Germany: Peeps at History - John Finnemore

The Reformation

The century which passed between the death of Huss and the day of Martin Luther, the great German Reformer, was occupied by the reigns of sovereigns who were of slight importance as rulers. Sigismund was followed in 1438 by Albrecht II, who died in 1439. This very short reign was followed by a long one, for Frederick III of Hapsburg ruled from 1440 to 1493. Frederick was a careless, lazy king, under whom the land fell into great confusion, and a hundred little civil wars were waged between his quarrelsome subjects.

The great event of this reign was not one of war, but a mighty victory of peace—the invention of printing. The first printing press of Germany produced a Latin Bible in 1457, and the new art spread rapidly. Books, which had been so scarce and precious when written by hand, now became much cheaper. Where one had been able to read, fifty scholars were now found, and men began to search out things for themselves instead of blindly taking the word of those who had hitherto taught them. Printing and the Reformation were closely allied. As the new learning spread, men became more and more discontented with the abuses of the Church. Scholars left the convent schools and flocked to the new universities, which were founded in such numbers in Germany that there were more learned men among the Germans than in any other nation of Europe.

The tide of thought rose higher during the reign of Maximilian I, who came to the throne in 1493. He took the title of German Emperor without being crowned in Rome, and from his day the custom was followed. Under Maximilian the House of Hapsburg rose to great authority. Maximilian was Emperor of Germany; through his wife Mary, daughter of Charles the Bold of Burgundy, he gained the Netherlands; and the kingdoms of Bohemia and Hungary fell into his hands.

Throughout the whole of Maximilian's reign there was growing up, boy and man, one of the greatest reformers the world has ever known, the famous Martin Luther. Luther began life as a simple, pious son of the Church. He became a monk at the age of twenty-two, and in 1511, when he was twenty-eight, he made a journey to Rome. There he was filled with horror at what he found. He saw priests making a mockery of the most solemn rites of their religion, he saw that they placed the love of pleasure and the lust for gold far beyond every other aim of their lives, he saw at close quarters a hundred abuses which shocked and angered him.

He returned to Germany and began to preach openly against the abuses of the Church. So fiery was his speech, so great his eloquence, that people flocked in vast numbers to listen to him. Then he took a great step: he came out in full defiance of the Pope. The Pope at that time was Leo X, who wished to raise large sums for the building of the great Church of St. Peter at Rome. In order to do this he sent out a number of monks called pardoners, who sold indulgences or pardons for sins. In Germany the chief pardoner was a monk named Tetzel, and he went from town to town persuading people that they could obtain forgiveness for sins by purchasing a pardon from him, and the greater the crime the greater the price of the pardon.

The minds of thoughtful men were filled with disgust at this shameless traffic, and Luther attacked it fiercely. On October 31, 1517, Luther posted up on the door of a church in Wittenberg his famous declaration that pardon for sin could not be obtained for money, but must be sought by sorrow and penitence. This declaration was received with joy by vast numbers of earnest people, and from that moment Luther became the leader of the Reformation.

The Pope commanded Luther to appear at Rome, but Luther did not go; nor did he cease to speak against the abuses of the Romish Church. He also wrote a number of letters in which he set forth his opinions, and these were printed and widely read among the German people, and brought great numbers to his side. Finally, in 1520, the Pope sought to crush him by a decree, a papal Bull, in which it was declared that Luther should be excommunicated and punished as a heretic unless he gave up his opinions. Luther now broke with Rome for ever: he publicly burned the Bull at Wittenberg, and thus avowed himself an open opponent of the Pope and the Romish Church.

The Emperor Maximilian died a year before this, and his grandson, Charles V, Charles the Great of Spain, had become Emperor. Charles was one of the most powerful monarchs who have ever ruled in Europe. He was King of Spain, master of the Netherlands, Emperor of Germany, King of Naples and Sicily, and lord of the New World, Spanish America. It was known that Charles was a rigid Catholic, and had promised the Pope to put down the Reformation: all eyes were turned upon Germany to see what would happen to Luther.

In 1521 a Diet, or meeting of the great nobles, was held at Worms, and Luther was summoned to attend. His friends wished him not to go, lest harm should befall him, but the stout heart of Luther did not quail, and to Worms he went. All the way vast crowds flocked to gaze on the man who had dared to defy the Pope, and was going calmly to face terrible enemies. Luther appeared before the Diet and refused to withdraw one word of his teaching or writings. He ended by saying: "Here I stand; I cannot act otherwise: God help me, Amen!"

