feeling nothing, exclaiming over nothing but the licentious impurities of the priests, the pagan pomps of the pontiff, the profane jests of the ministers of religion, the bare shoulders of the Roman ladies.

Luther was not dead to the aesthetic, but to see faith and righteousness thus smothered and buried under a godless Epicurean life was an offence to his honest German conscience. It looked to him as if the popes had reversed the Saviour's choice, and accepted the devil's bid for Christ to worship him. From what his own eyes and ears had now seen and heard, he knew what to believe concerning the state of things in the metropolis of Christendom, and was satisfied that, as surely as there is a hell, the Rome of those days was its mouth.[3]


[3] Bellarmine, an honored author of the Roman Church, one competent to judge concerning the state of things at that time, and not over-forward to confess it, says: "For some years before the Lutheran and Calvinistic heresies were published there was not (as contemporary authors testify) any rigor in ecclesiastical judicatories, any discipline with regard to morals, any knowledge of sacred literature, any reverence for divine things: THERE WAS ALMOST NO RELIGION REMAINING."—Bellarm., Concio xviii., Opera, tom. vi. col. 296, edit. Colon., 1617, apud Gerdesii Hist. Evan. Renovati, vol. i. p. 25.


On his return the Senate of Wittenberg elected him town-preacher. In the cloister, in the castle chapel, and in the collegiate church he alternately exercised his gifts. Romanists admit that "his success was great. He said he would not imitate his predecessors, and he kept his word. For the first time a Christian preacher was seen to abandon the Schoolmen and draw his texts and illustrations from the writings of inspiration. He was the originator and restorer of expository preaching in modern times."

The Elector heard him, and was filled with admiration. An old professor, whom the people called "the light of the world," listened to him, and was struck with his wonderful insight, his marvelous imagination, and his massive solidity. And Wittenberg sprang into great renown because of him, for never before had been heard in Saxony such a luminous expositor of God's holy Word.


On all hands it was agreed and insisted that he should be made a doctor of divinity. The costs were heavy, for simony was the order of the day and the pope exacted high prices for all church promotions; but the Elector paid the charges.

On the 18th of October, 1512, the degree was conferred. It was no empty title to Luther. It gave him liberties and rights which his enemies could not gainsay, and it laid on him obligations and duties which he never forgot. The obedience to the canons and the hierarchy which it exacted he afterward found inimical to Christ and the Gospel, and, as in duty bound, he threw it off, with other swaddling-bands of Popery. But there was in it the pledge "to devote his whole life to the study, exposition and defence of the Holy Scriptures." This he accepted, and ever referred to as his sacred charter and commission. Nor was it without significance that the great bell of Wittenberg was rung when proclamation of this investiture was made. As the ringing of the bell on the old State-house when the Declaration of Independence was passed proclaimed the coming liberties of the American colonies, so this sounding of the great bell of Wittenberg when Luther was made doctor of divinity proclaimed and heralded to the nations of the earth the coming deliverance of the enslaved Church. God's chosen servant had received his commission, and the better day was soon to dawn.

* * * * *

Henceforth Luther's labors and studies went forward with a new impulse and inspiration. Hebrew and Greek were thoroughly mastered. The Fathers of the Church, ancient and modern, were carefully read. The systems of the Schoolmen, the Book of Sentences, the Commentaries, the Decretals—everything relating to his department as a doctor of theology—were examined, and brought to the test of Holy Scripture.

In his sermons, lectures, and disquisitions the results of these incessant studies came out with a depth of penetration, a clearness of statement, a simplicity of utterance, a devoutness of spirit, and a convincing power of eloquence which, with the eminent sanctity of his life, won for him unbounded praise. The common feeling was that the earth did not contain another such a doctor and had not seen his equal for many ages. Envy and jealousy themselves, those green-eyed monsters which gather about the paths of great qualities and successes, seemed for the time to be paralyzed before a brilliancy which rested on such humility, conscientiousness, fidelity, and merit.


