Story of Liberty - Charles Coffin

Plans that did not Come to Pass

How easy it is to plan! How nice it would be if we could only carry out our plans! So we think. Why do we not carry them out? Because there are other plans besides our own. Before we get through with this Story of Liberty, perhaps we shall see that, somehow, almost all of the great plans of kings and emperors have been overturned; that things have not come out as they intended. Perhaps we shall see that behind all the plans of men to advance their own interests, there will seem to be another plan—that circumstances and events will take such shape that we shall be able to discover a new arranging of things—a plan superior to all others, as if God had a plan and were behind all the over-turnings and defeats of men.

The King of France, who has gone back to Paris from the Field of the Cloth of Gold, is laying his plans. He intended to be emperor, but Charles has won the prize, and now he will have his revenge. He will march his armies across the Alps and pounce upon Milan, and perhaps carry his victorious legions to Naples.

Cardinal Wolsey, who had the private interview with Charles, and promised to manage Henry in Charles's interest, is laying his plan, and every move that he may make in life will have reference to it; he is going to be Pope when Leo dies. Charles has promised to place him in the pontifical chair. Henry has not yet laid his plan; what it will be we shall see by-and-by. He would like to lead his armies to victory; but the people of England have no desire to go philandering over the Continent searching for some one whom they may conquer. Henry is wishing that he had a younger wife—a lady fresh and fair, sparkling and witty. Such a one as Anne Boleyn, for instance, for the wrinkles are coming in Katherine's cheeks, and she will soon be an old woman.

Anne Boleyn has gone to London. She is bright and beautiful. Whatever plans she may be laying, she keeps them to herself; but the king smiles upon her, and she is graciously received at court.

Charles has laid his plan to be emperor, and has carried it out. Now what shall he do? Why not aim to be ruler of the world, and be as great as Caesar or Alexander. He is master of more than half of Europe—Spain, Netherlands, Germany, Naples, and part of Italy, all the New World—the empire in the West. Why not go on and crush France? He will.

Leo is building his great church in Rome. He is employing sculptors, and painters. He will make his pontifical rule so brilliant that people in all coming time shall praise it. There is only one thing to mar his plan: that monk in Germany, who, on All-saints-eve, in 1517, nailed a paper upon the door of Wittenberg church, has created such a disturbance that the people have stopped giving money. He must have money, or he cannot go on with his grand project. He will have the heretic put out of the way, and the heresy suppressed.

On the very day that Cardinal Wolsey takes Charles one side to have a confidential talk after the Field of the Cloth of Gold, Leo writes order commanding Friar Martin Luther to stop preaching and writing. He gives him sixty days, in which he must take back all that he has said; if he does not retract it in that time, he will condemn him as a wicked heretic. All persons having Friar Martin's writings are commanded to throw them into the fire; and all who have supported him must at once abandon him, or they will be excommunicated, and also condemned as heretics.

Leo has been giving so much attention to the building of St. Peter's and the painting of pictures, that he has not kept himself fully informed in regard to what has been going on in Germany the last three years. He does not know that since All-saints-day, in 1517, only two and a half years ago, half of the people of Germany have become heretics. Many good men in the Church and out of it are heart and soul with Doctor Luther, who is no longer a friar. Some of them are writing books. Doctor Luther's friend, Philip Melancthon, is hard at work with his pen. Some of the bishops are writing in his favor, others against him. When King Henry gets home to England, from the Field of the Cloth of Gold, he takes his pen and writes against the doctor, which so pleases the Pope that he gives Henry a new title—Defender of the Faith—borne by all the sovereigns of England from that day to the present hour.

The order of the Pope is published, and people wait to see what Doctor Luther will do. Will he yield? Not he.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


There comes an evening in December. The snow is on the ground. The air is chill, but, though dreary the night, it does not prevent the students at Wittenberg from assembling in procession. They march out through the gate of the town. Doctor Luther leads them. They kindle a fire, and as the flames rise the doctor burns a lot of the Pope's books. If the Pope can burn Luther's books, Luther will let the world know that he can burr the Pope's. The book which he throws into the flames contains the claim of the Pope as being superior in all things—as lord of the liberties, rights, actions, hearts, and consciences of men. He also casts the Pope's bull into the fire. The students shout and hurrah, and the procession goes back into the town.