There is no doubt that Luther's end would have been like that of Huss, had he not had powerful friends in the Diet, who brought him off safely, and afterwards hid him when the Emperor sought to punish him. After the Diet of Worms Charles left Germany to itself for many years, save for an occasional visit; he, himself, was fighting with France, with the Turks, or with Barbary pirates in the Mediterranean. During this time the Reformation spread steadily through the land. Monasteries and nunneries were swept away, the Latin service of the Mass was changed for a service conducted in the native tongue, the clergy were permitted to marry, the practice of confession was abolished, the Bible was printed and spread freely among the people. Luther himself, when he had thrown off his priest's habit, married a wife, Catherine, who had been a nun.

In the course of these great changes in the religious faith of the country disorder arose. At Wittenberg the Lutherans attacked the churches and broke the painted windows, tore down pictures and altars, and destroyed crucifixes. Luther hurried to the place at once and checked the rioting. Much more serious troubles arose among the country people, and led to the Peasant Wars. The farmers and labourers had been treated most cruelly by the princes and nobles, who had taxed them heavily, and often despoiled them of their goods and laid waste their crops. Filled with an idea that the new form of religion would give all they wished in the way of freedom, and misled by ignorant leaders, they broke out and avenged their ancient wrongs. They gathered in great bands and marched through the country, burning, plundering, and slaying with dreadful cruelty those whom they disliked. Nor were these mobs of armed peasants put down by the authorities until large numbers had been killed on both sides.

The Reformation gained a much stronger hold in the northern provinces of Germany than in the southern. Austria and Bavaria remained true to Rome, and in these parts of Germany there began in 1524 a cruel persecution of the Lutherans. The Emperor Charles was a resolute enemy of the Reformation and issued an edict against it. The princes and towns that followed Luther protested against this edict, and thus the Reformers gained the name of Protestants.

Charles called the Diet of Augsburg in 1530, and he found that the Lutheran opinions had made great headway since the Diet of Worms. Nine years before, a poor monk had appeared before him and his nobles to protest against the wrongdoing in the Romish Church, but now many of the greatest princes of his realm were followers of Luther. The chief event of the Diet was the reading of the Protestant confession of faith, ever afterwards known as the Confession of Augsburg. It was read by Luther's friend, Melancthon. Charles would have none of it, and threatened those who agreed with ban and excommunication. The next year many states and towns formed a union, called the Schmalkelden Alliance, to defend Protestant interests.

Again Charles left Germany for a long time, and the Reformation, in his absence, grew apace. Luther was at its head until the end of his life. He preached, he taught, he wrote noble hymns for his followers to sing, he was by far the greatest power in the land, and when he died, in 1546, deep sorrow was felt through all Germany for the loss of their great leader.

At the time of Luther's death trouble was threatening for the Protestant cause. The Emperor Charles had returned to Germany, resolved to crush the Lutherans. He called upon the Pope to summon a Council at Trent in Tyrol, at which the Protestant princes should attend. The latter refused to go, fearing they would not get fair play, and Charles attacked the Schmalkelden Alliance. The Protestant allies managed affairs badly. Instead of standing firmly together, they wavered, and Charles attacked the Lutheran armies one at a time and subdued them at his leisure. He made prisoners of some of the chief leaders and took them to Augsburg. Here Charles tried his hand upon a settlement of the Reformation, hoping to please Protestants and Catholics alike, but he failed altogether.

Charles now became weary of the strife with the Protestant states. Maurice of Saxony had deserted the Protestants and sided with Charles; now he went over again and led a Protestant army against the Emperor. At the same moment Charles was threatened by his old enemy, the King of France. But Charles had neither the heart nor the means to fight: he agreed to the Peace of Passau in 1552, a peace which secured religious freedom to the Protestants and made the Reformation complete.

Three years later, in 1555, Charles gave up his throne and retired to a monastery. His health was failing, and he wished for a time of peace before his death. His vast dominions were divided between his brother Ferdinand and his son Philip. Ferdinand became Emperor of Germany and Philip took Spain and the Netherlands. Charles lived three years after his abdication, dying in 1558.