Years of fruitful labor passed. The Decalogue was expounded. Paul's letter to the Romans and the penitential Psalms were explained. The lectures on the Epistle to the Galatians were nearly completed. But no book from Luther had yet been published.

In 1515 he was chosen district vicar of the Augustinian monasteries of Meissen and Thuringia. It was a laborious office, but it gave him new experiences, familiarized him still more with the monks, brought him into executive administrations, and developed his tact in dealing with men.

One other particular served greatly to establish him in the hearts of the people. A deadly plague broke out in Wittenberg. Citizens were dying by dozens and scores. At a later period a like scourge visited Geneva, and so terrified Calvin and his ministerial associates that they appealed to the Supreme Council, entreating, "Mighty lords, release us from attending these infected people, for our lives are in peril." Not so Luther. His friends said, "Fly! fly!" lest he should fall by the plague and be lost to the world. "Fly?" said he. "No, no, my God. If I die, I die. The world will not perish because a monk has fallen. I am not St. Paul, not to fear death, but God will sustain me." And as an angel of mercy he remained, ministering to the sick and dying and caring for the orphans and widows of the dead.


Such was Luther up to the time of his rupture with Rome. He knew something of the shams and falsities that prevailed, and he had assailed and exposed many of them in his lectures and sermons; but to lead a general reformation was the farthest from his thoughts. Indeed, he still had such confidence in the integrity of the Roman Church that he did not yet realize how greatly a thorough general reformation was needed. Humble in mind, peaceable in disposition, reverent toward authority, loving privacy, and fully occupied with his daily studies and duties, it was not in him to think of making war with powers whose claims he had not yet learned to question.

But it was not possible that so brave, honest, and self-sacrificing a man should long pursue his convictions without coming into collision with the Roman high priesthood. Though far off at Wittenberg, and trying to do his own duty well in his own legitimate sphere, it soon came athwart his path in a form so foul and offensive that it forced him to assault it. Either he had to let go his sincerest convictions and dearest hopes or protest had to come. His personal salvation and that of his flock were at stake, and he could in no way remain a true man and not remonstrate. Driven to this extremity, and struck at for his honest faithfulness, he struck again; and so came the battle which shook and revolutionized the world.


Luther's first encounter with the hierarchy was on the traffic in indulgences. It was a good fortune that it there began. That traffic was so obnoxious to every sense of propriety that any vigorous attack upon it would command the approval of many honest and pious people. The central heresy of hierarchical religion was likewise embodied in it, so that a stab there, if logically followed up, would necessarily reach the very heart of the oppressive monster. And Providence arranged that there the conflict should begin.

Leo X. had but recently ascended the papal throne. Reared amid lavish wealth and culture, he was eager that his reign should equal that of Solomon and the Caesars. He sought to aggrandize his relatives, to honor and enrich men of genius, and to surround himself with costly splendors and pleasures. These demanded extraordinary revenues. The projects of his ambitious predecessors had depleted the papal coffers. He needed to do something on a grand scale in order adequately to replenish his exchequer.

As early as the eleventh century the popes had betimes resorted to the selling of pardons and the issuing of free passes to heaven on consideration of certain services or payments to the Church. From Urban II. to Leo X. this was more or less in vogue—first, to get soldiers for the holy wars,[4] and then as a means of wealth to the Church. If one wished to eat meat on fast-days, marry within prohibited degrees of relationship, or indulge in forbidden pleasures, he could do it without offence by rendering certain satisfactions before or after, which satisfactions could mostly be made by payments of money.[5] In the same way he could buy remission of sins in general, or exemption for so many days, years, or centuries from the pains of Purgatory. Bulls of authority were given, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, to issue certificates of exemption from all penalties to such as did the service or paid the equivalent. Immense incomes were thus realized. Even to the present this facile invention for raising money has not been entirely discontinued. Papal indulgences can be bought to-day in the shops of Spain and elsewhere.

