Martin Luther—the Story of his Life - E. Singmaster

The Growing Church

Just as Luther, though he towered above all the men of his time, was but one of many who felt the corruption and needs of the Church, so the Lutheran Church, though first in time and largest in numbers, was but one of the churches in which the Reformation took shape. If there were those who hoped that the whole Christian world would become Lutheran in the sense in which it had been Roman Catholic, they soon learned that their hopes were vain. Even in Germany the Reformation did not remain within the exact mould which Luther designed. Deeply interested in the religious unification of Germany, firmly fixed in his own religious opinions, he demanded entire agreement with his views and resented bitterly the inability of others to see exactly as he saw.

Among those who differed with him was the Swiss reformer, Ulrich Zwingli, who had begun his work independently. He rejected Luther's doctrine of the real presence in the Lord's Supper and made of it merely a memorial feast. To Luther who believed that in this doctrine was embodied one of the most sacred assurances of God's continued presence among mankind, Zwingli's teaching was intolerable. Moreover, Zwingli cherished political plans which looked forward to an affiance against the Pope. Luther was wholly opposed to armed resistance here was another irreconcilable difference. Zwingli's doctrines spread not only through Switzerland, but to Luther's displeasure into South Germany as well. Between him and Zwingli a sharp correspondence was begun which grew into large volumes.

In 1529 the Catholic majority in a second Diet at Spires reversed the action of 1526. At once five evangelical princes, including the Elector of Saxony and Philip the Landgrave of Hesse, together with the representatives of fourteen free cities, offered a formal protest; refusing to abide by the new decision. Subsequently in order to unite the protesting forces, who from this time were called "Protestants," Philip called a meeting at Marburg to discuss the differences of opinion with the hope that Luther and Zwingli might come to an agreement and make common cause against the Papacy.

The Marburg Colloquy resulted only in an amicable statement of those points on which the reformers agreed. The chief question—that of the Lord's Supper—was left undecided. Two years later Zwingli accompanying the Protestant forces as chaplain perished in a battle between the Catholic and Protestant cantons of Switzerland. Eventually the Germans who had been influenced by the doctrines of Zwingli returned to their fellowship with Luther, signing the Wittenberg Concordia in 1536.

Busy with wars, the Emperor, since the Diet of Worms in 1521, had been able to pay but little attention to his German subjects and their annoying religious questions. Now, in 1530, he determined to settle once for all their disputes, and summoned a Diet to meet at Augsburg. The Wittenberg theologians, among them Luther and Melanchthon, set forth at once, going as far as Coburg on the southern border of Saxony, beyond which they dared not proceed without a safe-conduct from the Emperor. In the middle of April safe-conducts arrived for all the party but Luther, who had to stay behind. He was provided with a royal abode in the castle of Feste Coburg, where for six months he worked and watched the proceedings of the Diet from afar.

The Diet decided to take up first of all the religious question. Melanchthon had prepared at great pains an official statement of the doctrines of the reformers which is known as the "Augsburg Confession," and which remains to this day the chief and universally accepted symbol or confession of the Lutheran Church. The theology of the Confession is Luther's, the form Melanchthon's. In it are exhibited the learning for which Luther so ardently admired his friend, his keenness, his ability to state with simplicity and clearness abstract principles, and finally all his tact as a mediator. Luther's distance from the Diet and the expedition with which the final form had to be decided upon made it impossible for Luther to see it when it was entirely completed. Of an earlier and rough draft he said, "I have read over Master Philip's Apology. I know not how to improve or change it, nor would it become me, since I cannot move, so softly and gently."

Though the session at which the Confession was read was secret, the fact that it was read at all gave Luther the deepest satisfaction as he contrasted the occasion with his own appearance alone and surrounded by enemies nine years earlier. Said he: "Our enemies certainly did their best to prevent the Emperor allowing it to be read, and they did succeed in preventing its being read in the public hall before all the people. But the Emperor heard it before all the princes and estates of the Empire. I am overjoyed to be living at this hour, when Christ is openly confessed by so many in a great public assembly and with so good confession."

For many weeks discussion and negotiation continued. The opposition of the Catholic party, the differences of opinion among the reformers themselves, the growing certainty that hopes of agreement were vain plunged the reformers into despair.

From the heights of Feste Coburg Luther wrote encouragement and cheer:—

"I have recently seen two miracles. The first was, that as I looked out of my window, I saw the stars and the sky and the whole vault of heaven, with no pillars to support it; and yet the sky did not fall and the vault remained fast. But there are some who want to see the pillars and who would like to clasp and feel them. And when they are unable to do so they fidget and tremble as if the sky would certainly fall in, simply because they cannot see and feel the pillars under it. . . .

"Again I saw great, thick clouds roll above us, so heavy that they looked like great seas, and I saw no ground on which they could rest nor any barrels to hold them and yet they fell not on us, but threatened us and floated on. When they had passed by, the rainbow shone forth, the rainbow which was the floor that held them up. It is such a weak, thin little floor and roof that it was almost lost in the clouds and looked more like a ray coming through a stained glass window than like a strong floor, so that it was as marvelous as the weight of the clouds. For it actually happened that this seemingly frail shadow held up the weight of water and protected us. But some people look at the thickness of the clouds and the thinness of the ray and they fear and worry. They would like to feel how strong the rainbow is, and when they cannot do so they think the clouds will bring on another deluge."