Christmas comes. The Wittenberg students, seeing the boldness of their beloved doctor, lose all fear of Rome. They have a carnival. One of their number dresses himself up to represent the Pope. Some wear red cloaks and hats, to represent the cardinals. The other students seize the mock pope, put a paper cap on his head, carry him on their shoulders through the streets, and tumble him into the river. They strip the red cloaks from the mock cardinals, beat them and hustle them about, amidst the shouts and laughter of the people.

The Pope cannot permit such a heretic as Doctor Luther to go unpunished. He sends word to the emperor, Charles V, that he must be seized, and sent to Rome. The emperor is young and ambitious. He has his plans against the King of France: it will not do for him to take action, which will offend his subjects in Germany, for he wants their aid; but here is half of Germany ready to support the heretic.

"I cannot strike such a blow without first consulting my councillor," is the emperor's reply to the Pope.

One of his councillors is Frederick of Saxony.

"What shall we do with Doctor Luther?" Charles asks of Frederick.

Frederick does not know what reply to make. But that learned man from Holland, just at this time, makes Frederick a visit—Doctor Erasmus, who was so disgusted at the sight of St. Thomas's shirt in England.

"What do you think of Doctor Luther?" Frederick asks.

"He has committed two great sins: he has attacked the Pope's crown and the monks' bellies," Doctor Erasmus replies.

Frederick laughs.

"Please give me a serious answer."

"Well, then, the cause of all this trouble is the hatred of the monks and friars to knowledge. They see that if the people acquire such knowledge as Luther wishes them to have, there will be an end to their tyranny and power. If the emperor imprisons Luther, it will be a bad beginning for him. The world is thirsting for truth. Let the matter be examined by wise men: that will be the best thing for the Pope and for all concerned."

They are wise words, and Frederick repeats them to the emperor. Charles will not seize Doctor Luther.

Doctor Luther makes appeal to the Council of the Empire, or Diet, as the Germans call it, which is composed of the emperor, the electors, princes, counts, barons, representatives of the free cities, and other great men of the realm.

"The Pope is superior to all others," say those opposed to Luther.

"The council is superior to the Pope," Doctor Luther replies.

The Pope does not wish for a council. The very fact of its meeting will be the upsetting of his claim of superiority. It will be a declaration of liberty. What shall Charles do? He would like to please the Pope; he wants him on his side in the fight which he is going to have with Francis: he wants, at the same time, to please his German subjects, for he needs money and troops. If he seizes Doctor Luther, will they not be offended? Upon the whole, it will be better to have the council.

The council meets in the old city of Worms. The emperor sends his marshal, dressed in a gorgeous uniform, bearing a golden eagle, as the emblem of imperial authority, to summon Doctor Luther to attend it.

The Town Council of Wittenberg obtain a carriage for their preacher. Three of his friends accompany him—to die with him, if need be, in behalf of liberty. They reach the old town of Weimar. The Pope's agents are there posting up a paper, in which everybody is commanded to abandon the heretic.

"Will you go on?" asks the herald of the empire.

"Go on! Yes; though I am interdicted in every city. The emperor has given me his safe-conduct—the promise that I shall not be harmed while going or coming," Doctor Luther replies.

"They will burn you as they burned John Huss," say his friends.

"Though they should make a fire extending from Wittenberg to Worms, and flaming to the skies, I will pass through it in behalf of truth and in the name of the Lord," is the reply.

"The emperor will deliver you over to be burned, as Sigismund delivered John Huss. Don't go," is the word which one of Frederick's chief advisers sends him.

"Though there be as many devils in Worms as there are tiles on the roofs, I will go," is the word which Luther sends back.

He arrives in sight of the city where he is to stand up before the great men of the empire in behalf of truth and liberty. Has the boy who sung for his breakfast forgotten how to sing? Not yet. He stands up in his carriage, and his clear voice breaks forth in a hymn:

"God is a castle and defence,

when trouble and distress invade;

He'll help and free us from offence,

And ever shield us with his aid."

There is great excitement in Worms. Everybody is asking if he will come.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


"He is coming!" The shout rings through the streets. A great crowd pours out from the city gates—a multitude far greater than that which went out to meet Charles V., for he and the princes, barons, knights, archbishops, and bishops are already there. Noblemen escort Doctor Luther into the city.

The Pope's ambassadors are disappointed. They did not want Doctor Luther to come. They hoped he would be frightened, and stay away—not obey the order, and then the emperor would be obliged to seize him. The emperor did not think that he would come.