Leo seized upon this system with all the vigor and unscrupulousness characteristic of the Medici. Had he been asked whether he really believed in these pardons, he would have said that the Church always believed the pope had power to grant them. Had he spoken his real mind in the matter, he would have said that if the people chose to be such fools, it was not for him to find fault with them. And thus, under plea of raising funds to finish St. Peter's, he instituted a grand trade in indulgences, and thereby laid the capstone of hierarchical iniquity which crushed the whole fabric to its base.

The right to sell these wares in Germany was awarded to Albert, the gay young prince-archbishop of Mayence. He was over head and ears in debt to the pope for his pallium, and Leo gave him this chance to get out.[6] Half the proceeds of the trade in his territory were to go to his credit. But the work of proclaiming and distributing the pardons was committed to John Tetzel, a Dominican prior who had long experience in the business, and who achieved "a forlorn notoriety in European history" by his zeal in prosecuting it.


[4] In the famous Bull of Gregory IX., published in 1234, that pope exhorts and commands all good Christians to take up the cross and join the expedition to recover the Holy Land. The language is: "The service to which mankind are now invited is an effectual atonement for the miscarriages of a negligent life. The discipline of a regular penance would have discouraged many offenders so much that they would have had no heart to venture upon it; but the holy war is a compendious method of discharging men from guilt and restoring them to the divine favor. Even if they die on their march, the intention will be taken for the deed, and many in this way may be crowned without fighting."—Given in Collier's Eccl., vol. i.

[5] The Roman Chancery once put forth a book, which went through many editions, giving the exact prices for the pardon of each particular sin. A deacon guilty of murder was absolved for twenty pounds. A bishop or abbot might assassinate for three hundred livres. Any ecclesiastic might violate his vows of chastity for the third part of that sum, etc., etc.—See Robertson's Charles V.

[6] The pallium, or pall, was a narrow band of white wool to go over the shoulders in the form of a circle, from which hung bands of similar size before and behind, finished at the ends with pieces of sheet lead and embroidered with crosses. It was the mark of the dignity and rank of archbishops. Albert owed Pope Leo X. forty-five thousand thalers for his right and appointment to wear the archbishop's pallium.

It was in this way that the Roman Church was accustomed to sell out benefices as a divine right. Even expectative graces, or mandates nominating a person to succeed to a benefice upon the first vacancy, were thus sold. Companies existed in Germany which made a business of buying up the benefices of particular sections and districts and retailing them at advanced rates. The selling of pardons was simply a lower kind of simoniacal bartering which pervaded the whole hierarchical establishment.


Tetzel entered the towns with noise and pomp, amid waving of flags, singing, and the ringing of bells. Clergy, choristers, monks, and nuns moved in procession before and after him. He himself sat in a gilded chariot, with the Bull of his authority spread out on a velvet cushion before him.

The churches were his salesrooms, lighted and decorated for the occasion as in highest festival. From the pulpits his boisterous oratory rang, telling the virtues of indulgences, the wonderful power of the keys, and the unexampled grace of which he was the bearer from the holy lord and father at Rome.

He called on all—robbers, adulterers, murderers, everybody—to draw near, pay down their money, and receive from him letters, duly sealed, by which all their sins, past and future, should be pardoned and done away.

Not for the living only, but also for the dead, he proposed full and instantaneous deliverance from all future punishments on the payment of the price. And any wretch who dared to doubt or question the saving power of these certificates he in advance doomed to excommunication and the wrath of God.[7]

Catholic divines have labored hard to whitewash or explain away this stupendous iniquity; but, with all they have said or may say, such were the presentations made by the hawkers of these wares and such was the text of the diplomas they issued.

A dispensation or indulgence was nothing more nor less than a pretended letter of credit on Heaven, drawn at will by the pope out of the superabundant merits of Christ and all saints, to count so much on the books of God for so many murders, robberies, frauds, lies, slanders, or debaucheries. As the matter practically worked, a more profane and devilish traffic never had place in our world than that which the Roman hierarchy thus carried on in the name of the Triune God.