The willingness of some of the reformers to make some concessions did not bring about agreement. Luther from his castle refused to compromise, saying that harmony was impossible unless the Pope abolished the Papacy. The Catholic party saw that even with the concessions which Melanchthon and his friends at the Diet were willing to grant, there could be no agreement. The Diet finally declared that the Augsburg Confession was rejected and that the heretics must recant. If they would not recant, they must be coerced.

Among the scores of letters written by Luther from Feste Coburg were many which expressed in beautiful language his love of nature. The birds and their habits were always a source of pleasure, not only for their own graceful or amusing ways, but for their resemblance to mankind. To his table companions he wrote from Feste Coburg a description of those outside his window:—

"I would have you know that we, namely, Veit Dietrich, Cyriac Kaufmann, and I, did not press on to the Diet of Augsburg, but stopped to attend another Diet here. There is a coppice directly under our windows, like a little forest where the dawn and crows are holding a diet; they fly to and fro at such a rate and make such a racket day and night that they all seem drunk, soused and silly. I wonder how their breath holds out to bicker so. Pray tell me have you sent any delegates to these noble estates? For I think they must have assembled from all the world. I have not yet seen their emperor, but nobles and soldier lads fly and gad about, inexpensively clothed in one color; all alike black, all alike gray-eyed, all alike with the same song, sung in different tones of big and little, old and young. They care not for a large place to meet in, for their hall is roofed with the vault of the sky, its floor is the carpet of green grass, and its walls are as far as the ends of the world. They do not ask for horses and trappings, having winged chariots to escape snares and to keep out of the way of man's wrath. They are great and puissant lords, but I have not yet learned what they have decided upon. As far as I can gather from an interpreter, however, they are for a vigorous campaign against wheat, barley, oats, and all kinds of corn and grain, a war in which many a knight will do great deeds. So we sit here in the diet and spend time agreeably seeing and hearing how the estates of the realm make merry and sing. It is pleasant to see how soldierly they discourse and wipe their bills and arm themselves for victory against the grain. I wish them good luck to be all spitted on a skewer together. I believe they are in no wise different from the sophists and papists who go for me with their sermons and books all at once; I see by the example of the harsh-voiced daws what a profitable people they are, devouring everything on earth and clattering loud and long in return.

"To-day we heard the first nightingale, who could hardly believe it was April."

To consider the dangers which seemed to threaten them, the Protestant princes assembled at Schmalkald in December and formed an alliance for mutual protection. Luther protested against any resort to arms to defend the Protestant doctrines. The alarm and despair of the reformers was dispelled when the day set for recantation passed and no coercive steps were taken against them. In July, 1532, the Religious Peace of Nuremberg bound both sides to peace until a council of the Church should be called. The truce made it possible for the Reformation teaching to spread more widely. Old rulers died and younger men, filled with the spirit of independence and open to the new doctrines, took their places. In 1539, Luther had the satisfaction of preaching in Leipsic where he had debated with Eck and which had been long ruled by an enemy of Protestantism.

As the evangelical doctrines spread, the League of Schmalkald became more powerful. When a new Pope, Paul III, ascended the throne, he sent to Germany a representative to arrange for an ecumenical council at which the question of heresy was to be considered. The council was finally summoned to meet at Mantua in May, 1537. In order that they might come to an agreement as to their course of action, the Protestants met once more at Schmalkald. For this meeting Luther drew up a confession which was very different in spirit from the Augsburg Confession. Luther had no desire to conciliate. His articles were, however, not adopted, though later they found a place among the Confessions of the Lutheran church. Instead, in his absence on account of a serious attack of illness, the Augsburg Confession was reaffirmed. It was decided that the Pope's invitation should not be accepted and it was accordingly returned unopened. At last, separation from the Papacy was complete.

Luther's illness greatly alarmed his friends and fellow reformers. The attack was accompanied by intense suffering which he bore with fortitude. Believing that he was about to die and longing to die in his beloved Saxony, he set out for home. On the way he grew better and his disciple Schlaginhaufen galloped back to Schmalkald to encourage the reformers and to annoy the papal legate with the news of his improvement. A period of weakness followed, during which Luther believed once more that he would die and he dictated messages to his friends and to his wife. Once more, however, he rallied and in a few days was able to begin the last stage of his journey and ere long to be at work.

Luther's mind was not given solely to political or religious problems. To him hundreds of questions were submitted relating to almost all phases of human life. Among those connected with marriage the most important and the most far-reaching in its consequences was that of Philip, the Landgrave of Hesse, one of the chief supporters of the Protestant cause. Philip, who had been disappointed in his marriage, had contracted a second and secret marriage, his wife being still living. This had been done with the reluctant consent of the reformers. The warmest of Luther's admirers does not justify this procedure, but laments it as a serious blunder, to be explained only upon the ground that Luther was still entangled in some of the casuistic distinctions of the medieval Church. In the hope of reclaiming the Landgrave from a dissolute life he consented to that which he considered a lesser evil. To him the Divorce which was one alternative to this second and bigamous marriage, was a horror; the other alternative, a life of sin, was an equal horror. The condition which he attached to his consent, that the marriage be kept secret, exhibits none of the sound sense with which Luther met all other questions in his life. To Melanchthon the error brought remorse which was almost fatal. Luther, with a more robust conscience, refused to suffer for an act which had been done according to his conscience.