"Here he is. What shall we do?" the emperor asks.

"Pay no attention to his safe-conduct; seize him at once," is the advice of a bishop who hates Doctor Luther.

"I should not like to blush as Sigismund blushed before John Buss," Charles replies. He is young, but he has a mind of his own, and he will not outrage honor and justice by such a perfidious act.

"The council must be held," is the decision of the emperor.

It is the 17th of April. The storks have arrived from the south, and are building their nests on the chimneys. The children are never weary of seeing them, or of listening to the twittering of the swallows, wheeling in the air; but to-day they have something else to engage their attention. Never has there been such a gathering in the old town; all the great men of the realm, besides thousands of people from surrounding towns, are gathered to see the great heretic.

"He is a monster," says one.

"They say he has horns."

And hoofs."

"And a tail."

"He is a devil in disguise."

"He is a bad man," say Luther's detractors.

"He is a good man; he tells the truth," say his friends.

So the people talk in favor of or against the man who has made such a commotion.

The bell strikes four—the hour when Doctor Luther must appear before the council. The herald of the empire comes for him, but the crowd is so great in the streets that the herald cannot proceed.

"Make way there!"

But the crowd will not make way.

"Give room!"

He may shout till he is hoarse, but the people will not stir. They cannot, for the street is full. Every window of the quaint old houses, whose upper stories jut over those below, is filled with heads, for all "want to see the man who, by his writing and preaching, has set the world in an uproar. The people will not, or cannot, move, and the herald has to take Doctor Luther through gardens and by-ways to the council-chamber.

The emperor is seated on a throne. Around him are his brother (the Archduke Ferdinand) and the electors of the empire. There are eighty dukes, thirty archbishops and bishops, the ambassadors of France and England, the Pope's ambassador—more than two hundred great dignitaries in all.

No wonder the Pope did not want the council to meet. Has he not forbidden Doctor Luther's speaking? Yet here he is about to address the greatest assembly ever seen in Germany! Has not the Pope forbidden everybody from listening to him? Yet here is an immense multitude waiting to hear what he will say. Has not the Pope declared that he is an outlaw, with no rights that any one is bound to respect? Yet here he is recognized as having rights which the emperor is bound to acknowledge. Liberty has made some progress since that evening when the young preacher, who sung for his breakfast in boyhood, nailed that paper upon the door of the Wittenberg church.

After much struggling and pushing, the marshal and Doctor Luther reach the council-hall.

"I have two questions to ask you," says the Archbishop of Treves, opening the examination, and pointing to some books on the table. "Did you write these books?"

"I do not deny having written those books," is the answer, after the titles are read.

"Will you take back what you have written?"

"As to taking back anything in accordance with the Word of God, I must act deliberately. I will give you my answer to-morrow."

The council breaks up for the day. The crowd in the streets admire the courage of a man who dares to stand by his rights and for the truth in such an assembly—who even compels all the archbishops and the emperor to wait upon him.

Again Doctor Luther stands in the council. He is about to speak. The Archbishop of Treves cannot bear to have a man whom the Pope has forbidden to speak stand there and compel everybody to listen to him.

"Will you, or will you not, retract?" shouts the archbishop.

Doctor Luther looks around. He is in the council's hands. What shall he say? Shall he take all back? Liberty has led him; shall he now desert her? God has walked, as it were, by his side; shall he distrust the Being who has protected him hitherto?

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


"I cannot and I will not retract anything. God help me! Amen!"

Leo has his answer.

The court will meet again to-morrow to hear the emperor's judgment," is the proclamation of the marshal; and the great throng breaks up. Doctor Luther goes back to his hotel. A servant comes in with a silver tankard filled with beer, sent by the old duke, Eric of Brunswick.

"As the duke remembers me to-day, so may the Lord Jesus remember him in his kingdom," is the blessing uttered by the doctor.

Once more the council assembles. The emperor gives his decision.

"A single monk, misled by his own folly, stands up against the faith of Christendom. I will sacrifice my kingdom, my power, my treasure, my body, my blood, my mind, and my life to stop this impiety."

Then the emperor goes on forbidding any one to give Doctor Luther anything to eat or drink, or to aid him in any way. As soon as the safe-conduct expires, all officers are ordered to seize him, and hold him as a prisoner, till the emperor shall decide what shall be done with him.