[7] Many of the sayings which Tetzel gave out in his addresses to the people have been preserved, and are amply attested by those who listened to his harangues.

"I would not," said he, "exchange my privileges for those of St. Peter in heaven. He saved many by his sermons; I have saved more by my indulgences."

"Indulgences are the most precious and sublime of all the gifts of God."

"No sins are so great that these pardons cannot cover them."

"Not for the living only, but for the dead also, there is immediate salvation in these indulgences."

"Ye priests, nobles, tradespeople, wives, maidens, young men! the souls of your parents and beloved ones are crying from the depths below: 'See our torments! A small alms would deliver us; and you can give it, and you will not.'"

"O dull and brutish people, not to appreciate the grace so richly offered! This day heaven is open on all sides, and how many are the souls you might redeem if you only would! Your father is in flames, and you can deliver him for ten groschen, and you do it not! What punishment must come for neglecting so great salvation! You should strip your coat from your back, if you have no other, and sell it to purchase so great grace as this, for God hath given all power to the pope."

"The bodies of St. Peter and St. Paul, with those of many blessed martyrs, lie exposed, trampled on, polluted, dishonored, and rotting in the weather. Our most holy lord the pope means to build the church to cover them with glory that shall have no equal on the earth. Shall those holy ashes be left to be trodden in the mire?"

"Therefore bring your money, and do a work most profitable to departed souls. Buy! buy!"

"This red cross with the pope's arms has equal virtue with the Cross of Christ."

"These pardons make cleaner than baptism, and purer than Adam was in his innocence in Paradise."

In the certificates which Tetzel gave to those who bought these pardons he declared that "by the authority of Jesus Christ, and of his apostles Peter and Paul, and of the most holy pope, I do absolve thee first from all ecclesiastical censures, in whatever manner they have been incurred, and then from all thy sins, transgressions, and excesses, however enormous soever they may be. I remit to you all punishment which you deserve in Purgatory on their account, and I restore you to the holy sacraments of the Church, union with the faithful, and to that innocence and purity possessed at baptism; so that when you die the gates of punishment shall be shut and the gates of the happy Paradise shall be opened; and if your death shall be delayed, this grace shall remain in full force when you are at the point of death."

The sums required for these passports to glory varied according to the rank and wealth of the applicant. For ordinary indulgence a king, queen, or bishop was to pay twenty-five ducats (a ducat being about a dollar of our money); abbots, counts, barons, and the like were charged ten ducats; other nobles and all who enjoyed annual incomes of five hundred florins were charged six ducats; and so down to half a florin, or twenty-five cents.

But the commissioner also had a special scale for taxes on particular sins. Sodomy was charged twelve ducats; sacrilege and perjury, nine; murder, seven or eight; witchcraft and polygamy, from two to six; taking the life of a parent, brother, sister, or an infant, from one to six.


Luther was on a tour of inspection as district vicar of the Augustinians when he first heard of these shameful doings. As yet he understood but little of the system, and could not believe it possible that the fathers at Rome could countenance, much less appoint and commission, such iniquities. Boiling with indignation for the honor of the Church, he threatened to make a hole in Tetzel's drum, and wrote to the authorities to refuse passports to the hucksters of these shameful deceptions.

But Tetzel soon came near to Wittenberg. Some of Luther's parishioners heard him, and bought absolutions. They afterward came to confession, acknowledging great irregularities of life. Luther rebuked their wickedness, and would not promise them forgiveness unless contrite for their sins and earnestly endeavoring to amend their evil ways. They remonstrated, and brought out their certificates of plenary pardon. "I have nothing to do with your papers," said he. "God's Word says you must repent and lead better lives, or you will perish."

His words were at once carried to the ears of Tetzel, who fumed with rage at such impudence toward the authority of the Church. He ascended the pulpit and hurled the curses of God upon the Saxon monk.

* * * * *

Thus an honest pastor finds some of his flock on the way to ruin, and tries to guide them right. He is not thinking of attacking Rome. He is ready to fight and die for holy Mother Church. His very protests are in her behalf. He is on his own rightful field, in faithful pursuit of his own rightful duty. Here the erring hierarchy seeks him out and attacks him. Shall he yield to timid fears and weak advisers, keep silence in his own house, and let the souls he is placed to guard become a prey to the destroyer? Is he not sworn to defend God's holy Word and Gospel? What will be his eternal fate and that of his people should he now hold his peace?


Without conferring with flesh and blood his resolve was made—a resolve on which hung all the better future of the world—a resolve to take the pulpit against the lying indulgences.

For several days he shut himself in his cell to make sure of his ground and to elaborate what he would say. With eminent modesty and moderation his sentences were wrought, but with a perspicuity and clearness which no one could mistake. A crowded church awaited their delivery. He entered with his brother-monks, and joined in all the service with his usual voice and gravity. Nothing in his countenance or manner betrayed the slightest agitation of his soul. It was a solemn and momentous step for himself and for mankind that he was about to take, but he was as calmly made up to it as to any other duty of his life. The moment came for him to speak; and he spoke.

"I hold it impossible," said he, "to prove from the Holy Scriptures that divine justice demands from the sinner any other penance or satisfaction than a true repentance, a change of heart, a willing submission to bear the Saviour's cross, and a readiness to do what good he can.

"That indulgences applied to souls in Purgatory serve to remit the punishments which they would otherwise suffer is an opinion devoid of any foundation.

"Indulgences, so far from expiating or cleansing from sin, leave the man in the same filth and condemnation in which they find him.

"The Church exacts somewhat of the sinner, and what it on its own account exacts it can on its own account remit, but nothing more.

"If you have aught to spare, in God's name give it for the building of St. Peter's, but do not buy pardons.

"If you have means, feed the hungry, which is of more avail than piling stones together, and far better than the buying of indulgences.

"My advice is, Let indulgences alone; leave them to dead and sleepy Christians; but see to it that ye be not of that kind.

"Indulgences are neither commanded nor approved of God. They excite no one to sanctification. They work nothing toward salvation.

"That indulgences have virtue to deliver souls from Purgatory I do not believe, nor can it be proven by them that teach it; the Church says nothing to that effect.

"What I preach to you is based on the certainty of the Holy Scriptures, which no one ought to doubt."

So Luther preached, and his word went out to the ends of the earth. It was no jest, like Ulric von Huetten's Epistles of Obscure Men, or like the ridicule which Reuchlin and Erasmus heaped upon the stupid monks. It raised no laugh, but penetrated, like a rifle-shot, into the very heart of things.

Those who listened were deeply affected by the serious boldness of the preacher. The audience was with him in conviction, but many trembled for the result. "Dear doctor, you have been very rash; what trouble may come of this!" said a venerable father as he pulled the sleeve of Luther's gown and shook his head with misgivings. "If this is not rightly done in God's name," said Luther, "it will come to nothing; if it is, let come what will."

It was honest duty to God, truth, and the salvation of men that moved him. Cowardly policy or timid expediency in such a matter was totally foreign to his soul.

In a few days, the substance of the sermon was in print. Tetzel raved over it. Melanchthon says he burnt it in the market-place of Jueterbock. In the name of God and the pope he bade defiance to its author, and challenged him by fire and water. Luther laughed at him for braying so loud at a distance, yet declining to come to Wittenberg to argue out the matter in close lists.


Anxious to vindicate the Church from what he believed to be an unwarranted liberty in the use of her name, Luther wrote to the bishop of Brandenburg and the archbishop of Mayence. He made his points, and appealed to these his superiors to put down the scandalous falsities advanced by Tetzel. They failed to answer in any decisive way. The one timidly advised silence, and the other had too much pecuniary interest in the business to notice the letter.