So the emperor, twenty-one years of age, decides. He has made one mistake. He makes the decision himself, and does not consult the princes, dukes, and electors. It is only a few months since he was elected emperor, and now he takes all the responsibility of deciding a momentous question, affecting the interests of all his subjects. The dukes and nobles think that they are entitled to have something to say upon public affairs. Why did the emperor call them into council, if they are to have no voice in the matter? Are they dummies only? They do not altogether relish the course pursued by the young man from Spain.

Doctor Luther is on his journey homeward, riding through a dark forest, along a lonely road. Suddenly a party of horsemen make their appearance. They seize him, throw a cloak over him, compel him to mount a horse. It is the work of a moment, and then they disappear with him through the woods. He is gone almost before the men who are with him know what has happened. Have his enemies spirited him away? His friends wring their hands in despair.

The horsemen ride with him, fast and furious, through the forest, along lonely roads—sometimes turning back and riding over the road a second time—tailing east, west, north, and south, so that no one shall be able to follow them. They strike into paths that seem to lead nowhere. Once they stop and rest, and give him a drink of water. No one speaks. Night comes, but on they ride in the dark, beneath the tall trees, over hills, through valleys. At last they climb a steep hill, and come to a great stone castle. The heavy gate swings upon its hinges, and the horsemen pass. It closes. They take him from his horse, lead him to a chamber, and point to a knight's uniform which lies there.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


"Take off your clothes and put it on," says one of the men. The doctor obeys.

Your name is Knight George. You are to let your hair and beard grow."

The horsemen go out. He is in a small room, with one little window. A servant brings some food, but does not talk with him. He lies down upon his cot, and awakes in the morning. He can look out through the gratings of the little window and see a great forest—nothing more. Where is he? He does not know. He only knows that he is a prisoner; that he has a new name; and that his captors treat him kindly.

What an upsetting of plans there has been since last night! The emperor had his plans—to have Doctor Luther arrested as soon as his safe-conduct expired. So would he keep on good terms with the Pope.

Leo had his plans. He was going to burn the heretic. But Luther has suddenly disappeared, whither he does not know. With the arch-heretic burned, the heresy would soon die out, perhaps; but now it will go on. All of the emperor's plans to please the Pope and secure him as his ally against the King of France have been overturned. The bulls which Leo has issued are so couch waste paper, and the cause of liberty will go on. It will roll like a wave over Germany. It will sweep across the sea to England; and as the centuries go by, it will surge across the Atlantic to the New World, which those sea-captains from Bristol discovered; and in time it will sweep around the globe. All this will have a vital connection with the thought which has come to Frederick, Elector of Saxony, that it would be a good thing to seize Doctor Lather secretly, and shut him up where nobody will he able to find him. Whence came the thought? What put it into Frederick's head? Was there not a plan higher than the emperor's and the Pope's?

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


Months pass. Doctor Luther's friends think of him as having been secretly put to death. His enemies begin to think that the heretic will trouble them no more; and yet all the while he is hard at work doing for Germany just what Doctor Wicklif did for England—translating the Bible, and so helping on the cause of liberty.

In the solitude and quiet of the old castle, shift in from the world and his enemies, he translates the great text-book of human freedom—the Bible.

Three hundred and fifty years have passed since then; and of Luther's translation it is estimated that three hundred and sixty million copies of the Bible have been printed.

A large number of the priests join Luther, some preaching against the Pope, others writing pamphlets. Printing-presses have been set up all over Europe; poets write songs, painters produce pictures, and the hawkers peddle them through every hamlet; and people discuss questions which, till now, they never have thought of discussing. By thinking for themselves, men begin to assert their rights and liberties.

Nearly all the great artists and painters in Germany and Holland sympathized with Luther, notwithstanding the Pope was their patron. One of them—Albert Durer, of Nuremberg—was greatly grieved when he heard that Luther had been seized, and probably killed. Durer's house looked out upon the old Castle of Nuremberg, which stood on a high 1611. In the castle was a torture-chamber, filled with terrible instruments for inflicting pain: pincers, thumb-screws, clubs, knobby tables, and a great iron Virgin, as it was called, which embraced the victim with its iron arms, pierced him with spikes, and then, when life was extinct, the victim's body would drop into a well two hundred feet in depth, and none would know what had happened.

The revolt of the people was not only against the abuses of the monks and the authority of the Pope, but it was the first clear insight which had come to them of their natural and individual rights.