Thus, as a pastor, Luther had taken his ground before his parishioners in the confessional. As a preacher he had uttered himself in earnest admonition from the pulpit. As a loyal son he had made his presentation and appeal to those in authority over him. Was he right? or was he wrong? No commanding answer came, and there remained one other way of testing the question. As a doctor of divinity he could lawfully, as custom had been, demand an open and fair discussion of the matter with teachers and theologians. And upon this he now resolved.


He framed a list of propositions on the points in question. They were in Latin, for his appeal was to theologians, and not yet to the common heart and mind of Germany. To make them public, he took advantage of a great festival at Wittenberg, when the town was full of visitors and strangers, and nailed them to the door of the new castle church, October 31, 1517.

These were the famous Ninety-five Theses. They were plainly-worded statements of the same points he had made in the confessional and in his sermon. They contained no assault upon the Church, no arraignment of the pope, no personal attack on any one. Neither were they given as necessarily true, but as what Luther believed to be true, and the real truth or falsity of which he desired to have decided in the only way questions of faith and salvation can be rightly decided.

The whole matter was fairly, humbly, and legitimately put. "I, Martin Luther, Augustinian at Wittenberg," he added at the end, "hereby declare that I have written these propositions against indulgences. I understand that some, not knowing what they affirm, are of opinion that I am a heretic, though our renowned university has not condemned me, nor any temporal or spiritual authority. Therefore, now again, as often heretofore, I beg of one and all, for the sake of the true Christian faith, to show me the better way, if peradventure they have learned it from above, or at least to submit their opinion to the decision of God and the Church; for I am not so insane as to set up my views above everything and everybody, nor so silly as to accept the fables invented by men in preference to the Word of God."

It is from the nailing up of these Theses that the history of the Great Reformation dates; for the hammer-strokes which fixed that parchment started the Alpine avalanche which overwhelmed the pride of Rome and broke the stubborn power which had reigned supreme for a thousand years.


As no one came forward to discuss his Theses, Luther resolved to publish them to the world.

In fourteen days they overspread Germany. In a month they ran through all Christendom. One historian says it seemed as if the angels of God were engaged in spreading them.

At a single stroke, made in modesty and faith, Luther had become the most noted person in Germany—the man most talked of in all the world—the mouthpiece of the best people in Christendom—the leader of a mighty revolution.

Reuchlin read, and thanked God.

Erasmus read, and rejoiced, only counseling moderation and prudence.

The Emperor Maximilian read, and wrote to the Saxon Elector: "Take care of the monk Luther, for the time may come when we will need him."

The bishop of Wurzburg read, and was filled with gladness, and wrote to the Elector Frederick to hold on to Luther as a preacher of the truth of God.

The prior of Steinlausitz read, and could not suppress his joy. "See here," said he to his monks: "the long-waited-for has come; he tells the truth. Berg means mountain, and Wittenberg is the mountain whither all the world will come to seek wisdom, and will find it."

A student of Annaberg read, and said, "This Luther is the reaper in my dream, whom the voice bade me follow and gather in the bread of life;" and from that hour he was a fast friend of Luther and his cause, and became the distinguished Myconius.

The pope himself read the Theses, and did not think unfavorably of their author. He saw in Luther a man of learning and brilliant genius, and that pleased him. The questions mooted he referred to a mere monkish jealousy—an unsober gust of passion which would soon blow over. He did not then realize the seriousness which was in the matter. His sphere was heathen art and worldly magnificence, not searching into the ways of God's salvation.

The great German heart was moved, and the brave daring of him whose voice was thus lifted up against the abominations which were draining the country to fill the pope's coffers was hailed with enthusiasm. Had Luther been a smaller man he would have been swept away by his vast and sudden fame.

But not all was sunshine. Erasmus wittily said, Luther committed two unpardonable sins: he touched the pope's crown and the monks' bellies. Such effrontery would needs raise a mighty outcry.

Prierias, the master of the sacred palace, pronounced Luther a heretic. Hochstrat of Cologne, Reuchlin's enemy, clamored for fire to burn him. The indulgence-venders thundered their anathemas, promising a speedy holocaust of Luther's body. The monasteries took on the form of so many kennels of enraged hounds howling to each other across the spiritual waste. And even some who pronounced the Theses scriptural and orthodox shook their heads and sought to quash such dangerous proceedings.

But Luther remained firm at his post. He honestly believed what he had written, and he was not afraid of the truth. If the powers of the world should come down upon him and kill him, he was prepared for the slaughter. In all the mighty controversy he was ever ready to serve the Gospel with his life or with his death.


Tetzel continued to bray and fume against him from pulpit and press, denouncing him as a heresiarch, heretic, and schismatic. By Wimpina's aid he issued a reply to Luther's sermon, and also counter-theses on Luther's propositions. But the tide was turning in the sea of human thinking. Luther's utterances had turned it. The people were ready to tear the mountebank to pieces. Two years later he imploringly complained to the pope's nuncio, Miltitz, that such fury pursued him in Germany, Bohemia, Hungary, and Poland that he was nowhere safe. Even the representative of the pope gave the wretch no sympathy. When Luther heard of his illness he sent him a letter to tell him that he had forgiven him all. He died in Leipsic, neglected, smitten in soul, and full of misery, July 14, 1519.


Six months after the nailing up of the Theses, Luther was the hero of a general convention of the Augustinians in Heidelberg. He there submitted a series of propositions on philosophy and theology, which he defended with such convincing clearness and tact that he won for himself and his university great honor and renown. Better still, four learned young men who there heard him saw the truth of his positions, and afterward became distinguished defenders of the Reformation.

His cause, meanwhile, was rapidly gaining friends. His replies to Tetzel, Prierias, Hochstrat, and Eck had gone forth to deepen the favorable impression made by the Ninety-five Theses. Truth had once more lifted up its head in Europe, and Rome would find it no child's play to put it down. The skirmish-lines of the hierarchy had been met and driven in. The tug of serious battle was now to come.


Luther made the advance. He wrote out explanations (or "Resolutions") of his Theses, and sent them, with a letter, to the pope. With great confidence, point, and elegance, but with equal submissiveness and humility, he spoke of the completeness of Christ for the salvation of every true believer, without room or need for penances and other satisfactions; of the evilness of the times, and the pressing necessity for a general reform; of the damaging complaints everywhere resounding against the traffic in indulgences; of his unsuccessful appeals to the ecclesiastical princes; and of the unjust censures being heaped upon him for what he had done, entreating His Holiness to instruct his humble petitioner, and condemn or approve, kill or preserve, as the voice of Christ through him might be. He then believed that God's sanction had to come through the high clergy and heads of the Church. Many good Christians had approved his Theses, but he did not recognize in that the divine answer to his testimony. He said afterward: "I looked only to the pope, the cardinals, the bishops, the theologians, the jurisconsults, the monks, the priests, from whom I expected the breathing of the Spirit." He had not yet learned what a bloody dragon claimed to impersonate the Lamb of God.


While, in open frankness, Luther was thus meekly committing himself to the powers at Rome, they were meditating his destruction. Insidiously they sought to deprive him of the Elector's protection, and answered his humble and confiding appeal with a citation to appear before them to answer for heresy.

Things now were ominous of evil. Wittenberg was filled with consternation. If Luther obeyed, it was evident he would perish like so many faithful men before him; if he refused, he would be charged with contumacy and involve his prince. One and another expedient were proposed to meet the perplexity; but to secure a hearing in Germany was all Luther asked.

To this the pope proved more willing than was thought. He was not sure of gaining by the public trial and execution of a man so deeply planted in the esteem of his countrymen, and by bringing him before a prudent legate he might induce him to retract and the trouble be ended; if not, it would be a less disturbing way of getting possession of the accused man. Orders were therefore issued for Luther to appear before Cardinal Cajetan at Augsburg.


On foot he undertook the journey, believed by all to be a journey to his death. But Maximilian, then in the neighborhood of Augsburg, gave him a safe-conduct, and Cajetan was obliged to receive him with civility. He even embraced him with tokens of affection, thinking to win him to retraction. Luther was much softened by these kindly manifestations, and was disposed to comply with almost anything if not required to deny the truth of God.

The interviews were numerous. Luther was told that it was useless to think that the civil powers would go to war for his protection; and where would he then be? His answer was: "I will be, as now, under the broad heavens of the Almighty." Remonstrances, entreaties, threatenings, and proposals of high distinction were addressed to him; but he wanted no cardinal's hat, and for nothing in Rome's power would he consent to retract what he believed to be the Gospel truth till shown wherein it was at variance with the divine Word. Cajetan's arguments tripped and failed at every point, and he could only reiterate that he had been sent to receive a retraction, not to debate the questions. Luther as often promised this when shown from the Scriptures to be in the wrong, but not till then.


Foiled and disappointed in his designs, and astounded and impatient that a poor monk should thus set at naught all the prayers and powers of the sovereign of Christendom, the cardinal bade him see his face no more until he had repented of his stubbornness.

At this the friends of the Reformer, fearing for his safety, clandestinely hurried him out of Augsburg, literally grappling him up from his bed only half dressed, and brought him away to his university. He had answered the pope's summons, and yet was free!

Cajetan was mortified at the result, and was upbraided for his failure. In his chagrin he wrote angrily to the Elector not to soil his name and lineage by sheltering a heretic, but to surrender Luther at once, on pain of an interdict. The Elector was troubled. Luther had not been proven a heretic, neither did he believe him to be one; but he feared collision with the pope.

Luther said if he were in the Elector's place he would answer the cardinal as he deserved for thus insulting an honest man; but, not to be an embarrassment to his prince, he agreed to leave the Elector's dominions if he said so. But Frederick would not surrender his distinguished subject to the legate, neither would he send him out of the country. It is hard to say which was here the nobler man, Luther or his illustrious protector.


The minds of men by this time were much aroused, and Luther's cause grew and strengthened. The learned Melanchthon, Reuchlin's relative and pupil, was added to the faculty at Wittenberg, and became Luther's chief co-laborer. The number of students in the university swelled to thousands, including the sons of noblemen and princes from all parts, who listened with admiration to Luther's lectures and sermons and spread his fame and doctrines. And the feeling was deep and general that a new and marvelous light had arisen upon the world.[8]

It was now that Maximilian died (Jan. 17, 1519), and Charles V., his grandson, a Spanish prince of nineteen years, succeeded to his place. The Imperial crown was laid at the feet of the Elector Frederick, Luther's friend, but he declined it in favor of Charles, only exacting a solemn pledge that he would not disturb the liberties of Germany. Civil freedom is one of the glorious fruits of the Reformation, and here already it began to raise barricades against despotic power.


[8] A writer of the Roman Church, in a vein of somewhat mingled sarcasm and seriousness, remarks: "The university had reason to be proud of Luther, whose oral lectures attracted a multitude of strangers; these pilgrims from distant quarters joined their hands and bowed their heads at the sight of the towers of the city, like other travelers before Jerusalem. Wittenberg was like a new Zion, whence the light of truth expanded to neighboring kingdoms, as of old from the Holy City to pagan nations."


Up to this time, however, there had been no questioning of the divine rights claimed by the hierarchy. Luther was still a Papist, and thought to grow his plants of evangelic faith under the shadow of the Upas of ecclesiasticism. He had not yet been brought to see how his Augustinian theology concerning sin and grace ran afoul of the entire round of the mediaeval system and methods of holiness. It was only the famous Leipsic Disputation between him and Dr. John Eck that showed him the remoter and deeper relations of his position touching indulgences.

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